Community partners team up to host Ramadan food distribution

The Astoria Welfare Society and community partners are teaming up to distribute free halal food and groceries during the holy month of Ramadan.

Enough traditional Bangladeshi food to feed nearly 250 families was distributed on Friday, April 1, the day before nearly a quarter of the world’s population ushered in their holiest month by beginning their day-long fasts.

Mohammed Jabed Uddin, the General Secretary of the Astoria Welfare Society, welcomed the Astoria community as well as elected officials to the distribution site at 29-11 36th Avenue.

Other pop-up and drop-off locations will be held this month in surrounding neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, said Uddin. He is also doing drop-off deliveries of halal food throughout the month.

“We continue to stand by our community, it doesn’t matter who they are,” he said.

Community organizations helping with the distribution drive are Queens Together and the Champlain Hudson Power Express and Congressmember Carolyn Maloney’s office. The event was sponsored by Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“If it wasn’t for the help of Queens Together and Blue Shield Blue Cross, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Uddin said.

Locals spoke of what the beginning of Ramadan meant to them while waiting in line for the food distribution.

“All over the world, people can not eat dinner or lunch,” said one local. “A lot of people throw their food away for nothing. We are feeling how other poor people are feeling.”

Elected officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer, helped distribute the groceries and halal food. Representatives from the offices of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mandami and Councilmember Julie Won, as well as Councilmember Tiffany Caban herself, were also on hand for the event.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims break their daily fast with a meal called Iftar, which comes only after sunset each day. The act of fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. This year’s holiday ends on the evening of Monday, May 2.

“I know it’s been a very tough two years for all of us, and now we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Having enough food to eat during the month is very important,” Schumer said. “Ramadan Mubarak!”

The Fight To Save Tower Diner & Ohr Natan

By Michael Perlman

mperlman@queensledger.com

Last week, a demolition crew arrived in front of the historic Tower Diner Clock Tower Bank Building, and a construction fence was erected, extending around the Queens Boulevard and 99th Street small businesses.

Tower Diner has been a community anchor for generations, but its regal Colonial bank-inspired interior is being gutted first, and the demolition crew said it will be demolished possibly in two weeks, followed by the Art Deco 1939 World’s Fair-inspired Trylon Theater, later known as Ohr Natan Synagogue & Community Center.

Tower Diner Bank Building & shops surrounded with a fence

In 2010, it was a miracle how the block survived a major fire and was restored. Additionally, it survived the pandemic. Residents are calling for preservation and respect for architecture, culture, history, religious values, morals, and small businesses. On a few occasions in recent months, developers Rudy and Michael Abramov of RJ Capital Holdings/Trylon LLC stated at public hearings and a recent City Council committee meeting that they are willing to work with the community to acknowledge preservation requests and revise the 15-story condo renderings by incorporating the prominent facades, but residents are now saying that the developers are dishonest by planning to destroy historic community icons.

An engineer brought in by Rabbi Kaziev assessed the property and revealed that it can accommodate a harmonious development above, but the developers dismissed this preservation approach. The loss of this historic block would add to recent travesties including the historic Parkside Chapel.

Over 4,200 residents among preservationists signed an online petition (https://www.change.org/p/rj-capital-holdings-save-historic-trylon-theater-ohr-natan-tower-diner-small-businesses-from-demolition) and posted heartfelt comments, and others wrote letters to Councilwoman Lynn Schulman, Borough President Donovan Richards, and Community Board 6, as well as testified at hearings. Elected officials have been working with the developers, and the community is calling upon all parties to respect their wishes.

BP Richards stated in his advisory report, on January 7, “I hereby recommend disapproval of this application, unless all of the conditions are met,” and among them is “The proposed development should significantly incorporate prominent architectural features of the Trylon Theater and Tower Diner facades wherever possible.”

The majority of Bukharian congregants who worship at Ohr Natan and faced oppression in their native countries are now facing being exiled from their synagogue, an American Dream second home, shaped with much love. Congregants also feel it is a sin to demolish a synagogue, particularly against their will. Plans are underway to relocate to a $.99 cents store across the street after the developer pressured Ohr Natan for years.

