Sports to Santa, Vladeck activist did it all for kids
By Lincoln Anderson
The heart was ripped out of the Vladeck Houses two weeks ago when Edward Garcia, a larger-than-life presence and leader at the Lower East Side public housing complex, suddenly and unexpectedly died.
Garcia, who would have turned 51 next month, died at home in his sleep on Aug. 20. An autopsy was being done to determine the cause of death.
From an early age, Garcia had been on disability due to health-related issues. He had had a double hip replacement and struggled with obesity.
His sudden passing came as a shock. According to friends, in the week before his death, he had attended a community event at Corlears Hook Park, and had been freestyle dancing at another event at the East River Park amphitheater.
Since one wake wouldn’t have been enough to accommodate the community’s outpouring of grief for Garcia, two wakes for him were held last week, one on Wednesday and another on Thursday. The first was the larger of the two, with people lining the street and wrapping around the corner.
Garcia was a past vice president and then president of the tenants association of Vladeck Houses, whose 20 buildings are home to more than 2,800 residents. He stepped down as Vladeck T.A. president about four years ago.
More recently, he was appointed by Councilmember Rosie Mendez to Community Board 3. He was a member of C.B. 3’s Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, Landmarks and Waterfront Committee, and also served on the board’s Landmarks Subcommitee.
But what Garcia was best known for was his work with local youth. He led the Sol Lain League, which offered flag football, basketball and Wiffle ball on Saturday mornings for local boys and girls ages 9 to 14. He also headed summer day trips for neighborhood kids to places like Splish Splash, Rye Playland and Coney Island, often using his own finances to help fund the trips. And at Christmas, he donned a Santa outfit and long white beard and gave out toys to the kids in Vladeck.
Although he had no children of his own, Garcia was a father to several foster children.
He was also active in Primitive Christian Church, on East Broadway, and went on mission trips with church members, including to New Orleans to help in the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts.
Garcia, who is survived by his two sisters, Eileen and Marilu, lost his parents early. Cancer claimed his mother, and his father died after an accident.
According to Rosa Santiago, a former girlfriend, Garcia was seriously injured by a car when he was crossing the street at age 5, and spent a year in a wheelchair recovering.
In 1984, Garcia, then known as “Fat Eddie,” and his friend, John Mercado, a.k.a. “Apache,” formed the Sol Lain Park Improvement Committee to clean up the then-drug-infested Sol Lain playground, at East Broadway and Henry St. Eventually, Garcia took the reins, and the group evolved into the popular youth sports league that it is today.
“I left it to him, my sidekick,” said “Apache” outside the wake last Wednesday. “He just took over and did the best for the community. He was always doing for the neighborhood.”
At his wake at Primitive Christian Church last Thursday, Reverend Dr. Marc Rivera, the church’s senior pastor, said of Garcia, “He had this heart, a heart bigger than mine and yours put together. What he couldn’t do with his voice — he did with his heart. He was able to impact generations of kids because he took the time. There’s a big hole left in this community.”
A video tribute of Garcia shown at the wake first brought wails of agony and cries of “Eddie!” then, later on, warm chuckles and applause when Garcia was shown in photos looking happy and handsome or in his perennial Santa beard.
Mark Costello, a past president of the Downtown Little League, said he worked closely with Garcia on issues like converting asphalt playing fields to grass or artificial turf. He said the Sol Lain flag football league was unique, since there really aren’t any comparable football leagues in the Downtown area. He said Garcia’s eternal optimism was an inspiration to him.
Costello noted Garcia had been in the process of converting the league to a 501-c-3 nonprofit so that he could get government funding directly, instead of having it channeled to him through another nonprofit.
“He was two weeks away from getting it,” Costello said of the nonprofit status.
Patricia Ingles, who called herself Garcia’s best friend, and who said she did a lot of his paperwork, assured that, despite his loss, the Sol Lain League will go on. She said there were a couple of other people who worked with Garcia on the league.
“Somebody will step up,” she said.
Councilmember Mendez said the Sol Lain League used to get discretionary funds directly from local politicians, but that after the scandal of the City Council “slush fund,” new procedures were put in place. As a result, the funding is now given to the Henry St. Settlement, a proper nonprofit, which passes it on to the Sol Lain League.
Mendez said she appointed Garcia to Community Board 3 about two years ago after he submitted an application.
“There weren’t a lot of Latinos on the board,” she said. “He was active in the community, he knew about the community’s needs. He was an incredible human being with a big heart. I met him in 1996 with Margarita [Lopez] and Armando [Perez] when they were working on the modernization project at Vladeck.”
Mendez added that Garcia told her he used to dance in the aisle at Knicks games.
“He told me to call him ‘Fat Eddie.’ I remember he showed me some newspaper clippings,” she said.
His former girlfriend Santiago said Garcia actually used to strip off his shirt during his euphoric Knicks dances.
In a statement, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, “Ed Garcia was a beloved and admired member of our community and he will be greatly missed. He touched so many lives with his generosity, his vivacious personality, his wonderful sense of humor and his tremendous dedication to the children of the Lower East Side.
“Through his Sol Lain youth sports leagues, he not only provided much-needed recreational activities for the neighborhood’s children, he was a mentor and a role model, offering guidance and compassion to so many over the years. He was a fierce advocate for tenants’ rights.
“As the Vladeck community’s annual Santa Claus, he brought joy and laughter to the children. Ed was truly one of a kind. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and the many in our community who mourn his passing.”
Dominic Pisciotta, C.B. 3 chairperson, said, “Eddie had a lot of heart and a sincere interest in a multitude of board issues that he felt would better the community. At times, his passion was worn on his sleeve. He was not afraid to stand up and take someone on in a meeting if he saw someone else being unfairly attacked. There was an energy there that was unique. He was so dedicated to the L.E.S. youth, too. He was a great member and we will miss him.”