By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Weinstein
By Tessa Stuart
A chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Executive pulled to a stop in front of a crumbling building in the South Bronx on a chilly night this past October and out stepped Father Louis R. Gigante, the low-income- housing developer and brother of legendary mobster Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. Father G. was once hailed as the savior of the South Bronx for convert-ing hulks of charred buildings into affordable homes for impoverished families. But on this night, the white-haired 74-year-old priest had arrived to meet with angry tenants who accuse this once heroic figure of being a slumlord.
Just as his late brother, onetime head of the Genovese crime family, would have done, Father G. brought an entourage to protect himself from a potentially volatile situation. On the dimly lit sidewalk in front of 741 Coster Street, one of the buildings that Father G. renovated but which now have devolved back into violent slums under his guardianship, he and the local Catholic pastor, William J. Smith, met two security guards and two tall uniformed police officers from the 41st Precinct. (The police officers claimed that someone from the neighborhood asked them to come to the meeting, but tenants insisted none of them called the department.) Father G. was escorted into the building by his nephew, Salvatore Gigante, son of "The Chin."
The Chin became one of New York's most dangerous mobsters and later one of the most strange as he faked mental illness to try to avoid prosecution (think "Uncle Junior" in The Sopranos). Meanwhile, Father G. became a beacon of light for many of the city's poorer residents. As a street priest in the '60s, he was kicked out of a City Council meeting for vociferously railing against the horrendous living conditions in the South Bronx. But today, Father G. heads a housing empire, takes home a $150,000 salary, and is despised by many of the same kind of low-income residents he once helped.
Gigante, who manages the buildings but doesn't own them, faces major problems on two fronts: HUD has started foreclosure proceedings, and Gigante's tenants are fighting to block their sale to the priest's company. Under Gigante's watch, they say, the Hunts Point I Rehab projecthome to about 300 low-income residentshas fallen into such disrepair that the apartments are almost uninhabitable. After years of living without heat or hot water and with holes in their ceilings and rotting floors, residents formed the United We Stand Tenants Association with help from the nonprofit organization Tenants and Neighbors, and they might just be successful in stopping the sale. The tenants have been angry for a long time and allegations have flown, but Gigante has glided past. But now tenants are organizing against him for what is believed to be the first time in his long career.
It was only fitting that the priest and his entourage walked through a dark tunnel of scaffolding lined with smashed lightbulbs to get to their meeting. The founder and head of the recently formed tenants' association, Mildred Colon, glared at Father G. and the entourage of police, security guards, and management staff on the sidewalk. "We would like to have security all the time, not just when management is here," Colon said angrily as she walked by the men. Inside awaited a crowd of tenants in an equally dark mood.
739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point
photo: Eirini Vourloumis
There was a time when Father G. and his tenants were fighting on the same side. When the neighborhoods in the South Bronx collapsed in the late '60slandlords were torching buildings for insurance money, and teen gangs were battling one another for control of the streetsthe Catholic Church fought on the front lines of the tenants' rights movement. Father G. launched the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO) in the fall of 1968 with funds from the federal Section 8 housing program, through which tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and the federal government pays the difference. "I brought the neighborhood up from ashes to help the people in the South Bronx," Gigante has told tenants. "There isn't one other organization that can take credit. Nobody is going to kick me out of my neighborhood."
During the resurrection of the South Bronx, Father G. fought the city on behalf of tenants. In her book South Bronx Rising, Jill Jonnes described a 1969 incident in which Father G. organized 300 Hunts Point residents who heaved furniture and wood from abandoned buildings and set fire to them in trash barrels, marching up and down 163rd Street while chanting the familiar protests that echo through the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings today: No hot water. No heat. We're sick and tired of junkies.
