2014-04-11 / Columnists

Who’s Who

Jonathan Gaska, District Manager for Community Board 14
By Katie McFadden

Tell us about yourself.

I live in Queens Village and grew up in eastern Long Island in Smithtown. I’ve lived in the city for 30 years in Queens. My mom grew up in Forest Hills and I loved going to Rockaway’s Playland. We always spoke about Rockaway.

I’m the District Manager for Community Board 14 for my 25th year this November. I’m also an adjunct professor at Queens College in Urban Studies. I teach classes in housing, planning and zoning to mostly graduate students.

I’m married with two children, two beautiful daughters. One is in college and one is in high school. My wife is a New York City high school teacher. She teaches Special Ed.

Were you involved with community or civic affairs before becoming District Manager of Community Board 14? Are you involved in any other community groups currently?

I’ve always been involved since I was a young child. My parents were involved in civic stuff in Smithtown. Over the years in Queens Village, I coached youth soccer, indoor track and cross country. I’m not involved in coaching anymore. I did it for about 12 or 14 years when my kids were younger. I was also a member and past president of the Rockaway Kiwanis Club, which is no longer in existence.

How did you become District Manager or why?

I’ve been in government my whole life. I started working in 1984 for NYC Comptroller Harrison Goldin. I worked in the executive office and also in the asset management division which was the area that manages pension funds. He went on from there. I think it was the year that Mayor Dinkins won and Goldin ran for mayor in the primary and lost. Being in the executive office, whoever the new comptroller would be, there was a good chance that I’d be without a job and I loved working in government.

I saw an ad in the New York Times and the Community Board was looking for a district manager. I sent in an application and went through a review process with the different committees and I was hired. I’m glad I was and it has been great. There’s nothing like having your office three blocks from the beach. The thing I really liked about Rockaway 25 years ago was that it was a blank slate. It was a community that the city and state government had been dumping problems on for decades. There were no plans for urban renewal. This was a city owned vacant land and I saw that it would be a great chance to help the community come back and really change the perception of the Rockaways and to turn things around and bring it around to the right direction.

How long do you see yourself being District Manager?

I don’t know. I love it. It’s funny when I first started, I came from working around city hall and wore a suit and tie every day. After three or four weeks of going to community board meetings, with people wearing sandals and shorts, I felt like a narc since I was so overdressed. I stopped wearing the tie and work coat. The community is so relaxed and it’s a great place to work. Rockaway is a microcosm of the City of New York. There are people who are very wealthy, very poor and a lot of people in between. Almost every day is different. The problems are different. It’s a challenging place to work but it’s a great environment. If I win the lottery, I’ll probably retire, but short of that, I don’t see myself leaving in the near future.

Do you think there should be term limits for community board members?

The answer is no. It’s self-enforcing. Some people get on the board and it turns out to not be what they think it is and after a few years, they resign. Then there are people who get on the board for one issue and once that issue is resolved, they tend to leave the board. There’s been a big turnover in the board over the last four years or so. There are a lot of new members and most of the members who have left have served 10-15 years. They felt they did their civic duty. I don’t think term limits are really needed since it tends to be self-enforced. If you miss a bunch of meetings, you get thrown off the board, so I’m not sure term limits are necessary. It seems to work out the way it is.

What do you think is the most important issue facing Rockaway?

I think there are two. One is obviously the number of things related to Sandy and being prepared for another Sandy and to protect the community for the most part. Assuming the Army Corps of Engineers does what they said they’re going to do, the ocean side will be protected. There needs to be more focus on the part of the community that faces Jamaica Bay. The government hasn’t done enough to address that.

Economic development is something we also need the government to focus on more. Rockaway has so much promise with tourism and its location. City government needs to spend money in our shopping areas, particularly in Far Rockaway, 116th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. We need significant investment to help attract more businesses and make it more attractive for businesses to come here. I look at what they did in other communities in Queens and they’ve done nothing like that in Rockaway.

Economic development is something we really need to focus on. It brings great jobs for people with different skill levels. It’s very difficult to get from Rockaway to job centers. The A train is an adventure. That’s why the ferry is vital. Keeping the ferry going and keeping it affordable has really reduced commute times. It would be good to have another location added further east. It will help tourism and will help make it a better community. We want to get the commute to 40 minutes or less to Manhattan so people will move here. Economic development and efficient transportation are tied together. Those are big remaining issues in addition to the day to day quality of life issues.

What’s the best part of the area?

I really think the water, the beach. I think it’s pretty cool that after a busy day, I can run over to the boardwalk and see people surfing or kids playing in the sand and it calms you down and that’s nice. That’s probably my favorite part.

Rockaway has also gotten a lot of attention because of Sandy and I think that’s good. Rockaway, economically, was really starting to turn a corner before Sandy. We saw a lot of development and young people moving into Rockaway Beach and Rockaway Park. I think Sandy kind of slowed that down a little. We took two steps forward and then three steps back after Sandy. Rockaway really is a community that despite inter-neighborhood squabble, residents really make a difference when they get together. When the Edgemere landfill was going to be closed, and when it came to the redevelopment of Arverne by the Sea, the community on both ends of the peninsula worked together with success. I like that about the community. The us against them. Everywhere else is called mainland. I like the inner strength of this community.

What’s your biggest complaint?

We at the community board probably spend 40 percent of the day trying to defend ourselves from government trying to do bad things to us. I wish we didn’t have to do that. I wish the government was better to this community over the last four or five decades because my job would have been a lot easier. We’re lucky that we have a new group of elected officials that all seem to be fairly close to being on the same page and are trying to get things that the community needs to move in a positive direction. Now it’s just convincing the state and city to fund these things.

What advice do you have for people who are interested in getting involved in Rockaway?

I always say this whenever I speak at a civic association meeting. You’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. You should join your civic. You should go to community board meetings. You should be involved. The reason I got involved with coaching was that in order for my kids to play sports, I had to coach because no one wants to volunteer their time anymore. People come out during controversial issues but then they disappear. People need to stay involved in even mundane issues to improve the community.

I know people are working multiple jobs to make a living, but when you look at the average age of all different civic association in Rockaway, it’s 50 or 60 years old. Newer residents need to take the mantle from full timers and understand the community’s history and how far we’ve come. We have a lot further to go. I’d like to see the millennial generation be more involved with issues. After Sandy everyone was involved which was great, but we want to recover and we’re getting there, but streets need to be repaved, parks need to be rebuilt, schools need more seats and these are issues that affect them more than the color of the concrete on the boardwalk or signage on the boardwalk. I want to see people more concerned with day to day quality of life issues. For instance, someone complained to us about a pothole that was in the street for a week and how come the city didn’t do anything. Chances are no one reported it. We at the board and elected officials depend on information from people that live on the blocks. I drive around certain parts of the neighborhood, but I can’t be everywhere. People should call us or call their elected officials when they see an issue. People need to be involved on a local level and not just communitywide issues.

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