Nearly four decades ago, a new assemblyman named Sheldon Silver and his young protégé escorted Edward I. Koch, then a mayoral candidate, through the Orthodox Jewish enclave on Manhattan's Lower East Side where the two had both grown up.
It was the first day of Rosh Hashana, 1977, and Mr. Koch and his opponent, Mario M. Cuomo, had agreed not to campaign, even as they were locked in a frantic runoff for the Democratic nomination.
But the air of religious observance provided cover for Mr. Koch to walk along Grand Street with his two new friends, shaking the hands of influential rabbis and throwing bread into the East River, part of the ritual casting off of sins.
Six days later, Mr. Koch carried the Jewish vote and won the primary. His team long remained grateful for the guided tour by Mr. Silver and the protégé, William E. Rapfogel, then a recent college graduate who ran his own Jewish newspaper.
"They helped us big time in the runoff," recalled John LoCicero, Mr. Koch's chief political adviser. "It revved up the Jewish vote for Koch against Cuomo."
The long-ago walk was the first public display of an alliance that became central to the lives and careers of both Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. They worked together across the decades while climbing parallel ladders: Mr. Silver to Assembly speaker and Mr. Rapfogel to leadership of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty , a large, publicly financed charity.
But their long affiliation came to an abrupt end last year when Mr. Rapfogel, 59, was arrested and charged in a scheme that had allegedly looted more than $7 million in kickbacks from Met Council's insurance broker over the years. He is due back in court in April.
The arrest cast new light on a relationship about which little was known beyond the obvious: Mr. Silver has funneled millions of public dollars to the organization that Mr. Rapfogel led, and he employs Mr. Rapfogel's wife, Judy, as his chief of staff.
A primary focus of their alliance had been a struggle to preserve the Jewish identity of the neighborhood they delivered for Mr. Koch all those years ago.
Their battleground was some 20 barren acres along the southern side of Delancey Street, where, in 1967, the city leveled blocks of rundown apartment buildings. More than 1,800 low-income families, largely Puerto Rican, were sent packing and promised a chance to return to new apartments someday. Now, nearly 50 years later, the land is still a fallow stretch of weed- and rat-ridden parking lots, though in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, the city announced that the land would finally be developed into a complex called Essex Crossing, to include retail markets, restaurants, office and cultural space. And new apartments.
Mr. Silver has long characterized his role in plans for the site, known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or Spura, as limited to insisting that all groups have a voice in the outcome, not promoting a specific plan or developer. "The speaker's position was always that any development at Spura had to be achieved by consensus among all of the diverse communities that make up the Lower East Side," his spokesman, Michael Whyland, said in a recent written statement.
But an extensive review of the archives of four mayors and more than two dozen interviews show Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel diligently working behind the scenes to promote specific plans and favored developers. Mr. Rapfogel made clear that the goal was to maintain the area's Jewish identity, seemingly at the expense of other communities.
Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel steadfastly opposed any mention of affordable housing, which would have altered the demographics of the neighborhood and put Mr. Silver's political base in question. And Mr. Silver appears to have occasionally misrepresented the desires of his Chinese and Hispanic constituents in conversations with city officials to quash housing plans for the site.
"They're the reason that this site has been empty for 50 years," said Edward Delgado, known as Tito, who was a teenager when the city cleared the blocks and his family was evicted. He has been advocating for affordable homes at the site in the decades since.
Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel were born in the neighborhood to Jewish parents. Mr. Silver, 70, grew up in a tenement on Henry Street. His father owned a neighborhood hardware business. Mr. Rapfogel's father was a clerk for city government.
When they were boys, the blocks along Grand Street teemed with Jewish peddlers and dozens of small synagogues. Unions were building 12 apartment buildings in the neighborhood to house 4,500 families, mostly garment workers. Known as Cooperative Village, the apartments would anchor a new Jewish middle class.
It was the quaint urban hamlet that served as the home of Bubbie in the movie "Crossing Delancey." But it was also an island apart.
Cooperative Village was surrounded by more than 14,000 units of public housing to the north, east and south. Those buildings were full of less prosperous African-Americans and more recent Hispanic arrivals. Chinatown, to the south and west, was expanding, as Jewish numbers declined.
From the perspective of Grand Street's Jewish leaders, any development with affordable housing that replaced the cleared tenements would tilt the balance of the entire neighborhood.
Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel fought that possibility, chiefly through a community group called United Jewish Council of the East Side . Mr. Rapfogel's father, Hyman, was a co-founder and Judy Rapfogel was on its board of directors in the 1970s. Mr. Silver was the group's lawyer and headed one of its housing corporations.
In the early 1970s, the city built a 360-unit housing project on a corner of the site. But that project wound up the subject of a court dispute when Jews were given many of the apartments. And the fate of rest of the site was still deadlocked.
By December 1977, Mr. Silver was still serving as United Jewish Council's lawyer. He wrote to members of the departing administration of Mayor Abraham D. Beame about a plan he and the group had submitted years earlier for a "mini shopping center" on the Spura site. In drawings, it resembled a massive airplane hangar. It included no housing, but the group said it would create needed jobs.
"I would very much appreciate meeting with you or members of your staff in order to set up a program of incentive to get this plan off the ground," Mr. Silver wrote. "It has been quite some time since the proposal was submitted and, to date, there has been no action."
Mr. Koch took office weeks later. He hired Mr. Rapfogel, then 23, as a spokesman at a city agency. Mr. Silver was pleased. He was sure Mr. Rapfogel would be "a capable spokesman in such a sensitive area of your administration," he wrote to Mr. Koch.
Soon after, United Jewish Council began pushing its friends in the administration to support the "international mall" plan, and its handpicked developer, Howard Blitman, arguing that the neighborhood was "clearly saturated" with public housing.
Mr. Rapfogel, Mr. Silver and others discussed the plan with city officials at several private meetings. During one, talk turned to the "political problem" presented by a request from a Chinatown group to sponsor 150 units of low-income housing for senior citizens in the development.
"Assemblyman Silver announced that he had a compromise," according to minutes of the meeting, which was to move the Chinatown project out of the area.
Asked about the agreement recently, Allen Cohen, who was then executive director of the Chinatown Planning Council, said Mr. Silver never asked his organization to agree to any such plan.
"We were not involved in that," he said.
Eventually, the Koch administration selected the Chinatown Planning Council to build a 156-unit building for seniors on a lot near the main site. United Jewish Council, working with the Bialystoker Synagogue, was awarded 124 senior units in a different project nearby.
The mall plan briefly got traction, but city officials backed off when other groups got wind of it and complained.
Three years later, in April 1980, another proposal that included low-income housing was considered by the city's Board of Estimate. It was opposed by Mr. Silver and United Jewish Council, according to records and former city officials.
"This is a compromise, and like all good compromises, no one is completely happy," wrote a planning department official, Jolie B. Hammer, in a letter to a former colleague. "Off the record, however," she continued "the only true objections are coming from U.J.C."
Mr. LoCicero, the political adviser to Mr. Koch, said Mr. Silver made his opposition clear and won the support of Harrison (Jay) Goldin, then the city comptroller, who had a crucial vote on the board and coveted the Grand Street Jewish vote for future elections.
"Shelly said: 'Are you crazy? We've got enough low income housing,' " Mr. LoCicero recalled. "He aligned himself with Jay Goldin at the Board of Estimate, and they beat us."
Mr. LoCicero said he appreciated the concerns of the Jewish community, but opposing the Koch administration's compromise plan just a few years after Mr. Koch's walk along Grand Street felt like a betrayal. "You put us in here, and now you're going to destroy us?" Mr. LoCicero said.
Soon after, Mr. Rapfogel took a post in Mr. Goldin's office as liaison to the Jewish community. He also became head of United Jewish Council's development arm, South Manhattan Development Corporation, and soon after wrote an article in the group's newspaper saying his mission was to "retain the distinctly Jewish religious and cultural identity of our community."
"We wait with bated breath for the development of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area," he wrote in 1985. "City government must never again believe that it will force more low-income housing on a community that has been made into a poverty ghetto."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Silver and Mr. Rapfogel co-hosted annual legislative meetings put on by U.J.C., and later by Met Council, with the affable Mr. Rapfogel serving as the master of ceremonies and the taciturn Mr. Silver lending gravitas. Plans for the site were an occasional focus of those meetings.
