By Phil Corso
When the Bayside Historical Society’s current building at Fort Totten was built in 1877, there was no such thing as a modern elevator, and more than 130 years later that still has not changed.
Despite efforts to construct a single-person elevator inside the group’s city-owned Officers’ Club building, a lack of government financial support has kept the Bayside Historical Society from moving on with the project, President Paul DiBenedetto said.
According to DiBenedetto, the city Parks Department and borough president’s office had set money aside in the capital budget several years ago with intentions of installing a small elevator inside the building, but as the economic climate deteriorated in 2008, it became more and more difficult to secure funds. The money has still not been doled out.
Years later, the building still lacks a means for the elderly or handicapped to reach its second floor without being carried up the staircases.
“At the very least, we should provide a way for the handicapped to get up here,” DiBenedetto said on the building’s second floor, where the group held its holiday party last month. “We need someone to say, ‘Here is the money, you can go do this.’ It’s 2013 and we should be able to move on from this.”
Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka, who often uses a motorized scooter to get around, said he had a hard time making his way up the building’s stairs for the holiday party in December — and he knows he was not alone.
“There are mostly older folks who frequent that building,” Tshaka said. “If the money has already been appropriated for the purpose of an elevator, then it should be used for that.”
The Bayside Historical Society currently uses its second of three floors at its Fort Totten location for several educational programs and events — all of which could only be accessed by three staircases.
DiBenedetto said his group floated other ideas to help make the second floor more accessible, including adding an elevator extension or installing an electric chair rail on its staircases, but he said he was reluctant to do anything that would compromise the historical integrity of the landmarked building.
The group receives some funds from the City Council, but any additional funding from the state has dwindled down to nothing over recent years, according to a Parks spokesman. The biggest source of funding keeping the small staff at the Bayside Historical Society afloat, DiBenedetto said, was its rental services for weddings and parties.
A lack of funding has become a symptom of a greater problem at Fort Totten, where many dated buildings have sat vacant over several years since the economic downturn of the early 2000s.
Right next door to the Bayside Historical Society building sits an aging building where the Center for the Women of New York continues to seek funding for renovations. CWNY President Ann Jawin said she has endured a long and difficult process in extracting any funding from the city to allow her group to move back into Fort Totten after being forced out of the area in 2002.
Additionally, a nearby plan to build an eco-friendly dock at Fort Totten Park was also put on hold due to a lack of funding in the city’s capital budget, according to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.
But moving forward, DiBenedetto said the BHS, like many other groups, will continue to work with city and state governments as they seek funding to both preserve the historic character at Fort Totten while expanding and improving what the area has to offer.
“Right now, we can barely get money to support our own organization,” he said. “But there is still hope. We need to keep looking.”
Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4573.