BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Mary Spink, who rose from a checkered past to become a member of Community Board 3 and a leading advocate for affordable housing, died in the early hours of Mon., Jan. 16. She was 65.
The cause of death was reportedly failure of her kidneys and liver.
About 200 people attended a memorial service for her on Sun., Jan. 22, in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, at Seventh St. and Third Ave.
According to Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, Spink died at Beth Israel Hospital after having been rushed there from the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on E. Fifth St. after her blood pressure became very low. She had been ill since last spring, Stetzer said.
During her final weeks, Spink had stayed at the Cabrini facility, where her friends could visit her easily.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Stetzer said speaking last week. “She was a good friend of mine.”
Last June, Stetzer and Councilmember Rosie Mendez accompanied Spink by train up to Albany where Spink received the “Woman of Distinction Award” from state Senator Daniel Squadron. The trip was very difficult for Spink.
“It was her last big outing,” Stetzer said.
Although Spink received numerous awards over the years, this one, in particular, meant a lot to her, Stetzer and Mendez said.
“It really made her feel good,” Stetzer said.
Speaking over the phone last week, Mendez, at one point, was overcome.
“It’s a big loss for the city, and it’s a big loss for me personally,” she said, unable to hold back tears and soft sniffles.
“She was a good friend. I’ll miss her a lot. No matter if you prepare — it’s a loss.”
Spink transcended difficult beginnings to rise to become executive director of the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, which today owns and runs 32 low-income buildings in the East Village and Lower East Side, as well as managing eight low-income, tenant-owned, Housing Development Fund Corporation buildings. She was also an active member on boards of many local organizations, including the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union — where she and Mendez first met — and the Lower Eastside Girls Club.
Tough start on L.E.S.
Leaving behind a past of abuse and reform school, Mary Spink came to the Lower East Side from the Albany region in her late teens. The neighborhood then was teeming with drugs, and Spink soon got hooked.
“She had so much resilience,” Mendez said. “She shared with others that she had a drug problem — she was a drug addict when there was a drug epidemic on the Lower East Side. And she shared with me that she knew she had to stop and get treatment.”
Spink was also on the board of the East Village Community Coalition.
Michael Rosen, a founding member of E.V.C.C.’s steering committee, said, “Mary Spink rose from the fire of whom she’d been. Purified, forged, branded, and yes, also haunted — to build a sacred life in a community where she insisted on giving far more than she would take. She lived simply, she lived with determination, and she gave.
“She left Troy, N.Y., as a very young woman and lived a life also involved with crime,” Rosen noted. “She was arrested and served time, she lost touch with her children during this period, and tried with extraordinary effort and to some extent did apparently reconnect with her children.
“She came from abuse,” Rosen said. “She grew to love rather than hate or act the victim.”
Spink’s daughter died three or four years ago. Mendez and Herman Hewitt, chairperson of L.E.S.P.M.H.A., said they’re trying to track down Spink’s son, who lives in California and from whom she was estranged.
“She has assets,” Hewitt noted.
Hewitt said the M.H.A. is working out the details of Spink’s burial.
In a March 3, 2004, article by Jessica Mintz in The Villager about two of the M.H.A.’s new energy-efficient housing projects on E. Third St., Spink touched on her difficult past.
“I was poor in this neighborhood,” Spink said then. “I was on welfare in this neighborhood. I was a drug addict in this neighborhood. I turned my life around in this neighborhood. Everything that’s happened to the people [who live in L.E.S.P.M.H.A. housing] has happened to me.”
In the article, Spink said she first became a superintendent in the East Village — her entree to her eventual career — because she couldn’t afford to rent an apartment.
A colorful résumé
Throughout her life, Spink held a wide variety of jobs. Speaking at last Sunday’s memorial, Henry Gifford, a longtime friend and business partner, told of how he first met Spink when she was waitressing at Deli Stop restaurant, at Fifth St. and Second Ave., in the late 1970s. They went on to run a laundromat together at Seventh St. and Avenue A, then opened a small newsstand at Fourth St. and Avenue B. Working at the newsstand, she was able to get off methadone, which is even harder than quitting heroin.
“She was 17 years between heroin and methadone,” Gifford said, noting “very few people” are able to kick both after so long.
Next, they ran an East Village hardware store together.
Her résumé also included experience as a bricklayer, dancer and plumber.
Ma Barker-like moment
Detailing a bit of Spink’s wild earlier years, Gifford clarified the story of how she once “shot a cop in the face.” As Gifford told it, Spink dealt heroin for 14 years. At one point, the East Village got too hot, and she decided to take a room in Northport, L.I., and do some drug dealing out there. While she was sleeping in her room one day, an acquaintance came in and robbed her stash. When, shortly after, a man appeared at the house’s front door, Spink, determined not to be robbed again, promptly blasted him with a shotgun through the door’s side windowpane. As she saw dozens of other “white men” come running in for backup, she realized she had mistakenly shot an officer. Spink served five years in jail at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
Another speaker said Spink had, at one point, been a prostitute.
Donna Klimek, a close friend, said, despite her drug history in the neighborhood, after she cleaned up, Spink was determined not to leave.
“She stayed in the same place,” Klimek said, her voice cracking with emotion, “because she never wanted to leave the East Village.” Plus, she added, “She always felt she wanted to set an example,” showing people — especially young girls — how a person could turn her life around in a positive way.
Others told of how Spink’s newsstand had been like “a resource center,” from which she dispensed advice on housing issues or how to fill out Medicare forms — as well as babka.
