Back to the Old Neighborhood: The Grandmother of Loisaida Fights to Keep Her Title, November 1991

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When Fernando Ferrer visited PS 134’s community meeting last February, Carmen Pabon wanted to ask him what he was going to do about Loisada’s antiquated voting machines. But the panel of speakers repeatedly passed her over, calling on others who hadn’t been in the neighborhood as long.

Pabon, a well-known rabble-rouser and self-described “hellraiser,” suspected the panel, which included Councilmember Margarita Lopez, of conspiring against her. Fed up, she rose to reprimand Lopez: “This is not fair. Remember, we put you over here. And now you’re turning your back to me?” When Ferrer later came out to take a break after speaking, she was waiting outside for him. He told her not to worry, that he’d get to work finding new machines; she informed him there was a petition already circulating which demanded just that.

Some people call Pabon “Mother Theresa.” Others say she has a “long tongue.” In November 1991, City Limits dubbed Carmen Pabon “The Grandmother of Loisaida.” Ten years later, you’d barely recognize the neighborhood, but one thing hasn’t changed: At 79, Pabon–who tells people she’s 30 years old because, she boasts with a smile and a wink, “nobody believes I’m 79”–is still going to rallies, pasting up flyers, spreading both gossip and useful information, and making trouble in the right places. “She’s a tough cookie. You can always count on her to fight for a good cause,” says Lower East Side organizer Damaris Reyes. “She’s got this really nice smile, then she opens her mouth, and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’”

Pabon, who has lived in the same Lillian Wald apartment for 50 years, continues defending the neighborhood that nourished her even as it disappears. A new apartment complex has recently taken over most of Pabon’s community garden, El Bello Amanecer Boriqueño (the Beautiful Puerto Rican Dawn), on Avenue C. Once a large lot boasting a peach tree, flowers, chickens and plenty of room besides, it’s now a sliver of land with a few sunflowers, mint plants and one beleaguered pine tree.

The kind of development that has downsized her plot has encroached on the rest of the neighborhood, too. Take Charas: as soon as it opened back in 1965, she was doing whatever needed to be done–from cleaning the community center’s building to attending rallies to save it. When asked what she’ll do now that Charas has finally lost its home, Pabon exclaims quickly, “Oh, no! It’s not over.”

While Pabon has seen some improvements, such as reduction in drug-related crimes, she’s not shy about criticizing the economic disparities brought by new neighbors wielding fat wallets. Pabon says her commitment to charity and hard work stems from helping her mother on their farm in Puerto Rico as a child. “I was raised very poor, and I see the injustice done to poor people,” she says.

In 1999, Pabon helped found Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side (PHROLES). Run by and for public housing residents, PHROLES makes sure NYCHA repairs homes promptly, that it hires residents to do construction work and that NYCHA’s plans are fair to tenants. The organization also runs monthly workshops about the city’s housing policies, tenants’ rights, community organizing and job training for teenagers.

As a core PHROLES member, Pabon votes on all major organizational decisions. But in true Pabon form, she also roams the neighborhood spreading the gospel with flyers and door-to-door visits. Native Lower East Sider Katrina Monzón, a 25-year-old Americorps organizer with the tenants’ group Good Old Lower East Side, calls Pabon “a character,” indeed, a central one.

To Monzón, Pabon proves “that activism isn’t solely something for post-collegiate, middle-class people. That it really is grassroots, that everyone has a story to tell that is vital to the community’s growth.”

Back to the Old Neighborhood
Introduction
By Alyssa Katz

December 1996
Empowerment Zones Out
By Gillian Andrews

October 1996
A Teen in Trouble Finds a New Hang
By Megan Costello

August/September 1996
In The East Village, Rehab Is a Family Affair
By Megan Costello

June/July 1996
The Founder of a Needle Exchange Dies from a Dose
By Julia Lyon

February 1990
A Homeless Mother Wrangles with the City
By Megan Costello

August/September 1990
Home Health Workers Take Care of Business
By Abigail Rao

April 1989
People with AIDS Suffer a Second Epidemic: Homelessness
By Daniel Hendrick

June/July 1988
Wronged Residents Form Their Own Salvation Army
By Hilary Russ

November 1987
City Condemns Concourse Apartments
By Seth Solomonow

November 1986
A Union for the Homeless Takes Hold
By Hilary Russ

March 1985
Job Training Opens Doors for the Homeless
By Daniel Hendrick

March 1980
Tenants Turn a Dump Into a Dream
By Larry Schwartztol

December 1979
Dilapidation and Death on Avenue C
By Seth Solomonow

February 1975
Adding the Final Touch: A Windmill and Solar Panels
By Abigail Rao