The following is a series written by Diego Robayo of the Historic District Council which profiles Bronx community leaders who have contributed to our history and will be published here on Welcome2TheBronx.
Roland Lopez is a retired NYPD detective who has lived in the Longwood Historic District since 1942. He was born in East Harlem and his parents came from Puerto Rico. This article explores his life through photographs that he shared with the Historic Districts Council recently.
In 1964, at the age of 22, Lopez became a police officer. He remembers that in the early 1950s, street gangs mainly clashed over girls and their “territory”, but as he came out of the Police Academy in the early 1960s, more explosive elements, such as drugs, were added to their altercations.
Lopez was first stationed in East Harlem where he dealt with race riots, homicides, and all sorts of crimes involving drugs, guns and prostitution. One of the main causes for East Harlem’s violence, he recalled, was the abrupt demographic change that happened in the 1950s when African Americans and Puerto Ricans arrived to the neighborhood.
In 1972, after 6 years in East Harlem, Roland was transferred to the South Bronx, and there he faced one of the “country’s worst urban blights”, as described in a 1977 article from the New York Times.
The city’s financial crisis at the time brought difficult problems to the NYPD, and Roland felt his future in the police department was uncertain. On July 1 of 1975, five thousand police officers were laid off, and from July 1965 until 1979, no police officers were hired or trained. During that time, “No classes were held at the Police Academy. No one was being taught about police procedures. There was no new blood with a fresh view of a changing world,” The New York Times reported.
Roland considered leaving the NYPD until he was asked to join the undercover department for crimes in Upper Manhattan. He decided to stay, as he thought it would be exciting. He transformed his physical appearance to evoke that of a criminal:
In his first assignment, he went to the apartment of a man in Washington Heights who was allegedly selling guns.
Roland knocked on the door, a man opened it, and Roland said that he wanted to buy a gun.
“Who sent you?” the man asked.
“Chino sent me,” Roland replied.
“Come back tomorrow,” the man said and slammed the door.
The Police Department came the next day with a search warrant, but the gun dealer had left. “For sure he smelled something was out of place. I wasn’t given proper training, and I was nervous,” said Roland.
In the late 1970s, Roland was promoted to be an investigator and mainly dealt with homicides.
One of his first and most shocking assignments involved a woman who was dating a drug dealer. She wanted to leave the drug dealer and she began dating someone else. One afternoon, as she was heading to the house of the new man, the drug dealer followed her, and waited until she went in the apartment. Then, he broke in with a gun. When Roland arrived, he saw “brains all over”.
For 21 years, Lopez worked in the police department and all while living in the same home he grew up in in the Longwood Historic District of The Bronx.
He says he thinks he’ll never leave his house because of the emotional meaning to him.
“My parents bought this house with a lot of love. My brother David used to live there. Me and my ex-wife used to live here too. My mother painted the walls. She used to do carpentry and gardening.” he said.
About the author:
Diego Robayo is a historic preservation advocate and works for the Historic Districts Council as the Spanish Language Fellow. He is a strong believer that the history and identity of all cultural groups should be acknowledged in order to advance social development. He has documented life in The Bronx and other outer boroughs through photographs and interviews. He received a scholarship to start a graduate program at Columbia University, which gave him a broad perspective on how to make cultural research and preservation.
This post comes from the Historic Districts Council. Founded in 1970 as a coalition of community groups from the city’s designated historic districts, HDC has grown to become one of the foremost citywide voices for historic preservation. Serving a network of over 500 neighborhood-based community groups in all five boroughs, HDC strives to protect, preserve and enhance New York City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods through ongoing advocacy, community development, and education programs.
Now in its eighth year, Six to Celebrate is New York’s only citywide list of preservation priorities. The purpose of the program is to provide strategic resources to neighborhood groups at a critical moment to reach their preservation goals. The six selected groups receive HDC’s hands-on help on all aspects of their efforts over the course of the year and continued support in the years to come. Learn more about this year’s groups, the Six to Celebrate app, and related events here >>