A plan to add bike lanes and crosswalks to 111th Street in Queens might seem like an odd opportunity for racism. And yet a few weeks ago, one local community board member embraced it.
“Once Trump removes all the illegals from Corona, there won’t be anybody to ride bike lanes,” Ann Pfoser Darby, a 30-year veteran of Community Board 4, said at a transportation committee meeting, according to a bike lane advocate at the meeting who took her photo and tweeted out the quote.
There was some debate about Darby’s exact words, but when reporters asked her about them, she doubled down. “They were telling me, ICE is going through Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, so when ICE goes through, logistically speaking, they’re not going to have people using bike lanes,” she told WNBC.
How can she tell someone is an undocumented immigrant? “If different people wear different kinds of dress, you know they’re different kinds of people,” she continued. “I’m a realist, not a racist.”
She also insisted to WPIX reporter Jay Dow that she is not racist. “I have two god children that are Oriental,” she said. Dow pointed out that rugs are Oriental, but people are Asian. “Okay,” Darby said. “The Asian people, whatever. Does that make any difference, Asian, Oriental, is there a difference?”
The local councilwoman demanded Darby’s immediate removal from the board, a move that offended the community board chair so much he went to Facebook and called for a public apology — from the councilwoman.
At first glance, Darby’s comments and the ensuing drama seem like a spectacular example of community board bikelash. But like many simmering neighborhood battles in New York where race and political power cross paths with transportation infrastructure, this story goes much deeper. It rings with the echoes of Robert Moses and Tammany Hall. It’s even reached the highest of New York City’s current power brokers to determine nothing less than which political bloc controls the city’s streets.
The story begins with 111th Street itself. For much of its length, it’s just another two-way street in Corona, Queens. But when Moses built Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for the 1939 World’s Fair, the section along the park’s western edge was expanded to three southbound lanes and two northbound, plus parking, on either side of a tree-lined median.
The extra space for cars means drivers have plenty of room to speed, while people walking or riding their bikes to the park are left to their own devices along the 94-foot wide street. Seven in 10 bicycle riders illegally use the sidewalk instead of the street, according to the Department of Transportation, and there are stretches of 111th Street longer than four football fields without crosswalks.
The resulting traffic safety stats, including fourteen people injured last year, were bad enough to get 111th Street named a “priority corridor” under Vision Zero, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to eliminate traffic deaths by 2023.
Taming traffic on 111th Street has gained new urgency after the city announced last year that it would build a pre-kindergarten center at the New York Hall of Science, already a magnet for school children.
Darby is far from the only community board member who opposes the safety plan, though she may be the only one who frames it in racial terms. “Ann says what she wants to say,” James C. Lisa, who chairs the transportation committee, said with a laugh when asked about Darby’s comments. “They’re certainly not my views.”
That doesn’t mean he likes the plan. “I’m not gonna tell you that cyclists shouldn’t have a place,” he said. “But this isn’t the place.”
Yet a compromise revealed last October, after the city announced the new pre-K center, strips the design of one of its most important components. “They’re going to have kids crossing 111th Street,” said Jaime Moncayo, a former organizer for Transportation Alternatives. “And they’re not going to have any crosswalks.”
The compromise has stalled, and the stalemate, with pre-K kids and immigrants facing off against racism and bike lane opponents on a community board, has dragged on for more than two years. During that time, it’s escalated well beyond the streets of Corona. It’s become a proxy battle in the war between machine Democrats and Queens progressives. It’s even come to the desks of Mayor de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. How did something as simple as traffic calming turn into a battle royal?
First, it’s important to understand that Jimmy Lisa is more than just the chair of the Community Board 4 transportation committee.
Lisa comes from a family of Queens County Democrats: his brother, Joseph P. Lisa, served as a local Assemblyman in the 1970s before becoming a councilman in the 1980s and, eventually, a judge in the 1990s. The corner of a park in front of the local VFW hall, where community board meetings are held, is named in honor of their father, a longtime district leader.
“People loved him,” said Lisa, who used to be a district leader himself. “My father was born in Corona Heights in 1898 and we’ve been here ever since.”
Today, Lisa runs a weekly newspaper called the Queens Times, which is mostly news releases from local Democrats and ads from area businesses, out of a house on 111th Street.
