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Maspeth Chamber of Commerce turns 50

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A lot has changed along Grand Avenue since the days when Clara the Matron used to patrol the aisles of the Maspeth Movie House like a drill sergeant on a power trip.

"She kept everyone in line - everyone was scared of Clara," said Maryanna Zero, the outgoing president of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce. "When you saw that flashlight hit you, you ducked."

But on a street where the roll of the trolley has been replaced by the lumbering rumble of truck traffic, even the notorious Clara cannot rival the longevity of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, which has cast its watchful eye over a bustling community for five decades.

In many respects, the same values that inspired the chamber's formation still guide the volunteers who devise creative ways to boost business in Maspeth as they celebrate the group's 50th anniversary this year.

"We believe if the commercial area is strong, the surrounding area - the homes - is strong," Zero said during a recent interview at the Grand Avenue offices of her company, Home Hunters Realty. "You want the people in the surrounding area to stay here, to do their shopping here."

The group traces its roots to 1948, when a collection of shop owners and friends formed the Maspeth Progressive Merchants Inc., which was as much a social club as a business organization. Five years later in 1953 they transformed it into the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, which focused more keenly on nurturing business in the area.

Those were the days when Zero remembers depositing her pennies at Maspeth Federal Savings, which still exists today.

But the chamber's history hardly follows a straight path. The group is only as strong as the commitment of its volunteers, and lagging enthusiasm at various times in its history sometimes plunged it into relative obscurity.

Not today, however. For every project the current crop of volunteers gets off the ground, a handful more is waiting in the hopper.

"There were a lot of peaks and valleys throughout the years," said Fred Strobel, the incoming president whose term starts in April. His family has owned the Maspeth Press for generations, and the business is marking its own 75th anniversary this year. "In the last five or six years, we've just kind of really evolved into a dynamic, notable organization."

The effort shows.

"We were able to get funding for a lot of projects that came to fruition," Strobel said.

People entering Maspeth at the crossing of Grand and Flushing avenues are now welcomed by a prominent sign in a spruced-up traffic triangle, while a series of banners tailored to the season of the year hang from the light poles.

"It was really a dramatic effect on Grand Avenue," Strobel said of the banners. "So visible and alive."

None of the banners is hanging now, however, because all of the light poles are being replaced by antique-style lighting funded by state Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth), a project spearheaded by the chamber. The new fixtures will be accompanied by concrete planters that will be spread across the avenue. The planters are still in the design phase.

The changes are intended "to make it look like more of a hometown neighborhood, which we feel will promote walking traffic," Zero said.

After the installation of the "new old lamps," as Zero and Strobel call them, a series of banners will go up to celebrate the chamber's 50th anniversary. More than 60 businesses have paid to have their names listed along the bottom of one of them.

The anniversary will also figure strongly in the annual street fair the chamber plans for June 8.

And the ideas keep coming. Zero wants to see the Grand Avenue overpass of the Long Island Expressway remodeled to look more like an authentic bridge, with benches and high-powered binoculars to check out the view to Manhattan.

Strobel, meanwhile, is trying to reissue an updated version of a history of Maspeth written by the late Barbara Stankowski more than two decades ago.

"We make our living by the people around us," Zero said. "It's time to give back ... otherwise we have no business."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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