Fire on Gun Hill Affects Families, Businesses

August 25, 2011

By Alex Kratz

On the first Friday morning of August, Ashley Santiago looked out the window of her apartment on the corner of Gun Hill Road and Rochambeau Avenue and saw fire raining down from the sky.

“My mom told me, ‘Look, there’s fire coming down from the sky,’” she said, two hours later.

Dressed in shorts and a tank top, the 18-year-old grabbed her wallet, cell phone and keys and ran out of the building, 3504 Rochambeau Ave., along with her mother, aunt and two dogs.

Santiago’s family and every other resident, including two teenagers who were in the apartment where the fire erupted, made it out of the building in plenty of time, but damage from the fire left a handful of families homeless, at least temporarily. Read more

Bronx Lawmakers Ask Obama to Halt Deportation Program

August 25, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

The federal government continues to implement a controversial deportation program despite intense criticism and the fact that three states, New York included, have already attempted to withdraw from participating in it.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will continue to roll out its “Secure Communities” initiative, which requires local law enforcement agencies to share digital fingerprint records of people who are arrested with federal immigration officials, who then check the prints for a person’s green card status—and deport anyone found to be residing here illegally.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in June that New York would not comply with the program, and the DHS had originally conveyed that participation by states was optional. In this month’s announcement, however, DHS changed gears, saying it did not need state or local authorization to continue its practice of deporting based on arrest records.

New York legislators, including many here in the Bronx, continue the denounce to program, saying it would only harm communities with large immigrant populations and that the federal government is ignoring criticism of Secure Communities. Read more

City Plans Overhauls for MS 80 and MS 391

August 25, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

As part of an ongoing effort to turn around poor performing schools, the Department of Education is making changes this fall at 33 middle and high schools across the city, including two nearby: MS 80 on Mosholu Parkway, and MS 391, or the Angelo Patri School, further south on Webster Avenue.

The effort will qualify the city to receive millions of dollars in federal School Improvement Grants, doled out by the U.S. Department of Education, which require the DOE to institute one of four federally approved “intervention” methods to turn things around at each struggling school.

To the relief of teachers and parents, the city announced last month that none of the schools on its low-achieving list would be closed—one of the federal models on the table, and a favorite of the Bloomberg administration, which has shut down dozens of schools for poor performance over the last decade.

Instead, the DOE will institute two other federally approved tactics, “restart” and “transformation.” Read more

Community Policing

August 25, 2011

Police and community came together on the evening of Aug. 2 in Williamsbridge Oval Park, which is just the point of National Night Out. There was music, games for kids, and the Office of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gave Deputy Inspector Joseph Dowling a proclamation honoring the 52nd Precinct for its work in the community. (Photos by Adi Talwar)

Gay Bronx Couples Waste No Time in Making History

July 27, 2011

Karen Cofield and Gwendolyn Williams, who met five years ago, were married at the Bronx County Courthouse on Sunday. (Photo by Jordan Moss)

By Jordan Moss

The signs of a highly unusual Sunday at the Bronx County Courthouse, where profound new rights were being conferred on a large group of New Yorkers, were hard to miss.

Staff of the mayor’s office, sporting orange baseball caps, warmly greeted anyone who came within 50 yards of the courthouse’s Concourse entrance. There was no crammed lineup leading to the metal detectors. Cameras, forbidden from courtrooms and confiscated for the duration of one’s visit if found, were waved on through.

History, after all, was waiting for its close-up.

Another gantlet of helpers led people to the correct elevator to head down to the marriage bureau in the basement. About a couple of dozen gay couples calmly waited in a courtroom on the ground floor on the west side of the courthouse to be married on the first day it was possible, as allowed by a law passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo a month ago. Many were with family and friends, and some were ust happy to be with each other on a day no one in the room would likely ever forget. There were delays in getting couples to the “altar” (a small office near the courtroom), but impatience was scarce.

Rhea Greenberg, a disability analyst for the state, and Janice Glock, a retired postal worker, met on a blind date and have been together for almost 12 years, living in Spuyten Duyvil. The couple, who jokingly referred to each other as “Spouse A” and “Spouse B,” which is how they had to classify themselves on the marriage license forms, chose not to get married in nearby states like Connecticut or Massachusetts which preceded New York in allowing gay marriage. They held out hope for the Empire State to fall in line.

“This is where we’ve lived our lives,” said Greenberg, who expressed relief that there were no protesters outside the building. “This is where we have roots, family, friends, and this is where we want to get married.”

Though they know they’re going to be together forever, there are practical considerations, Greenberg said. “I want to know if anything happens to me, that she is as protected as possible.”

“We plan to stay together,” Glock said. “We’ve worked out all the kinks. This is one more way of uniting ourselves.”
On their anniversary on Aug. 12, they will gather with family and friends to celebrate their marriage at Silvio’s, an Italian restaurant in Yonkers, where they also marked their domestic partnership about five years ago.

“Give them a plug,” Greenberg told a reporter regarding Silvio’s. “We told them we’d try to get them gay wedding business!”

A few rows back, Mott Haven residents Karen Cofield and Gwendolyn Williams also waited patiently, willing to endure some bureaucratic delays after five years together.

They met in a rehab center upstate and have been a support to each other ever since.

A reporter asked Cofield, a maintenance worker at Memorial Sloane Kettering, what being married meant to her. She hardly skipped a beat.

“Everything,” said Cofield.

She added: “There’s no question in our mind that we’re going to be together. It’s just another level for us.”

Twenty seven couples tied the knot that day in the Bronx, 823 in the city as a whole.

Earlier in the morning, Criminal Court Judge Efrain Alvarado, assisting the other judges in managing a very unusual Sunday of legal proceedings, told the packed courtroom:

“We have a historic day today. Not just because it’s the first time in New York State, but because we have come full circle in recognizing the equality and equal justice deserved by all.”
David Greene contributed to this story.

New Webster Ave. Plans Bring Cheers and Jeers

July 27, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Change is coming to Webster Avenue.

The gritty, industrial stretch that runs through the neighborhoods of Norwood and Bedford Park was rezoned by the City Council this past March, with a plan designed to encourage more retail stores and residential housing in an area now largely composed of parking lots and auto body shops.

Though not necessarily a direct result of the city’s change—zoning plans are more like gentle hands that shape a neighborhood, and depending on market conditions, it can take years before any real changes are seen—new projects already under way or in the pipeline along Webster are a portent for what the street could look like down the road.

Two developers are eyeing the avenue as the site of separate affordable housing complexes. One is already under way, in a lot technically located in Community Board 12, along the south end of Woodlawn Cemetery and just north of Gun Hill Road. Jackson Development Group is constructing over 400 new apartments in four buildings, calling the massive development “Webster Commons,” and advertising the rentals for low and moderate-income tenants.

