Friends & foes reflect on Pagan’s complex legacy


By Lincoln Anderson

On a bitter cold Thursday night four days after former City Councilmember Antonio Pagan died on Sun., Jan. 25, at age 50, his friends and family gathered to hold a memorial for him.

Reportedly organized by his mother, the service was at St. Emeric Church, hard by the Con Edison power plant and near the Jacob Riis Houses.

It was a standard Catholic memorial Mass. Pagan was not lying in state, and is said to have been cremated. There was a portrait of him, though not a particularly good one, up in front.

Among the roughly 75 people present were many of his political allies who had helped propel him into office: Howard Hemsley; former Community Board 3 Chairperson Susan Vaughn; former Democratic District Leader Lisa Ramaci; Susan Leelike; Elizabeth Acevedo; former Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra; George Rodriguez; his former chief of staff Anne Hayes; Zulma Zayas, executive director of Lower East Side Coalition Housing; and Diane Britt.

Roberto Caballero, a former district leader and early ally of Pagan’s who later had a falling out with him, said, “The most emotional was Ramaci. She looked like she was stunned. I don’t know if it was more with Steven — because Pagan and Steven were good friends.”

Steven Vincent, Ramaci’s husband, was one of Pagan’s biggest boosters, playing a central role in Pagan’s winning his first election. Vincent went on to become a war correspondent in Basra, Iraq, where he was kidnapped and killed in 2005, most likely by Islamic extremists.

There were no lengthy speeches at the traditional ceremony.

Two days later, on an even more freezing night, a much smaller group assembled at Seventh St. and Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park for what they called a Pagan “anti-memorial memorial.”

“I loved how he called us trust fund babies,” said Jimmy Sims, a former squatter. “I was homeless on the street for years. If any of the squatters were trust fund kids, they were only 10 percent.”

Neighborhood activist John Penley blamed Pagan for destroying a thriving squatters scene on E. 13th St., and said he felt no sorrow at his passing.

Pagan was a quintessentially polarizing figure, and in the days after his death, his supporters and detractors weighed in on his legacy, variously calling him the East Village’s savior or divider.

Meanwhile, though, the circumstances of his death, at Beth Israel Hospital, remained somewhat of a mystery, as his friends were reluctant to say what exactly the cause was.

Vaughn said she understood Pagan had died from “some kind of heart failure.”

However, in an e-mail from a friend, Amy Spiegel, that was forwarded to Downtown Express, Spiegel wrote, “I was at Beth Israel late last night until early this morning with Anne [Hayes] and others, paying my respects to Antonio. He had lost kidney and liver functions and it was relatively certain there was no more brain function. He was on a ventilator though.”

One Pagan supporter, requesting anonymity, said, the real cause of death was “eating and drinking.”

Pagan, who was not especially tall, had ballooned to 250 pounds or more, by some estimates. And he had a bad drinking problem.

“He liked to eat, so he went to culinary school” after leaving politics, the man said. “During his City Council time, going from event to event, there was lots of eating and drinking.” Toward the end, “He was way over 200.”

Another source, also requesting anonymity, said, “I’ve heard from those close to him that he was really sick the final year and that he wasn’t drinking that much, but the damage had been done and that the weight gain was caused mainly by liver or other problems.”

Several people said it seemed almost as if Pagan really had been trying to eat and drink himself to death.

“He had some demons,” said Frank Morales, a leader of the East Village squatter movement. “I could never figure him… He had a lot of anger.”

Caballero said when he saw Pagan on the street not long ago, the former councilmember had gotten so big he barely recognized him, and only realized who it was after he had gotten within a few feet of him.

‘An agent of change’

Despite Pagan’s sad ending, his supporters hailed the former councilmember as an agent of positive change who transformed the neighborhood much for the better.

Pagan first rose to prominence as part of ad hoc neighborhood group, BASTA, fighting to improve conditions and bring in better management at the Third St. Men’s Shelter.

As a member of Community Board 3, he and his so-called “Paganistas” championed cleaning up Tompkins Square Park, by imposing a curfew and driving out the homeless “Tent City” encampment. He also led the opposition to a proposed residential H.I.V./AIDS facility by Housing Works on E. Seventh St. He was the main scourge of the squatters, declaring they had no right to seize abandoned buildings slated for development into affordable housing.

