By Jonathan Sperling
Queens is one tough borough.
That was the sentiment repeated often by Borough President Melinda Katz during her Annual State of the Borough Address, where she highlighted Queens’ milestones and looked to the future on Friday.
Hundreds of attendees packed CUNY LaGuardia Community College’s Mainstage Theatre to hear Katz pledge her support for closing Rikers Island and boycotting the potential 2020 Census’ citizenship question. Katz also praised the New York state legislature for passing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the Sen. José Peralta New York State DREAM Act after years of advocacy.
“We are a borough that isn’t just trying to hold on in these turbulent times. We are thriving because we are united and the many countries we represent give us the strength to go where we want to go. Instead of fearing one another, we have faith in one another,” Katz said. “We are thriving because we work to make room for everyone at the table. It may not always be convenient, in fact, it takes effort. And it requires Queens tough.”
Katz made clear that the proposed 2020 Census’ citizenship question was not welcome in Queens. Though she is an American-born citizen, Katz vowed to abstain from answering the question if it did end up appearing on the Census. She called on other Queens residents, regardless of their residency status, to do the same.
“The proposed citizenship question. It is unnecessary. Worse yet, it is discriminatory, and designed to skew the count. It goes against the very point of the Census,” said Katz.
Katz also denounced the proposed public charge rule change, calling it “vicious and immoral.” The measure would prevent people from immigrating to the United States if they are deemed likely to participate in federal benefit and entitlement programs..
“It’s essentially an income test for the pursuit of the American Dream … because it imposes upon families an impossible choice: legal residency or food on the table? Legal residency or healthcare? Legal residency or a roof over our head?” Katz said.
Katz pivoted from immigration to call for reforms to the state of Queens schools and the city’s public education system. Katz said Queens schools are at 106 percent capacity and rank in last place in terms of per-pupil funding. Brooklyn and Manhattan schools are both at just over 85 percent capacity on average.
Approximately $21 million was allocated in the last year for the borough’s 290 elementary and middle schools to receive new educational technology in the classroom, such as SMART Boards and laptops, she said.
“If we’re serious about giving our kids better lives than we dreamed of having for ourselves, we cannot afford to be shortchanged,” Katz said.
Katz also noted the borough’s many accomplishments in recent years, particularly when it comes to improving parks and libraries.
Approximately $105 million has gone toward upgrading Queens’ parks, such as Big Bush Park in Woodside, Evergreen Park in Ridgewood and Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, she said.
Katz celebrated the groundbreaking for a boroughwide memorial to commemorate Queens residents who died in the Vietnam War. Katz said she secured $2.3 million in funding for the monument, which was years in the making. More than 350 servicemen who were killed in action or listed as missing in the Vietnam War were from Queens and the memorial which will open later this year in Elmhurst Park.
“Much work remains to be done in the fight for fairness, for inclusion, equal opportunity, for shared prosperity,” said Katz. “The work will continue to be tough. And that means, just as in a family, there’s always going to be some strife along the way. But just as I say to my kids in my home: even when we fight, I always fight for you and I am always on your side.”
Katz did not mention the Amazon deal or her support for the project once in her speech. Lawmakers and community activists in Western Queens and elsewhere in the city have condemned the deal, which includes nearly $3 billion in state and city tax breaks and would, they say, hasten displacement in and around the site of the proposed corporate campus.
“Just attended [Melinda Katz’s] State of the Borough Address,” said writer and researcher Sam McCann on Twitter. “She talked for an hour about Queens and somehow never even mentioned Amazon. Coward.”