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Berger’s Burg: Whitestone shop, bank reflect community changes

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In their place are new supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, a bagel and appetizing store, etc. This dizzying evolution has changed people's shopping habits and terminated long-time relationships with merchants and vendors. I guess change is part of our way of life, but I will never get used to it.Outgoing: One subtraction from my Whitestone neighborhood was the Clearview Shoe Repair Shop on Utopia Parkway. Tony Francica, who ran the one-man business, had been there since May 1954, before the vast urbanization of the area and that of many other local retail stores, and a short time after the completion of the mammoth, 1,788-unit Clearview Gardens Cooperative."It was mostly new establishments around the shop and me," said Tony, "and we felt like pioneers."Tony, who was born in Calabria, Italy in 1931, came to the United States at the age of 17 with his mother, Concetta, three brothers and a sister. His father, Frank, was already in this country and had prepared for their arrival.The family lived in Flushing and young Tony attended Newtown High School. Since he spoke no English, he was assigned to an Italian language class, where he learned to read, write and speak English. He was taught the shoe-making trade from his father's friend who was a cobbler. Tony spent three hours every day after school learning the business. In 1949 he opted to go to work because of the pressing financial needs of the family.In 1952 Tony was drafted and sent to war-torn Korea as an infantry machine-gunner. He quickly rose through the ranks to mess sergeant and was honorably discharged after the war. Tony then worked for a Forest Hills shoemaker.In 1954 he heard about a store vacancy on Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, and he immediately rented the space. At that time the Clearview Gardens Cooperative was new, and the only stores on the long block were Daitch's supermarket, Ling's Chinese Restaurant, a pharmacy, a small deli, a temporary Hebrew School (awaiting the completion of the Clearview Jewish Center a block away), a liquor store, a dentist's office, a children's haberdashery and a kosher butcher. (Every Friday night Tony was called on to turn off the lights at the Hebrew School.) The Whitestone and Bay Terrace Shopping centers were not yet built and there were many vacant stores waiting to be leased.In 1962 Tony met and married beautiful Dora Cerosimo, who was born in the same locale in Italy as Tony. The happy couple moved to Flushing and had three sons, Frank, Anthony Jr. and John. Tony has three grandchildren, Kasey, Christopher and Rebecca.Tony ran the successful business for many years. Three years ago, however, he underwent triple by-pass surgery requiring convalescence for 3 1/2 months. He asked for but was refused a rent waiver during his recuperation.In June his monthly rent had been raised to a level he was not capable of paying, so he had no choice but to sell the store and retire. Tony prided himself on his many loyal customers hailing from all areas in Queens, Great Neck and a move away from Connecticut. He said he will miss them all. Tony, they, Gloria and I will miss you also. Have a happy and healthy retirement.Incoming: It is nice to work in a bank. They have everything you love - money and holidays.If bankers can count, how come they always have 10 windows and only two tellers called Zelda Plotkin and "Next Window?"A woman walked into a bank to cash a check. She is asked to identify herself. The woman looks in the mirror and nods, "It's me, all right!"The first drive-in bank was established so people could show their cars who really owned them.Among the many commercial changes in Queens are the banks. When I was younger, a bank was like the Rock of Gibraltar, permanent, steady and always there to serve you. But the wave of recent mergers has left me wondering when my bank's name will be changed again.I know there is a love-hate relationship with banks - love for when they approve a loan and hate for when they bounce a one-day-late personal check even though you have a savings account large enough to cover the amount, and you are charged a $50 penalty.I deftly wandered into the North Fork Bank, adjacent to Tony's Shoe Repair Shop, for answers. I was met at the door by Frances Fang, the client service representative, who introduced herself and sat me down at her desk. When I informed her that I wanted to interview her, she declined. But my persuasive powers won her over.Ms. Fang said that she was born in China, emigrated to the United States in 1982 and lived in Flushing. She graduated from Manhattan Community College in 1985. Her first job was at a Manhattan Japanese bank where she worked for eight years. She then switched to an EAB Bank, then Citibank and finally to her current position at North Fork (a bank merger). Ms. Fang married in 1990, has one daughter, Christine, and resides in Fresh Meadows."Why all the bank mergers?" I asked."Banks want to get bigger because of the improved services and convenience they offer, such as customers' conducting banking business from many different localities," she replied."I hope these mergers end," I said, "because I hate to have the bank name on my checks changed so often and I want to see you at your desk again next Thursday when I complain again about mergers." I left with both of us smiling.I wish neighborhoods could stay forever, but I know that changes are inevitable. It certainly is good to have additions such as the North Fork Bank; however, I still hate losing stores like Tony's.Reach columnist Alex Berger at timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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