Queens, N.Y.

Jake Bono’s grandfather arrived in the United States in 1929 with the same dreams that all immigrants do:  He would be able to work hard, make a living, and own his property.

Grandfather Bono, who emigrated from Sicily, started his own sawdust company in 1933, one of the first businesses established in the Willetts Point neighborhood in the borough of Queens, N.Y.  Known mostly to locals as the “Iron Triangle,” the company fits neatly into a bustling area of industrial and auto parts businesses.[1]

Bono Sawdust Company manufactures different types of sweeping compound—all environmentally friendly—to help absorb oil spills, as well as airborne bacteria and dust.  They supply sawdust to auto part suppliers, janitorial and building companies, and horse farms for animal bedding.  The business  thrives in a community where auto parts are a major part of the local economy.

“My grandfather helped to build this economy, and he helped build America,” said Jake Bono, now president of Bono Sawdust.

Over the past 70 years, like many businesses in Willetts Point, Bono Sawdust has become a place where newcomers to America can get steady employment and settle into their new lives with the support of the community.  Currently, a third of the company’s employees are new immigrants.

“We have one guy from Ecuador, who we helped by sponsoring him to come here and work,” boasts Jake Bono.  “We also had a guy from India who worked here for several years, but he was able to learn English and got a better job driving a cab.  I had no problem with that, because I would never want to stand in the way of someone else’s prosperity.”

It’s unfortunate that Bono’s philosophy on prosperity does not translate to the City of New York and its developer friends.

In November 2004, in what Jake Bono calls a “big slap in the face,” the City of New York sought to turn Willetts Point into a massive redevelopment area where luxury condominiums and high-end retail shops would replace the thriving Iron Triangle businesses—and the City Council was not afraid to abuse its power of eminent domain to make that happen.

The City expressed its heightened desire to “redevelop” the 48-acre area east of Shea Stadium[2]— which happens to be home to about 225 businesses and 1,300 employees.[3] 

It’s also no surprise that developers have coveted this area for decades, given its close proximity to two major airports and numerous highways.

Bono has joined the Willetts Point Businessmen’s Group to fight what is happening in cities all across the country: the use of eminent domain to push out thriving small businesses in order to make way for richer people, paying more in taxes.

The proposed luxury redevelopment would mean, of course, that businesses such as Bono Sawdust would have to move out.  But the company is a lot more than a parcel of land—it symbolizes the American dream of one immigrant, who has helped many other immigrants realize theirs.

Perhaps most importantly of all, says Jake Bono, “It would mean that we would all be out of work.”  The businesses in Willetts Point would quite literally have nowhere to go if forced out by eminent domain.  “There are no empty lots; nothing for the City to give us as a relocation place in New York.”

Jake Bono says that his grandfather would be devastated by the fact that his grandson is now fighting to keep property that has been in the family for three generations.  Jake knows one thing that all American property owners know, but greedy cities and developers do not:  “You have nothing to work for if you have don’t have property.”

Hoping to pass on the philosophy to his immigrant employees that property rights are the foundation of all our rights, Jake Bono is committed to preventing the City from invoking eminent domain.  He is joined by several other Willetts Point business owners, who will continue to be featured in CastleWatch’s Neighborhood Series.

[1] Note: All quotations in this article are from a personal interview with Jake Bono, conducted by Melanie Harmon on October 11, 2006.

[2] David Lombino, “Mayor to redevelop Iron Triangle in bid to transform Flushing,” New York Sun, January 25, 2006.

[3] Tom Angotti, “Willetts Point: A Defense,” Gotham Gazette, April 10, 2006.