Lasting more than two hours, the meeting was a moment of a catharsis for residents in a section of Queens that has been the focal point of a number of city projects, including the District 28 Diversity Plan for schools, the MTA bus redesign, and a borough-based jail in Kew Gardens.
Before questions began, the mayor announced the opening of a replacement storefront for the Rego Park Library while construction on the new building is underway. He also informed residents that 432 seats will be added to P.S. 174 by 2024.
“There are a lot of issues that have come up about overcrowding and the need for more space in our schools, as well as the need for more school facilities,” de Blasio said.
The good news, however, was not enough to quell criticisms of the administration, particularly regarding the city’s plan to desegregate schools in the district.
The Department of Education announced the previous day that it would extend the timeframe of the process, but parents in the crowd took issue with the department’s execution of the procedure itself.
“Can we squash the whole plan, start over and let’s vote as a community for who we want to represent us?” asked District 28 Community Education Council president Vijah Ramjattan.
Another resident echoed concerns about a lack of sincere representation, pointing out that none of the working groups announced in the diversity plan consider the district’s Jewish community.
“We will fix that,” the mayor assured. “There’s a lot of people who need to be at that table, too.”
He added that school integration is something that has to come from an “organic process,” and recommended adding to the working groups already in place.
Hostilities reached a boiling point on the topic of education when 56-year-old David Rem stood up and asked when the mayor would stop supporting Chancellor Richard Carranza, whom he labeled “racist” toward Asians New Yorkers.
“I’ve lived in this city my whole life, and you are the worst mayor we have ever had,” shouted Rem, before he was escorted out of the gymnasium by security.
Edwin Wong, president of the Forest Hills Asian Association, echoed some of Rem’s sentiments. He asked the mayor how he and Carranza plan to move forward from the toxic situation.
“Many in the Asian-American community do not feel that the chancellor has their back,” explained Wong. “They feel that he is racist for certain reasons.”
The mayor chalked tensions up to a policy disagreement revolving around controversial plans to change the admissions criteria for specialized high schools.
He admitted both he and the chancellor mishandled the proposal, and that the details are being revised, but said confusing a flawed project for racism is an “absolute mischaracterization.”
A number of residents also addressed fears for public safety in the district as a result of bail reform laws and the closing of Rikers Island. One woman told de Blasio she is looking to move out of the city she’s called home her entire life because of the impending borough-based jail.
“Mr. Mayor I do not feel safe,” said the resident. “I wake up at 5 a.m., I go to work six days a week to pay taxes for this city, and the fact is people are leaving New York.”
To those who refuted the city’s attempt at community inclusion (one mocked the process as nothing more than “$50,000 in PR and paperwork”) on the jail plan, the mayor insisted not only that changes to the original plan reflect concerns heard from residents, but that the administration took actions well within its rights as a governing body.
“There was a thorough democratic process that ended with the City Council,” he said, a statement that was met with jeers. “The decision ultimately lies with your elected representatives.”
De Blasio stood behind the city’s decisions on criminal justice reform as beneficial changes to an “inhumane” corrections system.
NYPD Chief of Patrol Fausto Pichardo reassured residents their police department is resilient, adaptable and dedicated to making sure they continue to feel safe.
“There are people and organizations in this city that are trying to tell you New York City is not safe, they are trying to tell you that we are declining,” de Blasio chimed in. “If you believe that, God bless you, because that means you do not understand the facts.”
“If anyone wants to tell me that what we are living today has the slightest resemblance to 25 years ago,” he challenged, “I will have that debate with you all day long.”