2012-06-20 / Features

For The Love Of Community

he Western Queens Gazette made its first appearance on Feb. 1, 1982 with a front-page headline that screamed the news, “Birth Of A Newspaper”.

Born the child of scant beginnings, that first issue of the Gazette filled 12 pages and miraculously paid for itself, establishing against all odds its place in the annals of Queens’ community journalism.

The Gazette was born at the dining room table of a Long Island City community leader, created out of necessity and nurtured with a will to survive.

At a Dutch Kills Civic Association meeting on Jan. 26, 1982, reporter Paul Herman broke the news that his employers at the Queens Weekly newspaper had decided to shut down publication, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of western Queens communities.

The Star Journal had ceased publication several years earlier and the Long Island Press concentrated most of its coverage on Eastern Queens. What to do?

Before the night was over, community activists George L. Stamatiades, Roger Laghezza and Judy Jackson plunked down $750 each to pay for the first printing of the fledgling newspaper. In no small accomplishment, six days later the first issue of the ˆ hit the streets.

In the early days of 1982, the Army Pictorial Center was a decaying eyesore. Dutch Kills was dying beneath archaic city zoning and the banking industry had packed its vaults and fled the Queens Plaza business district.

Astoria residents were begging the Steinway Transit Company to provide a direct bus route to Riker’s Island and Silvercup had stopped baking bread at its iconic plant in Long Island City.

There was no New York City Marathon running through the streets of Western Queens, no CitiCorp tower – and the shocking loss of lives in an explosion at the Chiclet factory was still fresh to the memory.

Clearly, the Western Queens communities needed a voice, a vehicle to awaken the great metropolis on the other side of the river to the possibilities and promise of their underdeveloped, underutilized landscape.

From its first issue, the Western Queens Gazette provided that voice. And with each issue, with each year that passed in the newspaper’s 30-year history, that voice became louder, stronger and bolder.

For the first 18 months of its life, the Gazette staff consisted only of two full-time volunteers who managed to pull in advertising to help pay for printing, typesetting and distribution. We were lucky to have people like Bob Limandri, who provided a weekly “Town Talk” column and Jimmy O’Connor, who shared memories of the theater and the silver screen with readers. “Millie” volunteered a column on cooking each week, complete with a family recipe and the “Gazeteer” gave readers a glimpse of Western Queens at the turn of the 20th century.

Managing Editor Bill Gronwald grumbled his way through those first 18 months, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week writing, editing and producing the paper. Volunteers came and disappeared during those first trying months.

Writers, reporters, advertising salespeople jumped on board with great enthusiasm, but were inevitably forced to leave for financial reasons.

Gronwald got the news to the community, despite those challenges.

A strike at an Astoria Marriott Hotel, a blaze that ravaged a strip of stores along 36th Avenue in Long Island City, political news, development of the Kaufman Astoria Studio complex, coverage of “senior” issues, schools, houses of worship and law enforcement filled the pages of the Gazette in those early days, along with stories that lifted spirits and boasted of “community unity”.

When Gronwald announced he was leaving the Gazette at the end of May 1983 and financing collapsed, the publishers were forced to sell the paper. They chose to put the “voice of the community” in the hands of John Toscano, who had then recently retired after 25 years at the city desk of the Daily News.

Toscano brought a new excitement and new look to the Gazette. John took the fledgling paper through the second stage of its life, polishing the Gazette as only a professional journalist could.

Thirty years later, the Queens Gazette is stewarded by the able hand of Tony Barsamian. Back in 1982, Tony was “the kid” who published a Pennysaver magazine packed with local advertising and a sprinkle of community news. Since 1990 Tony has been at the helm.

Barsamian’s experience and knowledge of the Queens communities made him a perfect choice to steer the Gazette into the next chapter of its life.

Thirty years later, we find ourselves in a new millennium society that depends on the Internet and the Web site for its news. There are people who doubt that newspapers will survive this computer age, who say that printed news will soon be a thing of the past.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to create a newspaper, to catch the scent of newsprint as it passes through the massive presses would argue that there would always be a place in our society for printed news.

There is something magic about turning the pages of a newspaper and knowing that our history is there, preserved in newsprint for future generations.

In a front-page letter to the community on February 9, 1982, the publishers of the Western Queens Gazette reaffirmed their commitment to provide a voice for the people.

“The residents of Astoria and Long Island City who have worked hard to make our community a great place to live and work have been without a real voice for too long,” the letter read.

“The Gazette is an opportunity for all local groups and area residents to share their ideas and accomplishments with their neighbors. This is your newspaper.”

Thanks to Tony Barsamian, the Gazette has kept that promise and has evolved into a vehicle for the news of Queens County.

The success of the Gazette is testimony to the strength of our neighborhoods and to the people of Queens. “Never say never,” the original publishers said. And they were right.

After all, who would have thought that the little newspaper with so little money and so few staffers would outlive parking meters, subway tokens and most pay phones?

Congratulations, Tony, and Happy 30th Anniversary! Thanks for reminding us each week what we can accomplish, all for the love of a community.

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