Bob Wilson, 78, Knickerbocker tenant leader

Bob Wilson, right, with then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at a gathering in Knickerbocker Village in 2013 to announce federal funding to begin repairs of elevators damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Villager file photo

BY MARY REINHOLZ | The late Bob Wilson, who died last month at 78 in an apparent suicide, was a towering figure for years at Knickerbocker Village, his home on the Lower East Side since childhood.

A Marine during the Vietnam War, he had become a passionate man of the people, the tall go-to guy for tenants at the sprawling 1,590-unit monolith bounded by Monroe, Cherry, Catherine and Market Sts. He seemed to know everyone.

When I first interviewed him in 2012, Wilson recalled the day when F.B.I. agents arrested his neighbors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as accused atomic spies in 1950. When I asked him about mafia tenants at K.V., he told me a few stories about the midlevel operatives of the Bonnano crime family who had found safe haven at the fortress-like affordable-housing complex of a dozen 13-story brick buildings that stand between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges near the East River. He didn’t seem to be afraid of wise guys or any one else.

His passing, however, remains shrouded in mystery. No one I contacted at Knickerbocker Village returned calls or e-mails about the Internet posts reporting that Wilson plunged to his death from the balcony of his Monroe St. penthouse apartment on July 2. One of the posts was from the Lo-Down Web site. Its headline remains but the story has been removed.

“We killed the story at the request of the family,” said Ed Litvak, the site’s editor in chief and co-founder, responding to an e-mail from The Villager.

The Office of the New York City Chief Medical Examiner confirmed that Wilson’s death was a suicide, caused by “multiple blunt-impact injuries.” Nancy Avalos Omana, a public-affairs intern for the M.E., said the office could not provide additional information.

Managers at Knickerbocker Village’s rental office at 10 Monroe St. were clearly uncomfortable about the subject. One said he couldn’t comment without talking to his boss, presumably David Robinson, executive director of Cherry Gardens Property Corp., which owns the complex. A woman who answered the phone suggested there had been an on-site memorial for Wilson, once the elected president of the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association.

But word got around in Lower Manhattan that Wilson had died, and prominent community leaders praised his activism during crises at Knickerbocker Village.

“He was wonderful, particularly during Sandy,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3.

She was, of course, referring to the late October 2012 superstorm that devastated Knickerbocker Village, when floodwaters swept through its mechanical rooms, knocking out power and stranding elderly and disabled tenants on the upper floors.

“I worked with him on service-delivery issues at Knickerbocker Village for years,” Stetzer said of Wilson. “But during Sandy he organized elected officials and took them on tours of the buildings, so they could see the problems of tenants and get their support. He was the best advocate anyone could want and a wonderful person to work with.”

This reporter vividly remembers Wilson moderating a post-Sandy meeting of about 100 tenants when the lights and heating at Knickerbocker Village had been restored but telephone service was still spotty in early December 2012.

Wilson excoriated on-site managers for failing to have a contingency plan in place when Sandy hit.

“We need to be more proactive so that we can mitigate a disaster like this from happening again!” he thundered, as representatives from the city and state sat on metal chairs and scribbled notes in the complex’s basement. “And it will happen again!” he warned. “Tell the owners what you want! We’ll get it for you!” He exhorted the tenants to organize building by building and rally for improvements, like storm proofing in Knickerbocker Village’s basements.

Last Wednesday, I found an online remembrance of Wilson that was posted July 8 from Dallas, Texas, on a Web site called nyc.epeak.in. In it, a Brooklyn artist wrote that Wilson was born in Washington, D.C., and had moved to New York City as a child with his mother. He worked as a chief lifeguard at Coney Island, the post continued, and later studied at Brooklyn College, going on to hold the position of chief of the Bureau of Investments for New York City “for many years” before his retirement.

The artist claimed on another site that Wilson was being treated for “Post Traumatic Stress and Major Depressive Disorder.”

He was reportedly married years ago, after which he had a 28-year relationship with a woman who predeceased him.

Wilson seemed calm and measured in his words at a 2013 gathering of elected officials in one of Knickerbocker Village’s courtyards who had come to announce federal disaster-relief funding of nearly $1.5 million to begin the first phase of repairs on elevators damaged the year before by Sandy’s onslaught. One by one they spoke, among them former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former state Senator Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Margaret Chin, and several other pols Wilson had worked with for years.

All of them described local government efforts to help Knickerbocker tenants during the crisis — with local politicians knocking on doors, speaking in different languages, visiting the elderly, bringing in food, working to get the lights and heat back on and summoning the Red Cross to set up tents and get meals for displaced residents.

Bob Wilson spoke briefly as a tenant leader, thanking the various officials for their help. Then he stated: “Number one, I’d like to thank the residents of Knickerbocker Village for enduring what they endured with grace.”

Despite the demons that apparently afflicted Wilson in his last days, I believe that this big-hearted man never stopped caring about the thousands of residents at Knickerbocker Village.

Chin responded to his death with a heartfelt statement for this newspaper, noting she was “deeply saddened by the passing of Bob Wilson, a true New Yorker who worked tirelessly to improve his community through public service. A selfless and dedicated tenant leader, Bob worked to inspire an inclusive movement for tenants’ rights in Knickerbocker Village by empowering residents to fight against rent increases, bridging coalitions with other communities and cultivating the next generation of tenant leaders in Lower Manhattan. He was recognized by everyone in the community for his strong values, conviction and hunger for change, and his lifetime of passionate, resilient leadership will be remembered for generations to come.”

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