Mel Gagliano looks out over the sparkling waters of Gravesend Bay at the elegant sailboats, fishing boats and yachts tied to the docks of his marina, and wonders if his two children will ever grow up to enjoy what he has worked so hard to preserve.
Less than 100 yards to the north, at Shore Parkway and Bay 41st Street in Bensonhurst, is the center of Gagliano’s agitation: an empty lot of cracked concrete and weeds, surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire. There, the city plans to build one of five marine waste-transfer stations, a sort-of driveway for giant trash barges to load up on refuse brought in from all five boroughs. And all within shouting distance of Gagliano’s Marine Basin Marina.
The trash facility has to go somewhere, Gagliano said, but why here? “The whole operation is just not well-thought through,” he said. He’s worried that waves caused by the barges moving in and out of the bay will be large enough to top the marina’s seawall, or at least wash out its foundation and send it sliding into the bay. With no seawall, the tiny marina would lose its protection from inclement weather or large waves. But Gagliano quickly manages to make the plight of his 250-boat marina into a larger issue, one with consequences for the entire city. “New York is not generating this garbage; it’s being made elsewhere,” he said.
The city wants to build the waste-transfer station on the site formerly home to the Southwest Brooklyn Incinerator. Although the incinerator was demolished in 2004, it lives on in the layers of undisturbed arsenic, lead and ash at the bottom of the bay, opponents of the plan say. When the city dredges the bay to allow barges easier access to the sanitation station, those poisons could wreak havoc on the bay’s vibrant marine life, foes of the project contend.
Gagliano, 42, has joined forces with several local politicians and community leaders to oppose the city’s plan, which they say will further clog traffic in a community where congestion already is a huge headache. So far, the City Council and Bensonhurst’s local community board have endorsed the plan. But environmental experts for the state will have the final word on whether the sanitation station will be built. Gagliano and his family are “very community-minded and very neighborhood-minded,” said state Assemblyman William Colton, D-Brooklyn. “Mel isn’t some Johnny-come-lately. He’s been there before the incinerator was built,” Colton said. “It’s our hope that with his and others’ support, we’ll eventually defeat this plan,” he said. For Gagliano, it’s about more than a seawall or the threat of washout. It’s his family’s legacy that he believes is at risk.
The Gaglianos purchased the marina in 1962, two years before Mel was born, and some of his earliest and fondest memories are of the docks. “If you look in the office,” he said, gesturing back to the long, aluminum trailer that sits atop the marina’s seawall, “you’ll see a picture of me in a baby carriage on the dock.”
Built in 1904, the marina was originally a shipyard. But after World War II, the shipping industry shifted south, and Marine Basin became a place where Bensonhurst’s growing middle class could harbor its boats as well as celebrate birthdays and holidays. “We have barbecues and parties here,” said Gagliano’s uncle, Jerry Gagliano. “This place is necessary for Brooklyn.” But to Mel Gagliano, it’s more than necessary. “It’s really a microcosm of Brooklyn,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got almost every nationality down here, and everyone’s got a story.” He smiles, his mouth half-hidden by a classic seafarer’s mustache, as he launches into one of those stories.
During the 1970s, a family of Egyptian Jews, fleeing religious persecution, came to Brooklyn hoping to open a watch repair store and improve their lives. They bought a boat they docked in the marina. By chance, the family was placed directly next to another Egyptian family, only Muslim instead of Jewish. The two families became fast friends “The common thread is they all love boating,” Gagliano said while repairing one of the many pylons on his dock. “They’re all from different walks of life,” he added. “What it comes down to, what defines them, is what kind of fish they catch.” Gagliano was born in Bay Ridge, not far from the marina. He grew up working on the docks, doing odd jobs like boat repair and customer service. When he turned 18, he enrolled at Norwich University in Vermont, the oldest privately owned military college in the United States. Gagliano watched the Vietnam War on television as he grew up, and his uncles and father served in World War II. Gagliano felt an obligation to do something for his country.
After graduating, Gagliano joined the Army reserves, where he immersed himself in intelligence and image analysis. His skills came to good use in 1992 when he shipped out to Saudi Arabia with the 24th Military Intelligence Battalion from Fort Wadsworth. “Yeah, Fort Wadsworth,” Gagliano said wistfully, “used to be right over there.” He points to the Staten Island end of the Verrazanno- Narrows Bridge. “Course, it’s not there any more because they shut it down.” When he returned to New York, it was back to work on the docks, with a master’s degree in education from Queens College thrown in for good measure. “It was just something I wanted to do,” he said. With two children at home — Gabby, 6, and Ethan, 1 — the married dad has what many would consider a blessed existence. “I’ve got hopes that they’ll want to work here,” he said of his kids. Then he jabs a thumb over his shoulder. “Depends on what happens with the sanitation station next door.”
Sitting around one afternoon discussing the fate of the docks with co-workers and boat-owners, Gagliano offers several alternatives. Build the station on Newton Creek or Coney Island Creek, he suggests; both areas are more sheltered and less environmentally precipitous. For that matter, build a ferry station instead of a waste-transfer station, and complement that by building a bus depot down the road on Shore Parkway, Gagliano said. That would allow residents of Manhattan, Staten Island and New Jersey easier access to Coney Island, Brighton Beach and the Rockaways. That would mean increased revenues for Bensonhurst, more jobs and other benefits, he noted. Someone jokes that Gagliano should run for political office. Gagliano turns a shade of red as everyone laughs and murmurs in assent. One thing’s for sure: Gagliano refuses to sit and wait for the city to smother his marina with trash.
He vows to continue doing what he has always done: dock upkeep, boat repairs and listening to other people’s stories. An older man in wet suit walks by holding up a piece of rope that had gotten tangled in a boat’s propeller. Gagliano smiles and congratulates him. “I would’ve gone down there myself,” he said after the man in the wet suit leaves. “I don’t mind. I love to do it.” The NYCity News Service is a product of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Andrew Hawkins/NYCity News Service