Ritchie Torres: Gay, Hispanic and Powerful

ritchie torres
Ritchie Torres knows poverty. That’s why he’s using his powerful city post to fix public housing. William Alatriste

New York — Ritchie Torres is strolling through the toughest public housing project in the poorest neighborhood in the Bronx, unafraid.

It's not because, at 26, the youngest City Council member in America's largest city is ready for a fight. Torres is only 5'10 and 140 pounds, and would be lucky to survive a serious throwdown in one of these dank stairwells. It's because he was born in a place like this, in the Throggs Neck public housing project a few miles away -- with defective water boilers and peeling paint exposing a dangerous mold -- and lived there for most of his life.

Now that he's made it somewhere, he's determined to aim his clout not at sprucing up the Bronx Zoo or enticing more hipsters to Fordham Avenue, but squarely at the constituents who need him the most: the Bronx poor whose 40 percent poverty rate is double the citywide average.

In only a few short months in office he's convinced the feds to pony up $100 million to fix water boilers damaged by Superstorm Sandy. He has introduced legislation to reform the NYPD by requiring officers to identify themselves and inform those they stop and frisk of their constitutional rights. Earlier this month, a center for LGBT seniors opened in the Bronx, an effort spearheaded by Torres. And when his term is up as a City Council member, three years from now, you can expect to find Ritchie Torres either cruising to re-election or bound for bigger things. Some whisper he'll be the country's first gay president.

"The future is boundless to him," says fellow councilman Jimmy Vacca, who gave Torres his start in politics after meeting the youngster in high school. "He's thoughtful. He's grounded, he's reflective. And he's relentless."

As he walked to the entrance of the Twin Parks West projects on a sunny day last April, Torres passed a community center that once gave the project's children a place to play. Now it's vacant, unfunded. He wondered if he'd be able to get inside the main building. This center is supposed to be secure, accessible by residents only. But the door opens, allowing us in.

One window is cracked, another broken. Wires hang from the ceiling, sheathed in their protective coating but otherwise completely exposed. The staircases reek of urine and the hallways of a stale dead air that induces a headache. It's a maze allowing junkies or anyone to hide.

Twenty percent of the city's violent crime occurs in public housing, even though only 5 percent of its residents live here. In the 1990s, New York state lawmakers voted to walk completely away from their investment in the largest public housing stock in North America: 178,000 units, 404,000 households. The state capital, Albany, does not plow one dime into their budget, as conditions deteriorate in these buildings that represent the last thin line between hundreds of thousands of residents and homelessness.

Torres is determined to do something about that, a quest that would seem quixotic if you didn't know his own story: of a stepfather abandoning his family, crippling bouts of depression during his childhood and adolescence, and a coming out that became something of a sexual identity crisis.

"I have overcome," he told me. "That's the story of the Bronx."

Torres and his twin brother were born in the East Bronx. He was named for the late singer Ritchie Valens, after his mother watched the movie La Bamba. His father wasn't around at the outset, because the man was married to someone else. The only father Torres knew was his stepdad, the family's primary breadwinner, who walked out on the family when Torres was 12.

Throggs Neck was a rough place. Torres got jumped for his Pokemon cards in the fourth grade, and was beaten again randomly in the sixth. But the worst of his childhood was inside his apartment; the leaking roofs, the mold creeping up the walls, shooting spores out into the bedrooms and infiltrating the boy's lungs. He spent much of his early life battling asthma as a result. He was hospitalized repeatedly. When his mother called the New York City Housing Authority about the mold, the agency sent out a maintenance man to paint over it.

"Your home is supposed to be a sanctuary," he says. "I didn't feel safe in mine."

Torres didn't meet his real father until he was 15. The first (and only) full day they spent together came at the request of Ritchie's two half-brothers. They had joined a notorious Bronx gang before Ritchie even knew them and are now serving terms in federal prison in New Jersey. They asked him to visit, and the youngster obliged, curious. He'll never forget that conversation.

"I spent about six hours with them," he said. "I remember them telling me if they got out of prison and couldn't find a job, they'd go right back to that life."

