Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 17, 2009

Only the Bred Know Brooklyn

Buddy Scotto, an octogenarian power broker in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, has withstood a war, the mafia, and both political parties.

Max Lakin

About a mile south of downtown Brooklyn, in the tree-dappled Carroll Gardens neighborhood, that idyllic stretch of locally-owned shops peddling locally-sourced goods, sits a relatively nondescript, multigenerational family business. It's easy to miss the place, its ivy facade spanning four brownstones, blanketed in thick shade and wading in a sunken garden. In fact, the only thing that really lets you know the property isn't in fact just housing for some well-to-do creative-class couple—possibly newlywed, possibly with young child—is the decades-old sign sitting angled on the corner, declaring its service in simple scroll-block lettering: Funeral Home.

Photo by Jeff Bachner of The Brooklyn Paper
'I accepted a long time ago that the yuppies were coming,' Scotto says. Neighbors have been leaving for Islands Long and Staten for decades.

Photo by Jeff Bachner of The Brooklyn Paper

Scotto Funeral Home, to be exact. The proprietor, Salvatore "Buddy" Scotto, is a Carroll Gardens lifer. He's a bastion of The Neighborhood in the classical sense, when it was populated not by exhausted careerists but exhausted immigrants and their considerable families, and everyone knew everyone.

"As a kid here," Scotto says, "I couldn't spit on the sidewalk without my father finding out."

When I meet Scotto on a Wednesday afternoon in August, he's wearing his full-on undertaker's uniform: dark, pencil-lined suit, crisp white shirt, muted mauve necktie. Serious shoes. All this despite it being 85 degrees out on the pavement, easy.

In the 100-odd feet separating the funeral parlor from a cafe down the block, Scotto, who is 81, calls out greetings to about half-a-dozen people. Salutations come his way unsolicited from half-a-dozen more. We try the Dunkin' Donuts directly across the street first—one of the rare affronts to an otherwise impossibly-cultivated aura—but the line reaches about 20 deep, so he says hello to a few locals enjoying their crullers, and then leaves. On the way out, a bedraggled man in his 50s asks Scotto how he's been. "Oh, fine," he tells him. The man makes sure Scotto knows he'd like him to take it easy. Scotto promises him he'll be sure to.

He shakes hands with some of the alter cockers in the lawn chairs outside, exchanging pleasantries like some kind of political incumbent or second-term mayor—"Watch out for this guy," he says in the direction of a near-90-looking gentleman bracing on a walker—and he is, in some official-unofficial sort of way. Up until a few months ago, Scotto hosted the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association in the wake room of his funeral home, a rather unconventional setting for life-improvement-plotting, to say the very least.

He's also seen as somewhat of a contentious figure. He's founder of the Carroll Gardens Association, a separate, if similarly-titled nonprofit that drums up support for low-income housing within the neighborhood. The result of such a position, according to a Brooklyn Paper article last year, is that Scotto is a proponent of Gentrification, and the high-rise glass monoliths that go along with it, even if he demurs from saying as much. "I accepted a long time ago that the yuppies were coming," he says. And he's right. Longtime neighbors have been leaving for Islands Long and Staten for decades.

Like many of those neighbors gone to shore, Scotto's own line falls by way of Italy (Scotto, né Scotto-DiFasano, he says, the latter part getting lopped off at Ellis Island). His maternal grandparents emigrated just under the turn of the 20th century, and all his stories are peppered with deference to ethnicity; reminiscing about his formative years in Carroll Gardens largely entails talking about "the hyphenated Americans" who haunted his blocks and the labels thrust upon them. "If you were Italian, you were mafia," he jokes, a little sourly. "Irish, you were alcoholic. Polish—not too bright. Asianiac—Fu Manchu."

"We were subjected to the melting pot," he says, pantomiming an oversized ladle. "A grand tapestry of humanity." It's unclear whether he views the pot as a good thing.

Scotto's life is one of near-misses. There were the four months in Korea with the 14th Street reserves, followed by a narrow escape from redeployment because a staff sergeant had it in for him. There was also the reluctant political career awaiting his return, first looked to as a liberal leader because of his assumed anti-war status, and his relatively progressive interests in planting trees and curbing pollution within the nabe, and then switching parties in the night when, as he says, "the pressure came down too hard, from all sides." In 1976, he was elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, called down to the Ford White House by Nelson Rockefeller himself. "Betty Ford offered me a cocktail," he muses.

There was the time too, that he had to flee New York for South Florida after speaking out against organized crime to the Times, holing up in some beat-down motel in Hollywood Beach, his friends thinking he'd went and gotten himself tossed into the Hudson. The storefront of a Court Street hangout was "mysteriously dynamited" one early morning, he tells me.

For someone born before the Depression, Scotto has an impossibly sharp recollection of the vagaries and minutiae of local politics—names, boards of directors, defunct neighborhood organizations, odd grants for projects. He rattles off chronologies of meetings from the '70s—the '70s! —as easily as picking a sandwich off a diner menu. (The Carroll Gardens Association first met in Louis Gambello's basement, if you were wondering.)

More amazing, perhaps, is how remarkably candid Scotto is about his glances with the mafia—so much so that when he describes coming home to find Al Gallo (of the infamous "Crazy" Joe Gallo gang) waiting for him outside the funeral home one night, promises of protection in tow, I feel the need to shift my attention toward the door. Just in case.

But the mob, political office, those were different days. "I'm 81 years old," Scotto says, grinning. "I don't give a shit about that anymore."

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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