From asbestos factory to Wal-Mart: the journey of Angelo Corradino and Manville

A bowling alley named Tenpin Lanes stands in the center of Manville, between a pair of Superfund sites that are the remnants of the town’s bulldozed factory era.

The alley for years has been a source of entertainment and relaxation for the hard luck blue collar work force here, and for Angelo Corradino, the borough’s longest serving mayor who straddled the transition Manville made from factories to shopping malls, and who earlier this month lost by 78 votes in his bid for a fifth term in office.

An old high school linebacker and longsuffering Jets and Mets fan who spent 19 years as an elected official in Manville, the past 16 of those as mayor, Corradino says rumors that he wanted to go full time with an annual salary of $95,000 sank his chances of re-election.

"If I had heard what they were spreading around out there about me, I’d want to vote against me too," he said.

But on another level, Corradino, a Democrat who lost to family friend and Republican Lillian Zuza, knew his time in office had come to an end. And though the revitalization of a key piece of Manville’s downtown remains on the south side of town, he accomplished much of what he set out to do, and takes pride in Manville’s recognition of his work.

"Angelo was a wonderful mayor," said Zuza, who says she was stunned in the VFW Hall on Election Night as she received news of her triumph over Corradino. "I really applaud him for all he has done. He is a true leader. It’s unfortunate, but somebody had to run and somebody else had to run, and I will never forget all the things he has done."

Zuza and her late husband, Sheriff’s ID Officer and Manville Borough Councilman Joseph Zuza, used to play Trivial Pursuit at their home with Angelo and Ida Corradino, and they remained friends, though politics drove them into opposite corners of the two-square mile borough.

"My husband ran with Angelo for council," said Zuza. "They had their differences on the council, Joe eventually switched parties, and Angelo understood. Politics makes strange bedfellows."

FLOYD

The lead negotiator in the deal that brought Wal-Mart and other chain stores to town to replace the retired Johns-Manville asbestos plant, Corradino built a reputation as a boots-on-the-ground executive who used his political skills to get things done across the aisle.
"He was successful because he got along with people," said Dale Florio, chair of the Somerset County Republican Party. "We always found it tough to run against him, which we did, while realizing that we could be friends with a man who is very affable and very active in local organizations."
Corradino came up in politics the Manville way, which is to say, hard and often in your face, where people spill into the small council chamber and delight in schooling public officials in the merits of humility and constituent service.
"You’re not the mayor of Manville, you’re the mayor of Wal-Mart," business owner Oscar Gonzalez shouted at Corradino at a council meeting in the late 1990s, as the borough anticipated the early construction phase of the controversial new marketplace.
"I understand your problem," the mayor on another occasion told a distressed citizen, a resident of Gress Street where someone was running a construction business out of his home.
"No, you don’t understand!" the citizen screamed at the mayor with an outraged crowd behind him.
Corradino heard them all out, one by one, even as others who’d run with him or formed part of his alliance on the council at one year or another were beaten or found themselves drained of spirit in the face of the town’s most partisan political gut-fighters. As it is in Hamilton or Hoboken, politics is passionate in Manville.
Corradino kept smiling and shaking hands, and arguing.
"I demand an apology," a resident said to the mayor after an especially grueling campaign in which the mayor went into attack mode.
"Well, you’re not going to get one," Corradino shot back.
In the end most of the people who’d opened up on him at meetings or quietly cultivated the belief that he didn’t do enough or go far enough, or have a big enough vision, or kept them closed out of key talks involving the town, conceded overall he’d done well by Manville. That’s an opinion held by Zuza, and even those longer-term opponents who spearheaded efforts to get rid of him long ago and rejoiced in the outcome of this last election.
In part it was the recognition that Corradino put in the time and kept the town on good financial footing, in part an acknowledgment of his friendly relations with key Republicans like Gov. Christie Whitman, U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, and Assemblymen Pete Biondi and Kip Bateman. Certainly his presence at City Hall as Manville changed created a solid connection.
Arguably most significantly it was the sense among the people that Corradino went all out when Hurricane Floyd ravaged the borough in 1999. His response to that disaster, when Corradino took three months off from his job to focus on Manville, convinced even his detractors that he had a knack not only for rolling up his sleeves and feeling people’s pain – but for making his political contacts pay off.
"Anything we asked for he went out and got," said political nemesis and Red Cross worker Michael Fiure. "We needed him to do things to help residents, and he did. He has a tremendous number of political contacts – on both sides of the political aisle. Just as one example, he got 15 families into hotels. We got county funding and Red Cross funding.
"You have to give the devil his due,"added the Republican. "He did an excellent job. I think Angelo evolved into a pretty good politician. It took a while, but he got there."
Situated between the Raritan and Millstone rivers, the borough experienced two floods in 1996-97, but they were nothing like what occurred in 1999, when Floyd ripped through the town and impacted 1,400 homes and 80% of the borough’s businesses.
"It was the most devastating thing I ever saw in my life," said Corradino.
Water stopped at the doorstep of Wal-Mart and A&P, shortly after those buildings were completed.
"Floyd gave us a sense of neighbor helping neighbor and gave us strength to recover," the mayor said of the townspeople’s efforts to come back from the brink. "The county was excellent. They helped get debris off the curbs. I didn’t want people looking at their lives out on the streets. (Then Gov. James) McGreevey cut aid down to $1 million. A lot of people didn’t have flood insurance. I was out there. I took my lumps, and concentrated on the recovery."
MAN OF THE PEOPLE

