Sunset Park leader finds treasure trove of historic data
When the owner of a Fifth Avenue commercial building was cleaning his basement last year in preparation of selling the property, he came across cabinets filled with dusty old files and knew exactly what to do with them. He offered them to Sunset Park civic leader Tony Giordano, who jumped at the chance to peruse through the yellowing papers and fraying folders.
A year later, Giordano is still going through the files.
What the property owner, who does not want his name printed, had in his basement was a treasure trove of data about Sunset Park in the 1980s, a time when the crime rate in New York City was high and business and civic leaders were forming organizations to work for safe streets.
Here’s just a small sampling of what was contained in the files: minutes from meetings of the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association, correspondence between merchants dealing with the 72nd Police Precinct, applications for government grants for storeowners to improve the facades of their stores, plans to plant 30 trees on Fifth Avenue in 1986, a document from 1981 detailing the average rent for commercial properties on Fifth Avenue ($500 a month) and information about serious water damage the owner of a pizzeria on Fifth Avenue near at 47th Street had in his basement in 1984.
There was also a flier about the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association giving away red roses to female shoppers on Mother’s Day in 1984.
“Basically, the property owner on Fifth was selling his building and was cleaning out his basement and found hundreds of files in boxes and metal file cabinets. He took a quick look at them, realized they were of historical worth and offered them to me. He had workers drop them off at my front gate. He doesn’t want to be named but was very pleased to see the material preserved,” Giordano told the Brooklyn Eagle.
The unnamed property owner tracked Giordano down through his wife, Renee Giordano, executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District (BID). The BID is a group of building owners who self-fund improvements on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 64th streets.
Giordano is a history buff with a particular interest in Sunset Park’s past.
A leader of the civic group Sunset Park Restoration, Giordano is also the founder and administrator of the Sunset Parker group on Facebook and often posts old photos of the neighborhood. Sunset Parker, which gives members the chance to post their favorite memories of growing up in the neighborhood, has members all over the U.S.
Giordano is a retired teacher and knew what a gift the files were when they were dropped off in front of his house. He went through the papers very carefully.
“About half of the material was personal files from an insurance business and had potential personal data at risk, so I ended up destroying them. But the other material included files from the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association — the forerunner to the BID,” he said.
Giordano eventually plans to post the information on Sunset Parker’s Facebook page so that it can be preserved for historical purposes. He wants future generations to see what Sunset Park was like in the 1980s.
“It’s interesting to see how much the community has changed in 35 years, and in some ways, how it has remained the same,” he said.
In 1984, there were 46 empty storefronts in what is now the BID area. Today, there are no vacancies.
Giordano also came across correspondence from the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which, he said, indicated that the agency was more involved at the time in working with retail businesses than large industries.
“A lot of the correspondence had to do with crime and what to do about it. There were a lot of purse snatchings, car break-ins and robberies. It all traced back to drug use. We started losing a lot of families that had been here for generations,” Giordano said.
In 1984, Republican Christopher Mega was the state senator representing Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. In later years, redistricting placed the two neighborhoods in separate senate districts. Democrat Sal Albanese was in the City Council and much of the correspondence Giordano found is from Albanese’s aide, Adam Zucker.
Mega, who went on to become chief judge in the New York State Court of Claims, died a few years ago. Albanese left the council in 1997. He ran for mayor of New York City in 2013 but lost the Democratic Primary.