think my honesty and concern touches people. It communicates to them
that ‘this guy
is trying to help’.”
Neighborhood: Hillcrest Estates
Favorite Issue: Preserving Community Character
Some find Bob
Trabold hard to work with because he is “uncompromising,”
but Trabold considers it his strength. He came back in 1989 to Hillcrest
Estates after a 30-year absence and found the community completely changed
– new immigrants, more congestion, more development. Trabold decided
he wanted to do something about it, and his decades of community organizing
in Chicago and Queens came in handy, as well as his work in the New
York City Council. He has since become one of Queens’ most ardent
proponents of community preservation.
Trabold has almost single-handedly brought attention to the proposed
800 student high school and the residential high rise for 200 apartments
on the Queens Hospital Center in Hillcrest Estates. When the area’s
civic association did not come to his help, Trabold broke off and
started raising awareness of the issue himself. What started with
single digit rallies a year ago has now received serious media attention,
about 75 people at a rally on Oct. 17, and a promise from the mayor
to address the community (the mayor cancelled a scheduled meeting
because of a Yankees/Red Sox game, but said he wants to meet as soon
as possible, according to Trabold).
Aside from his lone-wolf tactics, Trabold can be called a character
because, well, he’s European. In college, he studied in Paris
at the Sorbonne and spent a significant amount of time in Europe,
learning French, Italian and Spanish. Since college, he has traveled
extensively as well, covering Latin American, Central America and
the Caribbean, picking up the Haitian Creole dialect on the way. He
said he still uses his languages all the time.
Trabold was “very active” in the anti-Vietnam War movement,
and he has taken a stance against the current war in Iraq (he marched
in the demonstrations in Manhattan). He believes in bringing Europe
and the United Nations to the table to solve the problems in the Middle
East, particularly the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
According to Trabold, Hillcrest Estates Civics Association was not
handling the school issue with enough persistence.
“They were acquiescent,” he said. Trabold wanted to focus
the community on the proposed development, and instead of fighting
President Kevin Forrestal, in June 2003 Trabold resigned his position
on the board of the Association, collected 500 signatures from his
neighbors, and formed his own civic group, the Hillcrest Estates Citizens
of Neighborhood Preservation.
Starting a civic association when one is already in place is a bold
move and Trabold has had to do a lot of work on his own, although
he does have about five to 10 volunteers helping him with distributing
fliers, campaigns and rallies. However, Trabold did remain a member
of the original association, and has since managed to work with them.
“They have since come around and want to fight [the school]
now. I hope we can work together.”
While a lot of area politicians and civic activist are now opposing
the proposed school, most are willing to compromise in order to satisfy
all the parties involved. Therefore, many find Trabold impossible
to work with. That has not stopped him from getting them involved
anyway, and his frankness is admired by many.
“Bob is a guy you can trust for the neighborhood,” said
Jeff Gottlieb, who is also heavily involved in community preservation.
“The compromise has to be good for the neighborhood.”
lived here since 1953.
You could say I know the area.”
Traumanti laughs at the suggestion that he’s a founding member
of the Whitestone Taxpayers Association.
“I’m not that old,” said the man who spent 12
years as the organization’s president before settling into
“semi-civic retirement” a couple years ago. “I
worked hard [for the organization] for about 17 years, we had some
successes and I’d say it was worth it. Twelve years is a long
time, but it’s been around a lot longer than that!”
With all he’s done in the areas of halting development,
blocking the emergence of unfavorable businesses and other community
issues, Traumanti gets the greatest joy from watching the kids
in the DG Athletic League in Whitestone use the sports fields
he fought so hard to develop over the years.
“I watched the hockey rinks and baseball fields for the
kids go up,” said Traumanti, who says he still helps out
the league when he’s needed. “Those are a great accomplishment,
I think. A lot of the parks were dark and desolate a while back
and there were drug [deals] going on. We brought sports back into
the parks. I believe sports are a great outlet for kids.”
