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East Rockaway to mark community comeback

Standing beside the 9/11 memorial outside East Rockaway

Standing beside the 9/11 memorial outside East Rockaway Village Hall: Edward Zangrillo, Patty Renner, Theresa Gaffney, Doris Piedimonte, Francis T. Lenahan Jr., Stanley Lombardo, Edward Corrado, and Ray Taliercio. (June 27, 2012) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

In the back of Mayor Francis T. Lenahan Jr.'s Nissan Altima, there is a hard hat, a safety vest, a recycling bin and gloves.

If there's a traffic jam or roadside litter in the Village of East Rockaway, Lenahan said he is ready to jump out of his car at a moment's notice. And he has.

"We try to lead by example," he said.

For the past year, the mayor has worked with the village board of trustees and nonprofit Village Foundation of East Rockaway to try to revive a 9,800-person community that lost nearly 600 residents from 2000 to 2010 and saw several vacant storefronts pop up downtown.

"We believe in small-town America," said Stanley Lombardo, a village trustee. "I think it's coming back in leaps and bounds."

Elements of the turnaround include a new Sept. 11 memorial with rusted pillars from the Ground Zero site, a newly completed recreation center and more than 250 volunteers who signed up for such things as beautification and senior center committees and the fire department.

Also, property taxes were cut a combined 4 percent over the past two years.

"When I was a kid we had nothing -- no facility. Now I see a lot of kids here instead of hanging out in the streets like we did," said Richard Kappel, 29, director of the recreation center that was completed last July.

The center draws about 100 local children weekly for sports and events. Resident Diego Cortazar, 49, said his two children participate weekly in flag football and T-ball.

Cortazar, a contractor, decided to get involved as a volunteer; he helps coach flag football.

"The village is very, very committed to the kids," he said. "And I'm happy, like any dad, that we can do something, too."

Raymond Taliercio, dockmaster of the village boat basin and a foundation member, said East Rockaway residents have started to take pride in their neighborhood again after seeing new endeavors such as the involvement of local Boy Scout troops with Operation Splash. The nonprofit works toward cleaning Long Island shores, and the Scouts wanted to help cut down on trash dumped in storm sewers that bleed out to Hewlett Bay. They installed medallions on each sewer to help create awareness about water pollution.

"It's all about the heart of this village," Taliercio said. "The spirit is contagious."

The board is hoping the efforts to revitalize downtown East Rockaway will attract new businesses and help sustain ones already established. Vincenza Gaffikin, a manager of the restaurant Francesca's, said she noticed the Lenahan administration has had more regular contact with her restaurant and with other local business owners.

This weekend's annual Stars and Stripes Festival is a celebration of East Rockaway and the efforts to revitalize the area. The board raised $25,000 from donations and grants for fireworks, dance performance and games.

"All of us are just regular, blue-collar guys," Lombardo said of the board. "We were losing our way, but now we're back."

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