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The Civic Scene: Civic activists become warriors of community

When residents of northeast Queens talk about community activists who fight hard, the names Mandingo Tshaka and Frank Skala usually are the topic of conversation. If it were not for a new borough president and new council members, these two men, who are so vehement in their beliefs, probably would not have been reappointed to Community Board 11.

Tshaka has been president of the Bayside Clear Spring Council Civic Association and has fought hard for years. I just came across an article in a now-defunct paper called “This Week,” dated Sept. 2, 1989. The article’s headline reads, “Tshaka says, ‘Death to Dealers.’” He walked around his neighborhood carrying a baseball bat. And he had a 21-year acting and singing career, which explains his thundering voice.

He previously was on CB 11 two other times. The first time he was fired by Borough President Donald Manes because he wouldn’t back down from his zoning beliefs. He was the chair of the zoning committee at that time. Another time he was dismissed from the board because he was absent too often. He admitted he had other conflicts at the time, but often other quieter board members are not dismissed for that same reason.

One of Tshaka’s longstanding battles was to make Martins Field, a former burial ground for about 1,000 African Americans and native Americans, into a memorial park. The site was paved over by the Parks Department, in error, and made into a playground on 46th Avenue between 164th and 163rd streets.

In 1999 Tshaka made the city use radar or some other imaging method to prove there were indeed people buried under the current park. When there was no resolution, he sued the city. The case was lost but there has been a solution.

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), a former president of the North Flushing Civic Association, has brokered a deal to make the area an appropriately fitting park and memorial. Years ago I would see Tshaka at meetings, and once I gave him a copy of a pocket book I had picked up in South Africa. The book was about the life of Tshaka Zulu, a warrior who united the Zulu tribes into a warrior nation about 150 years ago. Today we have the warrior Mandingo Tshaka.

Skala is another civic warrior. He has been president of the East Bayside Civic Association. We often exchange newsletters. I knew Skala as a delegate from the United Federation of Teachers to the American Federation of Teachers and other conventions. Skala was a junior high school teacher who fought the system and now fights to maintain the zoning of Bayside.

He battled the bars on Bell Boulevard as well as the block fair along that same roadway, which ended up trashing the community. He currently is fighting a religious institution that wants to build tall and is receiving variances that he feels will hurt the community. He has fought doctors’ offices that his civic felt would disrupt the community.

On CB 11 he is continuing to fight zoning variances he feels are wrong. He was the only one to vote against extending a variance for the backyard parking lot of the Staples store on Northern Boulevard because there was water in the back and the area was filthy.

Skala’s daughter and my daughter were classmates in Ryan Junior High School, which I discovered when I took her to a party at his house. Nice people are nice people, and when my daughter was looking for a teaching job his daughter recommended a few schools.

Civic association leaders voluntarily put a lot of time and effort into maintaining the quality of life for the people of their community. They can be found all over New York City.

Good news of the week

I recently wrote a column about the lawsuit won for fiscal equity for New York City children. Due to legerdemain by Albany politicians, the city receives less money than other school systems around the state. I just discovered that Robert Jackson of Washington Heights instituted the lawsuit that just mandated the state to revise the formula and give the city more state education money.

Jackson was a SUNY New Paltz graduate and labor relations specialist who was upset by the overcrowding in his daughter’s school, joined the PTA and became Community School Board 6’s president for the next 20 years. In 1980 he helped create the Campaign for Fiscal Equality and sued New York state in that same year.

In 2001 Jackson was elected to the City Council. It just shows what civic-minded people can accomplish.

Bad news of the week

More and more people are building fences around their houses, which can be good to keep in children or a dog, but it often distracts from the open look of the community. Corner fences can be dangerous because cars cannot be seen through them.

Front yard, 6-foot-high fences prevent people who are walking on the sidewalk from seeing an automobile coming out of a driveway or around a corner. The town of Hempstead has a clear vision corner law that prohibits any obstruction within 20 feet of a corner. This sounds reasonable. We also should get rid of those giant SUVs with tinted windows that park on corners.

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