“The fact that the developers are replacing our synagogue, in which many Bukharian Jews observe their religion, is very devastating to me,” Michael Yakubov said. “It was a very beautiful synagogue, which I went to learn Hebrew and listen to religious lectures. Ohr Natan brought our Jewish community closer to one another, especially on holidays. Forest Hills has definitely been evolving, but not in a good way. Our area is becoming more congested, and our community is falling apart.”

Inmaculada Gattas explained, “I felt terribly upset after seeing Tower Diner boarded up and knowing that Ohr Natan Synagogue/Trylon Theater will close, without given the respect that preservation gives to religious and historical buildings, and sites that have proven to be of great spiritual and physical importance.” She pinpointed the greater picture. “The buildings facing demolition and ones that we already lost, represent the soul and energy of the people that built them with blood, sweat, and tears. Their imminent destruction highlights the fact that nothing is sacred to these developers and the politicians who allowed it. I truly hope there’s still time to save at least some of the artwork and architectural elements.”

Residents feel that the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is not applying the Landmarks Law equally between boroughs.

“We are losing yet another of our neighborhood’s cultural centers,” Theresa Doria said, citing the Elmwood, which is now a church, as an example of adaptive reuse, but it is still serving the community. “We’ve lost so many glorious movie and Vaudeville theaters, and trying to get any worthy site landmarked in Queens is just impossible! Both the Tower Diner and the Trylon should be landmarked based on their unique architecture.”

She also mourns the loss of the displaced mom-and-pop shops, where some did not reopen elsewhere. “We not only lose a large place to gather and worship, but we lose a place to gather and eat. We’re losing mom and pops left and right to overtaxing, and bus and bike lanes taking the parking away.”

Resident Sylvia Bloomfield, who has lived near the site for the last thirty years, feels depressed by the decision for the destruction of Tower Diner, a unique destination for her family and friends.

She said, “We knew the owner and employees by first names and enjoyed many laughs, and the clock tower is a historic site.” Furthermore, she said, “Ohr Natan is a place where the community gathered to worship our Creator. It was promised at a meeting and verified by an engineer that the building being erected can keep these historic buildings, but now our community will suffer a severe loss. Please be conscious enough to let these buildings stand and preserve the integrity of our community.”

Linda Creash recalled Emigrant Savings Bank, and how the diner cared to preserve its beautiful design. “Sadly, the developer has no regard for the preservation of historic facades, although he previously said he did. I think back to the destruction of Penn Station, a magnificent building lost to the wrecking ball, but to me and so many others, the imminent loss of the beloved Tower Diner and the Ohr Natan is immeasurable. Once again, we who live, shop, and vote here have no say. Greed and money speak louder. It’s a sad fact, and like Penn Station, regret will come too late.

“Rego Park is morphing into a glorified suburban hellscape on steroids, with the same stores you see everywhere, and like the Walking Dead, we are all becoming infected involuntarily by the blandness of it all,” said Alan Tompas. He called it “zombies to big-time commerce.”

He can never understand the lack of respect for architectural history New York has. “From the vandalism of Penn Station to the total ignorance of preserving anything that stood where old Yankee Stadium was, it just makes no sense,” he said. Being raised in Rego Park, he felt it was a genuine neighborhood with a feel of its own. “I never got the sense that a new business was only propped up for the sole purpose of making money. You knew the storeowners, loved the shops, and you played with all the kids you grew up with.”

As for Tower Diner, he said, “In its place, expensive condos with no sense of architectural aesthetics are being planned, but where are the stores, the diners, and the places people like to congregate? To add insult to injury, the old Trylon Theater won’t be saved either. It’s a holdover from the 1939 World’s Fair!”

Joshua Robert attributes this dilemma to political abuse. “I think our politicians do not care at all about what their constituents want. They deal in lies, and lies are a business. They deal in promises to those most likely to donate, rather than those most likely to vote, and if the public interest and their interest diverge, then it’s the public who loses,” he said. “We don’t need another faceless, soulless apartment building and yet another construction site. We don’t have the infrastructure to pack more people, but yet everyone seems to ignore that except for the residents left behind.”

“It feels like your religion can be sold to the highest bidder,” Loreena Lano, who is also concerned with an influx of people to an already overcrowded area, said. “There’s not enough schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and services. Even if they built above it and preserved the structures, it’s overdevelopment and all because money rules and all else suffers.”

