REELING IN THE YEAR THAT WAS: A look back at ’06’s top stories

By Joe Maniscalco

Shocking murders, startling upheavals, simmering tensions and ticking time bombs – the top 10 local stories that shaped 2006 ran the gamut from the heart-wrenching to the absurd. ‘Home On the Rage’ The fuse on Community Board 15’s powder keg of special permits and home expansions was lit early in the year and kept right on burning, threatening to explode throughout the next 12 months. Manhattan Beach homeowners spent the entire year sniping at each other over how big their houses should be. The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) finally woke up from its long slumber and began to take notice, too, issuing a slew of building violations that stopped some 63 home construction projects dead in their tracks. Older residents insisted that the offenders toe the line on building regulations while those found violating the rules called for compromise. In July, three Manhattan Beach property owners reportedly hoping to make their building code violations disappear were charged with trying to bribe a DOB inspector. David Safir, 36, of 245 Exeter Street, was arrested after authorities alleged he attempted to slip a DOB inspector a $3,000 bribe. Two other Manhattan Beach men, identified as Gennadiy Bronsteyn and Arkadi Shapiro, were also accused of offering the same DOB inspector $10,000 apiece in an effort to get stop-work orders slapped on their homes at 168 and 170 Coleridge Street lifted. The feud between Manhattan Beach neighbors reached a crescendo at year’s end with City Councilmember Mike Nelson announcing that he had joined with the Office of the Borough President in conducting a study of the community’s housing stock. The results of that study are still pending. Neighborhood civics outside Manhattan Beach, meanwhile, kept their pressure on Community Board 15 to rethink its position on special permits. Opponents of the process charged that the legal device allowing homeowners to build beyond existing zoning regulations was being grossly abused and undermined the community’s quality of life. Supporters of the process – which was enacted in only a handful of community boards citywide – maintained that the legal loophole was preventing growing young families from packing up and moving to greener pastures. But other supporters of the process, like Councilmember Lew Fidler, began saying that the process needed to be “codified.” Community Board 15 dismissed a Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association petition calling on the leadership to take a fresh look at how special permits were working. That move was followed a few months later with Community Board 15 Zoning & Variance Chair Ronald Tawil’s very public endorsement of the special permits process. Opposition within Community Board 15 continued, however. Eventually, other community boards began to identify problems with the way the special permits process was working in their communities, and by year’s end nearby Community Board 10 had voted to scrap special permits altogether. ‘The People’s Playground’ In December, the Albert Family – owners of Coney Island’s Astroland amusement park – announced that they had received an offer they couldn’t refuse and were selling the 3.1-acre center they had operated since 1962. Thor Equities, the new owners of the site, issued glitzy renderings of a totally re-imagined “year-round tourist destination” that would pump new life and vitality into Coney Island. But the mega-developer’s desire for rezoning and talk of a residential housing component gave way to fears that the intrinsic openness of Coney Island would be replaced with a high-priced and homogenized Disney-style theme park. Months before the sale, preservationist working with Coney Island, USA in efforts to landmark a number of historic sites around Coney Island met to discuss the possible threat to “The People’s Playground.” “The last thing we want to do is turn Coney Island into something it is not,” architectural historian Jane Cowan said in August. As the Albert family prepared for their final season in 2007, the fate of many of their quintessential Coney Island rides and attractions like the Astro Tower remained in doubt. “The decision to close Astroland was very difficult, and made only after months of extensive discussions,” Carol Hill Albert said. ‘It Was a Horror Show’ The biggest obscenity of the year to occur in Coney Island happened in October when seven-year-old Samantha Cordova was found murdered inside her Mermaid Avenue home at the hands of her own father, Jose Cordova. Police believe Cordova shot his daughter and then turned the gun on himself because he was distraught that the child’s mother, Shirley Gonzalez, was dating another man. “It was a horror show,” one shaken police officer said at the scene. Samantha Cordova attended P.S. 288 on West 25th Street, where schoolmates and administrators were devastated. “The pride of Coney Island has lost one of its shining stars,” Principal Jolene-Lynett Kinard told Gonzalez after presenting the shattered mom with a collection of letters students had written expressing their sorrow. “I can’t believe this happened to my little girl,” Gonzalez wept on her way to view the child’s body at the morgue. ‘Ghoul-A-Go-Go’ More gruesome events were to occur on Bath Avenue in March where investigators completed a four-month-long probe into a ghoulish ring of body-snatchers operating out of the Daniel George & Sons Funeral Home. Authorities indicted Michael