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Frank Gonzalez: Champion of the Lower East Side Community

It takes a farsighted person to turn a crisis into an opportunity. That being the case, Loisaida has in Frank Gonzalez a veritable eagle, capable of discerning multiple ways of serving his local community during a time of great need. The story of these efforts begins with the COVID pandemic. At the time, Frank, a lifelong Loisaida resident and the head of Loisaida Realty, had been volunteering at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and was a freshly minted chaplain. Surveying the situation around him, he decided that his office space and his extensive neighborhood connections put him in a great position to help vulnerable populations in the area. Out of this insight was born LES CommUnity Concerns.

Loisaida has historically been a lower-income neighborhood and a woefully underserved one. Past crises have laid bare these tendencies and their consequences. During the pandemic, food insecurity became a pervasive problem in the area as did lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPEs) and, later on, to vaccines. LES CommUnity Concerns emerged as a response to these problems. Spearheaded by Frank and community leaders from Jacob Riis Houses, this all-volunteer organization began working with Lower East Side food pantry Visión Urbana to distribute food to seniors and homebound residents in public housing.

The group would use Frank’s office as a staging area for food deliveries from the pantry and, from there, deliver it throughout an area that came to extend from the Jacob Riis Houses on East 10th Street to the Al Smith Houses just north of the Brooklyn Bridge. During this period, LES CommUnity and its dozens of volunteers were serving a minimum of five hundred meals a day. The organization also worked with the offices of State Representative Harvey Epstein and Councilmember Carlina Rivera to arrange for the delivery of PPEs and for the local deployment of stations for the administration of vaccines.

Photo by Stacie Joy for EV Grieve

The problem of food insecurity in the neighborhood extends, of course, beyond the reach of the LES CommUnity Concerns’ tremendous delivery operation. So to complement those efforts, Frank worked as a member of the community group East Village Neighbors to install a community refrigerator on the corner of 1st Avenue and East 12th Street in partnership with Change Food and the restaurant S’MAC. This heavily used and volunteer-maintained facility stocks food donated by local restaurants, such as ‘SMAC itself, and by members of the community. The food, which is freely available to anyone, is typically gone within a few hours of restocking. Seeing the success of this community fridge, Frank teamed up with Trinity Lower East Side to place a second one on Avenue B and East 9th Street.

The attenuation of the COVID crisis may have alleviated to some degree the food insecurity among the population that LES CommUnity Concerns originally served. Now in operation, however, the organization was well positioned to address persistent needs that preexisted the pandemic as well as those that subsequently arose unexpectedly. It began, for instance, to deliver food to the longstanding homeless population in the south end of Tompkins Square park. Then, as the asylum seeker crisis grew, it secured grants from Citizens Committee and Trinity Wall Street Foundation to deliver food as well as clothing and personal hygiene products to the soaring number of individuals and families seeking shelter in the neighborhood.

The impacts of the pandemic on the neighborhood extended beyond its residents, devastating its small businesses. Noticing the struggles of Loisaida establishments and their lack of knowledge about the various resources available to assist with small business survival and the recovery, Frank worked with the East Village Independent Merchants Association to form an offshoot entity called the Lower East Side Business Alliance. This new organization worked to help members secure available financial assistance and to coordinate community events.  

In all, Frank’s multiple efforts and collaborations have been an invaluable resource in addressing community needs that, under a better system and better circumstances, would not arise. Today, we salute his work and invite those who wish to contribute to its furtherance to contact his organization at LEScommUnityconcerns@gmail.com.

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