Panel discusses the Black experience in the Suburban Elmont Community

The following is excerpts from the Black History Month Round Table, “Hope, Growth and Opportunity—Has Anything Changed?” Elmont Online & Highlighting Success welcomed its 2010 distinguished panelists, including:

  • Assemblyman Tom Alfano, who has represented Elmont in Albany for the past 14 years. Assemblyman Alfano holds a strong reputation regarding progressive government and social justice issues.
  • Carla Cohen, editor and publisher of the Gateway, Franklin Square Bulletin and Floral Park Bulletin newspapers. Ms. Cohen served as a credentialed journalist during the Democratic National Conventions of candidates Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
  • North Valley Stream resident Nkenge Gilliam, who teaches 11th grade US and Advanced Placement US History at Elmont Memorial High School, and is serving as the faculty advisor to the Class of 2010, SADD, and the award winning Model United Nations Program. Ms. Gilliam served as an adjunct professor for the education department of St. John’s University, and was the Sewanhaka Central HS District’s 2007-08 Teacher of the Year.
  • Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie, representative of the 83rd AD in the Bronx. Assemblyman Heastie is co-Chairman of the Legislative Taskforce on Demographic Research and Reappointment and Chairman of the Labor Sub-Committee on Emerging Workforce.
  • Journalist and Queens College student Carl LaMarre, a 2007 Elmont Memorial HS graduate. Mr. LaMarre writes articles, editorials and reviews for various newspapers, magazines and websites. His articles include an interview with NBA All-Star Dwight Howard, an interview with the Knicks, and influential figures in the hip-hop community, such as the legendary KRS-One, rappers Jadakiss and Juelz Santana.

Topic: Elmont, the Suburban community, and the erosion of homeownership

 

Tom Alfano: While a well intended program tried to try “free up” money for first time homebuyers and people who were otherwise unable to muster the economic resources for a down payment, oftentimes unscrupulous mortgage broker practices made it far too easy for people to get loans, including people who perhaps didn’t realize the obligations they were taking. Some mortgage brokers didn’t go through the financial responsibilities or advise the buyer about the flexible, variable rate mortgage that could escalate with the vicissitudes of the economy. Unfortunately, the result was that some people just didn’t have the financial means to pay them. As the economy got worse, people found themselves unemployed or underemployed, their hours were cut, and businesses went south, affecting them radically. On the state level, we put some teeth in the law to stop unscrupulous brokers, so they cannot hoodwink especially first times buyers into signing contracts that they could never fulfill. We’ve increased the penalties to mortgage brokers so that they cannot perpetrate these frauds. As you know, taxpayers bailed out some of the biggest banks in the country, and they have continued to thrive, make money and award bonuses. In New York, we need the Wall Street bankers. Wall Street is the biggest industry in New York State and they fund so much of what we do. The state needs to stay on the banks to do loan modifications for people who are struggling. We bailed them out, now it’s time for them to do the right thing.

Topic: Is the subprime mortgage matter aiding the erosion of the suburban community we are discussing?

Carla Cohen: We bailed out the banks, but no where in that bailout was it written that the banks, in turn, had to bail out the average person. I think Washington has a bigger problem. I think that the people who represent us are buried in self-interest. I think they are at a point now where they have to pull together and forget about the next election and what it’s going to do for “me.” They have to think about the people they represent. And, it can’t come fast enough.

Topic: What is the impact in the classroom of this shift to suburbia by many who now find themselves in this subprime mortgage matter?

 

Nkenge Gilliam: I believe students in the classroom and individuals who got themselves into subprime mortgages should not forget the lesson of personal responsibility. Parents now have to teach their children that no, they can’t have that $400 cell phone, because…we can no longer buy on credit card debt. We have to be responsible for our economic decisions on a daily basis. We have to go back to the past, where people valued fiscal responsibility. In my family, my mother and father used cash or a check, and on special occasions, my father would go to the closet and remove an American Express card and make a major purchase. And it was understood that the bill had to be paid at the end of the month. Many parents today are realizing that their teenagers must understand that.