That was the case in 1988, after the Koch administration selected the Lefrak Organization to build a project with a mix of commercial and residential projects on the site. Advocates for the poor opposed the plan's dearth of low-income housing. At U.J.C.'s annual legislative conference, Mr. Silver introduced the city housing commissioner, Abe Biderman, to promote the plan.
"Our job now is to follow up throughout the year to check on the progress of the items discussed," Mr. Rapfogel wrote in U.J.C.'s newspaper regarding the proposal.
That plan was eventually dropped by the city.
In 1994, Mr. Silver became speaker of the Assembly in Albany. Almost 30 years after it was cleared, the vast space on the Lower East Side remained desolate. That year he faced renewed accusations from housing advocates that he and U.J.C. had blocked plans for housing on the site to preserve his power and keep out other groups.
"They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have minority people there," said Frances Goldin, a leader in the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which fought for housing on the site, speaking to The New York Times that year.
In response, Mr. Silver said he only wanted "a buildable consensus plan" in a neighborhood that was too split to proceed.
But months later, he and Mr. Rapfogel quietly put their weight behind yet another new plan, from a handpicked developer who included no housing. According to official memos, Mr. Silver asked city officials to approve a "big box" store, like Costco, on the site. The developer, Bruce Ratner, would build it. The sponsor would be the South Manhattan Development Corporation, which Mr. Rapfogel then headed.
"This proposal's most prominent supporter is Assemblyman Sheldon Silver," wrote Deborah C. Wright, the city's housing commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in an internal memo. "I would love to see something positive happen here under our administration, but the conflicts here rival Bosnia!"
Charles Millard, then the head of the city's Economic Development Corporation, wrote in another memo that Mr. Silver told him "the community does not want housing on the site."
The plan was never publicly discussed and went nowhere.
"We had no idea Silver had done that," said Harriet Cohen, who argued for affordable housing on the site as co-chairwoman of the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition.
In the years that followed, the neighborhood underwent major changes. Jewish dominance waned. A wave of fashionable urban professionals changed the look and feel of the shops and restaurants.
Stores that sold skullcaps or kosher wine were replaced by hip wine bars and cafes. Kossar's Hot Bialys, a Jewish institution on Grand Street, remains, but two doors down is Doughnut Plant, which sells things like Valrhona chocolate doughnuts, for as much as $3 apiece.
At Cooperative Village, where the Rapfogels and Silvers raised their children and still live, tenants were allowed to sell on the open market beginning in 2000, after decades of values' being capped. One two-bedroom apartment was recently on the market for $965,000.
And the ties between Mr. Silver, Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Ratner strengthened.
The Rapfogels' eldest son, Michael, finished law school in 2005 and soon went to work for Mr. Ratner. The job was seen internally as a way to please Mr. Silver, say people familiar with the son's work; Mr. Ratner's company rejects the notion.
"Michael Rapfogel was hired in 2005 as a young lawyer because he is smart, a hard worker and interested in community and economic development," said Ashley Cotton, a senior vice president at Forest City Ratner Companies. "He is a valued member of our staff."
In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out.
In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.
That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. "Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that's gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan," Mr. Silver said at the event. "He is a major force in New York City for the good."
By 2011, with all the neighborhood changes, consensus finally seemed possible. The local community board adopted development guidelines that included 800 to 1,000 apartments, with 20 percent, or as few as 160 units, set aside for low-income tenants, and another 10 percent for low-income seniors. Mr. Silver gave the guidelines his blessing. Longtime advocates went along, seeing a portion of something as better than all of nothing.
"Hopefully it will move forward, but it should not have taken 40 years," said Mr. Delgado. "It's sad because the truth is that they have more in common with us than with the millionaires moving in now."
Developers bidding for the Seward Park site were required to team up with a local nonprofit. Mr. Ratner chose Mr. Rapfogel's Met Council. As the process was nearing a close last year, Mr. Rapfogel was arrested. On Sept. 18, another bidder was selected.
In announcing the new plan, the city said priority would be given to some of the mostly Puerto Rican families displaced four decades ago. Construction is expected to begin next year.
Mr. Delgado says he has kept in touch with some former neighborhood occupants, and though most are scattered apart and elderly, he hopes their children will have a chance to return.
Mr. Silver has steadfastly stood by Judy Rapfogel. But as to his long alliance with Mr. Rapfogel, that is done. "Let's be clear," he said in a recent interview, "I have nothing to do with Willie Rapfogel."
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