MTA releases Queens Bus Network Redesign draft plan

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority rolled out its new Queens Bus Network Redesign draft plan, after receiving over 11,000 public comments on their initial attempt to redesign the bus network in 2019.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the brakes were put on the initiative in March 2020. Now, the MTA is ready to start back up again with a fresh perspective after the agency received an “unprecedented number of comments” about the original draft plan released in December 2019.

The MTA says its focus is now on routing, bus stop locations, and providing frequent and reliable bus service throughout the borough. In 2019, the bus network served nearly 800,000 average weekday riders with over 100 routes.

“The Queens New Draft Plan is the third to be released, but in some ways, may be the most important of the five because Queens has, historically, had less subway service relative to its size and population than the other boroughs,” MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber said. “So many people depend on buses for access to jobs, education, culture and everything else New York has to offer. The New Draft Plan reimagines both local and express service to address the evolving needs of Queens communities, with a focus on more reliable service, faster travel, better connections, and ease of use.”

MTA Chair & CEO Janno Lieber, Interim NYCT President Craig Cipriano, Acting MTA Bus President/SVP NYCT Buses Frank Annicaro, DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards announce the Queens Bus Network Redesign Draft Plan at Jamaica Av. & 150th St. on Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

With over half of Queens residents relying on public transportation for their daily commute, at least 11 percent commute primarily by bus, the MTA says. Although ridership dropped significantly during the pandemic — to roughly 46 percent of pre-pandemic levels — ridership is slowly continuing to recover as New Yorkers return to work and their daily activities.

More direct routes in congested areas, like downtown Flushing and Jamaica, are in the pipeline for the redesign. The MTA says a contributing factor to congestion in Flushing and Jamaica are the result of bus routes that end in those neighborhoods.

The MTA is also placing a priority on creating a more efficient bus system by removing and adjusting closely-spaced bus stops along routes in hopes of expediting service. The MTA says with seconds shaved off of existing bus routes, there is a “positive cascading effect” on overall travel times with fewer bus stops.

A total of 85 bus routes (up from 82 currently) are proposed for the local bus network, which can be broken down into four different route types, including 35 local routes, 27 rush routes, 16 limited routes and seven crosstown Select-Bus Service routes.

The MTA will also continue its work with the city’s Department of Transportation to build upon its achievements of dedicated bus lanes, like the ones that were installed last year in Jamaica.

DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez lent his support to the bus network redesign plan, calling efficient bus service a top priority for commuters from Queens.

“The majority of Queens residents rely on public transportation for their commutes and making sure their buses are running on time and unobstructed has been one of our top priorities,” said NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez. “We strongly support the holistic efforts of the borough bus network redesigns to improve bus service, through simplified routings, improved access to important destinations, and improved bus stop spacing.”

In its latest redesign draft plan, the MTA says they are looking into more direct routing and finding new connections to subway stations and other bus routes. New bus routes may have less stops, but this is countered with a proposed frequency increase and fewer route variations or branches.

For example, the proposed Q46 bus route would only serve LIJ Hospital, while the proposed Q48 bus route would only serve Glen Oaks.

Proposed changes to the Express Bus Network include one new express route, serving southeast Queens from Springfield Gardens and Rochdale to Midtown Manhattan. The MTA is also proposing to discontinue the QM3 line that runs between Little Neck and Midtown Manhattan due to low ridership, as well as to retire the QM10 and QM40 lines in order for more direct routes (the proposed QM11, QM12 and QM42 lines) to take their place.

In an effort to gather feedback from locals, the MTA is holding virtual workshops that start on Monday, April 18 for local Community Boards. All workshops will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Community Board 1 (Astoria, Long Island City and Woodside) will be the first virtual workshop held on Monday, April 18, with the rest to follow.

Striving for success on the court and in the classroom

Martin Luther School Senior reaches 1,000 points, reflects on success during his 5-years as a student-athlete

Adam Kirouani, a senior from Astoria, Queens, netted his 1,000th point this season. As captain of the Martin Luther Varsity Basketball team, the 5’7 point guard led the Cougars to a successful season; finishing above .500 and making their 7th playoff appearance in a row. The team eventually fell to western rivals, Avenues, but not before Kirouani reached the 1,000 point mark in his high-school career.

