In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Robert C. Lieber as deputy-mayor for economic development. Lieber, who had been handpicked for his economic initiatives to redevelop slum cities, stood at a podium the day of his appointment and vowed to transform Downtown Jamaica into an “airport village” where residents would be nestled on top of a vibrant shopping community, next to sit down restaurants and living in luxury condos. It was the same promise that had been seen through with former sleepy cities like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens, both now bustling destination-spots for the outer boroughs.
But while Lieber spent years racking up a salary of more than $160,000 a year, residents of downtown Jamaica never saw the village they were promised by bureaucratic bigwigs. Instead they continued to see, as they’ve been for years even to this day, their neighborhoods continue to flood during rain storms, unemployment rise to 16 percent and families living in poverty rise to 22.4 percent by 2010, according to census reports.
This dramatic pause of development and promise for a better Jamaica left residents disillusioned and not hopeful for any major changes. And while some officials have blamed the 2008 economic downturn for much of the stagnation in progress, vast sums of money have continued to flow into Jamaica through an intricate network of non-profit organizations.
Every single year, billions of dollars get funneled through non-profit organizations in Jamaica known as 501-c-3 corporations which enjoy tax-exempt status while collecting federal, state and local grant funding often augmented by private fund raising. The majority of these have mission statements in which they claim to focus on business development, housing and early childhood education.
Yet the roads still remain decrepit, local unemployment is the highest in the entire borough and a once burgeoning shopping location has fallen to rubble, leaving with in its wake an inordinate number of 99-cent and discount clothing stores.
A CHANGE IN FLAVOR
In the 1950’s, Jamaica saw vast development and experienced an economic boom. On the corner of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, $13 million a year would pour into one of the largest and most luxurious Macy’s in New York City. A long line of celebrities from Fats Waller to Ella Fitzgerald were seen shopping on Parsons, and Jamaica’s upper-middle class community lived harmoniously among a diverse population of both blacks and whites.
“Jamaica had everything,” said historian Carl Ballenas, who is also a social studies teacher and York College graduate. “You wanted something, you went to Jamaica.”
The 1960’s World’s Fair, just three miles north in Flushing Meadows, became a marketing attempt to make Jamaica a premiere destination in Queens and developers jumped on the opportunity for new apartments and retail spaces.
“People were handing out leaflets saying ‘We’re so close! You can stay here! We’re right at the heart of the World’s Fair’,” said Ballenas.
“White people moved to Jamaica because they fell in love with the automobile,”said Robert Parmet, a history professor at York College and author of the book “Town and Gown.” “They started buying cars and then moved into the single family houses in suburbia, business people moved to sell their goods and Jamaica became a middle class neighborhood.”
But in the 1970’s, after the subway line had brought poor blacks and Hispanics from Brooklyn into the greater white enclaves of South Jamaica, “white flight” saw the former residents flee to the quieter suburbs of Long Island. The development of the outer boroughs and the extension of the Van Wyck Expressway also gave more upwardly mobile families the opportunity to move farther north, leaving room for poorer minorities to move into the neighborhood. Parmet also credited the crack epidemic for Jamaica’s downturn.
By 1977, Macy’s closed its doors along with a number of upscale businesses, leaving a slew of blighted retail spaces left for people to ransack and burn to the ground.
“Macy’s, Gertz. All those places folded,” said Ballenas. “After that, it had a really negative impact. The flavor of the place just changed.”
“THERE IS NO MONEY HERE”
Tamika Edwards lives in the heart of it all. She is a mother of three boys, aging from 3 to 7 years old, she works part-time at Rite Aid and finds it hard to put food on the table even with the SNAP benefits she receives from the government. Her rent is $960 for a one-bedroom flat at 172nd Street, where there were 33 violent crimes committed last year within 2 blocks of her home. She gets little to no financial help from the fathers of her children.
“Welcome to Jamaica, Queens,” she said. “I’ve lived here all my life and it’s always been hard. There is no money here.”
The average household in Jamaica has three residents who make an average total of $45,000 per year, a harsh reality given that the standard cost of living for a family of four in New York City is $93,500 per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Residents in this part of Queens rely on tax credits, Social Security payments and other minor government assistance to help sustain them.
They live in a very real economic slump.
“Trying to raise two kids on my salary is a miracle,” said Claudia Braithwaite, a medical assistant and mother of two. “Let’s not talk about me paying my credit cards, I can’t pay those.”
THE NON-PROFIT PUZZLE
But in Jamaica there are more than 85 different non-profits, not including churches or educational programs, that claim to focus on boosting economic development and helping to feed families. The River Fund New York is centered around feeding and aiding those who live near or below the poverty line, according to their mission statement. The company grossed $2.3 million in 2012, but only have the opportunity to distribute food on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and for emergencies.
The organization’s Director Candika Marinelli said the funding the organization receives is not sufficient to do the work they envision, but they do their best.
“We try to partner with other organizations like United Way to get our name out there and get more funding so we can do more for the community,” Marinelli said.
“I’ve lived here all my life and it’s always been hard. There is no money here.” – Tamika Edwards (Jamaica Resident)
According to the website Guidestar.org, the top 10 non profits in Jamaica pulled in a combined average of $1.6 billion per year in 2010 and 2011, the last two years for which combined tax filings are available on the website.
Recently, the Daily News pounced on Thomas Galante, the director of the Queens Public Library system for earning nearly $400,000 last year. The library, one of the top 10 earning non-profits, has been plagued with staff reductions, hurricane-related damage and reduced hours. Galante, who appeared before the city council in early February, justified his salary as being on par with average compensation for non-profit executives.
And he’s right.
A review of public records by York College journalism students found that the average salaries for directors in Jamaica’s top 10 non-profits make an average of $390,000 per year.
POVERTY AMONG EXCESS
The more visible of Jamaica’s non-profits is the Greater Jamaica Development Company (GJDC), which helped develop the $11 million shopping complex and paid parking garage on Parsons and Archer Avenues and also got them $1 million in tax exemptions by claiming the garage as a charity.
GJDC’s mission is to “promote and advance responsible development in Jamaica to revitalize and strengthen the community,” according to the mission statement on their 2011 tax forms.
President of GJDC Carlisle Towery said this next year they will focus on T.O.D. or “Transit Oriented Development.” Towery described T.O.D as developing around ways to benefit the community and the heavy use of public transportation in the area.
These include the Atlantic Ave Express project, consisting of the 94/95 Connector Loop which will link the Atlantic Avenue extension to other developments in the area, Gateway Plaza, a small park meant to add to the area’s image and a shopping center within Station Plaza designed to “realign Archer Avenue to create a safer and more convenient transfer for passengers going between the bus and rail systems.”
But some of the improvement plans laid out by GJDC seem to be off-sync in comparison to the $19 million they grossed on average every year. Their 2011 project to brighten up the underpass of the LIRR station on Sutphin Boulevard by adding light bulbs to the walkway cost $10 million. “The underpass was dark, repellant and lacking security,” the statement read. “It was the downtown’s most uninviting space.” That same year, GJDC spent $1.25 million in lobbying and each executive made six-figure salaries, including Towery who made $290,000.