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AOC Hosts Congressional Art Competition Showcase

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

by Charlie Finnerty

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office hosted an art showcase Friday April 19 at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens. Artwork of high school students from New York’s 14th Congressional District was submitted for consideration in the Congressional Art Competition, a yearly visual competition hosted by the Congressional Institute.

While the congresswoman was unable to attend due to last-minute weekend foreign aid votes in the House, Constituent Liaison and Field Representative Nipa Royees spoke on her behalf, congratulating students on their artwork displays. Last month, the congresswoman secured over $1 million in federal funding for the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens for a new five-story facility, tripling the size of the club and expanding programming capacity.

Constituent Liaison and Field Representative Nipa Royee. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

“Each year, I am inspired by the remarkable talent and boundless creativity showcased in the submissions for the Congressional Art Competition, particularly the profound connections students forge between their artwork and their communities,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a written statement to the Queens Ledger. “My office proudly hosted an inaugural art showcase highlighting the exceptional pieces of high school students from The Bronx and Queens. From captivating paintings to evocative photographs, each piece showed the immense talent and limitless potential of our young artists. As we work to determine a winner for this year’s competition, we remain extremely impressed by the depth and breadth of artistic expression demonstrated by these remarkable students.”

Local organizations and community groups including Riis Settlement Immigration Services, Malikah Safety Center and First Tech Fund attended the event as well as staff representing State Senators Kristen Gonzalez and Michael Gianaris.

The winning artwork of our district’s competition will be displayed for one year in the U.S. Capitol and featured on the United States House of Representatives Congressional Art Competition page.

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Queens Community Orgs Host Town Hall on Tenant Right to Counsel Bill

by Charlie Finnerty |

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Woodside on the Move, the Right to Counsel Coalition, Chhaya, Catholic Migration Services and other Queens-based community organizations hosted a tenant organizing town hall Feb. 21 at St. Sebastian Parish Center in Woodside. Organizers spoke to tenants about Right to Counsel for ALL (A1493 / S2721), a bill proposed in the state legislature that would establish a right to legal services in eviction proceedings for all tenants across New York.

Attendees received presentations on what a right to counsel would mean for tenants and demonstrated how to provide feedback and testimony to elected officials. The bill is currently awaiting a new sponsor in the state assembly before it can move forward. District 30 Assemblymember Steven Raga and District 37 Assemblymember Juan Ardila also spoke at the event.

“The purpose and the goal of this event was really to just relaunch Right to Counsel’s legislative and budget campaign. That’s why we had the teach-in, but also it had the emphasis on statewide right to counsel and informing tenants about what that entails and providing testimony to support it and galvanize it,” Frances Hamed, policy & advocacy coordinator for Woodside on the Move, said.

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Tenants at the event spoke about their own experiences with housing court where many felt the judges were biased in favor of landlords who had access to legal representation.

“He has rights who dare to defend them,” one tenant said, speaking into a microphone at the front of the room. “We have to change how housing court judges are put on the bench in New York City. Housing court judges should be elected, not selected. Let them pay for a campaign and be elected.”

Another tenant spoke about how economic suppression of Latino communities adds an additional obstacle to housing burdens. His testimony was translated into English by event organizers.

“I’ve been in housing court fighting my case,” the tenant said. “It has been very traumatizing as a Latino person that we are people that do not have economic power.”

Yhamir Chabur, a housing and tenant organizer for Woodside on the Move, said he is inspired by advocacy and community organizing groups across Queens working together.

“Queens is getting closer to unifying itself,” Chabur said. “We have to keep the momentum going, because all of us experience this. It’s not fair that you have the landlord class and they’re easily able to have access to lawyers to represent them. This system supposedly says that it’s democratic because it’s capitalist, but yet it favors those that have access to capital.”

Raga, who was formerly executive director for Woodside on the Move before being elected to the State Assembly, spoke in support of the bill at the event, saying he feels hopeful there is support for it in Albany.

“It’s a broad coalition of folks that know that this is a moral issue,” Raga said. “Whether or not you have constituents in your district that are fighting for it, no matter what you should know that this is about right or wrong.”