During his years as an activist, Traumanti, still an assistant
storekeeper for Con-Ed, was always the guy who would do “just
about anything” he could to affect change in his community.
He worked with politicians (“Good and bad,” he said.
“We worked with whoever was in office at the time. They
knew who we were.”), community members and even …
the President of the United States? Traumanti was a member of
Bill Clinton’s crime bill committee. When asked what was
the farthest he ever had to go to have his voice heard, he didn’t
“Washington,” he said.
But the question wasn’t necessarily limited to geography.
“Oh,” he said after being asked again. “I don’t
really know. There’s a lot of things I could go into. I
guess I just always stuck to my guns.”
As he said, there is plenty he could have gone into, but one battle
that always stands out in his mind is his brush with the law -
or at least the 109th precinct.
“We wanted more police in our area,” he said. “They’d
always give us the excuse that they needed more [police] in Flushing.
Well I don’t care about Flushing. I care about my community.
I always believed there should have been another precinct out
here. The 109 was stretched way too thin. We fought and fought
on it. That one got some attention.”
Traumanti said that over the years, The Whitestone Taxpayers Association
had several members of all different political affiliations, but
it never stopped them from being able to successfully work with
politicians of all kinds.
“We always worked very close with whoever was in office
at the time,” he said. “We knew we needed them so
we did what we had to do.”
The easiest to work with?
“Senator [Frank] Padavan,” he said. “He is a
Godsend. He’s probably the best in the area. He was always
behind us 100 percent.”
said it couldn’t be done, but I don’t understand why it
Trent is “career” community activist. His history as a
mover and shaker of Queens civic affairs stems back to the tender
age of 12, when Trent’s mother let him tag along to meetings
of the Creedmoor Civic Association.
Trent’s service to the community has continued for more than
25 years. He was honored earlier this year, as one of the “Most
Important Civic leaders In The Last Quarter-Century.”
When Trent graduated from college and agreed to take-on challenge
as the president of the Creedmoor Civic Association at age 23, he
was the youngest person in the history of New York City to ever assume
such a responsibility.
Civic work is tedious, serious business, Trent said. It takes dozens
of meetings and long hours to redesign projects and to create projects
to meet the needs of the community, he said. But it is something that
must be done, if the communities hope to maintain their quality of
Without hesitation, Trent said the creation of the Queens County
Farm Museum is his greatest achievement.
Plans for the museum were developed by Trent in 1973, when NY State
announced it was going to sell-off surplus acres at Creedmoor, Trent
The community did not want high-rise development at the site (as
zoning laws allowed). The community was still ruling at the time,
from the construction of the North Shore Towers complex, Trent said.
“We didn’t want another.”
Trent gathered other civic leaders and galvanized his plan to keep
the “country” in Queens. They established the Colonial
Farm Historic Restoration Society of Bellerose, Inc., and decided,
instead of trying to rezone the area, that they would work to “keep
farmers out there” and transform the acreage into a museum
and working farm, he said.
After nine years of wrangling and wrestling with municipalities,
the committee designed a working project and established the Farm
Museum. “You know,” Trent said, “a camel is a
horse designed by a committee.” The Farm Museum today serves
a half-million people each year, as one of the oldest continually
active farms in the U.S.
Trent has also served as chairperson of the Queens Village Republican
Club (founded in 1875, and the oldest in the U.S.), president of
the Poppenhusen Institute and vice-president of the Joint Bellerose
Business District Development Corporation.
Trent is known for his innovative projects, including his development
of a vineyard at the Queens County Farm Museum.
The vineyard will produce a variety of French wines, “in two
years,” Trent said. “They said it couldn’t be
done, but I don’t understand why it can’t,” he
Topping his vision for a Queens vineyard might be hard to do, but
Trent accomplished a nearly impossible task by drawing more than
200 people to a protest outside Queens Borough Hall last June (on
a weekday), to voice their objection to overdevelopment in eastern
The result? Major Michael Bloomberg “came out with the news,
he was going to downsize Queens,” Trent said.
