Community boards still matter, says Roberto Crespo
Roberto Crespo’s first job was as a stock boy during the 1970s at Mel Green’s clothing shop on East 163rd St., where sharkskin pants, Mohair shirts and leather jackets were hot sellers. Forty-some years later, he will be spending much of his time one flight up from the long-defunct clothing store, mixing it up with developers and city officials.
At its June meeting, Community Board 2 voted Crespo, now 61, its new volunteer chair, succeeding Dr. Ian Amritt.
In selecting Crespo, the board tabbed a lifelong resident and Longwood homeowner of 26 years, whose interest in community affairs began when his high school principal saw leadership potential and pushed him to work on campaigns for up-and-coming candidates of Puerto Rican descent.
After graduating, he signed on as an auxiliary officer at the 41st Precinct, where one of his responsibilities was to redirect traffic away from buildings unscrupulous landlords had lit ablaze to collect the insurance.
“Buildings were burning down, drugs were running rampant,” all around the Fort Apache station house, recalls Crespo, whose father moved the family to Bryant Avenue from East Harlem in 1960, to take a job as super.
Crespo served as Community Board 1’s district manager in Mott Haven during the 1990s, but resigned when reports emerged that he had failed to alert the community about plans for three residential and social service centers. A Sept. 1997 Daily News story reported that supporters backed him as a “vigorous district manager seeking to tackle a number of community problems,” and though he says the accusations were politically motivated, he resigned “because the damage was done.”
But he remained active in local political affairs. In 2005, he ran Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s winning Council campaign, then joined Board 2 in 2009 and was later elected to chair its liquor and franchising committee, where he helped spearhead efforts to close down Hunts Point’s notorious jiggle joints and keep out new ones. More recently, he has chaired the housing and land use committee, in the midst of a building boom.
Crespo sees challenges facing the board as it tries to protect residents in a changing neighborhood. One key, he said, will be to help revive Southern Boulevard’s moribund storefronts, possibly by bringing in big-name stores and having them subsidize smaller stores.
“If you walk up Southern Boulevard, you see mom-and-pops closing down,” he said. “The city has no real incentive programs. That’s not helping the community.”
That’s just one way he thinks the city should do more for Hunts Point.
“We continue to ask for a traffic agent,” near congested, dangerous Bruckner Boulevard. “Why can Manhattan get the things we can’t?”
Keeping young people active and out of trouble is another priority. He says he will push for recreation centers to stay open late to provide a safe place for neighborhood youth.
In recent years, Crespo has worked as an administrator for the Yankee Foundation, the team’s charity arm. A New York Times story that appeared on the day the board elected him chair, accused the foundation of betraying its mandate to provide funding to South Bronx organizations, and named Crespo.
The new chair has also taken heat for lashing out at developers and city officials at committee meetings when he suspects Hunts Point residents are not getting their fair share of affordable housing, or aren’t being hired for jobs in projects where city subsidies play a part.
City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who overlapped with Crespo during his tenure as Board 2’s district manager, defended him, saying Crespo has routinely urged local organizations to apply for the foundation grants over the years, and that his occasional scrapes with officials stems from a deep commitment to the neighborhood.
“A lot of that [Yankee Foundation] funding has come into our district,” said Salamanca, adding that it has been directed toward groups and pantries that “don’t have deep pockets. He understands the needs of the community. When I was DM, he was very up front; very passionate.”
Crespo bruskly dismisses the common criticism that community boards lack relevance because of their advisory-only capacity, noting an example of recent heated meetings with developers, at which the board demanded—and got—a community benefits agreement, through bruising negotiation.
“The curve is the pitch that’s always going to strike you out,” he said. “Let’s be ahead of what’s coming. Don’t wait for the fastball.”