Over the Edge

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Kevin Schneider likes to tell a story that captures the challenges of living in Meadowmere. A few years back, he and a friend were installing pilings for a new dock at his home on an inlet near Jamaica Bay in Queens. Suddenly, with a “whoosh,” waste from a nearby home’s toilet system rushed through the pipes and spilled out onto Schneider’s head. While Schneider and his neighbors are able to laugh about incidents like these–“What else can we do?” he says–in the next breath they admit the problems they have as residents of the city’s orphan neighborhood are far from funny.

Though it officially joined the city in 1995, Meadowmere still remains out of sight, and out of public mind. In fact, anyone trying to get to the eight-acre knob on the Nassau County border would be hard-pressed to find it marked on a map. While regular trash pick-up began six years ago, the neighborhood still lacks a sewer system–the city plans to install one in 2005–and the septic tanks from people’s homes empty right into the bay. With inadequate protection against the canals that loop around the hamlet, flooding is frequent and severe, leaving streets in desperate need of repaving. And thanks to its neighbor, JFK airport, low-flying jumbo jets thunder overhead every few minutes, leaving behind the stench of diesel fuel. The city’s neglect has had a ripple effect, too, as some Meadowmere residents figure if the city doesn’t care, why should they: Docks along the canals are crumbling, and dilapidated homes sit behind 12-foot-high weeds.

Now, tired of fending for themselves without the services they say their city tax dollars should pay for, some residents have begun meeting in each other’s living rooms to create a plan of action. They’ve informally established a civic association for Meadowmere, the first in anyone’s memory, and have gone door-to-door surveying about half the neighborhood’s 70 residents. Getting people to talk about the future of the community is the easy part, they’ve found. Agreeing on a strategy of attack is another matter. The debate: Push the city to finally take notice of their community, or try to secede and join neighboring Nassau County?

Traditionally a white, working-class neighborhood, Meadowmere has seen the arrival of African-American and Hispanic residents in recent years. For some, the small footbridge separating Meadowmere, Queens, from Meadowmere Park, Long Island, is miles long, accentuated by the income gap between the two towns–Long Islanders on average earn twice that of their city neighbors. Others see Nassau as the land of opportunity. The debate on the future of Meadowmere is falling along race lines, and some fear that could further weaken the neighborhood’s already tenuous position.

No one will argue that Jamaica Bay, which gave the neighborhood its start as a summer getaway lined with small cottages a century ago, has become residents’ biggest problem. If a storm hits when the moon is full and the tide high, Meadowmere is flooded for days, and the damage can take on biblical proportions. “I have seen it reach six feet of water on the street,” says Michael Wilkes, 35, a lifelong resident. Roads repaved four years ago, soon after the city mapped the area, have deteriorated rapidly from the floods. In 1997, the city’s Department of Transportation raised some of the streets with extra layers of pavement to combat flooding. The solution has helped somewhat, but the city has not budgeted funds to lift the rest of the streets, a project estimated at tens of millions of dollars, and has said repaving again would just be a waste of time and money.

The local elected representatives certainly are not helping. City Councilmember Juanita Watkins says members of her staff visited the community two years ago but found some residents reluctant to reach out for help. “In the nine and a half years I have been in the council, I am not sure if I have had one call from someone in Meadowmere,” she says. The neighborhood’s state assemblywoman, Pauline Rhodd-Cummings, admits she does not even know where Meadowmere is. Needless to say, neither has directed money toward public works there.

How the neighborhood became so anonymous is a matter of conjecture. After years as a summer escape, the area was rezoned for manufacturing in the 1960s. City officials hoped a growing JFK would encourage industrial development nearby. That plan never worked, but some locals suspect the city is still hoping it will and is holding out on investing in the neighborhood.

The local community board has tried to help, listing sewers and flood control as budget priorites, but to no avail. Says Susan Noreika, former chair of Community Board 13, “Things tend to get done there later than in other areas, if they get done at all.”

So residents have tried to make peace with their problems on their own. Some have taken advantage of the zoning laws: A car repairman spills his shop out onto his front lawn, as does a neighboring electrician. Most homeowners have shelled out thousands of dollars to raise their houses several feet above flood level. After a bad storm left several feet of water in Mary Seaman’s bait shop–Meadowmere’s only retail business–she moved her merchandise to shelves three feet off the ground and put her bait refrigerator on cinderblocks.

Now, she says, enough is enough; if the city won’t help, let’s ask Long Island. Seaman and some of her neighbors favor seceding to Nassau County for its better schools and services. Kathy Murani drives her daughter 45 minutes each morning to a private school in Woodside rather than send her to a nearby public school in district 29, which posts some of the lowest test scores in Queens. And in the time she’s spent socializing with friends in Meadowmere Park, she’s certainly noticed the roads are smoother, the lawns greener and the homes more comfortable. “It would be great if Nassau County would adopt us,” says Murani. “New York City doesn’t care about us anyway.”

The chances of getting Nassau to agree to take on Meadowmere seem slim, at least for now. An attempt to have the county set up a sewer system for the neighborhood in 1995 failed when the sole Nassau bureaucrat they’d contacted left his job. Conversations with Nassau officials have yet to resume.

And some minority residents, who make up about 15 percent of the population, hope they never do. “There is a perception that because Nassau County is whiter that it is better, but that is just not true,” says David Soto, a native of Chile who moved to Meadowmere 18 years ago. Instead, he hopes an organized front can push the city to notice them.

“We are Queens and we should stay Queens,” agrees Dorinda Middleton, who moved to a two-story home from Astoria Houses three years ago in search of more space and a place of her own. “I don’t need to have a Nassau County address to be someone.”

For now, residents are focusing on giving the Meadowmere Civic Association some momentum. “We are not naïve enough to think that we can solve all of our problems overnight,” says Soto, who has been going door-to-door to recruit members. “It took years for Meadowmere to get like this. But we have to start somewhere.”

Daniel Hendrick is assistant managing editor of the Queens Chronicle.