Leslie Lewis: Leaving behind a legacy of safe streets
A little less than 20 years ago, Leslie Lewis was standing with a police sergeant on the corner of Wyckoff and Bond streets in Brooklyn when a young woman approached them. She mentioned that she was thinking about moving to the area and asked how safe it was.
The sergeant told the woman that it was absolutely safe. As she walked away, Lewis recalls, the sergeant turned to him and said, “You know something, Leslie, if it wasn’t for you and me, we couldn’t have told the truth and said that.”
Anyone who knows Lewis well has probably heard that story before. The longtime Brooklynite moved to the borough more than 30 years ago and has spent most of that time working with the 84th Precinct in helping to lower crime in the area. Lewis takes pride in working toward making the streets safer — a goal that has become a part of his legacy.
Lewis, 88 years old and born Lewis Levi after his father, is currently the community council president for the 84th precinct and the community justice liaison at Borough Hall — two jobs that he’s held for longer than he can remember. They’re both unpaid, but he isn’t interested in money. For Lewis, this is about leaving something behind.
“The whole thing with Leslie is that because of the [long] time he’s been involved in working with the police department, he has become something of a landmark,” said Deputy Inspector Maximo Tolentino, formerly of the 84th Precinct. “He’s always supported the police work and tries to always help out wherever he could.”
“I’m not a wonderful fellow, but I do this because in life’s journey you have to leave something behind,” Lewis said. “At a certain point you begin to look back and there are things that you feel sorry for, but it’s more important that you have something to be proud of.”
Lewis was born in New York City. Where? He doesn’t remember. But he did grow up in the Bronx, where he said his family had the city’s first in-ground pool. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and briefly went to Rutgers before he was sent off to World War II immediately after he turned 18.
By the time Lewis arrived in France, the Germans had stopped fighting, and he saw no military action. For two years, he worked for a military newspaper and traveled around Europe with the government picking up the bill. He interviewed notable people, including the sister of top Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, and was eventually awarded the Expert Rifleman’s badge and a Good Conduct medal.
Upon returning from Europe, Lewis married a woman named Marcy, moved to Scarsdale, had two sons, Marc and Robert, and got divorced. He eventually met another woman, Miriam, and lived with her on West 9th Street in Manhattan. Lewis was working for his father at the Ivel Construction Company, which specialized in exhibitions, at the time. He worked there for 30 years and eventually became president after his father sold the business, which became the Greyhound Exhibit Group of New York.
Lewis loved working in the exhibition business. He traveled often, and recalls visiting Russia after a period of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1959, when he met future President George H.W. Bush and learned to speak Russian.. That’s how he got to meet George H.W. Bush and learned to speak Russian. Eventually, Lewis left Greyhound and bought an exhibition company in Long Island City called Today’s Displays. That company went bankrupt in the early ’80s during the recession.
Lewis says that around that same time, he and Miriam were evicted from their Manhattan apartment following fights with neighbors over Miriam’s fondness for feeding local stray cats. By 1982, Lewis began working in real estate and moved to Brooklyn.
Lewis and Miriam eventually bought a house, one of the few that they could afford because it was located directly between two housing projects — the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens. Lewis recalls that nobody walked the streets in that area at night, and he often heard gunshots. That’s when a local police officer encouraged him to get involved with the district attorney.
While Lewis never actually had a job with the D.A., he says he was one of a few civilians who spoke with the D.A. often about the crime in the area. His relationship with the D.A. led him to become the vice president of the 84th precinct community council, and by 1993, Lewis became the president.
Lewis liaised between the police and the community to help them solve issues. He quickly became skilled at accommodating both cops and civilians, and remembers learning a few tricks that came in handy.
“I realized then that I’m learning stuff,” Lewis said. “I learned a lot. I learned more than most of the young cops because I had been doing it a long time. It made me useful.”
Lewis recalls a story about a time when cops struggled to arrest drug dealers on his block. The police were having a hard time proving their case, so Lewis convinced officers from the 84th and 76th precincts to start ticketing cars that were obviously there only to buy drugs. The dealers eventually tried to bribe cops to stop them from ticketing their customers, and the cops were able to make arrests on bribery charges, rather than for dealing drugs.
“What an exciting thing for an 88-year-old guy to be able, without getting shot at, to get somebody, usually the police, to solve problems,” Lewis said. “That’s what I do here every day, and it’s very exciting for me because you are literally solving problems.”
Nowadays, Lewis’ block and neighborhood are entirely different than they were when he moved in. He’s still living with Miriam between two housing projects, but the area is much safer. When Lewis moved there, he did it out of necessity — it was the only place he and Miriam could afford. Now, he has a television producer living next door who paid an extravagant sum for his home. While of course there are many factors that have prompted these changes, Lewis is proud of his contributions.
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