Assembly Member Steven Raga speaks at the town hall. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Hamed said Woodside on the Move and their partner organizations fighting for Right to Counsel are focused on gaining more support for the bill in the state legislature.

“In terms of next steps, I feel it’s very important to garner the support of all the legislators who haven’t signed on,” Hamed said. “I feel confident that Right to Counsel will be something that we see implemented statewide, given all the testimonies we heard from the electeds and the tenants.”

Subway-Inspired Cannabis Dispensary Opens on Vernon Blvd.

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

By Charlie Finnerty |

Tucked away on the corner of Vernon Blvd. and 44th Dr., NYC Bud celebrated its grand opening Friday. Customers flooded through the sliding glass doors into the storefront, modeled after an MTA subway station complete with classic MTA signage, subway cars, MetroCard ticket machine-styled ATMs and even a rat mascot posing for photos.

Owner Jon Paul Pezzo said the theme of the shop was an homage to New York City graffiti culture and a reflection of his time spent riding the subway across the city’s boroughs growing up in Bayside.

“We’re Queens kids, this is our vibe,” Pezzo said. “I was fifteen years old riding the 7 line. My mother thought I was right around the block when I was in downtown Manhattan buying fat caps to go do graffiti on the weekends. We hung out in parks, we drank, we smoked and this is our culture, you know? I feel like kids have lost community with video games and technology. What was once connecting us is disconnecting us now. We wanted to bring the essence of old New York.”

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Pezzo said he wants his business to serve every community in surrounding Queens neighborhoods of LIC, Astoria and beyond, with plans to eventually open locations throughout the city.

“Everyone, everyone, everyone,” Pezzo said. “We’re really excited because we feel we’ve built something very different. We want to open stores in every borough. We’re an NYC brand.”

Pezzo said the lengthy licensing process and the challenges of navigating an emerging legal cannabis industry made the opening process especially drawn out and difficult. Competition with black market smoke shops — which do not follow the specific regulations of the legal industry and have proliferated under the state’s bumpy rollout of legalized cannabis — makes opening legal dispensaries especially difficult and costly, according to Pezzo.

“After a long long nightmare of a journey, we’re finally here,” Pezzo said. “Going through the licensing process, waiting, doing all the paperwork — struggling, really. Doing everything the right way while these illegal businesses are opening left and right. They shut them down and they open right up again. For what they put us through to open a business, to have that as an added thing is not really fair. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Zion Foss is a founding member of Zizzle, a Queens-based cannabis cultivation and lifestyle brand and a featured brand at NYC Bud’s new storefront. Foss grew up in Flushing and founded Zizzle as one of the first legal New York City cannabis brands in the earliest days of legalization.

Foss said he would like to see the state and city support the legal industry by streamlining the licensing process and providing grants or other incentives to promote legal entrepreneurship.

“We need to simplify the process, not so much red tape and regulation,” Foss said. “We’re subject to all this compliance and rigorous testing. It’s overwhelming and capital intensive.”

Jeff North, an LIC native and longtime member of the cannabis horticultural community, said he is excited to see the industry being legalized and businesses taking off.

“I think in general, it’s a great thing to have new business avenues open in New York. We’ve always been a city striving for commerce, so why not take advantage of the commerce of this industry and move it more towards a legal market?”

Jeff North at NYC Bud. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

As an experienced grower and educator in cannabis horticulture, North raised concerns about the growing industry inflating prices artificially for a product he knows is not particularly costly to produce.

“The entire concept that marijuana should cost this much money is absolutely ridiculous,” North said.

Foss said he is excited to see more legal and locally owned storefronts like NYC Bud opening in the city.

“It’s a special grand opening, it’s a special time in cannabis, it’s a special time for all New Yorkers.” Foss said. “We’re providing safe cannabis and I’m proud to be behind that.”