The project, subsidized by a number of city and state affordable housing programs as well as $839,000 in capital funding from Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., has drawn criticism from some community members.

“As the first projects on [a rezoned] Webster Avenue, I believe it’s a poor decision to put in so-called affordable, low-income housing,” said Andrew Laiosa, a member of Community Board 7 who openly describes himself as “anti-development.”

He voted against both Webster Commons and another affordable housing complex planned for Webster Avenue, just north of 204th Street. That project, pitched to the community board several months ago by housing development groups Azimuth and Sebco, would be on a much smaller scale — 60 apartment units, a portion of which would be set aside for formerly homeless families and a first floor that would be leased to a for-profit daycare company.

Laiosa said he would rather see a developer with private money come to Webster Avenue, rather than government-subsidized projects aimed to house low-income tenants, which he said “sets a bad precedent.” “What we need to do is have a diversity of incomes in the Bronx,” he said. “We can’t just become a dumping ground for all poor people in New York City.”

The rezoning adopted for Webster Avenue this spring intentionally creates incentives for affordable housing, and a City Planning spokesperson compared it to a similar plan approved years ago in Morrisania—a south Bronx neighborhood that’s subsequently been transformed by a building boom over the last decade, where brand new, low-income housing complexes have sprung up like dandelions.

The city and the Bloomberg administration heralds this growth as “revitalizing” to communities; the mayor has even set a goal of creating or preserving at least 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2014, part of his New Housing Marketplace Plan.

But some critics say policies like this don’t address fundamental housing problems, like skyrocketing city rents, and instead create an incentive for building and overdevelopment that doesn’t consider the bigger picture.

“It just doesn’t make sense to build that big in the Bronx,” said Kristin Hart, a Kingsbridge Heights resident who heads a local neighborhood association and is adamantly opposed to Jackson Development Group’s plan. “In my opinion, they’re building a giant city.”

She fears the massive complex might remain largely vacant, or eventually fall into foreclosure.

“Most people in the Bronx are not going to be able to afford or qualify for these apartments, so what are they trying to accomplish?” she said. “The developers honestly don’t care if it succeeds or if it fails. They just want to build.”

But Eli Weiss, Jackson’s finance director, said other projects in the Bronx that are similar to Webster Commons, like one on Decatur Avenue and another on St. Ann’s Terrace, have gotten “fantastic” responses from renters and have near-zero vacancy rates.

“The demand is really there,” he said. Rents at Webster Commons would start at around $859 a month for a studio apartment, he said.

Richard Gorman, who chairs Community Board 12 where the project is located, said he supports the plan and doesn’t understand where the opposition is coming from.

“It was something we welcomed. That’s an area of the district that’s empty, vacant land,” he said, adding that the location was plagued for years by people illegally dumping their garbage.

“They’re doing a complete redevelopment of Webster Avenue,” Gorman said, referring to the goals of the recent rezoning. “The best way to get shoppers [there] is to have people living nearby.”

Creston Ave. Crew Busted in Drug Raid

July 27, 2011

By Alex Kratz

Over the past several years, the area around Creston Avenue, just north of St. James Park, has built a reputation as a hot spot for the drug trade. Periodic violence highlighted the turf wars that accompanied it. Earlier this month, however, local and federal authorities made a big dent in curbing Creston’s infamous image.

Culminating a year-long investigation by the FBI and NYPD with an early morning raid on the so-called “Creston Avenue Crew,” police arrested eight people in the Bronx and three in Puerto Rico. A handful of others were already in custody, while two other Bronxites and a mysterious man named Fnu Lnu (no address was given), also known as “Jesse,” remain at large. In total, according to a 17-page federal indictment, charges were filed against 20 people for drug trafficking, firearms and money laundering.

In the course of the raid, authorities discovered three guns, pounds of marijuana, marijuana growing equipment, scales, a police scanner, cocaine and thousands of dollars in cash. It amounted to a fraction of what the organization brought in and distributed over the past five years, law enforcement officials said.

“These defendants allegedly built a drug empire in the Bronx, using guns and violence to protect their operation and terrorize a neighborhood,” said United States Attorney Preet Bharra.

The Creston Avenue Crew had a hand in two recent murders near St. James Park, according to the federal indictment. Standing in a crowd of bystanders, three of whom were also shot, 27-year-old Christopher “Gremlin” Santiago was murdered in June 2006. In 2009, Carlos Lorenzo was shot and killed on Creston Avenue.

Last year, a young father was shot and killed in the late afternoon while walking out of St. James Park near Creston Avenue. No one has been charged in his murder and it was not mentioned in the indictment.

This bust comes roughly one year after authorities took down the infamous La Perla Organization, which controlled a stretch of Valentine Avenue, just blocks away from Creston Avenue and St. James Park.

Mail Employees Go postal On Closure of Bronx Plant

July 27, 2011

By Alex Kratz

James Perez, a Kingsbridge Heights resident and 24-year veteran of the United States Postal Service, is having a hard time imagining working outside of the Bronx. But he might not have a choice.

By the end of the fall, his position and at least 231 others at the Bronx mail processing plant will be eliminated as the USPS consolidates all of the Bronx’s mail processing and distribution into the Manhattan plant. Perez and his coworkers may end up in Manhattan, but they could be transplanted to any postal location within 50 miles of the five boroughs.

The USPS, citing budget concerns due to a “dramatic” drop in mail volume, said this is a done deal, but the postal workers union is not giving up without a fight.

They organized a rally to protest the elimination of the Bronx plant for Wednesday afternoon, July 27. It will start at the recently-closed Oak Point station on East 149th Street and end at the Bronx General Post Office (where the processing plant is located) at East 149th Street and the Grand Concourse. There, at 11:30 a.m., along with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., the union will list the reasons why eliminating the borough’s processing center is a bad move and should be reconsidered.

“There is nothing good in it for anyone,” said Chuck Zlatkin, the legislative and political director for the New York Area United Postal Workers Union.

In addition to all of the displaced workers, Zlatkin said mail delivery to the borough will be delayed, delivery trucks from Manhattan will mean more pollution and traffic for the Bronx and local businesses around the processing plant on East 149th Street will suffer.

“I understand our employees’ concern over this move,” said New York District Manager William J. Schnaars in a statement, “but the consolidation makes sense given the fiscal realities.”

The USPS says the move will result in $8.8 million in annual savings and that delivery will not be affected.
Zlatkin and others say there is no way mail delivery will not be affected because the Manhattan plant is nine miles away from the Bronx plant and traffic will invariably affect delivery.

