West Harlem resident Jordi Reyes-Montblanc was reading a book on the subway headed home one day nearly 20 years ago when he overheard a conversation and was launched into community activism.
“I’ll never forget the date: May 3, 1988,” recalled Reyes-Montblanc, now the chairman of West Harlem’s Community Board 9. “I was in the Number 1 coming up and there were three guys talking … They were talking about a building that they were going to take over as of the first of June.”
He put the conversation behind him as he departed the train, never guessing they were talking about the city-owned building on 136th Street where he, his relatives and other Cuban immigrants lived. But when he got home, the same men stood in his lobby announcing the sale of the building to private owners. Reyes-Montblanc felt he had to stop it. And with the help of other tenants, he did.
Thus began Reyes-Montblanc’s immersion in public life. He’s been a member of Community Board 9 – which covers the Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods of western Manhattan, from 135th to 155th Street – since 1994. He was elected chairman in 2003, the same year Columbia University announced its plan to redevelop 17 acres of Manhattanville and expand the campus into the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. CB9 took exception to many aspects of the plan, and the ensuing struggle against the powerful institution landed Reyes-Montblanc squarely in the political spotlight.
On Wednesday, following a series of hearings this fall, City Council approved Columbia’s expansion plan, to the dismay of much of the community. And on Dec. 31, Reyes-Montblanc’s term as chairman ends (though he’ll stay on as a member). With years of fighting the Columbia-led transformation now past, another community board member will become chair – most likely second vice-chair Patricia Jones – and lead the district into years of dealing with it.
Reyes-Montblanc, who was in attendance in Council chambers on Dec. 19 when the members voted – 35 in favor, 5 against (Tony Avella, Charles Barron, Lewis Fidler, Vincent Ignizio, Leticia James), with 6 abstentions (Helen Foster, Eric Gioia, Rosie Mendez, Hiram Monserrate, Peter Vallone Jr., Thomas White Jr.) – does not consider it a defeat.
“You can only be defeated if you surrender, and we never give up,” Reyes-Montblanc said the day after. He’d been considering a run for the City Council seat that Robert Jackson, a Democrat representing Harlem since 2001, will leave empty because of term limits in 2009. But the Council vote made him sure he’ll run.
“I’m starting right now. I have no party affiliation, I have no money, no staff and no volunteers” – but he does have determination to make City Council start heeding the will of community boards. “Once I’m there I’ll be the biggest pain they’ve ever seen in City Council,” Reyes-Montblanc said.
From Cuba to the Columbia campus
In late October, several of CB9’s 49 members arrived at Reyes-Montblanc’s office to preview a video they hoped to show to City Council and eventually air on public access television. The movie, prosaically titled “Community Board 9 Manhattan 197-a Plan,” was the board’s latest offensive in fighting certain elements of Columbia’s rezoning request and touting the alternate vision expressed in its “197-a” plan.
That plan, whose completion Reyes-Montblanc considers a highlight of his chairmanship, lays out recommendations for the district’s future development. In a move some consider paradoxical, Council also approved that on Dec. 19 (though in a modified form). Tall and burly, the 64-year-old spoke out against Columbia’s plans over the months, publicly criticizing what he considers the university’s “patronizing attitude” toward the community. He fears some aspects of the expansion are incompatible with residents’ vision for the neighborhood, and worries that Columbia will resort to eminent domain to acquire some of the properties in the area. He says he doesn’t want to see residents forced out.
“I’m looking for reasonable settlement with Columbia,” Reyes-Montblanc said the week before Council’s vote. “I can see lots of benefits of the expansion, but I don’t go into them because I’m not fighting for Columbia. … I’m fighting for the community, so I have to emphasize the negatives and try to correct those negatives.”
But while he has gone head-to-head with Columbia officials in his capacity as chair, even figures such as Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, who guides the expansion project, have acknowledged Reyes-Montblanc to be an “effective advocate” for the neighborhood.
Kasdin said in a statement, “Although we have at times disagreed on specific issues, we have shared a love of our community and commitment to its future.”
