Rebecca Reich
Rebecca Reich died this week after a lifetime of advocacy for working-class New York.

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.”

12 thoughts on “Remembering Rebecca Reich, Who Battled to Save a Wounded Brooklyn

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful story about Rebecca. She always made an impact wherever she went. I worked with her at Con Edison on the Green Team on the small business program. She taught me alot. She wasa non-nonsense go getter. She was truly a Brooklynite, speaking her mind. She touched my life and made the world a better place. What a big loss for Brooklyn.

  2. Wow News to me good to know since that was my neighborhood where I grew up In, regardless of how it was described it was our home. sorry for your lost.

    • Rebecca Reich was Fifth Avenue Committee’s first Director and her indomitable spirit and commitment to creating and supporting an inclusive community are well captured by Tom Robbins. She continued to consult for FAC over the years, helping to extend the affordability and bring improvements to affordable housing that our tenants continue to benefit from today. When it was announced a few years ago that there were redevelopment plans for the 5th Avenue Key Food which she and countless other local residents fought for decades ago, she was there helping to provide history and context to the importance of maintaining a community minded supermarket affordable to families at a broad range of incomes. Rebecca has been a resource to me a number of times over my more than 16 years as FAC’s ED and I am still in shock that she is gone. She will be missed terribly by her many colleagues in community development in NYC and by the extended FAC family. Her memory and spirit will continue to inspire our work and I hope that might bring the Reich family some solace in this difficult time.

  3. For the past 11 years Rebecca lent her talent to IMPACCT Brooklyn, first as a consultant and for 9 years as a board member. I knew Rebecca before joining IMPACCT Brooklyn in Dec 2016 as. Executive Director. She immediately supported me in my new role providing guidance and support. We were having a virtual board meeting last Tuesday, the same day of her passing. She had confirmed that she would be present and we wondered where she may be. Unfortunately the shocking news came Wednesday morning. Rebecca continued to be involved in community advocacy and also started to take time for herself with plans to travel the world. Our last conversation was her giving me advice about my upcoming trip to Israel. In today’s world where there is so much tension and racial divide, I found Rebecca to be genuine and we were able to forge a relationship that transcended racial and religious differences. IMPACCT Brooklyn has lost one of its long time leaders and I have lost a friend. I can imagine Rebecca being greeted by Fran Justa sharing war stories. I feel so privileged to have know her. Blessings.

  4. Heartbreaking news, but a lovely tribute. Rebecca and I were colleagues for several years. She was a fiercely passionate, skilled, and intelligent advocate. She just got things done, no matter where she worked, and she never suffered the poor fools who stood in her way. In so many invisible but important ways, everyone enjoys New York a little more thanks to her impressive career and spirit.

  5. I knew her from the neighborhood and because I worked at HPD. She was a great and honest organizer who saw the big picture and felt the needs of the people. Always positive but firm. Serious but humorous. Got insurance companies and banks to step up to the plate to finance commercial and residential improvements. She will always be remembered in Brooklyn.

  6. Rebecca was an inspiration. She helped me do outreach to small businesses in underserved portions of eastern Brooklyn and I was amazed at all her connections and deep attachment to the communities. I admired her steadfastness in the battles she fought and I’m grateful to have known her.

  7. Very sad news. This article is a great tribute to Rebecca. I have known her since 1984 when I was the Executive Director of the Park Slope Fifth Ave Local Development Corporation and we shared office space at 94 Fifth Avenue. We were also on the Board together more recently at PACC/ IMPAACT. Rebecca was a true Brooklynite, and an advocate for social justice and affordable housing. She was incredibly insightful and spoke her mind with a care for making things better as she saw the details and facts. I will miss her and hope we will all continue to try ‘to repair the world’ in the spirit that she upheld.

  8. Hadn’t been in touch with Rebecca in years. We lived side by side in Park Slope for years, our bathroom walls between us. I followed some of her unfolding career over the years, and think of her every day because a typing table she gave me eons ago sits next to my bed. I looked her up today, in the midst of Covid, housebound and seeking to reconnect with her. So sad to read this and so moved by all that she did and the people she inspired. Remembering how funny she was! Thank you for this piece.

  9. As contemporaries, we both ran community based organizations in the 70’s and beyond. While she worked at FAC, I was active in the Southside of Williamsburg. The many others that worked at the community level in Brooklyn and throughout New York City not only worked but so many like Rebecca lived in our communities. Earlier this year, after she moved out of FAC, we met for dinner every other week along the Yonkers waterfront.
    I understand a memorial event is planned for this coming Sunday (6/27), which should be wonderful. I’m unable to attend but can you tell me if plans for the event include making donations? If someone can provide the details, I’d like to participate.
    Doug Moritz

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