Volume 77 / Number 36 - Feb. 06 - 12, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Shoshanna Bettencourt

Reverend Billy, in white jacket, and his acolytes held aloft their shoes while they blessed the A. Fontana shoe-repair store Saturday as owner Angelo Fontana, center, took it all in.

Reverend Billy’s heeling for East Village shoemaker

By Bonnie Rosenstock

At a little past noon on a brisk Saturday, Feb. 2, Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir gathered at Abe Lebewohl Park in front of St. Mark’s Church in the Bouwerie to offer beleaguered shoemaker Angelo Fontana healing words and a hang-tough song.

The gospel-flavored “Push Back,” with its reprise, “This town ain’t no super mall,” echoed Reverend Billy’s message and the feelings of the community.

“We don’t want this venerable old church to be surrounded by chain stores,” he emoted to a chorus of hallelujahs, amens and a few “greedalujahs.” “We must save our neighborhood if it is to remain being a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs — this is the beginning of chapter three,” he declared, evoking the name of the great 1960s urban activist and community organizer.

Fontana, 75, who has been a neighborhood fixture for around 45 years, has to close up shop on Feb. 29 because his rent is being raised to a whopping $5,500 a month — a 30 percent increase — for 700 square feet of space. In essence, he is being evicted. A. Fontana Shoe Repair, at 159 Second Ave., is directly across from the church, where the performance-artist preacher Reverend Billy makes his home base.

“We are having our shoes resurrected,” he declared, as many of his dozen green-robed followers took off a shoe or two and raised them high in the air.

“Many of us get our shoes repaired by Angelo, including these,” he said, speaking before the rally. He removed a pointed, spanking-white, Fontana-polished shoe and turned it over. “Angelo’s heeling me here,” he chuckled at the pun. “It’s counterintuitive for him to ask for help. It’s coming to him slowly. Basically, he does his work, such talented, professional, patient work.”

Fontana, who had a cold, stayed in his shop and waved to his supporters through his window or open door, as a steady stream of customers poured in to drop off or pick up. After the sermon, Reverend Billy a.k.a. Bill Talen invited everyone into the small space. There, he pledged to Fontana to do whatever it takes, “including resisting arrest, educating our neighbors, boycotting, bringing our business here, to support you so that your rent does not rise to that amount and that you will stay here in our neighborhood.”

Roberta Prada, an opera singer, sang two traditional songs in Italian to Fontana, who appeared quite touched. When The Villager asked how he felt about all the attention, choking back tears, he said haltingly and quietly in his Sicilian accent, “I can’t explain too good. … I am very happy. I got my family here…when I come here, it’s like home. I don’t feel like leaving, but I can’t make this rent.”

His real family was also present for this tribute, including his son Anthony Fontana and Anthony’s wife Chris and their two children, Angela, 15, and Anthony, 12; and Angelo’s daughter Millie Doria. Both of Angelo’s children grew up on E. 12th St.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that they care about my father,” said Doria. “It’s a sad situation. He’s the last of his craft. He’s happy here.”

“This community makes him so proud,” added Chris Fontana. “He’s a very quiet man, but this means so much to him.”

Doria is looking to donate the contents of the shop intact to a museum. Angelo’s equipment, including a sewing machine and a formidable-looking machine full of assorted wheels, brushes and cogs, is at least 75 years old, solid, superior and irreplaceable. However, many people in the neighborhood are still hoping the landlord, Mark Scharfman, who owns about 150 buildings around the city, will change his mind and allow the septuagenarian to stay for a few more years. A representative of Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s Office recently met with Fontana, but it is not known what course of action Mendez will pursue.

Meanwhile, Fontana has refused to pay the January increase and has already received a summons to appear in court. He won’t pay this month’s rent either.

“If I gotta leave, I don’t wanna pay,” he declared. “If I stay at a more reasonable rent, I will be happy to pay the back rent.”

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