“Honored and grateful,” were two words Kirouani used to describe what reaching the milestone means to him. “To know that my hard work is recognized amongst other high-achieving student-athletes that graduated from Martin Luther is an honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity that the Boys and Girls Club gave me to attend this school that I love,” Kirouani said.

Kirouani is referring to the Student-Athlete Sponsorship that the Variety Boys and Girls Club granted him in 2016. The sponsorship fund, established by Peter Vallone Sr. decades ago, was meant to help high potential Variety Boys & Girls Club Members (Club Kids) who were under-performing at their current school, find a school where they would excel academically and athletically. Between 2016 and 2022, 15 Club Kids have been sponsored to attend Martin Luther School.

Kirouani was one of the 15 selected by former Head Varsity Basketball Coach, John Sanchez, together with Variety Boys & Girls Club Athletic Director and CM3 AAU Basketball Organizer, Charles Melone.

“Although he was always the smallest player on the court, his voice was always the loudest,” John Sanchez said. “His confidence, grit, and strong voice indicated that he would be a good leader and a team player,” Sanchez added.

“Besides his skill on the court, his positive attitude and strong work ethic have always been contagious to those around him,” Charles Melone, a mentor and coach of Kirouani’s for the last several years, said.

Kirouani was the only eighth-grader selected, and in his first year at Martin Luther, stepped into a big role on the JV team, led by Coach Jon Kablack.

Kablack was assistant coach for one year in 2016 before becoming JV coach in 2017. He coached Kirouani throughout his entire five-year high school basketball career.

“He’s a special kid,” Coach Kablack said when asked to describe Kirouani on and off the court. “He deploys kind candor when communicating, leading to feelings of respect and admiration from his teammates,” Kablack added.

To his teachers, Kirouani was a bright light around school; always smiling and engaging with others. Through his hard work and commitment to seeking extra help with subjects he struggled with, Kirouani was able to maintain a 3.0 average during his time at Martin Luther.

“It’s been a true pleasure watching him mature from middle school to high school,” said Assistant Principal, Ann Boyle. “The growth he was able to demonstrate, both in the classroom and on the court, has been impressive,” Boyle added.

Kirouani is eyeing a few D2 and D3 basketball schools, but is undecided as to where he would most like to attend college. “Knowing that Martin Luther and The Variety Boys and Girls Club are in my corner means the world to me,” Kirouani said. “I couldn’t have dreamt of a better high school experience, and I am thankful to God, my family, friends, and of course MLS & The Club for making my high school career an unforgettable one,” Kirouani added.

With the 2022 Baseball season upon us, will both NY teams be October bound?

At the end of spring training, hope springs eternal for a whole lot of baseball fans itching to see their favorite team in action.

It’s terrific knowing that the expectations for both NY Baseball teams should be pretty darn high going into this year.

The Mets did a fabulous job of winning the backpages this winter.

They acquired the best pitcher on the market, Max Scherzer. They acquired one of the most exciting outfielders in the game, Starling Marte. Oh and they hired one of baseball’s best managers, Buck Showalter.

On paper, the Mets could not have drawn up their offseason any better.

However, you don’t win division titles on paper.

The Mets already have a major headache on their hands with their ace Jacob deGrom.

The same ace that missed the entire second half of last season is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. So much for Jake being in the best shape of his life!

The Mets can survive deGrom’s absence for the first two months of the season, but if they want to win a championship, they need him.

It would be nice to see the 300 million dollar man Francisco Lindor step up in a big way in his second full season in Queens.

Lindor is a star player, but last year for a good majority of the season, he didn’t play like one.

If the Mets are going to win the NL East, they will need a bounceback season out of Mr Smile.

For the Yankees, they didn’t win the back pages of this offseason the way the Mets did.

It by no means was a sexy offseason for a team that is coming off back to back disappointing seasons.

However, the Yankees are a better team going into 2022 than they were going into last season.

For starters, defensively they should look much better behind the plate and at shortstop.

Offensively, a full season of Anthony Rizzo and the addition of Josh Donaldson should provide an element of toughness that was lacking for most of last year.

GM Brian Cashman mentioned after the Donaldson trade that the Yankees were lacking an edge, I hope Donaldson helps provide one.

