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In the Heart of Astoria, Mokafé Serves As a Community and Cultural Hub

Youssef Mubarez at Mokafé. Credit: Daleelah Saleh

by Daleelah Saleh | news@queensledger.com

On November 17th, Mokafé Coffee House, located at 25-73 Steinway Street, opened its doors to the public. It has been a bustling community hub ever since, with Arabs coming in for a taste of their homeland, and non-Arabs arriving to try out new flavor profiles. 

Upon first glance, Mokafé appears like many other modern coffee houses: sleek with an upscale design. But every aspect of the space is intentionally “rooted in origin,” which is a core part of their mission statement. The backsplash behind the kitchen area consists of white and gold Islamic-style star tiling. Interspersed on the walls are photos of Yemen, as well as images of the Guatemalan and Yemeni coffee farmers that harvest the beans roasted in the café. Also on the wall and in the cafe’s logo is the umbrella-shaped dragon blood tree, the national tree of Yemen native to the island of Socotra. As an homage to the iconic baseball stadiums of New York, there is bleacher-style seating by the door.

Even the name Mokafé is a reference to the Yemeni port city of Mokha. Often called the “Birthplace of the Coffee Trade,” this city was also the namesake of the popular chocolatey coffee drink.

For the Mubarez family, which founded Mokafé together, New York is as much a part of their DNA as Yemen. After immigrating to the United States in the 70s, co-founder Youssef Mubarez’s parents raised him and his siblings in Astoria, just a few blocks away from where Mokafé now sits.

According to Youssef, his family was very integrated into the Arab community on Steinway street, making it a no-brainer to have their flagship location there. He expressed gratitude for the support they have received from fellow business owners, who asked about the café before it even opened, gave advice and helped spread the word of its opening. Through a combination of word of mouth and their Instagram account (@mokafe_coffeehouse), Mokafé has already become a staple on Steinway.

Every aspect of the space is intentionally “rooted in origin.”
Credit: Daleelah Saleh

Come by late at night and you might be surprised to find almost every table full. It makes perfect sense though. If you want to meet a friend after 8 p.m. but don’t want to foot a $20-plus restaurant bill and don’t want to go to a bar or hookah lounge, your options have historically been limited. Mokafé solves that problem. For less than $4, you can get a drink or pastry and socialize for hours.

One recent Google review under the name Dylan Hirsh wrote, “East Astoria has sorely needed a decent coffee shop. This one is delicious, laptop friendly, bright, and open late. It’s such a win for the neighborhood.” Similarly, another review written by Steven DiDonato remarked “this place filled a hole I didn’t even realize was there.”

Being open late isn’t the only void that Mokafé fills. In light of the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, there have been widespread calls for boycotts of franchises like Starbucks – which has multiple locations in Astoria, including one on Steinway. Mokafé offers a local alternative at a time when many are eager to support small businesses, especially Arab/Muslim-owned ventures.

Youssef noted that “with Islamophobia [and anti-Arab sentiments] on the rise, people want to feel comfortable in their spaces. Since opening, [Mokafé] has become a hub for everybody but especially Muslims and Arabs to hang out, feel safe, and eat or drink something they might be used to at home.”

Beyond these cultural aspects, Youssef asserts that the quality of their coffee and their ethical approach to coffee production helps Mokafe stand out. In a culture where our consumption of food and drink is so far removed from its origins, the Mubarez family puts names and faces to every aspect of Mokafé. 

“A lot of big companies get their beans from Yemen but kind of hide the fact. We’re saying not only is it from Yemen, here’s a photo of the Yemeni farmer that grew them. The same for Guatemala – people usually think beans come from Colombia.”

The two countries have a shared history of exploitation, and the Mubarez family is looking to counter that.

“It’s important to us that instead of just saying ‘this is where [our coffee] is from’ as a means of commercialization, we’re actually creating a sense of appreciation for the farmers that grow our beans and the land they grow on.” 

They believe in a “farm to cup” model that has been a long time in the making. The idea for Mokafé first came about in early 2022, when Jorgé Ciciliani was introduced to Youssef and his father, Abdul, through another business partner, Luis Booth. A Guatemalan coffee scientist, Ciciliani has worked in the coffee industry for over a decade and has racked up accolades at various coffee competitions. He initially proposed that he team up with the Mubarez family to sell high-quality Guatemalan and Yemeni coffee beans wholesale.

The Mokafé Coffee Lab on Vernon Boulevard was opened as a space to test out different beans, package them, and provide training for employees. After a while, they came to the conclusion that “if we’re gonna invest this much in getting the right beans and recipes for coffee, why not open a coffee shop to exponentially boost it and create an experience for people who drink it.” They started searching for places in Astoria and found their dream location on Steinway.

But one location wasn’t enough. Abe Ayesh, a Palestinian who has also worked with Mubarez on other business projects, insisted on also bringing Mokafé to Paterson, New Jersey – another major hub for the Arab and Muslim communities. The Paterson and Astoria stores ended up opening within a two-week period in November, which Youssef described as “intense but rewarding.”

Although it’s only been a little over a month since opening their storefronts, the Mubarez family and the Mokafé team already have big plans for the future. They’d like to open a backyard area for the Astoria location to offer more seating for customers. Thinking ahead to Ramadan, which will fall between March and April, they’re aiming to further extend their store hours to provide food and drink for the Muslim community after they break their fast at night. They’re already exploring places in other parts of New York to open more cafés and having conversations with people from different states to bring the Mokafé experience to as many people as possible. While they’re currently working under a partnership model, Youssef is looking forward to hopefully moving to an operator model and franchising the business. 

Ultimately, he’d like to bring Mokafé back to the roots of Yemeni entrepreneurship in America: the corner deli. 

