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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Lower East Siders came together last Saturday morning to pay tribute to a larger-than-life community leader who left a lasting influence on generations of local youth.
Friends, family and elected officials gathered on the blacktop at Sol Lain Park, on East Broadway near Grand St., to dedicate the playground’s new name — Edward Garcia Field.
Garcia died two years ago at age 51. A former president of the Vladeck Houses Tenants Association, he rose to become a member of Community Board 3.
He was famous for dressing up as Santa each Christmas and giving out toys to the kids in the public housing complex. He also took them on day trips to local amusement parks.
But the playground that now bears his name was his heart. The space between its chain-link fence came to symbolize Garcia’s determination to improve the lives of local youth through team sports in the Sol Lain League, which he founded.
A former gang member, he turned his life around in a positive way. He got his start as an activist by working with friends to clean up Sol Lain Park and ridding it of drug dealers.
Councilmember Rosie Mendez, speaking at Saturday’s ceremony, recalled how Garcia, who used to go by “Fat Eddie,” used to dance in the aisle at halftime at Knicks games, sometimes even stripping off his shirt as the crowd went wild. But she said, he told her that after seeing himself on TV, he realized he wanted to do more with his life, which led to his tenant activism and eventually his applying to be a C.B. 3 member.
Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager, said, two years later, Garcia’s loss is still felt deeply at the East Village/Lower East Side community board. Although his focus was parks and playgrounds, Garcia offered valuable input on a variety of issues, she said.
“Eddie wasn’t just a one-issue person,” she said. “We miss him terribly on the community board. He has not been replaced.”
Other speakers included Comptroller John Liu and David Garza, the Henry Street Settlement’s executive director.
Towering at the back of the crowd of about 200 people was 6-foot-10 Jayson Williams, the former St. John’s University and Nets basketball star. He grew up near the playground — where as a youth he spent countless hours honing his hoops game.
Before the ceremony, kids in the Sol Lain flag football league peppered him with questions about his statistics, like his scoring average (12 to 15 points per game).
Williams comes back to the neighbor- hood several times a month to visit his mother, who still lives there.
“I knew Eddie my whole life,” he said.
“This ain’t for show — he’s a big part of this community.
“Yeah, I played on that court — I tried for the 76ers on that court,” Williams reflected, gazing over the blacktop. “The owner and the general manager of the 76ers came down and watched. … I think Eddie may be the only guy in the world who spent more time on that court than me.
“We always in there,” Williams said of the courts and playground. Waving to the left, then the right, he said with a grin, “We did our good stuff over there and our not-so-good stuff over there — so they put a garden over there.”
Eddie Garcia was a few years older than Williams, but they were friends.
“Eddie was a very important guy back in the day,” the former pro recalled. “He carried a lot of weight. You had problems — you talked to him. He was in gangs in the beginning, and then he became a community leader.”
Williams said Garcia’s gang was the Hell Hill Boys.
“I was on teams. Eddie was in gangs,” he said. “It’s only gangs, teams. … When you’re young, boys run in gangs. When you’re a man, you organize teams — and that’s what he did here with all these young guys.”
Lisa Burriss, who used to lead girls basketball programs on the outdoor courts, recalled how Garcia always somehow knew exactly which toy to give her at Christmas.
“One year, I really wanted a yo-yo — and that’s what he gave me,” she said. “As one of four kids raised by a single mother, it meant a lot.”
Burriss used to head PHROLES (Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side) and now runs Khufu cafe and hookah lounge on E. Third St., between First and Second Aves.
At the ceremony’s end, Mendez and Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks Department commissioner, pre- sented Garcia’s sisters, Marilu and Eileen, with an honorary Edward Garcia Field plaque. Then, like Spider-Girl, Mendez sprung onto the chain-link fence and scaled it so she could pull off the covering of the new Edward Garcia Field plaque, and the crowd cheered.
“C’mon, play ball!” one of the refs shouted, and two flag football teams wearing orange and gray T-shirts sprint- ed out onto the field for the first of the afternoon’s games.
Since her brother’s passing, Marilu Garcia has run the league, which fields 45 players this season.
“I do — not what my brother did, because nobody could do what he could —but I do what it takes to keep it running,” she said.
“I’m very happy the way it turned out,” she said of Saturday’s ceremony. “I’m ever so grateful — because that’s all his hard work.”