Self-starting style makers

Four local entrepreneurs who are making their mark on the style industry. Courtesy Long Island Pulse

Four local entrepreneurs who are making their mark on the style industry. Courtesy Long Island Pulse

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos originally appeared in the September issue of Long Island Pulse Magazine. This content is the rightful property of Long Island Pulse Magazine.]

Chasing ideas is risky business, but with a little bit of instinct and a lot of knowledge, it can pay off. Pulse spoke to four local entrepreneurs who are making their mark on the style industry—one in fashion, one in men’s grooming and a pair of siblings in accessories. These style influencers shared their stories and provided a firsthand glance into their chic and unique brands.

Kara Mendelsohn | cooper & ella

Kara Mendelsohn went from working for the top fashion brands to successfully launching her own brand, Cooper + Ella. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

Kara Mendelsohn went from working for the top fashion brands to successfully launching her own brand, Cooper + Ella. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

Kara Mendelsohn has always been a risk taker. In her 20s she ditched her degrees in art history and psychology from Lafayette College to chase her dream of working in the fashion industry. In 2013, after nearly two decades of rising in the ranks and working for some of the most renowned fashion houses—including Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs—Mendelsohn left behind stability and a sizeable salary to launch her own clothing line, cooper & ella.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Mendelsohn, who lives in Centerport with her husband, Adam, and children, Cooper and Ella. When she noticed that there was an untapped market of women searching for affordable date tops—blouses that transition easily from “desk to dinner, day to night”—she pounced on the opportunity.

“I really know my customer. I spent so many years traveling across the states and around the world… You really learn what women want.” So far, cooper & ella’s success has proven that to be true; it’s selling from Long Island to Japan in some of the biggest department stores. The brand’s universal appeal is threefold, according to its founder: it specializes in blouses specifically, it has sophisticated and elevated design, and it’s affordable, ranging in price from $88 to $150.

There’s also the added benefit of charity. The cost of one hot, nutritious meal for a child in need is built into the price of each cooper & ella item. Last fall, Mendelsohn partnered with the Hope Foundation School in Bangalore, India, and launched the Empower giveback initiative. The school practices a “cradle-to-career” solution that gets kids into the schools, educates them and prepares them for the working world. “It’s changing the entire trajectory of that child’s life. It actually changes lives, changes the cycle of poverty children are caught in.”

Mendelsohn said her current focus is getting her customers what they need, but she is also working to grow cooper & ella into a lifestyle brand that offers more products. The company launched dresses this spring and is preparing to launch sweaters for the fall.

Joann Kuno | JS Sloane

Joanne Kuno launched JS Sloane, a men's product line, just as demand for such products began to grow. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

Joanne Kuno launched JS Sloane, a men’s product line, just as demand for such products began to grow. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

There’s never been room for failure in Joann Kuno’s life. The single mother of two from Floral Park had no choice but to reinvent herself after the mortgage crisis left her on the brink of bankruptcy. She went from a high finance position where she worked for herself to an entry-level job as a rep for L’Oreal, walking the streets of New York City and learning the beauty industry from the bottom up. After about a year of pounding the pavement, Kuno decided to put it all on the line and launch JS Sloane men’s grooming products out of her basement. “I risked everything and put it out there and wanted to succeed. I took all of my savings, did my research, worked out a plan. I was determined to do this,” Kuno said.

Since then, the company has developed 12 products reminiscent of items Kuno’s own father and grandfather used: hair pomades and shampoos, beard oils and shaving creams. “It’s old school with a modern twist. I want the brand to be timeless and to have that exclusiveness where you won’t find it in a drugstore. Let’s bring back that dapper gentleman with bow ties and fedoras.”

Kuno’s timing couldn’t have been better given the return of the beard and the rise in men’s specialty stores. In the three years since she launched the company, she’s already partnered with numerous barbershops and found spokesmen in celebrities, including Zachary Quinto and Jake Gyllenhaal. Kuno also recently embarked on a docu-series campaign with Kyan Douglas, the grooming expert on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, to highlight the history of the barber. Filming for the show, Celebrating the Style of the American Barber, began at the end of June and Kuno and Douglas are in the process of finding a network to air it next year.

Kuno credits the brand’s success not only to good timing, but also to her passion. “The harder you work and the more love and heart you put into it, the better it will be. I really think it’s going to be a household name. I want to be a staple in men’s grooming.” Since opening a second location in Mineola, Kuno said items are just flying off the shelves.

Carol O’Connell and Tom Glazer | GiGi New York

With raw talent — and raw materials — Carol O'Connell and Tom Glazer launched their own leather accessories business. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

With raw talent — and raw materials — Carol O’Connell and Tom Glazer launched their own leather accessories business. Courtesy Long Island Pulse.

For Carol O’Connell and her brother Tom Glazer, it began simply as a job. Their father opened a leather goods business out of his Floral Park home and needed their help running it. They obliged and then never left. Today, about 40 years after helping out dear dad, O’Connell and Glazer own and operate the family business. They’ve evolved the original brand, Graphic Image, which produced agendas, diaries, journals and the like, and in 2009 founded daughter company GiGi New York specializing in handbags.

“We had already educated ourselves in sewing and edging and manufacturing small personal leather goods, so we just grew into larger leather goods,” O’Connell said. And, added Glazer, “we started with totes, so it was less of a leap.” In keeping with their father’s more traditional form-follows function designs, the siblings decided to launch GiGi with simple and classic styles—bags that appeal to their middleaged contemporaries as well as women in their 20s. “It’s anything but modern,” Glazer said. “It’s the age-old way to do it.”

It’s that concept that has made their handbags desirable, and landed them in the arms of celebrities like Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner and Beverly Hills “Housewife” Lisa Vanderpump— but their success comes from decades of experience, deep knowledge of leathers and a modest disposition. “[Tom] has spent 30 years knowing leather and who the players are and what is quality… the one thing that stands out dramatically is the quality of our leather and the price that it’s offered at,” said O’Connell.

Customers at GiGi’s Southampton store are always asking how the company keeps prices so low. “We don’t throw anything away here,” Glazer said. “Whether we’re making key chains or coasters or business-card cases and wallets, we’re very efficient… I think that’s the reason we can deliver so much value per dollar spent.”

The siblings also keep costs down by running almost every aspect of their business in-house. From acquiring the leather to overseeing the design to distributing the products, everything is done in their 50,000-square-foot factory in Melville, which also includes a very popular outlet store that’s open five days a week in the fall. As GiGi New York continues to gain exposure, O’Connell and Glazer are focused on maintaining growth and exploring the possibility of launching a line of belts.

A ‘bittersweet’ goodbye: Century-old barns at Lakewood Stables razed

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos and videos originally appeared on on April 21, 2011. This content is the rightful property of Richner Communications, Inc.]

“How do you feel about seeing the pony barn come down?” 14-year-old Casey Duff asked her friend in a mock video interview as the pair watched the demolition of the century-old barn at Lakewood Stables last week.

“I’m not sad,” replied her friend, 15-year-old Eva Elemson. “It’s new beginnings.”


A backhoe slammed into the main barn at Lakewood Stables, demolishing it in a matter of minutes.

It seemed that many of the equestrians who joined the teens at the West Hempstead facility on April 20 shared their sentiments, including Lakewood Stables’ owner, Alex Jacobson.

“Bittersweet,” Jacobson said of his feelings as he watched a big yellow backhoe demolish the barn. “It’s great to see it finally come down. It’s taken a long time to get it down, but I’m real hopeful for what’s to come.”