The Yankees will be better offensively, because in addition to Donaldson and Rizzo, Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu can’t be any worse than what they were last season.

In a loaded American League East, the Yankees can’t have lackluster campaigns from Torres and LeMahieu.

They also need to answer a pretty simple question. Who will be the #2 starter behind Gerrit Cole?

Luis Severino has the stuff to do it. He’s been an All-Star before. However, he has not started a full season of games in 4 years.

If the Yankees win the AL East, we will be talking about a Baby Bomber resurgence for both Torres and Severino.

It’s an exciting time to be a NY Baseball fan. Both teams are interesting and expect to win.

If we are not talking about two playoff teams at the end of September, something went horribly, horribly wrong across the board.

For now, let the games begin…

You can listen to my podcast New York, New York every Sunday, Tuesday & Thursday on The Ringer Podcast Network on Spotify & Apple Podcasts.

You can also watch me nightly at 11 PM on Geico Sportsnight on SNY.

Pol Position: It’s not about the Bills, it’s about billionaires

NYS Governor Kathy Hochul supports bankrolling $850 million, the largest sum in N.F.L history, in taxpayer funds to cover 60% of the construction costs for a new Buffalo Bills stadium owned by Terrence Pegula – an oil and gas tycoon worth $5.8 billion. Assemblyman Ron Kim and Senator Jabari Brisport introduced a bill to make sure New York gets a cut of the action.

The legislation would ensure that if the empire state foots more than half of the cost for a facility that New York should own a majority stake in the team. While Senator Brisport would rather see the multimillions be invested back into other budget items, he says that this is the only measure to ensure taxpayers don’t have to accept terms under threat of leaving for some more tax advantageous deal somewhere else.

“The only way to truly keep the Bills in New York State at this point, now that we can no longer trust the owners, is to say that New York State should own more than half of them and have the ability to keep them in New York, if we wish,” Senator Brisport said in an interview.

A 2021 study commissioned by Empire State Development and produced by infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, found that the Bills generate more than 25 million in tax revenue for New York yearly. While Governor Hochul has touted the 10,000 union construction jobs the stadium would bring, tax breaks for professional stadiums hardly generate enough economic activity to cover the investment.

Even if the economic potential of a new stadium isn’t comparable to the cost – New York should follow suit with Kim and Brisport’s legislation and make sure that the New York Bills are truly a New York team.

The Bills Mafia are one of the most notorious and beloved known fanbases in all of professional sports. Through thick and thin they have stuck through for their sports team. New York should take the step to make sure that the team is there for them.

Overall, the sports fandom for professional sports can be lackluster to the vigor of a college football team. Every team has their superfans and own culture; but on the whole, they lack the history and authenticity to their communities with the looming threat of pulling out arises when a new stadium needs to be built.

When the dodgers vacated Brooklyn, Walter O’Malley became the most hated man in the borough. It ripped a generation of a place to congregate, where working-class families could get bleacher seats,bring their own lunch in a brown bag and enjoy a ball game. It’s hard to imagine what the city would lose if the Yankees moved to Florida. Or if the Knicks packed their bags for Texas. Just try to imagine what the early days of the pandemic would be like if sports weren’t being televised.

Sports are a crucial part of our social order. We fund and operate cultural institutions such as museums because we recognize them as a public good but lack the apparatus to make the same true of sports. Kim and Brisport’s legislation would give the state the ability to do so.

Sports stadiums have long been subsidized and funded under the traditional guise of “public-private partnerships”. But if New York taxpayers are footing more than half of the cost, wouldn’t a true partnership be a majority stake in the team?

There’s no reason that $850 million – money that could be urgently spent on street safety, homes for the homeless, or single-payer healthcare – needs to be spent to cover the construction costs of a new stadium owned by a man worth billions of dollars. If we have to do it, we should make sure that we get the terms and benefits are in the best interest of the state rather than being cornered into giving a handout.

Squeri throws out first pitch at McClancy

$2.1 million complex donated by 1977 alum Stephen Squeri

Monsignor McClancy High School in East Elmhurst celebrated the opening of its new $2.1 million state-of-the-art sports complex Monday, coinciding with the varsity baseball team’s first home game of the season.

