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When it comes to the competitive world of New York City real estate, most renters will accept a few trade-offs in order to secure the best deal. In the case of the Bronx Community Pride Center, the search for an appropriate new home led to a building named for state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., one of the most outspoken opponents of the new marriage equality law.
Last month the center relocated to the newly constructed building in the Hunts Point/Longwood neighborhood of the South Bronx represented by the senator. The Democratic lawmaker, who is also a Pentecostal minister, helped obtain financing for the Reverend Ruben Diaz Gardens building, one of three structures named for him in the borough.
"We're just excited to be here," said Dirk McCall, the executive director of the center, who acknowledged the "comical" aspect of the situation. "We haven't had a chance to work with him yet. We're going to give him the benefit of the doubt until we have a problem."
McCall said that the center began to search for a new location last winter after conditions at its home of 17 years in the nearby Mott Haven neighborhood became so intolerable it seemed the city might issue a vacate order. Safety and accessibility concerns mounted, as the center serves some 3,000 local clients per year, some 70% of whom are youths, plus many seniors.
"We didn't feel comfortable with the kids being in the building. It was really run-down," said McCall. "When we had the earthquake, we had 12 rats came out of the walls on each of the three floors."
The center, which like many nonprofits experienced fund-raising challenges this year, seriously considered seven properties until finally settling on a 10-year lease in the Diaz building, a mixed-use commercial and residential property near a subway station. Costs are similar to those at the old space, but the new location brings significant upsides. While roughly two thirds the size of the old space at 5,500 square feet, the new location condenses operations into one floor, with three rooms for programming. Partners such as Bronx AIDS Services, Community Healthcare Network, and the Hispanic AIDS Forum are located close by.
"It's extremely usable," said McCall. "It's beautiful. It's new. It's accessible and it's safe."
While Diaz Sr. acknowledges having gay relatives, including brothers and a granddaughter, in addition to being friends with gay political aides, he was the only Democratic senator to vote against the marriage equality bill that passed the Republican-controlled Senate in June. He also blocked the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act from advancing in committee in 2010.
On the other hand, Diaz Sr. voted in 2010 for the Dignity for All Students Act, an antibullying law that was the first in New York State to reference gender identity and expression. He and gay state senator Tom Duane were the only two Democratic senators to oppose the austerity budget proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year. Critics said the plan would hurt some of the state's most vulnerable groups, such as LGBT youths and poor New Yorkers.
"In some ways, he's a natural ally," said McCall of Diaz Sr. "Economic justice is a huge concern. People want jobs and a living wage and to be able to live with their partners free of discrimination, so housing issues are important." Name changes for transgender clients, access to safe health care and HIV testing, and intervention programs also dominate the list of needs in the majority Hispanic borough, which has some of the country's least affluent neighborhoods.
Senator Diaz issued a statement last month that suggested he felt more flattered than irritated by the move. He welcomed the center's relocation as a sign of revitalization in the Bronx, an improvement for which he took ample credit.
"When I learned that a group called Bronx Pride decided to seize the opportunity and benefit from the work I've done for our community, and move to one of the buildings which I helped to build, how could I have any reason to become annoyed as many have wanted to see happen," he said. "Quite the contrary, this has caused me to rejoice and feel happiness because what Bronx Pride is saying with this move is that my work is good and that the housing that I helped to create is sufficiently comfortable and livable for them to come and occupy."
"That fact that a group of gays and lesbians occupy space in the Ruben Diaz Gardens is a testimony to let others know that the Bronx is open to merchants and businesses," he said. "It's a safe place and people should invest and continue renting in buildings with good reputations and in buildings that elected officials have been instrumental in bringing to the community!"