One Day At the Pier…
For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past this week. Nothing has happened that brought on this sentimental review of my life, but throughout this week, memories have flooded back.
This afternoon, I arrived home after a short visit. I picked up my backpack that was resting on the love seat in the living room and then I opened it up to remove the computer so I could get some work done. As I pulled the computer from the backpack, I started to remember that I actually liked to go to the Yonkers City Pier, book in hand, to read and relax.
In the early 1990s, the City of Yonkers embarked on a program to renovate the historic City Pier on the Hudson River. Up until that point, the Pier was off limits because the rusted structure looked like it was going to collapse (and it was). Growing up, the entire waterfront of Yonkers was a disaster, with the only decent parts near the Metro North Train Station in Larkin Plaza and south on the river at the Sugar Factory. Of course, calling these areas “decent” is a stretch. But these two areas actually had some activity associated with them. At the factory, they packaged sugar. At the train station, Metro North got people to work in New York City and upper Westchester. And, of course, the station was home to some of the weirdest bands of transvestite hookers humanity ever laid eyes on.
But along came the 1990s and the administration of Mayor Terrence Zaleski who spearheaded the renovation of the Pier and the immediate area around the steel structure to make it a drawing point to get people to see the Yonkers waterfront differently. One of the projects that Mayor Zaleski pushed was the establishment of a sculpture park right next to the renovated Pier. The artwork was completed by local Yonkers residents, highlighting some of the talent found within the city’s borders. When this park was completed, I visited it a couple of times, and each time I was more perplexed at what the artists were thinking of when they crafted their pieces.
The centerpiece of this renovated area was the two-story City Pier. After the city applied for federal money to pay for the project, the renovation got underway. For the mayor, it wasn’t until after he left office in January 2006 was the Pier renovation completed. He never received credit for spearheading this project as his successor took all the accolades, as the name of John D. Spencer emblazons the copper plaque that is fastened to the City Pier this day.
I was at the waterfront the day they rededicated the City Pier. Politicians and those seeking office stood behind the podium, all smiles as the ribbon was cut to official re-open the pier. It was odd to see all those men and women stand there to take a bow for a renovation of this Pier when the man who actually led the move to fix it up was no where in sight. Terry Zaleski was not there that day when his little dream of a better downtown and a brighter future for the Yonkers waterfront was beginning to be realized. Nowhere on the Yonkers City waterfront will anyone find this man’s name as buildings are constructed and renovated, and as business move into the area. I’ve always thought that this was a bit sad.
Now, to be honest, I never voted for Terry Zaleski for mayor, either in 1991 or 1995. His politics was too far left for me. Back in 1991, I was a college student at Saint John’s University in Queens. Bitten by the political bug, I volunteered for two campaigns that year, both in Yonkers. Ed Magilton, the father of a friend of mine, was seeking election to the Yonkers City Council. City Councilman Peter Chema was giving up his seat on the council to run for mayor; Magilton was seeking to replace him. In 1991, the City of Yonkers was embarking on a new form of city governance. Two years prior, city voters dumped the City Manager form of government (the City Council had all the power; they appointed a City Manager as the city’s chief executive) and replaced it with a strong mayor government (a strong executive branch, a slighter weaker legislative branch).
I worked for both men and, in my opinion, they both deserved election. They both lost. Magilton lost by the skin of his teeth, losing to a former mayor who was seeking a political comeback. Chema, meanwhile, came in second in a three person race. Zaleski won with less than 40 percent of the vote as a former Republican mayor and third-party candidate, Angelo Martinelli, crushed Chema’s attempt at becoming the city’s first strong mayor in 50 years.
Everyone was stunned that Zaleski pulled the race out. I knew things were going south when our campaign’s political consultant took a drink after reading some of the final polling results days before the election. That final weekend before the ballots were cast, independents began breaking against Chema. He was doomed. The race with 2 strong Republicans guaranteed that the Democrats would get their guy in as mayor. And on Election Night, Zaleski won with around 38 percent of the vote to Chema’s 36.
Election Night 1991 was not a good night.
Fast forwarding to the late 1990s, I was sitting on a bench reading on the first floor of the City Pier as the wind blew down the Hudson River. While the river had, at times, a really bad odor, the breeze coming from the north always made it quite comfortable on the Pier, especially in the summer. As I was reading, a man came up to me and said hello.
Terry Zaleski, the former mayor, stood there in front of me, his children at his side. I returned the hello to him, not knowing what to say. He had gone from the mayoralty to a low level position in the federal government under President Bill Clinton. The one thing I noticed, he looked healthier than he did when he was mayor. We exchanged some small chatter and he walked away with his children.
I felt bad that I never thanked him that day for leading the charge to renovate the City Pier. It was his vision and when it was accomplished, Terry Zaleski never received the proper credit he deserved. In my days as a political writer, I tried my best to remind the people that the reason the waterfront was changing was because of a short, nerdy looking man originally from McLean Avenue in Yonkers who had the guts to tackle this third-rail of Yonkers politics.