Kassenbrocks Built the BRCC To Enlist the Elite of Volunteers

January 12, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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The most significant and enduring “power lunch” in Bay Ridge is coming up Jan. 28 when the Bay Ridge Community Council holds its annual Presidents’ Luncheon at the Bay Ridge Manor.


This luncheon is attended — by invitation only — by heads or representatives of the council’s 100-plus member organizations and selected city and state officials, elected and otherwise.

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In charge — in keeping with one of the many council traditions — is Executive Secretary Arlene Keating. President Alex Conti will be there, along with First Vice President Al Asfazadour, Second Vice President Josephine Giammarino, Treasurer Joseph Sbarra, Recording Secretary Linda Orlando and Corresponding Secretary Frank Lombardi.


The “structure” of the council was ingeniously conceived by brothers Walter and Vincent Kassenbrock, who recognized the civic spirit generated by the losing battle against the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as an opportunity to build a better community.


Bay Ridge lost that battle against master builder Robert Moses, who chose to proceed with his ambitious goals even though the bridge approaches would ultimately destroy 2,000 dwellings and displace 10,000 people! 


There were other routes the bulldozing Moses could have taken, including one along the water. The Narrows alternative would have spared us all the unsightly and pollution-spewing  steel-concrete gash of the “Seventh Avenue Expressway,” the “Lower Gowanus Expressway,” or whatever it is currently called.


The controversy over the approach routes caused a 10-year battle, which Moses almost lost when the Department of the Army refused to surrender some prime real estate standing between him and the record-length span to Staten Island.


At issue was part of historic Fort Hamilton, but this threat subsided when an alliance of contractors and builders — long beholden to Moses for fat contracts he awarded on earlier projects — pressured Army leaders in Washington to give up some key property the military had used since shortly after the Revolutionary War.


Kassenbrock Strategy  Works Even After 60 Years!


Both Kassenbrock brothers, respected teachers in the local school system, joined with the late Gerry Shea, who headed the main anti-bridge group, the Save Bay Ridge Committee. But once the final legislation was enacted, enabling construction to go ahead, Walter and Vincent — and a handful of other leaders — decided that the best way to preserve “what was left” of Bay Ridge was to form the community council.


Appropriately, the council would include the neighborhoods united in the battle against the bridge — Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton and Dyker Heights — what we refer to today as Greater Bay Ridge.


Its membership would be composed of organizations as varied as B’nai B’rith, Knights of Columbus, The Dyker Heights Civic Association, PTAs, merchants and other recognized groups. And — most important of all to the Kassenbrocks — the council leadership would be constant, through a Board of Directors, balanced by elected officers, all of whom would be selected based on their actual volunteer work in Greater Bay Ridge.


There is not a more more effective volunteer in Bay Ridge today than Executive Secretary Arlene Keating. Her prime position was earlier held by both Kassenbrock brothers, Marie DiResta, Bob Kassenbrock (Walter’s son), Mary Ann Walsh and Gloria Melnick. All serve without compensation. All had — and have — given much of their time to volunteer efforts on behalf of the council or a member organization.


Invited Saturday will be current elected officials, such as U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Marty Golden, U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, State Conservative Chair Mike Long, Borough President Marty Markowitz, and Assembly members Nicole Malliotakis, Peter Abbate, Alec Brook-Krasny and Felix Ortiz.


Special invitees are the “Presidents” of the 100-plus constituent members, as they have been over the past six decades, thanks to the foresight of the Kassenbrock brothers. It’s hard to imagine a civic community superstructure like the BRCC, which has survived total changes in personnel for so long, yet survived so well.


But Walter and Vincent did.



Marie DiResta Was First Female BRCC President


The only “mistake” they made, at least, initially, was to create an umbrella organization that, unofficially, could not have a woman as president! After all, it was the 1950s — the era portrayed by the male-dominated hit TV show “Mad Men,” when housewives were housewives!  


This unwritten rule persisted until 1974 — 22 years later — when the irrepressible Marie DiResta was elected the first female council president. Women’s liberation had come to Bay Ridge — almost 50 years after women had won the right to vote!


Since then, recognizing their leading volunteers without gender consideration, the council has had its fair share of female presidents who, in any review of its history, deserve special mention. They are Bettie Kramer, Jane Kelly, Rosemarie Russo, Barbara Vellucci, Gloria Melnick, Marianne Teta, Barbara Foran, Cheryl Heiberg Kamen, Patricia Killen, Ilene Sacco, Dawn Hansen and, no surprise, Arlene Keating.


And, meaning no disrespect to President Alex Conti, now in his second term, the all-important Board of Directors currently includes Linda Allegretti, Joan Curran, Ted General, Janet Gounis, Irene Hanvey, Jane Kelly, Maria Makrinos, Anthony Marino, Gloria Melnick, Eileen Potter, Mary Rendeiro, Linda Rubino, Eleanor Sabbagh, Madeline Sbarra, Mary Ann Walsh and Andrew Windsor.


Mary Ann Walsh? Isn’t she the person who heads the vital Kassenbrock Brothers Scholarship Foundation, an ongoing tribute to the founding brothers? That’s true. But Mary Ann and the Kassenbrock Foundation, which has helped hundreds of deserving young students here, warrant a “Focus” of their own!



BRCC Special Events Stand the Test of Time


Among the most notable of the council’s achievements has been its successful efforts, at different times, to “save” historic Fort Hamilton Army Base from the economic chopping block regularly wielded by people at the Pentagon, who simply don’t like New York City.


Yet, it’s done much more to preserve the quality of life here. Thanks to the foresight of its founders, the community council has launched a number of annual programs, especially for children, which have served Bay Ridge for well over a half-century. 


We name just a few with their starting dates: Fall Art Poster and Halloween Window Painting Contest, 1952; the Track and Field Meet, 1952; Kassenbrock Brothers Memorial Scholarship Fund, 1972; Community Picnic, 1976; Essay Contest, 1978; Photography Contest, 1994; Acts of Kindness, 1989.


The BRCC has held scores of public forums on politics, health, anti-crime, tree planting and the environment.


“In short,” a longtime observer said, “over the years, the council has shown other groups in the neighborhood how to air and publicize not just their grievances, but their hopes and aspirations for a better Bay Ridge. Bay Ridge wouldn’t be Bay Ridge without it!” 

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