For me, Morningside Heights is a strange place. Communal and cultural priorities are generally foreign to me, but here they seem especially out of whack. Deborah Secular recently wrote a piece detailing the controversy surrounding new construction at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A developer working on this site subcontracted a demolition company with ties to Toby Romano Sr., a mobster who went to jail almost 30 years ago. Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell said, “It’s an inappropriate choice of a demolition company to be working in our neighborhood.” After multiple op-eds, articles, and also identical looking stories about the demo companies' other contracts, I’m still left wondering: What’s so controversial?
As far as I could tell, there are three central issues. First, Romano Sr. once worked for the subcontracted demolition company. Second, the son, Romano Jr., now heads that company. Third, safety violations from the company resulted in a death and two injuries in close proximity to the new construction site. Labeling the demo subcontractors as an “inappropriate choice” seems ambiguous. If the message we are trying to send is safety first, then that should be made clear. Construction sites are accident prone, especially when explosives are part of the everyday work environment. Unless we require a perfect safety record from all the subcontractors we hire, this point is moot.
However, people don’t have the time or inclination to investigate these things for themselves. All they’ll know is what they hear---“mob ties”---which sounds very ominous and scary. In my opinion, there are far more important issues or causes worth getting upset about. Over the last ten years, homelessness among NYC's elderly population has skyrocketed by more than 55 percent. In 2010, New York City high schools only graduated 28 percent of enrolled black males. In the same category of the same year, my hometown (Rochester, NY) was ranked the worst district in the nation. The Flower City has seen plenty of controversies over the years and no shortage of Romano Sr.-esque characters, many of which were made famous in the infamous 1970 Alphabet Wars.
I went high school in the bordering (and predominately Italian) town of Gates. I had the winning trifecta: I was immature, a follower and a bad judge of character. So, after my dad split a couple years before high school, troublemakers served as my role models. These role models and I had an unhealthy infatuation with gangsterism.
My peers and I didn’t come from money but we had opportunities to grow into normal adulthood. It was, la cosa nostra à la suburbia---and it seemed irresistible. In reality, we were idiots from the ‘school of the not-so-hard-knocks.' Most of us grew out of it. Many are still branded with the stigma of their kinship’s transgressions, though. But we were one generation removed from serious organized crime---just (mostly) harmless kids looking for a group identity.
The assemblyman’s quote implies Romano Jr. should be able to work, just not in “our neighborhood.” Consider the psychological effects that cultural, social, or economic exile have. Imagine Jane is born into a house of ill reputation. In light of her home and heritage, society recoils from, and rejects Jane. If this narrative is repeated and re-enforced over time, Jane stands a good chance of internalizing, embracing, and acting upon her ill-given status. When Jane’s actions impact society in a negative way, it is widely seen as a confirmation of what society already knew.
As an adult, Jane would, and should be held responsible for her actions. Bad character, parenting, or genes would probably receive the brunt of any blamed. In this way, it seems unjust that Jane’s “born to lose” narrative would barely be considered in deliberation, or calculated in punishment. I don’t know Toby Jr., his business, or any other Romanos, but I empathize with him. I imagine that the expectations we would have for Jane are similar to what we do expect of Toby Jr.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Toby Romano Sr. and Toby Romano Jr. as Tony Romano Sr. and Tony Romano Jr.