Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Interesting Williamsburg Anniversary: the Mural and the Mayor

The issue of Engine Company 212 in Williamsburg (AKA The People's Firehouse) has faded from the headlines, except in the context of the city's plans to dispose of the fire house and several others that were closed. Neighborhood activists who fought to keep the fire station open are still smoking about the closure and make a compelling case that the neighborhood is now less safe without it, despite a fast rising population and major new developments. One of the leaders of the campaign to save Engine 212, Phil DePaolo, sent out an email last night about "The Story of Mural Mike." As it turns out, yesterday was the anniversary of one of the more interesting incidents in the failed effort to save the fire house on Berry Street. Here are excerpts of the long, but very, very fascinating story:
Four years ago today the Save Engine Company 212 Community Action Group put this portrait of Mayor Bloomberg up next to closed Engine Company 212. Artist Scott LoBaido created this artistic expression of the community’s outrage over the closing of six engine companies three months earlier. Mayor Bloomberg was going to Israel the weekend we put the mural up. But his motorcade drove by to see the mural the morning he left.

I later learned that the Mayor had told Ray Kelly that the mural had to be gone by the time he returned.

The Save Engine 212 CAG had a tent set up in front of the closed firehouse to keep the city from removing the Engine from its home. Community residents took four hour shifts 24 hours a day at the tent and it actually became a gathering place for activists and residents who were concerned about a reduction of a vital service. The building where we put up the mural was a textile factory that was owned by a Hasidic family that gave us permission to hang the mural from their building.

So, the second night we had the mural up Friday four guys walk up to the tent at about 10:00pm announcing that they were here to remove what they called a sign. “We just spoke to the owner and he wants the sign down” one of the men muttered. So I told the man, how long ago was just spoken to. He said about 20 minutes ago. So I stated that there was no way they could have spoken to Issac or Simon since they went to Kingston NY on Friday and Saturday for religious observance and had no phone and could not speak on the phone during religious observance. I then asked if they had a work order. They said no...Then I offered this to the men: If you want the mural removed let’s wait till we can speak to the owners. If they want it removed we will take it down ourselves, then I asked them if they were cops. Three of the four guys I was speaking to suddenly started to walk away and the fourth guy who was doing the talking said, let me make a call. He them went down to Kent ave where he met the other three men.

He came back about 10 minutes later and said we will see you Monday 11:00 am. I agreed and they left. Saturday was uneventful as was Sunday but we had an increased presence around the tent just in case. I received a phone call Sunday Night about 1:30am from Pete Susol who lived around the block from Engine 212 and was on watch at the tent.

‘Phil get down here! The cops are breaking in the building and they are going to take down the mural, they have some Hasidic guys here the cops are saying its Issac and Simon but its not them! Now we had been having trouble with the T.A.R.U unit coming down to film us when the city would attempt to try to take the engine so we had a camcorder in the tent to film them. Pete get the camcorder go to the corner across the street and film what you can, Don’t let then see you or they will take the camera! It took me about 10 minutes to get dressed throw some water on my face and run the four blocks to the firehouse. By the time I got there the cops were gone as was our mural but we had it on tape! We had the then 94pct captain Theresa Shortell and community affairs officer John Lisa on tape with a man who they claimed was the owner but we later found out was a man named Manny Weiser who was a member of the Hatzolah ambulance service and according to one source “He’s was at Brooklyn North more than that Captain”. So we turned the tape over to the media. (Here's a NY1 clip I found on the removal of the mural that includes our footage.

The mural was kept at the 94pct till the artist Scott LoBaido showed up to claim it. He was then charged with being an unlicensed sign hanger. We went court on October 27, 2003...The Judge dismissed the case, citing LoBaido's first amendment right to free speech. So we got the mural back.

I gave the mural to the People’s Firehouse Inc. on Berry St. to store it for safe keeping or so I thought. I was told a woman named Lynn Graham took the mural from the Peoples Firehouse Inc. and no one knows her present whereabouts. Shortly after the mural was removed, former 94th pct Capt. Shortell got a double bump to Deputy Inspector for her efforts and got reassigned to Chelsea where she then got a job as a consultant on the TV show The Shield advising Glen Close on her role as a female Captain. Community Affairs officer John Lisa got promoted to detective and was reassigned to Brooklyn North. And Manny Weiser got a gun carry permit for his efforts. So everyone got something except the communities of Greenpoint and Williamsburg who lost a vital firehouse and now have towers going up right down the block from the closed Engine company that so many people since the 70’s fought to protect. We had another piece of cloth on the building. It was a quote from the Late Adam Veneski who led the fight to reopen Engine 212 in the 70’s.

This statement was also removed by the N.Y.P.D that fateful night. I think about this quote a lot lately as the city prepares to sell Engine Company 212. But it inspires me to fight!
An interesting tale that bears repeating.

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2 Comments:

Blogger bartthanhauser said...

hey,
i agree it's a shame that engine 212 got closed, but you fail to note that the city is currently accepting proposals for new uses. among these proposals, many northside community organizations (nag, people's firehouse) are hoping to receive government support to renovate the building. the plan is that the upper floors would be office space for the commuunity organizations and the ground floor would be open community space (maybe for art, performance, something). so, as bad as it is that 212 closed. and as amazing a history as it has, it's important to note that it's future could still be great. veneski's story is great, but dont sulk on the past in such a cynical manner.
-Bart

12:21 PM  
Blogger bartthanhauser said...

hey,
i agree it's a shame that engine 212 got closed, but you fail to note that the city is currently accepting proposals for new uses. among these proposals, many northside community organizations (nag, people's firehouse) are hoping to receive government support to renovate the building. the plan is that the upper floors would be office space for the commuunity organizations and the ground floor would be open community space (maybe for art, performance, something). so, as bad as it is that 212 closed. and as amazing a history as it has, it's important to note that it's future could still be great. veneski's story is great, but dont sulk on the past in such a cynical manner.
-Bart

12:21 PM  

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