If there was a public pattern, it was Corradino: man of the people. His positive disposition and seemingly genuine enjoyment of others made him tough to dislike. Even when he was beaming on the front page of the Manville News alongside Ronald McDonald, those residents doubtful of a full-blown corporate solution to Manville’s economic woes couldn’t resist a smile. There was suffering in the mayor’s face, that bespoke of something akin to the hard times the town endured, but there was also vibrant good-humor and spirit and a survivor’s tenacity, and the town liked to believe it also knew something of those qualities.

The son of a laborer and WWII vet, Corradino, no
w 59 and employed by the state Department of Labor, spent eight years putting in 14 hour days as he raised his young family and commuted from Brooklyn to his job at LabCorp in Raritan. Tired of the long hours on the road, he moved to Somerset County in 1983 when the Johns-Manville Asbestos plant, the borough’s namesake and economic backbone for 70 years, had scaled from a onetime workforce of 5,000 down to 400, and was three years away from permanently closing its doors.

Many died of asbestosis, including the father of Glen Gilmore, the mayor of Hamilton Township who grew up in Manville and volunteered on Corradino’s first mayoral campaign.

"Those who worked there had a real pride working at Johns Manville," said Gilmore. "Later in their lives they began to comprehend how devastating and deadly it was."

Survivors considered what might have been their alternatives to the factory, and shrugged.

"I always looked at it this way," said Joe Utasi, who worked at Johns-Manville for 43 years, "It was either there or the coal mine. It wouldn’t have made any difference. Back then there was a problem in every factory. You took a shot wherever you worked. My family moved here from the coal country of Pennsylvania in 1927. We went from black coal to white."

Johns-Manville’s departure left men out of work, suffering from asbestosis and mired in legal battles with their former employer. Some of those who showed up at borough council meetings arrived in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks. The future looked bleak.

"The town had taken on a depressing and defeatist personality," said Corradino. "Frank’s Chicken House was the only reason why people would come to Manville. It was a place for naked dancing, and the previous administration paid $500,000 to get rid of them."

When he attended an out of town hockey game with his sons, he heard someone mention the name "Manville," and he bet the next words would be "Frank’s Chicken House," spoken with derision and laughter, and he was right.

Intent on changing the town, Corradino ran for council at the urging of former Assemblyman Joe Patero. A lifelong Republican, Corradino had shocked the nuns in school in 1960 when he told them Nixon was a better candidate than Kennedy. When he asked Patero if he had to switch parties in order to compete in the traditionally Democratic-controlled Manville, Patero told him it would be nice. Corradino did, and after getting elected to the council, ran for mayor and won, sparking no great celebration.

"The general attitude was becoming mayor of Manville was like becoming captain of the Titanic," Corradino said.

The ADESA car auction company came in the mid-nineties, and occupied a good portion of the old Johns-Manville grounds that were still contaminated and littered with broken down buildings and smokestacks. The Asbestos Hotel was a sagging structure on Brooks Boulevard where the executives housed their offices and a bowling alley. When the Historical Society wanted to save that building as an historical site, Corradino got on the phone with ADESA and said, "Get that building down as quickly as you can."

Most of the rest of the land that remained became the grounds for the Marketplace at Manville.

Corradino’s Republican conqueror, Zuza, whose late husband worked summers at Johns Manville in asbestos pipe and vinyl siding, and who herself worked there a handful of summers, is the first to credit Corradino with guiding the town through the post factory blues. "Wal-Mart and the Marketplace have been wonderful, in no small part because they have created jobs," said the mayor-elect.

Sally Saharko, a longtime citizen watchdog and the founder of TIGER (Truth in Government Expected by Residents), who regularly sparred with the mayor on borough issues, said, "There are more restaurants in town and fewer kids on street corners. Manville kids are humble enough to work in those stores. I absolutely think the Marketplace was a good thing."

Utasi, now 87, likewise believes the Marketplace has greatly benefitted Manville. " I think it was a good idea," said the retired factory worker. "I’m glad they put it there. It gave people in town a short distance to do their shopping."

Not everyone agrees.

Train tracks divide Manville’s Main Street between north and south, and business owners on the south side feared a big strip mall to the north of them would kill Main Street and the smaller strip of parking lot bound stores on the south side known as the Rustic Mall. While few would glorify the factory era, there were union jobs in the previous century and the union took care of its own. People could actually build their lives up around the work they did at the plant. Lacking the particular pride that came from the factory, Manville under Corradino could summon no vision bigger than a strip mall anchored by Wal-Mart no less, or so said longtime Corradino foe Oscar Gonzalez.

"I don’t believe in the big Wal-Mart credo," said Gonzalez, who owns a discount mattress store on the south side. "I think we should have had some light industry. Something scientific maybe. So you’ve got a Wal-Mart. Whoop-de-doo. It’s another strip mall. It doesn’t turn any heads. Has it enhanced the town? Somewhat. The businesses that have survived have done well. Could have we done better? Yes."

Corradino stands by the mall, for a couple of reasons. It’s a sizeable rateable that to date has helped defray municipal costs for residents, it provides jobs, gives the young people a destination, and has enabled Manville to move forward.

"What the Marketplace did was restore the pride of this town," said the retiring mayor. "Most of Johns-Manville’s workers were retirement age anyway. People developed a new pride."

For years, the Polish, Russian, Czech, Hungarian and Rumanian immigrants who composed much of the labor force at Johns Manville had no place in town to shop beyond the old country speciality stores. They would go to nearby Somerville to stroll the sidewalks and sometimes endure the cold stares of those working class Americans who had been here a generation or two longer. The demographics have changed since those times, and the newest and largest growing population is Latino. No factory whistle sounds now, and the workers scatter mornings in all directions for jobs. But they have a single gathering place for large-scale shopping and entertainment, and that’s new for the town that broke away from Hillsborough in 1929.

"You have shops, a movie theater, restaurants. You have your year 2000 mall and you still have your Main Street, USA," said Corradino. "Everybody has to realize the main economy not only in New Jersey but around the country is selling."

Even as the borough was climbing off the canvas with the new Marketplace, Manville took another hit when residents on the southeast side of town found creosote seeping from underground lagoons into their basements – the deadly residue from the Federal Creosote plant that once stood on that site. In the late 1990s, the federal government declared the area the town’s second Superfund site, permanently evacuated the residents of 14 homes, and began the years-long cleanup process. The old Rustic Mall between the embattled neighborhood and Main Street gamely made a stand but eventually couldn’t last on creosote-contaminated property.

That left a bombed out parking lot and a severe shortage of parking spaces behind the store fronts on Main Street that depended on those spaces for patronage. The Marketplace to the north of town hadn’t sunk all of the old stores as many had believed it would but now there was another cri
sis, and the longtime local merchants were nervous.

Gonzalez was never convinced Corradino worked hard enough to preserve the borough’s traditional shopping culture, though he acknowledges that the mayor helped secure grant money for downtown revitalization projects.

"Where we should have had a mayor and council looking out for what’s good for the community, it didn’t go that way," Gonzalez said. "It was what was good for the developer."

The Rustic Mall became a redevelopment zone, which Gonzalez said is one step away from eminent domain, because developers can pick and choose who they want to go after among the 21 surviving businesses that fall along the redevelopment fault line.

"One lawyer we talked to said the old shopping center was worth X amount of dollars," said Gonzalez. "But if you eliminate the businesses on Main Street, that block the strip mall that could be recreated back there, the shopping center becomes worth a lot more. Up to the election, the plan was for mixed-use and housing, etc. But now we don’t know what’s going to happen there. Angelo had done everything without consulting the council."

A former member of the Somerset County Planning Board, Zuza refused to make the business owners’ protest slogans and the longstanding hostilities between Gonzalez and Corradino part of her mayoral campaign. Instead she attended meetings personally and came to roughly the same conclusion about the redevelopment of the Rustic Mall area.

"Every single meeting I went to on the Rustic Mall, there was no report from the council," she said. "When I would go and ask again, there was still no report. The council and the public were being shut out of the meetings. The process has been that secret. Angelo accomplished so much, but when it came to his fourth term, he wasn’t up to his usual standard. As mayor I want to make sure the council and the public are part of the process."