The consolidation comes on the heels of the USPS’s decision earlier this year to close two Bronx post offices — Oak Point and Crotona. The agency also decided to close the Van Nest office, but community outrage has suspended that move for the time being.

Zlatkin said the USPS fiscal crisis cited as rationale for these closures and consolidations is “manufactured.” For years, he said, the USPS overpaid, to the tune of $50 million to $75 million, into federal and civil service retirement funds. That, plus a new policy that forces the USPS to pre-fund retirement, is largely responsible for the budget gap, Zlatkin says.

In the past, Zlatkin said, Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano was able to stop the USPS from closing the borough’s processing plant.

In a recent letter to the postmaster general, Serrano said the Bronx was “being asked to bear a disproportionate burden of your intended cost-cutting.”

The Bronx plant is the only outer-borough plant being phased out, although a spokesperson for the USPS said the plant in Staten Island was being reviewed and others may be consolidated in the future.

Long Time Resident Killed in Decatur Blaze

July 27, 2011

Fire marshals continue to investigate the source of the Decatur Avenue fire that killed a long time resident. (Photo by David Greene)

By David Greene

A Saturday afternoon fire on the top floor of a five-story Decatur Avenue building in Norwood claimed the life of 37-year-old resident Chris Podesta who died of smoke inhalation, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Press officers for the Fire and Police departments could not confirm the death by press time, but neighbors confirmed that it was Podesta who had died in the fire.

One resident of the block, who declined to give his name for this article, stood in shock after firefighters removed his friend Podesta from the building.

“They brought him out and he was all full of smoke and they were performing CPR on him,” the resident said.

Another resident, a young woman in her 20s who also declined to give her name, said Podesta will be missed. “He was always the guy who would watch and defend us,” she said.

A Fire Department spokesman could only provide a few basic details, saying that the fire, “was still under investigation.” He did not know if someone had died in the fire.

The spokesman did say the FDNY responded to calls of a fire at 3212 Decatur Ave. at 1:30 p.m., on Saturday, July 23. Arriving units discovered the top floor apartment of the five-story building engulfed in flames. A total of 12 units and 60 firefighters were used to bring the fire under control.

Office of the City Medical Examiner’s spokeswoman Ellen Borakove confirmed Podesta’s death, saying, “I have a 37-year-old white male. He died from (a) smoke inhalation accident at that location.”

Podesta was pronounced dead at Montefiore Medical Center. One firefighter was also treated for minor injuries at St. Barnabas Hospital.

Services for Podesta were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at McKeon Funderal Home. A funeral service is scheduled for Thursday at. St. Brendan’s Church at 10:45 a.m.

At New Dance Studio, Empowerment in Pole Dancing

July 14, 2011

RizzQue owner Jeanette Cardona (foreground) and instructors like Philicia Edwards (background) have brought pole dance fitness to Norwood. (Photo by Adi Talwar)

Jeanette Cardona originally planned on naming her new Webster Avenue dance studio and boutique Casa Cardona. But considering the studio’s offerings, which include instruction in both belly and pole dancing, Cardona decided instead to take a risk and be bold, maybe even a little risqué, in naming her new business.

Armed with a catchy new name, RizzQue Studio and Boutique, and a diverse arsenal of dance clothing as well as traditional, risqué and kid-friendly dance classes, Cardona’s Norwood-area studio is thriving.

“Yes, I make sexy clothes, but it’s not about being erotic,” she says, “it’s about pushing yourself and unleashing your most inner self.”

Cardona, better known as “J,” worked for 17 years creating dance, fitness  and yoga wear, as well as lingerie, and dance costumes. Her dance studio offers Salsa and Hip Hop classes for kids and Belly Dance, Zumba, Yoga, Pilates, and Pole Dance Fitness classes for adults.

“It’s 2011,” Cardona says. “Pole dancing has gone mainstream. Years ago people only associated it with strip clubs, but it’s not degrading, it is an art and dance form. It’s about pushing yourself to your limits as an athlete.”

pole dancing combines elements of modern dance, gymnastics, and ballet, Cardona says.

“It’s so hard!” RizzQue regular Paulina Vilchez says, laughing. “I can’t climb the pole, but I’m trying!”

Anna Marin, who also takes pole dancing classes at the studio, says, “It’s just awesome. They are the only ones in the Bronx offering pole dancing.”

Cardona says her biggest challenge was installing the poles. After a lot of research and planning, she finally figured out how to install six removable poles that can hold up to 250 pounds a piece. Since business is booming, she now plans to install four more.

Cardona had initially planned to open a clothing boutique, but when she saw 3037 Webster Ave., she knew the space could be more. With the help of her mother, Myrna Colon, the two women transformed the former karate studio into a dance studio, as well as a clothing boutique.

Not a dancer by trade, Cardona employs professional instructors for her dance classes, which she also takes part in. Meanwhile, she is in the process of receiving her certification in Pilates and Yoga instruction.

RizzQue opened inauspiciously on Dec. 4 at the beginning of a rough winter. “The snow storms didn’t help,” she says, shaking her head. But word of mouth is slowly building her clientele.

Cardona hopes RizzQue will be a place where people feel good about themselves. “Life gets in the way,” she says, “and a lot of women forget to make time for themselves. I want people to be able to come here for an hour and have it be all about them.”

Vilchez says that’s exactly why she comes. “I can totally relax when I come here,” she says.

As a lifelong Norwood resident, Cardona wanted to add something positive to the neighborhood.

“I’ve always loved this area, because it’s such a melting pot,” she says. One participant, she says, offering an example, is a little girl from Bulgaria who doesn’t speak a word of English, but loves to dance. Cardona says, “Dance is something that can be translated in any language.”

Ed. Note: Although most of the adult classes are geared towards women, the kid’s classes are co-ed and are intended for children ages 5 -15. For more information, call ( (718) 882-1000 or visit www.rizzque.com.

This story was updated from an original version on 7/25/2011.

A Place Where Mexican Cowboys Can Suit Up

July 14, 2011

Mario Martinez, the owner of Rudy El Vaquero on the Grand Concourse, shows off an example of the embroidered Mexican cowboy clothing his store sells. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto

By Fausto Giovanny Pinto
Along the ethnically-diverse enclave that is the stretch of the Grand Concourse between 182nd Street and Fordham Road, lies African grocery stores, Dominican barbershops and a scene out of a Mexican-flavored Wild West movie.

Spurs, heavy-duty rope (to lasso bulls) and countless styles of cowboy boots and hats fill the shelves and walls that make up the niche clothing shop, Rudy El Vaquero.

“Here they have what I want, for good prices,” said Angelica Valerio, who has been shopping at the store for over a year. “And whatever they don’t have, they will get.”

