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Carlisle Towery winning fight to revive Jamaica

For the past 30 years a transplant from Alabama has been changing the landscape of downtown Jamaica, guiding the geographic center of Queens out of the economic difficulties of the 1970s toward the development of a major business and transportation hub.

As president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation since 1971, F. Carlisle Towery witnessed the collapse of Jamaica’s once-dynamic shopping area and fought to rebuild it.

“As I look over the field of players, I don’t know of anyone who has had a greater impact on economic development in Jamaica than Carlisle Towery,” said former City Council Deputy Majority Leader Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans). “His full-time mission is Jamaica.”

Since 1967 Greater Jamaica, a non-profit organization, has drawn up plans which have made downtown Jamaica a center of business, transportation, government, culture and higher education opportunities.

Most recently, Towery unveiled Greater Jamaica’s plan to turn the area of the future AirTrain station into JFK Corporate Square, a center for business and transportation.

“Carlisle is our encyclopedia for downtown Jamaica,” former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman said during an event in Jamaica last month.

Towery has came a long way from his roots in Alexander City, Ala. to be an urban planner and economic developer in New York City.

He was one of the first graduates of a private high school in Birmingham, Ala. that was formed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that made school segregation illegal.

He went on to study at Antioch College in Ohio and earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Alabama’s Auburn University.

In 1961, when George Wallace was running a successful bid for governor of Alabama on a pro-segregationist platform, Towery received an invitation to attend Columbia University on a full scholarship as part of the school’s geographic diversity program.

Towery joked that the school “needed some red necks” but he did not object to its proposal.

“I grabbed it,” Towery said of the opportunity. “It was my ticket out of George Wallace’s world. It was really scary to see what he was preaching and I was pleased to leave Alabama at that time.”

Towery joined the school’s ROTC program, which took him to Germany for nearly three years. After that academic interruption, he got his master’s degree in urban design in 1965.

He was soon recruited to work at the New York-based Regional Plan Association, which conceived the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation in 1967 and brought Towery on board as its president in 1971.

“I wasn’t sure what it would mean or whether a white person would be welcome to run a growing black community,” Towery said of working in Jamaica.

Spigner’s 17 years representing the eastern half of downtown Jamaica in the City Council overlapped with Towery’s time at Greater Jamaica.

When asked how he first reacted to the Alabama native, Spigner said: “He was smart enough or sensitive enough to know, as a white man from Alabama working in a predominately black community, that he had to be sensitive to some historical suspicions.

“And I think he worked hard to react to those realities and I think he has adjusted well. I think he’s accepted and respected.”

Towery said the first 15 years at Greater Jamaica were challenging. He watched as regional malls took business away from downtown Jamaica, forcing all of its large department stores to close by 1985.

The tide began to turn in the mid-1980s as Greater Jamaica helped encourage the City University of New York to open York College on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and played a part in the creation of three business improvement districts. Then the Queens civil and family courts opened and Greater Jamaica started its own farmer’s market.

Now Towery said he is looking forward to the completion of two major private projects: the opening of a 15-screen movie theater on Jamaica Avenue in the spring and the development of a 10-story office building across the street from Jamaica’s Sutphin Boulevard AirTrain station, set to open by 2003.

“I feel like I am getting my second wind,” Towery said. “Jamaica is really ready for real growth, but how it will happen — it takes perseverance, it requires all kinds of government actions. That’s our challenge is how we’ll make it happen.”

Towery lives in Hastings on the Hudson with his wife, Susan, a planner and investment banker. He had two children from his first marriage and she had three. Collectively, they have four grandchildren.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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