Topic: How are young people handling this economic crisis?

Carl LaMarre: My generation is fully aware of what’s going on. There are a lot of kids, specially my age, who are working, not only to buy things they need, but also to help in the household. In my case, I pay for my books and help pay bills in the house, including my television and Internet bill. I have to cut back on my luxuries, going out just for fun isn’t available to us anymore. I think that as soon as people my age realize that, our money is going to be in the bank and our parents aren’t going to complain too much.

Topic: In New York city, African American males have a 60% higher unemployment rate than their white counterparts. Is there some systemic issue afoot?

Carl LaMarre: I believe one can’t take those statistics and say, that’s why I’m not getting a job. We have to take the initiative and the responsibility upon ourselves to give our boss a reason why we should have the job. We can’t blame the next person for our failure.

Nkenge Gilliam: We can’t look to government to solve our problems. When I look to the generation of Dr. King and others and the sacrifices that they had to make so that I could be a Nassau County educator, I understand that their sacrifices allowed some progress. And the reality is that globally in our communities and our churches we can provide the training for our children and open up job opportunities within our community. We don’t want our children to develop an attitude that there are limits on what they can do. And while the statistics are staggering, the reality is that as African Americans, community leaders and educators we have to help our children beyond that.

Topic: Can you comment on the uncivilized audiences that sometimes come to President Obama’s press conferences?

 

Carla Cohen: I believe there’s a great deal of fear, hatred and suspicion in this country to the point that I would just never believed before President Obama was elected. The Internet has a dark side and is fostering and helping to spread all this hatred. Some of the things there are just unconscionable and nobody has to sign their name. They can say anything and get away with it. I think that people read things on the Internet and feel empowered…and they go to a press conference with a gun on their hip.

Topic: With regard to economic development, there are two interesting projects, Belmont Racetrack and the Lighthouse. Are they stalled either locally or at the state level?

 

Carla Cohen: With the Belmont, we have an untapped treasure. We know that despite President Obama’s claim of 9% unemployment, it’s much higher here. We need the jobs that Belmont could provide. I heard an estimate of 1,000 jobs for our community…let’s get it going.

Tom Alfano: We’re practically unanimous in this community that we want development. The problem at the state level is a failure of leadership. After 7 years of dawdling and fighting, the Governor and Senate majority leader finally awarded the contract at Aqueduct. Unfortunately, in Albany everything is linked, therefore I’ve been told by the Governor and others, let us get Aqueduct out of the way and then we’ll turn our sights to Belmont. We have to remain relentless. This is the most important economic development that we can do for the people of Elmont and Southwest Nassau County. Newly elected County Executive Ed Mangano is committed to this project and will pledge the resources of his office. My point to the Governor and the people running this state is: why can’t we do Aqueduct and Belmont simultaneously? We need a bipartisan approach to development in Elmont. I need someone like Carl Heasties, a Democrat, when I go into Speaker Silver’s office. This is a social justice issue; this is an economic development issue.

Topic: Can you enlighten us as to the subprime matter for our brothers in the Bronx?

Carl Heasties: We have a high incidence of subprime foreclosures and this is a not a poor district. It’s upper middle class. But if you can’t afford it, you just can’t afford it. People think in the present, and not if they can afford it going forward. In my neighborhood, there was collusion among the mortgage broker, the lawyer, the inspector and the appraiser. They weren’t appraising the value of the house, but the mortgage that the buyer would be able to get. Or, they were trying to meet the seller’s price. I think the mortgage and housing market is trying to right itself. In Albany, we came up with a foreclosure package to intervene, but unfortunately, we only have jurisdiction over state chartered banks, not federally chartered banks. The economy is starting to turn around, but for me the real measure of a turn around is jobs.

 

Topic: The Belmont and Lighthouse projects seem to be stalled. What can we do about moving it forward?