The business opened 10 years ago as a record shop. Owner Mario Martinez said people were travelling as far away as Queens and New Jersey to get their Mexican music fix and he wanted to offer these tunes closer to home.

Then one day after the record shop opened, Martinez brought in a pair of cowboy boots, a style popular among native Mexicans, Martinez included.

A pair of boots grew to a few. Soon he had hats, shirts and a growing demand. Six years ago, he moved the record shop two stores down to a smaller location and opened Rudy El Vaquero in its stead.

According to the 2010 Census, Hispanics make up more than 50 percent of the Bronx population, including a fast growing number of Mexicans. From 2001 to 2009, the Bronx’s Mexican population nearly doubled, from 38,454 to 69,717. Martinez’s shops are a testament to that.

Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Martinez says business has doubled since his cowboy shop first opened. Families often come in together looking for clothes to wear at big celebrations, where more formal Mexican cowboy attire is often required.

While some people only prefer to dress the cowboy way on special occasions, Martinez says there are some such as himself who wear this type of clothing everyday. Recently he has noticed younger customers.

Rudy’s embroidered clothing is especially popular, Martinez says. Many regional Mexican bands come from as far as Connecticut and New Jersey for embroidered shirts, and hats adorned with hand-stitched logos.

Out of his shop, Martinez also advertises and sells tickets to shows, whether its bull riding in New Jersey or Ranchera-style music show shows along the Concourse.

Since opening, a new store has popped up nearby selling similar items. Martinez takes this as a compliment, saying, “When you do something right people will copy you.”
Ed. Note: Rudy El Vaquero is located 2359 Grand Concourse. They are open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Woodlawn Cemetery Named National Landmark

July 14, 2011

By Justin Bodden and David Greene

On June 30, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that Woodlawn Cemetery, along with 13 other sites across the country, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The title recognizes Woodlawn’s role in preserving and celebrating those who have helped shape the world, according to a press release. The prestigious title has been designated to less than 2,500 places, putting the Norwood-area cemetery in rare company.

The 150-year-old, 400-acre Woodlawn Cemetery is the final resting place to some significant people in our nation’s history, including jazz legend Miles Davis and former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was one of many who advocated for the cemetery to become a National Historic Landmark.

“The Woodlawn Cemetery is the final resting place for many famous Americans and it is vitally important to preserve our nation’s history for ourselves and for the generations to come,” said the borough president, who submitted a letter that supported the cemetery’s designation back in October of 2010.

“Without our history we do not know where we came from and we do not know where we are headed,” Diaz continued.
The cemetery was recently the backdrop to Diaz’s “Bronx SalsaFest,” which he hosted in collaboration with the Bronx Tourism Council — a week of Bronx events celebrating the musical genre.

On Saturday, July 9, the cemetery led a free walking tours to honor Celia Cruz, a legendary Cuban-born Salsa performer who was laid to rest at Woodlawn.

Brian Sahd, executive director of the Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery, said they were eager to participate in the festival once they heard about it.

“I said, ‘we have to do something, we’ve got to get involved, because who’s here? The Queen of Salsa is here,’” Sahd said.

‘Renaissance Man’ and Activist Ozzie Brown Remembered

July 13, 2011

By Alex Kratz

Ozzie Brown (left) and Paul Foster at a Community Board 7 meeting last month. (Photo courtesy Community Board 7)

Ozzie Brown, a colorful, loquacious and dedicated member of Community Board 7 who was also active in the civil rights movement and an advocate for diabetes awareness, died last week after a battle with cancer. He was 67 years old.

Locally, Brown was best known for the active role he took as a member of the community board. But Brown was much more than that, a “true Renaissance Man,” said former Bronx Borough President Adolf Carrion, one of Brown’s best friends.

“Ozzie was a worldly person,” Carrion said. “He brought a mix of experiences that many people would be surprised to hear about. He was a musician, a promoter of music, a philosopher, a lover of the arts.”

Carrion, who met Brown when the two lived in the same Fordham Hill building in the early 1990s (Brown lived there until his death), said their families were close and they spent many vacations together over the years. As borough president, Carrion appointed him to a Harlem River redevelopment task force and later to Community Board 7.

“I knew he was the right man for the job,” Carrion said, “because he cared about the community, about the people of the Bronx who had been marginalized.”

Brown earned a reputation for offering extended, and often eloquent, speeches during board meetings and hearings. In recent years, he was in the middle of the board’s efforts to expand its role in the community and played a crucial role in shepherding several land use projects, including the re-zoning of Webster Avenue. (Brown said he envisioned the industrialized strip as a bustling commercial and residential area full of “cultural” destinations like galleries, restaurants and bookstores.) Read more

Missing Piano Helps Nabe Find Its Voice

July 13, 2011

By Jordan Moss

In the end, it was all about community.

The story line of the saga of the missing pop-up piano in Williamsbridge Oval Park shifted as the facts came out.

But when every last note was played, the result was a civic ballad celebrating what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.

As the Norwood News reported two weeks ago, the pop-up piano provided by the nonprofit, Sing for Hope, in Williamsbridge Oval Park was reported stolen after consulting with local Parks Department staffers. But a few days later, detectives from the 52nd Precinct learned from witnesses in the park that a Parks Department sanitation crew picked up the piano, thinking it was a discarded instrument.

After an inquiry from the Norwood News, the Parks Department confirmed they were responsible and issued this statement: “Parks workers unknowingly discarded the piano which appeared to have been vandalized and was lying on its side. We were just alerted to this today and we send our apology to the community and Sing for Hope if any trouble was caused by this.” Read more

HS Football Star Dies After Parking Lot Brawl

July 13, 2011

By David Greene

A bizarre and tragic confrontation in a Bedford Park parking lot in late June left a star high school football player stabbed to death and his father charged with assault.

Isayah Muller was stabbed to death at this public garage near Lehman College in Bedford Park. (Photo by David Greene)

After attending his high school commencement ceremony at Lehman College, on Tuesday, June 28, Isayah Muller, 19, a star running back for the Truman High School Mustangs, and his family, left M.T. Jerome Town Corp. Parking Lot at Jerome Avenue and 198th Street.

While heading to City Island for a celebratory dinner, police say Isayah’s father, Andre Muller, discovered that an expensive bottle of cologne was missing from the car. He immediately turned the car around and went back to the parking lot to confront the attendants.

Surveillance video from the parking lot shows Andre Muller growing increasingly angry with a pair of parking attendants who allowed Muller to search their drawers and personal bags. At one point, Muller punches one of the attendants. He then throws a bicycle and charges at them with snow shovel, while Isayah looks on.