It’s estimated that Yemeni-Americans own 4,000-6,000 of the roughly 10,000 bodegas in New York City. Youssef estimates that his father Abdul, a prominent businessman and community leader, used to sell between two and three thousand cups of coffee a day at the handful of corner delis that he owned. He envisions a different future for the deli coffee, noting that most of the time, people are just trying to get some cheap caffeine on their way to work and will settle for whatever’s nearby. Youssef would like the Mokafé team to sell their higher quality Yemeni and Guatemalan beans to delis so they can brew a cup of coffee that “makes customers want to come back again and again.”

Credit: Daleelah SalehIn the meanwhile, Queens residents can get their Mokafé fix at the Astoria location, which is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. 

You can place orders online or by calling them at (646) 235-8924. And if you’re looking for beans to roast at home, you can purchase bags in-store or on their website, where you can also find a myriad of blog posts with recipes, guides, and even some coffee history.

If you’re visiting Mokafé for the first time, and craving your normal cup of joe, they have all the classics: latte, espresso, drip, etc. “You can get whatever you like however you like it. We want people to come order their normal coffee but think this one tastes way better.” If you want to try something new, Youssef recommends getting the Adeni chai, a Yemeni black tea with cardamom and milk, and Sabayah, a layered honey cake. The Sabayah is made by his mom in her kitchen a few doors down, using a recipe that she has perfected after years of making it for friends and family. “Order those two, sit for however long you want and enjoy it,” Youssef said.

Central Libraries Shuttered on Sundays

By Celia Bernhardt | cbernhardt@queensledger.com

This past Sunday, doors were locked at Central and Flushing Queens Public Libraries. And they’ll stay that way every Sunday for the foreseeable future.

It’s the first week of a new schedule for the library system, which is cutting Sunday service entirely at these two locations. The change follows citywide budget cuts for Fiscal Year 2024 announced in Mayor Adams’ November Financial Plan, which adds updates to the FY24 budget passed by City Council over the summer. Along with all other city agencies under the new budget, The Queens Library, Brooklyn Library and New York Public Library saw their funding slashed by 5%. Officials warn that the cuts could get deeper in January.

“Due to this significant loss of funding, the Library has made the extremely difficult decision to close our Central and Flushing libraries on Sundays, decrease spending on our digital and print materials, and delay needed maintenance and repairs in our buildings,” Queens Library wrote in a press release. “We know how much you rely on us and how disappointing this news is, and we remain as committed as ever to providing the best service possible despite the challenges we face.”

Kimberly Silva, a 47-year-old Hollis resident, said she enjoys visiting Central.

“Out of all the libraries, honestly, I would prefer to go to this one. Even though it’s a little bit far from where I live,” Silva said. “They have everything you want.”

“That’s horrible,” she said upon hearing about the new schedule. “No, I would prefer them to stay open. Because a lot of people can’t make it during the week. Sunday’s their off day, they want to come to the library.”

Out of 66 Queens Library locations, Central and Flushing were part of just four locations offering Sunday service before the budget cuts. Now, only Kew Gardens Hills and the Hunters Point Mobile Library remain.

Silva said that free internet and technology help at Central Library—which is equipped with a large room of desktop computers—will be particularly inconvenient for locals to lose access to on Sundays.

“I know a lot of people probably don’t have computers or access to the internet and they probably come here on their day off, which is Sunday,” she said. “A lot of people, you know, they’re struggling. Sometimes the internet access is too hard, sometimes it shuts down.”

She’s worried the change in schedule might be difficult for her neighbor. “She has adopted kids and they don’t have internet, and she normally brings them here Sunday to do their homework.”

City Council Member Sandra Ung, whose district includes Flushing Library, emphasized the importance of the location. “One of my top priorities upon taking office was reopening the Flushing branch of Queens Public Library, which had been closed since the start of the pandemic, because I know what an important resource this is for our largely immigrant community,” the Council Member said in a statement. “It’s where children improve their reading skills, parents learn English, and residents develop new skills they can use to advance their careers or transition to a new one.”

Ung said in the statement that the Adams administration made “difficult decisions to address a grim budget outlook,” but that she remains committed to looking for ways to bolster the library system’s resources.

Starbucks Workers Strike on Red Cup Day

By Oona Milliken and Charlie Finnerty | news@queensledger.com

Starbucks workers across eight stores in New York City went on strike in what workers called the “Red Cup Rebellion,” on Wednesday, Nov. 16 and Thursday, Nov. 17. Workers withheld labor on Starbucks’ most profitable day of the year, Red Cup Day, when the coffee chain hands out free reusable red cups to customers who buy certain drinks.

According to an email sent out by Michelle Eisen, a spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United, this was the largest strike in the union’s history. More than 200 locations around the country went on strike, according to a statement sent by Phoebe Rogers, another Union spokesperson. Workers picketing at Starbucks locations across the city called on the company to negotiate with the union for a fair contract and stop attempts at union-busting behaviors intended to prevent or disrupt workers’ attempts to join a union.

James Carr, a Starbucks barista in Astoria, said it was frustrating that company executives were still refusing to negotiate with their employees. Though 361 Starbucks stores are unionized nationwide, there is no collective bargaining agreement between unionized workers and the company. Carr said it was important for workers to continue to strike and withhold their labor so that Starbucks might eventually come to the bargaining table.

“The company is still not negotiating with us. They don’t care, you know what I mean? They don’t care, they won’t negotiate until they’re forced to,” Carr said. “Practicing these strikes, and doing these strikes, is a big part of learning how to build towards the opportunity to leverage a strike or a campaign that’s big enough to force them to negotiate.”