Pagan served two terms in the City Council, a two-year term followed by a four-year term, from 1991 to 1997. Defying predictions that he would be crushed in his first race, he narrowly defeated longtime incumbent Miriam Friedlander, then went on to beat her again two years later when she tried to regain her seat.

Passing up the chance for another four-year term — which would have been allowed under term limits — he chose instead to run for Manhattan borough president, but came in fourth in the Democratic primary. He then landed a job in the Giuliani administration as commissioner of the Department of Employment, which lasted until Giuliani was term-limited out of office a few years later. After a stint at culinary school, Pagan became either an employee or consultant at Lower East Side Coalition Housing, an organization he had led earlier.

Former Mayor Ed Koch said, “He was a moderate. That made him unique because he was also a community activist. I liked him. It was also a sign of importance on the Lower East Side that he was able to beat his predecessor — who, notwithstanding her radicalism — was very well liked.

“I liked his straightforwardness,” Koch said. “He’d give you an answer that was truthful — let the chips fall where they may. He was for cleaning up the Lower East Side and letting it grow — as it is today.

“I’m sure he was very pleased with the way the Lower East Side had flourished and brought in the middle class and moderation,” Koch said. “Before that it was ABC’s — what did they call it? — Alphabet City. When you went down there, fear was grossly inflated.

“People who didn’t live there and didn’t know the neighborhood were terrified at night. No more. It’s like the Village was 50 years ago.”

Randy Mastro, who was a deputy mayor under former Mayor Giuliani, said of Pagan, “He was a fighter, never afraid to take on a fight or a controversial cause. He was part of the Giuliani reform effort — what proved to be so beneficial to his constituents, and the entire city.

“He called ’em as he saw ’em,” Mastro said. “He was very independent, for all the right reasons — to do a public service. He was a charming, charismatic guy — but he could be fiery. 

“He saw an opportunity to improve the neighborhood,” Mastro said. “He was willing to speak out — even though it wasn’t popular with some of the entrenched political groups.”

Pagan’s opponents have long charged that he was the driving force behind the city’s auctioning off the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. — formerly home to the CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center. The late Armando Perez, a political foe of Pagan’s, was CHARAS’s artistic director, and the building was a hotbed of radical organizing.

“I don’t recall it that way,” Mastro said, “but he supported the initiative. It was part of the renovation and restoration of that neighborhood as a whole.

“You walk around that neighborhood today, and you can see Antonio Pagan’s legacy,” Mastro said. “It’s a much better neighborhood today because of Antonio Pagan’s time in government.”

Howard Hemsley, one of Pagan’s main early backers, said of his death, “I think he represented an era that was a turning point in the neighborhood — when we tried to institute some controls over what was happening to us. We felt that the neighborhood was in a state of lawlessness and disrepair, fostered by an attitude that ‘These are poor people. They can get a second-rate brand of safety and we can give them social-welfare agencies.’”

Jane Crotty, a former chairperson of Community Board 5, which covers the Union Square area and the strip of the middle of Manhattan up to Central Park South, said she worked closely with Pagan on cleaning up Union Square. She said Pagan also was a great help in transforming the formerly troubled Kenmore Hotel on E. 23rd St. into supported housing.

“He was one of the first ones to get computers in schools,” Crotty added.

Foes also remember

Pagan’s opponents also had plenty of thoughts to share on his passing. Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who succeeded Pagan, supported the Housing Works project on E. Seventh St. and was a close ally of Armando Perez and CHARAS/El Bohio.

“Him and I had a very clear, different view of the issues,” Lopez said of Pagan. “I think that he understood that the production of market-rate housing was the way you could bring back the neighborhood — and we disagreed on that.”

Indeed, Pagan’s opponents note that developers were among his most prominent campaign contributors.

After she, too, was term-limited out of office, Lopez got a post, which she still holds, in the Bloomberg administration as a commissioner of the New York City Housing Authority. While still a councilmember, Lopez worked with Mayor Bloomberg to landmark the old P.S. 64, foiling developer Gregg Singer’s efforts to build a 19-story dormitory tower on the site of the old public school building.

Lopez is convinced that Pagan pushed the Giuliani administration to auction off the old P.S. 64.

“Absolutely, it’s no question,” she said. “I know for a fact Antonio did everything possible to get that administration to sell that building — political retribution. CHARAS was a center of cultural, political movement. That was a center where bohemia existed. It was really the community social center that this area had — it was just not Armando” that made Pagan want to wrest the building away, Lopez said.