After departing briefly, both Andre Muller and Isayah come charging back into the attendant booth, fists flying. One attendant is shown wielding a machete. Video then shows the two Mullers leaving abruptly. It is at this point, police say, that one of the attendants pierced Isayah’s heart with a makeshift knife.

With Isayah’s mother and girlfriend in the car, Andre Muller rushed Isayah to a nearby clinic. He was later transferred to St. Barnabas, where he died.

The teen’s father was arrested the following day and charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. He was not charged in his son’s death and pleaded not guilty to the charges. No charges are expected to be filed against the parking attendants.

Meanwhile, Andre’s attorney, Lawrence Fredella, told Fox News that viewers were not given the entire surveillance video, so the entire story has yet to be told. Read more

So Far, So Good on Milbank Repairs, Say Tenants

July 13, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Landlord Steve Finkelstein

Two and a half months ago, when Steve Finkelstein took over the infamous Milbank buildings—10 formerly foreclosed properties in the northwest Bronx that made national headlines last year for their terrible living conditions—he had a lot of eyes watching him.

The plight of the Milbank tenants, as the group came to be known, captured the attention of countless city groups, the mayor, the City Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), all of which vowed to monitor the new owner to make sure conditions at the buildings improved immediately.

Finkelstein, a Scarsdale-based landlord who owns dozens other of Bronx buildings, bought the properties for $28 million at the end of April after months of negotiations with tenants and the city.

Today, things seem to be going according to plan—or, according to some, even better than planned.

“It’s pretty strong work,” said HPD spokesman Eric Bederman, who said the 10 buildings, which had 4,805 housing code violations between them when Finkelstein took over, now have just 1,838.

“The new owner and his workmen are fantastic,” said Gloria Thomas, who has lived at 2505 Aqueduct Ave. for nearly 30 years. “I’m very, very pleased with everything going on with Finkelstein. They’re working on all the apartments diligently.”

On a recent visit, Thomas’ building and two others nearby—2500 University Ave. and 75 W. 190th St.—were a whirl of construction, smelling of sawdust and wet paint as work crews outfitted apartments with new parquet wood floors and kitchen tiles.

The improvements are a sea change for many tenants here, who say they’d fought for the past several years to secure basic amenities like hot water and locks on the front door. Now, security cameras monitor nearly every floor. Read more

Rally Kicks Off Campaign to Catch a Shooter

July 13, 2011

By Fausto Giovanny Pinto

Dorris Torres (with microphone), shooting victim Yvette Torres’ mother, during a rally two weeks ago, asks witnesses to come forward with information. (Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto)

As a small crowd gathered in front of 2396 Valentine Ave. chanting, “No more guns! No more violence!” clusters of onlookers gathered on nearby stoops and poked their heads out of window perches above.

Organizers of the anti-violence rally hoped one of those onlookers might come forward with information about the shooting of Yvette Torres, a 15-year-old DeWitt Clinton High School student, who remains in critical condition after being shot in the head in front of 2396 Valentine Ave. on June 11.

Yvette was shot after confronting a gunman who was denied access to a party at the building, friends and family say.  There is speculation that witnesses were present but are apprehensive to come forward because they fear retribution or becoming labeled a snitch or a rat.

“We are here today to show we can’t stand for something like this,” said Robert Rios, an event director for Being Latino, a Hispanic lifestyle blog who helped organize the Rally for Yvette, “especially in the hood where you can’t snitch, people are fearful [to come forward].”

Yvette’s mother, Dorris Torres, who bears a strong resemblance to her daughter, briefly spoke to the crowd before fighting back tears.

“My daughter has been a fighter since day one. Now she needs someone to fight for her,” she said. “Just say what happened. All we want is for someone to step up and help. Snitch rules don’t apply. Think if it was your family.”

Members of Bronx-based Affinity Church came out to the rally, setting up a small stage with speakers. Affinity Pastor Dimas Salaberrios said he has been leading his congregation to scenes of recent violence, such as the stabbing death of Truman H.S. football star Isayah Muller in Bedford Park (see page 3) and 21-year-old Aisha Morales who was recently gunned down in Longwood.

“We want people to know if you commit a homicide in the borough we love, we are going to come out against this,” said Salaberrios.

Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who helped print 1,000 flyers for the event, was the only politician in attendence. He questioned the source of the gun violence problem.

“We have to take these guns away from criminals,” Rivera said. “They are being sold to them. Someone has to be responsible. [Perhaps] the manufacturer?”

A June 19 article in the New York Post reported that a suspect had been arrested and charged in the shooting of Yvette. The NYPD refuted that story, saying no one has been arrested and the investigation remains open.

Rios said the Post article might have deterred potential witnesses, who figured the investigation was over, from coming forward,. “The Post did more damage than good,” he said.

Still, volunteers and organizers at the rally were preparing for a drawn out campaign. They plan to canvass the area distributing flyers every Saturday until someone comes forward with information.

Organizers, who grew the rally using Facebook, found hope, support and manpower in the Shy-Shy Foundation, whose members came all the way from Brockton, Mass., to be part of the rally.

The foundation, which aims to stop gang violence, was created by Stephanie Matiyosus after her 16-year-old daughter, Chantel “Shy-Shy” Matiyosus, was shot to death while leaving a baby shower in 2009.

After two years of passing out flyers and holding outreach events, a witness came forward, which led police to make an arrest and charge a man with Chantel’s murder earlier this year. Now the foundation is branching out to help others facing similar situations.

As of deadline, Yvette was slowly making progress at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. She is out of the Intensive Care Unit, breathing on her own, and blinking, said family friend Nelson Figueroa, who came up with the idea for the rally.

Ruben Bonet watched the rally from the front of his building nearby. A resident there for more than 40 years, Bonet has seen the best and worst of the neighborhood.

“A lot of things happen here and nothing gets resolved,” he said. “This is something positive. It shows that the family and the neighborhood don’t accept this.”

Preacher Wants to Bring Prosperity Gospel to Armory

July 13, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Critics of a recently-released report on possible uses for the Kingsbridge Armory said it lacked for funding sources. There were lots of ideas, but no money to make any of them happen.

Enter Creflo Dollar, a man with a vision and the resources to bring it to reality.

An evangelical preacher from Georgia, known for his lavish lifestyle and for touting the spiritual benefits of wealth, Dollar is proposing to take over the long-vacant Armory, according to the report released by the Bronx borough president’s office last month.

World Changers Church International, an Atlanta-based, nondenominational parish led by Dollar and his wife, Taffi, has proposed turning the 575,000 square-foot West Kingsbridge Road building into a “state of the art church facility,” fit with administrative offices, daycare and afterschool program space, a gymnasium, food and clothing banks and a recording studio.

The proposal was one of more than 20 submitted to Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and a task force he appointed last year to consider future uses for the space. World Changers presented to the task force in January, and said their center, if approved, would be open to use for all community members, regardless of religious affiliation.

