Intersection: A Tale of Two Towns

elmont dot org no casino vlt at belmont march elmont floral park crystal berger
Elmont native, Crystal Berger (lower right), reflects on the challenges she faced while growing up in Elmont, and talks about her involvement with the “No Casino at Belmont” grassroots campaign, which she says has been characterized by solidarity among residents of Floral Park and Elmont. (Photo by Aubrey Phillips of Elmont.org.)

Long read — but also a must read!

Written by Crystal Berger

Intersection: A Tale of Two Towns 

As I reflect on my first two weeks in my new (temporary!) home, it has become abundantly clear that one thing is missing – all of you. Over the past few months, it has been my most sincere privilege to rally, march, rant, and chant alongside all of you. I am simultaneously proud and overwhelmingly humbled to have met and come to know each of you.

Today, however, is not the first time I had noticed that there was something missing. Over the past 22 years of living and working in and around Elmont, I couldn’t help but notice just how many things were missing from my own neighborhood: affordable housing, adequate public transportation, a recreation center for our youth…the list goes on. In a town where cultures blend and meld as fluently as the ebb and flow of roaring tides, we sometimes lack even the most basic of services, such as sanitation. A homeless man, quite clearly in need of intervention, inhabits the area surrounding Home Depot. His only possessions are contained in three shopping carts, scattered haphazardly between the laundromat and the building which housed the former Elmont Library. Temperatures have reached negative numbers in the past few days, yet this is where he calls home. 

It became easy for me to identify issues such as these early on in life. As the first-generation daughter of a hardworking, foreign-born, single mother and nurse, I was privileged enough to attend private school in Floral Park, beginning with the fifth grade at Our Lady of Victory. Eight hours a day, five days a week for 10 months of each year, Floral Park became my second home. 

Every morning, I boarded a yellow school bus. An hour later, after the last child had been picked up from his or her bus stop, our bus turned and headed towards Floral Park, traveling north on Plainfield Avenue. After snaking our way through neighborhoods from Alden Terrace to South Floral Park, a handful of non-Floral Park residents and I were deposited at our schoolyard. 

Eight hours later, we headed home, careening south down Plainfield Avenue. Always, our bus stopped at the intersection of Plainfield Avenue and Hempstead Turnpike, waiting for the traffic light to change from red to green. As we crossed over the intersection, my fifth-grade self began to observe that the traffic light was not the only thing that changed once we arrived at that location.

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Something was just…different, my ten-year-old brain registered as we approached the area. Hempstead Turnpike, in the area known surrounding the former Argo Theater, demarcated where Floral Park ended and Elmont began. This delineation highlighted not only the mere geographical boundaries and borders of neighboring towns, but also evidenced the beginning of a community in need, one whose vibrancy was diminished, overshadowed by neglect. 

It was at this location that I first learned that I was different. I learned that regardless of how the streets intersected, residents of Elmont and Floral Park simply did not. When my classmates learned that I lived in Elmont, they laughed and said that I was “from the ghetto.” 

That year, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walsh, asked us to draw a map reflecting the route which we traveled to get to school. That was easy enough – I drew the path from my house to the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and Plainfield Avenue, and portrayed Plainfield Avenue as a long road with a yellow school bus approaching a brown, brick school building. At Plainfield Avenue on my map, I drew pink flowers and green lollipop trees. 

“Why did you only draw flowers here?” Mrs. Walsh asked, pointing. 

“That’s where they begin!” I replied. 

After graduating from OLV, I went on to Kellenberg, another private, Catholic school. Kellenberg was a regional high school, attended by children from all over the island, many of whom had wealthy families. Sweet Sixteen parties for my friends were held at places like the Garden City Hotel, and attended by Rick Lazio. 

“Where do you live?” people would ask at events like these, at track practice and at club meetings. 

“I’m from Elmont,” I would say. Discomfort appeared on their faces, follow by confusion, as they attempted to figure out how someone who seemed to fit in could actually be from that town. 

“My area is nice,” I would offer, time and time again, to qualify my residence. “Oh!” came their confused, awkward response, having nothing useful to say. I began to say it more quietly.

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Later on in life, I became involved in politics so that I could work to elect leaders who would improve the quality of life for my neighbors not only in Elmont, but throughout Nassau County, and end the stigma associated with living in Elmont. I learned that political manipulation had resulted in gerrymandering, further under-serving the needs of my neighbors and friends. I believed that by electing the right legislators, we would have the opportunity to correct problems unique to Elmont, and perhaps be able to prevent them from occurring elsewhere. By working to elect talented, experienced, community-oriented individuals, I believed that my community would thrive. I fought to elect leaders who would unify our communities. 

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I knew that my community deserved better. By default, Elmont is the first town past the border of Queens, and therefore the very beginning of Nassau County. Because of its proximity to parkways and to Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont is often regarded as a thoroughfare, a place to drive through on your way to somewhere else. But real families lived there – women who, like my mother, emigrated from other countries, educated themselves, and embarked on the American dream. Women who became widows, yet were able to become homeowners. Every time I turned around, I saw another upstanding, hardworking family. Like my family, they were white and brown and black, and they often took on two and three jobs. These families struggled to pay bills and pay ever-increasing property taxes, resulting only in decreased services, withholding of state grants, and crumbling infrastructure. Something needed to be done. 

