A man of his times

From the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Antonio Pagan was a ubiquitous and influential presence in the East Village. First as a community activist, then as a Community Board 3 member, then for six years as the district’s city councilmember, Pagan was involved to one degree or another in every major issue and struggle.

After a failed run at borough president, though, and a brief spell as Employment commissioner under his ally former Mayor Giuliani, Pagan faded from public view. Thus, it came as a shock to learn of his death last month at age 50.

Pagan came on the scene at a time when the East Village was at a critical point. He and his supporters felt the neighborhood already had more than its fair share of social-service facilities, and that troubled ones, like the Third St. Men’s Shelter, needed better management. Tompkins Square Park was basically out of control, in their view; the park, they felt, shouldn’t be either an all-night party scene or a homeless encampment.

Essentially, Pagan’s position on quality-of-life issues mirrored that of Giuliani. Indeed, Pagan backed Giuliani for mayor, providing an important Latino endorsement, and was, in turn, rewarded with a commissionership.

Pagan was right that Tompkins Square Park shouldn’t have been a “Tent City.” Yes, the city needed to house the homeless, and yes gentrification was encroaching on the neighborhood; but putting a park off limits to families with children and to seniors, among others, was unacceptable and untenable.

Pagan, tellingly, was the face of Community Board 3 at a press conference after the Tompkins Square riot. He wasn’t the board’s chairperson, but his role showed how strongly he had been behind the effort to alter the park’s culture and restore it as a space the entire community could enjoy.

He had an abrasive style and brushed many the wrong way, including the political left, the squatters, the gay community — though he was homosexual — and, ultimately, even a lot of his own supporters.

In many ways, he was a man of contradictions. Yet, above all, he stuck to his principles, frequently in the face of tremendous opposition.

Pagan was charming but also tempestuous. He reveled in the rough and tumble of the East Village’s battles. He wasn’t always on the right side of the issues, but on important ones, like Tompkins Square and the creation of middle-income housing, he was right.

Pagan was the East Village’s councilmember during times that were never boring — and he made sure that they never were. As one former squatter said, he admired Pagan’s “chutzpah.” It took a man with that sort of brashness to accomplish many of the goals that he did.

The flip side is that the improvements that Pagan and his allies started have now morphed into full-blown gentrification. His opponents charge Pagan was a “pawn” of real-estate interests. To an extent, that may have been true. But he also did care about his neighborhood, and he did make a difference.