Dollar (yes, that’s his real name, according to a “frequently asked questions” section on the church’s website) is a controversial figure in the religious world, known for preaching “prosperity theology,” or the idea that God rewards believers with wealth and financial bounty.

“Jesus came to restore abundance and prosperity in our lives,” Dollar wrote in a column on his website. “Simply put, we don’t have to be poor once we grab hold of the Word of God.”

Bob Hall, head pastor of Bronx Household of Faith, a conservative evangelical Christian church in University Heights, called Dollar’s ministry “crap,” and said his focus on wealth and affluence gives Christianity a bad name.

“This is what frustrates me about the mega churches,” he said. “If we had just a tenth of their landscaping budget, just think about how much good we could do.

Dollar’s budget is big enough for World Changers’ New York affiliate to rent out mega venues like Madison Square Garden and the Javits Center for services and World Changers is noticeably beefing up its presence in the Big Apple.

According to their proposal, the church has 8,000 active members and says that 1,600 of those live in the Bronx. Last year, The Ambassadors of Change, the parish’s outreach organization in the tri-state area, hosted a Women’s History Month event with the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, and teamed up with the group for a job fair in Manhattan last month.

A public relations firm representing Dollar did not return calls for comment.

A Guide to Your Local Farmers Markets

July 13, 2011

The Farmers Market at Montefiore Medical Center on E. 210th Street. (Photo by Justin Bodden)

The warm weather means the return of outdoor markets, offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, baked goods and other farm-fresh items. Here’s our list of local spots.

New York Botanical Garden Green Market
Where: The Mosholu Gate, on Southern Boulevard between Mosholu Parkway and Bedford Park Boulevard
When: Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Poe Park Green Market
Where: 192nd Street, between Grand Concourse and Valentine Avenue
When: Tuesdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Kingsbridge Heights Youth Market
Where: West Kingsbridge Road, between Reservoir and Aqueduct avenues
When:  Fridays, 1 to 8 p.m.

Montefiore Medical Center Farmers Market

Where: Outside the main entrance of Montefiore’s Moses Division, East 210th Street and Rochambeau Avenue
When: Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Harvest Home North Central Bronx Market
Where: Mosholu Parkway North and Jerome Avenue
When: Wednesdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Justin Bodden

Govt. Hopes Gruesome Warnings Will Scare Off Smokers

July 13, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly and Justin Bodden

A series of new and graphic warning labels will start appearing on cigarette packages this fall, part of a federal effort to encourage more Americans to quit smoking

New graphic warning labels, like this one, will be on every pack of cigarettes in the country come this fall. (Image courtesy the Federal Food and Drug Administration)

and deter potential smokers from taking up the habit.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled the new labels last month, which include images of nicotine-damaged lungs, rotting teeth, a corpse and a man breathing from an oxygen tank—each picture paired with warnings like, “cancer can kill you.”

“These images are pretty scary,” said longtime Bronx smoker Ronald Wagenknecht, who said he’s trying to quit for the second time, but isn’t sure the new labels will make an impact.

“After 25 years, I just can’t put one down,” he said. “I need more than just images on the box.”

Starting this September, every cigarette box, carton and cigarette ad will be required to feature one of the nine approved warnings, along with the phone number for the smoking cessation hotline 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

The label changes — the first in 25 years — are required by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009.

“These labels are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking and they will help encourage smokers to quit, and prevent children from smoking,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a press release. “President Obama wants to make tobacco-related death and disease part of the nation’s past, and not our future.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is the leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States, and kills 443,000 people each year.

Rally for Clinton H.S. Shooting Victim Grows On Facebook

June 30, 2011

By Alex Kratz

While 15-year-old DeWitt Clinton High School student Yvette Torres fights for her life at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, a group of people, many of whom have never met her, some from as far away as Massachusetts, are doing their best to track down the person who shot her in the back of the head and bring them to justice.

Yvette was shot in the head after she confronted a gunman at a June 11 party in an apartment building near Fordham Road, on the corner of East 187th Street and Valentine Avenue. It’s unclear exactly what sparked the confrontation or why the gunman fired the shot that hit Yvette. But it is clear that there were witnesses to the crime and the shooter remains at large.

On June 17, the New York Post reported that a 17-year-old boy had been arrested and charged with Yvette’s shooting. But the NYPD says no one has been arrested and the investigation is ongoing.

Seeing that the investigation had stalled, Queens resident Nelson Figueroa decided the police could use some help. Read more

Legislature Passes Gay Marriage, Rent Laws in Overtime

June 30, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

LGBT activists, shown here during a gay pride event earlier this year, celebrated as the New York became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. (Photo by Yusyin Hsin)

Lawmakers in Albany spent all of last week scrambling to address a long list of items on its agenda before breaking for the year, staying four days past the scheduled end of the legislative session and passing a number of high-profile laws in its final few days.

Among the legislation was a historic bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which after days of intense lobbying in Albany from parties on both sides of the debate, was passed by the State Senate late Friday night.

“I am proud that New York has sent a message loud and clear, that we will not tolerate inequality,” said Bronx senator Gustavo Rivera, in a statement after the bill was approved. Read more

Shelter Plan for Vacant Muller Center Blasted at Hearing

June 30, 2011

By Alex Kratz

During his lengthy and impassioned testimony at a public hearing concerning the fate of the vacant Muller Army Reserve Center in Father Richard Gorman ripped into the city's homeless shelter plan at a hearing las week. (Photo by Alex Kratz)Wakefield, Father Richard Gorman compared the Bloomberg administration to a) Josef Stalin and b) a group of slave owners (with Wakefield residents being the slaves).

Gorman, the longtime chairman of Community Board 12, which includes Wakefield and Woodlawn, made those comparisons in the course of blasting the city’s controversial proposal to house a 200-bed  homeless shelter for men in the Muller Center. The mayor’s office says the city’s homeless needs outweigh the desires of community residents and stakeholders.

Calling the city’s plan “outrageous,” Gorman said the report that determined a shelter would be the best use of the center was full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies. “It’s a shame trees lost their lives to print that garbage,” he said. Gorman also suggested the city’s plan to turn the building over to the Doe Fund and give the group a fat city contract to run the shelter amounted to a giveback to the nonprofit, which provided valuable support to Bloomberg’s campaign to extend term limits two years ago.

Gorman was not alone in his anger. The sweltering auditorium (the vitriol was equaled only by the thickness of the air) inside PS 21 on East 225th Street was jam-packed with opponents of the homeless shelter, including a long list of local politicians, community activists and residents.

