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Dispute Over 34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights Leads to Accusations of Homophopia, Racism

A heated dispute has erupted between opposing sides of the 34th Avenue Open Street program in Jackson Heights — with the initiative’s co-founder saying he was the victim of homophobic slurs leveled at him by members of an opposition group. A rally was held Monday to condemn the statements. Pictured at the rally in the front row from left to right: Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, Jim Burke, co-founder of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition, David Kilmnick, president and founder of the New York LGBT Network, and former Councilmember Danny Dromm (Photo: Shekar Krishnan via Twitter)

Sept. 14, 2022 By Michael Dorgan

A heated dispute has erupted between opposing sides of the 34th Avenue Open Street program in Jackson Heights — with the initiative’s co-founder saying he was the victim of homophobic slurs leveled at him by members of an opposition group.

Jim Burke, a well-known LGBT activist and co-founder of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition, says a dispute surrounding the use of 34th Avenue led to him being verbally abused.

The 34th Avenue Open Street Coalition have been staunch advocates for the corridor to be made a permanent open street, while a rival group, the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance, opposes the concept, arguing that is unfair to drivers who need to park their cars and that it makes it tough for emergency vehicles to traverse.

Burke, in an interview with the Queens Post Tuesday, said he was called a “c**k-sucking f****t,” by an SUV driver who he believes is a member of the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance. However, Burke said that he wasn’t 100 percent sure that the driver is a member of the Alliance since he doesn’t know all the people that are part of the group.

Ricardo Pacheco, the leader of the Jackson Heights Coops Alliance, was critical of Burke for making the accusations and is demanding Burke provide further evidence. He said the accusations are slanderous and are just a means to undermine his group.

Pacheco also criticized local leaders, such as Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who held a press conference Monday accusing the alliance of bigotry. He said Krishnan did not investigate the allegations and his actions were malicious.

Burke also said there have been various instances where passers-by on the street have uttered racist epithets at volunteers. He said that his partner Oscar Escobar, whose first language is Spanish and speaks English with an accent, was asked by two opponents to show his “papers.”

Burke, however, said he doesn’t know for sure if the racist comments were made by members of the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance, although he assumes so.

Burke said he has been targeted because of his role with the 34th Avenue Open Street program. His group advocates for making the 34th Avenue Open Street program – which runs 26 blocks from Junction Boulevard to 69th Street along 34th Avenue – a permanent fixture in the neighborhood.

The strip — which is currently closed off to traffic from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays through Sundays under the program — is being converted into a series of pedestrian plazas and traffic-restricted zones, in accordance with a plan released by the Department of Transportation in October.

Advocates for the open streets plan, known as Paseo Park, argue that the open streets initiative has been a huge success since it creates much-needed public space in the neighborhood.

Opponents of the plan, however, say the plan eliminates much-needed parking and makes it harder for emergency vehicles to access local residents.

34th Avenue Open Street June 2022 (Photo: Queens Post)

Burke said the troubling incidents occurred after he took exception to an email forwarded by Community Board 3 to its members last month about a rally that was about to take place on Aug. 16 that was in opposition to the Paseo Park plan. The rally was organized by the Jackson Heights Coops Alliance, which sent the initial e-mail to the board.

Burke then penned a letter to Queens Borough President Donovan Richards two days later criticizing the dissemination of the e-mail, arguing that it indicated that the board supported the position of the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance. The letter was first published by Streetsblog.

Burke wrote that the e-mail led to unnecessary strife in the neighborhood by directing hate toward the volunteers of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition.

“Purported members of this group have used homophobic, xenophobic, and racist slurs against our volunteers and program participants, sometimes in the presence of children and community members,” Burke wrote. The letter did not go into specifics about the alleged hate-filled incidents.

He called on Richards to investigate the Board’s leadership for sending out the email.

On Monday, the LGBT Network, a group advocating for LGBT people in Queens and Long Island, held a press conference along the 34th Avenue Open Street to bring attention to the alleged incidents against members of the Coalition and called for an end to hate in the neighborhood.

Burke attended the press conference and was joined by Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, former Councilmember Danny Dromm, and David Kilmnick, president and founder of the New York LGBT Network.

Krishnan stood with Burke and the activists to condemn the alleged bigotry.

“I am appalled at the homophobic harassment that 34th Avenue volunteers like Jim Burke and many others have had to experience by members of the so-called Jackson Heights Coops Alliance,” Krishnan said.

“No matter how their members may feel about 34th Avenue, there is no excuse to engage in hate. Jackson Heights Coops Alliance must condemn its members’ actions now.”

The press conference sparked an almost immediate response from the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance, which released a statement late Monday condemning the media event.

“The malicious accusation directed at us by Councilmember Shekar Krishnan and the 34th Avenue volunteer Jim Burke without concrete evidence is disturbing, if not pure slander,” the statement, written by Pacheco reads.

“We demand any evidence that supports this claim.”

Furthermore, Pacheco, who is an LGBT activist, alleges that his group was not contacted about Burke’s claims before the press conference was held.

On Tuesday, Pacheco wrote an open letter to Krishnan, labeling the councilmember’s actions as “malicious and libelous.”

“Without a shred of evidence, nor even a preliminary investigation, you proceeded to make malicious, baseless, unfounded, unverified and hateful allegations against the Jackson Heights Coops Alliance,” the letter reads.

“This was nothing less than a precalculated attempt to embarrass, discredit and defame our name as a community organization and attempted to portray me as being a homophobic bigot.”

“As the president and a gay man myself who has a long history and proven track record of advocating for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ community, I would never tolerate such bigotry from our alliance or from anyone else.”

Pacheco also called on Krishnan to make a public apology for his actions.

Krishnan responded to Pacheco’s open letter on Wednesday with a brief statement to the Queens Post.

“We take every instance of hate speech brought to us very seriously,” Krishnan said.

“It’s shocking that when a victim comes forward, the response by some is to discredit and vilify rather than condemn the harassment.”

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