Serving Middle Village and Maspeth since 1938.

Originally published in the March 2009 Juniper Berry Magazine

This Land is Their Land

Jack Bono spent the prime years of his life serving his country in Vietnam. Now the City of New York plans to seize the factory his family has owned for 76 years and sell it to a foreign developer. This is the story of an abusive un-American land grab taking place right here in the borough of Queens.

The founding Bono brothers – Larry, Henry and Jacob – in 1950.

When you walk into the offices of Bono Sawdust Supply for the first time, you realize immediately that it has been in the family for generations. The photos of the business from a bygone era and a painting of the three founding brothers ‒ Henry, Jacob and Larry Bono ‒ hang proudly on the walls to greet visitors. The company was originally a small operation on Forrest Street in Bushwick, founded in the the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 by the Bono brothers, who were Italian immigrants. Realizing they needed to expand the business, Jacob Bono, the second of the three brothers, scouted out potential sites for relocation and found what he thought was a perfect one in Corona near the Flushing River. After making deliveries and toiling at their Brooklyn factory all day, the Bonos would drive over to Queens and construct their new headquarters at night ‒ from the foundation up to an intricate rooftop labyrinth of metal tubing ‒ with their own hands. Bono Sawdust Supply then moved to 127th Place just south of Northern Boulevard, where it still stands, now in a location referred to as Willets Point or the Iron Triangle. Today, the company produces different types of sweeping compound used to aid in the cleanup of spills. They also sell sawdust, processed from recycled wood, to auto supply shops, janitorial and building companies, and to farms for use as animal bedding. They are the only manufacturer of this type in the City of New York.

Since Jack Bono was 12 years old, he has been working at the factory his father and uncles built. He has done every job there at one time or another, from driving a delivery truck to running the machinery to taking care of paperwork ‒ and he enjoys all of it.

When his country needed him, Jack dutifully served in Vietnam for more than 2 years, from 1966-1968. Lucky enough to have survived the war, he returned home, went back to work, soon married and started a family. He raised 3 children on the money he made in the sawdust industry. Eventually, he bought his two uncles' shares of the company and became the sole proprietor. When Jack retires, he plans to hand the reins of the business over to his son, Jake, who is proud to carry on his family's tradition and trade.

Jack Bono in Vietnam in 1968

This all sounds like the ideal American success story, right? New Americans worked hard and created a business that was passed down from father to son to grandson, surviving a depression, several recessions and multiple wars. This factory, founded by immigrants, through the years has in turn employed other new immigrants, giving them their start in this country. What could be more American than that?

Leave it to the City of New York to turn the American Dream into a nightmare.

Some years ago, Jake opened a newspaper and did a double take. On the page in front of him he saw the City's vision for the new Willets Point that would totally eliminate the manufacturing zone across the street from Shea Stadium. The renderings showed condo towers right on top of our land, he recalled. Before publishing these drawings, no one from the City's Economic Development Corporation, the agency handling the project, bothered to consult the current property owners, so you can imagine the shock the Bonos felt at seeing their land under someone else's control. Later, the EDC mailed Jack Bono a pamphlet that included the specifications for an available storefront ‒ not a factory ‒ in Brooklyn and suggested he move his business there. In the meantime, three of the largest landowners and political donors at the Point were given deals to stay at their present sites. The Bonos were not offered that option and have been told they must vacate by 2010.

Moving is out of the question. The City has not shown us any property that would be suitable for this type of operation and if we had to rebuild it from scratch, we'd be out of business, Jack said. Besides, we don't believe we should be forced to surrender our property to the government so they can make someone else rich.

And who can blame him for feeling this way? The someone else Jack refers to is most likely TDC International, a Chinese-based development corporation. Wellington Chen, the politically connected former Senior VP of TDC, has long expressed his desire to see Willets Point redeveloped, and was the only developer representative to appear at all hearings about the project, joined at the hip with former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman as her invited guest. Shulman is the president of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, a group formed under the guise of representing the community that really was founded to lobby for the project to be pushed through.

Former Borough President Claire Shulman and developer Wellington Chen at a community board meeting. Photo by Robert LoScalzo.

