Buddy Scotto, mayor of Carroll Gardens, remembered fondly at street co-naming ceremony

June 29, 2022 Helen Klein, Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
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If Buddy Scotto had had his way, there would have been gondolas plying the waters of the Gowanus Canal.

That dream, recounted to this paper by Mark Shames, a member of Community Board 6 and the law partner of Scotto’s daughter, Debra Scotto, may never have been realized. But Scotto’s decades of efforts on behalf of South Brooklyn bore rich fruit – from the construction of affordable housing to the rehabilitation of the once noxious Gowanus Canal, making it perfectly logical that a corner in the community would be dedicated to his memory.

The dedication for that street co-naming took place on Wednesday at the intersection of First Place and Court Street, where for years the funeral home that Scotto ran was located. Speakers included Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, former Mayor Bill de Blasio; and Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who represents the area. About 75 people attended.

Scotto, who died at the age of 91 in 2020, was known to many as the “Mayor of Carroll Gardens” and was ubiquitous in meeting rooms across the neighborhood as he advocated tirelessly for his three civic passions: affordable housing, the Gowanus Canal and the environment, said Vilma Heramia, the executive director of the Carroll Gardens Association, which Scotto founded and shepherded for many years.

“He started in the community doing things like planting trees and making the community more green,” Heramia recalled. “He was really very much involved with the Gowanus Canal cleanup before it became popular,” founding the now-defunct Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation to facilitate the effort.

Buddy Scotto was a force to be reckoned with in Carroll Gardens and throughout South Brooklyn. Eagle photo by Helen Klein

Scotto was a true son of Carroll Gardens. Born Salvatore Scotto to Pasquale (Patsy) and Rose Clemente Scotto, he lived in the neighborhood for most of his life. He got his nickname, Buddy, from his mother, said John Heyer Jr., who now runs the funeral home the Scotto family founded and who called Scotto his mentor.

“A young woman named Rose used to sing the 1922 song by Henry Burr, `My Buddy,’ to her son Sal when he was born in 1928,” Heyer told the group gathered for the street dedication. “Eventually, Sal would become known to all of us as Buddy. Like Madonna, Prince and many other notables, when you say Buddy, everyone knows who you are speaking about … Salvatore Buddy Scotto.”

Scotto appeared to have had a finger in pretty much every community pie, helping to establish senior housing such as Mary Star of the Sea on First Street and being a key player, through the Carroll Gardens Association, in the development of affordable housing at a variety of sites in Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, as well as the eventual revitalization of Columbia Street, now known as the Columbia Street Waterfront.

Nonetheless, the rebirth of the Gowanus Canal may well be Scotto’s piece de resistance. In fighting for federal funding, the renovation of the unused pump house and the reactivation of the flushing tunnel, which had been dormant for more than half a century, Scotto was a prime mover in the area’s renaissance, said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, who previously represented the neighborhood in the City Council.

“He was the driving force behind the redevelopment around the canal when it sounded like a pipe dream and no one else was talking about it,” Lander told the Eagle. “He put in real work to get federal dollars. He was a real, central force in moving that along.”

The Gowanus Canal. Photo: Rob Abruzzese/Brooklyn Eagle

“He was the person probably most prominent in getting the city to reopen the flushing tunnel [to the Gowanus Canal],” added Howard Graubard, a community activist who was involved in many of the same efforts as Scotto. “He did a lot to make the area a much more attractive and better place for people to live. He helped turn around Carroll Gardens at a time when it could have gone a different way.”

“At a time when a lot of people were moving away, Buddy stabilized the neighborhood,” agreed former Assemblymember Joan Millman, who stressed that Scotto was a savvy businessman. He understood, she said, that, “To have a thriving business, you have to have a thriving community.”

Scotto’s passion for the canal was lifelong. Even during his later years, when he was ailing, “He had someone take him down to the canal every day, so he could look at it,” said Shames. 

The renaissance man of community activism, and “a hard-working community advocate,” in Heramia’s words, Scotto “was really well-connected with people in the neighborhood, whether those living in brownstones or the tenants in affordable housing. He was very approachable. Everyone liked him and they would ask him favors. He was really a gentleman who liked to help people.”

Those people, said Shames, included students at Columbia Journalism School who would show up, each semester, to listen to his stories. “He’d help them in their coursework,” noted Shames, “and they came in droves.”

