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.”
David Goldfarb, a preservationist attorney who submitted a formal request for designation of the camp and the Day cottage in August 1997, says landmarks “dragged their feet for years,” though he believes “they knew they were in danger.” Asked by Raab’s consultant to participate in the final months of direct negotiations with Discala, Goldfarb found no indication of cooperation from Discala. Even though the three Worker cottages were on an open-space portion of the site—and could not be built on—Discala “felt they would be an eyesore,” says Goldfarb, and “didn’t want a lot of visitors coming there.” According to Goldfarb, Discala never “wanted them designated,” and Raab “likes to work out a deal with the owner,” so she “miscalculated.”
“Previous commissioners tried to work something out, but if they saw that it wasn’t going right, they’d just designate,” Goldfarb said. He believes Raab should have designated the cottage between the time Discala went to contract on the parcel in early 1997 and the closing in January 2000 so “Discala would have known when he bought it that he was getting a historic site.” An officer of a citywide preservation organization that monitors the commission, Goldfarb insists that the Day cottage could have been “designated in a matter of a month or two,” precisely the time period described by the commission itself in public brochures.
Finally, a month or so after the Day cottage was gone, Raab put a still pending item on her agenda to salvage the ground underneath it and the last four bungalows on the camp site, even though Day had nothing to do with the ones that remain. Raab’s dalliance was condemned in Staten Island Advance and Staten Island Register editorials, as well as by preservation leaders, including Hal Bromm of the Historic Districts Council, who sent Raab a searing letter he refused to release. Bromm told the Voice that Raab had given in to “wishful thinking” and said that the commission’s inaction on the cottage suggests that it needs advocates “to remind them of what the landmark law says.” Laura Hansen of Place Matters, a committee of the Municipal Art Society, deplored the commission delays and said, “Maybe they’ll have a different attitude now that all this has happened.”
Raab won’t. Insisting that she “moved as fast as I could” on Day, Raab will not even be around to decide the pending designation. She will soon become the president of Hunter College, a City University sinecure secured for her by Giuliani, whose initial campaign for mayor she helped run in 1989.
Dorothy Day, who lived out many of her final days in this Staten Island cottage, ate the same soup she served the poor in her Catholic Worker houses, wore the same discarded clothes she gave them, and carried only a prayer book and coffee jar on her trips
across the country.
Discala, his family, his partners, and their families have donated at least $41,000 to Republicans since 1997, including the mayor, the governor, Congressman Vito Fossella, Borough President Guy Molinari, and various party committees. They are as a group among the biggest GOP donors on the island, with some of them included in intimate settings with both Giuliani and Governor Pataki. Fossella’s father, Vito Sr., is Discala’s engineer and has represented the Central Park East Estates project—which contemplates the construction of 35 luxurious homes by a private beach—in meetings with Raab and other city officials.
Molinari, who used to be the lawyer for the Spanish Naturopath Society that sold the camp to Discala, has quietly supported the project. Molinari aide Al De Lillo was the law partner of Discala lawyer Pat Corbo in a two-member firm for years. Corbo represented the camp society after Molinari and handled the sale to Discala, who soon became his client.
Jim Molinaro, Molinari’s deputy who is running for borough president this year with Giuliani’s support, is so close to Discala partner Otto Savo that Savo says he recently switched his party registration from Republican to Conservative as a sign of his support for Conservative Party chair Molinaro. Savo acknowledges that his family has also given to the Molinaro campaign, but the committee will not have to disclose donations until July.
The Buildings Department official who got the Raab memo asking for a stop-order on demolition permits, Bill Hinckley, contributed $250 to Congressman Fossella’s campaign in August 2000 and is listed as finance director of the Molinari Republican Club, which was founded by Guy Molinari and is supporting Molinaro’s beep candidacy. Another buildings official, Rudy Hahn, who oversees the department’s citywide demolition unit, has operated an inspection company on the side and was hired by Discala. His company was fined by the state for illegally putting rat poison in many occupied cottages on the Spanish Camp site.