Tom Alfano: The project is to be privately funded, not government sponsored. It’s a basic no brainer. The big developers who won the bid for that property have the money and the wherewithal…but the Town of Hempstead has the zoning responsibility to decide if the development is adequate and appropriate for the community, and then the county has to make some final decisions. Now the devil is in the details. You never approach negotiations with an all-or-nothing attitude, because when you do, someone is going to really lose. And so far, unfortunately I think the attitude of the developers has been, at least publicly, this is our plan, this is what we want, and if our duly elected officials who represent the people don’t like it, well then tough luck. I’m hopeful that the developers are having discussions with our elected officials on the town level. I know the County Executive is a supporter in theory of the project. The question is can we as residents deal with the traffic that will no doubt result from thousands of housing units, not to mention a preeminent retail component and an entertainment component? It’s an extremely ambitious project which I happen to be attracted to. But we should respect our town officials who have to make these decisions. They can’t let developers do what they want, because the result is going to affect our lives. It’s a complicated issue, but should not take an eternity to decide. We should be acting aggressively to get these issues resolved and to compromise because we need the jobs. We need the economic development to help our tax base. We desperately need these projects. The essence of politics and government is compromise.

Carla Cohen: I would like to separate the Lighthouse project from the Belmont project. People moved to Elmont for its suburban character, and that’s something we have to protect and our elected officials have to protect. Charles Wang is a very powerful man and he has brought this to bear in presenting his project. And now to go forward unchecked, our quality of life will suffer greatly. The projects are so different in scope that we have to be careful not to lump them together.

Tom Alfano: I think the American public is fed up with partisan politics and gridlock. We see it with healthcare in Washington. There should be an ability for the parties to come together and pass common, sound healthcare legislation. We see it in Albany too.  In the State Senate where the margin is only 2 seats, we see chaos and basically an inability to govern right now during difficult economic times. It does have a direct impact on taxpayers on Long Island and throughout the state and I think it’s unacceptable. But having a colleague like Carl Heasties is positive. I’m going to lobby Carl relentlessly to get Belmont done. We have to break that gridlock and partisanship. With Carl’s help we can do a rational development there that will create jobs, lower taxes and do so much for economic development in this marvelously diverse community that I am so privileged to represent. Belmont is the perfect test case. Let’s pull it together to get it done.

Topic: There’s a lot of political wrangling going on. For minorities, does it really matter who’s piloting the ship?

Tom Alfano: I think it does matter. I think people should vote for the individual who best encompasses their hopes, aspirations and dreams regardless of political party. We’re in a post partisan era of government. We have to look at the character, personality and political beliefs of elected officials. I would hope, despite the economy, in the history of this great country, there has never been a better time in terms of the opportunities that are available for African Americans and that’s what we’re celebrating in Black History Month. I think now there are enough symbols, including the President of the United States, the Governor of the State of New York; enough symbols for our young people to look up to, to admire and respect and follow. And, I think the key is education. I have been a champion of public education. I have seen with my own eyes—the better the public school system is, the more opportunities there will be for all children, certainly including children of color.

Topic: How do you compare Elmont Memorial with the national figures with regard to student involvement and parent participation?

Nkenge Gilliam: Elmont is a suburban community; but unfortunately we are compared to the entire African American experience. The reality is the parents of Elmont have more resources. The reason they live in Elmont is that they made sacrifices so that their children can be exposed to certified teachers, who value their jobs and I think that’s part of why Elmont is a very special place. You really can’t compare Elmont to inner city schools where you have intergenerational poverty. Many parents here are professionals, and if not, they value hard work. And they remind their children on a daily basis what it means to work hard and of the constant sacrifices they make. I think the key is to encourage your children on a daily basis, remind them of their responsibilities and expose them to opportunities. One of the reasons Elmont is special is because we have community leaders, parents and educators working together. Regardless of who your parents are or the neighborhood you live in, if you are exposed to a world class education, the world is yours.

Carl LaMarre: As students in Elmont we have unlimited resources and we have teachers like Ms. Gilliam who provide us the opportunities to learn. We have Assemblyman Tom Alfano who gives us great resources and programs to help us thrive as far as our education is concerned.