That’s the message Borough President Melinda Katz shared in Thursday’s State of the Borough address at Queens College. Katz held up Queens as a premiere tourism destination, a cultural hub and a mainstay for arts and entertainment.
“There’s a distinct character about our borough, a certain attitude, a global identity,” Katz said. “They say Queens is a personality, and you know it when you see it.
“Together, we’ve embarked upon a new chapter of Queens’ identity, and we are the place to be,” she added. “Folks increasingly want to visit here, build here, spend their money here.”
She pointed out many of the borough’s accomplishments through her first two years in office: growth in tourism, improvements to libraries, new housing units and community recovery after Hurricane Sandy, among others.
Katz highlighted her investment in all levels of education, renovations for parks and the preservation of affordable housing. All of these issues continued her theme of improving the quality of life for families.
“We are a destination of choice, but I never forget that we are, at the end of the day, still a borough of families,” she said.
Katz’s speech touched on a number of topics, listing both what she has done and what she hopes to accomplish. Her address outlined some of her priorities in the upcoming year.
On the issue of overcrowded schools, Katz spoke about working with other elected officials to remove 15 classroom trailers from six different elementary schools. She plans to remove 59 more throughout the borough.
She also took a swipe at Common Core education standards, which have raised strong criticism. She praised a task force’s recommendation to overhaul the controversial curriculum, which was met with applause.
“We need standards, no one’s arguing that we don’t,” Katz said. “But ladies and gentlemen, sometimes five times two is just 10. Whether you fill out a graph or color in the figures 10 times, sometimes five times two is just 10.”
Katz mentioned reforms to the Queens Library system, which suffered through “a dark saga” in 2014. She said the new board of trustees worked hard to “repair reputational harm” and “restore faith in its management.”
“The library has refocused full energy back to where it matters most: our families, especially children and seniors who rely on its services and deserve nothing less than a world-class library system,” she said.
While speaking about upgrading the borough’s many parks, Katz stated one specific goal: saving and restoring the New York State Pavilion, an iconic Queens structure.
She said it had fallen into disrepair from decades of neglect and praised the work of a volunteer group, the New York State Pavilion Painting project, for helping to maintain the structure’s base. She joked about the pavilion becoming a new World Wonder, but added that they were getting “closer to it.”
“Some of you may recall the original grace of the Pavilion, and how it lit up against the night sky. We’d like to bring that back,” she said. “We’re working with the Parks Department on illuminating the Pavilion with permanent external lights. I’m told that the design will be finalized this fall, and it will be lit up next year.”
Moving on to economic development, Katz highlighted initiatives to improve and develop neighborhoods including Jamaica and Flushing West. The “Jamaica Now Action Plan,” which she introduced last spring with Mayor Bill de Blasio, will include hosting a free public Wi-Fi system.
“It’s aggressive, it’s holistic, it’s the first of its kind,” Katz said. “And it’s designed to stimulate smart growth and improve livability in Jamaica’s downtown core.
“And it’s a focused commitment, crafted and driven by an extensive community engagement process, backed by city resources,” she added.
Another area of Queens the borough president wants to develop is Willets Point. Katz said it needed to be cleaned up, and vowed to work with all sectors, public, private and nonprofit, to get it done.
“It’s been too long, we’ve come too far, and the city has invested too much money not to see this blighted area of Queens revitalized,’ she said. “As I stand here, no remediation, demolition or construction is taking place. And that’s just wrong.”
Katz strongly supported a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, saying it makes economic sense as well. She said it will go a long way in aiding families.
“This increase will help New York families climb out of poverty and elevate New York as a leader in the fight for fair wages,” she said.
In mourning the deaths of police officers in the last year, including Queens Village’s Brian Moore of the 105th Precinct, Katz pushed for the need to take action to “keep guns out of the hands of those who want to do us harm.”
“It’s our responsibility to make peace real,” she said to the audience’s approval.
Katz concluded by paying tribute to her parents, who were both involved in Queens civic affairs. Her mother, Jeanne Dale Katz, founded the Queens Council of the Arts and her father, David Katz, founded the Queens Symphony Orchestra.
Before she left the stage, Katz acknowledged the World Series run by the New York Mets. As Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins joined Katz on stage with Mr. and Mrs. Met, Katz compared the team’s success with the borough of Queens.
“That spectacular display of true grit, determination and heart? That’s all Queens and it put all of New York City back on top,” Katz said.
Tannia Gordon, a loan officer with the Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica, said she liked that Katz helped remove classroom trailers at borough schools and her investment in higher education. However, she wanted to hear more about the borough president’s plans for 2016.
“I wanted to hear more about affordable housing plans, especially for the southeast Queens area for low-income families,” Gordon said.
Zaleika Johnson, a Jamaica resident, also wanted to hear more about affordable housing, calling it a “crisis in New York City.” She added that she liked the idea of redeveloping Jamaica Avenue, but worried about displacement.
“I’m for the redevelopment of Jamaica Avenue, but not to take out small business owners,” Johnson said. “When you knock out small business owners and put [in] major companies, it takes away jobs for homeowners that live in the area.”