Last year, a new community organization formed on the Lower East Side called the Association of Latino Business Owners and Residents (ALBOR). Now the group’s founder and president, lifetime LES resident Enrique Cruz, is taking on an issue that’s concerned him for some time — Latino representation on Community Board 3.
In a recent interview at ALBOR’s offices on Stanton Street, Cruz said, “my concern is that the Latino population is not fairly represented… and we’re trying to correct that.” The case, he said, is straightforward — anyone can see the numbers and come to the same conclusion. In spite of Census figures (2010) showing the Hispanic population of the district is 24%, there are only four Latinos on the 50-person board, he said. Cruz, who’s in the real estate industry calls himself a “numbers guy,” and someone who believes in representative government. Asked how many Latino appointees he’d like to see, Cruz replied, “if you ask me that question I’m going to tell you. 12 board members is (statistically) what we should have.”
CB3 includes the Lower East Side as well as the East Village and most of Chinatown. Community Board appointments are made by the borough president, with half of the slots being filled in collaboration with local City Council members. This year’s applications were due earlier this month; appointees will be announced in the spring. The borough president’s web site states that the office “looks for applicants with histories of involvement in their communities, expertise and skill sets that are helpful to community boards, attendance at community board meetings, and knowledge of issues impacting their communities.”
Cruz said he’s met with the new Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, as well as Council member Rosie Mendez, who mostly represents the area above East Houston Street. Sometime soon he hopes to talk with Council member Margaret Chin, whose district includes most of the LES below Houston Street. Cruz said both Brewer and Mendez were receptive to his message. One of the challenges, they explained, is that there are often too few applications, meaning the pool of potential candidates representing many constituencies is not as large as they would like it to be. In order to address that problem, ALBOR went on a recruiting mission. Cruz applied for membership himself, and he said, “I made sure that for this deadline (February 1) we had enough applications to allow the people who make the decisions to select 12 Latinos for the board.”
(As a practical matter, there’s only so much progress Cruz’s group can hope to make this year. Only a portion of community board seats are open each cycle, and many members are reappointed. For example, a total of 8 new members were appointed to CB3 last year).
The Latino presence in Community District 3 is diminishing, in part Cruz said, due to rising housing costs in a gentrifying community. Since 1990, Census figures show, the Hispanic population in the neighborhood has fallen 8 percentage points. Meanwhile, white residents now make up 32% of the district, Asians 34% and black residents 7%. But, Cruz asserted, the Latino community is still “very significant.”
“Representation on the board and representation as a whole in regards to the Latino population has always been something on my mind.” Cruz said, “but I have wanted to start this organization (ALBOR) for about five years.” ALBOR was created not long after Community Board 3 rejected a liquor license application for a restaurant at 106 Rivington St. Some accused the board of racism during that controversy. Cruz was a partner in the restaurant project. He said, however, the experience is not what drove him to found ALBOR. “Did that event motivate other people to get on board? Without a doubt,” he said. “Was it the main reason for this organization? No. It’s been on my mind for five years. A lot of other people in the neighborhood thought it was needed after that experience.”
Cruz said ALBOR exists to advocate for small business owners are residents alike. During our conversation he emphasized that it’s not a Latino-exclusive organization, but one that aims to help anyone in the community who needs assistance with a wide range of issues.
One problem the group has decided to tackle is the high commercial vacancy rate on Clinton Street. Noting that there are 12 unoccupied retail spaces on the three stretch between Houston and Delancey streets, Cruz said, “we want to bring a little more life to Clinton Street. I remember when it was a little more happening. It’s starting to dwindle and I don’t want that to happen.”
ALBOR has applied for a “business attraction” grant through the city’s Department of Small Business Services. Cruz said he thinks its high time to open up a dialogue with property owners about “cutting small businesses some slack.” He explained, “the fact that the rents are so high makes it unsustainable for a lot of businesses and that’s why a lot of times applicants are nightlife (ventures). That’s why there should be a concerted effort in the community not just to limit nightlife but also to ask landlords to be fair, too.”
Cruz said he’s optimistic about ALBOR’s campaign for more community board seats, as well as his new organization’s prospects for making a difference in the lives of LES residents. “This neighborhood is very dear to me and the more I spend time here the less I want to leave,” he said.
Click here if you’d like to see the full membership of CB3.