Mastromarino, Joseph Nicelli, Lee Cruetta and Christopher Aldorasi on charges that they secretly sold human remains for transplant, replacing the stolen bones with PVC pipe. “What happened here – stealing tissue from the dead and selling it for transplant without the consent of a family member – is like something out of a cheap horror movie,” said District Attorney Charles J. Hynes. Police estimated that over 1,000 bodies had been involved in the fiendish operation. ‘Online Predators’ The evil perpetrated in the shadowy bushes of Plumb Beach in the fall of 2006 could hardly be surpassed. That’s where, police charge, Sheepshead Bay resident John Fox, 19, conspired with a group of pals to lure Michael Sandy, 28, of East Williamsburg and attack him. The twisted ring engaged Sandy, a gay interior designer, in an online homosexual chat room, and lured him to the Belt Parkway rest stop with promises of a sexual encounter. Once there, cops alleged, Fox’s ring jumped Sandy and tried to beat him. Sandy, however, managed to fight off his attackers and escape onto the Belt Parkway where he was struck by an oncoming car. Sandy later died from his injuries. The horrific hate crime sparked a new round of recriminations and calls by local elected officials to lock down the notorious rest stop. ‘Green As They Want to Be’ Activists determined to establish a new park at Brigham Street, not far from the horrific Plumb Beach attack, kept up the fight to realize their goal when in June they got a vote of support from Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel. “I want to endorse their efforts,” Spiegel told members of the Sheepshead Bay/Plumb Beach Civic Association. “They’re on the right track.” The activists angered Councilmember Lew Fidler, who had been advocating a proposal called “The Lighthouse Project” which sought to construct a new restaurant on the fallow site. “If the Parks Department is in favor, they control several billion dollars in capital funding – more than Councilman Fidler does,” Fidler balked. “The mayor is free to make any funding decisions he wants.” The cost of building a new Brigham Street park is estimated to be between $2 and $4 million. ‘A Toxic SWMP’ The City Council may have backed the Bloomberg administration’s Solid Waste Management Plan bringing newly constructed waste transfer stations to the borough, but that didn’t stop activists in Bensonhurst from opposing it. Outraged at the prospect of convoys of garbage trucks barreling through their neighborhood and the dredging of Gravesend Bay, the group charged that establishing a waste transfer station on the site of the old Southwest Incinerator at Shore Parkway and Bay 41st Street was not only dangerous, but a slap in the face to the community. Truck traffic would endanger pedestrians, they said, and the dredging required to accommodate barges to pick up tons of trash would kick up a toxic stew of heavy metals poisonous to both fish and humans. “There is irrefutable evidence of 30 years of emissions and ash from that old incinerator which have fallen into the area that they are going to dredge,” said Assemblymember William Colton, an outspoken critic of SWMP. Walkout! There was plenty of outrage to go around all year-long at the Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies. The innovative new school was riding a wave of success when, all of a sudden, principal Joanne Pierre was arrested for allegedly ripping off more than $10,000 from the Department of Education. Pierre’s subsequent exit sparked outrage among her devoted student body who staged a number of walkouts insisting on her return. Even teachers staged a sickout on May 2. “The students aren’t being taught on the level that was going on when Pierre was there,” said PTA President Anthony Fleming. Pierre’s case is still pending and she never returned to the school. A new principal has been installed in the position, and many are still upset. ‘Let’s Get Outta Here’ While the students of the Rachel Carson School of Coastal Studies were angling to get out of class, residents from Manhattan Beach to Sea Gate were wondering how they’re going to get out of Dodge if a giant storm on the order of Hurricane Katrina struck. At various times in 2006 is seemed as if the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) might know something the weatherman didn’t know, holding special emergency evacuation meetings in church basements and community centers every time you turned around. Their basic message was simple – Brooklyn is due for a gigantic storm sometime very soon, it’s going to be a disaster and don’t count on government agencies to get you out of harm’s way. Instead, the OEM advised concerned residents to pack a “Go Bag” stuffed with food, water and important documents, and hit the road at the first sign of trouble. Mein Costume! Perhaps the biggest absurdity perpetrated all year happened when Leon M. Goldstein High School student Walter Petryk decided to walk into school on Halloween dressed as Adolph Hitler. The teen then happily posed for newspaper photos in full regalia leaning on trees and strolling on the promenade. Petryk was tossed out of school and widely denounced for his antics. Attempting to make amends by visiting nearby Holocaust Memorial Park a few days later, he said, “It’s not me saying I’m sorry. I was reiterating my point that people have lost loved ones [in the Holocaust] and I feel sorry…but I feel it was my right to wear the costume.” Photos By Paul Martinka

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