American Express CEO and 1977 graduate of the school, Steve Squeri, made the generous donation to his former stomping grounds for the new athletics complex that is believed to be the biggest donation to the school in its history.

The completion of the new sports complex comes after numerous improvement projects inside the school —- from classroom renovations to an extended cafeteria space — have been completed and funded by Squeri.

Squeri and Melito share a moment in the dugout.

The new Stephen J. Squeri ‘77 Sports Complex makes the school the only Catholic High School in Brooklyn and Queens to have a state-of-the-art baseball, softball, soccer and track fields on campus.

Squeri delivered remarks in a pre-game ceremony, shortly before delivering a strike for the honorary first pitch of the baseball season.

“If it wasn’t for this school, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Squeri said.

He recalled the conversation with the school’s president, Nicholas Melito ‘78, where the idea for the sports complex was proposed to him over a pizza lunch in his neighborhood of Astoria.

“I’ve known Nick for 49 years, I love him like he’s my own brother.” Squeri said. “And when your brother asks you for something, you do it.”

Squeri credited Melito with having the vision for the sports complex, and for having the guts to ask him for the school’s new athletic facility.

“So many times, the answer is going to be no unless you ask,” Squeri added.

Friends since their days as students at the school, Melito expressed his gratitude to his lifelong friend at the ceremony.

“On behalf of current students, and future students for many years to come, we thank you for turning a dream into reality,” Melito said.

Group shot w/ scoreboard: (Left to right) Brother Robert Connolly, S.C., Barry Ferguson, project electrician, George Medlin, class of 70, Chairman of Board,McClancy HS, Nick Melito, class of 76, President of Msgr. MClancy HS, Mike Quick, sales Land Tek, Marty Lyons, Public Relations LandTek, Steve Squeri, class of 77, Chairman and CEO of American Express.

The multi-purpose turf field, complete with a separate track and field portion, was constructed by Bayside-based LandTek Group.

Marty Lyons, Landtek’s Vice President of Public Relations Marketing and former New York Jets football player, praised the completion of the project and Squeri for stepping up to get it completed.

“We’re lucky that we have people at the school like Steve who want to make an impact,” Lyons said. “I’m happy for the kids and happy for the school. It was long overdue.”

Student-athletes expressed their joy to be able to play on the new turf field, which will serve as the new home for the Crusaders for the near future. The multi-purpose field will also be used for physical education classes and other events for the school.

Nicholas Rodriguez, a junior on the varsity baseball team, says the new field is a blessing to have. His senior teammate, Ryan Ehret,

“It’s a great feeling,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot better than last year. It shows how much the program means to players and how much the players love the program.”

Ehret added, ““I’m glad I get to play on it for my last year. It looks beautiful and feels great. Everyone is hype for it and it’s an overall good feeling.”

Players surprised Squeri with his own personalized jersey to wear while throwing out the game’s first pitch.

Before stepping on the pitcher’s mound, Squeri delivered a message of inspiration to the student-athletes and alumni who attended the pre-game ceremony.

“What you see here today is a result of somebody having a vision,” Squeri said. “What you see here today is a result of someone not afraid to ask the question. And what you see here today is the ability for somebody to give back and to realize where they are.”

“Dream big. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do. Anything you do, give 110%. Leave it out all on the field. Be true to yourself. Never forget where you came from. And most importantly, give back and make the world a little better for you being in it.”

Longtime FSSA dance teachers to retire

Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts reflect on their teaching journeys

Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts first got acquainted in the early 2000s as they sat in the waiting room to be interviewed for the same teaching position at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.

Little did they know they would retire at the same time and spend over two decades together, teaching high school students the art form so close to their hearts: dance.
Udovicki, known lovingly by her students as “Ms. U,” is the daughter of Yugoslavian and Bolivian parents.

She trained as a ballet dancer while she lived in Europe, and eventually moved to New York City in her early 20s to pursue her dance career.
“My husband is an artist, so he was interested in coming here for the arts. I discovered modern dance when I came to the U.S., but you needed modern dance training to do it,” Udovicki said.

“I questioned where I should go to study modern dance and many said Julliard. I went to Julliard because there you get the sequential training, and out of there I could then join companies in modern dance, which I did until I was pregnant.”