For more than a year, Jacobson, who purchased the stables in 2006, has been planning a complete renovation of the property to turn it into a state-of-the-art equestrian center that allows year-round use. The new facility will incorporate an indoor riding area, office and retail space and enhanced boarding for horses. “These were no habitats for horses anymore,” he said. “After a hundred years and no improvements, this was way too long in the making.”

As he watched the barn being taken apart, 74-year-old equestrian Bob Douglas grew sentimental. “It’s kind of a sad day to see this place come down — I spent my youth here,” Douglas said. “But we’re going to have a new and better barn.”

With the demolition of the pony barn, clubhouse and main barn, which housed most of the facility’s 20 horses, construction of the new buildings can finally get under way. Jacobson said he will begin erecting foundations in the coming weeks, and expects to have a new steel building up and running by summertime.

“I’ve been in construction long enough to know that there’s always delays, but we’re building a state-of-the-art facility and a lot of it’s modular construction, so it’s going to take as long as it takes,” he said. Gesturing at the barns, he added, “It took a hundred years for this, so I’m sure that it will happen sooner than later.”


Bob Douglas, 74, examined the debris of what was once the clubhouse. He has been a regular at the facility for 52 years.

For the duration of the renovation project, the horses will be kept in Hempstead Lake State Park. “We’ve set up a complete turnout area with stalls and a temporary home for these animals,” Jacobson explained. Trail rides and lessons, and after-school and summer school programs, will be postponed until the new facility is completed, but Lakewood Stables will continue boarding horses at the temporary state park setup.

Some avid riders, like Douglas — who saddles up his 25-year-old Appaloosa, Cheyenne, as often as twice a week — can’t wait for the stables to get back to business so they can get back to riding. “I’ve been riding here since 1952 [as] a 15-year-old boy … and I still have a horse here,” he said. “There’s a lot of nice people here. This is a family atmosphere. We all ride together on Sundays — it’s a lot of fun.”

During a 15-minute break between the demolition of the clubhouse and the main barn, Douglas, a Franklin Square resident whose 7-year-old grandson takes riding lessons at the stables, walked across the property, surveying the debris. “There’s a lot of memories in this place,” he said. “Sometimes older is better than newer, but the atmosphere is still going to be here, so no problem.

Equestrians watched quietly as the main barn came down.

Belle Harbor — Changing faces, peaceful places

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on June 12, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos were not immediately available.]

The brackish smell rising from the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay wafts over the Cross Bay Bridge and right into the nostrils as one heads south of mainland Queens for a visit in Belle Harbor — one of the most immaculate and tranquil neighborhoods on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Turning onto Beach Channel Drive in the direction of Beach 125th Street — the eastern border of the small, 17-block community — one can see people lined up along the seawall overlooking the Rockaway Inlet, continuously dropping and retrieving fishing lines.

Along the seemingly wide streets of Belle Harbor — made so because of parking regulations that prohibit street parking on weekends and holidays from May 15 to Sept. 30 — children play, couples ride by on bicycles and families stroll lazily in the shade of large, weeping beech trees and looming sycamores.

Out with the old, in with the new

A number of families are part of a wave of newcomers that has engulfed the neighborhood in the last seven or so years — a wave that has managed to bring a fresh quality to the area without changing its dynamic. Younger professionals, mostly upper-middle class with young children, have moved in and replaced the older generation of Belle Harborites, who have moved to neighboring Neponsit, according to the owner of Belle Harbor Realty, Annette Farina.

In her 21 years in the realty business, Farina has witnessed one major change: whereas about two decades ago, people were mostly renting space, today, they’re buying single-family homes that can run from $795,000 to $1 million.

Many of these families come from Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan that have become unaffordable. The appeal of the “hidden treasure” that is Belle Harbor is mostly that it combines affordability and refinement, Farina said. Those leaving Park Slope in Brooklyn or areas like it don’t have to downgrade in order to save some money. They can find the comforts of security and recreation in Belle Harbor.

A main attraction of the neighborhood is its easy access to Rockaway Beach and Jacob Riis Park — which has a large, well-used parking lot for commuters traveling to Brooklyn or Manhattan by car or ferry. In general, the lifestyle afforded by coastal living is desirable because it removes the element of constant stress that sometimes accompanies city life, said Jonathan Gaska, the district manager for Community Board 14.

When mentioned, New York City often conjures up images of fast-walking, fast-talking workaholics who don’t know their neighbors and consider themselves just a face in the crowd of millions milling about the concrete jungle.

This stereotype might be a gross exaggeration, but it is rooted in some truth: many New Yorkers live work-centric lives. But, like life in most beach towns, Belle Harbor living is calm, family centric and community oriented, making this neighborhood the perfect escape.

Selecting superior schools

The real clincher for many newcomers, Farina said, is the quality of Belle Harbor’s schools. Like most young couples starting families, those moving to this neighborhood are thinking about their children’s education and looking to the future; making investments in Belle Harbor property seems to be a smart move in the right direction.

Schools are usually the deciding factor for people trying to relocate: they are an indication of a neighborhood’s quality, Gaska said. “They usually go hand in hand — good schools, and certainly good public schools, keep property values up.”

Belle Harbor is said to possess most of the traits young, well-to-do families look for, from big lawns to quiet neighbors to, most importantly, high-quality schools. This is why, Gaska said, “Belle Harbor is considered one of the premier neighborhoods in the borough.”

The Belle Harbor public elementary school, P.S./M.S. 114, a K-8 located at 134-01 Cronston Ave., is rated one of the best in the school district (District 27), which contains the neighborhoods of Howard Beach, Woodhaven, Broad Channel and parts of Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill and the Rockaways.

There is also a large selection of parochial schools — which includes St. Francis De Sales (Roman Catholic), West End Temple, Yeshiva of Belle Harbor and Mercaz Hatorah of Belle Harbor — from which parents can choose. For parents with gifted children, there is also the option of The Scholars’ Academy, a school for grades six through twelve, located at 320 Beach 104 Street. The school is “really starting to produce. It’s getting tough to get into, which is a sign that it’s doing really well academically,” Gaska said.

Although limited high school options and no higher learning institutions on the peninsula force teens and young adults to leave the area to complete their education, Steve Kubiak knew he and his wife made the right decision when they decided to move to Belle Harbor when their son was born 11 years ago. Primary education “establishes the roots and values” that help children develop into respectable adults, he said.

To top this all off, property taxes are lower in Belle Harbor than in the Five Towns or other parts of Long Island that might be a logical destination for young city dwellers starting families, Farina said.

Dependable demographics

In its 101 years of existence, Belle Harbor has changed little — and that is what locals love most about it, according to lifelong resident Danny, who did not give his last name. Its steadfast nature has benefitted residents: they have enjoyed the consistent stability of middle-class living — a rarity in most places.

This likely results from Belle Harbor’s mostly unchanging demographic. Since it was founded in 1907 by Frederick Lancaster, its population has been primarily comprised of white, Irish Catholic, working class families, but over the years substantial Jewish and Italian populations grew in the area.

The 2000 U.S. Census bureau lists the population of Belle Harbor and part of Rockaway Park at approximately 11,359. Of this, about 93 percent is Caucasian, and 4,336 are adults between the ages of 25 and 49. Children and young adults up to age 17 make up close to 23 percent of the population, and nearly 3,260 residents are 65 and older.

Belle Harbor is home to a large number of New York City police officers and firefighters, as well, and the neighborhood suffered heavy losses from the Sept. 11 attacks. “It seems like half of the Fire Department and the Police Department lives in the Rockaways,” many in Belle Harbor, according to Gaska who remembers going to funerals every day for weeks following the disaster. “And, so, we lost more people than any other single community.”

