By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dyker Heights is world famous for the elaborate, over-the-top Christmas decorations in front of people’s homes featuring thousands of twinkling lights, two-story-high wooden soldiers, giant snow globes and supersized reindeer pulling Santa Claus in his sled.
Thousands of tourists come to Dyker Heights during the holiday season to walk around the neighborhood and take in the sights.
But behind the glitter, Dyker Heights is a quiet, largely residential community that is home to residents who want to live in a safe, affordable neighborhood with good schools and clean streets, leaders of the Dyker Heights Civic Association said.
The civic association’s members work hard to keep Dyker Heights a vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood, according to President Fran Vella-Marrone.
The group was founded in 1928 and is still going strong 86 years later. Its moto is "Democracy In Action."
“Our group has been around for a long time but our mission has remained the same over the years. The issues we care about are public safety, affordability, property taxes, and the parking situation. We are really a community of one and two family homes. We want to keep it livable,” Vella-Marrone told the Brooklyn Eagle. She has been a civic association member since the early 1980s.
The boundaries of Dyker Heights are roughly Seventh Avenue to 14th Avenue, from 65th Street to 86th Street, Vella-Marrone said. “That’s the area we represent,” she said.
The organization is led by Vella-Marrone and a board of governors and operates with a budget containing funds raised by membership dues ($20 a year per person), donations and ticket sales from an annual dinner. “One of the things that makes our organization different is that we have never accepted government grants. Everything we do, we do on our own,” Jerry Kassar, who has been a member since 1979, told the Eagle. “We’re not like other organizations that are constantly asking elected officials for grants.”
Kassar, a former president, is currently a member of the board of governors.
In addition to Vella-Marrone, the group’s officers are Mafalda DiMango, first vice president; Gussie Sichenze, second vice president; JoAnn DiMeglio, corresponding secretary; Gloria Calicchia, recording secretary; and James Murray, treasurer.
The members of the board of governors, in addition to Kassar, are: Joanne Bonitsis, John Bruno, Ann J. Festa, Cornelia Sichenze Gallagher, Carolyn O’Hare, Eleanor Petty, Ilene Sacco and Sandy Vallas.
Christian Zaino is the group’s historian.
Vella-Marrone presides over the group’s meetings, which are held once a month, usually on the second Tuesday, at the parish hall of Saint Philips Episcopal Church of Dyker Heights at 1072 80th St., at 8 p.m. The meetings have featured guest speakers from city and state agencies, elected officials offering updates on legislation they have introduced, and debates between candidates for public office.
During his administration, Michael Bloomberg appeared at two town hall meetings sponsored by the civic association, including one in 2006 in which he made a public vow to complete the re-construction of the Owl’s Head Water Pollution Control Plant in Bay Ridge before the end of his mayoralty. At the time, the pollution plant was emanating a foul odor that wafted from Shore Road in Bay Ridge all the way to Dyker Heights, more than two miles away.
“We are known as a group that keeps our elected officials on their toes. Our members are not shy about asking a pointed question. They don’t care who you are,” Vella-Marrone said.
Over the years, the civic association has led fights on behalf of local residents. The group rallied to save the Dyker Heights Post Office, which had been targeted for closure in the mid-1980s, and successfully fought to prevent a mega mall from being built over a railroad cut located between Eighth and 14th avenues from 61st to 62nd streets. In the latter fight, the civic association was recruited by residents of Tabor Court, a cul de sac located between 12th and 13th avenues from 62nd to 63rd streets. Tabor Court residents feared that a large shopping mall would ruin the neighborhood. “They didn’t know what to do or how to fight the developer, so they came to us asking for help,” Vella-Marrone recalled.
Back in the 1940s, the civic association led a fight to convince the city to take electrical power lines, which had been attached to street poles, and move them underground.
The group’s history, including a list of presidents, was organized in a report written in 1978 to mark the organization’s 50th Anniversary. Among the interesting tidbits: the dues were originally $2.00.
Many of the organization’s members served in World War II, according to the 50th Anniversary report.
In recent years, at Vella-Marrone’s urging, the group has expanded its mission to charitable endeavors. At the November meeting, the organization presents a check to a local charity as a donation. The civic association teams up with the 68th Precinct Community Council, led by Ilene Sacco, to sponsor a toy drive for the children of military personnel stationed at the US Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton.
The civic association also sponsors the Dyker Heights Military Postage Fund, a project that provides free postage to military families seeking to mail packages to their loved ones serving in war zones. “It was started by the workers at the Dyker Heights Post Office in 2003. They were doing it on their own. They raised funds for it. We went to them and said we wanted to help,” Vella-Marrone said.
Thanks to the postage fund, thousands of families over the past 11 years have been able to mail letters and care packages to service members in places like Iraq and Afghanistan for free. The civic association pays for the postage.
The civic association started off in 1928 as an anti-tax group made up of local homeowners, according to Vella-Marrone.
Dyker Heights was originally an upper-middle class housing development that was built in 1895 under the direction of developer Walter Loveridge Johnson, who envisioned it as a suburban community within the city limits of Brooklyn. Brooklyn had not yet joined New York City. That would come in 1898.
“Dyker Heights is unusual among neighborhoods in the city because it started out as a development,” Vella-Marrone said.
In a nod to the community’s history, the civic association worked with Community Board 10 (Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) to have the street corner near the spot where Johnson’s house stood, 11th Avenue and 82nd Street, named after him. The Department of Transportation (DOT) erected a sign there a few years ago.
The civic association also got (DOT) to erect street signs on 13th Avenue designating it as “Dyker Heights Boulevard.”
Speaking of 13th Avenue, it is the community’s main commercial thoroughfare. The area between 65th and 85th streets contains more than 250 shops and restaurants. The civic association works in partnership with the 13th Avenue Merchants Association, Vella-Marrone said. “We work very closely with our local merchants. Many of our merchants also live here,” she said.
The civic association’s mission is to serve as a voice for the community, to instill civic pride, and to serve as a forum for local residents to discuss grievances, Kassar said. “Our meetings provide you with the opportunity to socialize with your neighbors so that you can get to know them,” he said.
For more information on the Dyker Heights Civic Association, email Vella-Marrone at [email protected].