Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto, a longtime community activist in Carroll Gardens, died on Sep. 11 at the age of 91, according to family.
Scotto, who had earned the unofficial moniker “mayor of Carroll Gardens,” was a prominent figure in the neighborhood who had played important roles in real estate, business, and politics for over half a century.
Tributes to Scotto poured in all from all levels of civic life following the news of his passing.
“This is a man who was always there for the people of Carroll Gardens,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once represented Carroll Gardens in the city council. “He saw a future vision of greatness for Brooklyn and he was right.”
The District Manager of Carroll Gardens’ Community Board 6 credited Scotto with helping him meet many of the community members he now serves on the board.
“I’m proud to have known Buddy, learned a ton from him, and will forever be thankful for all that he did for me and the community I serve,” said Mike Racciopo.
Scotto’s family has roots in the neighborhood dating back to the early 20th century, where they found success as merchants in various trades including wine importing, funeral homes, and movie theaters. While wine and cinemas proved to be more volatile, the Scotto funeral home, where Buddy worked as the business’ director, is still in operation.
Scotto became involved in local politics in the 1960s when he began organizing local residents to help clean up the neighborhood after it fell on hard times and Italian-American families began decamping for greener pastures in Long Island and Staten Island. But despite the success they found as merchants, the Scotto clan stayed put.
“It was either get involved or leave,” said his daughter Debra Scotto. “And his parents weren’t leaving.”
From there he dived headfirst into the world of local affairs, spearheading efforts to clean up the Gowanus Canal and develop affordable housing in the neighborhood via the founding of local groups including the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, the American-Italian Coalition of Organizations, and the Carroll Gardens Association.
Getting involved with the canal cleanup was a natural step towards improving the neighborhood, Debra Scotto said. During the peak of its pollution, the fetid canal stunk up the neighborhood as far as Court Street.
“He was just horrified that something that dirty and that awful could be flowing through his neighborhood,” Scotto said. “He was an environmentalist before his time.”
After securing resources to begin cleaning the canal in the mid 70’s, the waterway became significantly cleaner by the mid 80’s.
Scotto was also responsible for getting hundreds of trees planted in the neighborhood during his early efforts to beautify the area, helping the neighborhood earn the leafy reputation it enjoys today.
The local legend also fought passionately to have more housing developed in the neighborhood, something he saw as necessary to offset the higher housing costs in the neighborhood after its gentrification, and to breathe life into the largely abandoned industrial corridor along its shoreline.
Scotto’s passion for the issue of development made him a controversial figure among some in the neighborhood — particularly those who arrived later in the area’s revitalization, who tended to take a more anti-development stance.
For a time, Scotto’s influence led to his control of a significant voting bloc of Italian-Americans in Carroll Gardens — but as the makeup of the neighborhood changed, his prominence in local elections began to wane, according to political observers.
“Buddy’s influence is definitely waning,” local blogger and activist Katia Kelly told Politico for a 2011 profile of Scotto. “One simply has to look at the results of the November Council election, where his candidate, John Heyer, lost terribly in Carroll Gardens even though Buddy introduced him to everyone in the neighborhood.”
In that profile, Scotto acknowledged that he may have had a controversial way of handling local business, but that it was the only way to get things done.
“If you’re not controversial, then I suspect you’re not doing something right,” he said.
Even as the political makeup changed Scotto remained heavily involved in local civic life through his organizations through his 80’s — which his daughter credits to “good genes and a passion for what he did.”
“He really carved out a unique role for himself,” Debra Scotto said. “While he toyed with running for office he never ran seriously for public office, so he was never beholden that way.”
Along with his daughter, Scotto is survived by his sister, Theresa, his son, Mark, and numerous grandchildren.
A memorial mass will be held Nov. 7 at noon at Sacred Heart-St. Stephens Church. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Carroll Gardens Association.