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Resplendent in a floor-length mink coat and matching hat with native American necklaces around his neck, Mandingo Tshaka appeared before Community Board 11 at its Feb. 7 meeting to announce his resignation from the board and much of his civic duties due to his poor health."To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield," the 73-year-old Tshaka told the board then.To hear him tell it, the well-known Bayside activist's lifetime of bearing a sword and shield was not a matter of choice but of destiny."There are those who were called out," Tshaka said during an interview in his Clear Springs-area home. "I didn't seek it. It came to me." He was scheduled to be honored at the Community Baptist Church Friday at 7 p.m., during the church's Black History & Heritage program. The church is located at 46-19 206th St. in Bayside. Tshaka's grandmother built the house that he was born in and still lives in on 46th Avenue. Tshaka attended PS 31 and PS 39, and recalled that when President Franklin Roosevelt died, he was tapped to sing the Lord's Prayer over the school intercom. He attended Bayside High School but dropped out, eventually finding his way to sing on Broadway and all over the world as a member of the Ink Spots. He has performed at the City Center and Radio City Music Hall as well. A black and white photograph in a dusty frame in his living room shows a young and vigorous Tshaka in costume, performing in "The Desert Song" on Broadway.But perhaps his true legacy comes from his decades of civic involvement. Tshaka's neighborhood lies just south of Northern Boulevard between the Clearview Expressway and Bell Boulevard, an area more modest than most of affluent Bayside. Tshaka calls it his "garden of mixed lilies" and maintains that the area's racially diverse population has marked it to be the last to receive many city services."This area was borderline poverty. It's been all turned around now," he said. "I'm proud of the fact that I never sold the people out."One of Tshaka's signature causes has been the cleaning and restoration of the playground near MS 158 at 46-35 Oceania St."Playground 158 used to have crack gangs there," he said. "I used to chase them out of the park." During his years of advocacy for the park, he said he's had the city renovate it twice. "Maybe one day they'll name it after me," he mused.But, Tshaka insisted, the community needs to remember him not for his ego but for the work he did for the public."I took on the Mafia, the 111th Precinct," Tshaka said, recalling times when he called the police to the MS 158 playground to disperse drug dealers. "Sometimes they didn't show up," he said. "They were angry that I asked them to do their job."Though he was most recently on Community Board 11 for a two-year term appointed by Borough President Helen Marshall, Tshaka has served on the board twice before, in the late 1970s and also in the 1980s, when he was most involved with cleaning up the neighborhood facing many of the same problems that plagued the city in those days."It was the height of my civic activity," Tshaka said. "When I first became involved, it was an anomaly because I was beating the best zoning specialists, taking down the variances. The community board would applaud me."Now, Tshaka freely admitted, "I was a menace to the community board." He said that many of the board's regulations, such as the imposition of time limits on speakers during meetings, came from some of his behavior. "Community Board 11 is built around trying to contain me."Recently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, Tshaka still cuts an imposing figure, but the traces of time are evident."People say it's because of aggravation that I'm getting ulcers," he said. "Thirty years of tension, and it turned into ulcers. It was eating me up inside."And as the multiple phone calls interrupting the interview showed, perhaps Tshaka can never fully retire."I'm not going to change my spots, but I can't get involved in too many issues," he said. "It's time to step aside."He spoke of a time in the 1980s when, while riding his bicycle down Northern Boulevard near his home, Tshaka was stopped by a friendly merchant who told him some local business owners were upset at him for "interfering" and "stopping them from business as usual," he said. "The man told me they were talking about hiring someone from New Jersey to dispatch me."The threat of violence was enough to shake Tshaka but not to dissuade him, he said."Later that day, in the still of the night, I would go over the events of the day in my head and I laid in that bed and cried hot tears," he said. "I guarantee you, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, they all had a moment like that."Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.
©2005 Community Newspaper Group
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