2005-11-25 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Dominican artist Freddy Rodriquez is the winner of the competition to build a memorial to the 265 people who died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the streets of Belle Harbor on November 12, 2001.

Rodriquez says that the purpose of the memorial he designed and will soon constrict at the southern end of Beach 116 Street is to inspire reverence and respect for those lost by creating a place where families and friends can reminisce and where they can pay tribute to the victim’s lives and their legacy.

The memorial is made up of a single, embracing concrete structure that ranges from 6 to 11-feet high. Rodriquez says that the one building signifies that we are all in this together. The structure is dotted with windows that allow visual access to the ocean. In addition, family members will be able to leave mementos in the window spaces.

The 265 names of the victims will be engraved in random order, possibly grouped by family unit. There will be seating blocks and plantings to give the feeling of peace and serenity (See Page one story in last week’s paper for more details).

Of course, the city will probably “fine tune” (read, fiddle with) the plan before construction begins, but the basic plan will remain the same. The memorial, which will cost more than $2 million (half from public funds, the other half from donations), is expected to be completed for the sixth anniversary of the crash on November 12, 2006.

Robriquez’ design was not the favorite of the more than 100 locals who voted on The Wave’s Website for another, albeit similar design. In fact the winning design came in at third place, with only 11 percent of the vote, beat out by the 100-foot bell tower (with 55 percent). There are even skeptics who believe that the final decision for Rodriquez was a “lock” all along because he is a Dominican and the majority of those who died in the crash came from that island nation.

Do I believe that? I have no way of knowing, but it sounds to me like the way the agency operates.

This has been a long and unnecessarily drawn-out process, largely because the lead designated by the mayor was his Office of Immigrant Affairs. To my mind, that was turning over an important project to the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, had no idea of what the gun looked like and were concerned that the bullets would somehow be harmed if they were shot from the gun.

When thinking of that agency, the word “FUBAR” comes to mind and those of you who were fortunate enough to have served in the military will understand what I say. Others can ask.

Actually, I should make a full disclosure here and tell you that I have had many problems with both Erica Gonzalez, the spokesperson for Guillermo Lineres, the Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and with Sylvia Alverez, who works for the mayor, but often got involved with the AA 587 process.

They probably do not like me very much and I certainly think that they would be better placed working for the CIA than for the City of New York. Keeping secrets from the press seems to be their main job.

I fully understand that the feelings of those who lost relatives and friends in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 should be respected. I also understand that both Alverez and Lineres are paid with your tax money and mine and that makes what they do and what they say fair game for the press, especially when what they do and say impacts Rockaway.

Alverez threatened to have me arrested because I wanted to take pictures of the six final designs for the memorial at Beach 116 Street.

The six designs were being showed at the Beach Club, and she barred my way. She told me that there would be a showing for the press the next day in Manhattan and I could take pictures at that showing.

I asked simply why I had to go to Manhattan when the designs were right there.

She told me that she was protecting the privacy and the feelings of the family members, who did not want me there.

I explained that this was my community and that I had a right to photograph any public meeting being held by a city agency such as hers. That’s when she threatened to have me arrested if I didn’t leave. She then got Beach Club owner Steve Good and told him to evict me. He laughed.

I got my pictures and left. None of the family members seemed to be anxious because I was there and, in fact, several asked me to take their picture with photographs of the loved ones they had lost in the crash.

All of the meetings the agency held to discuss the memorial were closed to the press. All of those who took part in the discussions, including several Rockaway residents, were made to sign confidentially agreements that said they were not allowed to talk to the press about what went on at the meetings.

Talk about the CIA!

It was “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” from the beginning of the three-year process.

I could understand it if all of the city agencies operated that way, but they don’t.

Most of the spokespersons for city agencies work to facilitate the work of journalists. Immigrant Affairs treats the press as the enemy, and perhaps we are the way the agency looks at us because we do not subscribe to the agency’s veil of secrecy when it comes to the AA 587 issue.

When Tribute Park was opened two weeks ago, accredited photographers were allowed into the park prior to the family members so that they could record the scene for their readers and viewers. As far as I know, not one family member complained. In fact, many of them asked for pictures with their relative’s bench or memorial brick.

I would be willing to bet, that when this memorial is officially opened some time in 2006, press representatives and photographers will be barred from the site under the theory that they will somehow bother the family members.

I wonder if those are the same family members that thronged towards the television cameras two Saturdays ago, asking to be interviewed, or the dozens of family members holding pictures of their lost loved ones who turned their back on the mayor’s speech and faced the press risers so that they could be photographed for television.

I still do not think that the south end of Beach 116 Street is the right place for a memorial to AA 587. I would have liked two other options. The first would have been a children’s playground at the corner of Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue with a small plaque denoting that the playground was in honor of those who lost their lives.

That would have cost a lot less than $2 million and could have been in operation for the past two years.

Failing that, I would have liked a small memorial at the bayfront at Beach 129 Street. That triangle of land would have been perfect for a memorial.

When I made that proposal two years ago, the mayor’s office responded by saying that there was no place to park nearby and that it was too dangerous to cross Beach Channel Drive.

Tribute Park is on the bay front. People have to cross Beach Channel Drive to get to it and there is little parking nearby (except for the Municipal Lot). There is a traffic light at Beach 128 and Beach Channel Drive. That would make crossing the drive easy. And, just lighten up on the parking regulation on Mother’s day and November 12 each year. Those are the only two days where there is traditionally high traffic volume at the site. Putting a traffic light at Beach 129 and allowing parking in the area on those two days would have solved those problems. If needed, a shuttle could have been run from the municipal parking lot at Beach 116 Street to take the parking overflow. The problems were not unsurmountable.

In any case, the American Airlines Flight 587 crash memorial will soon be constructed on Beach 116 Street, adjacent to a newly-built luxury building housing nearly 90 units and right around the corner from one of our infamous adult homes.

Of course it is. That’s the way the mayor wants it and Mayor Bloomberg obviously gets whatever he wants.

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