Another tragedy struck the neighborhood just two months later, on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587, bound for the Dominican Republic, crashed in the center of Belle Harbor shortly after takeoff from neighboring Kennedy International Airport.

The incident, in which 265 people were killed — all 251 passengers and nine crew members on board and five people on the ground — put Belle Harbor’s name on the map, but the negative attention was unwanted. Hoping to maintain their privacy, Belle Harbor families mourned quietly and out of the public eye. The city erected a memorial on Nov. 12, 2006, exactly five years after the tragedy, on Beach 116th Street in neighboring Rockaway Park.

Activities and amenities aplenty

The neighborhood is eerily quiet on a hot Sunday morning: in place of blasting boomboxes and rambunctious beach goers are the sounds of chatting neighbors and water rushing from garden hoses.

One short block mildly disrupts this tranquility: Beach 129th Street. There, “hustle and bustle” is always an applicable phase, as it is Belle Harbor’s small commercial center, which contains a newly opened Dunkin Donuts, Jameson’s Pub, the Plum Tomatoes Pizzeria and the renowned Beach Bagel.

Beach 116th Street — a large shopping center and transportation hub — provides more amenities: department stores, supermarkets and a variety of eateries and smaller shops line the busy street at which the first stop of the A train is located.

Commuting to other boroughs — not a fun task in any part of New York City — was recently made easier for Belle Harbor residents, whose transit options are limited. With the addition last year of the Command bus, which travels directly to Manhattan, and the May 12 launch of the Rockaway ferry, residents can leave the peninsular without their cars.

Close-knit community

Coming into Belle Harbor is a different story. “Outsiders” — those from mainland Queens and other boroughs who visit Rockaway’s beaches — are, for the most part, well-tolerated by Belle Harbor residents, despite the occasional litter they leave behind. But the tight-knit community enjoys its seclusion, according to one resident who did not give his name.

The father of three, who recently moved from another Rockaway location to Beach 134th Street, said it can be difficult for Belle Harbor residents to absorb the hordes of summer visitors. But, they are no more hesitant to let their children play unattended on front lawns. Relying on neighbors for help watching the kids is, and has always been, a big reason for this.

Keith Malucelli shoots hoops outside his Beach 125th Street home. He watches from the corner of his eye as his sons chase each other down the street — Nicholas, 6, on a bicycle and Michael, 4, in a toy truck. Malucelli likes to keep to himself, but his kids eagerly race three houses down to the Kubiak house where 11-year-old Chris and 4-year-old Nicholas slide across the Racer Water Slide their father, Steve, laid out on the front lawn.

There is little worry about outsiders or speeding drivers or aggressive adolescents starting trouble. Few bars, dance clubs, pool halls and bowling alleys on the peninsula lead to a relatively safe, if quiet, existence — but its exactly what these young parents want. It’s the reason Kubiak, originally from Richmond Hill, moved here when his oldest son was born and Malucelli decided to settle down and build a new home six years ago.

“There are very few neighborhoods in this city that are better than Belle Harbor that offer as much at it does,” Gaska said. “It’s one of the top 5 or top 10 neighborhoods as far as neighborhood character, quality of life and market value of real estate — signs of a good neighborhood.”

Broad Channel breaks the city mold

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on Feb. 14, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos  were not immediately available.]

There might be only one place in the entire city of New York where drivers can make a left turn on red, park on a main street’s central median and ignore one-way street signs.

That place is Broad Channel, an island in the heart of Jamaica Bay only accessible by way of train, bridge or boat. Barely recognizable as a Queens neighborhood, this unique community offers its residents something most city folk lack: a body of water into which they can dive from the docks in their yards.

The incomparable views there are made even more exhilarating when migratory birds, which find sanctuary at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge just north of Broad Channel, can be seen skimming the water and circling the expansive sky.

This quaint community, often used as a throughway for those heading to the Rockaways, is slowly changing, according to Barbara Toborg, a longtime resident and founder of the Broad Channel Historical Society. Still, she and her neighbors believe it continues to keep its charm and special character. “Broad Channel is very discreet,” she said, “and I think that gives it a real sense of community.”

The few who know where and what Broad Channel is expressed similar descriptions of the homey community. “Broad Channel is a microcosm of New York City,” said Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach). “Nowhere in the city will you find the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets as you do there.”

The community, which sits on marshland in the Gateway National Recreation Area, was once a summer colony, visited mostly by fisherman and those longing to escape the city heat. They built bungalows and small shacks on the mile-long island, which was also surrounded by hotels in the late 1880s, according to Dan Guarino and his wife, Liz, who are waiting for spring, when their photo essay book about Broad Channel will be published.

When Crossbay Boulevard was constructed in 1923, it caused a surge in population, and Broad Channel slowly became a residential neighborhood. The hotels came down, out-of-town visitors only stayed the weekend and houses were winterized and renovated.

As the residential sector expanded, commercial development lagged. Today, there are only a handful of businesses, which include several restaurants, a real estate office and a pharmacy. The community’s approximately 3,000 residents must travel to Howard Beach or the Rockaways for groceries, gas, clothes, movies and other forms of entertainment.

Luckily, the residents of Broad Channel don’t mind the traveling. That’s because they are tenacious, Toborg said. Agreeing with the description, Dan Guarino noted that should the residents ever need something, they will build it, buy it or fight for it themselves.

One of the longest and most strenuous battles was over property rights. Beginning in 1939 and lasting almost 45 years, Broad Channel residents fought the city, which owned the island, for the right to purchase the land under their homes. They won the fight in 1982.

That tenacity can only be found in a certain group of people, Toborg said. Giving an example of just how strong community members are, fourth-generation Broad Channel resident Margaret Wagner recalled one nor’easter that caused devastating damage to the island’s occupants, but failed to destroy their resolve. They cleaned, repaired and stayed in their homes — which were all elevated.

The residents are accustomed to floods that drown their streets; to high tides that force them to park their cars on Crossbay Boulevard’s central median; and to repeatedly cleaning their windows, which get splashed with and stained by salt water.

Although things can get messy, it no longer looks as rundown as it did before residents obtained the rights to purchase land from the city, Wagner said. “Everyone takes pride in their property here. Everybody cares how the town looks.”

People work together to beautify the neighborhood, Liz Guarino said. They chip in financially and physically, as they did when the neighbors of East 6th Street, the island’s lowest and most flooded road, decided to build a dock.

One resident in particular appears to have single-handedly taken on the task of improving the area: Wagner’s brother, Charlie Howard. His goal is to move Broad Channel’s commercial sector forward, Wagner said. He owns Call-A-Head, one of the most successful portable toilet companies in the state, the Bay Gull Store and Broad Channel’s newest addition, Wharton’s Pharmacy. According to his sister, Howard’s next endeavor is a cafe.

As times change and the real estate market fluctuates, the Broad Channel demographic is changing and so is the need for more commerce, said Wagner, an associate broker for Century 21 in Howard Beach.

It is no longer made up entirely of generations of Irish and Italian families or blue collar workers, which Toborg said resided there for most of the community’s existence. Today, Wagner is selling homes to young, professionals and city workers who can’t afford Long Island’s taxes or who aren’t ready for million-dollar estates. Houses can cost between $300,000 and $600,000, Wagner said.

ýany people are leaving Broad Channel because they go away for college and don’t want to return or decide to plant new roots in other parts of the country, the former Broad Channel Athletic Club president added. Wagner is finding that those from the outside who consider moving into Broad Channel “either love it or (realize) it’s not for them.”

Aside from the town-by-the-sea lifestyle that might turn people away, the community’s small size often intimidates new buyers who are used to large spaces, Wagner noted.