Starbucks workers rally at Astor Place. Photo credit: Charlie Finnerty

The demand for fair wages, reasonable hours, more staff as well as giving digital tips to employees has been an ongoing concern in recent years after Starbucks store workers first unionized in 2021 at a location in Buffalo, NY. That decision has since caused a chain-reaction of stores across the nation to unionize their own stores.

William Perez, a worker at a store in Williamsburg, said he was on strike because Starbucks did not provide him and his fellow employees with digital tips. Furthermore, Perez said his store is perpetually understaffed and overworked.

“I’m here today and so are my coworkers to protest against the malpractice that’s been going on within our company for the last couple of years,” Perez said. “It’s just been going on for too long, and no matter what we do, it just feels like management doesn’t really care too much.”

Starbucks has also withheld benefits from some unionized stores, such as new accrued vacation time or a pay bump for workers who have been Starbucks employees for a certain amount of time. Arianna Ayala, a worker at the Williamsburg location in Brooklyn, said her store has been unionized for about a year and will not be receiving the compensation package announced by the company in the beginning of November.

“Our store is also unionized, so we don’t get any of the new benefits that are being rolled out as a result of the contracts we’re putting out, asking Starbucks for these kinds of benefits. Starbucks is rolling out all these benefits to non-union stores and an asterisk, saying things like ‘In respect for fair bargaining, we are not going to be rolling out these benefits to union stores,’” Ayala said. “A lot of things like how quickly we acquire sick time or vacation, as well as consistent scheduling and availability surrounding that scheduling.”

Workers at a Park Avenue Starbucks location in Manhattan also filed 18 complaints on Nov. 17 alleging the company is violating the city’s Fair Workweek Law, which requires employers to provide consistent scheduling for workers and offer current workers more hours before hiring new part-time employees. In New York City alone this year, Starbucks has now faced 73 charges across 54 stores alleging violation of the Fair Workweek Law.

Striking Starbucks workers and union organizers at the Park Avenue location were joined by City Council Majority Leader Keith Powers, State Senator Jessica Ramos, representatives of 32BJ SEIU of the Building Service Employees International Union, representatives of the United University Professions union for higher education staff and representatives of the SAG-AFTRA union for television and movie actors who recently ended their own months-long strike this month.

“Starbucks is out of compliance with the law,” Ramos said in a speech. “And Starbucks needs to be held accountable. Every single Starbucks worker needs to have fair scheduling, needs to have fair pay, needs to have their union recognized and the union-busting tactics have to go.”

Riley Fell, a union organizer for Starbucks United and former Starbucks worker, said the turnout at the rally was the biggest they’ve seen. In their time as an organizer, Fell said they have watched the Starbucks union movement take off dramatically.

“The amount of union stores has just skyrocketed in the past three years,” Fell said. “It’s really not like anything we’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen more people who are open to the idea of unions in general when they had been extremely closed off before. I’ve seen Starbucks union busting be pretty consistently debunked.”

Fell said the choice to call for the strike on the day of the company’s Red Cup event intended to highlight working conditions on one of the most difficult days for Starbucks workers.

“Today I’m really hoping to just get our message out more especially regarding Red Cup Day,” Fell said. “It’s a difficult day for sure. People don’t understand the toll this day has on workers so I want to get that message out as much as possible.”

Rhythm Heaton is a former shift supervisor at Starbucks’ Astor Place location. In July, a judge ruled Heaton’s termination from the company was a violation of labor law and an attempt to prevent Heaton from organizing a union with their coworkers. Starbucks has appealed their case. Heaton continues to work with Starbucks Workers United as an organizer focused on getting Starbucks to negotiate with their former coworkers.

“We unionized over a year ago,” Heaton said. “We haven’t been to the bargaining table for our specific store so we’re out here fighting the fight. This is a really good turnout and really really good energy.”

Heaton said the higher customer traffic on Red Cup Day brings workers’ challenges at Starbucks to the forefront.

“There’s generally a lot of frustration on Red Cup Day where often they don’t staff us correctly,” Heaton said. “We get a surplus of customers coming in and we suffer for it. So this is a great day to highlight why we’re doing this.”

Carr transferred to the store in Queens right before the pandemic started and said he and his coworkers were inspired by the unionizing effort in upstate New York shortly after. Carr said he was hopeful about the efforts of the Red Cup Rebellion and urged his fellow Starbucks workers to join the union efforts. According to Carr, striking and unionizing are the strongest efforts to stronghold Starbucks to a collective bargaining agreement.

“When we started to see that some of our coworkers in different locations were starting to form a union, we knew that this was the only way to change the company,” Carr said. “We’ve done such a good job shutting [Red Cup Day] down, no one’s been going in. It’s been absolutely dead in there today. We’ve just crushed any opportunity for this to be profitable for them. It’s been a good strike.”

A non-unionized worker in Williamsburg holds the door open for customers whilst other workers picket. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

Information on how the profits of this Red Cup Day compares to those in the past is not yet available, but Starbucks profits rose 12 percent in 2023, as unions reached their highest membership within the company. The company made a record $36 billion dollars after their fiscal year wrapped on Oct. 1. In a press release regarding their new benefits package released on Nov. 6, Starbucks declined to mention strikes or union efforts and stated that they were committed to providing support to their employees.

“For decades, Starbucks has consistently offered hourly partners the best benefits and perks in the industry—including comprehensive medical, dental and vision coverage options for eligible partners and their families and industry-leading gender-affirming care and Family Expansion Reimbursement Assistance benefits,” the Starbucks press release read.

It was not just workers who showed up on Red Cup Day. Emma Catherine, a Brooklyn resident, said she wanted to show up to her local Starbucks to show support for the employees that were striking. Catherine said her husband used to work at Starbucks, and she herself is a former coffee shop barista, so she understood how poorly baristas are treated.

