Many groups and individuals have actively participated in building the Greenpoint-Williamsburg community into what it is today. None, however, may be quite as active as Guido and Tish Cianciotta. They have the awards to prove it – receiving the Activism Award from the community group “The People’s Firehouse” this past December; the naming of a building on Jackson St. in their honor; and an internet search resulting in three New York Times articles within the past 7 years quoting Guido.
“My husband is key,” said Tish of her partner of 54 years. “I’m the good guy and he plays the bad guy – he yells,” in reference to their presence at community meetings. “We don’t back down,” says Guido discussing the couple’s persistence on the dozens of issues that they have been involved in over the past 30 years. Their teamwork is evident as we finish our breakfast at the Garden Grill, one of their regular morning spots, as Tish and Guido volley back and forth between themselves acting as director and storyteller while recounting the stories of their involvement in the community.
This fearless style may come from Guido’s past career as a union representative for the local 831 Teamsters or his time spent on a Navy boat during World War II in which he was able to witness the signing of the Peace Treaty in Okinawa. Tish herself has been directly involved with the community affairs of the area as a long-time assistant of Assemblyman Joe Lentol. They wistfully and briefly discuss their own meeting at an ice cream parlor not far from the Garden Grill that has since become a deli. They married five years later.
The Cianciottas first became involved in community activism in the 1970s after a La Guardia college student was mugged on the street, and they petitioned Assemblyman Lentol for a street light. From that point, their involvement in community issues quickly expanded. One of their biggest campaigns came in 1975, during a time of city-wide firehouse closings meant to reduce the budget. Engine Company 212 on Wythe Ave. was one of the firehouses slated for closure, but Tish and Guido along with other residents held massive demonstrations that took on a life of their own. The firehouse was closed, but “The People’s Firehouse” came from the closure and became a symbol of community action.
Their current fight has been to have a nursing home built on the site of the old Greenpoint Hospital on Skillman Ave. Of course, “current” is always a relative term with the couple—they have been fighting the plans of the hospital since its closing in 1981. They protested for 141 days against the plans that would move a homeless shelter into the space. The initial shelter plan included 40 beds, but then increased to 1,200 spaces. Guido and Tish’s main concern was that the developers did not consult with the community board before the large increase in size from the initial proposal. Their efforts helped to reduce the size of the shelter to a controllable 200 spaces. However, they still hope to have a nursing home located in the vacant part of the building to serve the aging residents of Greenpoint who have spent their entire lives here.
Their work came full circle in 2005. Gaspare Guinta, a young police officer, was killed when his motorcycle slammed into a car at the intersection of Withers and Humboldt Sts. This was one of many accidents that had occurred on this stretch of traffic light-less roadway. Along with other members of the Concerned Citizens of Withers Street and Area Block Association, Tish and Guido petitioned the city to install lights in the area. “From Metropolitan to the BQE there are no traffic lights. It’s a speedway,” said Guido. They are still waiting for the lights to be turned on, but will keep petitioning.
The environmental and development issues that younger activists in the community see as immediate here in Greenpoint are the same topics Tish and Guido have been tackling for decades. The couple doesn’t narrow their focus on any central issue. They are dedicated to the continued growth of both Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and will continue to work towards a community that allows its long-cherished residents to benefit from this prosperity. In terms of future development their goals are not completely centered on activism; “We need good Chinese food really badly,” Tish says.
With all the issues that Tish and Guido have had to contend with in the neighborhood, why haven’t they retired to Florida or some other quieter, sunny locale? “I can’t leave, not now,” says Tish “community activism keeps us going.” “I love Miami. And Disney World, that ain’t just for babies,” says Guido. “I like Florida, but I love the people [here]. I love walking down the streets and the ‘Hellos’ and ‘Goodbyes’.”I’ve retired from the job, but not from the work.”