Udovicki has danced professionally for numerous companies, including Belgrade National Theater, The Royal Flemish Ballet, Ballet Hispanico and The New York Baroque Dance Company. She has also worked with modern dance choreographers Ohad Naharin and Neta Pulvermacher.

Heuts said his story is quite similar to Udovicki’s, as he also hails from Europe—the Netherlands, to be exact—but it wasn’t until later in life that he began to pursue dance.

“I actually have a degree in art history from before I switched over to dance. I went to a dance conservatory in Amsterdam, where I studied modern dance,” Heuts said.
“I came to New York and right away got different jobs with modern dance companies, most notably Battery Dance in Lower Manhattan,” he continued. “But those jobs don’t pay full fare, so I did different side gigs to make ends meet.”

Heuts has studied with modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, whom he described as his idol.

He also has years of experience as a Pilates instructor and fitness trainer, and is well known for his healthy lifestyle. Every single day he walks to his work in Long Island City from his home in Manhattan over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

Tommy Tibball, a 2009 graduate of Frank Sinatra and co-director of TKO Dance Academy in Ozone Park, said that Heuts hasn’t changed a bit since he attended school.

“I’m teaching the freshmen a dance right now for the Spring Dance Concert, and I was running late. I told Mr. Heuts that I was sorry and parking was impossible. And he said in the same dry sense of humor, ‘Well, you should walk. I do it every day, and perfect attendance to add to that,’” Tibball said. “I remember always saying that I wish I could be like him when I’m older, because he literally must be in perfect health. The man hasn’t been sick in like six years.”

Heuts said that even if students don’t remember his barre exercises or across the floor combinations, he’s grateful that they remember him for who he is as a teacher and person.

“As I got older and taught for more years, I realized that it’s more important what I say and do in terms of my personality, rather than the actual things that I taught,” Heuts said. “They probably remember my walking over the bridge, being a vegetarian or making stupid jokes and things like that.”

Udovicki said that the most rewarding part of being a high school dance teacher is not so much what happens day in and day out, but what comes later.
“It’s so endearing to hear from the graduates who write back and come to visit. The things they say reaffirm me and the values I teach,” she said.

“Their pliés and contractions don’t really matter anymore, but the fact that they say they’ve learned so much about life, does,” she said. “I give these speeches sometimes, and they thank me for all that they’ve learned and my role as a teacher.”

Olivia Kenny, a 2019 graduate, had Udovicki as a dance teacher for three of the four years she attended Frank Sinatra, and said her class’ experience was unique because of her motivational words.

“Ms. U was our actual mom at that point because we saw her so much, and it was so good to end it with her as a senior. She would always give her little speeches, talk about history and really educate us in a different way,” Kenny said. “I feel like people at the college level are learning exactly what we learned at 14 and 15-years-old, and it was so amazing to learn from someone so experienced.”

Both teachers said they will forever cherish the feeling of being in the wings during special performances, such as the Spring Dance Concert or the Senior Show.
Udovicki and Heuts have arranged for numerous guest choreographers to come and stage their work on Frank Sinatra students, as well as facilitated performances at the Metropolitan Opera House through American Ballet Theatre.

Although they’re unsure of who will replace them when the school year comes to an end, they believe the school’s administration will seek feedback from them, given their longtime roles.

As for after retirement plans, they will both be quite busy.

“I want to continue teaching, but in other venues,” Udovicki said. “I’d like to teach dance for people with Parkinson’s, and maybe for people in jails. I’d also like to go back and volunteer at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts like I used to do.”

She also plans to spend more time with her family in Serbia, which used to be Yugoslavia.

Heuts and his wife plan to move out of New York City to a nearby suburb.

“If it were just me, I could probably go a few more years teaching, but my wife and I are a team,” he said.

“I feel somewhat happy that at least this was a pretty normal year; it’s a much better ending than what last year would have been.”

Udovicki said she feels privileged to have been able to indulge in the journey of self-discovery that comes with teaching adolescents.

“What I always loved was the art, that it’s a different language and a way of expressing yourself. It is really another way of communicating and making this world better,” she said.

“Politics is all an illusion, and so is dance, but it’s a beautiful thing that can enrich lives… what comes out of it is real.”

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