A Citizen of the World, at Home in the Bronx

Housing and banking advocate Matthew Lee lived all over before settling down in the unglamorous Bronx.
Housing and banking advocate Matthew Lee lived all over before settling down in the unglamorous Bronx. "There's something so real about the Bronx," Lee, 40, said. (By Michael Powell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

NEW YORK -- Maybe love found him as he walked down the ghost canyon of ruined and abandoned buildings on Boston Road. Or maybe it was the Honduran woman who fed him sweet plantains in her tiny kitchen or the ice that formed on his chest while sleeping in the unheated basement of an illegal squat. Or it could be those Puerto Rican teenagers who wrote heartfelt poetry for his community newspaper.

Hard to know where or how he fell in love with a wounded beauty like the Bronx. But in the end he did, and it's probably forever.

"It's a blessing to live in a place where you don't feel full of [it]," says Matthew Lee, who was born in the District and moved so many times with his foreign service parents. "There's something so real about the Bronx."

Which makes two of them, the Bronx and Lee, as sui generis as a couple can get. The Bronx is the Other New York, a working-class borough of 1.2 million Puerto Ricans and Jews, Kosovars and blacks and Hondurans and Mexicans and so on and on. To wander its streets is to feel a thousand miles removed from Manhattan.

Lee's cheeks are rosy, his hair thinning and his beard thick, and his eyes ablaze. From his small apartment -- operations core for Inner City Press -- near Arthur Avenue, he crunches lending data and publishes, as he did last week, analyses of racial and class disparities in bank lending. His passionate advocacy has stalled bank mergers across the nation.

Two years ago, his challenge persuaded Citigroup's CitiFinancial Credit Co. to pay a $70 million fine to settle Federal Reserve charges of impropriety in ladling out high-interest loans to the poor. That same year, J.P. Morgan planned to merge with Bank One. That stalled when Lee discovered Bank One financed usurious loans.

To clear up that mess, J.P. Morgan quickly announced it would pour tens of billions of dollars into mortgages for low-income Americans.

So it goes. Lee, 40, helps Dominican squatters fix a boiler, skewers corrupt dealings by Bronx councilmen and tracks dumpers of toxic pesticide in the South Bronx. Of late, he obtained a press desk at the United Nations, where he writes about atrocities in Uzbekistan and investigates strange doings at a multinational bank branch in a breakaway region of Georgia.

Lee writes poetry and novels late at night, not least the self-published "Predatory Bender," which he bills as the first novel about predatory lending. His protagonist is a sleazoid loan shark who discovers a conscience. His most colorful scalawag is a muck-mouthed bank CEO named Sandy Vyle.

Who really should not be confused with Sandy Weill, chairman of Citigroup, the most frequent of Lee's real-life targets.

"The shifting sands of shards of bricks, half-red memories of lives LIVED in buildings reduced to ruins, these square blocks reduced to countryside

. . . lit up graffitied number 5 train from Dyre Avenue crashes across the sky, breaks open the mind, throwing sparks like rose petals . . ."

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