Forty years ago this spring I stood in a sprawling stretch of rubble along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn’s lower Park Slope. More than six acres of urban wreckage lay there, a moonscape that stretched from Baltic Street to Butler and halfway to Douglass Street. Only P.S. 133, a turn-of-the-century brick tower at the corner of Baltic and Fourth Avenue, broke the horizon. Police called it ‘The Little School on the Prairie.’
I was there because a little powerhouse of community organizing named Rebecca Reich had planted herself in front of me at a City Limits event to ask why we weren’t writing about the fierce battle being waged in her neighborhood over what to do with those acres. Reich headed development for the Fifth Avenue Committee, the local nonprofit advocacy group launched amid the fiscal crisis of the mid-70s. It was a time when City Hall refused to default on the bonds it owed its bankers, but had no problem defaulting on its low-income neighborhoods which were left to scramble on their own.
Born and bred in New York City, Rebecca had attended Hunter High School and gone on to take a degree in urban planning at Hunter College. Fellow student Lisa Kaplan, who had moved to the city from upstate, said Reich stood out. “She struck me as an archetypal New Yorker,” said Kaplan, who was to become a lifelong friend and a stalwart of Lower East Side neighborhood activism. “She had all the intelligence, worldliness and brazenness that I aspired to.”
Reich brought that knowledge and New York know-how to bear on a part of Brooklyn then in desperate need of it. Given the string of restaurants and shops that have thrived along Fifth Avenue in the decades since, that notion may today be hard to grasp. But back then, you looked in vain down the avenue for signs of life. Storefronts were bricked up. Landlords had abandoned many apartment houses. Fires had claimed others.
Reich and her group were trying to hold back the tide. And they had crafted a creative proposal for the enormous vacant site: Federal funds and private developers would combine to build a mix of affordable housing for renters and homeowners plus a supermarket to serve them. Along with the chairwoman of her board, another spitfire named Fran Justa who lived on nearby Carroll Street, Rebecca was pitching the plan to the community and its elected officials. The scheme won wide endorsement, but met stiff opposition from a small group of local homeowners, self-declared pioneers who had bought aging brownstones in the neighborhood. Subsidized housing would foster crime, they insisted. Their own investments would be jeopardized. Better to build only commercial space, they said. Let the private sector take care of any housing on its own.
There was little effort to disguise the racial undertones of the arguments the mostly white homeowners advanced. Look at what happened to Red Hook and Fort Greene with their public housing, they said, citing the nearby largely minority neighborhoods. The affordable housing foes had also cleverly recruited a politically-connected developer, a favorite of the Democratic machine that ran Borough Hall, who said he’d gladly build the supermarket on his own if the city would just give him the land.
This was the story Rebecca insisted City Limits needed to tell. And so I followed her as she went from meeting to meeting to advance her plan and rebut her critics. As she walked me through the neighborhood, Rebecca offered a steady stream of local history, wisecracks and laughter. But in the meetings where she made her case, she was a steely, no-nonsense presence. One evening I watched her address the community board’s housing committee in the massive old Armory up on Eighth Avenue. She marched in, jaw set, ready for battle, much like the heroic doughboy from World War I whose bronze statue sat on a pedestal outside the armory entrance. Inside, she spelled out in telling detail how the development would proceed, and how it would help rescue a racially diverse community losing its grip on the neighborhood. “This is an area where there is a strong feeling for homeownership,” she told the panel. “At the same time there is a real need for low income housing.”
The fight over the development scheme continued for more than a year. But Reich and her allies proved indomitable advocates and the city eventually endorsed most of their plan. The vacant acres began to fill with housing. A supermarket rose on Fifth Avenue.
Rebecca Reich went on to apply her talents at a string of nonprofit organizations, including the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and the Low Income Housing Fund. She mentored an up and coming local activist named Brad Lander, today a leader of the progressive members of the City Council. She raised a fine son named Andreas, who now works at the organization she helped launch, the Fifth Avenue Committee. This week, complaining of shortness of breath, she went to the emergency room. Soon after arrival, she died of cardiac arrest. Suspicions lingered that the dreaded virus played a role but a test proved negative.
On her Facebook page, tributes rolled in. “Her modesty and good humor brought all of us together,” wrote Marilyn Gelber, the former city environmental commissioner who founded the Brooklyn Community Foundation. “She made Brooklyn a better place.”