Volume 74, Number 23 | Octuber 6 - 12 , 2004

Tribute


Remembering my friend, neighbor and assemblyman

By VICTOR J. PAPA

We will no longer see Louie DeSalvio tip his hat to a passing lady, that noble convention of another age, nor see him off during his weekly treks to St. Andrew’s Church for Sunday Mass. As his next-door neighbor at Southbridge Towers for many years, I will no longer have the privilege to share the elevator with him, a dreaded place to be alone with him, as he either snarled at me for things gone wrong, or on rare occasions smiled when they went his way.

It didn’t matter if he was the first person I ever voted for. Louie was not only a personable person, but in all respects a personable politician of the first rank of yesteryear, a time when talking to constituents was not scrutinized for political correctness, but direct and straightforward.

His legacy was a deep, abiding loyalty to his constituents and their needs — so loyal and uncompromising that he helped save an entire ethnic neighborhood against a giant like Robert Moses — an accomplishment, I should add, without using the rhetoric of one with an urban planning degree. As a homegrown assemblyman, he helped save Little Italy from Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway by organizing public meetings, by being immersed among and with his local constituents, by rallying and building up a united neighborhood front that ultimately gave him the uncompromising mandate to save their homes.

With all that power behind him, in what was probably the first real manifestation of community empowerment, he was so emboldened as to remind Robert Moses and City Hall that real power is local. How much of that is needed today for facing off brash cultural impresarios, avaricious post-9/11 developers and famous, international “superstar” architects, many who do not earn, but simply make their mark through the largesse of the newest and hottest welfare system for the gentry — Lower Manhattan Development Corporation millions.

Louie DeSalvio was born on May 29, 1910. He passed on Aug. 17, 2004, around the same time as his longtime colleague and close friend Carmine DeSapio. Their passing together could not have been more poignant. They completely understood each other. They spoke the same language of the neighborhood, a once cherished place, now fading quickly from the familiar New York City landscape, giving way to contrived, fanciful and novel “districts” created by unbridled real estate developers and “urban planners” who forget that ordinary people living ordinary lives create extraordinary neighborhoods quite naturally. Little Italy and Chinatown were the two places where Louie reigned as the assemblyman for 38 years — probably the longest state legislative tenure in American history. He went on to become the dean of the Assembly, even served on Community Board 1 and earned for Southbridge families a tax abatement so that it could become what is now one of the most successful Mitchell-Lama projects in New York State.

Louie DeSalvio’s passing is the symbolic death knell for humble families from simple neighborhoods that made up the real Lower Manhattan. While all the trepidations of his reprimands fade from memory I will remember Louie for that. And, like so many of us, I will remember him because I loved him.

Papa is the former president of Southbridge Towers, Inc., and a current member of Community Board 1.

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