The Lisas became political players as immigration has reshaped the neighborhood around them. Corona is now 60 percent Hispanic, according to 2014 Census estimates.
As Latino immigrants have moved into Queens, they’ve gained political power. Sometimes the newcomers rise with the help of the same Queens Democratic machine that elevated the Lisas, and sometimes they do not. Few people illustrate this divide better than Francisco Moya and Julissa Ferreras, who ran against each other in a 2009 special election for a city council seat and could be on track for a rematch later this year.
After losing the 2009 council race, Moya was elected to the State Assembly the following year and has drawn close to the old-school parts of the Queens County machine. While Latino immigrants are a growing force, many cannot vote. More than half of Corona’s population was born outside the United States, and nearly two-thirds of that group are not U.S. citizens, according to the Census. As a result, the aging Italian-American community near Flushing Meadows-Corona Park retains significant political influence.
Lisa has contributed $2,000 to Moya’s Assembly campaigns and $1,000 to his 2009 council run. Meanwhile, Moya paid $875 for print ads in the Queens Times over three years, according to state campaign finance records, and even listed Lisa’s 111th Street address as his own in one of his city council campaign finance filings. Moya claims he moved there (“I moved; I stayed in my community” he told the Voice) while Lisa says Moya never lived there and just used the address “to get the campaign off the ground.”
In contrast to Moya, Councilwoman Ferreras has increased the distance between her and the Queens County Democratic machine. She became a member of the Progressive Caucus and an ally of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who rewarded her with the chairmanship of the powerful finance committee. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who helped overpower the Queens Democratic machine to secure the speakership for Mark-Viverito, officiated Ferreras’s wedding at City Hall.
So when a coalition organized by a quartet of progressive organizations began pushing for changes to 111th Street in 2014, it quickly gained Ferreras’s support. The effort, backed by Make the Road New York, Immigrant Movement International, Transportation Alternatives and the Queens Museum, included a daffodil planting and traffic safety workshop. At its heart has been Mujeres en Movimiento, a group of Spanish-speaking mothers in Corona who gathered to learn bicycle skills.
Responding to Ferreras and Mujeres en Movimiento, de Blasio’s transportation department came up with a plan to narrow the street to one lane in each direction, add parking, build a two-way protected bike lane along the park’s edge, expand pedestrian space, and paint crosswalks. City law requires that the agency bring these types of plans to community boards, where political appointees have an advisory, but important, role in determining whether they get built.
That’s when, at the first community board meeting in March 2015, the push to change 111th Street ran headlong into Jimmy Lisa — community board member, close ally of Assemblyman Francisco Moya, and 111th Street homeowner.
Lisa did not like this plan at all. “I would go into meetings with elected officials, and I wouldn’t mention him, but they would say, ‘Oh yeah, Jimmy talked to me about that, and he’s really upset,’” said Moncayo, who led Queens organizing for Transportation Alternatives in 2015 and 2016. “He has a lot of sway.”
“They never really came to the residents and asked them what their opinion was,” said Lisa, who is concerned that reducing the number of car lanes would result in gridlock. “Everybody I speak to when I come out of church, and in the bank, they say, ‘That’s crazy.’”
What about Mujeres en Movimiento and the people who back the plan? “They don’t live here and they don’t experience the problems,” Lisa said. “These are people who live in Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and other areas.”
From his perch on the community board, Lisa threw up a series of roadblocks, turning the past two years into a constant back-and-forth with the DOT.
First, he asked the DOT to collect additional traffic and survey data, including traffic counts during popular events in the park. After DOT presented a summary of the results, the community board requested the original data so it could run its own analysis. Then last November, Lisa said the city and state should study whether to build a new off-ramp through the park from the Grand Central Parkway before proceeding with the 111th Street proposal.
While Lisa battled at the community board, Moya launched his own efforts.
After Ferreras and DOT hosted a pair of 111th Street town halls in the summer of 2015, Moya hosted his own town hall that October where he unveiled three alternative plans, including one to put a bike path in the park instead of making changes to 111th Street.
Moya’s influence also worked behind the scenes. Make the Road, one of the 111th Street coalition members, has a close relationship with Moya, who sponsors the DREAM Act in the Assembly. Moya told the Voice that while he and Make the Road “don’t spend any time on bike lanes,” he said, “we spoke about it. It wasn’t anything negative.”
