2005-08-12 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

There are presently five public memorials to those who died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001. The largest memorial is in Benin, Dominican Republic. Many of the family members of those who died travel to Benin each November to memorialize the crash, rather than coming to the crash site, at Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue in Rockaway, where there is traditionally a New York City ceremony.

There is a small plaque at the bottom of a tree at the corner of the crash site, simply noting the event and the date.

There is a plaque on a memorial at St. Francis de Sales Church on Beach 129 Street, memorializing the five parish members, all of whom lived in Belle Harbor, who died on the ground.

There is a stone and brass memorial provided by the MTA in Washington Heights.

Then, there is a memorial with the names of all those who died at Ditmars Park in Astoria, on a hill overlooking the river. When I asked Parks Department officials at the time why they had the memorial in Astoria, they said it was “because there is room in this park for a memorial.”

If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, and he always does, then there will be a sixth memorial to those who died – an official New York City memorial funded with both public and private funds – at the southern end of Beach 116 Street.

The cost of the memorial will be $2 million dollars. Last month, in response to a Request for Qualifications, a panel made up of city officials, Rockaway residents, family members and arts experts, chose six finalists to design their vision of the Rockaway memorial.

Those designs are due to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (the lead agency in the process) by August 25. They will be revealed to the Rockaway community on Wednesday, August 31 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Beach Club.

The Advisory Committee will review the submissions and comment on that day.

The final selection from the six proposals will be made in September.

The final design approval is set for later in the fall, and will probably be announced by the mayor around November 12.

Plans call for the project to be completed by November 12, 2006, in time for the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

The mills of the bureaucracy grind excruciatingly slow.

And, most times, not everybody in the process is satisfied with what is happening.

First, the process was turned over to the Department of Immigrant Affairs, a sure sign to many Rockaway residents that the process would be driven by the Dominican community rather than by the Rockaway community, where the memorial would be situated.

In fact, there are six – count them, six – city agencies directly involved with the project. Immigrant Affairs, Department of Transportation (street changes), Department of Parks (owns the site), Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit (to clear the way of any obdurate community members), Department of Cultural Affairs (the arts people) and the Department of Design and Construction (for obvious reasons).

A week ago Wednesday, a meeting was held at the Beach Club to show prior work done by the six finalists chosen from the 68 who responded to the city’s Request For Qualifications. The presentation had hardly begun when a family member rose to question why she was there when she had seen the same presentation in Manhattan two weeks ago.

“Why are we having the same meeting in a new setting, why are we here,” she asked.

When it was explained that many from Rockaway could not make the Manhattan meeting and that the meeting was a courtesy to the Rockaway community, she responded angrily and the meeting turned contentious.

“If the Rockaway community was concerned, they should have shown up for the meeting in Manhattan,” she said. “From the turnout tonight and that there are no family members from the five people who died in Rockaway, it doesn’t seem that this community is interested in a memorial here.”

“Why aren’t those family members here?” she asked. “Why didn’t more Rockaway residents show up for the Manhattan meeting if they are so interested?”

When she was told that the meeting in Manhattan was not open to the Rockaway community and that, in fact, The Wave had been told that the meeting was closed to the press,” she continued her tirade.

“The five family members should have been there. The rest of the people who live in Rockaway don’t mean anything to me, those five do,” she said angrily, adding, “We should not allow the Rockaway community, outside of those five, to decide where or what the memorial will be. I am tired of all this talk of the family members stepping on the toes of the white people in Belle Harbor [by asking for a memorial at the site].”

Guillermo Linares, the Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, who was present at the meeting, repeatedly tried to get the discussion back to the agenda.

Actually, I got involved in the contentious discussion when it did not seem that anybody else from the Rockaway community was going to defend its honor.

It is very rare for me to step out of the reporter’s role and I can probably count all of the times I have done that in the last 16 years on one hand.

In this case, however, I felt that I had to respond and point out that Rockaway had loses as well and that the proposed memorial was going to be in my community not hers. I tried to point out that both communities owned the event, not just hers, but she wasn’t buying it.

Eventually, she and her family walked out before I could get her name. When I tried to get it from the sign-in sheet, the press flack from the Office of Immigrant Affairs stopped me from looking at it and told me that I shouldn’t report on what had happened because I had to understand her anger. She also chided me for stepping outside my reporter’s role, and perhaps she had some truth on her side.

I just wish that John Lepore or Barbara Larkin or some of the other locals present would have taken up Rockaway’s case.

I still do not believe that the memorial belongs at the southern end of Beach 116 Street, where it will quickly become a hangout and a concrete sleeping bag for those demented street people who come from the Park Inn hotel, Baxter’s Hotel and from the other venues that house the human detrius that often haunts the street. To my mind, the memorial would have been much better situated in the triangle of land on Beach 129 Street between the bay wall and Beach Channel Drive.

The mayor, however, wants it on Beach 116 Street, and the mayor always gets his way.

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