Dazzled By Mario Cuomo

New York and Queens both lost a fighter for the ordinary people with the passing of Mario Cuomo.  As a Queens native and former planning board chairman in Whitestone/Flushing, I and my colleagues were dazzled by him up close and personal in the early seventies.  Cuomo, as the attorney for a group of mostly Italian homeowners in Corona, was fighting the City’s plan to demolish 69 homes to make way for of all things–an athletic field. Several of my colleagues, Mike Dowd and Marino Jeantet, chairmen of adjacent planning boards, and I would meet regularly in Jeantet’s Italian/French restaurant lulled by the roar of the elevated IRT train line flanking the Corona eaterie.  Invariably, as our spaghetti and meatballs arrived, so did Mario Cuomo fresh from a meeting with the Fighting 69 homeowners and energized by the justness of his purpose.  No one I have known since those days has occupied the moral high ground as fittingly as did Cuomo.  We listened to his ideas, enrapt by his eloquence, and we learned about confrontation and compromise.  Years later, I thought that perhaps, these informal oratories were dress rehearsals  for the public hearings at which he ultimately saved all but 13 of the homes of “The Corona Fighting 69”. After the settlement, there were no more spaghetti dinners, no meatballs and no up close oratories. Mayor John Lindsay, recognizing his talents as an arbiter, appointed Cuomo to mediate a dispute over low-income public housing planned for Forest Hills, later recounted in the book Forest Hills Diary. I too went on to work for Mayor John Lindsay, but that’s yet another story. For now, we remember Mario Cuomo with fondness and reverence.

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