"There was nothing holier-than-thou about the man," recalled veteran community activist Aureo Cardona, who described Father G. as one of his closest friends and praised him for serving the Puerto Rican community. Cardona grew up in the South Bronx and was a member of the Catholic Youth Organization run out of St. Athanasius Church when Father G. was one of the priests. He wrote a musical about the burning of the South Bronx, which he described as a cancer spreading through the neighborhood, and headed one of the first housing organizations, the South Bronx Community Housing Corporation, in the late 1970s. "People of the cloth are usually up on the pulpit reciting words," said Cardona. "Gigante took those words to the street. He rolled up his sleeves and he got things done."
Father G. captured the limelight when he hit the streets to rebuild the South Bronx, but his family's infamy cast a big shadow. Vincent Gigante, one of Father G.'s four brothers, ran the Genovese crime family while dodging criminal charges most of his life. Their parents, Salvatore and Yolanda Gigante, had emigrated from Naples to New York City in 1921; Salvatore worked as a watchmaker and Yolanda was a seamstress. Growing up in Greenwich Village in the '40s, Vincent Gigante dropped out of junior high and boxed as a light heavyweight in several Manhattan clubs before becoming the protégé of Vito Genovese. Between the ages of 17 and 25, Vincent was arrested for receiving stolen goods, possession of an unlicensed handgun, auto theft, arson, and bookmaking. The majority of the charges were dismissed, but at age 30 he was convicted of heroin trafficking, alongside Genovese, and served a five-year prison term.
The Gigante family saga shifted into the initial stages of a Homeric epic in 1969 when Vincent Gigante was arrested again. He was indicted for conspiracy to bribe the entire police force of Old Tappan, New Jersey, that year, but the charge was dropped after psychiatrists deemed him mentally unfit to stand trial. For the next three decades, Gigante wandered around the Village in a tattered bathrobe and slippers, muttering to himself in what many believed was an elaborate ruse to avoid criminal prosecution and for which he earned the nicknames "Daffy Don" and the "Oddfather." Convinced that Gigante was running the crime family from a building across from his family home on Sullivan Street, the FBI pursued him for years. But the feds failed to nail him with the wiretapped conversations that were used to ensnare other mob figures of the time.
Father G. became the family spokesman, defending his brother's claims of mental illness and outright denying the existence of a Mafiahe argued that the Mafia was an anti-Italian stereotype created by the media and law enforcement officials. Despite Father G.'s support, Vincent Gigante was convicted in 1997 of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder for attempting to assassinate several of his enemies, including John Gotti, head of the Gambino family. The Chin was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. It wasn't until 2003 that he admitted in court that the bathrobe theatrics were an act to avoid prosecution. The Chin died in prison at the age of 77 in 2005. As a New York Times article noted, Father G. preached at the funeral that friends and family knew him as "a gentle, kind man, a man of God."
Yet there are allegations that Father Gigante not only protected his brother, but helped him run the Genovese crime family from prison. In a deposition taken on June 12, 2006, for a civil suit filed by the federal government against the International Longshoremen's Association, George Barone incriminated the priest. Barone is a former hit man and soldier from the Genovese crime family turned cooperative witness once he was marked for death by the mob. When asked whether a mob head can conduct business from jail, he replied, "Yes, yes, they do, and probably will always continue to. Chin Gigante to the day he died was feared as the boss of the Genovese family and continuously through his brother, the priest, he sent messages out."
While his brother became infamous, Father G. mostly avoided allegations of mob ties and instead achieved his own brand of celebrity. After seminary and a two-year stint in Puerto Rico, where he learned to speak Spanish, he was ordained in 1959. He quickly won a reputation as a priest with chutzpah for halting street fights on the Lower East Side. When he was transferred to St. Athanasius in 1962, he was said to have wielded a bat on walks around the neighborhood. After the launch of SEBCO, Father G. tried his luck in politics; he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 1970 Democratic primary, but he won a city council seat in 1973. When his term was up, he spent a week in jail for refusing to testify before the grand jury about his conversations with reputed mob figure James "Jimmy Nap" Napoli, whom he called a "dear old friend." The priest also appeared in two films; one of them was Last Rites (1988), about a mob-connected priest in New York City.