“He knew that he can’t get re-elected without Queens,”
Trent added. “He heard us.”
on the school board and I’m telling you, you need to abolish
Favorite issue: Education
the Woodside homemaker why she sat in the front row of every school
board meeting and then ran for a seat on the board, and Jeannie
Tsavaris-Basini, wide-eyed and smiling, will respond without hesitation:
“To keep an eye on the rest of them.”
She accused the board of corruption and patronage, and cheered when
they were replaced with another parent advocacy board. Apart from
that, Tsavaris-Basini also acts as a student advocate, acquiring
a reputation as the Johnny Cochran of the classroom.
“I’ve never refused a case and I’ve never lost
a case,” she said. Also, she and her daughters all graduated
from the same three schools that produced another education activist:
Dept. of Education Chancellor Joel Klein.
Replacing the local school boards with Community Education Councils,
whose members must have a child in the district, was what Tsavaris-Basini
“At one point, I was the only one with a kid in public school,
and they wouldn’t talk about kids, and they would sit in
there and say I’ll give you this school, you give me that
school,” said Tsavaris-Basini of the alleged patronage jobs
When thinking of the students she has affected, Tsavaris-Basini
thinks of one third grader who was accused of oral sex in the
lunchroom, and he was suspended.
Proving Tsavaris-Basini should have been a lawyer, she got the
third grader’s suspension overturned by asking the administration,
“Who else was suspended? He obviously couldn’t be
doing this himself. He was either on the giving or receiving end.”
It turned out, school officials admitted, the boy did nothing
more than use inappropriate language and his suspension was overturned.
Tsavaris-Basini said she still receives letters from the family
and that the boy is now an honor student.
Sounding the alarm about school boards, while also sitting on
one, helped Tsavaris-Basini land a spot in the new Department
of Education. She was the PTA President at PS 151, the PTA Vice
President at IS 10, and the Vice President of the President Council,
all in the same year.
With her youngest child in high school, Tsavaris-Basini has the
time to devote to education. When asked what drove her to be so
involved, the answer was one word: “empathy.”
“I actually feel their pain,” she said. “I’ve
had so many problems with my kids, I feel their pain. I have an
idea of what they’re going through.”
She added, “The drive results from when someone comes to
you crying, asking for help. I’ve had difficulties with
both of my kids. One didn’t want to study and the other
was later diagnosed with ADD.” She said helping a parent
and their child is “almost like you giving a second chance
School Board 24 colleague Joseph Ciafone said, “I was impressed
with her dedication and interest. She didn’t have any ulterior
motives. It was strictly to assist parents and students and that’s
what impressed me about her.”
Of the soft-spoken house mom, Ciafone said she was anything but
on the board. “She doesn’t give up. She’s a
fighter. She doesn’t take no for an answer. When she hits
a wall or two, she keeps climbing.”
I came out there with a pickaxe handle, walking down Northern
Boulevard and Bell Boulevard with an axe handle! Things that I
did, it wasn’t normal. It was bigger than life.”
Favorite issue: Grassroots neighborhood improvement, minority
man with a booming baritone and a penchant for African fashions
and ornate walking sticks, Mandingo Tshaka’s outsized personality
is overshadowed only by passionate dedication to improving his
neighborhood and fighting for his heritage.
Born and raised in the Clearsprings section of Central Bayside,
Tshaka’s roots in the area stretch back to the days when
most of Northeast Queens was undeveloped farmland. He lives
in a house that has been in his family for generations and has
personally presided over the massive transformation of his neighborhood
— helping to raise the area up from a state of neglect
and near poverty in the 1970s to a place where homes can sell
for $1 million today.
“The city ignored us for decades,” Tshaka recalls.
“The sidewalk and roadbeds here were the same ones my
grandparents walked on way back. I helped turn this place around.”