Most lots in are 2,500 square feet. Some of the newer houses are double that size, but are nothing like “McMansions,” Liz Guarino said. “They’re in character with the rest of the town,” her husband added.

Wanting bigger homes and more land, some people are considering buying up the lot next to theirs and expanding, according to Wagner. But, she doubts this will change the community’s cohesiveness, which primarily resulted from the familial relations and close proximity of homes.

Since moving to Broad Channel in 1989, the Guarinos have witnessed Broad Channel’s intimacy, they said. But it was last spring, when they began working on their book, that they realized its full extent. Although they spent many long and hard hours collecting information and photographs about the history, they didn’t mind sharing some of the credit with their neighbors.

Calling it a “collective effort,” the couple said they received assistance from the historical society, residents who provided vintage pictures and old-timers who remembered names and dates of people and events.

The residents of this neighborhood are very “involved,” Dan Guarino said, which Toborg believes is why it is so socially and politically savvy. With annual parades and parties, active local organizations and casual meet and greet events, people are always interacting. The residents gather at the public library, the two churches, the volunteer fire department and the public elementary school on a variety of occasions.

This has created a safe community with an extremely low crime rate, Toborg said. It has also created a comfortable environment where people can work out issues or disputes among themselves.

In one recent case, the residents were unable to do this. Members of the BCAC and the American Legion Post 1404 ended up in court after fighting over a piece of land. The two-year battle followed an earlier battle over the same spot. The previous fight between the BCAC, one of the churches and a Brooklyn organization lasted five years.

Still unresolved, the situation has left some bitter. Wagner, who was involved in the proceedings since they first started a decade ago, recently resigned from her position and said she holds a grudge. “Worn out” and financially exhausted, she and other BCAC members are keeping their distance from their American Legion neighbors — some of whom are their own relatives.

But more often than not, Broad Channel residents unite to fight common enemies, Toborg said. The most current cause is the very land on which it sits. Preservation and protection of the disappearing marshlands have become the residents’ main priority.

The tidal wetlands that surround the island are rapidly eroding, causing concerns about increased flooding. Groups like Dan Mundy’s EcoWatchers and Don Riepe’s Jamaica Bay Guardian have been formed to advocate for conservation.

The residents have been working to meet this goal with their elected officials and various city agencies. They have maintained working relationships with the city that have been productive and help bring about needed services and other things, Toborg said.

Despite all its activity, Broad Channel is often overlooked. “It’s almost like a forgotten pocket,” Dan Guarino said. “You could miss it with the blink of an eye,” his wife added. However, the neighborhood enjoys its privacy and geographic isolation, Addabbo concluded.

The community is keeping up with contemporary culture and society, but it refuses to lose its mystique, Toborg said. Unique in its old-town charm, remote waterfront location and bold population, it will forever seem a world away from the concrete jungle that is New York City.

Charles Park still in shabby shape

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images
Local national recreation area still in poor condition despite local advocates’ fight for improvements.

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on July 10, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos were not immediately available.]

Most people wouldn’t be happy to see rain on the Fourth of July, but Dorothy McCloskey almost breathed a sigh of relief when she saw cloudy skies on Independence Day.

This meant there wouldn’t be hordes of people milling about Howard Beach’s Frank M. Charles Memorial Park, which in turn meant she would find less litter, overflowing trash cans and graffiti there the morning of July 8 — the day the NY Junior Tennis League program began its six-week season for the fourth consecutive year.

McCloskey, president of the Friends of Charles Park Committee and director of the league program she brought to Howard Beach in 2004, has learned what to expect at the park after 13 years of battling with its operator — Gateway National Park —over insufficient maintenance and lack of park rangers. Without enforcement, rowdy crowds visiting the national park tend to forget how to obey rules and leave the recreation area in an unsightly state. Although McCloskey’s primary focus is getting Gateway to cooperate, she also had one message for fellow park goers: “This is a natural wildlife preserve. We can’t afford to destroy it.”

But even without rowdy visitors, Charles Park appears neglected. McCloskey’s crew of 65 tennis students gathered on the tennis courts early Tuesday morning only to find the usual: hundreds of broken shells dropped by seagulls flying overhead covered the deteriorating courts. McCloskey wasn’t surprised to see that Gateway’s maintenance staff had neither swept nor weeded the courts, which are in desperate need of resurfacing.

But she happily announced to her students and their parents that, after four years of complaints from the Friends of Charles Park Committee, the park service had replaced all five nets on the tennis court and the wind screens on the fence surrounding it.

With children as young as 6 playing on the courts, McCloskey was worried the sharp and slippery broken shells would cut their legs or send them sliding across the court. “We need at least six or seven sweepers to get the courts in a useable condition,” she said, adding that they need to be swept weekly. That they aren’t is frustrating, but it does not deter McCloskey’s program from using the courts five days a week from 9 a.m. to noon.

She is determined to make good use of the $25,000 provided for the free tennis program by a number of sponsors, including Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Gregory Meeks, state Sen. Serphin Maltese, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. Gateway National Park is also a sponsor, but “the good that they do is outweighed because they can’t seem to get a hold on the maintenance,” which, at best, is inconsistent, McCloskey said.

One example of such inconsistency is the park’s handling of overgrown shrubbery, which encroached on benches and poked through holes in the chainlink fence surrounding the tennis courts, posing what McCloskey considered to be a danger to children. After at least four months of hearing complaints about the dense bushes and requests to trim it, the park service responded by completely cutting down portions of different bushes and leaving others untouched. Like a bad haircut, the unevenness and asymmetry of the shearing left some areas once hidden by lush brush sitting baldly in the sun.

Gateway’s fickle management also ordered maintenance staff to paint over graffiti on a locked shed near the tennis courts, but it appears the instructions were unclear: while the front of the shed bears a solid coat of fresh paint, scrawled on its side — which faces the unkempt ballfields — are the tags of an unknown vandal.

Further adding to Charles Park’s shabby appearance is the broken fence that hangs over the ballfields. It collapsed under the weight of a dead tree, which fell on it during a heavy storm in March. The situation could have entirely been avoided if Gateway had spent $250 to remove the dead tree two years prior, when McCloskey suggested doing so. Instead, the park now has to spend $7,000 to repair the fence.

Gateway is in the process of searching for a contractor, but impatient park visitors demanded that something had to be done to secure the fence — a safety hazard for players who run beneath it and children who will, inevitabley, climb it. Gateway finally constructed a temporary wooden fence around the twisted steel wires.

Despite the tremendous support — both advocative and financial — McCloskey and the Friends of Charles Park Committee receive from local politicians and community members, the park always seems to sink back into a state of neglect. Employees at Gateway “try very hard to work with us,” McCloskey said, “but they don’t have the proper leadership to carry out the endeavors of maintaining the park.”

What needs to happen immediately, according to the program director, is a review and analysis of Gateway’s budget for the Jamaica Bay Unit, which contains Charles Park. Gateway needs to “facilitate its funding better,” McCloskey said, “and tell the community where the funding goes” instead of relying on local organizations to hold fundraisers, petition Congress members for money and donate their own time to cleaning the park.
“It’s a federal park. It should be treated like a federal park and Gateway needs to step up to the plate” — the community has already done more than enough.

But 13 years worth of effort have not been completely fruitless for McCloskey: maintenance of Charles Park has improved overall — especially with the recent repair and upgrade work done on benches and picnic tables — and respect for its importance has developed among members of the community.
“This is a beautiful spot in Queens,” McCloskey said. “We don’t call it the Jewel of Jamaica Bay for nothing.”

