The year was 1970. The celebrated New York columnist, Jimmy Breslin, in the prime of his illustrious career, pleaded with me, then deputy mayor under John Lindsay, to meet a “ brilliant, impressive” young Queens lawyer representing a group of homeowners who had been fighting for years a city plan to condemn 69 homes in their community in order to build a high school and athletic facility. The lawyer, Mario Cuomo, then 38, was arguing passionately that the city's plan would effectively destroy the charming Italian-American community of Corona, Queens.
A few days later Cuomo was sitting at a coffee table in my City Hall office, using ash trays, pencils and other random items to demonstrate how the scope of the project could be reduced to affect only 14 homes, each of which would be moved by the city to new sites a block or so away. I was intrigued—not only by Cuomo’s creativity but also by how he articulated his case with heartfelt feelings for the powerless.
Even with Mayor Lindsay’s support, a stubbornly resistant city bureaucracy opposed any changes to the plan and raised a series of obstacles. At several contentious meetings in the Corona community and within city agencies, Cuomo masterfully rebutted each one with clarity and patience, and with sustained pressure and persuasion from City Hall, all parties finally came around. The Corona Compromise was announced in early December with much fanfare, and after overcoming some additional state legislative hurdles, was largely executed as Cuomo envisioned. Corona was saved, and to ethnically sensitive New Yorkers, Cuomo was a hero.
Breslin would later write that for Cuomo, “…out of the Corona experience came Forest Hills." For while Corona was still being settled, a low income housing project in Forest Hills, which Lindsay strongly supported, was becoming the center of a volatile controversy with racial connotations over fears that the largely Jewish neighborhood would be invaded by three high-rise apartments, to be populated primarily by black and minority residents. The protests became ugly, with threats of violence bringing the dispute to national attention, where it was viewed as a battle between whites and blacks. Lindsay, sticking to his fervent belief in low-income housing, had been battered for months over the issue, and by May of 1972 was persuaded that he had to reduce the toxic polarization with some kind of mediation.
After his success in Corona, Cuomo was on the short list of possible mediators, and Lindsay asked me to call him. Cuomo was amazingly well informed on the issues and sufficiently interested to stay on the phone with me, asking wide-ranging questions, raising tangential issues, discussing the personalities of the opposing factions’ leaders, speculating on how they would receive him and repeatedly asking for assurance that he would be an independent agent. Reporting back to the mayor, I told him that I thought Cuomo would accept the assignment if Lindsay called him directly and pressed him for an immediate answer. Within days, Cuomo was in command, announcing to a skeptical press that he would wrap up the process in six weeks. He did, indeed, produce a report by the end of July, proposing a compromise that reduced the project by half and earmarked 40 percent of the apartments for the elderly. By October it gained all necessary approvals and the project went forward successfully, while tensions gradually evaporated.
Forest Hills brought Cuomo national recognition and made him a rising personality in New York politics. His patient attention to detail, the clarity he brought to complex issues, his ability to calm community tensions, and his devotion to the disadvantaged and the powerless, were all qualities that would go on to captivate New York voters in the 1982 governor’s race. The rest, as they say, is history.
Richard Aurelio is a former deputy mayor under John Lindsay.