One representative from the mayor’s office, which holds two of the three voting positions on the Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) tasked by the Department of Defense to find a suitable use for the center (Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. holds the other spot), spoke on behalf of the homeless shelter plan.

In an e-mail statement after the hearing, Andrew Brent, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said their position had not changed despite the overwhelming and vehement opposition to the homeless shelter plan.

“Given New York City’s demand for temporary emergency shelter and the federal mandate, the Local Redevelopment Authority determined by majority that the facility should be utilized as a homeless shelter,” Brent said in a statement.

Brent, who could not point to any community or political support for the city’s plan, said the Doe Fund’s application to run a homeless shelter at the center was the “most viable” option for the building’s re-use.

In 2008, around 20 Doe Fund employees testified in support of Bloomberg’s effort to extend term limits. Last year, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg, “through his charitable arms,” had donated at least $10 million to the Doe Fund since winning re-election for a third term in 2009. (A spokesman for Bloomberg said the mayor had supported the Doe Fund financially long before the term limits vote. And a spokesman for the Doe Fund said the group’s president, George T. McDonald, had always opposed term limits.)

At the end of last year, Diaz, Jr. repeatedly chose not to attend LRA meetings to prevent the three-member panel from having a quorum and being able to vote on, and approve, the homeless shelter plan.

Diaz spokesman John DeSio said the borough president had yet to decide whether voting against the plan at the next meeting would be better than ignoring another meeting, which might leave the building open to the highest bidder. The LRA must vote on the plan by the end of the month.

In his remarks at the hearing, Diaz said the mayor and the borough president’s office, then occupied by Adolfo Carrion, had agreed the Muller Center would become the new home of the National Guard units currently housed in the Kingsbride Armory annex buildings in order to make way for new schools. The National Guard has said it would be willing to move the Armory units to the Muller Center with $750,000 worth of help from the city.

The city’s re-use recommendation report mentions the Guard’s willingness to move into the Center, but Brent said the Bronx’s and the city’s need for homeless shelter beds trumped that idea. The report said it would cost between $10 million and $15 million to turn the center into a homeless shelter.

Concerned local residents said the neighborhood was already saturated with homeless shelters. Many suggested the mayor’s office was unfairly saddling their residential area with the Doe Fund’s all-male clientele, which is made up of many former criminals and drug addicts.

“Why [is the city doing this]?” asked Mary Lauro of the Wakefield Taxpayers Association. “Because we are a minority community!”

Op-ed: Unlikely Heroes and Other Joys of Youth Baseball

June 30, 2011

By Jarrett Murphy

Richard, hands in the air, celebrates with his Athletics teammates after a thrilling season-ending victory. (Photo by Jarrett Murphy)

Richard, hands in the air, celebrates with his Athletics teammates after a thrilling season-ending victory. (Photo by Jarrett Murphy)

My son, Owen, and I were supposed to miss this game altogether. It was originally scheduled for back in April, for a day when we were in Ireland. But it rained that day, and the game was called off. So the second and final meeting between the Athletics and Pirates of the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center’s baseball league’s Bantam Division was instead set for Saturday, June 18 at Shandler Field in Van Cortlandt Park.

There was no rain this time. Intense sunshine baked the ballfield. The last time we’d been on the field, our Athletics had a 12-4 lead as the Yankees took their final at-bat only to see the Yanks score eight runs to eke out a tie. The week before there had been another cancelled game because of bad weather; that one would never be made up. This was to be our last game of the year.

The Athletics, coached by Sam Saltares, struck first, scoring twice. We came back with five runs. In the third, they took a 7-5 lead. Then we went ahead 10-7. They put four across in the next frame, but we scored one more in the bottom half to tie the game at 11. Our star player, Artie, was out of town. But we were getting enough offense off the bats of Deandre, our leadoff man, with Carlos, Romeo and Joel getting on base every time. Denae belted a rocket past the third baseman. David beat out a throw to first. Owen had two RBI singles despite having to lay down between at-bats with a headache and fever. Alyssa played heads-up right field, and Jeremy patrolled left. Nick and Quadir stole hits from the Bucs with clever fielding.

Yet we still came to our last at-bat of the season down 13-11. More hits came. The bases loaded up. The tying run came across. Then it was Richard’s turn.

Richard, who happens to be our neighbor, had never played baseball before the season. People who came to our games often heard his name as coaches shouted for him to pay attention, stop playing with dirt, or at least stand up in the outfield. Earlier in the season, he’d asked me to stop the team from chanting his name when he was at the plate because it made him nervous.

Having taken his place in the batter’s box, Richard made a couple of weak swings. Quickly, he was down to his last strike. The winning run was on third base.

The pitch came, and Richard swung, this time with purpose, with meaning. The ball popped off the bat rolling and bouncing toward the shortstop. The bench knew instantly, just by the peculiar way the ball was dribbling across the diamond, that it was all we needed. We roared. The runner on third scampered home. Richard, the fastest man on the team, sprinted to first. He beat the throw by two steps.

The field emptied as Richard stood on first not quite understanding why everyone was hitting him on the helmet. The coach and assistants, grown men all, leapt off their feet. Owen cried with joy. Our final record was 4-4-1, which is somehow way better than 3-5-1, but it didn’t matter that much. If we had finished 1-9, this win would still have felt like the championship.

When the team got their trophies—every team gets trophies—Richard said it was the first he’d ever received. He also got the game ball. The next night he yelled into our yard to ask when the next game is. It was hard to tell him that there’d be no more games until April.

There is plenty not to like about sports—taxpayer-funded stadiums built on top of poor people’s parks, spoiled millionaire athletes, absurd ticket prices, steroid cheats, jingoistic violence. And there’s a lot about sports that is not very profound; they’re an excuse to drink some beer and not think about more important, more depressing things. But sometimes sports are more than all of that. They are a ball dancing across a dusty field and an unlikely hero wondering why everyone is smiling at him.

Jarrett Murphy, a Norwood resident, is editor-in-chief of City Limits.

Ethics Reform Aims to Heal Albany’s Trust Issues

June 30, 2011

Freshman State Senator Gustavo Rivera knows a little bit about the public’s high level of mistrust in their politicians. In fact, he rode that mistrust to victory over his predecessor Pedro Espada, Jr. last fall in the Democratic primary.

Such was the state of the northwest Bronx’s 33rd Senate District seat, which Rivera now represents.

The now infamous Espada is awaiting trial for allegedly embezzling money from his network of Bronx nonprofit health clinics. His two-year term that ended in December was marked by a handful of investigations into possible ethical and legal violations. Espada did not come into office without a checkered ethical record, but he managed to defeat his own predecessor, Efrain Gonzalez, by repeatedly pointing out the dark cloud of federal corruption charges hanging over his head. (Gonzalez is now serving prison time for stealing state funds meant for local nonprofit groups.)