They also included local residents who needed help in postponing jury duty or running the gauntlet of adoption requirements, said Shames. “He was always humane, and it was never for his personal interest,” he said.

His efforts made a deep impression on Heyer. “When I was in high school and it was time to receive my high school ring, they told us that we should ask someone whose example we wished to emulate in our lives to present us with our high school ring, and I picked Buddy,” he said in his prepared remarks at the street naming.

Even in his later years, Scotto continued to show up, attending CGA meetings and frequently visiting the office. “He’d come here every day,” recalled Heramia.

He was a very social person, said Shames, who recalled that the dapper Scotto would make frequent visits to the neighborhood senior center. He also was a raconteur. “He loved to tell stories about his time in the Army and discrimination against Italian Americans,” recalled Shames. “He could tell endless stories, and tell them over and over again.”

Occasionally, Scotto ran afoul of other forces at work in the community, Graubard recalled. “He once stood up against organized crime in Carroll Gardens,” he told this paper, adding, “He actually had to go into hiding once because he had been quoted in the press saying something about one of the local mobsters. That was one of the stories you’d hear from him.”

Scotto didn’t brag about his accomplishments, noted Shames, but there were reminders in sometimes unexpected places. At the Scotto Funeral Home (now Scotto & Heyer Funeral Directors), Graubard recalled a Village Voice article headlined “Saving Brooklyn one block at a time” hanging incongruously on the wall.

The funeral home, as Lander noted, was a center of community life, “where so many meetings took place. It might have been the Tri-Block Association, the canal, political,” he recalled, but time and again local luminaries got together at the mortuary’s old location on First Place, gathered around catafalques to discuss issues of moment. The funeral home was also a Halloween mainstay in Carroll Gardens, Landers added, “decked out” dramatically for the holiday.

Scotto wasn’t easy to pigeonhole. While he fought tooth and nail to revitalize the area around the Gowanus Canal, he opposed the Superfund designation issued to the waterway in 2020, said both Graubard and Lander.

He was also politically flexible. “He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention that nominated Ford and Rockefeller, and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that nominated Gore,” recalled Shames. “That’s one of the things about him that’s unique, particularly today. He was always about getting results for his neighborhood and for Brooklyn. He didn’t care who he got things from, as long as he got them.”

Millman and Scotto first met when local political powerhouse the Independent Neighborhood Democrats came into existence. The club initially formed, she recalled, to support two candidates – Michael Pesce for Assembly and Carol Bellamy for state Senate – and both were victorious.

“He was a lot older than many of the young people who coalesced around creating the new club,” Millman recalled. “He was a force to be reckoned with. If Buddy thought you were a candidate worthy of his support, he opened up a lot of doors for you.”

But that didn’t mean he didn’t come into conflict even with the people he supported, Millman added. She recalled being among the elected officials who engaged in “battles royal” with Scotto about a variety of issues. “He was very forceful in his convictions, but afterwards it was okay,” she recalled. “He and I had it out over a couple of local issues, but we remained friends.”

“It’s tough to find a consistent line in his politics,” added Graubard, stressing, “He saw himself as being pro-neighborhood.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, Scotto was embroiled over the years in a certain amount of controversy. “He was a complicated man,” noted Graubard, who had his share of disagreements with him. But, he went on, “Most of his legacy to the neighborhood was a good one.”

“He was really a remarkable Brooklyn character,” added Lander. “He had a real love of both the community and the political scene, the stories. I felt like I benefited enormously learning his perspective on politics. It didn’t always match mine, for sure, but it was told with a depth of passion and history that was irreplaceable.”

“It was just breathtaking how much he did. He was more about making sure things happened than making sure he was a star,” Shames said.

Nonetheless, he was often recognized. Shames recalled Scotto telling him that late Democratic boss Meade Esposito complained that Scotto “got really good press,” while he, Esposito, got bad press even though, he said, he also “did lots of good stuff,” and how, when Esposito died, he sent Scotto all his own “congratulatory plaques.”

“If he was your friend, he was your friend,” added Millman. “And his handshake was good.”

“He wasn’t always popular but he stood up for what he believed in,” added Heramia. “That’s the Buddy we knew.”

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