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For Downtown’s Unsung Heroes: Love, Passion, and a Party

After the awards presentation, the 10-piece Abrazos Orchestra had people from activism, politics and the neighborhood dancing.

“The Lower East Side is not gone yet,” Ryan Gilliam told the group assembled in the upstairs auditorium of University Settlement on the corner of Eldridge and Rivington Streets, the country’s first settlement house. “Asserting its identity, its history, its stories, and its complex culture is one way to push back at the forces that would erase our character.

“There is a unique, fighting spirit in this place, an open-minded, creative spirit, a determined justice-seeking spirit that repeatedly shows itself in the people here,” said Gilliam, by way of introducing this year’s winners of the Lower East Side Community Hero Awards. The awards are part of this May’s second-annual Lower East Side History Month, which Gilliam, the Executive Director of Downtown Art, co-founded last year.

Ryan Gilliam, a founder of Lower East Side History Month, and emcee of the event.

Community Heroes are nominated by the public and selected by a volunteer panel for having, in Gilliam’s words, “a vision of community which has sustained them and affected all of us for the better over many years. …They are driven by … a love that manifests itself in the actions they take on behalf of neighbors, for strangers, for those who came before them, and those still new to the world.”

There was a lot of talk about love, passion and preservation — of community, affordable housing, jobs and significant buildings — and about those being more important than money, as awards were given to the recipients:

Chino García is an activist and organizer who co-founded CHARAS, particularly noted for its innovative work fostering community-based urban ecology, arts and culture. Charas/El Bohio, at the former P.S. 64, was a vibrant community arts and education center serving the Loisaida community for more than two decades until it was auctioned off by the city in 1998. (You can watch Loisaida Center Director Libertad Guerra’s introductory remarks here.)

Paul Garrin has been a resident of the Lower East side for 36 years. An award-winning media and technology artist, Paul also leads the WiFi-NY cooperative community broadband project, and has partnered with many community-based organizations to create a resilient citizen’s network designed to function if the electric grid fails.

Mateo Gomez and Nelson Landrieu are both artists and co-founders of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Education Center. In 1993, they took over the lease of the iconic building, a former school on the corner of Suffolk and Rivington Streets, and worked to make it into the fully functional cultural center that it is today.

LES Ready, or the Lower East Side Long Term Recovery Group, is a coalition of community groups and institutions that cooperatively coordinate response, resources, preparedness planning, and training originally in response to Hurricane Sandy and in the event of future disasters. LES Ready is inclusive and open to community groups, organizations, and institutions that wish to be actively involved.

Joyce Mendelsohn is a preservationist, author, and educator. Her published work includes The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited, a History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood. Joyce served as the first Director of Education for the Tenement Museum from 1992–1994. As a preservation advocate, she frequently testifies at public hearings and is a founding member of Friends of the Lower East Side.

Nelson Valentine has been working as a Senior Court Advocate at Andrew Glover Youth Program for over 26 years. When a youth is mandated to the Glover Program by the courts, Nelson works diligently with the client to develop a rehabilitation plan that addresses their specific needs, meeting not just with the youth, but also with families, schoolteachers, and officials.

John Blasco, a spokesman for Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, reads a proclamation honoring Community Heroes, L-R: Michael Callaghan, Vice Chair of LES Ready; Mateo Gomez of CSV Center; preservationist Joyce Mendelsohn; Nelson Landrieu of CSV Center; WiFiNY founder Paul Garrin; Andrew Glover Youth Program senior court advocate Nelson Valentine; and CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia. Photos by Karen Loew.

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