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LeFrak City in Queens turns 50

NY Daily News
September 13, 2012
By Jason Sheftell

Everyone coming and going from New York sees the big sign on the side of the Long ­Island Expressway. LeFrak City, it says.

Those signs, though, are normally as far as most people get into the 20-building, 4,605-apartment complex. That’s their loss, because inside the well-secured lobby doors is a world unto itself. There’s a swimming pool, a mosque, a Baptist church, a Jewish center, a public library, three tennis courts, two basketball courts, plenty of benches, three childcare centers, a commissary, skyline views from the upper floors, doctors’ offices and 25,000-plus hardworking New Yorkers looking to live well for a fair price.

Kids ride bikes in circles in the private playground area known as “the back.” They play soccer and climb junglegyms. Uzbekistani men play backgammon in the shade under trees. Families watch toddlers. Former Net point guard Kenny Anderson learned to dribble in the back where rapper ­Noreaga rhymed with friends. In 1962, when ­LeFrak City first opened, men in top hats greeted residents as they entered their section with buildings named after parts of the world — London, Paris, Mexico, Mandalay.

“When this was built, it was revolutionary for middle-class New Yorkers to have amenities, spacious apartments, underground parking and even elevators, and air conditioning,” says Jamie LeFrak, who is a fourth-generation LeFrak — the family that owns, manages and provides no-fee rentals for working-class New Yorkers through kingsandqueensapts.com, built Newport in Jersey City, and presides over their grandfather’s biggest legacy asset, LeFrak City.

“The idea was always to provide hard-working New Yorkers with good homes. That is still what we do,” says LeFrak.

Turning 50 this fall, LeFrak City is in the middle of major upgrades. Lobbies, hallways, laundry rooms, garages, streetscapes, landscaping, and infrastructural aspects are being renovated, to the
tune of tens of millions of dollars. They include the creation of a Great Lawn in the center courtyard and new recreational facilities. Solar panels on the roof power common areas such as elevators and hallway lights.

Apartments are still spacious, with some of the largest master bedrooms available at this price range — $1,000 for studios, $1,200 for one-bedrooms, $1,700 for two-bedrooms and $1,900 for three-bedrooms. Windows were replaced nine years ago. All 60 elevators were replaced three years ago. That cost $16 million.

“The changes are not just cosmetic,” says LeFrak, touring the complex with construction manager and assistant vice president Anthony Scavo Jr., whose father started working construction with the company at LeFrak City during the late building phases.

“We want to keep our residents happy. We’ve had our ups and down here, as all of New York has, but we want to return LeFrak City to a high standard of living in accordance with today. This is not an asset to be milked. It’s one to be loved and maintained. This has our name on it, but it’s more. It’s about community.”
With that in mind, let’s go inside ­LeFrak City and meet the people who live there.

Celso Collins moved to LeFrak 38 years ago. After working for Ford Motor Company, he started as a porter, cleaning buildings. Learning plumbing, electric, and heating/air conditioning, he became the super of Section Five, the area with buildings named for Asian countries. Not yet renovated, the lobby of Section Five is nevertheless spotless, with original Far East design remnants. It’s like walking in an exhibit of 1960s high-quality housing.

Growing up in LeFrak City, Collins’ children, Luis, 43, and Oscar, 28, joined him on repair runs. After active Army duty in Iraq working chemical-weapon response, Luis came home to LeFrak City, where he became super of Section One. Everyone knows his name. He met his wife in the elevator in 1995 after a party. Oscar is the youngest super in the history of LeFrak City. He runs Section Two, overseeing a staff of 12.

“He’s a natural fixing anything,” says Celso, whose brother just retired as Section Four super.

“I had a good teacher,” smiles Oscar.

Near the Mosque, the older set from Uzbekistan play backgammon on park benches. On a sunny Sunday, Murod Takuelov is the youngest.

“Look around,” he says. “What’s not to love about LeFrak City? Plus, we can afford the rent. It’s not easy to live in New York City.”

