Grandmother leads charge in N. Park barricade battle


The seven-year-old effort to persuade the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Authority to agree to the construction in Long Beach of barriers near LIRR tracks to help prevent serious flooding was given a major boost over the years by a 65-year-old grandmother - a retired Nassau County employee who kept the pressure on the city and the authority until an agreement was announced at the end of December.

Crystal Lake, who retired in 2021 after a 20-year career working in the accounting department at Nassau County Community College, attended practically every city council meeting over those years to plead for the barricades. James Hodge, a community activist and former chairman of the Martin Luther King Center in the North Park area, ministers and other community members, often joined her.

Lake and the others seemed to be getting nowhere. Meeting after meeting, city corporation council Rich Berrios would say only that the city and the MTA were still negotiating.  The MTA, which operates the LIRR, was demanding huge insurance coverage to protect its workers while the barricades were being built for what is known as the North Shore Critical Infrastructure project.

Finally, at its Dec. 20 meeting, Berrios announced an agreement had been reached, without providing many details.

“It’s done,” Berrios said. “It’s final.” A cheer went up from those at the council meeting.

Lake, in her usual soft voice, said, “This is amazing.”

City Council President Karen McInnis, who said in a recent, email, “Crystal has been a positive presence at City Council meetings for many years now, paid her a compliment. I’ve always admired her tenacity in advocating for her community.” She credited Lake with helping to bring off the agreement with the MTA. “After years and years of hard work, (she) brought about the signing of the North Shore Critical Infrastructure project across the finish line.”

“As Crystal recently told me, she is a grandmother of 16,” McInnis continued. “No wonder when I would talk with her face-to face to avow that we would get it done, and she smiled back at me, I knew we HAD to get it done.”

In an interview at her small home on East Market Street just before New Year’s Eve, Lake made one thing perfectly clear: she is not done.

“It’s a great accomplishment for the community,” Lake said. “But the project has to go forward. The project could take two years. Things do happen that could cause delays. It’s not a win-win until it’s done.”

Lake was bon in 1957 in Washington Heights and moved to the North Park section a few years later to live with a great-uncle, Gold James Pitts and a great-aunt, Francis Pitts, in a bungalow on East Harrison Street, a rundown block.

“There was tremendous flooding,” she said of those early days. “I remember going down the street in a rowboat with my great uncle.” But, she said, “I didn’t come from poverty. I was never hungry.”

She got into the fight over the barricades in about 2008, after moving to East Market and coping with numerous flooded streets. She got pastors and others in the neighborhood involved. Despite her full-time job at the college, Lake said she worked nights at her computer home.

“I was up late at my research. I attended about 98 percent of the City Council meetings. I thought it was ridiculous, that something should be done.” She tracked down key MTA officials and kept after city officials, and she is not satisfied.

The City Council is to make a presentation to the public outlining the project, but no date has been set. Long Beach Public Works Commissioner Joe Febrizio said initial work could begin in a few months.

She said that Dr. Harold Bellinger, assistant to the president for affirmative action and diversity at Nassau Community College, had become a mentor and advisor. At first, she said, “He told me, You don’t know what you’re getting into. But I was persistent. He told me what to read. He said, Yes, you will have all your paperwork when you talk to people. But it won’t happen until you have it in your heart.”