Depending on whom you speak to in the South Bronx, Father G. inspires either devotion or disgust, but his power and influence are undeniable. His nonprofit organization expanded into a mini-kingdom with a real estate value of $50 million. Between 1978 and 2004, the SEBCO team registered 18 businesses, including six nonprofit organizations and 12 for-profit companies. Gigante is listed as CEO of five of the corporations and a chairperson of the majority of the nonprofit organizations. The money flows into the nonprofits in the form of government funds and tax-deductible donations and into the for-profit companies in the form of contracts for services, records indicate. Hunts Point I Rehab is a private company, and its financial records are not public. But Gigante's nonprofit financial records demonstrate how the money moves around his companies. SEBCO VIP Housing Development Fund, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide housing for the elderly, shows government contributions for 2004 at $37,517. Gigante's security company, Sentry Security, was paid $106,904 for services, resulting in a significant net loss. Nonetheless, the priest is listed as taking a $150,000 salary. Father G. has claimed that he never rejected wealth. "I didn't take a vow of poverty," he was quoted as saying in a 1981 Times article. "People think that I don't get paid and that I'm a saint for doing it. That's their problem."
It's impossible to deny the impact his company has made in the South Bronx. He employs more than 300 people, including many from the surrounding neighborhoods. Piles of rubble, hulks of burned-out buildings, and abandoned cars from the Hunts Point of the '70s have given way to fully developed neighborhoods, some even with rows of ranch houses and cars parked suburban-style in driveways. But even as Father G. was transforming the neighborhood, he was accused of working with the Mafia. William Bastone, in his 1989 Voice article "The Priest and the Mob," revealed that Father G. had developed more than 2,000 housing units with roughly $50 million in federal funds by hiring contractors whom authorities deemed mob-connected. But the city was never able to dig up enough dirt. "We never prosecuted them," Manhattan D.A. spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said of SEBCO. "The only time we would run into them was when we were conducting investigations on other companies or individuals, organized crimerelated and otherwise. Then we would come up against the contracts they had with SEBCO."
In those days, Father G. was said to play an aggressive game with his rivals. At one point, his main competition for federal funds was Ramon Velez, a man for whom former mayor Ed Koch coined the phrase "poverty pimp." The battle for political power and federal funds became so heated, wrote Jill Jonnes in South Bronx Rising,that Velez called the priest a "maricon" (a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual) and Father G. retaliated by punching Velez in the nose. Today, the elder Velez suffers from Alzheimer's disease and his son runs his housing organization, the South Bronx Community Management Company.
"In the beginning, you had a lot of competition," said Ramon Velez Jr. "There were four organizations fighting to develop community housing. There were turf wars and people jockeying for position." When asked about the fight between his father and the priest, he replied, "There have always been stories about that. They had their differences. Honestly, I don't know. It wasn't dinner-table type of conversation."
The men made peace and each carved out his own section of the Bronx. Father G. laid claim to Community Board 2's district, on which he sat for 22 years, and rigorously pursued federal money to construct buildings. Harold DeRienzo, the founder of Banana Kelly, another community group in the South Bronx involved in redevelopment, said that Father G. often called him into his office. One such time, seated behind a desk, chomping on a cigar, the priest confronted DeRienzo about his intentions. "What are you trying to do?" he recalled Gigante asking him. "Are you applying for federal funds?" Father G.'s philosophy, DeRienzo explained, was that once you had a rivalry for federal funds no one received money. So he wanted no competition. "The city was bankrupt. The state was out of the housing game. Section 8 was the only game in town," DeRienzo said. "The man has been very successful in developing low-income housing. I've seen him outmaneuver people planning-wise, business-wise, and politically. As long as I stayed away from the Section 8 applications, there wasn't a problem."
With a hero's reputation still mostly intact in the South Bronx, Father G. is not someone tenants would have expected to fight. "SEBCO brought hope to the neighborhood," said Joyce Culler, first vice chair of Community Board 2 and someone who has worked to rebuild the community through multiple housing scandals. "This is a battle we shouldn't have to fight. How do you break something that was so beautifully built?"
SEBCO was also well-builtnow it's a $50 million housing company. But Father G.'s operation is accused not only by its tenants but also by federal housing officials of mismanaging four federally subsidized buildings, known collectively as the Hunts Point I Rehab. SEBCO refurbished them more than 20 years ago, and although it does not own them, Gigante has acted as the de facto landlord. (Gigante said in an interview that the actual owner, Samuel Pompa, is living in Europe and was unreachable for comment.)
The priest, who started winding down his formal parish duties in 2002 and is now retired, wants to purchase the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, folding them into his portfolio of more than 8,500 developed or managed housing units in the city that he has built up during the past three decades.
Mildred Colon, 51, a longtime resident of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, started the tenants' association a year ago out of frustration. On August 4, 2006, for example, residents received a $14,390 bill from Con Edison because Gigante's management company hadn't paid it. Her daily calls about the gaping hole in her kitchen ceilingroughly the diameter of a sewer coverwent unanswered for months. On August 30, she confronted the building super about the lack of hot water in the building. In response, she said, he swung a broom at her and called her a "bitch." She filed a complaint with the police department and called the management company. The superintendent still runs the building.
"I'm fighting because I have lived in the buildings for 24 years," said Colon. "I love my community. But the conditions have gotten so bad I can't continue to let SEBCO take over. Father Gigante said that this is his community, but he doesn't live here. He hasn't saved the neighborhood. He abused the neighborhood. I may be slow to understand his bullshit, but I'm not stupid."
There is evidence to support the tenants' claims. Gigante's management company, Building Management Associates Inc., received a combined yearly rental income of $1.8 million from the tenants and a subsidy from HUD to pay the utility bills and maintain the apartments, according to HUD records. Yet over the past two years, the records show, the utility payments have been in default, and the buildings are falling apart. "We are not satisfied with SEBCO's management," said Deborah VanAmerongen, director of HUD's New York multi-family office.
HUD inspectors evaluated the entire physical structure in April 2004 and gave the tenements a score of 28 out of 100; 60 is failing. SEBCO was given 60 days to make improvements. But two months later, when HUD reevaluated, the score increased only one point, to 29. HUD again demanded that SEBCO make repairs. But when the federal agency assessed the buildings in August 2005, it gave them a score of 39. Inspectors dole out evaluations based on what they find the day they arrive on site, VanAmerongen explained. So an increase in 10 points could mean, for example, that the superintendent cleaned the buildings that morning. "It's still a bad score," she said. "It's very uncommon for buildings to get scores so low."
When asked if SEBCO had enough money to provide heat, hot water, and minor repairs, VanAmerongen replied, "One would think." But she didn't elaborate on whether or not HUD was investigating how the money was used, stating simply, "I can't speak to that." Ruth Ritzema, special agent in charge of HUD's Office of the Inspector General, said that as routine procedure, she could not confirm or deny criminal investigations.
As the buildings have deteriorated, some of the area's junkies, prostitutes, and drug dealers have taken notice and staked out positions in the project's hallways and elevators. One night in September, a strung-out junkie with unruly hair, a dirty white T-shirt, and ripped jeans lurched out of an elevator that smelled of urine. He howled at the tenants before stumbling out the front door. More than two years ago, Gigante's management company removed the security guards who once manned the entrance to the buildings. To make matters worse, tenants said, police broke down the door a year ago in pursuit of criminals and despite multiple complaints from residents, Gigante's management company never fixed it. Father G. told the tenants that his company ran out of money. "Security was given to this building because I put it here," Gigante said at one of the meetings between tenants and management. "But we didn't have enough money, so we had to move them out."
It's a slap in the face to tenants like Evelyn Alameda, a petite, soft-spoken single mother who has encountered prostitutes having sex in the hallway and addicts shooting up in the stairwell in the middle of the afternoon. One night, she said, she yelled at a trespasser to leave the building, but he merely lifted up the sleeve of his shirt, slapped his arm to emphasize a gang tattoo, and then walked on, ignoring her plea. A 13-year tenant, Alameda said she constantly checks her back when walking through the hallways of her home. She has reason to be cautiousa young woman was raped in the corridor almost two years ago by an intruder. "When they took away our safety, they took away our dignity," Alameda said.