Saving a neglected national park

Courtesy Google Earth

Courtesy Google Earth
A handful of dedicated local residents have been working to shed led on the neglected Frank M. Charles Memorial Park — a national park in Howard Beach, Queens.

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on May 22, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos were not immediately available.]

Some Howard Beach residents have said that most people don’t know Queens has a national park, but it does: the Frank M. Charles Memorial Park.

It is a national preserve that sits within the 6,000-acre Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre, three-unit national park operated by the National Park Service.

Charles Park is in a devastating state of disrepair as a result of what locals believe to be years of neglect by Gateway’s management. Now they want the feds to step up to the plate.

Taking a break from his daily tennis session on a recent afternoon, park regular Anthony LaSaracina took this reporter on a tour of the recreation area, pointing out along the way damaged fences, broken water fountains, overgrown shrubbery, dead trees, and, most devastating to the tennis enthusiast, the deteriorating and dirty tennis courts.

Gateway’s failure to maintain the park regularly in the last decade and a half has created these “deplorable” conditions, LaSaracina said. “It’s as if (Charles Park) is in a lost world and no one cares about it.”

But a small group of extremely dedicated community members do care. In fact, they are so deeply dedicated to their mission of improving Charles Park — and the rest of the 6,000-acre Jamaica Bay Unit — that they’ve become known as crusaders. “When people see me coming, they’re, like, ‘Oh no. What’s she gonna ask us to do now?’” quipped Dorothy McClosky, founder of the Friends of Charles Park Committee, on a recent Sunday morning stroll through the park.

Since taking up this cause 13 years ago and leading the fight against the park service ever since, McClosky has acquired about $1.5 million for park repairs and a host of other improvements. She has earned the respect of numerous community leaders and area residents, and received support from every level of government.

“Everybody has a vested interest in this park,” McClosky said, which is why “we have not given up and we continually work.” About 10 years ago, the committee petitioned Congressman Anthony Weiner — who represented the park until 2001 when redistricting placed it in Congressman Gregory Meeks’ territory — for funding.

This resulted in a $1 million congressional appropriation, about $185,000 of which was used to repair the interior of Charles Park, including repaving. Some $70,000 was used to redo the children’s play area and another $75,000 to redo the park’s three ballfields. But, McClosky said, “you wouldn’t know it.”

Weeds have grown at least ankle-high in each ballfield, hiding from sight dog waste and any bump or hole over which a player could trip. The uneven ground caused 10 broken ankles in the last two years, according to McClosky.

Nick LoPrinzi, an area resident who grew up playing baseball in the park, is fed-up with the dangerous and burdensome conditions of the ballfields. It has become routine for him and members of the little league teams he coaches to arrive at the park two hours before a scheduled game to remove weeds, fill in holes and make sure there is runoff on the base path.

“It’s a shame. You want the kids to play baseball, but you don’t want to make it a four-hour process just to play one game,” LoPrinzi said. “We get promises and promises and promises that (Gateway will) take care of it, but you can barely get garbage (cans) emptied and bathrooms opened, never mind getting the fields fixed.”

Surrounding the largest ball field is a fence intended to protect players and visitors inside and outside the field. A broken segment of the fence — hanging dangerously close to the ground of the field — does just the opposite: it is a safety hazard for players who run beneath it and children who will, inevitably, climb it.

This costly damage was preventable, according to LaSaracina. Supposedly, Gateway was repeatedly asked by concerned park regulars to remove a dead tree that once stood directly across from the fence. Two years of complaints accomplished nothing: the tree came down on its own during a windstorm earlier this year.

Although no one was injured, the fallen tree caused some suffering for park visitors who must now contend with a damaged fence indefinitely. “God knows when they’ll get to it,” LaSaracina said. The ball field fence will be replaced as soon as a contractor is selected for the project, according to Gateway spokesman Brian Feeney.

When asked about the overall maintenance inadequacy, Feeney blamed limited resources. “There’s no doubt that we do not have enough resources to maintain every facility within the Jamaica Bay Unit on a continual basis,” he said. “You can imagine the enormity of trying to care for 6,000 acres in recreational and national resources. And, we do our very best to maintain everything with the resources we have available, but it’s an infinite number of resources.”

But he is confident that visitors to each of the Jamaica Bay Unit parks, which include Riis Park in the Rockaways and the Canarsie Pier in Brooklyn, will see improvements this summer, as Gateway has hired additional seasonal maintenance personnel.

Members of the Friends of Charles Park Committee have heard this all before and they just don’t buy it. “We’ve given up on the park service because when we call, they don’t respond,” McClosky said, noting that, while Gateway neglects to uphold its duties, both Weiner and Meeks have fulfilled theirs. Even city and state politicians, including City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and state Sen. Serphin Maltese, have tried to lend a hand, despite having no oversight on federal land.

Gateway needs to “facilitate its funding better,” McClosky said, “and tell the community where the funding goes” instead of relying on local organizations like the Friends of Charles Park Committee to hold fundraisers, petition congress members for money and donate their own time to cleaning the park. “It’s a federal park. It should be treated like a federal park and Gateway needs to step up to the plate” — the community has already done more than enough.

Feeney said that Gateway relies “heavily” on volunteer efforts and that such efforts are appreciated. But, he added, there needs to be an understanding that as a result of budget constraints, Gateway is simply unable to do everything it would like to do.

This may be so, but McClosky is demanding documented proof. She wants Gateway to provide annual reports on its overall budget breakdown — how it distributes funding among the three units — and the specifics of its spending on the Jamaica Bay Unit.

According to Feeney, Gateway National Recreation Area has a $22 million annual budget that covers the entire 26,000-acre park, which spreads across three boroughs and coastal New Jersey. From the 2008 budget, the Jamaica Bay Unit in Queens and Brooklyn received $7.5 million, while $4.5 million was allocated to the Staten Island Unit and $6.3 was used for the Sandy Hook Unit. Feeney did not account for the remaining $3.7 million.

At issue is efficiency, according to several park visitors who claimed the city Department of Parks and Recreation would do a much better job of maintaining Charles Park. But McClosky believes she and her fellow park supporters would do the best job of all caring for the preserve.

In the last decade alone, they’ve done more than Gateway has or than DPR would do, she said. In addition to the $1.5 million they raised, members of the Friends of Charles Park Committee and a number of other local organizations secured a $25,000 grant from the Hudson River Foundation and raised about $3,000 to plant 30 trees.

McClosky’s next goal is to secure a congressional earmark for Gateway’s Jamaica Bay Unit of $1 million every year for five or six years, with the condition that her committee, along with other area residents and groups, determine the funding distribution.

Her top priorities are maintenance and park rangers. “There is absolutely no enforcement of the rules” in Charles Park. This can be especially dangerous on summer weekends, when thousands of visitors swarm park grounds.

Some patrons do not pick up after their dogs, others park illegally — both on the street and in the park itself — and there are those who treat Charles Park, and the wildlife that frequently visits it, with disrespect and cruelty.

Just two weeks ago, park visitors found a dead swan that had found its way to the park from the nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Center. Evidently, it had been killed. “This is a natural wildlife preserve,” McClosky said. “We can’t afford to destroy it.”

Although she often feels both encouraged and discouraged simultaneously, McClosky has never wavered in her determination to save Charles Park, and she vows to forge ahead. “Did we win the war?” she asked. “No. But we’ve won tiny, little battles all along the way.” This, she believes, inspires her anew every single day.

Hundreds turn out for Callahan’s funeral


A funeral mass was held for James Callahan III at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead on May 31, 2011.

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos originally appeared on on May 31, 2011. This content is the rightful property of Richner Communications, Inc.]