Beyond public resources and services for his once-forgotten
area, Tshaka has also wrested something even more elusive from
the city: recognition. Two decades ago, he stumbled upon documents
that showed that a small park just north of the Flushing Cemetery
had been a 19th century burial ground for African and Native
Today, despite years of opposition, Martin’s Field has
been officially recognized as a historic gravesite and will
soon undergo an expensive renovation to make it a memorial park.
“When this project is completed, it will be the first
time the city has recognized the burial site of Africans and
Native Americans,” he said. “All the rest have been
plowed over, but this one we got back.”
Like so many other crusaders, Tshaka was effective based not
only on his tireless dedication, but also on the strength of
larger-than-life personality that commands attention. And, he
says, it helped to have a little help from on high: “I
say it was divinely guided. It was meant for me to find it by
a higher authority,” he said. “It was meant for
me to correct an egregious wrong.”
At 73, the outspoken Tshaka has mellowed in his golden years—even
if other members of Community Board 11, where he is known for
loud antics, might disagree. In the rough and tumble 1970s,
however, Tshaka was known for taking matters in his own hands
to save his neighborhood from a tyranny of drug dealers and
There was a time when Tshaka would make tours of the Bayside
streets with an axe handle in hand, brandishing it to ward off
petty felons who enjoyed free run of area parks and school yards.
“What I did here, it took a personality like mine to do
it,” he says.
But he also stood up to the cops when he felt that they weren’t
giving his troubled neighborhood a fair shake. “I stood
up to the police and I made them patrol this area,” he
remembers. “They said, ‘Mr. Mandingo is intimidating
am not one that gives up easily.”
Favorite issue: Quality of life
Veljak has lived in her 20th Avenue home for many years, but
when she heard that the Department of Transportation planned
to widen her street to accommodate more traffic and stores,
she embarked on an adventure she never imagined. Suddenly she
was much more than a homeowner, a resident of her block. Through
her persistence with politicians, the community boards and members
of the DOT, she grew a reputation for being effective and she
had become (drum roll please) a community activist.
But Veljak is more than just a community activist, she is a
leader among her neighbors. Although she has succeeded in drawing
the attention of politicians and the DOT to address possible
alternatives to widening her beloved street, Veljak’s
greatest achievement might well be organizing and inspiring
her entire community to take part in its betterment.
“It started with me trying to improve the quality of life
in the neighborhood, and then it became a sort of rippling effect
and other people started to get involved,” Veljak said.
Originally her neighbors would go to her and tell her this or
that was wrong, hoping that Veljak and her seemingly unflappable
persistence could get the issue to the politician’s table.
But Veljak tells her neighbors that they can do it just like
she can and that they should be just as persistent.
“I just try to empower people and tell them that there
is nothing special about me,” she said. “If you
believe in what you are fighting for then you have to give it
your best shot.”
Veljak is more of a guide to her community than anything else,
steering them through the murky waters of political dealings.
“I was just trying to protect what was mine, but then
I realized it wasn’t just about me, it was about everyone
in the community,” she said. “It wasn’t just
about the widening of my street, it was about traffic lights
on other streets or stores moving in. A lot of people don’t
stand up for what they believe in because they feel like they
have no voice. I started doing it to protect our block, but
I realized it was a lot bigger than that. It was the whole community.”
Anyone who fights like Veljak fights the widening of 20th Avenue
is (rightfully or wrongfully) considered a character. To most
people it might seem even crazy the lengths Veljak goes to prevent
such development in her community. Before she got so involved,
the rest of the community sat quietly, watching the quality
of life in the neighborhood decrease. But now they have a voice
and a leader and a feisty one at that.
The word most often used to describe Veljak is “persistent.”
She really doesn’t give up on what she believes and as
she says, “I don’t answer to politicians, I answer
to a higher power, that is the only person I need to be square
This allows Veljak some freedom in her dealings with politicians,
she isn’t afraid of them and she knows that they are here
to work for the people, in fact, they get paid to work for the
“The politicians, they have to be very careful,”
she said. “They don’t want to open a can of worms.
But I am not one that gives up easily. I just keep pursuing
it and pursuing it.”