Belleville Town Historian Michael Perrone returns with Part 2 of his account of the infamous Valley Redevelopment Plan proposed by the Council in 2001, and fought fiercely by Belleville families and business owners until the proposal was finally defeated in November of 2002.
In Part 2, Perrone details some of the personal stories of Belleville families and businesses impacted, if not devastated, by the berserk development proposal.
If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, click here to read all about the actual plan before continuing below.
What better time to pass a sinister plan to take the homes and businesses of the people of Belleville than in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack?
Unbelievable as it may seem, that is exactly what happened. Exactly one week after the terror attacks, with the smoke still smoldering from the ruins, with Belleville fire and police personnel dispatched to the scene and with the entire town in a panic and distracted, Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Melham and the Town Council decided it would the ideal time to make their move. On September 18, 2001 they wasted no time and voted to set into motion a process that would have a devastating effect on families and businesses. To report the full extent of what the effects of their reckless action was would require a book. Instead, several of the more commonly known ones will be related here, ranging from the bad and awful, to the horrific and unbelievable.
Modern Millwork has been a staple on Washington Avenue for generations. The custom kitchen and bath shop was in the process of a $100,000 upgrade and renovation to their store. The project came to a dead halt when their property was declared in need of redevelopment.
Meanwhile on Ralph Street the Wheal-Grace Corporation, a multi million dollar operation employing fifty skilled employees, needed to stay competitive. The company was in the process of bringing in a much needed half million dollar state of the art printing system from Germany. When their property was declared to be in need of redevelopment, their bank pulled their credit line, killing the purchase and threatening the survival of the company.
Down on Roosevelt Avenue the owners of Superior Press, Paul and Susan, were in a real dilemma They had purchased their $850,000 single-story 13,000 sq. ft. building at the height of the real estate market in the 80’s. The dawn of the computer/internet age in the 90’s caused a dramatic drop in the traditional printing business. Downsizing and moving to a smaller commercial building which Paul owned in Nutley was their only hope of survival. The Belleville building was sold, and everything was going to be fine. That is, until a few days before the closing date and the building was declared part of the redevelopment zone. The buyer immediately cancelled the purchase. Susan made tearful pleas to the cold-hearted town council quartet. Her cries for compassion fell on deaf ears. She may as well have been pleading to the four stone faces carved on Mt. Rushmore. The distraught owners were unable to keep up with the mortgage payments, and lost both the Belleville building and the Nutley building. They were financially ruined, with everything they had ever worked for gone. Luckily with the help of family and friends, Paul was saved from losing his home.
The blocks surrounding the former Walter Kidde site was to be the first phase of the redevelopment scheme, with plans for eminent domain proceedings on the fast track. At that time there were nine veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam living or owning businesses there, as well as the widows of three vets. Bill Natale had moved into his Greylock Ave house with his new bride Elizabeth in 1946, shortly after being discharged from his service in the US Navy. Bill’s father had built the house with his own hands. Bill saw action in Europe in the D-Day fighting. The Navy had destroyers as close as 1,000 yards from the beach, and were firing directly into German positions, and the Germans were firing directly back into those allied ships. The allies had 200 ships and landing vessels sunk during the offensive. After fighting for his country, home and freedom, Bill was in no mood for Melham’s land grab. Bill fought the Germans in his younger days. Now in his golden years, he was more than willing to fight “that punk” Melham, as he called him.
Living seven houses down Greylock Ave from the Natale’s was Belleville’s oldest veteran, Louis Fantacone. Now in his 90th year, Fantacone had lived on the same block his entire life. A World War II veteran, Fantacone had fought in North Africa in the “rat patrols” battling the forces of legendary German Field Marshal Rommel. He then went on to fight in Sicily and the Italian peninsula. Fantacone was confused and worried. He had a very hard time understanding how after 90 years, some local politicians could force him out of his lifelong home. Melham told the Star Ledger regarding Natale’s and Fantacone’s street that, “Greylock Ave is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the Valley section of Belleville”. (Star Ledger April 7, 2002)
When Belleville business owner Stephen Morrison died at age 48, his devastated wife and three children could never expect that things could get any worse. Morrison was the owner of a 6,000 square foot machine shop at 61 Mill Street in Councilman Bill Escott’s Third Ward. The street was part of the new redevelopment nightmare. Morrison’s widow Ruth Anne was beside herself with grief and stress, a candidate for a nervous breakdown if ever there was one. There were no buyers for the now empty commercial building declared “blighted” by the town council. She could not rent the building either. That is, unless she could find a tenant looking to continue to use the 6,000 sq ft building as a machine shop, the only use for which it had been approved. Any other use would require the approval of a variance by the town, and variances were not available to properties declared to be in need of redevelopment. Councilman Escott did his best to try and persuade at least one of the four councilmen who had voted to create the redevelopment zone to change their mind and save the Morrison family. His calls for compassion were echoed by Councilmen Kennedy and Digori, but as usual fell on deaf ears. The quartet of Melham, Fuscaldo, Paserchia and Risoli would not budge.
In the Spring of 2000, Carmela Andalora heard a knock at her front door. There stood Michael Melham, a handsome 25-year old running for town council. Full of energy and new ideas, the smooth talker promised her big changes if she and her husband Steve would vote for him, which they agreed to do. They kept their promise, but they would soon learn that Melham would not keep his. Carmela was born in Brooklyn, and the family moved to Greylock Ave in 1943 when Carmela was seven years old. Carmela loved the cozy modest home with the small garden. She would grow up, marry and raise her family there. For 59 years it was the only home she ever knew. She could not believe the news when a year after supporting Melham for town council, her home was declared to be in an area in need of redevelopment. Melham was leading the charge to get homeowners out, and “Eric” the developer in. The dreamy future Melham had promised had turned into a nightmare. Before her very eyes, Dr. Jekyll had turned into Mr. Hyde. Carmela swore that no politician would take her childhood home and vowed to fight to the end. Unfortunately, Carmela soon found herself facing another big battle. She was diagnosed with cancer. Nevertheless she kept her chin and spirit up, and joined her Belleville neighbors in the fight. Demonstrating in front of Town Hall, writing countless letters to the editor, making phone calls, and anything else she could do to stop the council’s land grab. She blamed (cursed is more like it) Fourth Ward Councilman Melham for betraying her and the people of his ward who had helped elect him. (Belleville Times 1/31/02)
Carmela was a fighter, and Melham fought back. In the end Carmela won when on November 22, 2002, despite Melham’s strong objections, the new Town Council majority voted to end the redevelopment scheme. Melham would still not give up. Even after the project was cancelled, he still twice invited “Eric” the developer back to town hall in an effort to convince the town council to revive the project. Melham made his last desperate attempt to bring the project back on Monday July 14, 2003, eight months after the town council had voted to end the scheme. That Thursday’s issue of the Belleville Times carried both good and bad news…. that Carmela and her neighbors had won the fight, that the Valley Redevelopment project was dead once and for all…. but that sadly Carmela had lost her other battle and had been laid to rest.
Carmela was a dedicated member of our community and a very active member of our S.C.R.A.P. organization. Carmela was well aware of the challenges she faced in her body. But it seemed to us, her friends and neighbors, that in her heart Carmela was more concerned about the loss of her childhood home than of anything else in the world.
And that was something we would never forget.
Former member of S.C.R.A.P.
Current president of the Belleville Historical Society