And something was done. Voters elected Legislator Carrie Solages and later, Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages. Elmont now had lawmakers who consistently safeguarded the best interests of all residents. Some battles were won and some were lost, blockaded by a Republican majority in the County Legislature, but all of the battles were fought. Others, like Tammie Williams, came forward to fight and to lead, mentoring our youth and working tirelessly for the best possible future for all residents. 

Despite our best efforts, much work remained. Devastating losses in the 2015 local elections only served to reiterate this fact. Not long after the November 3rd election, it was announced that a casino would be built at Belmont Park. Once again, our community leaders rolled up their sleeves, and prepared for what was sure to be a long and drawn-out war. It became clear that we could not do it alone. This time, we needed the involvement of our community members. Most importantly, we needed the support of friends and neighbors – we needed intersection. 

A curious thing began to happen. Friends in Floral Park, incensed by the betrayal of the very politicians for whom they had voted, vowed to fight the casino. The Belmont Task force was reinvigorated, and leaders like Kevin and Kristy Flood organized meetings and invited residents from neighboring communities to attend. Two thousand people attended the rally at Floral Park Memorial High School, setting records. That night, our communities stood in solidarity. 

But that was just a start. As the residents of Floral Park banned together to preserve the safety of their village, others began to wonder, what about Elmont? What about South Floral Park? What about Queens? And so they linked forces not only with the Belmont Task Force, but with leaders and community members from Elmont, Floral Park, South Floral Park, Valley Stream, North Valley Stream, Franklin Square, Bellerose, and Queens Village. Mary-Grace Tomecki and Nadia Holubnyczyj-Ortiz organized helped our communities to come together, empowering residents to demand that their local representatives join in our fight. Matthew Sexton, a licensed social worker from Floral Park, emerged as an outspoken defender of our combined communities. 

What Elmont needed was a friend, a neighbor, and a big brother to stand up for its community members. Often, when ethnically mixed communities organize for change, it is dismissed, and too much focus is placed solely on race. But with the perhaps unexpected support of neighbors like Matt in Floral Park, our ongoing fight for community development, including our fight against the casino at Belmont Park, has now earned collateral and gained unquestionable momentum. And that is a force to be reckoned with. 

It was exactly what we needed, and it has become the true meaning of community. 

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On Saturday, January 30, 2016, our unified communities marched together for the first time along Plainfield Ave, turning westbound onto Hempstead Turnpike, in collective opposition of OTB’s proposed video lottery terminal (VLT) casino as Belmont Park. And at the corner of Plainfield Avenue and Hempstead Turnpike, for the first time, our communities created a heritage which we will forever share: we became an intersection. Megaphones and signs in hand, Elmont and Floral Park, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, young, and old, we marched in unity. “We say NO! No casino!” we declared together. 

By the time we had reached Gate 3 and the march had ended, I had learned a few things. Never before had residents of Elmont, Floral Park, South Floral Park, Franklin Square, Bellerose, Queens Village, North Valley Stream, and Valley Stream come together in such a powerful and beautiful way. We were even joined by concerned community members, friends, and lawmakers from as far as Freeport, Brooklyn, and Bayside. I learned that day that we could make history. I learned that we are one community, fighting one battle. I learned that there can be no community if there is no unity. I learned that if we are if to win the war, we must remain as one. 

I learned that the color of your skin or the texture of your hair has absolutely nothing to do with the shade of your character. I learned that all of the socioeconomic factors that affect one type of person can just as easily impact another set of people. I learned that we are neighbors, and we are not separated by very much at all – White, Black, Hispanic, Democrat or Republican, things that are going on just minutes from our own doorsteps really DO impact each and every one of us. I learned that if we stand together, if we intersect, we can prevent things like a casino (or the betrayal of self-interested Republican politicians) from invading our homes and neighborhoods. I learned that there are more battles ahead, but I learned that together, we can win. 

After 22 years of living in the immaculate shadows cast from the beauty that is the Incorporated Village of Floral Park, my second home, I learned, finally, that we are not alone. I learned that we have not only neighbors, but brothers, sisters, friends, and family less than a mile away, who will stand up not only for their own community, but for the best interests of all of their surrounding communities. I learned that we matter, and I learned that others care. I learned that the voice of one person can truly alter the actions of many. And although cliché, I learned that while all it takes is one, our strength lies truly in the unity of our numbers. 

elmont dot org no casino vlt at belmont march elmont floral park

After 22 long years, I have learned that superheroes don’t have X-ray vision and don’t wear capes. I learned that instead, superheroes march along turnpikes, organize civic meetings to engage and inform others, and speak before legislative bodies. I learned that superheroes are disguised as ordinary people with extraordinary hearts. 

Thank you for being my superheroes.

 

Crystal Berger is a 22-year Elmont resident and a member of the “No Casino at Belmont” grassroots campaign against video lottery terminals. Crystal is a staff person with the Colleen Deacon for Congress campaign in Syracuse, New York. 

 

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