QUEENS — Carlisle Towery witnessed Jamaica’s collapse, but he never gave up on the neighborhood.
Instead, for more than 40 years, the president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a local non-profit group, has worked to bring back the struggling area, which decades ago served as the commercial center of Queens.
What has become Towery’s lifetime mission — revitalizing the neighborhood — has brought a number of changes to Jamaica, but his vision is still far from complete, he said.
Admirers call him an encyclopedia of Jamaica. An urban planner, Towery, has a vast knowledge of economic and demographic trends that allow him to envision local development plans in a broader context.
“The challenge is realizing Jamaica’s potential,” he said. “Because the potentials are evident and its accessibility is incredible. It’s a big market and it has a fairly affluent population.”
Towery became the president of Greater Jamaica in 1971, three years after the development organization was formed.
From the beginning, his focus was to attract projects and investors to rebuild Jamaica and turn it into a vital business center, transportation hub and cultural mecca, he said.
“It’s someone with a great vision and someone that works extremely hard to make that a reality,” said Yvonne Reddick, a long-time district manager for Community Board 12, who has worked with Towery for years.
Among the organization’s biggest achievements, Reddick said, were bringing affordable housing to the area, developing the underpass next to the Long Island Rail Road station and running garages and parking lots with almost 2,000 spaces in downtown Jamaica, which she said makes shopping in the area easier.
They also successfully fought for the AirTrain connection and for a 2007 rezoning from manufacturing to commercial and residential uses, launched a farmers market and even “squatted” in the abandoned Queens Register of Titles and Deeds Building to prevent the city from selling it, later transforming it into a cultural center.
Born and raised in Alabama during segregation, Towery went to Indian Springs School, a then newly opened private college preparatory school about 15 miles from Birmingham, which he said was “a rule breaker” for African Americans.
He was in the first graduating class in 1955, where two out of 12 students were black, he said.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Alabama’s Auburn University, he decided to leave his home state in 1961.
“I really made a decision to leave Alabama when George Wallace ran for governor,” Towery said of Alabama's segregationist politician.
He said that when he saw people he knew applauding Wallace, he realized he was “in the wrong environment.”
“I couldn’t stay there in the South,” he said.
He came to New York to study urban planning at Columbia University after winning a full scholarship.
He then went to Germany as part of the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program and spent two years working as an engineer at a post in Heilbronn near Stuttgart, were 2,500 soldiers lived with their families, he said.
After returning to the U.S., Towery completed his master’s degree in 1965.
He then got a job at Regional Plan Association, which in 1967 created the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
When Towery became its president, he had only two employees, he said.
It was the time of many changes in the region, Towery said. Suburban sprawl was one of the biggest challenges, causing urban areas and downtowns to lose businesses and jobs, he said.
Downtown Jamaica also suffered numerous setbacks, leading it to the brink of collapse, he said.
Towery said that 1978 was a turning point for the area.
Among positive changes, he said, the elevated tracks along Jamaica Avenue were torn down, which the organization fought for (Greater Jamaica was also instrumental in advocating for building an extension of the subway to Archer Avenue).
But in the same year, the local Macy’s closed, as did the Jamaica-based Long Island Press.
Two other department stores in Jamaica, Gertz and Mays, were shuttered in the early 1980s.
“There were a couple hundred smaller shops clustered among those three department stores and many of them closed or followed the stores as they moved out,” Towery said.
Between 1978 and 1985, almost every month the area was losing another store, he said.
“It was economic trauma,” he said.
Towery said that for much of the time he had been fighting negative perceptions about the community.
He said many African Americans who bought houses there in the past 40 years have had higher incomes than the non-African Americans they replaced.
“They are working families and they invested a lot in the neighborhood,” he said.
Despite the problems, Jamaica had assets that helped it rebound, including subway lines and its proximity to the airport, Towery said.
Still, he said often times he encountered skepticism from city officials and investors.
“It’s not fun to have insufficient resources and to have to argue for everything,” he said.
Businesses are now emerging after the economic slowdown, Towery said, and many projects that he and his staff of about 50 people, have been working on are finally moving forward, he said.
The neighborhood, once struggling with crime and decay, is becoming a vibrant downtown again, with a growing number of new stores, hotels, and civic buildings, Towery said.
Many people who have worked with him said he had been critical to the neighborhood’s rebound.
“The name Carlisle Towery has been synonymous with economic development in Jamaica for many years,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. “Carlisle gets the big picture and always makes the synergies and connections that make a project work in a coordinated fashion.
“Now, with the economy in recovery and new businesses coming to Jamaica, where rezoning has paved the way for additional growth, Carlisle envisions a new era of progress in retail and housing,” Marshall added.
Towery, who is married with five adult children, said that throughout the years, he had many job offers, and daily commute from Irvington in Westchester, where he lives, takes a lot of time.
“I shouldn’t call myself a planner,” he joked.
But he said it struck him when someone, when Jamaica was in the pits, told him that “a captain can get off of a sinking ship only once.”
“If I took off, I would never have another ship to captain,” he said. "But I do love it. It’s very gratifying.”