Though he could barely walk, Albert Viviano ambled to protest meetings and rallies in and around Long Branch. Later, when he couldn't walk at all, he rolled to them in his motorized wheelchair, a little American flag in one hand, a placard in the other.
At 93, with his heart slowly giving out, Viviano was motivated by one thing: the right to die in his home.
The city of Long Branch wants that home, one of two dozen converted bungalows local officials have been trying to seize for three years to make way for new development.
The battle continues, but not for Viviano. On Sunday, he died in his bed, two blocks from the boardwalk he cherished, in the neighborhood he had known for 75 years.
"He won," said Viviano's daughter, Estelle Toscano. "My father won because he died in his own house."
It's a refrain heard repeatedly in Viviano's tiny neighborhood, which has become something of a symbol in one of the most closely watched disputes over eminent domain in the nation.
Viviano, who spent his teenage years fitting wheels onto horse-drawn wagons in Newark, was the oldest among the homeowners who have refused to sell to the city. And while it was clear his health was failing, he insisted on attending meetings and rallies, creaky body be damned.
"He just uplifted everyone," said neighbor Lori Ann Vendetti, 45, a member of the coalition opposing Long Branch's plan. "You have some bad days in this fight, and then you'd see Al coming out with the little flags on his wheelchair and the button on his jacket and his poster. It was an inspiration."
What drove Viviano is what drives most of his neighbors: a deep love of Long Branch and a firm belief that government should not have the right to take a home indiscriminately.
"He couldn't believe this could happen in America, how someone who fought in the war, had a business and gave back to his country could just lose his home," Vendetti said. "He was fighting with all his might against that."
The courts, so far, have sided with Long Branch. In June, a Superior Court judge ruled the city was within its right to take the homes along Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue.
The plan calls for the homes to be razed in keeping with a $1 billion redevelopment project that has already transformed parts of the city.
The residents are appealing the June decision, saying they will take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to. They don't want to envision an alternative.
Most of them have been part of the neighborhood for decades. Few knew it as well as Viviano.
"All my life, he's been a fixture there," said William Giordano, 42, whose back yard faces Viviano's home on Marine Terrace. "The neighborhood will never be the same without him."
Like so many in the area, Viviano came from Newark. When people asked what he did for a living, he told them he was a blacksmith. His daughter said that description wasn't quite right, though, because Viviano never worked with a horseshoe in his life.
In his youngest days, before the automobile had infiltrated every part of society, Viviano made and installed wagon wheels while working for his father, Toscano said. Later, he did metalwork on trucks.
The business did well enough to allow Viviano's father to buy the modest three-bedroom bungalow on Marine Terrace in the 1920s. It was a fair-weather place then, with a broad, breeze-catching porch.
The Vivianos would head down from the city on weekends. Until the construction of the Garden State Parkway, it could be a rough trip, the bad roads wreaking havoc on the flimsy inner-tube tires in use at the time.
"He told us they'd always get flat tires, sometimes two or three flats on one trip," Giordano said. "So they'd have to keep pulling over and patch them up."
To Viviano, the journey was worth it. Neighbors said he'd walk the beach - and later the boardwalk - several times a day, chatting with passersby and enjoying the ocean views. With his wife, Mary, he'd sit out on the porch, calling out to neighbors and regaling neighborhood kids with stories.
After retiring 26 years ago, Viviano moved down to Marine Terrace full-time, puttering around in his small basement workshop and dreaming up little inventions. Unsatisfied with a spoon to scoop out jelly from a jar, he hammered out a utensil with a little less swell, his daughter said.
Long before televisions came with shut-off timers, Viviano fashioned one by stripping the timer from his washing machine.
"He had an engineer's mind," said Toscano, who must now decide whether to keep up her father's fight. "He did things to the detail."
And if he didn't get it quite right the first time, he didn't give up.
Friends said he took that spirit into the struggle with Long Branch.
"He loved Long Branch, and he loved his home, and he couldn't see letting anyone take it away from him," said Anna DeFaria, 81, a friend and neighbor. "This fight meant everything to him. He was our rock."
The death of Mary Viviano two years ago coincided with Viviano's own decline in health.
Over time, he traded a cane for a wheelchair and accepted in-home help on a 24-hour basis. Still, the fight to save his home consumed him.
"He would say, 'This is my home. I want to die here,'" DeFaria said.
No one would have blamed Viviano for taking it easy, letting the younger residents take on the city. But Viviano wouldn't have it.
"He could have just given up, but he didn't," said Fifi Vendetti, 77, Lori Vendetti's mother. "He fought hard for our cause. We hope we don't let him down. We hope we win, and we hope he looks down upon us when that happens."
Newark NJ Star-Ledger: http://www.starledger.com