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Monday, March 21, 2011

In Queens, a Civic Group Flexes Its Muscles

Mayors past and present have also made the trip — from Edward I. Koch to Rudolph W. Giuliani to Michael R. Bloomberg. In fact, Mr. Bloomberg, who has visited the group four times, once called it “the most successful civic association in the city.”

The association, which represents Middle Village and Maspeth, proudly highlights the mayor’s compliment on its membership forms.

Mr. Bloomberg just may have a point. The group’s track record suggests it knows a thing or two about getting what it wants.

When a 24-hour 7-Eleven store opened in Middle Village in 2005, its members threatened a boycott until the owner installed 16 surveillance cameras to discourage loitering.

That same year, Representative Jerrold Nadler proposed a rail tunnel linking Brooklyn to New Jersey that would include a large truck depot in Maspeth.

In response, the association put up a billboard over the Long Island Expressway that read, “Congressman Nadler Wants 16,000 More Trucks a Day to Exit Here.” The ultimate fate of the depot as well as the tunnel is unclear.

The group, which was founded in 1938 under a different name, also helped defeat a plan to build a Home Depot on a lot owned by KeySpan in neighboring Elmhurst. Instead, Mr. Bloomberg got the company to donate the land for a park, which is what the association had wanted.

The group is now fighting with the city’s Department of Transportation to limit Maspeth to local truck traffic to prevent trucks traveling through Queens and bound for Brooklyn from using the neighborhood’s streets.

About 300 people typically fill the public school auditorium where the civic association’s meetings are held. It claims 1,670 members, many of them proud homeowners with multigenerational ties to the area who typically vote for candidates based on what they have done for the neighborhood.

It is no surprise, then, that politicians are keen to pay the group proper respect by making time to accept the association’s invitations. “We’re watchdogs,” said Lorraine Sciulli, 75, the association’s first vice president and the editor of The Juniper Berry, the group’s 64-page quarterly magazine. “We’re the people who stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute! You can’t do that in our neighborhood.’ ”

Still, some of the tactics the association uses to make its arguments have provoked a backlash. “They either work very well with you or they don’t work well at all, depending on whether you agree with them,” said City Councilwoman Elizabeth S. Crowley, who represents the area. The Queens borough president, Helen M. Marshall, said the group’s persistence could sometimes be alienating. “I’ve seen them go after politicians who don’t do what they want, and it’s murder,” Ms. Marshall said.

Joseph Pisano, 48, who lives in Middle Village with his wife and their two giant schnauzers, is the president of another local community group, the Juniper Valley Park Dog Association. For two years, the group has tried to build a dog run in the park, but it has faced intense opposition from some of the civic association’s members. “It’s their way or no way,” Mr. Pisano said.

Even Mr. Bloomberg, who was twice named man of the year by the association, in 2003 and 2006, has fallen out of the group’s favor.

In recent issues of The Juniper Berry, he has been blamed for things like crime (“We pay huge amounts in taxes and yet know that the police are short-staffed,” the group’s secretary, Robert Doocey, wrote in the December issue), construction violations (“The buck must stop at the desk of Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” its president, Robert F. Holden, wrote in September) and illegal immigration (“He thinks he could sustain the drain on our tax dollars by illegal aliens who do not pay taxes into the system,” Ms. Sciulli wrote in March).

The turning point in what was once a friendly relationship came in 2006, Mr. Holden said, when firefighters booed Mr. Bloomberg during an appearance at a civic association meeting over the possible closing of firehouses. That same year, the association sued the city, claiming that an informal policy allowing dogs to be off a leash in parks during certain hours was illegal. It lost the lawsuit, but the litigation forced the city to make the policy official.

Then came the Bloomberg administration’s denial of landmark status for St. Saviour’s, an old Gothic-style church in Maspeth that was bound for demolition, but was spared after the association intervened. It has been dismantled and will be reassembled at a local cemetery; Ms. Marshall’s office has set aside $1.4 million for the project.

At a rally in July 2008 that the association organized to save the church, someone in the crowd had a sign with a noose and the words “reserved for,” followed by the names of several city officials, including Mr. Bloomberg. The administration threatened to cease dealing with the group if Mr. Holden did not apologize, which he refused to do.

“Bloomberg is our mayor,” said Mr. Holden, a graphics design professor at New York City College of Technology. “We elected him, and we have a duty to hold his feet to the fire, which is exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, did not want to publicly comment about the group’s views of the mayor except to say: “It’s great when civic groups honor the mayor. But they’re mistaken if they think that’s going to tip the balance in their favor.”

Mr. Holden said that City Hall no longer responded to his letters or complaints — for example, over what he said was the city’s failure to shovel public sidewalks after snowstorms. Mr. Bloomberg has also changed his position on the freight tunnel that Representative Nadler proposed: he is now a proponent.

On recent balmy Wednesday morning, Mr. Holden was holed up in his home office in Middle Village, putting the final touches on the March/April cover of The Juniper Berry. It featured an illustration of Mr. Bloomberg conducting a freight train loaded with garbage bags under the headline, “City’s Waste Management Plan Dumps on Us.”


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