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Residents’ vision paves way for progress in Jamaica

The AirTrain's concrete path above the Van Wyck Expressway was not there, nor was the glass-enclosed terminal building. The new Family Court building then was the old Queens Library site on Parsons Boulevard, and the Civil Court, Food and Drug Administration and Jamaica Multiplex cinema had not yet been erected. The Joseph Addabbo Federal Building on Jamaica Avenue had just opened.

"We began to hear the concept of revitalization of downtown Jamaica," said Dr. Gloria Black, chairwoman of Community Board 12 and a longtime Jamaica resident. "The community worked with individuals who had a vision for the building of Jamaica."

In 1989, Jamaica, and particularly the commercial downtown stretch along Jamaica Avenue, was in desperate need of an overhaul, said the Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor at the Greater Allen Cathedral and then congressman for southeast Queens. The area was struggling to shake off the last vestiges of a high-crime rate - particularly from drug-related incidents, he said.

"Jamaica was still battling with the final stages of the scourge of drugs that had literally debilitated the community and had in many ways limited its abilities to do effective development," Flake said.

Many homeowners and retailers left the once bustling shopping area for the suburbs, and consumers were often forced to follow them because there was little left in Jamaica, Black said.

"The deterioration, in my opinion, set in largely when the community began to shift in population," she said. "Individuals who really held the retail and wholesale businesses began to move out to the established malls."

Business leaders and elected officials worked to restore and rebuild Jamaica. Flake helped secure federal funds and projects like the Addabbo building, which opened in 1989. Other public investments followed, such as the Civil Courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard in 1997 and the FDA building on the York College campus in 2000.

More recently the Jamaica Center retail complex, including the Jamaica Multiplex, the first movie theater in the area in 30 years, opened in 2002, and the new Family Courthouse debuted in 2003, as did the long-awaited AirTrain link to Kennedy Airport.

"There has been a tremendous transformation," Flake said. "Jamaica is a much more hopeful community, a more stable community, a more livable community so that people who would have thought about moving out of it have now made investments in their property and are staying here."

Flake and his congregation have also made investments of their own, building the Greater Allen Cathedral church on Merrick Boulevard in 1997 to accommodate the growing body of worshipers. Flake had been giving sermons in the 600-seat chapel at Sayers Avenue and Merrick Boulevard, where the church now holds youth programs, he said.

But the area is still hoping to pull in more private dollars, particularly around the AirTrain Station at Sutphin Boulevard and 94th Avenue, Flake said. Tentative plans call for hotel, office, retail and housing spaces.

"It's a long process," Black said. "We're not done yet."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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