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Jamaica man celebrates 30 years on the job at LIC’s Access Self Storage

Gomez places a crown on Jeffries head at the party. Credit: Charlie Finnerty


By Charlie Finnerty |

Artie Jeffries of Jamaica celebrated 30 years working as an elevator operator at Access Self Storage in Long Island City. The longest tenured employee, Jeffries has become a beloved member of the team and a friend to many customers. Access Self Storage staff, some of Jeffries’ most loyal customers and loved ones celebrated the milestone, as well as his 56th birthday, at Bantry Bay Publick House on Nov. 11. At the party, he was also presented the Ken Cooley founders award from Access Self Storage corporate office

“Everybody needs a job,” Jeffries said. “Knowing that you have a job, that you’re making money, that you’re paying your rent — knowing that you have a job behind you — I think that’s a great feeling. It’s a lifesaver, knowing people that don’t have a job are out there struggling every single day trying to make ends meet.”

Soraya Gomez, Artie’s manager at Access Self Storage, said Jeffries is a team player and lifts up everyone else in the workplace.

“He’s reliable, we can always count on him,” Gomez said. “Everyone here gets along with him. It’s like there’s no animosity in him.”

Jeffries said he never expected to hold the job for three decades but focuses everyday on making sure he gets his work done.

“Just trying to keep a job is the biggest challenge. I thought I wouldn’t be here that long. When I first started, I thought I might be gone in three years,” Jeffries said. “I hung in there and they noticed me. I work hard.”

Jeffries operates the elevator at Access Self Storage. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

In his time at Access Self Storage, Jeffries said he has seen a lot of other staff come and go but repeat customers, some who have been there even longer than himself, help build a familiar and supportive community at work.

“I’ve seen so many people come and go,” Jeffries said. “We get repeat customers a lot and they help me out a lot. They’re very supportive and we’re very supportive of them. We help each other out. They’re still here, it’s like a miracle.”

Jeffries said he does not take any of his work for granted and tries to be better every day than the day before.

“Even though it’s difficult sometimes, it’s difficult tasks, you manage to work yourself through them. And that’s what I’ve managed to do,” Jeffries said. “For all the years that I’ve been here, I’ve tried to make myself better than I was the last time. More productive, available, communicative, more responsive, more responsibility. Not a lot of people get that chance to actually be at a job that long and say, you know, ‘Hey, I’ve achieved something.’ Even being here ten years is a miracle.”

With support from his job coach Carlos Pino from AHRC New York City, an organization which serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Artie has thrived on the job.

“Artie by himself is a wonderful person. The way he was moving around and smiling at the party, that’s him,”  Pino said. “That’s him, he’s always that way. He smiles, never has to complain. Always looking to the bright side.”

Jeffries said his focus is on finding joy in the small things, both in and outside of his work.

“I’m 56 years old. I just try to enjoy life,” Jeffries said. “Like they say, life is short, so you’ve gotta enjoy every moment of it.”

Astoria Welfare Society distributes winter clothing

The Astoria Welfare Society distributed winter clothing Sunday Oct. 29 to more than 300 migrants, asylum seekers and other community members in need at 30th Street and 36th Avenue in Astoria. In an emailed statement, Astoria Welfare Society General Secretary Mohammed Jabed Uddin said that it is everyone’s responsibility to stand beside those who are unemployed and in financial crisis, especially as cold winter weather comes to the city. In addition to Uddin, the organization’s president Sohel Ahmed, community activist Shamsher Ali and Queen’s Bangladesh Society advisor Tofail Chowdhury led the event. The program was funded by Apollo Insurance Brokers CEO Shamsher Ali.

Uddin said he saw that community members often have unused old winter clothing and recognized a need in the shelter system.

“There are people in the community that have extra clothes they left in the closet or sometimes they never use them. Sometimes they throw them away. But these jackets, if I can have them, I can give them to these people who have no food, no water,” Uddin said.  “Our shelter system is very bad. They’re not getting enough support. People are looking for cans and food on the streets.”

Uddin has also established a community freezer on 36th Avenue and 30th Street which he restocks daily for people who cannot afford groceries.

“People have no jobs, rent is too high,” Uddin said.