At CB9 and, he hopes, on City Council, Reyes-Montblanc plans to keep up that commitment. While it remains to be seen if he’d even have a chance of winning an election in this predominantly Democratic neighborhood – where Democratic Assemblyman Denny Farrell is favored for the seat – the fact that Council “ignored” CB9, in Reyes-Montblanc’s own description, hasn’t necessarily tarnished his reputation.
“It’s been very good to have Mr. Reyes-Montblanc’s leadership through all this,” Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Manhattanville, said Thursday. Kooperkamp has been a public Columbia-plan critic, and sat next to Reyes-Montblanc at the Council vote. “Quite frankly, I think he deserves a very long vacation after this. He’s left the community board in a good place.”
“This was never a level playing field,” Kooperkamp said of the battle between community activists and an Ivy League university with a $6 billion endowment. “I’m amazed it went as well as it did.”
Another local pastor, Rev. John L. Scott of Saint John Baptist Church on 152nd Street, who once served on a local police coalition with Reyes-Montblanc, says “He’s brave – you’ve got to be brave when you’ve got such an establishment like Columbia that you have to go up against.”
But Reyes-Montblanc knows a thing or two about fighting.
He fled his native Cuba as a teenager after stray .50-caliber bullets from an anti-Batista rebel attacking a nearby police station riddled his grandmother’s house. He arrived in Miami on a Pan American flight on the morning of July 25, 1958 where he joined his exiled parents. He can still remember watching the executions of people he knew in Cuba on television.
Reyes-Montblanc said he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1960s and then arranged to attend the University of Zaragoza in Spain so he could complete the credits for his bachelor’s degree and pursue another degree in international law. (His distinctive name is Catalan, he says.)
But the 24-year-old never made it to law school. With his trip to Spain six months away, he headed to New York City for a vacation. The price of New York living, however, forced him to get a job and he found work in the mailroom of a shipping company. Within two years, he became a general manager in the division. It was there that he met his wife Kathleen, and today he still works as an international shipping consultant, providing advice to companies on everything from customs and regulatory problems to actually chartering ships.
A little chutzpah
And then came that fateful day in May of 1988. It is a story well-documented in the photo albums Reyes-Montblanc keeps at the building where he still resides on 136th Street, and his eyes light up to tell it. He points to the images depicting his younger self sitting with other tenants around a table as they executed plans to save their building, known as the Saxonia.
The day he found out about the city’s plans, he discovered a city program that allowed tenants' associations to convert their city-owned buildings into cooperatives. Within just four days of the sale announcement, he and the others launched a massive letter-writing campaign and formed an association. “We the Tenants…” his new charter began. The original copy is also in the album, along with photos of older residents who lived there, some of whom are now gone.
The city’s housing department “was in fear of us,” Reyes-Montblanc said. “My eyes were opened at the time. I said a little organization and effort and chutzpah goes a long way.”
In less than a month, he managed to convince the city to sell the building to the tenants. For the next five years, he saw to it that the city performed major repair work on the building before the deal was sealed. When they finally purchased the building on May 7, 1993, the photos in the album get cheerier. They show smiling faces of mostly seniors sitting in a bus the tenants rented to take them down to the city’s housing office for a celebration of their newfound homeownership.
His success led him to form the Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) Council – an advocacy organization which to this day still helps tenants create, organize and manage co-ops. Soon, people in the community were coming to him with housing questions.
“He’s the guru on housing,” says Diane Wilson, a fellow CB9 member who served on the community board’s housing committee with Reyes-Montblanc and frequently comes to him with landlord-tenant questions. “He knows it all …He’s fought in the trenches.”
A voracious reader, Reyes-Montblanc can recite Shakespeare and even the old Castilian lines of the famous Spanish epic poem “El Cid.” His admiration for the adventures of the 11th century Spanish nobleman and conqueror El Cid, a picture of whom hangs in his office, has an echo of sorts in his own life. In his early 30s, he traveled to Arizona with a few friends to search for a hidden treasure of gold which, according to lore, is untouched somewhere inside the Superstition Mountains. During the trip, the trio of men experienced everything from dehydration to getting shot at, possibly by rival treasure hunters.
“We were deep in the desert … and we were shot at,” he recalled. “I carried an M1 Carbine that belonged to another of the guys who had never used it. I was the only one with experience with firearms, so I shot back.” He and his friends returned to New York empty-handed.
