Jaime Alvarez keeps watch over the block he’s championed for decades. — Photos by Conrado de la Rosa
Jaime Alvarez knows Bushwick. He has been a Grove St. resident for the last thirty-seven years and admits to having lived through many of the neighborhood’s darker days. "My kids were raised in Bushwick when it was tough, this is heaven now," says Alvarez, a retired drug abuse counselor for the city’s Dept. of Education.
What he is slower to admit is the extent to which he has helped bring about Bushwick’s brighter days.
As blockbusting and the pursuit of suburban life saw the flight of most middle class white residents in the 1950s and 60s, Bushwick became home to poorer migrants from Puerto Rico and black Americans from the South. Commerce declined and the housing stock deteriorated.
Alvarez recalls the economic woes of the late seventies that brought the neighborhood to its knees. The blackout of July 13, 1977 brought the apocalypse to an already declining Bushwick as looting and arson ravaged businesses and homes.
Innumerable businesses suffered the effects of the rioting and looting. As many as 1/3 of local stores are said to have closed down after the blackout.
The evening birthed the second-worst fire the city had ever encountered as an arsonist set aflame an abandoned factory at Knickerbocker and Bleecker, eradicating 7 blocks. The night would also account for the city’s largest mass arrest with over 4,500 people taken into policy custody. The total cost of that single evening amounted to about $300 million, but the city received a mere $11 million in federal aid for recovery efforts.
This is the Bushwick that Alvarez inherited. A drug infested, violence-ridden shell of a neighborhood riddled with vacant lots.
By the eighties, Alvarez grew frustrated to the point of action by the conditions of his neighborhood. He would call city officials and organizations seeking guidance for the organized cleaning of lots and restoration of public facilities, mainly parks, gardens, and safe public areas for the neighborhood’s youth.
Alvarez sought city assistance to clean and renovate the lot adjacent to his Grove Street home. He had plans to convert the lot into a usable space for the block’s children. His early plans were humble: a set of swings, open space for kids to run around safely. But even his most modest plans fell on deaf ears. The city absolved itself of responsibility; the lot Alvarez intended to renovate was private property and therefore outside city jurisdiction. This was the case for many of the abandoned lots scattered throughout mid-eighties Brooklyn.
It was then that the fed-up resident and his group of Grove Street loyalists began moving the contents of the empty lot into the streets — where the city could no longer shirk responsibility and would be forced to remove the debris. The group muscled their way through garbage and filth, moving even abandoned cars out to the street for proper city removal.
Soon Alvarez’s modest plans grew as outside funding from both the public and private sector began to support his initiatives. In 1987 The Green Thumb Program donated wood, tools, and other supplies, including a fence to protect the perimeter of what would become The Concerned Citizens of Grove Street community garden. The Trust for Public Land lent aid toward the acquisition of swings and other minor playground equipment.
Another accomplishment from these early days is the annual Grove Street Children’s Festival, an Alvarez brainchild first held in the summer of 1981 with the help of community donations. In its infancy the festival was no more than a modest block party boasting a handful of local families, a traditional Puerto Rican pig roast, and a local Salsa band.
This past summer the Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary. With the help of local fundraising and donations from Mount Olive Baptist Church, Council candidate Maritza Davila, and area residents, Alvarez was able to secure $7,500 for the event. This year’s festival included a band, DJ, live performances, food, awards, school supplies for local school kids, a bike raffle, and even a Ferris wheel. A Mister Softee ice-cream truck was even rented privately for the event.
Aside from his recreational ambitions, Alvarez has worked diligently for the past thirty years to ensure that his community is properly represented in local and state politics. In the late eighties he founded the Concerned Citizens of Grove Street initiative that sought local and state funding and representation in an effort to improve community conditions. He joined alliances with Somos El Futuro, an organization that lobbies for state funding and legislation to support community programs and needs like the proper maintenance of local streets, implementation of speed bumps in school zones, and grants for community parks and playgrounds.
He has lent support to the campaigns of State Assemblymen Vito Lopez and Darryl Towns, Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, and boosted for the Bill Thompson mayoral campaign. "I don’t support policies that serve the wealthy, and ignore the needs of the poorer Latino and African-American communities," Alvarez says.
Alvarez is optimistic about the future of Bushwick and continues to be an active force in the community. He recently organized his block’s Halloween Celebration, held annually in the community garden space. Plans are already underway for Grove’s Street’s annual Santa Comes to Bushwick Day, hosting its very own tree lighting ceremony — last year’s tree topped an outstanding 22 feet. A partnership with the Starlight Children’s Foundation also made it possible for 300 gifts to be given out to local children by a real life Santa Claus along Knickerbocker and Wilson Avenues.
Jaime Alvarez believed in the potential of this once-forgotten community when many others had given up. His diligence is testament to the power of grassroots initiative and local partnerships.
"The goal is the benefit of the children," he says. "You can do everything, as long as you do it in order."