Hundreds of people filled the pews at the St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead last week to pay their last respects to James Callahan III, who died May 26, several weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer and suffered a stroke.

Friends and family members said they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they received, and thanked the various elected officials and public servants who attended the May 31 funeral mass of the late Malverne deputy mayor, who was also the commissioner of the county’s emergency management office.

As Callahan’s wife, Patricia, walked in behind the casket to the altar with her children, Thomas, Katherine, Elizabeth and Christina, people began to sob, drowning out the soft organ music that played in the background. More tears were shed when Patricia decided to follow the eulogy her brother, Joseph Canzoneri Jr., had given with one of her own.

“The emptiness I feel today cannot be described adequately by words,” she said. “Jimmy and I shared every aspect of our lives together. We were truly best friends. We were partners intellectually and in managing our household and children. I have no regret today as I stand before you because Jimmy and I shared a very special love, one that caused us to say ‘I love you’ multiple times throughout every day.”


Hundreds of people turned out to pay their last respects to the late Malverne deputy mayor and commissioner of the county Office of Emergency Management.

Patricia went on to say that her husband had shared his life with many people and touched many lives. “We have all lost today — not just me and my children,” she said. Out of respect for Callahan, she added, she must share her family’s loss with everyone.

At the Malverne Village Board’s June 1 meeting, it was clear that Callahan’s death had a far-reaching effect. Almost everyone who spoke at the meeting — including the board members, department heads, civic leaders and village residents — had something to say about the late deputy mayor.

“It was an honor and a privilege to work with Jim,” Mayor Patricia McDonald said. “He was wonderful at guiding this board. … When I look to my right and Jim’s not here, it’s very surreal. … It will take a very long time for it to sink in.”

Trustees Michael Bailey, Joe Hennessy and John O’Brien, and village Attorney James Frankie, each spoke about their experiences working with Callahan in his 12 years on the board. “His knowledge … was inspiring,” Bailey said. Hennessy called Callahan an “attribute” to the village and O’Brien described him as “the quintessential public servant.”

Frankie said Callahan’s presence on the board was of great help to him personally: prior to taking on the role of commissioner for the county’s emergency management office, Callahan was a partner in a Baldwin-based law firm. “Unless you worked with him, you have no idea how bright he was,” Frankie said. “He made all of our jobs easier.”

While he loved his work, both in the county and the village, it was his family that Callahan put first, according to Hennessy. He recalled something Patricia Callahan had said at the funeral mass about notes — with messages like “I love you,” “I miss you” or “I’ll call you soon” — Callahan would leave hidden around the house for his children to find when he went on business trips.

“I think if you really want to know about Jim Callahan, that says it all,” Hennessy said.

Paul Jessup, head of Malverne’s Department of Public Works, said that he and Callahan became close in the 11 years they worked together. Even when they socialized, he said, they were getting work done. “Jim always gave 110 percent,” he said. “He was the only one I could call at 3 a.m. and know he was sitting in his office.”

On behalf of the Malverne Public Library, Cathy Wellikoff read a note expressing condolences to Callahan’s relatives. “None of us have been able to shake this feeling because he’s a neighbor and someone we see on T.V. and we feel close to him,” she said. “The tragedy of it is beyond our ability to comprehend and accept.”

Callahan, who was 42 when he died, had been re-elected to his fourth term as a trustee on the Malverne Village Board on March 15. County Executive Ed Mangano, who attended the funeral mass, swore Callahan in to his seat on April 4. Less than a week later, Callahan suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized for six weeks, during which time he was diagnosed with cancer.

Mangano was among the numerous county officials who attended Callahan’s funeral mass. Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter was there, along with dozens of uniformed officers and county fire marshals. Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray also turned out for the funeral.


Dozens of town and county officials lined up outside the church to watch as the casket of James Callahan III, the late commissioner of the county Office of Emergency Management and Malverne Village deputy mayor who died May 26, was placed inside the hearse.

Outside the chapel, in a line down the center of Westminster Street, which was blocked off by police cruisers and fire trucks, dozens of county and town leaders stood with their hands over their hearts. They watched as Callahan’s casket was brought out and a county bagpipe ensemble began to play a piece. As mourners filed out of the church, three county helicopters in a “V” formation flew overhead, giving the sign that it was time to load the casket into the hearse.

The elegance of the funeral mass, procession and burial at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury were a testament to the respect people had for Callahan, and for the love and support they provided his family during his illness and after his death, McDonald said. Many who shared their feelings about Callahan said they were only giving back for what he had given the village and county in his professional roles and personal character.

“What I have often marveled about is how he did it so humbly,” Patricia Callahan had said in her eulogy. “He never boasted or bragged, he was wonderfully selfless in the things he did for so many people. He was happy being in the background and never sought recognition for his kindness.”

Patricia had maintained her composure until she began to speak of the lesson her late husband’s death has taught her. “It is up to all of us here today to fill the tremendous void left by Jim’s absence,” she said. Her voice caught in her throat, but she continued to speak, determined to deliver an important message. “I think we all now realize how fragile and precious our lives are,” she said. “Please spend that time on the things most important — your family, good friends and don’t worry about the small stuff.”

Read the full obituary.

Mother of autistic boy levels charges of bullying at Malverne school


Copyright of
Joel Luna Menjivar is a gifted musician who excels in his math classes, but has trouble socializing.

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos originally appeared on on Jan. 18, 2012. This content is the rightful property of Richner Communications, Inc.]

Bullies at the Malverne middle school have kicked, taunted, chased and harassed autistic eighth-grader Joel Luna Menjivar, according to his mother, Ana, who called the Herald in a desperate attempt to get help.

School administrators have given Luna Menjivar plenty of lip service, but taken little to no corrective action, said the Guatemala native, who is not a fluent English speaker. She said the problem has persisted throughout her son’s time in the middle school, but in recent months it has escalated. Two incidents in particular, both occurring in the Howard T. Herber Middle School cafeteria, stand out for her because they resulted in either physical injuries or trauma. In one case, she said, a student struck Joel in the face with a glass bottle and in another, a student tried to pull down his pants.

“He did not take it off … because Joel run away,” Luna Menjivar said, “but I don’t know where is the one-to-one [aide], where is the security, where is everybody, where is the teachers? For 20 or 25 minutes he [was] very scared.”

Joel speaks English well and can communicate at a relatively high level despite his autism, but he is still a special-needs student who has trouble socializing, his mother said, adding, “He is a good boy, he listens, he is respectful.” She praised the Malverne school district, its special education program and its teachers, who have helped her son achieve high grades. Joel is particularly gifted in math and takes an honors class. Luna Menjivar’s daughters, Angie, 11, and Giovanna, 8, also do well in school. But while the classrooms are safe places, Joel is subject to bullying in the hallways, the cafeteria, outside and after school, she said.

She and his father, Bernardo Luna, said they have reported to school authorities each incident their son has told them about. At one point, Luna went directly to the Malverne Police Department to file a report. The department sent a detective to Herber to investigate, but referred the matter back to the school. “We really can’t do anything if we don’t witness it,” Chief John Aresta told the Herald, adding that when it comes to children being bullied in school, the police generally have little power. Herber’s dean of students, Dan Nehlsen, did, however, tell police that the student responsible for that incident would be suspended, Aresta added.

The incident with the bottle was never reported to police, but had it been, it would be considered assault with a weapon and the department would have taken action, according to Aresta.

Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund said that Joel’s parents never reported the bottle incident to the school. Instead, seeing that the “child looked disturbed,” a school psychologist spoke with him and discovered what had happened. Administrators took immediate action, Hunderfund said, adding that school initiated a superintendent’s hearing and issued the responsible student an “extensive penalty” that was “beyond typical action.”