Ed Cahill recalled how Spink went to bat for a group of Avenue B tenants who lost their homes after their landlord let their building deteriorate dangerously, forcing them out for safety reasons; Spink led their legal fight, and years later the former tenants prevailed, receiving $25,000 settlements.
A Skill for running housing
Hewitt, currently the first vice chairperson of C.B. 3, has been L.E.S.P.M.H.A.’s chairperson for all its 15 years. He said Spink was first hired to be the mutual housing association’s property manager. Within a few years, he elevated her to executive director.
“I met her when she was the superintendent of the building next to 195 E. Second St. [Spink’s eventual home and part of the M.H.A.],” Hewitt recalled. Soon after, Spink was appointed to the board of directors of the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, which was then under the same umbrella organization as the M.H.A.
As for why he promoted her to the association’s director, Hewitt said, “We needed somebody that was grounded in the community, knew the community, knew the issues and was sympathetic to the kind of development that we were doing.”
At first, the M.H.A. was renovating vacant, city-owned buildings under what was then known as the “Cross-Subsidy Plan.” Empty, city-owned lots were sold, and the money from them funneled into the buildings’ redevelopment. Eventually, the M.H.A. also moved into constructing new buildings.
“She’s the person who spearheaded most of our [new] development,” Hewitt noted. “And she was a strong voice in putting forth the issues of the people who needed assistance, in terms of low-income development.”
Never backed down
To say Spink was forceful was an understatement.
“She was strong-willed,” Hewitt said. “And she tells you exactly what she thinks — without malice. If we did not have someone that strong-willed, our organization would not be in as strong a position as it is today. Dealing with the city and H.P.D. [the Department of Housing Preservation and Development], she had to be strong enough.”
“She was really tough and she was passionate and she was dedicated,” said Stetzer. “When you talk about Mary, you have to say she was a no-bullshit person — the neighborhood was her life.”
Mendez said, “She could best be described as a person with a sharp tongue, a big heart and an incredible love for the Lower East Side.”
Within the past 10 years, L.E.S.P.M.H.A. moved into developing “green” buildings. As Spink told The Villager in the March 3, 2004, article, the savings on cooling and heating costs would help keep the buildings affordable.
“Most of the last buildings we did — on Third St. and Second St. — were all energy efficient,” Hewitt noted. “And on Second St., the roof was done so that it can become a green roof; we haven’t moved forward on it yet.”
Mendez added that Spink, as a board member of the Girls Club, worked hard to make the dream of their new clubhouse, now under construction at Seventh St. and Avenue D, a reality.
“It’s coming,” Mendez said, “and Mary was a part of that.”
After having served on the community board as a public member, Spink was appointed a full member three years ago.
‘An incredible member’
In a statement, Dominic Pisciotta, the East Village / Lower East Side board’s chairperson, said, “Community Board 3 is very saddened to have lost an incredible board member. Mary Spink brought decades of community involvement and experience when she joined the board as a full member in April 2010.
“Prior to being appointed as a board member, Mary was instrumental, as an appointed public member of the Land Use, Zoning and Housing Committee, in its work on the successful East Village / Lower East Side rezoning. Her work and passion to develop sustainable and affordable housing on the Lower East Side was parlayed into a leadership role in the historic 2011 agreement on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a matter she long felt passionate about.”
Similarly, Stetzer said, Spink’s contributions on the SPURA process were key, and that this included her persuasive negotiating ability as much as anything else.
“Her expertise was invaluable — her balance and her perspective,” Stetzer said. “She was excellent at bringing people together. She would spend hours talking to people. With Mary, there were no boundaries with people.”
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in a statement, said, “Mary Spink was a vocal and passionate leader in our community, and I join so many of my neighbors on the Lower East Side in mourning her passing. She worked tirelessly on behalf of our community, creating affordable housing, empowering young people through her work with the Lower Eastside Girls Club and, of course, devoting her time and her talents to serve on Community Board 3. Mary was truly one of the Lower East Side’s bright lights and her strong dedication to our neighborhood will be sorely missed.”
‘Rare and unique’
State Senator Squadron said, “I am lucky to have known Mary, and our community is lucky to have had her. Stories and commitment to the community like hers are rare and a unique inspiration. She will be sorely missed.”
Councilmember Mendez said, “She was one of our unsung heroes. In decades to come — or even now — people won’t know who she is. But there’s going to be 20-some buildings in this community — in Margaret Chin’s and my districts — that are for low-income families to live.”
One way to tell L.E.S.P.M.H.A. buildings is that their entrances and fire escapes are painted a distinctive, bright blue color. Spink always “shopped locally,” buying the blue paint at Brickman & Sons Hardware store on First Ave., Mendez noted.
“To me, that’s become ‘The People’s Color,’” Mendez said.
Asked if she might sponsor an honorary street co-naming for her friend and colleague, the councilmember said that would ultimately be up to the community to decide.
However, she added, “I think a real fitting tribute would be to have a Mary Spink Building somewhere that is affordable housing.”
Squadron spoke about Spink’s “moral authority,” adding, “That moral authority is something we all need.”
On the subject of authority, former C.B. 3 Chairperson David McWater said he nicknamed Spink “The Hammer.”
“At some point, The Hammer would come down and straighten everybody out,” he said. Sharing a favorite anecdote, he said, a few years ago, C.B. 3 members were debating about the Christodora House’s controversial application to turn an unused community-facility swimming pool into new residential units.
McWater said, “Mary listened and listened, and then she said, ‘You know, I sold guns to the Black Panthers in that building in 1971 and the pool didn’t work then.’… After that,” McWater said, “everyone agreed that the pool didn’t work.”