Eventually, the Make the Road organizer who had been working on 111th Street was quietly reassigned to other projects, and Moncayo says he began to notice Make the Road’s “lack of movement” on 111th Street.
Moya also began making noise among his state colleagues about his dissatisfaction with the DOT. “It’s a number of issues that we’ve had, not just myself but other members of the Assembly, with the mayor’s office and the DOT,” Moya said.
The complaints came to the attention of Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker. Heastie’s spokesperson did not reply to questions for this story, but an official familiar with the matter said he began asking questions of City Hall and the mayor’s chief intergovernmental emissary, Emma Wolfe.
That’s when, another city source says, City Hall told DOT to pause the 111th Street project. As the only Democrat in Albany with any power who is remotely inclined to help the de Blasio administration, keeping Heastie happy is a must if City Hall is going to get anything on its agenda, like more speed cameras or continued mayoral control of schools.
Facing pressure from Albany, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg made her case to the mayor for keeping the 111th Street redesign, the city source said. Days before Moya launched his own salvo in the press last October, Ferreras held a rally on the steps of City Hall with Mujeres en Movimiento, calling on de Blasio to move forward with the plan.
“Julissa kept pushing for it,” the source said. “She never gave up on 111th Street.”
Eventually, the de Blasio administration brought Moya in for a sit-down at City Hall, where he said he could back a compromise that had two southbound car lanes, in front of Lisa’s house, instead of one.
On October 19, DOT fired off a press release with the new design, full of happy quotes from Trottenberg, Ferreras, Moya, and advocates. It even included the blessing of Congressman Joe Crowley, the powerful chair of the Queens County Democratic Committee.
While the politicians were on board, it did not gain the support of Jimmy Lisa. “I don’t think there’s a compromise right now that can be made,” he told the Voice.
Behind the scenes, traffic safety advocates were also less than thrilled. “It’s clearly the result of a political process and not an engineering process. To me, that’s really frustrating,” Moncayo said, adding that there are more northbound cars than southbound cars. “They’re giving back a lane of traffic in the direction that actually has less traffic.”
Having two lanes instead of one also meant that crosswalks had to be dropped from the project, since DOT’s own traffic engineering guidelines prohibit marked crosswalks spanning more than one lane of oncoming cars without a stop sign or traffic signal. Lisa wants the city to add stoplights, but the agency has said 111th Street doesn’t have enough traffic to warrant them.
Ultimately, the committee referred the plan to the full board, which is set to consider it March 21. ”There is a vote scheduled,” said CB 4 district manager Christian Cassagnol. “Let’s just move on from 111th. There’s too many years of this thing being dragged on.”
The board could accept or reject the plan, but that won’t be the final word.
City Hall doesn’t need community board approval to redesign a street. After CB 4 urged de Blasio to remove bike lanes from his Queens Boulevard plan, the mayor breezed right past the board. “I respect those who disagree with us, but in the end, the safety of our neighbors and our children is the most fundamental responsibility we have in this work,” de Blasio said in a statement last May. “I have instructed the Department of Transportation to move forward.”
Like Queens Boulevard, 111th Street is a Vision Zero “priority corridor” funded for a top-to-bottom reconstruction, not just a paint-on-asphalt redesign. Ferreras allocated $2.7 million to the rebuild in 2014, and the latest city capital plan includes an additional $16.3 million.
With real money behind a capital project, advocates are pushing de Blasio to once again pull the trigger on an ambitious redesign and sidestep the community board.
For now, City Hall remains on the fence.
“This is a really important project and we really want to see it get done,” Trottenberg said earlier this month. “We always try to work with the community boards, but, as you know, sometimes we go ahead with projects when we think they’re essential. So stay tuned — we’ll see what happens.”
Jimmy Lisa seems resigned about the whole thing. “They’re gonna just do what they want to do,” he said. “Why bother having community boards?”
Last November, Lisa sold his property on 111th Street for $1.25 million, though he said he still lives there. “I don’t know if I want to stay here any more. It’s gonna be a total, chaotic mess,” he said of DOT’s safety plan. “It’s horrible. A lot of people may pick up and go because of what’s happening.”