“I’ve kept up with the news and see how Starbucks has consistently disrespected the rights of workers to collectively bargain and organize. That’s something I believe very strongly and that all workers have the right to collectively bargain,” Catherine said. “I want the workers to know that the people in the community support them. I want people in the community to see that it’s not just the workers. Everyone should be participating in this and supporting them because even in a place as gentrified as [Williamsburg], most of the people who are walking by our workers, they’re not capitalists, they’re not bosses, and they should be in solidarity with their fellow workers.”

Kids, Community Leaders Rally for Clean Air in Long Island City

By Celia Bernhardt | cbernhardt@queensledger.com

Editor’s note: Right at press time on Tuesday, news broke that Ravenswood’s Attentive Energy One was selected by NYSERDA to receive the investment that Renewable Ravenswood, Take Down the Stacks, and their partners have been advocating for.

On a windy, overcast Thursday afternoon, children, seniors, community leaders and activists gathered together in front of Ravenswood smoke stacks to protest the power plant’s detrimental health effects and demand a clean energy solution.

Elementary and middle school students hailing from Ravenswood, Astoria, and Queensbridge NYCHA Houses presented an extravagant art project to the crowd: painted cardboard models of the Ravenswood smoke stacks, along with an alternative energy source, wind turbines. The Variety Boys and Girls Club, in collaboration with grassroots community organization Take Down the Stacks, had the kids work with Astoria-based artist Ann Treesa Joy to build the project and prepare a speech. 

“For the last two weeks, we’ve been working on building this model of recycled cardboard,” one student said to the crowd. “It’s a model of the power plant behind us. It’s called Ravenwood, and it took us about ten days to make it. But people in this neighborhood have been talking about taking down the plant for ten years.”

“It’s not fair that we kids in Astoria have to live with this air when the same kids across the river in Manhattan don’t,” said another student, as bubbles began to float up from the cardboard stacks, blown by children crouching behind the project. “We deserve clean air, clean lungs, and we demand Governor Hochul help.”

At the end of the speech, the students led a chant: “Take down the stacks, and give us our lives back!” Meanwhile, kids behind the cardboard wind turbines on either end of the stacks began to spin their panels. 

Joy, Constantinides, and kids. Photo Credit: Celia Bernhardt

The Ravenswood Generating Station was installed in the early 1960s, next to the cluster of public housing that includes Astoria, Ravenswood, and Queensbridge Houses. It accounts for over 20% of the city’s generating capacity. It also increases air pollution in its immediate surroundings significantly, leading to much higher than average asthma rates among public housing residents who live closest to it; the area has even been dubbed “asthma alley” by advocates. 

Rise Light & Power, the corporation which owns Ravenswood, is fully on board with converting the plant to green energy. Together with companies Total Energies and Corio, Rise Light & Power created a joint venture development corporation named Attentive Energy One, which would build wind turbines out in the Atlantic ocean. This wind power, along with other initiatives such as large-scale battery storage and upstate wind and solar energy, would replace the natural gas smoke stacks as Ravenswood’s source of energy. 

A critical moment for the plan is upcoming: the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is planning to select who, from a pool of six applicants in their “competitive offshore wind solicitation program,” will receive state investment. The decision, largely understood to be in Governor Hochul’s hands, is expected in autumn or winter of 2023. 

Rise Light & Power now operates the “Renewable Ravenswood” initiative, which engages the community on the issue and gathers broader public support. 

“Take Down the Stacks,” a grassroots organization which also works to engage the local community in the issue, worked with the Variety Boys and Girls club to pull off the art-based programming and rally. 

Ravenswood Smoke Stacks. Photo credit: Celia Bernhardt

Noel Merritt, a 56 year old lifelong resident of Queensbridge Houses, spoke at the rally about his experience growing up in a community deeply affected by the pollution. 

“Those toxins, they affected us as we grew up, you understand? Some of us didn’t reach our full growth potential, some of us had medical ailments. We have children who were born with disabilities from inhaling those toxins. One of the things that inhaling those toxins did to quite a few people in this community was affect their mental frame of mind. Not to say that it made them do anything out of the ordinary, but it created a chemical imbalance where they had issues that were neurological, as opposed to physical.”

Claudia Coger, an 88-year old resident of Astoria Houses, also spoke, illustrating the wide-reaching effects of the health issues correlated with the stacks. 

“We have children that miss at least 30 days out of school every year,” Coger said. “That affects their education, that affects the families, the parents—a lot of parents have to miss days from work just to tend to their children. Not only that, there’s co-pays that go with all medications, and that becomes a burden on people’s budget. In my household, I have one granddaughter and two great grandchildren. And all three of them suffered with asthma so much so that the machines that they use had a copay of $500 each. And they could not share them. They had to have individuals, that was the doctor’s orders.

Coger addresses the crowd. Photo credit: Celia Bernhardt

 

“Just to be able to talk about it, it brings tears to my eyes,” Coger said, “because I saw them suffer. But I’m so glad to stand here with you young people today getting the knowledge of the air that you breathe.”

Nationwide, public housing is disproportionately likely to be located close to toxic pollution sites. Advocates say that the Ravenswood Stacks’ proximity to public housing, where most residents are lower-income Black and Brown New Yorkers, is an example of environmental racism in action.

Costa Constantinides, CEO of the Variety Boys and Girls Club and former city council member for the area, said that the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act provides even more basis for the Hochul to select Ravenswood for conversion.

“If the CLCPA, which is the state law that requires us to be 70% renewable energy by 2030, says that disadvantaged communities need to get 35% of the benefits from the energy revolution—if this isn’t what qualifies for a disadvantaged community that’s been impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure, then they could just pack it in and say that we’re not going to follow the law. Because this hits every criteria.”