“The situation was addressed very conscientiously and immediately,” Hunderfund said. “We follow policy, we take very seriously any form of bullying, we have an absolute anti-bullying policy and we do have anti-bullying programs in the school, including character education, and we don’t tolerate it.”


Ana Luna Menjivar, right, demanded that the Malverne school district protect her son, Joel, 14, from bullying. Her husband, Bernardo, and daughter Giovanna, 8, said they feel helpless.

Hunderfund said that through behavioral-modification and character-education programs, which include assemblies and guest speakers, “treatment of others and values are very well-reviewed with students in the curriculum and practiced every day.” But, he added, Joel’s situation is unique — he already has constant adult supervision, yet he is still subject to bullying.

The district, however, is not authorized to provide one-to-one aide services “24/7,” which might be what Joel needs, the superintendent said. So the district suggested taking Joel out of the typical school setting and putting him in a placement school instead. His parents refused the offer, which left the district between a rock and a hard place, Hunderfund said.

Still, it’s the district’s job to keep not only Joel, but all students, safe, according to Luna Menjivar. “I’m very frustrated, very angry,” she said. “It’s too much. The school is making too [many] mistakes and I’m not happy right now.”

The bullying has affected Joel’s every action, she said: He has trouble eating and sleeping and he is constantly nervous, finding it difficult to speak at times and often wringing his hands. Although he is not reluctant to tell his parents about bullying incidents, his cognitive disability sometimes impedes him from doing so, which then makes it difficult for his parents to report an incident to the district.

Concerned for her son’s well-being, Luna Menjivar said she has reconsidered the special placement. “I don’t want him to go to the [Malverne] high school,” she said. With the Herald’s help, she was able to secure a meeting with Hunderfund in which they would discuss Joel’s options.

“No matter what happens with this situation, I want to get to the bottom of the problem,” Hunderfund said, adding that, if needed, he would even invite his wife, who speaks Spanish, to the meeting for translation help. “I’m frustrated because I want the school district to move forward and not be bogged down with individual circumstances. … And I understand the parents and their frustration, and I’m glad to look at every incident they’re referring to.”

Hunderfund was expected to meet with Luna Menjivar this week.

While special placement might be a good solution in Joel’s case, it does not solve the district’s problem, said Mor Keshet, coordinator of the bullying prevention center of Long Island’s Child Abuse Prevention Services. “If this has been an ongoing series of events — and it appears to be so — and there is a chronic pattern of behavior from either one child or a group of children, then it really speaks to the overall school culture,” she said. “And that is certainly something that the school can and needs to address.”

It is important for the district to put in place a comprehensive safety plan for all of its students, not just those like Joel who are protected, according to Keshet. “I’m certain that the school knows, being that this is a repeated behavior, who the students are that are doing it,” she said. “Those students need support — a very different kind of support — in helping them learn and understand what the implications of their choices are and how they can make different choices that don’t hurt and humiliate another child.”

Developing a comprehensive safety plan, designating a number of adults in each school building as “safe adults,” offering staff development and creating dialogue with parents would help the district address its problem, Keshet said. “That’s really the kind of language that these parents need to be empowered with,” she said.
Parents and children affected by bullying are encouraged to email the CAPS Bully Helpline at

Sole Vaccarello survivor to fight parole

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on Nov. 20, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle.]

For many, the year 1994 seems a distant, vague memory. Most people do not recollect all of the major events that took place that spring 15 years ago — like the May 6 opening of the Channel Tunnel between England and France, or the May 10 inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.

Few remember that on May 10 that year an annular eclipse of the sun cast a shadow across much of North America. But relatives of the Vaccarello family of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn have crisp memories of that spring when they were enshrouded in their own cloud of darkness, cast by an eclipse that suddenly befell their world the night of May 1. For some, the tragic event that occurred that night is a hazy, remote memory. For 28-year-old John Vaccarello it is a vivid and recurring nightmare.


Copyright Queens Chronicle
From left, John Vaccarello with Maria, Giovanni, Caterina and Concetta in a photo taken shortly before the car crash the claimed his mother’s and sisters’ lives, and severely injured his father.

It was the night his parents and sisters were hit by a speeding car that tore down Cross Bay Boulevard at 70 miles per hour with its headlights off and a drunk driver behind its wheel. After it blew a red light at 163rd Avenue, the 1982 Lincoln Continental slammed into Giovanni Vaccarello, then 51, his wife, 45-year-old Caterina, and daughters Maria, 18, and Concetta, 17.

Only John, the family’s youngest child, was spared: the 13-year-old remained in the party room at Russo’s on the Bay in which his relatives had just finished celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary of his aunt and uncle. His parents and sisters exchanged their goodbyes with other relatives and left the catering hall. They were crossing the street when 55-year-old Abraham Meyers, an Ozone Park janitor, plowed into them.

The force of the impact threw Giovanni and Concetta about 60 feet across the divider and into the opposing lane. Meanwhile, the car dragged Caterina and Maria about 200 feet, killing them instantly, before it veered onto and climbed the divider, bashed into a pole and ricocheted back onto the road. Giovanni suffered a heart attack and broke his leg in three places, and Concetta suffered severe head injuries. Both were taken to Jamaica Hospital where Giovanni was listed in critical but stable condition and where Concetta died several hours later.

Some 1,500 mourners filled Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church in Bay Ridge the morning of May 6, 1994, as Mass was celebrated for Caterina Vaccarello and her daughters. As reported in The New York Times the next day, “They sat in somber silence until, shaken by the sight of 18 pallbearers bringing three white-draped coffins down the aisle, their muffled communal sob rippled toward the altar.”

In stable condition at the hospital, Giovanni Vaccarello did not attend the Mass, but earlier that morning he visited a local funeral home to say his final goodbyes to his wife and daughters.

The day of the funeral, a grand jury indicted Meyers, whose blood-alcohol level that night had been .23 percent — more than twice the legal limit, which in 1994 was .1 percent — on three counts of depraved-indifference murder (today known as second-degree murder), reckless manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

After the sentencing, on Jan. 26 1995, Giovanni Vaccarello told the New York Post, “I wish I could put my hands on him for two minutes. I’d break him in little pieces. I’d make him suffer the way I’ve suffered. I lived for my family. My greatest source of joy came from them.” Shrugging at the penalty Meyers received, Vaccarello said, “It’s better than nothing. But don’t forget, each life of mine cost him only five years.”

Relatives of Vaccarello, who died in 2007 after a year-long battle with cancer, did not forget. His son John, with whom he had been very close, and niece Maria Chieco, 27, have vowed to do everything in their power to keep Meyers in jail for the rest of his life.

The week of Dec. 8, Meyers, who turns 70 on Dec. 3, will meet with a parole board for the first time since he was incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York on Feb. 17, 1995. According to the state Department of Correctional Services, the earliest date on which Meyers can be released is April 24, 2009.

But John Vaccarello and other family members will fight to prevent Meyers’ release: they are meeting with an officer from the state Division of Parole on Friday, Nov. 21 to explain why Meyers’ freedom should be denied. According to Chieco, the family has long been counting down to and preparing for this day.

Relatives have written heartfelt letters, gathered newspaper clippings, collected photographs and rallied community support: they managed to obtain 1,300 signatures on a petition calling for the parole board to deny Meyers’ release. Additionally, many relatives will attend the meeting on Friday.

All of that is designed to convey the family’s point: “Is 15 years in jail really a lesson?” Chieco asked, noting Meyers’ long criminal record. Since moving to Queens at the age of 17, the South Carolina native had many run-ins with the law. At the time of his 1994 arrest, Meyers had been without a valid driver’s license for 27 years. Prior to that, the convict had his license suspended 26 times.

