Bushwick Beyond the Brand

Tracking a legacy, building by building

By Tobias Salinger and Amanda Dingyuan Hou

Tax records show the building marked with a small red dot at 217 Wyckoff Ave. houses 76 different nonprofits connected to Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. Senior facilities are green and housing is yellow; the size of each circle corresponds to number of living units.
Sources: New York City Department of Finance and New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications

The main address of former New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s multi-faceted social service agency is the focal point of a network of senior centers and affordable housing.

Lopez was forced to resign from the Assembly in May after an ethics report yielded scathing details of his advances towards female staff members, and it remains to be seen whether he will continue to seek a City Council seat in the fall. But in Bushwick, he has a bricks-and-mortar influence that will outlast him.

The collection of walk-ups, senior apartments and care facilities run by Ridgewood-Bushwick may help determine Lopez’s legacy. The organization he started in a single building on Stanhope Street in 1973 has grown into a vast operation difficult to track on paper — but easy to discern at the ballot box, ever since he won his first Assembly race in 1984.

Christiana Fisher, a longtime member of Ridgewood-Bushwick’s leadership team, pleaded guilty this year to doctoring documents related to a $446,000 raise she received in 2009. And reports from the city Department of Investigation in 2010 and 2011 allege improper compensation practices at Ridgewood-Bushwick as well as questionable expenses billed to taxpayers.

Representatives from both Lopez’s office and Ridgewood-Bushwick declined to comment for this story.

The scandals tarnish the legacy of a man who started an organization created simply to “help people.” Baruch College Professor Nicole Marwell’s 2007 book, “Bargaining for Brooklyn,” chronicles how Lopez assembled a loyal base of what she calls “client-voters” by providing living spaces, a sense of community and political clout as the neighborhood recovered from the fires and blight of the 1970s. Marwell writes that organizations like Ridgewood-Bushwick are “structurally positioned to reprise the role of the political machine” since state, local and federal governments often contract out services.

One such service was the building and marketing of two-family homes in the neighborhood. Ridgewood-Bushwick worked with a nonprofit affordable housing developer called the Housing Partnership Development Corporation to construct and sell hundreds of tidy homes in Bushwick over the past decade. A reconstructed Ridgewood-Bushwick web site from 2009 boasts that the organization sold almost 400 affordable homes aimed at first-time buyers through the New York State program. The Housing Partnership declined a request for specific addresses of homes produced through the program.

Lopez’s influence may be on the wane, but these houses remain a tangible display of his power. A list of properties owned or operated by each subsidiary of Ridgewood-Bushwick was compiled using 2011 tax returns. Adam Schwartz, the creator of the 2007 Up From Flames project at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and John Dereszewski, former district manager of Bushwick’s Community Board 4, double-checked the compilation.

The multitude entities make it challenging to examine the organization and its affiliates, so we would welcome your participation in the effort to document Ridgewood-Bushwick’s holdings. Please email or tweet any facilities connected to the organization we may have left out.