Father G. may not have a legal obligation to provide security guards, but by law, his company is obligated to provide minimal security like functioning doors and windows. The problems have festered for years, even when there was security, and once Father G.'s company was held accountable. On August 3, 1997, when guards from Sentry Security were still patrolling the sidewalks, a crazed man dashed into the lobby of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab tenements. With the security guards in pursuit, the man fled up the stairs, jumped the fence, and entered the adjacent building through a rooftop door. At the same time, a nine-year-old girl waited in the doorway of her apartment while her grandmother, 60, put out the trash. As the grandmother was about to enter her apartment, she felt a strange hand on her back. The man was behind her. He shoved the grandmother into her apartment, and according to the court transcripts, terrorized the pair for over an hour.
"He dragged me all over the floor," said the grandmother in court. "Me and [my granddaughter]." The man announced that he was HIV-positive and that he was going to prick the grandmother and granddaughter with a needle. The grandmother made her way to a window to scream for help, but he pushed the pair into another room and brutalized them.
"He grabbed us by our necks," the grandmother said. "I had this bun and he would push it all the way to the back like he wanted to crack my neck. So, he would grab the little girl and slam her to the other side of the room . . . I would take the girl away from him so he would let go of the girl and grab me. He was like an hour hitting me, hitting me up and down with the floor . . . he was hitting me in my entire body. I was struggling with him. I felt this pinch that he gave me. But I didn't pay any attention to it because I was struggling with him so much so he wouldn't harm more my girl . . . we were both screaming so much. Nobody came. Not even security. Nothing. Nobody."
Eventually, neighbors heard the screaming and called police. Five or so cops climbed through the window, grabbed the man, and hauled him out of the apartment "like a pig," according to court records. The grandmother and her granddaughter brought a civil suit against Samuel Pompa's corporation, Hunts Point I Associates, and the SEBCO management and security companies, and it landed in the Bronx Supreme Court in 2000. SEBCO and the other defendants argued that they couldn't be held responsible for the crime for two reasons: There was no prior criminal activity in the building alerting them to a possible offense, and the company satisfied its obligation to supply minimal security. In the end, the case was settled out of court, with the management team agreeing to pay the grandmother and her granddaughter, according to their lawyers. Now almost 10 years after this brutal crime, there's less security than before.
The tenants' security problem extends all the way to Washington, D.C. It is unclear how SEBCO has used the tenants' rent money and the HUD subsidy because HUD itself doesn't track how the money is spent. Instead, the owners or managing agents calculate their expenses and submit an audited financial statement to HUD at the end of each year. When the buildings failed HUD's 200405 inspections with those dismal scores of 28, 29, and 39, HUD officials said their only options were to foreclose on the buildings or withhold the subsidy money. HUD considered recommending the projects for its "Mark-to-Market," a program that reduces the federal subsidy to market-level rents but also restructures the mortgage so that the payments are lower, freeing capital for renovations. But 20 years after SEBCO first renovated Hunts Point I Rehab, HUD determined that the projects required complete "gut" rehabilitation. Since the amount of money needed to repair the buildings exceeded that which could be legally mandated within HUD's guidelines, the buildings were disqualified. But even though they knewfrom the results of their own inspectionsthat the residents were living in squalor, HUD reduced the yearly subsidy going into the buildings by roughly $1 million. The result has been a drastic decline in conditions over the past two years. "It is mandated by Congress to reduce the rents to market level," said HUD's VanAmerongen. "We had no options left at that point and no additional resources. We were obligated. We had no choice."