Photo credit: Celia Bernhardt

Joy, a 28 year old artist from Astoria, led the kids in the two-week project. They reflected on the experience fondly. 

“It was very chaotic, but it was really fun. We painted a bunch, we hot glued all the stuff together,” Joy said. 

At first, they explained, the kids didn’t know many specifics about the stacks except that they were bad. “Of course, a lot of them also have asthma and have family members that have asthma, and so they know the consequences of that as well. And so they were able to piece together everything in a way that was like, oh, yeah, we don’t want this—which is really beautiful.”

“I love this generation,” Joy added. “They are so with it in a way that I never was at their age. I’m really impressed, and sad, that they have to be like this.”  

Rego Park Town Hall Held on QueensLink After Negative Report from MTA

By Celia Bernhardt

cbernhardt@queensledger.com

QueensLink held a community town hall in Rego Park’s Queens Library on Thursday, Oct. 12, with a presentation detailing their transit proposal and ample time for discussion and questions from attendees. In the wake of the MTA’s negative assessment of their proposal, presenters continued arguing for its importance.

The QueensLink plan calls to reactivate the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch rail and use it to connect North and South Queens via the M train. Advocates emphasize that Southeastern Queens is a transit desert saddled with long commutes into the city, as well as difficulty accessing other parts of Queens. In the MTA’s recently released 20-year needs assessment, QueensLink was given a relatively low rating compared to other capital project proposals.

Lead by QueensLink’s chief design strategist Andrew Lynch, the event drew a crowd of around two dozen. Audience members had no shortage of questions about the nitty gritty of the project and how it would be implemented.

Responding to an audience member’s question of how long the entire process, start-to-finish, would take, Lynch said that a full impact study would take up to two years, and construction could take up to ten.

One attendee expressed concern about how the planned route runs an above-ground train through his community’s parking lot.

“I live in Forest View Crescent,” he said. “If they run a train through there, we’re gonna lose a lot of parking space.”

Lynch explained that QueensLink was in the process of increasing communication with the housing complex, and would take their concerns into consideration. “We are going to be doing walking tours of that area with members of your building to get a better sense of it. And we are going to be doing events like this literally at your community room,” Lynch said.

“This is definitely an area…that we need more feedback on. And we didn’t understand these issues until the last event, but that’s why we’re reaching out to your building to get a better understanding of this,” Lynch said, before adding, “The big issue that was actually brought up to us was access for the fire department to come in the back of the building.”

Lynch also mentioned that Queenslink was considering incorporating multiple noise-reducing elements into the design of the rail’s above-ground portions, so that noise wouldn’t burden on residents living close to the train.

Among the attendees was Leroy Comrie, State Senator for senate district 14 in Southeastern Queens and chairman of the committee on corporations, authorities, and commissions, which oversees the MTA.

A QueensLink organizer asked Comrie if he would support allocating money in the state’s budget for an environmental impact study so that proponents of the plan “could really see if it’s possible.” Comrie affirmed that he was in support of such a use of funds.

“On the state level, we’re trying to get them to include it in the needs assessment as well so we can have a fair understanding of it,” Comrie said. “But when the MTA doesn’t want to do something, they just double down.”

Comrie also mentioned that it was important to address concerns like noise and parking.

“My concern was that, frankly, the folks in the Forest Hills area wouldn’t want to train rumbling through their backyards, because in some areas it’s less than five feet away from people’s backyard,” Comrie said. “That was my concern about it. So if you’ve met that challenge and can get past that, you know, that would make sense.”

Comrie spoke about what Queenslink was up against, and advised them moving forward that Councilmember Lynn Shulman would be a key person to get support from. “If you can get her on board, we could get a long way to getting there.”

Community fair educates and involves community on Ravenswood Generating Station renewable conversion

 

Renewable Ravenswood Fair. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

 

By Charlie Finnerty

cfinnerty@queensledger.com

 

Rise Light & Power hosted a community fair at the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens Thursday Oct. 12 to inform local communities about plans to convert Ravenswood Generating Station to a renewable energy hub, connecting New York City’s power grid to a 80,000 acre wind farm 50 miles off the coast of Long Island as well as smaller upstate solar and wind farms. 

The ambitious project will help the state reach a key clean energy milestone — a zero-emissions grid by 2040 — by using existing power infrastructure at the plant to connect one in five New York City homes to clean energy, removing over one million tons of carbon dioxide. Thursday’s event sought to connect the local Long Island City communities living in the shadow of Ravenswoods towering red and white smokestacks with the renewable energy initiative.

“Community education comes first,” Rise Light & Power Vice President of External Affairs Sid Nathan said. “We believe a stronger project is one that actually has community buy-in, and we have invested quite a bit of time and resources to put together a series of immersive community forums where a community member can learn about the project, but more importantly, actually voice their feedback, give us their concerns, and ask questions.”

The event connected residents with information about the existing generating station, the conversion plan and the benefits of implementing clean energy production. Bulletin boards were also made available for community members to write their questions and concerns about the project.

Community members posted questions for organizers. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Rodney Askins grew up in Queensbridge Houses, a housing development less than half a mile from Ravenswood Generating Station. The 67-year-old is an organizer for Take Down The Stacks, a local grassroots organization advocating for residents living near Ravenswood who have been impacted by the pollution and air quality from the fossil fuel-burning smokestacks.

“Ravenswood Plant has affected the community a whole lot,” Askins said. “I know a lot of people that are sick, a lot of young adults that have health complications and there needs to be awareness of it. If we don’t do anything now, we won’t be able to do nothing later on in 10, 15 years.”

