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A chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Executive pulled to a stop in front of a crumbling building in the South Bronx on a chilly night this past October and out stepped Father Louis R. Gigante, the low-income- housing developer and brother of legendary mobster Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. Father G. was once hailed as the savior of the South Bronx for convert-ing hulks of charred buildings into affordable homes for impoverished families. But on this night, the white-haired 74-year-old priest had arrived to meet with angry tenants who accuse this once heroic figure of being a slumlord.
Just as his late brother, onetime head of the Genovese crime family, would have done, Father G. brought an entourage to protect himself from a potentially volatile situation. On the dimly lit sidewalk in front of 741 Coster Street, one of the buildings that Father G. renovated but which now have devolved back into violent slums under his guardianship, he and the local Catholic pastor, William J. Smith, met two security guards and two tall uniformed police officers from the 41st Precinct. (The police officers claimed that someone from the neighborhood asked them to come to the meeting, but tenants insisted none of them called the department.) Father G. was escorted into the building by his nephew, Salvatore Gigante, son of "The Chin."
The Chin became one of New York's most dangerous mobsters and later one of the most strange as he faked mental illness to try to avoid prosecution (think "Uncle Junior" in The Sopranos). Meanwhile, Father G. became a beacon of light for many of the city's poorer residents. As a street priest in the '60s, he was kicked out of a City Council meeting for vociferously railing against the horrendous living conditions in the South Bronx. But today, Father G. heads a housing empire, takes home a $150,000 salary, and is despised by many of the same kind of low-income residents he once helped.
Gigante, who manages the buildings but doesn't own them, faces major problems on two fronts: HUD has started foreclosure proceedings, and Gigante's tenants are fighting to block their sale to the priest's company. Under Gigante's watch, they say, the Hunts Point I Rehab projecthome to about 300 low-income residentshas fallen into such disrepair that the apartments are almost uninhabitable. After years of living without heat or hot water and with holes in their ceilings and rotting floors, residents formed the United We Stand Tenants Association with help from the nonprofit organization Tenants and Neighbors, and they might just be successful in stopping the sale. The tenants have been angry for a long time and allegations have flown, but Gigante has glided past. But now tenants are organizing against him for what is believed to be the first time in his long career.
It was only fitting that the priest and his entourage walked through a dark tunnel of scaffolding lined with smashed lightbulbs to get to their meeting. The founder and head of the recently formed tenants' association, Mildred Colon, glared at Father G. and the entourage of police, security guards, and management staff on the sidewalk. "We would like to have security all the time, not just when management is here," Colon said angrily as she walked by the men. Inside awaited a crowd of tenants in an equally dark mood.
739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point
photo: Eirini Vourloumis
There was a time when Father G. and his tenants were fighting on the same side. When the neighborhoods in the South Bronx collapsed in the late '60slandlords were torching buildings for insurance money, and teen gangs were battling one another for control of the streetsthe Catholic Church fought on the front lines of the tenants' rights movement. Father G. launched the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO) in the fall of 1968 with funds from the federal Section 8 housing program, through which tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and the federal government pays the difference. "I brought the neighborhood up from ashes to help the people in the South Bronx," Gigante has told tenants. "There isn't one other organization that can take credit. Nobody is going to kick me out of my neighborhood."
During the resurrection of the South Bronx, Father G. fought the city on behalf of tenants. In her book South Bronx Rising, Jill Jonnes described a 1969 incident in which Father G. organized 300 Hunts Point residents who heaved furniture and wood from abandoned buildings and set fire to them in trash barrels, marching up and down 163rd Street while chanting the familiar protests that echo through the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings today: No hot water. No heat. We're sick and tired of junkies.
"There was nothing holier-than-thou about the man," recalled veteran community activist Aureo Cardona, who described Father G. as one of his closest friends and praised him for serving the Puerto Rican community. Cardona grew up in the South Bronx and was a member of the Catholic Youth Organization run out of St. Athanasius Church when Father G. was one of the priests. He wrote a musical about the burning of the South Bronx, which he described as a cancer spreading through the neighborhood, and headed one of the first housing organizations, the South Bronx Community Housing Corporation, in the late 1970s. "People of the cloth are usually up on the pulpit reciting words," said Cardona. "Gigante took those words to the street. He rolled up his sleeves and he got things done."