According to published reports, Meyers was arrested nine times between 1960 and 1978 for various crimes, including assault, driving while intoxicated, driving without a license, reckless driving, drug possession, grand theft auto, resisting arrest and promoting gambling. It was reported that police said they could not be certain whether Meyers had ever actually gone to jail.

In addition to keeping the repeat offender off the streets, Chieco said denying Meyers parole will spread awareness and send a clear message to the public about drunk driving and its repercussions, just as the Vaccarello family’s tragic loss had, on its own, sent a message to state legislators.

In the March-April 1995 edition of Transportation Alternatives magazine, an article titled “Throwing the Book at Killer Drivers” reported that on May 10, just nine days after the incident, the Assembly Codes Committee met in Albany for a discussion about the Scofflaw Act of 1993.

According to its sponsor, Assemblyman and Codes Committee Chairman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), the law was created with the express purpose of saving lives by catching reckless drivers before they kill. Starting just six months after it was enacted, the law had already failed to live up to the expectations of its sponsors and the Vaccarello tragedy was further proof that Law 511 just wasn’t working.

Since then, legislators have worked to make the laws more stringent, using deterrents, such as heavy fines and long jail sentences, and more severe punitive action.

If Meyers is denied parole at his December hearing, he will serve an additional two years before becoming eligible for parole again. Each time an inmate is denied parole, he typically becomes eligible again after 24 months — a process that can continue for the duration of his life.

John Vaccarello will also live the rest of his life in a prison of his own: while he has freedoms and rights, and can go and come as he pleases, a part of him will forever be trapped in the memory of that devastating spring night in 1994. But his won’t be an entirely lonely jail cell, according to Chieco, because the entire family will be trapped right there with him.

“To really grasp how the tragedy … changed our lives, you need to understand our family dynamic,” Chieco, whose mother was Giovanni Vaccarello’s sister, wrote in a statement for the parole officer. “We were cousins, best friends, brothers and sisters.”

A peek inside the life of a drag queen

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article and its accompanying photos — coming soon! — originally appeared in the Queens Tribune in the summer of 2007. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Tribune.]

It was the typical frenetic pre-performance prep: curling irons, wigs, makeup cases overflowing with 10 shades of lipstick, blush and mascara, jewelry boxes lined with sparkling trinkets, gowns and costumes hanging from clothing racks, loud music and last-minute routine rehearsals. New to the scene were duct tape, falsies and razors.

It was a humid Friday night in Jackson Heights at the Club Atlantis on Roosevelt Avenue and Lorena Saint Cartier’s 15th Anniversary as Queens’ legendary Diva. She and her fellow female impersonators, who she trained and inspired, were preparing for their show in the basement of the club at 2 a.m.

Dressing Up
The 40-year-old Lorena, born Lemuel Lopez in the Dominican Republic, was celebrating her lengthy career as what is more commonly known as a drag queen – a career she unexpectedly fell into a decade and a half ago. Lorena was a renowned dancer and choreographer, teaching Afro-Caribbean dance and classical ballet to students in Harlem, throughout the five boroughs, in Long Island and New Jersey. Her work in the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre earned her a glamorous reputation in the gay community and elsewhere. And, despite her distance from the gay bar scene, it was widely known that she was a gay man.

She never imagined that her identity as a shy, gay, male accounting student from the DR would transform as it rapidly did: Lemuel became a woman, an artist, an entertainer – a Diva.

On New Year’s Day in 1992, Lorena shed her inhibitions and worries of potential shame. She dressed in drag, got on stage and performed as a woman for the first time. She has since come to know herself as that – a woman.
Prior to that night, and following much hesitation, trepidation and indecision, Lorena was essentially inducted into a community that would become her new family – the female impersonators of New York City.

She would later earn the title of Queen of the Country after winning the national drag queen beauty pageant in 2002.

Not Always Easy
But unlike life on the stage, reality wasn’t all glitz and glam – it was fraught with struggle confusion, rejection and pain.

As her fame in the gay community grew and her talent was sought after by every gay bar owner in the City, Lorena increasingly lost sleep and lived less of her own life. “I was living for the audience,” she said recently in a small café on Roosevelt Avenue. “I felt like a stewardess – all my life is in a suitcase.”

Lorena became nocturnal, hosting events and performing shows in the early morning hours, sometimes returning home after 5 a.m. She’d shower, then head out again for grocery shopping at 24-hour supermarkets, watch late-night soap operas and fall asleep mid-morning. Waking up at around 5 p.m., Lorena would begin her day with breakfast prepared for her by the many friends and diva trainees that constantly paraded in and out of her Woodhaven apartment. Then, the nightlife would begin again.

For 10 years she lived this way, performing six nights a week, taking no vacations and barely seeing her family. “My life was doing the show, going to sleep and preparing for the show,” she said.

Though Lorena loves her job, she knew this was no way to subsist. She retired for six months and took some time to find herself again. She ate and slept at normal hours, visited with family, regained a social life and “learned to live again,” she said.

The gay bar scene beckoned for her. Calls and bookings kept coming her way and she decided to return to the Queen lifestyle – this time in moderation. She now performs between three and four shows a week, shows for which she feels better prepared and which she can more easily enjoy. She has also learned how to say no to the desperate pleas of yearning fans.

Coming Of Age
Not only has Lorena learned self-respect, she’s obtained it from society. In recent years, the drag scene has gained some credibility, according to Lorena. “Before, if I was walking at seven o’clock at night [down Roosevelt Avenue, people thought] I was a prostitute,” she said. “Now I got the chance that I can walk and people say hi to me. People see us and they see that we’re nice people, we just have a different way to express ourselves.”

Feeling embraced and accepted has aided Lorena’s career, she said, as it has helped open doors for her and present her with opportunities. More importantly, it has ended her lifelong struggle with self-identity. “We’re wonderful human beings, we’re helpful, we are creative people, we like beautiful things,” she said. Finally, Lorena added, the straight community realized this and began welcoming the divas.

The diminished discrimination has lifted the drag and gay scene spirit and this is what Lorena is most happy about. “We’re changing,” she said, “and people are seeing that, especially here in the Spanish community.”

Luckily, Lorena’s family has always been supportive of her lifestyle. Though her parents had high hopes of medical or law school for their son, they’ve come to terms with his choice to live as a performer and as a woman.
Except for a heart-breaking and utterly painful rift between Lorena and one of her siblings, which began when she started doing drag and lasted five years, she has always been close with the members of her large family, particularly with her nieces and nephews. According to the Queen, it is her mother, now 81, who she aims to please most.

Lorena’s skinny frame, bashful eyes and husky voice are nowhere near as dead a giveaway as would be expected from a drag queen. This has played to her benefit throughout the last 15 years: she’s avoided all plastic surgery, with the exception of silicone implants in her cheeks.

Narrow-shouldered (and even more narrow-hipped) and at a height of no more than 5-foot-6, Lorena could pass for a woman with relative ease. Her own long, dark curls frame her face and pouting lips soften her jaw line, but it’s not enough: times have changed and plastic surgery is in. Now, according to Lorena, is it more difficult than ever to recognize that hiding beneath the pounds of makeup, heavy wigs and feathered gowns is a male body.
Competing with the younger and newer queens, who’ve been implanted everywhere from their foreheads and breasts to their hips and calves, has become a challenge for Lorena. She’s debated the decision to undergo plastic surgery for several years now and has yet to find her stance on the issue. It is, after all, to permanently live as a woman.

On the inside Lorena is a woman, and to her that is all that matters.