In addition to concerns about air quality, many residents raised concerns about employment opportunities at the plant which employs 

Attentive Energy One — a joint venture between Rise Light & Power and French energy company TotalEnergies — made an agreement with the union representation of Ravenswood Station workers, Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2, to retrain and retain any of the nearly 100 workers if they wish to remain at the plant as it transitions to clean energy.

“We are committed to making sure that those who have powered New York City reliably for the past 60 years, will have an opportunity to power reliably with clean energy for the next 60,” Nathan said. “Our strategy was, let’s not wait until 2039 and tell our workers ‘Sorry, you’re out of luck,’ let’s actually do the work now, put capital at risk on these projects to develop them.”

District 22 Election Profile: Kelly Klingman

By Celia Bernhardt | cbernhardt@queensledger.com

Republican challenger Kelly Klingman claims she’s the voice of a disenfranchised majority in Tiffany Cabán’s district. 

“I believe that she has an ideology that is far different from what the people in the community really want,” Klingman said. “They want somebody who is going to focus on cleaning up the streets. They want somebody who’s going to work with the NYPD.” 

Klingman, an Astoria resident, single mom and real estate professional, is running for city council in District 22. The district, which covers Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Rikers Island, came out in full force for progressive Democrat Cabán in 2021, and is repped by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Congress, both prominent DSA members. 

But Klingman said she believes the progressive tilt of her district’s vote is due to voter turnout issues.

“You know, it’s interesting that she only had 5,000 votes in the Democratic primary when you have [about] 64,000 Democrats who live in the district,” she said. “So really it’s voter turnout, and people that I talk to, they’re very disenfranchised. They feel like their vote doesn’t count.” 

Klingman pointed to her appreciation of her local Astoria community as her motivation to run, recalling her initial move to the neighborhood as a divorced mother of twins. 

“This community rallied behind me to help me raise my kids,” she said. “I feel so a part of this community that I can’t just turn around and watch anymore from the sidelines with everything that’s going on.” 

Kelly Klingman. Credit: Oona Milliken

One of Klingman’s core platforms is advocating for a more traditional approach to policing, in contrast with Cabán’s outspoken abolitionist stance.

“My problem with Tiffany is that she spews so much hateful rhetoric against police,” she said. “And it’s not helping any side of the community. How do you get anything done?” 

“The cops feel disenfranchised,” Klingman said. “Like their hands are tied, like they can’t do anything. And then it’s very easy for them to say, ‘Well, we can’t do this, this is something we can’t do…’ I truly believe police officers go into the job because they actually care about people…I think building morale is number one, and then building trust with the community.” 

In her 22 years in real estate, Klingman worked with Ryan Serhant to line the Jersey City waterfront with housing post-9/11, utilizing an urban renewal zone. She later focused on low-income and rent-stabilized housing in Queens. This background, she argues, gives her a unique perspective on housing issues. 

“It’s very easy for people to get up on a soapbox and say the answer to housing is to build more housing. [But] I know the cost to build housing is insane,” Klingman said before turning her attention towards rent-stabilized housing. 

“You’ve got small landlords that are not putting rent stabilized apartments on the market, because they can’t afford to bring them up to code regulations that have now been instilled,” she said. 

As a council person, Klingman said she would want to incentivize middle income and lower class landlords. 

Klingman also argued that Local Law 97, the city’s premier climate change legislation forcing building over 25,000 square feet to have stricter greenhouse gas limitations by 2024 and 2030, is an unfair burden for landlords.

 “I’m against Local Law 97. I would love to extend it [the rollout], at least, for the time being.”

Klingman continued to say that she would support similar legislation to a recent bill introduced in the council, which was sponsored by 13 members of the body, which would delay the timetable 

Klingman voiced her 100 percent support of charter schools, a hot-button issue in the city. She also expressed hesitation about plans to install bike lanes and car-free zones on 31st Avenue, though stopped short of coming out against bike lanes entirely.

Though the odds are against her, Klingman says an election in an off-year—where the only races are for City Council, District Attorney, and Civil Court—could work in her favor. 

“This will be an interesting election,” she said, “because I feel like people that are gonna come out for city council really care about what’s going on in the community.”

Summarizing her thoughts on the election, Klingman said that she tries to stay away from politics as much as she can. “I’m running for the community, I’m a community person, I’m not running as a politician—it’s hard for me, I’m not gonna stand up on a soapbox and promise all this stuff and then not deliver on anything, either. The thing I can promise is that I’m actually in it for the community, I’m not in it for some ideology and for the next office.” 

Astoria Characters: The Artist Who’s Refining Her Self-Portrait

Al has painted several murals for Astoria businesses.

by Nancy Ruhling | Nruhling@gmail.com

Picture this: A little girl scribbling and drawing as soon as she could grasp a crayon in her tiny
fingers. And before she could even walk or talk.
A little girl who jumped out of bed every morning at dawn so she could fill in the spaces in her
coloring books and work on her art before the rest of the world opened its eyes to see them.
That’s the portrait that Al Ruiz paints of herself and the one she keeps adding finishing touches
to as she sets out to make her mark on the world.

One of Al’s murals.

Painting portraits, which is what Al was born to do, is an intimate process that requires digging
deep into the depths of each subject’s personality and psyche.
It’s an art that goes far beyond the canvas, and to do it effectively, Al first had to understand
herself.
Which is why we’re going to start in Astoria, where her parents, Ecuadorean immigrants, settled
and where Al was born.
Al, whose face is framed by copious, cascading curls, learned all about art from her father, who
was a designer for a garment print shop in the neighborhood.
As it so happened, he often brought work home to finish, an endeavor that entranced Al, who
started emulating him.
“I can’t remember when I first lifted a pencil, but I do remember that he taught me to draw and to
sharpen pencils with an X-Acto knife,” she says.

