Buddy Scotto, on the ramparts of Carroll Gardens
When Salvatore "Buddy" Scotto’s friends refer to him as the Mayor of Carroll Gardens, he blushes, crouching down and shaking his head, but with a little smirk of amusement and pride.
The title fits the man who has been at the helm of his neighborhood for over half a century, chairing countless committees and development corporations that have pushed the neighborhood agenda from not just in city government but in federal agencies and even, at one time, at the highest level of party leadership (on both sides of the aisle).
He’s switched, in the anticlerical, Italian-American tradition of his neighborhood, between soft loyalties to both Democrats and Republicans just for the chance to realize his ambitions for his home. He built an unlikely political empire out of the casual acquaintances made in the surprisingly stately, somewhat macabre parlor of the Scotto Funeral Home and carried by the weight of Italian-American neighborhood loyalty.
And so as Carroll Gardens becomes home to one of Brooklyn’s yuppiest Restaurant Rows, a sort-of Division II Manhattan for recent college graduates and a single-family brownstone dream for magazine editors and downtown types, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this power-base is thinning out.
“Buddy’s influence is definitely waning,” said the young neighborhood activist and blogger Katia Kelly. “One simply has to look at the results of the November Council election, where his candidate, John Heyer, lost terribly in Carroll Gardens, though Buddy introduced him to everyone in the neighborhood.”
Scotto recently lost a major battle when the efforts of his many organizations and allies failed to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency, with the support of a few local activists, from declaring the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site.
With that, Scotto’s dream of developing residential real estate that would be affordable and friendly to the many Italian-Americans being forced out of the neighborhood by skyrocketing rents were deferred for at least a decade. For the octogenarian Scotto, still energetic but starting to shake a bit, a decade is a long time to wait. Heyer said that Scotto has taken to biting his hand to ward off obvious angst about his life’s work in the neighborhood.
“Buddy is, how do I say, very distressed by all this,” said Cynthia Gonzalez, Board Chair of the Carroll Gardens Association, Inc., a non-profit advocate and developer of affordable housing formed by Scotto in 1979.
The Gowanus Canal was, after all, one of the first projects that led Scotto into his life as a community activist, one practiced in a boroughs-ethnic parochial style that is dying out not just in Carroll Gardens, but all over the city.
“HIS FAMILY HAS A VERY DEEP HISTORY HERE,” said Heyer. And Scotto’s was a family in a unique position to take leadership in a neighborhood of wage-earners and longshoremen.
“Unlike [my family],” Heyer said, “they were entrepreneurs.”
The Scottos came to the neighborhood with a wave of Italian immigrants to Brooklyn. They were quickly successes locally, with a funeral-home business and a wine-importing business, as well as beyond, in shipping.
Prohibition ended the family’s wine business, Scotto said, so they switched to movie theaters.
“On Court Street alone there are four [former] movie theaters that were owned by the Scotto family,” said Heyer.
With the repeal of Prohibition, though, the family could return to the wine business. The advent of television was not as felicitous, and the movie theaters started closing down. The family retreated back to the funeral home and wine. For most relatives, the successes meant getting out of the city, and by the 1950’s and 1960’s most had.
“I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do … this place was for the poor,” said Scotto, who admits that he himself tried to flee around 1964. “I was a little embarrassed about the neighborhood.”
But Scotto’s parents would not leave.
“They felt that it was their neighborhood. They didn’t want to leave their community,” said Heyer of Scotto’s immediate family, the only branch to stay in the area. “He couldn’t leave so he wanted to make this place better.”
“As an Italian-American, I was embarrassed about the condition of the Canal. Where the hell were our people?” said Scotto. He certainly wouldn’t trust politicians to help, as like most of his kin, centuries of Sicilian heritage had created a certain antipathy toward formal authority.
“I hate politicians. I hate all politicians,” said Scotto. But it was a dirty business he could no longer avoid if he wanted Carroll Gardens to survive as he had known it in its heyday.
So Scotto took a big risk and leveraged almost everything, defying many cultural and professional norms, to take a stand for his neighborhood. His family was respected, his name well known, and his position as a funeral director, one of the only literate and highly social professions in the community (save lawyer, but no one trusted them) lent him all the credibility he would need. He’d enter the dirty business of politics.
In the late 1960’s, Scotto used his influence to round up a group of young iconoclasts from the community to, grassroots style, organize to clean the neighborhood bit by bit.
“They were the best that the Italian Americans had created in the community that we could find,” said Scotto. This corps coalesced around the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, originally a group dedicated to challenging the Democratic Party, exploiting its nascent fractures over Vietnam-era antiwar discontent to push for initiatives that would improve life in Carroll Gardens.
Of these young tyros, at least three would go on to be elected officials on close terms with Buddy, including State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and three would go on to be judges like Michael Pesce. It was not long before Scotto had the credibility and the status to mobilize the Italian-American population as a voting bloc, making some politicians and residents, to this day, very uncomfortable.
“If that means that people respect him and when he says ‘vote for that person’ they vote for him, then absolutely he sways the vote,” said Heyer of critics’ more recent concerns that Scotto controlled a massive, unthinking and unpredictable voting bloc.
But his approach was at the ground level, always. Big voting blocs could do some things, mostly get the ear of local electeds and wannabes. But when he was able to bring three local parish priests to a meeting to press the Brooklyn Borough President to allow him to redevelop and old, rundown factory in the neighborhood, he was showing what he could do on a much more granular level.
Scotto said he had many lessons throughout the 1970s about how to deal with politicians who wanted his votes or his endorsement. But the biggest incident was in 1975. He was registered as a Republican to avoid trouble with some powerful Democrats he was maneuvering against, and received a call from a friend urging him to run as a Republican delegate to the 1976 convention in Kansas City.
“Buddy, relax, we just want to use your name on our petition,” Scotto recalled his friend telling him. He was told he would have no obligations and that he could step down and let an alternate serve. “I got elected overwhelmingly.”
Soon after he won, he received a call from Vice President Nelson Rockefeller urging him to publicly declare his commitment to Ford. Scotto hadn’t realized that the larger Kings County Republican contingent had planned a coup in which they would discredit Ford and Rockefeller by pledging all their votes as a unified bloc for upstart Ronald Reagan, and not for their native son Rockefeller, backer of Ford.
Scotto kept his cool, and told Rockefeller he was being cautious about his pledge because he still had concerns about how best to meet the needs of his neighborhood. He told Rockefeller that the Fulton Mall was troubled; the Gowanus Canal was a disaster; longshoreman jobs were disappearing, and with them the livelihood of many of his neighbors. Scotto said Rockefeller promised him results on the Fulton Street Mall and money via Congress for the Red Hook sewage treatment plant.
“All I had to do was go to Kansas City, Mo., which I didn’t know existed at the time, being a neighborhood guy,” said Scotto.
That he could take a swipe at designs by the party elites of Brooklyn was also a plus.
“I stopped them from making this grandstand play for Ronald Reagan,” Scotto said. “He was a god to them.”