When she was 25 years old, Wanda Watson moved from her parents’ house in Hempstead, L.I., to a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of the Mandalay building in Section Five. The young woman would go on to become an award-winning executive in city government and earned an M.A. in public management from St. John’s. She spent more than a decade on staff for Queens Borough President Claire Shulman.

“I was the first person to move into this apartment,” says Watson, who arrived upon the building’s completion in 1965, paying $130 per month. “I feel comfortable and safe here, and everything is in walking distance. It was predominantly white when I moved in, but now it really is a microcosm of Queens with so many nationalities. Everything has always been well maintained. I worked a long time in city government. I know how to make noise if it isn’t.”

Watson remembers one day when ­developer Samuel LeFrak himself knocked on her door.

“I had just moved in,” she says. “He came in and checked everything himself, even the plumbing. Before he left, he told me to always look through the peephole before I let anyone in. He wanted me to feel safe here as young woman living alone.” Her apartment is decorated with African art. The only thing that needed repair over the years were her kitchen cabinets, replaced in the early 1990s.

Loretta Henderson lives in a three-bedroom in Section Four. She moved from St. Albans, Queens, in November 1983, when her parents relocated south. From the beginning, she has been involved in the LeFrak City community. She remembers going there as a girl.

“My mother used to visit friends here,” says Henderson, now retired after working most of her life for AXA Insurance in Manhattan. “They would come and greet us in top hats. When I was looking for a place to live, I thought this is the best place I could get for what I wanted to pay. This place is still affordable. I was thinking about buying a condo a few years back, and I looked all over Brooklyn and Queens. Then I saw what they were selling. I thought either they must be crazy to think I could live in that or I must be crazy to move. I stayed. These apartments are big.”

For the tenant association, Henderson works daily to improve life at LeFrak City. She’s excited about the upgrades, but wants to see certain improvements.

“We need a community center for kids to play in the winter months, and I’d like to see a senior center back on the grounds,” she says. “The important thing is to keep an open line of communication between the ownership and tenants. We have that and they are committed to continuously working to improve quality of life. Jamie [LEFRAK]is out here every Friday. We’ll get it done.

George Onuorah came to LeFrak City via a village in Nigeria and community college in Iowa. He had friends there from various African nations. A community activist and vocal member of Queens Community Board 4, Onuorah wanted an affordable and convenient place to live. He met his wife, Kim, in the elevator. They lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of the Paris building.

Onuorah is founder of Youth’s International Organization and author of “Political Diary of the Rising Son,” a book on empowering youth with democratic principles in the modern age. Now divorced, he rents a studio in Section One to be close to his two daughters.

“In this day and age, raising children is not an easy thing to do,” says Onuorah, a chief back in his native Nigeria. “LeFrak City is a harmonious community where people from all over the world can live ­affordably and raise children to be all they can be.”

George’s oldest daughter, Nneka, is just that. At 24, she is a producer for BET, working on music award shows and Black Girls Rock. She took dance lessons at Broadway Dance in Manhattan, graduated from John Bowne High School in Flushing and went to elementary school at PS 13.

“I was born in LeFrak City,” says Nneka, who spent some of her youth ­tutoring and mentoring local kids. “­People only see it from the street. They don’t know what goes on in here. You can get to everywhere fast. It’s 25 minutes to midtown. The schools are good. Rent is so high in New York, this allows us to live well. LeFrak people stick together. We want this place to be nice. I took tennis lessons and karate lessons for free here. It’s an amazing place to live.”

You Should Know

What: LeFrak City is 50 years old this month. The 40-acre site in Queens was purchased in 1960 from the Astor estate for $7 million. It took seven years to complete, costing $150 million.

Why: Retail, malls, a private park, Queens Blvd., and transportation to Manhattan in 25 minutes on the R /M trains from Woodhaven Blvd. or LeFrak City express bus.

Cost: One-beds for $1,200; three-beds for $1,900. Call (718) 271-7600 or go to LeFrakCity.com.

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