The history of the Lower East Side is a tale of three cities: the city of promise; the city of despair; and the city of luxury.
For a long time, it was a neighborhood where new immigrants could get their foot in the door to the American dream. Then, in the late Twentieth Century the Lower East Side became a crime-ridden, burnt-out living hell. Poor people became trapped in a dangerous neighborhood and ruined schools. Pastor Richard Del Rio of Abounding Grace Ministries remembers a time when people were told not to go past Avenue A into the area that was known as the “heroin capital” of the country. After a long struggle, the area’s crime rate dropped, buildings were repaired and jobs trickled back in. Now, it is becoming an outpost of Bloomberg’s “luxury city,” an elite vision of “the common good” with high rent condos, swank bars, and grand new buildings.
Naturally, not everyone has benefited from the “grandeurization” of the neighborhood. Nearly half of the population in the area relies on government income support to face rent increases of 27% since 2005. Family store front businesses that have provided upwardly-mobile jobs for the working poor are disappearing. Basements that formerly housed community organizations like basketball leagues and churches have become prohibitively expensive. The poor, who are desperately hanging onto their apartments, are becoming trapped in a new, cleaner cage.
Del Rio of Abounding Grace plans on doing something about that. He is a practitioner of “the democratic good” in which ordinary people have a voice in the plans for their future. He has launched a campaign as a Democrat to win a seat on the city council representing District 2, which encompasses about 168,000 people in the East Village, Alphabet City, Grammercy Park and Murray Hill. The district was reconfigured which allowed Rosie Mendez, a part of the Manhattan Democratic establishment, to run for a third term.
The pastor is a Williamsburg native who thirty years ago moved across the East River to the Lower East Side after receiving God’s call to move out of the traditional church into the poor areas around Alphabet City. Consequently, Del Rio is a walking memory of the changes that have taken place in the Lower East Side. He argues that the real history of the area, as opposed to fanciful elite histories, is that the vast improvements that have taken place were actually initiated by the poor and working class residents. When the neighborhood rebounded, then gentrifiers swarmed into “the edgy area” as sort of an elite tourism among the poor.
It is an age-old dilemma for New Yorkers. Gentrification rapidly infuses a higher quality of life and rehabs dilapidated buildings. Yet, gentrification intensifies the division of the haves and have-nots. The organizations of the poor like Abounding Grace paradoxically are often the leading edge of gentrification. By working with gang members, welfare families, and broken youths, they clean up the neighborhood by being intrinsically concerned about the future of the area over a long period of time. Then, many working class and poor residents feel that their victory is snatched from their hands by the wealthy. Even the new social service organizations that arise from well-meaning rich people seldom include the poorer residents on their boards. These organizations are also often secularist which means that the most common organization among the poor, the religious worship centers, are shoved aside. Although there is a change taking place in social service organizations in favor of faith-based partnerships, it is a relationship that is still fraught with class conflicts.
Democratic politics may be the only way the working class and poor can snatch back self-determination and responsibility for their own futures.
Thus, it is not surprising that Del Rio desires to change his role from longtime religious leader to political leader, as both professions have bearing on the health of the community.
He sees a bright gem that has evolved from the sea of rubble. “There is an inherent love of people in the community which can be tapped if the government engages the community,” Del Rio says.
Faith groups shoved aside in Lower East Side during Hurricane Sandy recovery
During the recovery process from Hurricane Sandy last year, Del Rio saw how the city missed chances to engage the energy and knowledge of clergy and lay. Within a day of the storm, his team, in collaboration with evangelical Christian organizations like Mercy Chefs and other groups, laid out resources on the street for the un-housed and hungry. For two days they provided blankets, food, and water to about 20,000 people, served 14,000 hot meals, and distributed 5,000 coats. The city government honchos were noticeably absent. There was a neighborly peace and helpfulness in the streets. Churches and other groups with different beliefs worked together harmoniously.
Then, two days later, city employees showed up with relief trucks and the police “to maintain order” and tried to take over the relief centers rather than collaborate with the neighborhood efforts.