The prep work and sketches for Al’s mural.

From the beginning, Al knew that art would be her life and her livelihood.
She painted her way through Pratt Institute, where she earned a degree in illustration.
Al was all set to pursue a career as a portrait painter or a graphic designer, so no one was more
surprised than she when she dropped out of the art world as soon as she was awarded her
diploma.
“I wasn’t seeing things pan out the way I had planned,” she says and shrugs. “And I didn’t like
all the competition among my peers for the same opportunities.”
For several years, Al worked a variety of what she considered boring office and retail jobs.
Even when she got positions that involved art, including as an intern with a sculpture
gallery/furniture shop and as a graphic designer for a greeting card company, she never pursued
her own work.
That changed a decade ago when a friend who was an artist encouraged her to submit drawings
of neighborhood landmarks to an Astoria art festival.
It worked: Not only was Al back in the game, but she also has never looked back, becoming a
freelance painter, muralist and graphic designer this year.
It was her introduction to the world of commercial art as a ghost painter for a famous artist that
convinced her that she could make it on her own.
“I knew I could make a living if I taught myself speed and how to use acrylic paint, which dries
faster than oil paint,” she says.
Al’s done a number of murals in the city.
In Astoria, her portrait of basketball great Kobe Bryant graces one of the walls at Hard Knox,
and her mural of Nazca Lines defines the Peruvian/Asian restaurant Ancla.
For Astoria Taco Factory, Al designed and painted the signage.
When she’s not completing commissions for clients, Al’s working on her own passion-project
portraits in the hopes of getting some attention from galleries.
Al maintains a deep connection to Ecuador, where her father and other family members live, and
it’s her goal and hope to get one of her murals in a public space there as well as in other venues
around the world.
“I love knowing that I can create something that is aesthetically pleasing,” she says. “It may not
be aesthetically pleasing to everybody, but knowing that I have made one person happy means
the world to me. And if it makes only me happy, that’s all I need.”

She pauses and reflects on her self-portrait, which she’s happy to note is still a work in progress.
“I like where I’m going,” she says.

The prep work and sketches for Al’s mural.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on
Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

MTA Report Sidelines QueensLink Plan

By Celia Bernhardt | cbernhardt@queensledger.com

On October 4, the MTA released its 20-year needs assessment and a blow to the QueensLink movement.

The extensive assessment included a section of side-by-side analyses of 25 different proposals to expand, connect, and extend certain parts of the transit system. The Rockaway Beach Branch Reactivation proposal, often referred to as QueensLink, scored low on most of the seven metrics used.

“Reactivating the Rockaway Beach Branch with NYCT service has a high cost and serves a relatively modest number of riders,” the MTA’s evaluation reads. “Compared to other projects, the benefits are average for sustainability and resiliency.”

This comes just a month after a QueensLink rally at City Hall with Queens politicians from both parties voicing their support gave the cause a boost of hope.

The QueensLink plan would reactivate a railway in Southern Queens left defunct for the past 60 years, connecting the Rockaways to Rego Park—where transit into Manhattan, and transfers to other lines, are available. The proposed line would connect passengers with the A, J/Z, EFR, 7, and G lines, as well as with the LIRR. The plan also includes 33 acres of greenspace and bike paths stretching along the path.

Advocates have been campaigning for years to reactivate the rail. Supporters of the plan emphasize that residents of Southern Queens, severely underserved by public transit, currently have some of the longest commutes in the nation.

Assemblyperson Khaleel Anderson, who represents South Ozone Park and part of the Rockaways in Assembly District 31, slammed the transit authority’s evaluation.

“The MTA has failed, yet again, to figure out how to resolve transportation issues that are impacting some of the most vulnerable working class folks in our city,” he said.

Anderson also pointed out that the lack of easy access to the rest of the borough and to Manhattan isolates many Rockaway residents from economic opportunities.

“You’re talking about transportation apartheid,” he said, and emphasized how impactful the rail reactivation would be. “You’re talking about getting people into the city quicker, you’re talking about opening up more economic opportunities for communities like mine that can’t get to Manhattan and so they can’t take that job opportunity…You’re talking about systemic, drastic changes to how people will move about the city.”

QueensLink’s map of what a reactivated Rockaway Beach Branch rail would look like.

 

In context

An MTA spokesperson said that the document did not constitute a finalized rejection of the QueensLink proposal.

“The 20 year needs assessment lays out what will be needed in the next capital plan, which is the 2025-2029 capital plan. And we’re kind of letting the findings speak for themselves, for everyone to see,” the spokesperson said. “But it’s not a rejection or a confirmation of any project.”

Still, the Rockaway Beach Branch’s relatively low ranking in a competitive batch of proposals makes it clear that the MTA is not interested in pursuing the plan at this time. The highest ranked proposal by far was the Interborough Express, a project that Governor Hochul has long supported.

The MTA spokesperson said that the comparative analysis of 25 proposals was intended to “give the public more of a broad perspective, and an overview.”

“If you live in Queens, you may be thinking of Queens, and not necessarily think, oh, there are things going on in the MetroNorth. I see why there may be priority for doing work [there] rather than [here].”

Andrew Lynch, Chief Design Officer for QueensLink, argued that a strategy where every borough receives some transit expansion would be more holistic. “Every borough deserves something. Queens probably deserves a lot more considering how big it is and the population…but it’s not one versus the other. It’s ‘What does the total picture look like?’”

Larry Penner, a transportation expert, was not shocked by the evaluation.

“The problem is they’re in competition. If you look at the MTA 20-year needs assessment document, there are [many] other groups equally as adamant and as passionate as the QueensLink people are for their particular project.”

Penner also explained that the process of ranking these proposals is rife with political complications.