While Discala acknowledges knowing Hinckley, there is no evidence that Hinckley or Hahn had anything to do with granting the particular permits for the Worker cottages. Indeed, the D.A.’s probe appears to be focused on whether the permit applications misled the department about which cottages would be demolished. Neither Molinari, Molinaro, nor Fossella—the GOP establishment on the island—have ever said a public word in defense of the Day cottage or in criticism of its demolition. On the other hand, independent Republicans like Councilman Steve Fiala wrote Raab to urge the cottage’s designation and even helped find a home for Day’s frail former secretary, Rosemary Morse, when Discala evicted her from the bungalow in 1998. And Jay O’Donovan, the city councilman who is the Democratic candidate for borough president, joined Mark Green in a post-demolition press conference denouncing Discala and calling for D.A. Murphy’s criminal investigation.
Giuliani, too, has yet to make a public comment about the project or the cottage, turning the issue over to Raab at Town Hall meetings. In addition to the support Discala has had from his top allies on the island, the mayor has had a personal reason to acquiesce to it. Perry and Nick Criscitelli, two Manhattan restaurateurs so close to the mayor they cater his Yankee celebrations at City Hall, invested $800,000 in the project and, according to Discala, were friends of his father’s.
Raab—who says she was “moved to tears” during her 1997 visit to Day’s cottage and was committed to saving it—was vague about any City Hall interest in the Day issue. “I can’t answer that question,” she told the Voice. “I don’t know if they asked about it.” Raab acknowledges that she and her staff met with the Fossella engineering firm about the project. The Criscitelli interest in it was disclosed on documents submitted to the city as far back as 1999, and the mayor’s association with the Criscitellis has been widely reported in the Voice, the Post, and on television.
Perry Criscitelli—one of whose restaurants, Da Nico, was actively aided by City Hall in a 1999 expansion of its outdoor café—denied that he or any member of his family had made any inquiries about the project with city officials. But Fletcher Vredenburgh, who works in the mayor’s office on the island, told local activists that a member of the Criscitelli family approached him at the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy and asked about it, identifying herself as a personal friend of the mayor’s.
Neither Vredenburgh nor the mayor’s press office responded to Voice calls about City Hall’s involvement with the project or contacts with the Criscitellis. But previous news stories have established that the administration was even willing to spend $70,000 in housing agency funds to build “fire egress” access for Da Nico’s backyard café, which abutted a city-owned building. The city also leased the backyard to the Mulberry Street restaurant on very favorable terms, and internal memos obtained by the Voice revealed that one housing official referred to it as “a City Hall thing”—so important that the housing commissioner included it in his monthly report to the deputy mayor for operations. Da Nico is the mayor’s favorite Little Italy eatery, and he’s dined there with everyone from John McCain to Judi Nathan.
On February 21—two weeks after the demolition—Perry Criscitelli bought a home on Nicolisi Drive, the luxury waterfront street adjacent to the Discala development. His son Nick had bought a vacant lot across the street a couple of months earlier. Perry Criscitelli, who says he and his son once planned to build homes on the two Spanish Camp parcels they’d bought earlier, told the Voice that they had escape clauses in their contracts and that they’ve withdrawn from the project. Title records put their combined purchase price on Nicolisi at $7.6 million, but Criscitelli laughed at the figure as way too high (he did get a $1.5 million mortgage). Major renovations are occurring at the house he bought, and a new home is going up on the site across the street that his son purchased.
Criscitelli appears to be the perfect barometer of the Giuliani administration’s attitude about the project. He made a very expensive decision to bail out just as landmarks finally calendared it, buildings hit Discala with a ton of violations, the Department of Investigations joined the Murphy probe, and the City Planning Commission began a skeptical review of the belatedly filed Discala application for land use permits. His wife, Annette, sat in Da Nico a few weeks ago and said she wouldn’t blame the administration if it tried to stop the project now.
If the Criscitellis knew when to get out, they might also have known, when they got in a couple of years ago, just how willing the administration was to smile on John Discala’s dream project, even at a historic public cost.
Research assistance: David Blanks, Robbie Chaplick, Douglas Gillison, Jesse Goldstein, Anna Lemond, Laurence Pantin, Mark Rendeiro, Theodore Ross
Wayne Barrett’s reports on John Discala’s wiseguy friends.