A Citizen of the World, at Home in the Bronx

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 . . ."

Matthew Lee, 1999.

Talking in a rat-a-tat-tat stream, Lee leads you up creaking steps of a once-abandoned tenement. One night a decade ago, he and the tenants clipped the padlock on the door and seized the place and renovated apartments by hand.

Lee steps onto the black tar roof and smiles as if on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Our view is of elevated subway tracks -- a No. 5 train clattering out of a tunnel, a baseball field, more tenements, a barbed-wire-ringed youth prison and, way in the distance and framed neatly between two housing project towers, the Empire State Building.

"You can see pretty much the whole world from up here," Lee says.

So how'd he get here? Lee remembers being 12 years old and skipping rocks in sandy lots in Dubai and living with his mother in Paris after his father divorced them. He drops out of Harvard after two years and spoons soup at a Catholic Worker kitchen. He does poetry readings at homeless shelters, wanders east to Paris and south to El Salvador, where he nearly met his end at the wrong end of a gun held by a teenage soldier.

"To be honest, I've never unpacked it all," he says of his life. "Maybe I think if you're fully adjusted to this world we live in, what does that say about you?"

He got a law degree from Fordham University (without getting a BA). This allows him to serve as executive director of Inner City Press, which releases the lending reports, and as general counsel for Fair Finance Watch, which operates out of the same apartment.

Newspapers and wire services write of Lee's reports. Academics as far off as Vancouver praise the quality of analysis. An official at a multinational bank in New York asks to speak on background and curses Lee's name.

How big is Lee's "staff"?

He puts a forefinger to his lips.

"Sssssssh," he says. "No point in giving away that information."

Lee lives off the remains of fellowships past. He's applied for another grant, worth about $75,000. "Wouldn't that be great?" he says. "I could live on it for three years."

We walk down 138th Street, past painted statues of the Virgin Mary and Honduran restaurants. Lee points out the Teatro Puerto Rico, where Tito Puente banged his timbales. Now it's the Iglesia Universal. There's a warehouse and Lee recalls a long-ago scandal connected with it, thieving pols stealing from poor people.

"I'm sorry to go local on you, but it was scandalous." He catches himself. "It still is scandalous. I've really got to investigate that again. . . ." As Lee wrote recently of a failed but glorious battle to save a Bronx apartment building on Home Street from the wrecker's ball:

"Now it's in the past tense. Though memory is always present: they oscillate."

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