Known for his old-school politics and scandalous downfall, Brooklyn native Vito Lopez died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital on Monday after a years-long fight with cancer. He was 74.
A Bensonhurst-bred Italian-American, Vito Lopez represented a favor-for-loyalty type of machine-style politics where, for a vote, he was known to bring supporters jobs, housing, and health care.
Indeed, this is exactly the service he provided to locals during his heyday as a New York State Assembly member representing Bushwick and parts of Williamsburg.
For a time, his tactics were hugely successful. Lopez founded the Bushwick-Ridgewood Senior Citizens Council, a service center which either owned or managed a significant portion of the affordable housing empire Lopez created in Bushwick. Additionally, the council organized senior help, employment, and health care for locals, services which certainly earned him the love of many Bushwick voters.
Indeed, above the archway to the Rheingold Gardens apartments at 533 Bushwick Avenue, uppercased block letters declare, “Thank You Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez.”
Rheingold Gardens was one of many Bushwick affordable housing complexes created under Lopez’ watch. Photo by Google Maps
In addition to his 28 years on the State Assembly, Lopez also held positions in the City Council and State Legislature, and was chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
As well, Lopez was very close with former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who resigned following federal corruption charges earlier this year.
Lopez was known for using his enormous political clout to influence and create affordable housing developments, a factor that further embedded him with the working class, low-income Bushwick and Williamsburg community who supported him.
His downfall may have begun with his support for a controversial development in Williamsburg’s Broadway Triangle. A court case ultimately determined a housing plan Lopez was backing to be discriminatory and barred it from happening.
In September 2010, Lopez’s Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and Lopez himself were investigated by the NYC Department of Investigations, but no charges were ultimately filed.
The final straw came on June 11, 2013, when Lopez was brought up on charges of sexual harassment and fined $330,000 for groping young female staff members. Lopez had already resigned a month prior following a censuring by a legislative ethics panel.
Following the case, Sheldon Silver was charged with, and subsequently apologized for, covering up accusations against Lopez.
By the time of his resignation, Lopez already had cancer.
Lopez’s Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council opened a foreclosure prevention service office on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick in 2012. Photo by Cate Corcoran
His legacy thus lives on as both a bully and saint: a big player in affordable housing, he was involved in protecting subsidized housing against the real estate lobby, and was also responsible for award winning affordable housing developments in the Bushwick area.
While many disagreed with Lopez’s tactics, he was able to acheive what his constitutents wanted — indeed, the second stage of the Rheingold Brewery development is being privately developed and isn’t primarily affordable.
A fighter till the end, Lopez even attempted to reel in the influx of college educated urban professionals in the area by helping pass the Loft Law, an effort to legalize and help tenants remain in their apartments in factories and warehouses.
[Top photo: Aaron Short via Sheepshead Bites]