A fraternal fadeout
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
BY NICHOLAS HIRSHON, DAILY NEWS WRITER
A bronze statue of an elk, now green due to decades of oxidation, stands guard in Elmhurst in front of a landmark commonly known as Elks Lodge No. 878.
For generations, the clubhouse hosted charitable and social gatherings until the Elks, whose dwindling membership no longer warranted such a vast space, sold it to a church a few years ago.
The Elks still meet next-door at a smaller facility. But many point to the group's exit from its Queens Blvd. base as a sign of a borough-wide downturn in fraternal organizations and service clubs.
Once signatures of many tight-knit communities across Queens, groups such as the Elks - known for camaraderie and charity work - are struggling to lure new blood and hang on to meeting spots.
"It's quite a noble institution that has seen better days," said Elks leader Lawrence Contratti, 67, of Long Island City.
Elks aren't alone. Other fraternal groups like the Masons are struggling, too, as are service clubs such as the Kiwanis, the Lions and the Rotary.
Locals fear that the weakening of such organizations diminishes civic pride, as does the demise of other middle-class institutions being profiled in the Vanishing Vintage Queens series.
"If Kiwanis Clubs weren't in some of these communities, I think the communities will fail," said Joe Aiello, 54, who runs the Glendale Kiwanis Club.
"You won't have the Halloween parades. You won't have community days. How about all these families we feed on Thanksgiving and Christmas?"
Members say many factors contribute to the woes of the groups, which rely on volunteers hoping to better their neighborhoods.
Many immigrants - a large part of Queens' population - don't feel an attachment to the borough and others are too busy to get involved.
And as the ranks of members evaporate, so does the positive influence of a club in its community.
"If we had twice as many members, we could raise twice as many dollars," said Frances Scarantino, president of the Rotary Club of Southwest Queens.
Fewer members mean a decrease in blood drives, food pantries and scholarships.
"There's just a range of little projects helping people in need that if they're not being met by Lions or Rotary Clubs, they might go unmet," said Peter Lynch, executive director of Lions Clubs International.
Others connect the downfall of groups such as the Freemasons to a suspicion of their rituals, like secret handshakes and passwords, plus meetings guarded by sword-wielding "tilers."
But the organization suffers mostly from its lack of recruiting, said Mark Tabbert, a Freemason who wrote the 2005 book "American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities."
"The fraternity got so comfortable and so large and they just assumed everyone would join," said Tabbert, also the collections director at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Virginia.
Optimists contend the groups are down but not out.
Some members are calling on the city and state to make their dues tax-deductible and exempt the fraternal organizations from onerous real estate taxes.
They all bemoan the trend of less community involvement.
"Does it leave a void? I think inevitably it does," said Skip L'Heureux of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Hill-Woodhaven.