Astoria Welfare Society was originally founded in 2019 to provide Halal groceries to low income muslim communities in Western Queens. At the time, they were the only organization providing free halal food in the city, according to the organization’s website. Uddin says their events have reached over 4,000 community members in need. During Hurricane Ida he helped raise $20,000 to help families whose homes and cars had been damaged.

Uddin said he constantly hears from people across the city that need resources.

“I get calls everyday. I’ve gotten three calls today so far,” Uddin said. “Today I talked to people from Bronx and Brooklyn, two guys. I just got a few jackets that they’re going to come and pick up from me.”

Uddin said the Astoria Welfare Society is planning a Thanksgiving food drive to give away halal chicken Nov. 18 sponsored by State Senator Kristen Gonzalez and Queens Together.


Reagan Club Welcomes Heritage Foundation Director

By Charlie Finnerty |

The Ronald Reagan Republican Club of Astoria hosted Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Energy and Climate Center, at their monthly meeting. Furchtgott-Roth spoke about American energy independence, infrastructure and the proliferation of electric vehicles. Activist, former mayoral candidate and founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa, also spoke at the Tuesday, Oct. 17 event as well as a representative from Republican Kelly Klingman’s campaign for Tiffany Cabán’s City Council District 22 seat.

The Reagan Club at Rocco Moretto VFW Post. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

“I am always honored to speak to anyone who invites me. It is always a great pleasure to come and speak to anyone who is interested in better economic policies and particularly energy policy,” Furchtgott-Roth said.

Robert Hornak, vice president of the club, has been in Republican Party organizing since his early days in the Young Republicans Club. Hornack said connecting grassroots political organizations to larger conservative names on the national stage is essential to building a sustainable local party.

“One of the things I learned very early when I was running [the Young Republicans] was that the more interesting the speaker, the better the crowd,” Hornack said.

In addition to her work at the Heritage Foundation, Furchtgott-Roth is an adjunct professor of economics at George Washington University and previously served in the Reagan, Bush senior, Bush junior and Trump presidential administrations. Furchtgott-Roth, said one of her top priorities when speaking on energy policy is the security implications of energy independence.

“Whether it’s a small or a large event, the message is the same,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “We don’t want to be dependent on China or any other country for our energy production.”

In her speech, Furchtgott-Roth claimed that the production of wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure materials in China would make renewable energy in the United States dependent on Chinese manufacturing while many domestic oil reserves remain untapped, blaming President Biden’s “war on fossil fuels.”

“If we depend on wind turbines and solar panels, we are not self-reliant, we are dependent on another country,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “There is a fundamental difference in policy between people who think that we should be moving towards renewables and people who are thinking  that we should be resilient and self-reliant and have energy independence.”

Guardian Angels at the club meeting. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

According to, the majority of American solar panels are imported with three-quarters of those imports originating from Chinese subsidiaries. In 2004, the US accounted for about 13% of global solar panel shipments but that number fell to just 0.5% in 2017. The US produces up to 90% of domestic wind turbine parts in 500 manufacturing facilities employing over 100,000 people, but is still heavily reliant on imported raw materials such as steel and lithium batteries.

To address concerns about domestic energy manufacturing needs, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included over $15 billion in clean manufacturing tax incentives for American renewable infrastructure investments. According to the World Resources Institute, in the year since the IRA passed, manufacturing construction has roughly doubled with forecasts of higher growth in the next few years. Manufacturers of battery components, wind and solar equipment, and electric vehicles have announced tens of billions of dollars in new investments. Between August 2022 and July 2023, 272 new clean energy projects were announced in 44 states, generating more than 170,000 new jobs.

On the post-IRA manufacturing shift in the US, Furchtgott-Roth said there have been gains but would like to see more. She also added that a share of those manufacturing gains have come from Europe, leaving less of an impact of China’s control on the market than immediate numbers might suggest.

Furchtgott-Roth. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

“Some [manufacturing] is shifting back to the United States, but some is still in China,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “We also have manufacturing that’s moving from Europe to the United States, because the price of electricity is so high in Europe.”

Furchtgott-Roth also spoke at a number of other events while in the city, including a debate at Pace University Law School about the gender wage gap and an appearance on Stuart Varney’s show on Fox Business.

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