Many tenants said they think they have no choice but to fight Father G. Not all of them are longtime residents. Concepion Samb, for one, explained how she moved to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings five years ago when she could no longer afford her apartment in a more affluent section of the Bronx. Working as a home health aide, she suffered a cutback in her hours and struggled to cover her bills with the $8.95 that she earned per hour. This is her first Section 8 home, she said. Walking around her apartment, she pointed out the problems in each room. The vent in the bathroom is broken, so there is a constant layer of mold in the shower. A radiator in her bedroom burst last year, leaving a rotting hole by her bed that's spongy when she steps on it. In the winter she wears two pairs of pants, two sweaters, two pairs of socks, and a robe to keep warminside her apartment. "Jesus, in the winter you freeze to death," she said. "I like the cold, but not that cold. It's lousy. I'm not making the money I used to make, so I have to settle for this crap. Just because you need help from the government doesn't mean that the management company should reject basic needs like heat, hot water, and respect. It's humiliating."
The tenants' association is racing to find an alternative buyer for the buildings. HUD began foreclosure proceedings late last year, requiring Gigante to pay the outstanding mortgage payments of $500,000 by November 15 to forestall the process and open the door for a possible sale to SEBCO. HUD paid off the $6.8 million mortgage in August, so although Samuel Pompa technically still owns the buildings, HUD has the right to send them to the auction block. After supporting several funding options to refinance the mortgage and stalling the foreclosure process, HUD has lost confidence in SEBCO's ability to complete a purchase, VanAmerongen said. The details of the foreclosure process are uncertain, but she said that the Hunts Point I Rehab will remain an affordable-housing unit.
It's unclear why Gigante hasn't taken the first step toward ownership by paying down the outstanding mortgage payments. But the tenants have made their grievances known. In addition to meeting with HUD, they sent letters to Congressman Jose Serrano and Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. The foreclosure proceedings have energized Father G.'s opponents. "In a way, that has clearly focused us," said Tenants and Neighbors representative Patrick Coleman.
There was a time when Father G. was mobilizing people in a far different way. He molded St. Athanasius parishioners into an influential voting bloc, according to Frank Marrero, a Hunts Point resident for 49 years and a current member of Community Board 2's housing committee. But as SEBCO grew, Father G. spent less time in the community and more time fortifying his businesses. "When SEBCO started having problems with the community, who did they bring?" Marrero said. "Father Gigante is a figurehead and he'll stand up in the front of the room and tell them how much he did for the community. You can't argue with the fact that he got things done. But I think they lost touch when they got too big. He's getting older and the organization has lost touch with the community. . . . When I pray, I pray for him to open his eyes so they will fix the buildings."
He'd be joined in that prayer by longtime resident Miriam Diaz-Marin, who re called a warm atmosphere two decades ago in the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings. A small woman with short dark hair and warm brown eyes, Diaz-Marin, 53, smiled as she described how the women in the building threw holiday parties and exchanged homemade food. They named a bench in the court yard after her son Adam when she christened the building with its first birth. She was thrilled with her new apartment developed by Gigante's company, and when her family grew to five, she was grateful for her living space, including two bathrooms that she designated "a girls' bathroom" and a "boys' bathroom." "It was so new," Diaz-Marin said. "I was so proud of it."
Diaz-Marin doesn't leave her apartment much any more. Suffering from a respiratory disease, she has difficulty breathing without an oxygen tank. It's bad enough for Diaz-Marin that there is a lack of heat in the winter, the closet doors pop unexpectedly out of place, and the kitchen cabinets sag, but for three months she was without a functioning shower. The shower in the "boys' bathroom" stopped working in the fall of 2005, she said. Then in the fall of 2006, SEBCO management told her to stop using the shower in the "girls' bathroom" because it was flooding the apartment below her. They told her they would fix the problem in a week. Instead, they gave her the key to a vacant apartment on the first floor and didn't fix the problem until three months later, in December. Diaz-Marin is prone to pneumonia and afraid of catching a chill, so many days she took a "cat bath" in her tub with a small blue bowl. One day she craved a bath so badly that she turned the water on, but the neighbors appeared almost immediately. " 'Miriam, Miriam,' " she recalled them yelling. " 'Turn off the water. It's flooding!' "
Diaz-Marin lives in the worst of the four Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, but all of them are in disrepair. The SEBCO management team sent a letter to the tenants on March 30, 2006, explaining that the buildings needed complete gut rehabilitation. In the letter, they wrote that they would relocate the tenants while they renovated the buildings. So far, there is no relocation plan. In the meantime, tenants wait, anxious to know whether they will still have an affordable home. Tenants like Diaz-Marin are afraid they will be forced to move permanently, or worse, end up homeless. "I've been taking sleeping pills for the last year and a half," she said. "The worries get me going. I just don't sleep. Oh Lord, I hope they don't make me move."