If you have ever been to the area east of where Shea Stadium stood, you know the horrendous condition that the roads are in. We're talking streets with craters a foot deep and with dirt bottoms. This represents intentional neglect by the City's Department of Transportation, which is responsible for repairing the roads. The Department of Sanitation does not salt or plow these roads after snow. There also are no sanitary sewers at the Point, something that every other industrial zone in the City has had for decades. The City, dating back to the days of Robert Moses, simply refused to put them in. Why pay for infrastructure when you have a better plan for someone else's land? Incidentally, in 1991, EDC commissioned a report that urged then-BP Shulman to invest in a sewer system and new streets at Willets Point to improve the industrial zone there ‒ something that she flatly refused to do. She has long asserted that the land at Willets Point was too valuable for its current occupants.

Now, back to the developer. TDC International was chosen by the City in 2005 to build an $800 million project called Flushing Commons on the site of Flushing's Municipal Parking Lot 1. The development was supposed to be finished by now and help revitalize the downtown Flushing area, but has yet to even break ground due to a number of factors, chief among them being the ever-increasing cost of construction. Despite this failure, all speculation is that TDC has the Willets Point project in the bag. It's been set up that way from the get-go, and other developers whose names have been thrown around are all suffering tremendously from the financial crisis and will not be taking on any more major projects in the foreseeable future. TDC is the only developer to list Willets Point as a future project on its website.

As the Mets prepare to open CitiField, their new stadium is not the only thing to loom large over the Iron Triangle. Since the November 13, 2008 City Council vote authorizing what could be the largest private land grab in the City's history, the Economic Development Corporation has not reached out to any of the dozens of businesses that have not made deals to sell or move. The remaining businesses fear condemnation via eminent domain, something that was not taken off the table despite the removal of this threat being an initial condition of acceptance laid down by the City Council back in April 2008. (When an increase in the amount of affordable housing in the plan was promised at the last minute, that demand was suddenly dropped by the spineless City Council like a hot potato and they almost unanimously voted the plan through.) Apparently our backwards-thinking City Council Members consider the affordable housing demographic in this city to be a more important voting bloc than Americans who value property rights.

Bono Sawdust Supply in the 1930s

Although the City likes to categorize the Iron Triangle as nothing more than chop shops (which are actually taxpaying businesses that serve a need) and a blighted eyesore (the blight caused mainly by the City itself), it neglects to mention the many family owned and operated commercial enterprises, like Bono Sawdust, that have thrived there for generations. It also glosses over the concept that the government taking one person's property to benefit another private person is morally wrong, as 45 states have thus far acknowledged by putting limits on the practice via new legislation. Sadly, New York is one of only 5 states that have yet to take measures to limit eminent domain for private gain. In our state, this type of action is business as usual, all too common and unfortunately means an expensive drawn out court fight and years of aggravation for the victims. It's a shame that the City is willing to destroy demonstrably viable generations-old businesses in order to hand their land over to a developer who has proven to be unreliable during these increasingly precarious financial times. Despite the City's high hopes, past experience tells us that the most likely scenario for Willets Point is that there will be a rush to bulldoze what's there now and the land will stay untouched and vacant for years.

The City claims it has a slush fund of $400M set aside for land acquisition (a figure that is way too low) at Willets Point. This is money that could be put toward better PUBLIC use, like education, health care, police and fire department services. But instead it will be used to line a developer's pocket, destroy 1800+ jobs during a period of high unemployment, and put further strain on City services by adding more than 5,500 housing units to an already built-out borough with abandoned half-built developments on every other block.

If the City doesn't want its shiny new stadium to sit across the street from auto repair shops, they could just invest in the infrastructure and allow the area to redevelop naturally. Something similar to what they want would be accomplished without seizing property or spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. But with the most developer-friendly mayor in the City's history in office and looking for a legacy, the time is ripe for the right people to benefit and the working class to suffer. The eminent domain clause was wisely inserted into the Constitution by the founding fathers of our country to ensure that the government would be able to provide necessary services to the public by taking private land if necessary. This project will consist of privately owned condos, apartment buildings and stores plus a hotel and convention center; there is nothing public about any of these uses. The scariest thing is that the City can do this to anyone at any time for just about any reason.

Jake and Jack Bono in front of a painting of the founding brothers. Photo by Jeremiah Moss.

The Bonos and others plan to take their fight to court, if necessary. Unfortunately, this appears inevitable. As we have come to learn time and again, the Bloomberg administration believes that developers' rights trump everyone else's ‒ even those who sacrificed the best years of their lives in service to this country.