<b>Immortalizing a Crusader Who Wielded a Mighty Pen</b>
By ANDY NEWMAN
<i>The New York Times</i>
November 4, 2006
Yesterday was a big day in Bensonhurst. A block of Bay 26th Street was renamed Herb Berman Way.
No, not Herb Berman the failed 2001 candidate for city comptroller. No one is clamoring to name a street after him. Besides, he’s still alive.
And not Herb Berman the late founder of the Queens College Center for Jewish Studies.
The honoree was Herb Berman, crusading publisher of The Brooklyn Graphic, long Bensonhurst’s leading, which is to say only, weekly newspaper.
Herb Berman, who tamed the Killer Pillar and drove the rats from Tobacco Road. Herb Berman, who quieted the screech of the elevated train and stopped its nuts and bolts from raining down on the heads of pedestrians on 86th Street. Herb Berman, who helped find a missing 9-year-old girl by putting her photograph on the front page of his paper.
Herb Berman, who, when the Temple Sons of Israel was destroyed by arson, led a campaign to raise $40,000 for its rebuilding. Herb Berman, who dodged bullets at the Battle of the Bulge and grappled with hot lead at The Brooklyn Eagle.
That Herb Berman.
“Then there was the time he got a liver for a girl,” Mr. Berman’s longtime office manager, Vivien Ciaffone, recalled at the renaming ceremony. “That was before they were doing so many operations.”
For nearly 40 years, speaker after speaker testified yesterday, Mr. Berman fought the battles of a community with a rare combination of fire and zaniness. And for that, they said, he is at least as qualified to have a street named after him as any of the hundreds of other New Yorkers accorded the honor over the years.
Mr. Berman’s associate publisher, Vincent Badalamenti, reminded listeners of the train stanchion in the middle of 86th Street — the Killer Pillar — into which countless motorists crashed.
“We would get death after death,” Mr. Badalamenti recalled. “It was killing the people. Berman had connections. He let the city know what was happening. They put in a blinking light, a lousy $100 blinking light. And we’ve been saving lives for years.”
When building demolition and excavation along Cropsey Avenue flooded the street with rats, Mr. Badalamenti said, it was Mr. Berman who dubbed the stretch Tobacco Road and pressured the city to get rid of them.
In the 1970s, a loudmouthed postman and gadfly named Carmine Santa Maria used to badger Mr. Berman about the noise of the elevated train. Mr. Berman gave him a job. For the next 28 years, Mr. Santa Maria wrote a column, “The Big Screecher’s News and Noise,” building a journalism career out of haranguing the New York City Transit Authority.
“We got a lot of things accomplished,” Mr. Santa Maria recalled. “We got ring-damped wheels — we got those installed.”
Mr. Berman founded The Graphic in 1955. For much of its history, it occupied the upper floor of a long two-story building clad in unfashionable dark-blue metal panels at 86th and Bay 26th Streets. Downstairs was a Chinese restaurant.
In 1992, Mr. Berman sold the paper to Courier-Life Publications, which operates a chain of weeklies around Brooklyn from its offices in Sheepshead Bay. The Graphic’s old office on 86th Street became a karate school, and then a finance company. Now it is empty. The vacant windows look down at the new street sign bearing Mr. Berman’s name.
The Courier-Life chain, meanwhile, was bought several weeks ago by a media conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
The Graphic is still published every week, but Mr. Badalamenti said it suffered somewhat from having its heart elsewhere.
When Mr. Berman died a year ago today at age 80, Mr. Santa Maria wasted little time. He prevailed upon the local councilman, Domenic M. Recchia Jr., to nominate the street for renaming.
In May, Mr. Berman was one of 52 people granted his own New York City street, among them Nicky Antico Jr., a city road worker killed by a hit-and-run driver; Carmelo Tirone, who ran a shoe repair shop on Staten Island; and Marlon Bustamante, an Army specialist killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
Mr. Berman’s son, Jonathan, a filmmaker, spoke briefly yesterday as a portrait of his father, a handsome, silver-haired man with questioning eyes, peered from the lectern.
“One of the things I learned from him is how to take a small story and make it big,” Jonathan Berman said. “In retrospect, there are no small stories; they’re all big stories. It’s just about where your heart is.”
He paused, as people in Bensonhurst do every few minutes. The elevated train was going by. It was loud enough, but not at all screechy.
“Thank you for coming today,” said Herb Berman’s son.