Activism: On the Waterfront

It’s a balmy autumn afternoon in Greenpoint, and Willie “the Barber” Studioso is touring the waterfront in his Thunderbird. When he gets to the remains of the India Street Pier, he waves a finger toward a spot in the swirling currents where, in the wee hours of October 14, the concrete gave way and sent fisherman Jozef Milek to his death. Willie shakes his head: “I used to see his wife bring him beer and sandwiches.”

Right now, as it sags, broken, into the East River, the pier – to all but a few bass fishermen – is little more than a pitiful reminder of Brooklyn waterfront’s vibrant past. The 88-year-old retired barber also seems like a holdover from a bygone borough, but the plan he’s spearheading is very much a part of the new Brooklyn.

A founder of the almost-200-member Friends of the India Street Pier, Willie is trying to get the dilapidated structure rebuilt as a recreational facility on a par with Long Island City’s 49th Avenue Pier.

Studioso founded his organization in 1995 to stop carjackers from dumping their stripped booty off the end of the pier. Last year, the cause expanded when a twenty-foot section of concrete splashed into the river, taking seven people with it (all were rescued). A razor-wire-topped fence was erected, but that didn’t deter fishermen like Milek. Nor did Willie’s hand-written warning signs.

After Milek’s body was found, the Friends held a rally. “Willie is one of a core of people who literally risk their lives to have access to that pier,” says local City Councilman Ken Fisher, who believes that the dormant waterfront is ripe for a good idea. “Somebody is going to light a match,” Fisher says, “and one of these firecrackers is going to go off. Once the first project takes hold, it will get them all going.”

Willie could be the one who makes it happen. Earlier this year, the India Street Pier was included on a state-mandated open-space plan, a crucial step in preserving the area for recreation. Now, when he’s not out crabbing, bluefishing, and watching over his fellow anglers down at the end of India Street, Willie is trying to get the Friends incorporated as a nonprofit organization. “When that happens, we will have a storefront, computers, the works,” he says. “Before I die, this is what I want to do – I want to make my peace with God.”

Activism: On the Waterfront