For whatever reason, Torres never went down that path. He entertained himself instead by pretending to be a pro wrestler with his friends in the park, imagining themselves Stone Cold Steve Austin or the Undertaker.

Beyond those bursts of silliness and unlike his flippant twin brother, Ritchie was a serious kid. By high school, he'd set his sights on becoming a lawyer, and when he wasn't aceing his classes, he was winning debates in Moot Court and Mock Trial.

ritchie torres
Torres ran for City Council in 2013, becoming the first gay council member ever elected from the Bronx and the council’s youngest member, at 25. William Alatriste

Torres came out in high school, too. His mom was as supportive as she could be, but lamented that he might not give her a grandchild. His twin flipped out, called Ritchie a "pervert," and the relationship hasn't been the same since. Torres seriously considered staying in the closet after that — "I thought maybe it would mean an easier life" — and didn't tell anyone else he was gay until he was in his 20s. The Bronx may lie in one of America's most gay-friendly cities, but it is not a gay-friendly borough.

"You have known 'gayborhoods' in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens," Torres says. "Here, it's much more homophobic. It's a population in the shadows."

So Torres kept his sexuality to himself, until college. After just a year at New York University studying philosophy and political science, depression reared its head and left the teenager so paralyzed he couldn't get out of bed on many days. All of it, the pain of losing his stepfather, the struggle with his sexual identity, combined to knock Torres out of school.

"I felt like my IQ had fallen 20 points," he said. "If you can't trust your father, your stepfather, who can you trust? It pushed me to turn inward, to be more of a loner."

That could have been the beginning of a long downward spiral for Ritchie Torres. But a few years earlier, his principal at Lehman High School had chosen him for a program called "District Manager for a Day," wherein he spent the day shadowing future New York City councilman Jimmy Vacca. Vacca does this each year, but on this day, this youngster stood way, way out.

"I was just floored," Vacca says. " He was much beyond his years. He enjoyed the day tremendously. Asked a lot of questions, participated in meetings, knew the community. I was totally taken."

The two kept in touch and Torres volunteered for Vacca when he ran for City Council. After he dropped out of school, Torres reached out to Vacca, who immediately offered him a job, as a constituent liaison.

Before long, the youngster had assembled small legions of residents, from whom he gathered complaints and credibility. Torres quickly became known for taking snapshots of poor conditions in various housing projects and then threatening the Housing Authority with sending those pictures to the New York Daily News, if the problem wasn't fixed. He calls this "dramatizing" the problem, and says his practice pretending to be a pro wrestler taught him how to do that. "A picture is worth a thousand words," he says.

Torres ran for City Council in 2013, becoming the first gay council member ever elected from the Bronx and the council's youngest member, at 25.

With this new power, Torres intends to galvanize public support for major retrofits to the city's public housing — there's as much as $18 billion worth of work needed — and he has done much to raise awareness about the issue, even convincing his colleagues to hold the first-ever New York City Council meeting inside a public housing project, on Coney Island.

Shortly after taking office last January, Torres made an issue of the defunct water boilers that were forcing residents after Superstorm Sandy to use their gas stoves to heat their apartments — exposing them to carbon monoxide. Within a month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to spend $100 million to replace dilapidated boilers throughout the city.

He has also recently called for the installation of $520 million worth of intercom systems throughout the projects, to address a recent jump in the crime rate of 31 percent since 2009 (as opposed to the 4 percent increase citywide). And in May, he co-sponsored the "Quality Housing Act," which would toughen the penalties on New York City landlords who allow their buildings to fall into disrepair.

NYCHA declined a request for an interview for this article, but released a statement praising the council member's "leadership" on public housing issues.

Leadership alone often isn't enough, and Torres knows the fixed boilers are only just the beginning of the fight for those in public housing. But there are small victories. He even got his old apartment fixed; the one where his mom still lives. A phone call from Councilman Torres led to the Housing Authority sending someone out to tear down an entire moldy wall instead of painting it over like when he was a kid. It was a nice thing to do for his mother, Torres says. But you tend to believe him when he says he'd do the same for anyone in the Bronx.