Two who work to make a difference

Mott Haven community leaders follow different paths

Community Leaders: A. Mychal. Johnson from Mott Haven on Vimeo.

Community Leaders: Lou Torres from Mott Haven on Vimeo.

Neighborhood leadership takes many forms. From organizing farmers’ markets to advocating tenants’ rights, Mott Haven has many residents who work hard to make the their neighborhood a better place to live.

The Mott Haven Herald caught up with two local leaders–one who lives in a row house and holds a seat on the community board and one who lives in a housing project and is the voice of its tenants–to find out how they came to dedicate their time and effort to working for their community.

Mychal Johnson knows what gentrification looks like. He grew up in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, whose struggles in the 1970s with depopulation, arson and crime invite easy comparison with the South Bronx of the same period.

Like Mott Haven and Melrose, Wicker Park has seen remarkable growth over the past decade, but its appeal to white-collar, college-educated residents has raised rents and prices, forcing many longtime residents to leave. “I didn’t want that to happen to this neighborhood” says Johnson, who moved to New York City with his family in 2003 and has lived in Mott Haven ever since.

Hoping to improving his neighborhood while keeping it affordable, Johnson became involved in community organizing as soon as he moved to the Bronx. And while he was working on the house he was finally able to buy, a friend stopped by with an idea.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you apply for a spot on the community board?’” Johnson recalled.

“My daughter went to school here,” Johnson says of his decision to join the board, “and I had become very close with people in the neighborhood.”

That was four and a half years ago. Since then, more families have been fixing up houses like Johnson’s in Mott Haven’s historic district. New restaurants have opened, and artists have found studio space in the neighborhood’s lofts and warehouses.

As a member of Board 1, in recent years Johnson has been focused on trying to guide development, particularly on the waterfront. Last year, the board won a fight against the New York State Department of Transportation’s plan to widen the Major Deegan Expressway. Johnson was a vocal opponent of the state plan, and he says the win was “crucial to the rebirth of the lower Grand Concourse and creating green space along the Harlem River.”

He continues to press for more community input into the city’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, and is now looking at ways to address the presence of so many waste transfer stations in Mott Haven.

More challenges lie ahead, he says, noting the rapid gentrification of other neighborhoods in New York City and the way it has pushed out long-time residents.

In addition to his service on Board 1, Johnson continues to do other organizing work. Last spring he traveled to Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change. There he acted as co-president of one of the summit’s committees; when he got home, he participated in a panel about the conference.

Almost a mile away from the handsome block near Alexander Avenue where Johnson lives, Lou Torres is hard at work in his own corner of Mott Haven. In a brightly-lit first floor office of the Moore Houses, near St. Mary’s playground, Torres serves as president of the tenants association.

Like Johnson, Torres has also traveled the world, though for different reasons. He spent many years working as a musician and an actor, director and producer of films. But he always knew he would come back to his home base in Mott Haven.

In his capacity as president of the New York City Housing Authority complex, Mr. Torres leads art workshops for children as well as health, legal and educational programming for the residents in his buildings.

Keeping track of two 20-story buildings and representing over 1,000 residents is not an easy job. Torres is often the first to hear about problems in the building, but as a rule he can’t fix them alone.

But Torres is as upbeat about his work as Mychal Johnson is about his. Even after suffering a stroke last year that left him unable to speak for four months, Torres, who has regained his ability to communicate with words, although he still speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly, remains positive. He is in his office almost every day, working to improve quality of life in the Moore houses.

When asked about his accomplishments, Torres seems proudest of the work he’s done with Mott Haven’s young people. He has organized teen anti-violence events and rewarded participants with group trips and prizes. He holds educational workshops right in his office in the Moore Houses, teaching kids animation and other computer programs.

But getting money allocated for the things he wants to get done can be tricky. And as president, Torres also has to worry about serious security matters—about crimes committed on the property, police response time and even police harassment of Moore House residents.

All the while, Lou Torres continues his own filmmaking projects. Quick to hand out a head-shot, he is in the process of trying to fund and produce at least one film, and looking forward to acting in more. His resume ranges from a co-producer credit on the award-winning independent movie “Manito” to playing small parts in “Law and Order” and the big-screen blockbuster “Fantastic Four.”

But even with so much in store, Torres never talks about leaving the Moore Houses, just as Mychal Johnson’s travels continue to bring him back to Mott Haven. Though the men followed different paths to leadership in Mott Haven, both are taking their cues from those who built their neighborhood back up after the hard times of the 1970s. They’re staying.