A security guard standswatch 24 hours a day in a small booth at the head of Gigante Plaza between Tiffany and Fox streets in the South Bronx. One side of the plaza is decorated with fountains of lions' heads made in Italy. On the other side, a security camera aimed at the plaza is perched on top of St. Athanasius, just below the church's cross. A weatherbeaten blue-and-white sign tied to the courtyard fence reads: "SEBCO: Dedicated to Our Community. Helping Our Neighborhood Grow." Once referred to as "Giganteland," the plaza stands in stark contrast to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings on the other side of Bruckner Boulevard.
Back on that chilly October night on the sidewalk in front of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, Gigante and his entourage walked under the creepy scaffolding and entered the community room of 741 Coster Street. Roughly 40 residents gathered in the shabby room, restless with anticipation. Monsignor William J. Smith, the current St. Athanasius pastorand also secretary treasurer of SEBCOglided down the aisles, shaking hands with residents. From behind him, Father G. watched, a half-smile on his face. At the back of the room, near the door, the cops and security guards stood with their arms folded. Seated on backless folding chairs were the tenants, mostly Latina mothers and grandmothers, anxious to learn about the future of their homes. The tenants were quiet at first, and Father G. stood to address them. He alternated between blaming the tenants for the problems in the buildings and being conciliatory. He promised to relocate them and renovate their apartments.
At a meeting two weeks earlier, Gigante tried the same tactics, one moment admonishing the tenants and the next moment pleading for their support. "I know you've suffered," he said to the room. Then he spun around in a circle and waved an arm at provocative signs on the wall that read things like: "We want a new owner!" "We want responsible management." "Enough is enough!"
"With all I've read on the walls," Father G. said, "I don't know why you're still here." Then he attempted to win their support by suggesting they work together to improve the apartments. "I've come tonight to tell you that it's the real thing," he said. "We will own the buildings. But I need your help. I need the people's voice."
The tone was similar at the later meeting Father G. alternately cajoled and coddled. "I'm disgusted by what is going on in the buildings," he said at one point. "Prostitutes having sex in the hallway!" The room erupted. The tenants were furious for being blamed, especially since Gigante's company hadn't fixed one of the front doors, which contributed to the problem. "Do you want to exchange your living situation with me?" one of the tenants shouted.
A hot debate ensued for an hour. Father G. promised to return to update the tenants on his plans to buy and refurbish the buildings. With that, the priest and his entourage filed out onto the sidewalk, leaving angry tenants inside.
Later, several tenants said Gigante had made them feel that they were to blame for "destroying his creation." Father G., for his part, told a reporter, "This is a local situation that was blown out of proportion." Asked why he removed the tenants' security guards, the priest-turned-businessman replied, "You can't have services you don't pay for." But when asked if he was the one who, in effect, built the Hunts Point I Rehab, his eyes brightened. He bent his knees slightly, raised his arms above his head and proclaimed, "I built the whole neighborhood!"
Before being whisked away in the black car, Father G. agreed to another interview with the Voice, but he never returned phone calls, nor did he or his management team respond to written requests for information. A few weeks later, however, inside one of the SEBCO offices, Father G.'s nephew Salvatore Gigante responded to queries with this: "I don't want to hear the sound of your voice. No one is going to talk to you. We have nothing to say. Our actions will speak for what we're doing."