“A lot of elected officials support projects where they can have ribbon cutting ceremonies and get the support of voters,” he said, and pointed out that the governor, who appoints the MTA’s leadership, has significant sway over such decisions.

Two central issues at hand as the MTA assesses a future for its weakened infrastructure are the threat of severe weather from climate change, and a growing, shifting city population in need of expanded transit options. Ultimately, the document emphasizes that funding for any expansion projects at all remains contingent on the MTA’s process of repairing existing infrastructure.

“As we look ahead 20 years, our most urgent priority is to secure the survival of our existing system by rebuilding its most imperiled infrastructure,” the document reads. “To put it bluntly, unless sufficient resources are made available to address the existing system’s most urgent needs, there cannot be investment in expansion projects.”

Penner, for his part, does not think that QueensLink, nor the Interborough Express, nor any other expansion project should be seriously considered right now.

“It’s definitely not [appropriate] given the tremendous shortfall in safety and state of good repair,” he said.

Queensway in the way

The MTA’s evaluation specifically pointed to QueensWay plans as one reason not to reactivate the train line. A “Special Considerations” section reads: “New York City-owned right-of-way: plans for a linear park along portions of the corridor, creating a challenge for any future transit alternatives.”

The QueensWay plan, a long time competitor to QueensLink, would convert the abandoned rail entirely to parkland, similar to the Highline in Chelsea. In September 2022, Mayor Adams pledged $35 million to the plan—much to the dismay of QueensLink supporters, who argued that moving forward with the park would create an obstacle to ever reactivating the branch for transportation use. Several statements from City Hall spokespeople, elected officials, and MTA officials throughout the following year denied that moving forward with Queensway funding would preclude the revival of the train line.

In a statement following the needs assesment’s release, Rick Horan, Executive Director at QueensLink, said his team had “always been skeptical” of these reassurances. “Today, that skepticism has turned into grave confirmation,” he said in the statement.

Adams announcing $35 million in funding to QueensWay in 2022.

The organization Friends of Queensway provided the following statement: “The objective analysis released in the MTA’s Needs Assessment is consistent with multiple other studies done on rail reactivation over 60 years in concluding that it would be extremely expensive, have little actual impact on mobility as compared to other regional transit projects, and would have negative impacts on the environment and quality of life. The sends a clear message on the best use of the Rockaway Beach Branch line at this time. The parks and trails QueensWay project is ready for implementation and would not harm any effort to reactivate the site for rail in the future should the government decide to do so.”

Data divergence

The MTA’s report came up with contrasting numbers to QueensLink’s: whereas the transit advocacy group stated in a press release that 47,000 daily riders would benefit from the plan (a number they pulled from the MTA’s own 2019 feasibility study of the train route), the MTA now puts that number at 39,000. QueensLink also said that the train would save riders an average of 30 minutes per round trip, while the MTA said only four minutes would be saved. And while QueensLink’s assessment put the estimated cost of the project at $3.5 billion, the MTA listed it as $5.9 billion (a decrease from its 2019 estimate of $8.1 billion, which QueensLink hotly contested).

“There was so little information provided in the needs assessment that we requested background data from the MTA so we have something to analyze,” Horan said. “All we have are conclusions that don’t make sense to us, so unless we get some data so we have some idea as to how these conclusions were reached, we’re really flying blind.”

QueensLink’s own numbers were calculated by TEMS, a transportation consulting firm they commissioned to produce a study in response to the MTA’s also-pessimistic 2019 feasibility study of the train route.

What’s next?

Horan explained that QueensLink has long been asking for the city or state government to pursue an Environmental Impact Statement or Economic Impact Statement about the project, and that it’s still needed. Anderson and Lynch also emphasized the importance of such studies. “Commission a real study,” Anderson said. “Not a study where you have already set it before the pencils are picked up.”

Penner said that pressuring Queens elected officials to channel funds into these studies would be strategic.

“If the QueensLink people want to hold elected officials accountable—any elected official could provide the MTA with seed money to advance the project and go through an environmental review process.”

Anderson argued for increased ferry services and express bus transit from the Rockaway peninsula as an alternative to rail transit.

“If they don’t like QueensLink so much, what is their alternative that people are presenting?” he asked.

Lynch says that despite the MTA’s evaluation, he remains optimistic. “This really doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change our position, it doesn’t change the overall narrative of the MTA’s feelings towards this project.”

“We’re disappointed,” he continued. “But it’s also, like, I’m not surprised at all. The thing that this project has lacked in the past is a political champion, and projects like this don’t get built without those. But the difference between now and, let’s say, five years ago, is that there’s a lot more support in the community, there’s a lot more support politically. And there’s an understanding that it’s a lot more feasible than people thought…we still have a lot of work to do to build more support for this project in the communities and in Albany, and we’re going to continue on that.”

Dough serves up tennis themed doughnuts in celebration of US Open

The US Open is in full swing, and what better way to celebrate tennis than with an (almost) racquet-sized doughnut from Dough in Ditmars, Astoria.

This weekend only, rally your friends and head over to Dough to try their Tennis Doughnut; a white chocolate and vanilla glazed brioche doughnut topped with a white chocolate tennis ball

The NYPD estimates that more than 900,000 fans will attend this year’s US Open, with nearly half traveling from outside of the tri-state area and around 25% visiting from abroad.

“We’re big tennis fans, and love what the US Open brings to Queens,” said Dough co-owner Steve Klein. “Besides it being an amazing sport that brings people together, it’s definitely an economic driver for Queens’ small businesses,” said Klein.

Dough is located at 21-70 31st St. in Astoria, Queens, NYC.

Dough’s Tennis Doughnut is available this weekend only (9/9 & 9/10) at all of their locations.

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