BY TAMARA HARTMAN
Helen Marshall began the first scheduled event of her 12th day as Queens Borough President with her purse hanging by one strap from her arm as she searched for her picture identification to prove who she is to a guard.
She was standing at the entrance of the Queens County Courthouse with Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz and her Press Secretary Dan Andrews at her side, also searching for their identification because their titles couldn’t get them through security. But Marshall didn’t grand stand or demand. She found her identification, and got right back to the work of representing her borough and, on Jan. 15, 2002, honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first item on the daily schedule as the Queens Tribune spent the day with the new borough president was the Judicial Friends of Queens fourth Annual Celebration of the life and works of King. Promptly at 9:30 a.m., Marshall was out the door of Borough Hall and headed to a courtroom in the Supreme Court just next door. But the event was delayed as students set up their instruments and guests arrived, and Marshall used the time to mark notes on her speech.
There were lines crossed out and additions jotted in on the sides of the page by the time Justice Laura Blackburne announced, “This is so exciting to me, I don’t quite know where to begin. We have a new neighbor just down the street.”
When the Borough President brought her speech to the podium, she was confident and very much at ease. She described “Democracy” as something that “needs perfecting. Dr. King was one of those who sought to perfect democracy,” and she challenged those gathered to continue that search.
When the program ended, Marshall was surrounded by well-wishers and patiently posed for photos without letting on that she was scheduled to be at the Black Agency Executives King luncheon and awards at Manhattan’s Sheraton Hotel & Towers.
The Borough President’s car was waiting in front of Borough Hall and Marshall assured the Tribune that the driver had amazing expertise at getting to events, but the ride would offer a chance to talk of other issues.
Starting the Day
The Queens Borough President’s day really starts at about 5:30 a.m. when she wakes up and realizes she has until 6 a.m. to sleep. That’s when she starts with the lists. She has a pad that lights up — her first one was from a yard sale – and lets her work without turning on the light and waking her husband. But she hates the list making. “Once you start that list, you never really finish it, you just keep adding on.”
After 6 a.m., it’s up and on to “my peaceful time, sitting by the window with the sunshine coming in, and my cup of coffee.” And Marshall stressed the importance of the coffee . . . with Sweet and Low or Equal and powdered skim milk.
Breakfast is usually pretty much the same, and she described it as a good, diet-like start that she wished she kept up the rest of the day. It’s a toasted slice- of seven grain bread with a piece of low fat Swiss and an orange on the side.
During that peaceful time, she reviews all three of New York City’s daily tabloids and does “a lot of clipping” of stories which she wants to read when the day allows.
As for the office, Marshall said she is still working on getting the “rhythm of everything” at Borough Hall. She usually runs her office with a certain flow of scheduling and revised scheduling, meetings and updates that she is working to create and settle into as she re-structures staff responsibility at her new job. As for her schedule, the staff prints her a tentative one to review for the week, combining what she wants to do with what must be done. It is then revised daily and throughout the day.
Changes At Borough Hall
As the driver continued to carry Marshall, Koslowitz and Andrews closer to the Manhattan event, there was also time to talk about the Marshall plan for changes at Borough Hall.
“I have a gestalt outlook . . . I’m goal-oriented. I have priority areas and I want to get them to work,” Marshall explained of her Borough Hall re-organizing philosophy. With the help of her Chief of Staff Alex Rosa, whom she praised, she has brought about five or six new people on board and expects she will be hiring somewhere in the range of 10 or 11 more.
Her emphasis has been on making sure there were key people to handle key issues. Her re-structuring of the Deputy Borough President slot to include constituent services and community boards was step one. She is also structuring a cultural/tourism office focused on promoting the keeping of tourist money in Queens after the last tennis ball or pitch flies for the day and building neighborhood tourism within Queens.
She also has plans for a Queens General Assembly, with representatives from all corners of Queens ethnicity that promotes understanding and education. She needs someone in place to focus on immigrant issues and concerns.
“There is an education piece,” she continued, and her interviews continue for just the right “top notch” person to fill that role, to help parents and be a good educator.
As for the grounds of Borough Hall, she wants to create a permanent memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center destruction that includes a list of every Queens person lost.
She also would like to do something about the statue “Civic Virtue” which has raised complaints because it depicts a virtuous man standing on a vice represented by a woman.
And she wants to build an auditorium within the curve of the building so that there will be a place for installations and large meetings to be held, and she hopes to add an information desk to the front lobby to make it more inviting and resident-friendly.
As for the exhibit that has lined the hallway to her office for three administrations, she hopes to preserve it in a Borough Hall archive and says she was not even aware that controversial Queen Catherine was among its images. What she would prefer to see on those walls is the work of Queens artists and perhaps display cases where rotating exhibits can be featured.
However, her plans for the physical structure and décor of Borough Hall will wait until after she sees what Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s budget cuts mean to Queens.
Finally in Manhattan
As her car pulled up at the Sheraton, aide Mark McMillan was waiting. He had arranged for the seats, and took the Borough President’s coat so she would not have to wait on the coat check line. He briefed Marshall on the program and when she would be speaking and as the event started to settle down to business, McMillan ushered Marshall to her dais seat, making the event effortless for the Borough President.
In her comments, Marshall challenged the crowd to continue their unity as a city working towards rebuilding and common goals. She described America as the “one country in the world where we are never satisfied at any stage,” and that keeps us perfecting democracy as Dr. Martin Luther King would want us to. She told the gathering that it is important to “keep our voices raised.”
