Faced with losing a legend, one community revolts

Neighborhoods nationwide refuse to accept budget cuts that would close beloved institutions and landmarks.

On the morning of May 25, when New York City shut down six firehouses as part of a budget-cutting plan, Paul Veneski sneaked through the basement door of his local station in Brooklyn and chained himself to the firetruck.

A hundred others stormed in after him, chanting, "This is the people's firehouse," until police broke up the protest and arrested Mr. Veneski, his mother, and six others.

Two months later, Veneski and his fellow activists remain undeterred as they await their hearing. "If they try to take the firetruck out, we are going to stop them," Veneski says outside Engine Co. 212, his arms folded over a bearish chest. Behind him reads a sign, "Budget slashed, Brooklyn burned."

The brouhaha in Brooklyn is just one example of how some communities aren't taking budget cuts in stride. Although city officials across the nation must somehow make up financial shortfalls - which in many cases are the biggest in more than a decade - many residents don't agree with how their leaders are going about it.

So across the US, community members are putting up a fight: In any number of cities and towns, residents are railing against cutbacks in school programs. Neighbors in Omaha, Neb., have gathered hundreds of signatures to support a local library slated for closure. In Elk River, Minn., Friends of the Kelley Farm has raised thousands of dollars to keep open the historic landmark, a victim of state budget cuts.

And in New York, where officials have been trying to close a $6.4 billion shortfall, Veneski and others have pitched a tent on the sidewalk in front of Engine Co. 212. They vow to stay there until the city reverses its decision to close the firehouse.

"New York City was in a bind ... and had to align its resources accordingly," says Douglas Offerman, a senior research analyst at the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit organization in the state. But "this management point of view," he says, often clashes with attitudes on the ground.

The attitudes at Engine Co. 212 have been shaped not only by the current financial crisis, but also by an even graver one in 1975. On Thanksgiving night of that year, word spread throughout this middle-class, immigrant community that the firehouse was to be closed. The late Adam Veneski, a local grocer, took to the streets with a bullhorn to rouse the community.

He brought with him his children, including 11-year-old Paul, his wife, Brigitte, and others as he stormed the engine-company doors. Together, they occupied the station until it was finally reopened - 18 months later.

This group would dub both itself and the building the "People's Firehouse" and evolve through the generations, first as a casual neighborhood association - serving as a voice for the elderly or Latinos facing housing issues - and later as a civilian advocacy group for firefighters.

Today, say members of the group, they are not just fighting for fire-safety standards but to preserve their most cherished legend, even if it is a legend with a price tag. Mayor Michael Bloomberg expects to save some $8 million from the six closings.

"This means more to us than fire safety," says Kurt Hill, director of outreach and anti-arson programs for the People's Firehouse Inc. "These firemen were part of our community, whether they were buying a newspaper or saving our lives."

The decision to close the engine companies caused widespread outrage at first - especially in post-Sept. 11 New York City. But the mayor assured New Yorkers their safety was not in jeopardy; his office maintains there was too much overlap in the first place.

Recently, after community activists and elected officials brought on a lawsuit, a state judge in Brooklyn upheld that the closings were legal. Most of the protests, from Harlem to Brooklyn, have since died down.

At Engine Co. 212, the firefighters have been reassigned and the rig remains locked behind the station's quintessential red doors.

But protesters here have no plans to go home: At the June 22 centennial celebration of the nearby Williamsburg Bridge, they booed the mayor away.

Brigitte Veneski acknowledges the sit-in might not be as successful this time around. "It's a different world today," she says. As young people come and go, and some parts of the neighborhood take on trendier airs, the community is not as close-knit as it once was. .

Mr. Hill recognizes that only about a dozen people are truly hard-core activists, taking turns spending the night. But he quickly pulls out a phone tree with hundreds of names, ready for when the city eventually comes to move out the rig.

They have placed barricades in front of the station doors - held together with screws and plastic emergency straps - to buy extra time. Bullhorns will also help bring people to the street in nonviolent protest, Hill says.

Donning a red "People's Firehouse" cap, Veneski says he won't hesitate to disrupt the New York City Marathon, which this fall will follow a path only two blocks away. "We've been organized before. If everyone sticks together, this is a battle that can be won," he says. "We're back."

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