Sacking a Saint

Giuliani Team Blows a Chance to Protect a Real Catholic Legacy

 Don't call me a saint—I don't want to be dismissed that easily.
—Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, nominated to become only the third American-born saint

If anybody in our time can be called a saint, she can.—Cardinal John O'Connor in 1998, when he sent Day's name to Rome for canonization

Twenty years after her death, Dorothy Day, the often arrested pacifist and impoverished champion of the poor, is still raising hell, sparking a high-stakes development controversy that has convulsed Staten Island for months and reaches to the highest levels of the Giuliani administration.

The mayor, who periodically postures as a super-Catholic, recently allowed a developer with City Hall connections to bulldoze the beach bungalow Day lived in for most of her final decade—ignoring three and a half years of pleas from her supporters to landmark the modest memorial. With Staten Island district attorney William Murphy actively investigating the surprise February attack on the wooden, waterfront cottage, the Voice has unraveled the complex web of political relationships behind the million-dollar-mansion project that displaced it and 50 other bungalows, collectively known for half a century as Spanish Camp.

The saga of the cottage's demolition is, ironically, a window into the networks of public intrigue that, decades earlier, spawned the radicalism of Day, who protested "this filthy, rotten system" of organized indifference to the poor and launched a chain of 120 hospitality houses and farms across the country to aid them. Since Day spurned personal property, the cottage, which was owned by the Worker organization, was her only remaining home in the city, just a short distance down the Raritan Bay beach from another Staten Island bungalow where she lived when she converted to Catholicism in 1927. Day was so tied to the island beachfront that she was buried near it when she died, at 83, in 1980. Her first Worker farm was on the island.

That's why landmarking the cottage and two others also owned by the Worker became a quiet cause célèbre, adopted by several citywide preservation groups, shortly after developer John Discala went to contract to buy the 17-acre south shore camp in the spring of 1997. The issue got so hot on Staten Island that Rudy Giuliani had to be privately briefed about it before a Town Hall meeting there that summer, and residents raised it en masse then and at subsequent Giuliani public sessions. Public Advocate Mark Green aggressively championed the preservation claims—for the camp as a whole, as well as the Day cottage—even citing it from the dais of the second inaugural in January 1998, with Giuliani just a few feet away.

Yet Jennifer Raab, the chair of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, refused to put the cottage designation on the agency's calendar despite her repeated public and private promises over the intervening three years to do so. Instead, by her own account, Raab sent a January 2000 memo to a Staten Island Buildings Department official, asking him to block the issuance of any demolition permit for the cottage, while she ever so patiently tried to negotiate a deal satisfactory to the developer Discala.

The memo, signed by a Raab aide, had no legally binding effect. Nonetheless, a year after it was sent, with Discala angrily barring landmark surveyors from the site, Raab says she continued to believe he would honor his pledge not to destroy the cottage. Though he'd rejected every element of a Raab preservation plan at a meeting six months before the demolition, even breaking his promise to turn the cottage over to a nonprofit Raab helped set up, she still balked at exercising her power to designate the site without his acquiescence.

Discala had already been sanctioned by Raab's commission for painting the brick facade of an East 74th Street landmarked residential building he'd bought in 1997. He'd already demolished 14 camp cottages without permits, provoking 17 Buildings Department violations. He'd denounced the Day cottage as "rubbish" in a meeting with a Raab consultant and canceled one meeting with her top staff, only to come to a second to abrasively reject any attempt to define boundaries for a portion of the site that might be landmarked.

Despite all these warning signs, Raab neither calendared the item nor contacted the Buildings Department again to put it on the alert. Raab insists that she was confident that no permits would be issued, since the unofficial memo she'd sent had always worked in the past. The day before the demolition, her counsel, Mark Silberman, had a conversation with Discala's lawyer, got a feeling of impending doom, decided to put the designation on the agenda for the next Tuesday meeting. By then, unbeknownst to landmarks, the Buildings Department had already issued the permits. Discala, who'd waited months between the issuance of permits and demolition on other cottages, instantly tore down Day's and two others owned by the Worker.

Mark Green, whose four letters to Raab about the issue elicited a single, dismissive, form-letter response, told the Voice that it was "inexplicable and unfortunate that the landmarks commission didn't act more quickly over the last three and a half years," adding that "if it had, we wouldn't be talking about an obnoxious action by a developer." Green added that his "best guess" is that the reason he got no direct answer from Raab—even when he suggested a way to block demolition permits three years ago—was that he was "persona non grata to the mayor."

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