Monday, December 22, 2008

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, 1943-2008

For the second time in 4 months, our community has lost one of its giants. This past Thursday Jordi Reyes-Montblanc died after a bout with cancer.

Jordi (aka George) was a larger-than-life figure in the Hamilton Heights/West Harlem community. For decades he was one of the area's most energetic activists, fighting for safe streets and cleaner parks, and especially championing the cause of affordable housing and homeownership for New Yorkers of modest means.

Jordi's story was the stuff of novels. He fled his native Cuba as a young adult. He joined the US Marines, where he engaged in covert operations in Southeast Asia and--it was said--even Cuba (Jordi never spoke much about his past to those outside of his closest circle of friends). He loved to hunt, and demonstrating his trademark frankness he told the Columbia Spectator last year, "When things get to me, I go up north to Canada and kill something and then I feel better." I can see Jordi smiling as he said this--he always derived more than a little joy from being provocative.

Jordi was a pioneer in the movement to allow low- and middle-income families to purchase their own apartments through the city's HDFC program, and in 1993 he lead the conversion of his own building on Broadway & 136th St. to such a limited-equity coop.

This activism on housing issues secured his appointment to Community Board 9 in the mid-1990s. It was during that period when he developed a close bond to Councilman Stan Michels (the other signficant local leader who passed away this year). Jordi eventually rose to serve as Chair of CB9, a role he seemed to have been born for. Jordi was fearless in speaking his mind on local issues, regardless of who he might offend. That quality could have earned him nothing but detractors on the Board, but instead the reverse happened: he was almost universally repected for his even-handedness and devotion to the community.

Columbia University's plan to expand to a new campus in Manhattanville defines Jordi's tenure as CB9 Chair. While maintaining that he wasn't opposed to the expansion per se, he became a vocal critic of the displacement of local residents and businesses which would result from the specific plan Columbia was advancing. Jordi thrust CB9 into the center of the fight on this issue, and he become a fixture in the city's media as an outspoken critic of the expansion.

Jordi delighted in his many contradictions. He was staunchly proud of his Cuban heritage, but never self-identified as a Latino. He was a fierce opponent of Communism who nonetheless fought for not-so-Capitalistic affordable housing policies. He liked to recall what his political mentor, the late neighborhood activist Al Blumberg, once told him: "Jordi, you're so far to the right you're a leftist!".

For many years Jordi served as a friend and mentor to me, and I am immensely proud of the support he gave to my political career. Upper Manhattan won't be the same without him, and I'll be one of the many who will miss his singular voice.


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