Nearly 50 people ventured out of their homes on a chilly Wednesday night to watch the final New York City mayoral debate projected on a big screen at 78th Street Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens, where politics was the second thing on their minds. The first? Keeping eyes out for their neighbors.
The plaza was filled with string lights hanging from trees, colorful tables and chairs. Vendors sold arepas, rice noodle soup and Caribbean fried chicken as volunteers helped residents register to vote and a DJ played top 40 hits. This was the second debate between Mayor Bill de Blasio and his challengers, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican, and Bo Dietl, an independent.
“We came to see the fireworks between Bo Dietl and Nicole Malliotakis against the mayor,” said Peter Greenberg, 48, laughing. “Also, this is our community! We wanted to see if we would run into anyone we knew.”
“I saw this event on Facebook and thought I would come out and be among my community,” said Dana Mount, a lifelong Queens resident.
As 7 p.m. approached, attendees began taking seats in front of the big screen and political affiliations crept out.
“Bill de Blasio is the least charismatic mayor I have ever seen in all of my life,” said Greenberg. “But he supports a change in relationship between the government and the police, which I support.”
Caroline Rose, who has lived in Jackson Heights for over 40 years, interjected.
“Schools are also getting better!” she said. “De Blasio has been keeping up with those programs, like breaking up high schools, creating smaller high schools, paying for the PSAT.”
On the other side of the plaza, Mount called de Blasio a “Marxist.”
“I came here to watch Nicole kick butt,” he said of Malliotakis. Mount unzipped his jacket to reveal his “Make America Great Again” pin in support of President Donald Trump.
The lights in the plaza dimmed as the projector flashed on. The debate was on.
There were around 40 people sitting in chairs facing the monitor as the debate began at 7 p.m. The first remarks by the three candidates was quickly interrupted by technical glitches. The streaming glitches seemed to aggravate Mount, sitting in the front row, who abruptly got up, shook his head and left.
“We aren’t getting a connection,” the technician said, raising an antenna into the air at 7:12 p.m.
Shortly after the antenna was raised, at 7:15 p.m., the debate went on without interruption for a brief moment.
While de Blasio spoke about Tuesday’s terror attack, audience members turned their heads to Roosevelt Avenue as two ambulances passed, sirens blazing, flooding the dark plaza with red lights.
The crowd thinned throughout the debate, and the remaining 20 or so residents were split between the screen where the debate was projected and the screens in their pockets.
A few snickers fluttered throughout 78th Street Plaza as Malliotakis responded to a question about gentrification. Jackson Heights is one of many neighborhoods in Queens that has seen an influx of wealthy renters since 2011.
“I’ll be mayor in January,” Malliotakis said in a rapid fire response to de Blasio.
“Everything starts in January,” Rifadije Camaj, who lives in a co-op around the corner, shouted at the screen.
As the fiery debate, which at times felt like two siblings vying for the attention of a parental figure, ended, attendees shuffled out just before 8 p.m.
“I’m voting for Bo, he was the only one on point,” said Camaj of Bo Dietl. “He’s been a businessman, he only has a high school education, shows how much he has accomplished.”
Shane Strassberg, a lifelong New Yorker who has been living in Jackson Heights for the last two years, had a different image of Dietl.
“Bo Dietl has a lot of passion, but his ideas are shortsighted,” said Strassberg.
Strassberg, like many attendees, came out on this brisk night “not to make a designation on who won the debate” but for “the political theatre in an outdoor setting.”
“People are usually watching these kind of things segregated in their homes, out here it feels more like a community being informed together,” he said.
Sophia Lucas left the debate conflicted.
“The housing market overall is overwhelming,” said Lucas. “I don’t know anyone in New York who isn’t concerned with housing. It comes up in almost every conversation and it wasn’t really covered in this debate.”
Lucas said she has issues with de Blasio and remained unsure on who to vote for.
“I am going to be cramming information this next week to make that determination,” Lucas said.
The plaza quickly emptied after 8 p.m. The debate was over and nearly all of the chairs and tables were already stacked.
UPDATE: This story has been been changed to reflect the fact that Shane Strassberg is a lifelong New Yorker who has been living in Jackson Heights for two years.