First Things First
On the ride to the next stop – a walking tour of the Steinway Business Improvement District (BID) – there was time to talk about the focus of the Marshall Plan for Queens.
First of the to-do list was constituent services, “and that’s why I have Karen [Koslowitz]; she’s a pro at it.” Marshall has restructured the Deputy Borough President position so that the community boards will be reporting their concerns directly to Koslowitz.
Next on the Marshall hit list is education because she feels “our children are fragile and helpless. They can’t fight for themselves.” She plans to continue Claire Shulman’s War Room meetings on school construction, and although the former Borough President taught her that you “can’t stop till you put the shovel in the ground,” the current budget crisis will mean she can’t stop pushing for Queens schools “until you cut the ribbon.”
On Writing Speeches
“I’m so accustomed to writing my own speeches . . . I like them to have my own imprint,” Marshall explained, but again, a new job has meant new systems. Currently the process involves her sitting down with a staff member – often Andrews – and explaining her feelings about the subject. The speech is written from this conversation, and then she takes it to edit and refine.
On The Rockaways
Marshall calls it “the Hamptons West” and believes they can and will live up to that potential. She has been meeting with representatives of the Rockways and plans future meetings to pull the neighborhoods together. “They feel they have been neglected,” Marshall said.
During the afternoon walking tour guided by the “Mayor of Steinway” Julian Wager and accompanied by her Director of Economic Development Seth Bornstein, Marshall talked to some of the store owners about their needs as Queens businesses and as members of a BID.
She shook hands with store owners and employees and with Officer Matthew O’Donnell of the 114 Precinct, whom Wager said “is the salvation of business” by being diligent and patrolling a neighborhood beat, before it was back in the car and back to Borough Hall.
The Drive Back
From Astoria to Borough Hall, the talk was of BID and beloved stores now missing. Marshall, who still lives in East Elmhurst, remembered shopping on 82nd Street at Fields because “when they had a sale, everybody was in there.”
And then there is Monique’s jewelers, which still thrives on the strip. She pointed to the diamond ring on her wedding ring finger and said, “this represents 50 years of marriage.” It was designed at Monique’s to replace the smaller, less ornate wedding rings she kept wearing out.
As the car barreled past St. Michael’s cemetery, she said she had only recently found out that was where her mother is buried. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Marshall was three years old and her father when Marshall was 16. Going through some of her father’s papers, she found a slip for St. Michael’s and the funeral which her father had to pay for in installments. She went to the office of St. Michael’s and they were able to look up the file on her mother’s final resting place. “Holding that piece of paper was like touching a piece of my mother,” Marshall recalled.
Her daughter, Auggie, went to Forest Hills High School and Queens College. In her senior year as an honors student at Forest Hills, she told her mother she’d like to get a job and she worked at Plymouth Shops on 5th Avenue. After college, she took an accelerated course at Pace University in accounting and went into the field of buying and selling for companies, helping them build their business nationally, and occassionally helping to design fashions. “She has a great deal of drive . . . she gets the job done.”
Donald Marshall, Jr. designs satellites for TRW in California. He went to P.S. 143 and 127, JHS 141 for two years, and Brooklyn Tech High School because he wanted to be an engineer like his father. After he was accepted into Ivy League schools, Marshall and her husband started to search for ways they could afford to send him, but he stopped the calculations. “He came to us and said he wanted to go to City College,” she recalls. It was free at the time, and the couple later found out that it is the “best engineering school in the world.”
Marshall remembers how her son and one of his friends used to build model satellites and planes in the attic of their Queens home. Now he builds the real thing, and although he sometimes can’t tell his mother what he’s working on because it’s classified, he has told her that he never wants to work on something that hurts people.
In The Beginning
When the Marshall family moved to Queens from the Bronx in 1957, she found that her children were using a “little tiny store” of a library inside of the “Carnegie buildings” that held libraries in the Bronx. She found out from some parents that for $5 she could join the Friends of the Library, and the civic activism that would build, and in recent history, re-build the Langston Hughes Library in Corona began. She joined the PTA six months before her son started at his school and that kind of determination for change led her to the Assembly, then City Hall, and now to Borough Hall.
Two Chiefs And A Marshall
The last scheduled meeting of the Borough President’s work day was at Borough Hall with NYPD Assistant Chiefs Thomas Lawless and James Tuller, commanders of Queens Patrol Boroughs South and North respectively.
Over coffee and cookies that she had handy at her office conference table, she listened to reports of record crime reductions and current quality of life concerns. She asked specifics about staffing levels after Sept. 11, and was assured that things were almost back to normal levels. Lawless noted that he knows things are good in the borough when the major complaints reaching the chiefs are about “blocked driveways and raccoons.”
At The End of The Day
When 5 p.m. struck at Borough Hall, there was still mail to go through with her chief of staff, an Orthodox Jewish wedding that Marshall truly wanted to attend but was being advised against because of time, and a business card exchange at JFK Airport on the schedule.
But Marshall pointed out that just because the schedule was completed didn’t mean she would have to stop. She can work at the hall as late as she wants, they keep it open for her, and then she’ll pack up work to take home for the night.
Despite the opening of the day, Marshall said that she is daily amazed at how many people now walk up to her and know who she is. But she added that she takes her new borough-wide attention as a challenge of the job. And as the well-wisher walks off, she added, “I often think to myself, ‘listen girl, you better cut it!’”