“Pastor Del Rio was an epicenter of relief,” says Juan Pagan, who has been working on Del Rio’s campaign committee after he witnessed the pastor’s work in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Del Rio says that the lack of collaboration between the faith-based and government institutions wasn’t dictated by the lower level functionaries. He mostly blames Mayor Michael Bloomberg whose idea of collaboration with actors whom he can’t control is like a red flag to a bull. But the pastor also points out that city agencies lacked information and relationships with faith-based groups.
“The police are not our nemesis, they’re here to help—but they need more training, need more conversation,” he points out. They could benefit from engagement with the churches that are already providing resources that the city hasn’t provided. By refusing to engage people who want to serve, “we keep cutting off our nose to spite our face,” he says.
Faith groups have a whole set of relationships built on trust and deep knowledge of the communities that are useful in directing relief efforts. They are the ones “who have the relationships, who know the people, who they trust,” Pastor Del Rio observes. He points out that church leaders see many members of the community in personal settings at least once a week. On the other hand, the police have an antagonistic relation with community members because of issues like “stop and frisk.”
In contrast Del Rio points to the key role that churches have played in reaching neighborhood at-risk youth. He says that the kids who get in trouble are savvy but need the influence of a loving community around them. Churches are like kitchens of love for the poorly educated, drifting youth.
A recent bust of a cocaine drug trafficking ring in the Lower East Side NYCHA houses revealed that the kingpin was only 24 years old. Del Rio observes that the kids in his neighborhood are smart and capable. “These kids are entrepreneurs. They have figured out the business aspects, but they need training and direction,” the pastor says in giving some praise to their misused skills as criminals.
The pastor has a particularly large heart for kids. For decades he and his wife would invite aimless youth to stay with the Del Rio family. He says that seven kids lived with them, and the Del Rios adopted one. In 1996 he co-founded Generation Xcel, a youth program in the Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D.
However, the program recently lost its room in the NYCHA housing because of rising rents. Now, the program has only a storage room instead of a youth center. “In another part of town, that space would be made for children,” he claims. “In this part, it’s a nonissue.” The program still offers summer day care and after school for youth ages 13-22.
A vision for the future
In 1992, Del Rio had a vision from God that compelled him to do more with his ministry. One Sunday after hearing a perfectly composed yet emotionally canned sermon in another church, he realized he was missing something. He thought to himself, “If this is ministry, I want nothing to do with it.”
Instead, it fueled a vision to go to the hardest area of the city, “where sin abounds”, so that in turn God’s grace could abound all the more.
At present he remains the senior pastor at Abounding Grace Ministries and will decide whether to continue if he is elected. He believes that the leadership of the ministry can fill in any gaps when he has to city council business.
“I am not looking for a new career. It’s not that big of a transition, from clergyman to politician, in that the job is still about service,” Pastor Del Rio said. “I want to service two terms the best that I can by hearing what people need, by asking people things they’ve never been asked about what they need, and opening the door for the next generation of leaders.”
In a recent debate Del Rio said that Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk policy, as it is known right now, it’s a total violation when you are profiling people because of color…” The city council voted to install an inspector general over the police department to monitor its use of stop and frisk.
However, the pastor is wary of long-time pols like Mendez who might see the new police inspector general as a new avenue for insider power, money and jobs. Del Rio goes back to his campaign theme that reform of the “stop and frisk” policy should take place through grass roots involvement rather than by adding another layer to the bureaucracy. “I will look to incorporate and build bridges between the police and the community of faith… [Pastors] deal with these children, we deal with the mothers, and we deal with the victims’ families,” Del Rio said in the debate.
Of the immigrants, the impoverished, the drug addicts, the gang members, the hipsters, the youth, and the elderly that make up the Lower East Side, Del Rio promises, “They are precious in God’s sight and so they are precious in mine.”
--with Tony Carnes
Richard Del Rio on his candidacy and his views on the issues: