BY HELEN KLEIN
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BENSONHURST — After 33 years as chair of Community Board 11, Bill Guarinello presided over his final board meeting on Thursday, June 8.
It was truly the end of an era, and those who were present during the meeting, at Il Centro, 8711 18th Avenue, were keenly aware of that fact, giving Guarinello, one of the longest-serving chairpeople ever in Brooklyn, a standing ovation just before he oversaw the election that ended his tenure.
For Guarinello, 73, volunteer efforts on behalf of the neighborhood came naturally. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” he told his listeners. Now, after living on the same block his entire life, he has just moved to New Jersey, necessitating his resignation from the board, but, as he acknowledged, he would have been term-limited out anyway after one more two-year term.
“I’m a community organizer,” he told the Eagle during a wide-ranging interview. “I’ve always looked at how to make the community better, and we did.”
Guarinello’s goal in all he did was improving the quality of life for residents. “That’s the reason why I stayed,” he said.
As board chair, Guarinello remembered, he led efforts in his area of southwest Brooklyn to fight illegal curb cuts, which cut down on already scarce parking throughout the community, as well as to combat the plague of graffiti. “We did some really great cleanups,” he told the Eagle.
In addition, he said, the board under his leadership had advocated for funding for local schools and youth groups, as well as for the area’s fair share of city services, and, he added, “We were proponents of the right type of bike lane,” asking, “Where do they make sense? Not just put them in because it’s the politically correct thing to do.
“And we protected our zoning,” Guarinello went on. “We’re a nice board but don’t work us up. When our zoning was tested, it got our backs up.”
Over his tenure, the neighborhoods that comprise CB 11 – Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend and Mapleton – have undergone a sea change. “We became a melting pot,” Guarinello said. “Forty years ago, it was a Jewish and Italian area. Now, we’ve become a very diverse community, and everyone gets along.”
Beyond the board’s achievements, Guarinello has become legendary in the area for running fast, efficient meetings. That was brought up during the meeting by several speakers, including Guarinello himself, who said that, while the board welcomed members of the public to speak about issues of importance to them, they were discouraged from repeating what was already said.
“We’d ask the most eloquent person in the group to speak, then ask [the others], ‘Do you have something to add?’” he recalled.
As a result, meetings ended quickly. Starting promptly at 7 pm, they were usually over in under an hour, which sometimes tripped up public officials who wanted to address the group but were used to showing up on their own schedule. Once, Guarinello recalled, then-Borough President Howard Golden arrived at 7:55 pm, “and it was just me and [then-District Manager] Howie Feuer.” On another occasion, a mayoral candidate who was introducing himself at all the community boards in the city “was just coming out of the Battery Tunnel” when the meeting ended.
“It’s not that we don’t do things,” Guarinello said. “We’re efficient.”
That efficiency will live on forever at Lioni’s Heroes on 15th Avenue, whose owner Paul DiSpirito, a former CB 11 member, has named a sandwich after Guarinello. “In Bensonhurst, it’s said you didn’t really make it till a sandwich is named after you,” DiSpirito wryly noted. The Bill G. – prosciutto, mozzarella, fresh peppers, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic glaze – is served up with the following warning: “Order it fast. It may be gone quicker than one of his meetings.”
Guarinello, who was appointed to the board in 1984, and became chair in 1990, has an extensive resume of community service. Besides being chair of CB 11, he headed up the Brooklyn Remembers committee, which erected the first 9/11 memorial in the city on Bay Ridge’s 69th Street Pier in 2005 after raising about $200,000, and was chair of St. Bernadette Catholic Academy, in Dyker Heights.
“That’s my parish,” Guarinello added. “I’ve done that now for the past seven years since it became an academy.”
He was also a member of the Board of Guardians of the Cathedral Club, which its website describes as “the primary Catholic lay organization within the Diocese of Brooklyn.”
He is also chair of the Fort Hamilton Citizens Action Committee, which advocated for the fort, the last remaining active military base in New York City, at times when the federal government considered shutting it down.
During the last BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure commission), Guarinello said, “We didn’t get on the list,” maybe due to a white paper the committee had compiled “covering all the reasons why Fort Hamilton should stay open.” That white paper, he said, is updated regularly, “So we’re always prepared.” The committee meets about three times a year; Guarinello still serves as its chair.
Professionally, Guarinello also worked for the public good, beginning with HeartShare Human Services as a social worker in 1970 and working his way up to become the organization’s president, a post he retired from at the end of 2022.
Beyond advocating for HeartShare clients and generally for individuals with developmental disabilities, over his career, Guarinello also found himself advocating for the workers who cared for them, through a group he helped found, the New York Integrated Network, which he also chaired.
But, it’s the stories of the people he’s touched that bring home the effect of his life’s work. Once, during a hospital stay, Guarinello recounted, a nurse caring for him, when she found out that he was associated with HeartShare, told him that, thanks to the agency’s efforts, her autistic grandson had “gone from non-verbal to verbal in six months.”
On another occasion, a call came through for him at HeartShare from a foster care child who had been his client years earlier. “He asked for me,” Guarinello said. “That makes your day.”
“I realized the impact we were making on people,” Guarinello added.
He credits his mother with nurturing in him his dedication to helping others. “My mother always taught us to help our neighbors,” he said. Therefore, as a child, he was encouraged to do errands for others, but never allowed to take money for doing them. “It was a service,” he stressed. “That was always instilled in me.”
But, it wasn’t just his mother. As a teen, Guarinello attended Xaverian High School, where, every Friday night, he said, students would “pass out goodies to veterans who were suffering.”
“My mantra is to treat everyone the way you want to be treated,” he said.
Guarinello, who also served in the National Guard, will mark his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Donna this year. They have one daughter, Alison, and one granddaughter, Gianna.
Guarinello has been a stalwart in the neighborhood, said Laurie Windsor, who was elected chair of the board during Guarinello’s final meeting.
“He’s done so much that nobody knew about,” she reminisced. “That’s just his way. He’s not out for publicity or to get kudos. It’s bittersweet. I don’t want to see him go but I’m happy to see him retire and enjoy his life.”
“He has taught me to always fight the good fight,” noted CB 11 District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia. “He has been a unifier, advocate and above all led this board with dignity and respect. I will forever be grateful for his guidance, commitment, leadership and his expeditious board meetings!”
Howard Feuer, who was district manager of CB 11 for several years at the beginning of Guarinello’s tenure as chair, said during a phone interview that Guarinello had been “a very big advocate” for the community. “He was very strong to make sure residents got what they needed. And, he was very much hands-on.
“We were friends more than I was district manager and he was chair,” Feuer added, “and we spent a lot of time together, not only at meetings but at various occasions.”
Former Assemblymember Peter Abbate also considers Guarinello, who is his son’s godfather, a friend. “We’ve known each other 40 years, and he was my conscience and I was his at times,” he said. “He never came empty-handed to a meeting. He was always ready to fight for something.”
With all his achievements, and despite all the accolades, Guarinello remains modest.
“I’m blessed,” Guarinello said. “It’s been a rich life.”