My father was a board member for the Harlem chapter of Habitat for Humanity in the late 90s until his passing in 2001. While I wasn’t privy to the comings and goings at the time, my mom had later told me what made him stand out. Certainly, my parents appreciated the mission of HoH, especially at a time before GenTriFicatiOn accelerated in a post-9/11 New York City – it was to provide some of the working poor a chance to have a home of their own through ‘sweat equity,’ a principle where the future habitats would build their new homes (obviously with help.) Yet it was always perceived as a mission for rural towns far, far away from the urban hustle and bustle. What he understood, what my family understood, was that Harlem wasn’t that different from those towns where HoH put itself on the map.
Bobby was basically the guy who helped interview the people who would move into a handful of rehabilitated brownstones on 134th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. That in and of itself must have been one of the hardest things he ever tried because of how many families were being considered. This meant that chapter members had to go to the current homes of these future tenants, going to places that may have not been the safest to roam, more often than not.
There was a family in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that was supposed to be interviewed, but quite frankly, some of the chapter members were scared shitless. Red Hook has also undergone significant upheaval over the last 15 or so years, but in 1999, 2000… yeah, you had to be careful. My father – who was born in North Philadelphia, had the nerve to be a black man in the heart of Boston for a few years, and raised a family in The Bronx and in Harlem – was unfazed. He rounded up fellow chapter members in a couple of cabs, a show to the family that at least HE was committed to helping THEM.
It was on this day in 2002 where the plaque you see here was laid in his honor. There’s another name here of another member who had passed on earlier that year, Lucy Watson. She was a woman who I never met, but I am sure shared the same hope for better that he did. When my family had learned that HoH would pay homage to him on the one-year anniversary of his passing, we were asked by the board and the Watson family if both names could be on the plaque.
As if we would have said otherwise, to have even said ‘no’ would have been an affront to both her family and the shared mission both believed in. That we believed in.
On the day of the dedication, one of the residents spoke of how my father was the reason that he got out from dire straits in his life. So many people spoke of his humanity, his empathy, his understanding that people who were pushing for a better life just needing a little bit of help.
I currently live a couple of blocks away from that plaque. Any time I need to get to 8th Avenue, I make sure to walk by to see it. It reminds me of how no matter how imperfect the better among us are or how we may stumble on our path, we are pushing for better. Lucy did. So did Bobby.