By Sierra Brown
Marie Baptiste, 54, and Helen Cooper, 79, sit gaily on the corner outside P.S. 36 in St. Albans. It’s Tuesday, primary day. Baptise has covered a wooden art stand with election posters and Cooper proudly sports a blue cap embossed with the name of her choice nominee. The women smile at each other, even holding hands to show their fondness. But their warm calm, as they hand out election literature for the District 27 race, masks the trepidation of the community torn between City Council incumbent Leroy Comrie, and upstart Clyde Vanel.
Many voters say they like Vanel, a lawyer embodying President Barack Obama’s call for change. But hard economic times leave them hesitant to appoint a newcomer.
“I admire him,” says Marie Baptiste of Vanel, who is voting for Comrie, but with a bit of ambivalence. “I see [Vanel]—he’s a young successful black man, but I had to make a choice.” Baptiste says she is unsure if Vanel, 35, would be able to secure funding for community groups—like Big Sisters, which benefits disadvantaged youth—that Comrie supports.
Other voters say that while Vanel is an intriguing prospect, someone more experienced is needed to tackle issues like mounting foreclosures and the nuances of City finances and bureaucracy.
“I like this new guy, but now is not the time,” says Harold Robertson, 67, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years. “We have needs in our community; we don’t need to switch teams now.”
St. Albans was once a bastion of middle-class African American life in southeast Queens, but the economic downturn and foreclosures have dampened the neighborhood’s spirit.
Some of the areas that Comrie presents have as many as 695 homes in varying states of foreclosure, according to foreclosure information service RealtyTrac, one of the highest amounts in the city. Home values in the neighborhood have decreased almost 20 percent in the past two years for what are mostly single-family units.
Vanel supporters insist that change is needed to save the community.
“I’m tired of old politics—business as usual,” says Durrand Spruill, 47, just before voting at P.S. 36. “I want to vote for the new guy. He’s not a politician; I want to see what he’s got.” Spruill blames Comrie for the neighborhood problems, claiming that the councilman’s support of up-zoning—the practice of converting traditionally one-family homes to two or more—has lead to overcrowded schools, lack of parking and damaged property values.
Comrie replies that such detractors are unversed with the issues. For example, regulations to end “up zoning” were passed about two years ago. “The opposition has to come up with something to attract uninformed voters,” he said, while greeting supporters at the Alpha Phi Alpha Senior Citizen Center on Linden Blvd.
Either way, it appeared that the race aroused passions in what is normally an apathetic district.
By 12:14 p.m. 265 people had voted at P.S. 36. “It’s been a steady flow; the turnout is good,” said site coordinator Lottie General, who has been working poll sites in various capacities since 1965.