They re-named the southeast corner of 1st Place & Court Street for Buddy Scotto the other day, two doors down from where the Scotto family’s home and funeral parlor stood for 75 years, and around the corner from one of their former businesses, the long-gone Gloria Theater. Buddy was what they call today a community organizer. Back in the 1960s-1990s, when he was most active, he was better described as a successful resource advocate for his neighborhood, a person who transcended political ambition. Whether it was getting the government to clean up the Gowanus Canal, planting hundreds of trees, fighting the racist backlash during Puerto Rican and Black migrations to South Brooklyn, or campaigning for affordable housing development, Buddy did it all with style, grace and a natural bridge-building gift that brought together old and new homeowners, tenants, shop keepers, Democrats, and even his fellow Republicans.
As a Park Slope guy during Buddy’s ascendency, I was aware of his unceasing efforts to end the Gowanus stench, but not much else. A deep dive into the major dailies and the Red Hook Star-Review morgue, which included The Phoenix archives, revealed Buddy Scotto’s very first press appearance in print occurred in the Brooklyn Section of the Daily News in November 1964 when he and a gaggle of school kids were photographed planting a tree in front of 81 2nd Place. Over 300 news clips followed but they were always “local interest” stories, usually about Gowanus. And not a single one was focused on Buddy Scotto. It was always about the issue he was spotlighting.
So I was surprised when all the testimonial speakers recounted stories Buddy told many times that never found their way into the press: usually funny and self-deprecating and always exhibiting pride in his Italian heritage. Buddy stood up to the mob and decried how the culture had come to associate Paisans with Pistoleros. But not a single one of these anecdotes ever saw print because Buddy was not about being good copy. He was about getting things done.
In the crowd was Gowanus resident Dr. Kathryn Krase, who marveled that Buddy was the first person she knew who drove a Prius. “He told me he wanted to reduce carbon emissions,” she recounted, “but he could hardly squeeze his large frame into that small car.” Kathryn’s dad, Jerry Krase, a retired Brooklyn College sociology professor from the Slope, whose influential research centered on disinvestment, gentrification, and neighborhood dynamics, then regaled me with insider tales of his years as a consultant to Buddy. As he talked about the formation of the Gowanus Development Corp and the American-Italian Coalition of Organizations, it was clear that Jerry, like so many others gathered that day, was very fond of his departed friend’s energy, honesty, humility, and compassion (but maybe not so much his fierce paddleball competitiveness).
Buddy passed away at the age of 92 during the pandemic when funerals were private, so many graying common folk from the neighborhood took this opportunity to pay their respects, listening politely to a lot of politicians giving their testimony. Retired judge and former assemblyman Mike Pesce, a life-long friend, talked about the greatest living testimonial to Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto: all those glorious trees he planted along the streets of Carroll Gardens in the 1960s as a co-founder of the Carroll Gardens Association. Speaker after speaker followed with hilarious anecdotes but my favorite, among many close contenders, involved Buddy missing a night out with his pals before being drafted into the Korean War. It seems Frank Sinatra had shared a drink with the South Brooklyn entourage that evening and they had installed the glass at a nearby bar, with a taped inscription, “Frank Sinatra drank from this cup.” The next night Buddy walked into that bar, ordered a shot of scotch, and asked to examine the Sinatra cup. Then he quickly transferred his drink to the venerated glass, gulped it down, and added to the inscription with his pen, “And so did Buddy Scotto.” I like to think the Chairman of the Board was waiting to greet Buddy at those pearly gates.