Phyllis Gonzalez was a dauntless presence in Chelsea for decades.
She served as president of a local PTA, as a member of both the Hudson Guild's Advisory Council and Community Board 4, and as a secretary for the Citywide Council of Presidents of the New York City Housing Authority.
But it was as the four-term president of the Elliott-Chelsea Houses that she had her greatest influence.
Gonzalez, who was 65 when she died in September 2012, fought to improve conditions at the housing project however and wherever she could, friends and family said. She accomplished all this despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and congestive heart problems.
“She had wanted to be a nurse, but when that didn't work out she directed her energies toward helping the community. She just wanted to help people,” Gonzalez's daughter, Marion, said. “She was bighearted. And she believed that everyone deserved to have what they needed. She just automatically assumed these responsibilities.”
On July 18, under a blazing noonday sun, Gonzalez was given a permanent post in the neighborhood to which she was long dedicated when the southwest corner of 29th Street and Ninth Avenue was renamed Phyllis Gonzalez Way.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, who attended the dedication ceremony along with members of Gonzalez's family, residents and officials, said Gonzalez's work as a tenant leader and housing advocate served as something of a guiding light. City and community officials could count on her to give “an unvarnished assessment” of the neighborhood, its wants and its needs, he said.
“Phyllis was a real special person because she represented the best of the community. Her imprint on Chelsea is so deep and permanent. Whether it's the Chelsea Recreation Center, Elliot-Chelsea public housing, (the community agency) Hudson Guild, she's done it all,” Hoylman said. “She was a jack of all trades and an expert on so many issues that concerned the community.”
Marion Gonzalez, 34, described her mother's passion for the neighborhood as a simple desire that she'd carried all of her life. As well as being a mother to her two children, Marion, and her son, Eric, Gonzalez became a mother figure to tenants, many of whom she considered her second family, friends and acquaintances said. Gonzalez helped ensure the safety of residents, they said, including her moving residents out of Allerton and Martinique welfare hotels and into the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, pressuring the Housing Authority to purchase and install closed-circuit security cameras during a crime spike, and participating in the creation of the Chelsea Recreation Center.
Gonzalez also left an impact on local politics, passing on her knowledge to those who would wield her voice. Hoylman and state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried both credited Gonzalez for being a major influence on their careers and for their later advocacy on behalf of public housing residents.
“Phyllis helped to make sure that for those of us who were in a position to help always knew what needed to be done. She had a great influence on making sure that local elected officials did what needed to be done. Her job was making sure that we all knew what our jobs required.” Gottfried said.
Councilman Corey Johnson, who was instrumental in getting the street renamed and who unveiled the street sign, recounted a story about Gonzalez that he said defined her character.
“She was told that she couldn't speak after having a tube down her throat. The first thing she said was 'We need the turkeys to hand out to the community,'” he said. “That was Phyllis.”
Louis Bertot, a fellow housing advocate and retired labor union representative, said the renaming was apt and deserved.
“I've been waiting since 2013 for this,” he said. “I think people are going to be very proud in this community to see her name be used as a model for leadership.”