BLAME IT ON LINDSAY:THE CUOMO DYNASTY
It all began in the mid-sixties. Mayor John V. Lindsay had a headache. A serious headache. It stemmed from the first, but certainly not the last (ever hear of Serpico and the Knapp Commission?), serious mistake since sweet-talking the voters in 1964 into allowing him to take up residence at Gracie Manson, the home of New York City’s mayor. Without much thought, the new mayor rubber-stamped his planning board’s suggestion of building an athletic field adjacent to a high school in Corona, Queens, a community of conservative Italian blue-collar workers. There was, however, a “minor” glitch. In order for those high school kids to play some baseball or run and jump, 69 family homes had to be erased from the landscape. Oh oh. Demolishing the homes of 69 Italian families in order to build . . . what, an empty lot? . . . is like attempting to take a Peter Lugar Porterhouse from a hungry Pit Bull. Well, hell, what does an aristocratic politician from Manhattan’s silk-stocking district know about homeowners in working-class Corona, known, at that time, as the little Italy of Queens County? He was about to find out.
Since every time one of those family members went to city hall to register a complaint, the person was told “it’s out of our hands . . . next?” But those 69 homeowners weren’t about to give up. They formed their organization, later labeled by the press as “The Fighting 69,” and began to make some serious noise, and, among other things, protested on the steps of City Hall. Creating the whole “David and Goliath” bit which is always good press, every newspaper in the area assigned a reporter to cover the story – mainly Jimmy Breslin for the New York Daily News and myself for The Long Island Press. And, that’s when Lindsay’s headache turned into a migraine.
The year was now 1970, and Lindsay, after haggling with the homeowners for several years, had enough. He ordered new hearings on the project and, following an aide’s suggestion, called a young lawyer in from Corona, who specialized in property law, to mediate the hearings, a calculated move that would surely favor the homeowners and quiet them down. “This should make them happy,” he was heard to say, “especially since it’s one of their own.”
Mario Cuomo thought it was a joke when his secretary buzzed to say “it’s “Mayor Lindsay for you.” Sure, somewhere in the back of his mind, he must have had thoughts of grandeur. After all, Mario Matthew Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store in Queens, graduated St. John’s University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in 1953, and then went on to St. John’s School of Law and tied for first in his class in 1956.
Since Cuomo and my father were colleagues, and business-related friends, with my dad a generation-plus older (both graduated St. John’s university and law school with honors; both were noted Corona property lawyers) I had gold-card access to Cuomo, both at his office and at his home (where I first met little Andrew, then 12, who seemed more interested in his cap pistol than becoming a future governor of the great state of New York). The “personal” connection was a tremendous advantage for this young reporter. The plight of the homeowners was the top local story news for months, (even went national as most things “New York” tend to do) often dominating the front page in bold fonts, with prominent by-lines. (Thank you very much, Mr. Cuomo).
I remember sharing a libation or two with Cuomo, then 38 while I was still at an age which could be trusted, while the lawyer outlined his plan, with drawings and scribbling on papers spread across his kitchen table, showing how most of the homes would be saved simply by moving the site for the athletic field just a few blocks away.
Even with Mayor Lindsay’s support, a stubbornly resistant city bureaucracy opposed any changes to the plan and raised a series of obstacles. At several contentious meetings in the Corona community and within city agencies, Cuomo masterfully rebutted each one with clarity and patience, until, finally, all, or at least a majority, of the parties came around. The Corona Compromise was announced with much fanfare, and after overcoming some additional state legislative hurdles, was largely executed exactly as Cuomo envisioned. The Corona community was saved, and to ethnically-sensitive New Yorkers, Cuomo was a hero. The media, which by now had drawn the attention of radio and TV, made sure everyone knew about the Cuomo Compromise – and, of course, how to pronounce and spell its author’s name. (For years, people called him “Como,” perhaps thinking he was a Paisan of the singer named “Perry.” The rest, as they say, is political history.
His success in Corona made him a rising personality in New York politics. His patient attention to detail, the clarity he brought to complex issues, his ability to calm community tensions, and his devotion to the disadvantaged and the powerless, were all qualities that would go on to captivate voters in the 1982 governor’s race, a race he easily won and go on to serve three consecutive terms as head of New York State.
As for Corona, especially the area known as The Heights, (the battleground of “The Fighting 69), well, it, too, became a more dynamic community, and its name, once only associated by outsiders as just an ethnic-populated neighborhood and the home of The Lemon Ice King, had now taken on a greater mantle of respectability – a force to be reckoned with.
During this period, as it had been for many years, the most powerful public official of New York was an arrogant, boastful demigod known as Robert Mosses. Mosses never held an elected office. He couldn’t. He was the antipodal of JFK. He ran for governor once and lost to Herbert H. Lehman in a landslide. But, as a public official he was known as the "master builder" and at one point held 12 titles simultaneously including New York City Parks Commissioner. It is said every mayor of New York since Fiorello La Guardia tried to fire him, but never succeeded. He had total autonomy from the general public and elected officials. In 1974, Robert Caro's Pulitzer-winning biography The Power Broker, accused Moses of a lust for power, questionable ethics, vindictiveness, and racism – a man whose word was set in stone and never changed for man or beast.
Well, this reporter can tell you there was one time – and one time only – that the “master builder” backed down and was forced to officially change one of his commandments – and it was Corona which made him do so. It began when Mosses decided to build a park, for, among other things, the home of the 1939 World’s Fair. He selected a huge waste area, known as The Corona Dump, built the park and named it The Flushing Meadow Park. “What the . . . ? What happened to Corona? Mosses was asked. “Never mind . . . it’s now Flushing Meadow, and that’s it.” In Mosses’ mind-set, Flushing, which was a waspish community of middle-to-high income families, was more to his liking and better to have associated with his name. And, well . . .? With all those, you know, Eye-talions. Well, it just sounds better to call it Flushing than Corona, regardless of what the maps indicate, and that’s it! And, so it came to pass that the 1939 World’s Fair, as well as the one in 1964, was held in “Flushing,” not Corona. (Editor’s Note” Now, we return to the original story.)
Well, thanks to Mario Cuomo, Corona had a new image, and an especially good one (remember David and Goliath) which inspired local politicians to attack the Almighty Mosses and demand the renaming of the park. And, as this reporter can bear witness to since I wrote the original newspaper article) Mosses backed down, admitted he was wrong and officially re-named the park, the largest in Queens County and the abode of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center; Citi Field, the New York Hall of Science; the Queens Museum of Art; the Queens Theatre in the Park; the Queens Zoo and the Unispher
RIP: Mario Cuomo died at age 82 from natural causes due to heart failure.