Jackson Heights Turnaround: Business Owners Will Help Maintain Plaza

A group of business owners who decried the 37th Road pedestrian plaza in Jackson Heights after it opened have come around and launched a group to act as stewards of the new public space. This turn of events comes after persistent work by Council Member Danny Dromm’s office and local merchants, who are now working together to ensure the plaza is a long-term success. The plaza’s undeniable popularity as a gathering place also hasn’t hurt.

Business owners and Council Member Daniel Dromm announced the creation of a group to maintain the new Jackson Heights pedestrian plaza last Friday. Photo: Times Ledger

A few months ago, Internet Café owner Agha Saleh and Bombay Chat café owner Shazia Kausar were two of the business owners unhappy with the new plaza. Saleh was quoted in the New York Times saying that it had contributed to crime in the neighborhood, while Kausar told the Times Ledger that soon after the plaza opened in October 2011, her business had dropped and she was having trouble paying employees.

Citing a “gap of communication” between business owners, DOT, and plaza supporters when the project was implemented, Saleh credited months of work by Dromm’s office and DOT to address the business owners’ concerns. “We’re really proud that we brought people on board,” Saleh said.

Now, Saleh and Kausar are working with adjacent business owners to create a new group called Sukhi NY, which will manage what is being called Diversity Plaza. “Sukhi” is an acronym for Social Uplift Knowledge and Hope Initiatives; it also translates from Urdu, Hindi and other languages as “prosperity and happiness.” Council Member Dromm, whose office had until now been coordinating plaza upkeep, joined Saleh and Kausar at an event on the plaza last Friday to announce the formation of Sukhi NY, which is still in its formative stages. Official approval by DOT as a plaza partner is expected to come in September. In the meantime, the organization is kicking off its stewardship of the plaza by hosting a festival that ends today, marking the end of Muslim holy month Ramadan.

“This plaza can benefit the stakeholders who depend on this place for their livelihood,” Saleh said.

Saleh and Kausar aren’t the only former plaza opponents to welcome this latest development.

Mohammed Pier, president of the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association, had been a plaza skeptic. “Our customers come to do shopping, not to sit,” he told Streetsblog in February. Now, he’s welcoming the debut of Sukhi NY. “This is a great day,” he told the Times Ledger. “After months of misunderstanding, we have restored our differences.”

In January, Shiv Dass, president of the Jackson Heights Merchants Association, felt the plaza was hurting businesses. “We made this place a prime area, but now they’re trying to kill us,” he said. “The bottom line is they have to move this plaza.” On Friday, he joined Mohammed Pier at the plaza for the Sukhi NY announcement.

Saleh had some harsh words for some of the reporters who wrote about the plaza. “A lot of press people came in and they took our interviews and they took our quotes and changed our positions,” he said.

After months of the plaza filling with potential customers every day, business owners who once opposed the plaza now see it as an opportunity for growth and are taking a hand in its upkeep. Will reporters stop pretending that it’s a failure?