“He was like a break in the progressive politics of the East Village,” she said. “He was not the typical approach.”

Under Lopez as councilmember, Housing Works eventually did get its facility, at a new location, on Avenue D at Ninth St.

Charles King, Housing Works’ executive director, said the initial proposal was to house 36 people, and to serve up to 70 people per day. The facility was specifically designed for individuals with H.I.V./AIDS who were still active drug users, many of them also with mental illness. Although the Avenue D facility today also offers a needle-exchange program, at the time of the Seventh St. proposal, that wasn’t part of the plan since needle exchanges weren’t allowed then.

The proposal received C.B. 3 support, but Pagan organized a successful effort to beat it back.

“Basically, Pagan’s core platform for his race was stopping Housing Works,” King recalled of Pagan’s first run for City Council. “One out of every nine adults on the Lower East Side was infected with the virus,” King said, pointing to the need for the facility. However, he said, “Our project became the epitome of what they wanted to stop.”

King said the Housing Works debate is what made Pagan a councilmember and Lopez a district leader, putting her on the path to become councilmember after Pagan.

‘Outed’ by activists

Pagan, who was Puerto Rican, was also one of the City Council’s first openly gay members. Yet some say he was essentially outed during the Housing Works debate, and never really wanted to trumpet his sexuality.

Caballero said he recalled an early meeting between himself, Pagan and Hemsley at which they advised Pagan that he should come out.

“I don’t think he did,” Caballero said. “He just ignored the issue — and it came out, and they threw it at him. They couldn’t understand how he could oppose housing for H.I.V.-positive people.”

Housing Works kept up a steady stream of demonstrations outside Pagan’s campaign office on Second Ave. during his first election race.

“They were going to take him out of the closet — whether he liked it or not,” Caballero said.

Ultimately, Caballero said, Pagan was “a private person. He felt no one else had to say who they slept with, so why should he?”

“He was a very controversial figure,” Caballero said. “A lot of people despised him. The squatters despised him. The liberals despised him. The gay community despised him.”

King called Pagan a “hypocrite from top to bottom,” noting that he was known for being sexually promiscuous in the East Village’s gay bars.

Pagan was also known for alienating a fair number of his supporters — and for what some called vindictiveness.

“He burned people out,” said Ray Cline, of Village Reform Democratic Club, who worked on Pagan’s first campaign. “He’d do best when 20 people were yelling and shouting at him. When things got quiet, he’d stir things up.

“He’s a lot like Koch — when you were on the outs with him, you were on the outs for eternity.”

In the end, Caballero said, a major part of Pagan’s legacy is the housing that was developed on 10th, 11th and 13th Sts. between Avenues A and B.

“He built middle-income housing,” Caballero said. “That should be a testament to him. It was built by Lower East Side Coalition Housing.”

Other causes Pagan prominently backed were the Lower Eastside Girls Club and the Charlie Parker Jazz Fesival.

But others paint a different picture of how Pagan will be remembered.

Chris Flash, editor of the local anarchist newspaper The SHADOW, said, “The damage to our neighborhood inflicted by the gentrification and overdevelopment that Pagan facilitated as a hired lackey of real-estate interests will continue to be felt here for decades to come.”

Hemsley, surprisingly, also sees a mixed legacy stemming from the changes initiated by Pagan, saying both sides unwittingly worked together to bring change neither side wanted.

“The paradox is this — in making a neighborhood safe for families, we opened the gates for gentrification that was fostered by wrongheaded politicians that fought for only low-income housing,” he noted. “We were, in the first phase, making the neighborhood safe.”

“He was probably our fiercest opponent — called us Euro trash,” reflected Morales, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Yet the former squatter leader said, despite their battles, he couldn’t help sort of, well, liking Pagan.

“He was kind of flamboyant,” Morales said. “It was an era. We were flamboyant, too. Sometimes when he’d see me on the street, he’d kind of pat me on the bottom and say, ‘Cute!’ I’d just laugh. He was over the top.

“There was something about him that I actually cared for,” Morales said. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe his chutzpah he reflected maybe coming from the opposite side of the spectrum. We had chutzpah, too. …

“It made for interesting political theater for a couple of years. He was a worthy opponent.”