Resident Rally Around St. Saviour's
St. Saviour Update: Residents Decry Site’s Destruction
By MICHAEL CUSENZA
Sometimes, all it takes is the innocent actions of a child to understand what really is at stake in local preservation wars.
During Saturday’s emergency press conference/rally at St. Saviour’s Church in Maspeth, held in response to last week’s tree-cutting, a little boy wandered up to the decaying, graffiti-stained plywood fencing and peered longingly into the historic grounds.
For more than 100 years St. Saviour’s had been a sanctuary for neighborhood children of all ages. Its 185 trees, many of them a century old, invited the courageous to climb to the sky.
Anthony La Porta, 51, remembered it well.
“When you were up there, you were untouchable,” said the NYPD sergeant and Whitestone resident.
La Porta lived on 57th Drive, just down the block from the church, for 49 years. Upon hearing from a childhood friend that crews were cutting down his beloved trees last week, the 26-year police department veteran became understandably upset.
“It made me sick,” La Porta said, “I was floored.”
The Juniper Park Civic Association and its Committee to Save St. Saviour’s called the press conference to once again rally support and prevent further destruction to the property that was designed by renowned 19th century architect Richard Upjohn.
For more than a year the JPCA has lobbied to have the City purchase the land and convert it into a community center, museum and park, something the surrounding industry-heavy neighborhood could use. They have even proposed the City offer the developer, Maspeth Development, LLC, a land swap should the City not be able to allocate the funds necessary to acquire St. Saviour’s.
“The City has hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of property that they can trade with the developer,” JPCA President Bob Holden said Saturday. “We will not forget the Mayor’s lack of action on this matter.”
City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning and Franchises committee, also reiterated his vow Saturday not to vote for the zoning change the developer needs in order for the proposed 70 housing units that would replace the church and parsonage to be up to code.
“Nobody can change my mind except the people standing behind me,” the 2009 mayoral candidate said forcefully.
The JPCA also seized the opportunity to take to task embattled City Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village), decrying his lack of action on the St. Saviour’s matter. The civic association has long accused Gallagher, Maspeth’s councilman, of being in bed with the developer and last week blamed him for authorizing the tree-cutting, which the JPCA said was in retaliation for their July 1 rally.
Margaret Keta, Gallagher’s chief of staff, said this is not the case.
“The councilman’s office has urged the developer not to destroy the site and to negotiate in good faith with the community for the preservation of [St. Saviour’s],” she said.
According to Christina Wilkinson, chairwoman of the Committee to Save St. Saviour’s, several species of birds protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act have been nesting at St. Saviour’s. These include the blue jay, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, American robin and downy woodpecker.
“What kind of reprehensible human being orders the destruction of wildlife?” Wilkinson asked rhetorically.
“Gallagher got the trees, then God got Gallagher!” yelled a voice from the crowd, referring to the Department of Investigation ethics probe and NYPD investigation of alleged sexual assault, both of which the councilman is the focus.
Avella reported that he had recently contacted the Mayor’s office to schedule a meeting with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff regarding St. Saviour’s, but was told “the councilman of the area wasn’t in favor of the meeting.”
“Politics is ruling the day,” said Avella ruefully.
Hours after the press conference ended and the crowd dispersed, neighboring residents called JPCA members back to the site because crews had arrived to continue the tree removal.
According to Wilkinson, hastily discarded branches had fallen on top of vehicles and damaged their windows. Several attendees stood under the cherry-picker so the worker could no longer cut branches. The police and sanitation officials were called to the scene and both agencies issued violations and fines to the developer.
And so the drama surrounding St. Saviour’s continues. Perhaps Avella best captured the latest round to save the sacred land and kick-start preservation across the City with these words:
“If the revolution has to start here, then so be it,” he said.