Over the years, between his housing activism, shipping work, and his love of history and literature, Reyes-Montblanc has amassed a wealth of knowledge that impresses many of his friends and acquaintances. He’s known for bombarding people with all kinds of e-mail, whether it pertains to a West Harlem issue or an interesting news story.
“He sends little bits on history,” said Robert J. Titus, who met Reyes-Montblanc more than two decades ago through the shipping business and now works as a ship broker with a small company in Tarrytown. “It’s not the type of e-mails you get from everyone else where all the jokes are passed around.”
Broad interests, knowledge and activism helped Reyes-Montblanc land a recommendation for an appointment to the community board in 1994 by then-City Councilman Stanley Michels. Since then, he’s only taken one year off from public service.
Although the Columbia issue has been the most prominent one during his years as chair, it’s not been the only major development in the district. In 2005, Reyes-Montblanc stood by as Mayor Bloomberg and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel broke ground on the $18.7 million dollar West Harlem Piers project which will connect West Harlem to the rest of the Manhattan waterfront greenway. That project is now close to completion, Reyes-Montblanc said.
Michel’s former housing specialist, Martin Smith, who today serves as Councilman Robert Jackson’s director of constituency services, has known Reyes-Montblanc since his early days in housing work. More than a decade later, Smith said Reyes-Montblanc’s style has not changed at all.
“He’s just as forceful, aggressive, to some obnoxious, to others, the very strong and clear-minded person he’s always been,” Smith said. “He’s no-nonsense. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. You may not like it, but that’s his position and he’ll lay it out in as respectful a way as you’ve earned it.”
“If he’s not feeling you, he will let you have it,” Smith added.
Throughout the Columbia fight, Smith said Reyes-Montblanc has often found himself in the difficult position of trying to remain neutral and objective while still expressing his concerns about Columbia. At times, that struggle to keep emotions from bubbling over worked against him, with some saying he should have been more forceful, Smith said. But overall, most people appear satisfied with his approach.
“He probably at times could have been a little more lenient with people’s needs to vent. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for hyperbole and bull,” he said. “Sometimes I think he could have handled a couple situations a little better, but as a whole in the face of a lot of adversity, he did a pretty damn good job.”
But Reyes-Montblanc’s public involvement has come at the expense of his personal life – a life he keeps to himself. His office in the Saxonia, which is a separate unit from his co-op, does not reveal much of his private life. A few framed proclamations and certificates of appreciation hang on the wall as well as some Christmas lights on permanent display. Since the 1980s, he has commuted between West Harlem and Virginia Beach where his wife and son Jeffrey, 30, reside. Those trips have become less frequent as the increasing demands of his civic life keep him anchored at his office. He's been married 35 years, but wears no wedding ring. A photo of him with his two grandkids on his lap adorns the screen of the computer where he creates his blog. His wife knows little about his civic activities, he said.
Titus said Reyes-Montblanc first moved to Virginia when his shipping company transferred him, but he later returned to New York after the Virginia office closed. At that point, Reyes-Montblanc and his wife had already purchased a house in Virginia Beach.
“He just stayed up here for the longest time,” Titus said. “He grew to live here, she grew to live there.”
Reyes-Montblanc says he leads a compartmentalized life, and he likes it that way. Even some fellow CB9 members know little of his family life.
“I don’t remember him speaking about his son until the birth of the grandbaby,” recalled Patricia Jones, the up-and-coming chair of the board. “I guess it doesn’t occur to him to tell you [about the family], but with the …first grandson, he was so excited he didn’t want to keep it to himself.”
But spending less time with his family has not been his only sacrifice. His business as a shipping consultant has also suffered.
“Being the chair these four years has cost me dearly,” he said. “People don’t realize the amount of time and effort you have to put into it, and that when you work by yourself and when you depend on one-time-only type of contracts and you are not able to take them, eventually those people … don’t offer you them anymore.”
Forty years after he gave up his ambitions to study law to pursue a shipping career, he has now abandoned shipping for what appears to be his true love – life in the public realm. Between the buildings he’s helped convert to low income co-ops, and the fight to preserve his neighborhood's character, it appears Reyes-Montblanc has made as much of an impression on West Harlem as it has left on him.