In a darkened airport hanger in Hillsborough, on the southern border of Manville, a man in a zip-up jacket and ballcap emerged from underneath the nosecone of a small plane. The manager of Central Jersey Regional Airport, Steve Richard fought Saharko and the neighbors for years as he and his business partner Joe Horner attempted to expand the airport only to meet with an intransigent Manville population led by Saharko.

"I don’t want any jets in that airport," Corradino once told Richard, leaving the flyer aghast and wondering if he were in the right business. He loved flying too much to abandon the airport, but had to reluctantly accept that he wouldn’t be able to grow the facility.

"I think he was here for too long," Richard said last week of Corradino. "These politicians get in there and after a while they begin to think their power is unlimited, and to a certain extent, they’re right. These guys are boiling us alive in this state."

But Richard couldn’t resist complimenting Corradino.

"In terms of knowing which doors to go knock on, yeah, he was good," he said. "He knew where to go. I’ll give him that."

Even Gonzalez couldn’t help but admit, "I like Angelo. But remember, there are 95 businesses on Main Street. We have built consumer confidence here. In order to survive, we have to be very straight. And here Angelo’s publicly fighting and arguing with us. It hurt him."

Saharko, a hard-boiled former Sister of Charity who learned civics growing up in Kearny and teaching school in Newark, occasionally attended borough council meetings wearing a cape emblazoned with the word TRUTH. She gave Corradino hell for years publicly, but was an ardent supporter of his in the voting booth.

"I can’t complain about what he did in the town," Saharko said. "Politicians get secretive. They get like a turtle, and I always expect honesty. If you begin to be secretive then you lose faith. I didn’t see that kind of leadership with a fist from Angelo, but he was all right. He was a good mayor."

When her son, Peter, campaigned with Corradino against a challenge by former Mayor Rudy Nowack, Republicans were astounded that Saharko’s son would be aligned with the man she regularly fought. Sister Sally told them they might as well know that Corradino had her support.

Now it’s Zuza’s turn to run the town, and she remembers when her law enforcement officer husband struggled for life as a double amputee and Corradino went to the hospital and spent hours with him, and when he died the mayor of Manville was there five minutes later, and all the side streets were closed on the day of the funeral so the procession could pass, and the police officers and sheriff’s deputies stood at attention, and in the church Corradino gave the eulogy.

That was two years ago.

MANVILLE MOVES ON

Last Saturday afternoon, Tenpin’s was packed. Every lane was taken and Aretha Franklin’s "Respect" blared from the jukebox. A green neon sign over the bar reads, "Cerveza," and the pool tables are well worn.

"Yeah, it’s busy on weekends," said the barkeep. "Not so much on the weekdays. I could probably go to sleep for five hours and wouldn’t have to worry because no one would show up."

But Wednesday nights still bring in the locals for league play to the bowling alley stranded just south of the tracks and north of the old shopping center that was demolished as part of the EPA’s cleanup efforts.

"Bowling alleys are very scarce," said Zuza, considering Tenpin Alley’s precarious spot in the landscape of Manville. "We’re going to rebuild that bowling alley. This is a big deal. And, of course, as we look at that site where the Rustic Mall was, we have to make sure there’s adequate parking, and good mixed use."

Corradino in his office at City Hall remembered how his son won a bowling championship once, one of his memories of Manville, personal interspersed with political.

"He’s my political enemy," Fiure said of Corradino, "but my personal friend."

For Corradino those dimensions somehow never seem far from each other, if separate at all. "People tell me they don’t like politics, they don’t like politicians," he said. "But I’m a politician, and I’m proud of it. And I love politics."

He tried to move up in the previous decade, in a failed bid for freeholder in the Republican stronghold of Somerset County. Buried at the polls on Election Day, Corradino still salvages a victory from that other political loss. Prior to his running, three percent of county taxes went to open space, which, in his view, didn’t help the built-out Borough of Manville.

"God knows we need open space, but we need money for our urban centers," he’d said to the chagrin of members of his own party who in towns like Hillsborough were running on local campaign platforms of more matching open space dollars from the county.

When he raised the issue, Corradino said Republicans kicked in more revitalization dollars to the urban areas to order to take the teeth out of his platform. It worked, he said, in contributing to his defeat; but Manville received more money, and does to this day, he noted proudly.

"My running for freeholder accomplished something positive for Manville," said Corradino, who would go on to serve another eight years as mayor.

In his office there are pictures of him with Manville men and women from the past, his wife and grandchildren, and of him with world leaders, notably Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. Displayed most prominently is a quote by h
is favorite president and – along with Clinton – his political idol, Abraham Lincoln. It’s a quote he said he has cherished and leaned on while in office these last 16 years.

It reads: "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference." From asbestos factory to Wal-Mart: the journey of Angelo Corradino and Manville