“I heard it from people all the time while I was campaigning last summer,” Rivera said during a recent interview. “They don’t trust us as legislators.”

Rivera says the current crop of legislators in Albany is attempting to mend this strained relationship between the public and their representatives in government.

Weeks before the furious finale in Albany that brought the legalization of gay marriage, slightly strengthened rent regulation and a property tax cap, the state legislature passed an ethics reform package that freshman Rivera says will help the healing process along.

Part of that package includes language Rivera introduced as a bill in January that would require lawmakers to disclose outside income. (State legislators are considered part-time employees and are free to hold other jobs.)

The public should know where their representatives are getting their outside income from, Rivera said in a statement announcing the deal in early June, “especially if they are being paid by special interests, companies or individuals whose interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of their constituents and their community.”

The deal also sets up a new Joint Commission on Public Ethics to police both the executive and legislative branches, requires legislators who are lawyers to reveal their clients, creates a database of all lobbyists and contractors doing business with the state and penalizes any lawmaker convicted of a felony by depriving them of their pension.

Good government groups said the reforms, especially with regard to disclosure, were commendable. But many, including the New York Times editorial board, trashed the new ethics commission as “so deeply flawed in its structure as to be wholly ineffective.”
Rivera admitted the reforms won’t solve all of Albany’s problems and dysfunction, but said it’s a step in the right direction.

And for those concerned about Gonzalez or Espada (if he’s convicted), don’t worry, their pensions are safe. The law only applies to future legislators.

From the DR to Walton, Softball Star Tears It Up

June 30, 2011

By Kristen Gwynne

Claritza Caceres led Walton’s softball team to the playoffs this year as a junior. (Photo by Kristen Gwynne)

Claritza Caceres, 17, is a junior at the International School for Liberal Arts at the Walton campus. Quiet and modest, with a petite frame, her appearance hardly lets on that she is what many would consider a softball prodigy. This past season, Claritza muscled a .696 batting average with 45 runs batted in and 29 stolen bases. A pitcher, she had an earned run average of 3.68.

Claritza, who is from the Dominican Republic, did not play proper softball until came to the U.S. at age 12. But she got some serious practice in her home country, where she and friends improvised with sticks and bottle caps.

One year, Claritza got her first real softball as a birthday present from her uncle. Compared to hitting a cap with a stick, it was a piece of cake. “That ball is so special to me,” she said. “It’s my lucky one.”   Read more

All Must Join in Bullying Battle, Say Experts at Monte

June 30, 2011

By Rachel Sander

In the past year, the disastrous effects of bullying have become more visible with high profile youth suicides. More adults are recognizing that bullying victims can suffer from depression, low self-esteem, health problems, poor grades, and have suicidal thoughts.

That’s why Montefiore Medical Center’s community forum two weeks ago focused on the issue.

“For too long, we’ve turned a blind eye,” said Robert Spencer of the Bronx district attorney’s office at the forum in Montefiore’s Cherkasky Auditorium. Read more

Green Bronx Machine Revs Up Healthy Eating

June 30, 2011

Born out of a biology and earth sciences class at Discovery High School, the Bronx Green Machine program is now certifying students to work in “green” technology jobs. (Photo by Rachel Sander)

The sweet smell of basil drifted down the halls of Discovery High School one day in late May. Parents, teachers and neighbors chased it down to Room 279, where Steven Ritz and his science classes hosted a Farmers Market and Edible Plant Sale.

Guests got to shop amidst a selection of fresh veggies, plants, and flowers while learning about Ritz’s unique science curriculum.

“This is my portable science lab,” Ritz explained. “Unlike software that gets outdated and textbooks which are expensive, this room is a constant learning resource.” Ritz says he started bringing plants into the classroom in order to give his students a hands-on lesson, but it’s grown into a mission to make the entire borough eat and grow healthy food. Read more

Armory Report: Long in Length, Short on Answers

June 30, 2011

By Alex Kratz

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has made it clear redeveloping the vacant 575,000-square-foot Kingsbridge Armory into a quality job-producing, vibrant community space, is a top priority of his administration. But a much-anticipated report created by an Armory task force he assembled was released with little fanfare earlier this month and appears to generate more questions than answers.

Last week, Diaz’s office quietly released the 267-page report, which included no clear plan for financing the redevelopment. It detailed all of the meetings of the task force, which included union reps, health care industry leaders, developers, community activists and elected officials. It also included three models for possible redevelopment created by a group of New York University graduate students and faculty.

John DeSio, a spokesman for the borough president, said the point of the task force was not to come up with a proposal or a clear plan for financing it. The point, he said, was to show there was still interest in the Amory and to call on the mayor to issue a request for proposals (RFP). DeSio said he had every intention of trumpeting the report with a press conference, but said it had already been leaked to media outlets, so they decided to release it early in the morning, via e-mail. Read more

Local HS Graduation Rates Fluctuate as City’s Rises

June 30, 2011

By Alex Kratz

High School for Teaching and the Professions students applaud during the June 28 graduation ceremony at Lehman College. (Photo by David Greene)

As high schools throughout the Bronx and the rest of New York City began holding graduation ceremonies this June, the Department of Education and the mayor’s office proudly announced last year’s four-year graduation rates as the highest the city has ever seen — 65.1 percent, according to state figures.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed to the latest numbers, which also included gains across every ethnic group and in the number of Regents and Advanced Regents diplomas awarded, as evidence the city’s reform plan of replacing underperforming schools with new, smaller schools, is working. The gains represented a ninth straight year of increasingly higher graduation rates for the city as a whole. Read more

Fears That ‘Managed’ Medicaid Means Less Care

June 30, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

The letter came one day this winter, while 57-year-old Norwood resident Nilta Vazquez was still in the midst of recovering from an extensive spinal fusion surgery she’d had that fall. At the time, she was unable to walk on her own, and had a health aide helping her at home.

The letter said that Medicaid—the health insurance program for low-income and disabled New Yorkers that’s funded jointly through the state and federal governments—was requiring her to switch over to a managed care plan.

Managed care plans differ from traditional or “fee-for-service” health plans in that in the latter, a patient is allowed to visit any doctor that accepts Medicaid. In managed care, a patient instead has one primary care doctor charged with overseeing their care, and can only visit physicians within a certain, approved network of caregivers. Read more

LGBT Activists Discuss Solutions to Bronx Intolerance

June 17, 2011

By By Kristen Gwynne

Through a series of town hall meetings and other public activities, advocates and organizers are working to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender tolerance in the Bronx, a borough that gained a bad reputation for its intolerance last fall when a group of young adults in Morris Heights were arrested for viciously beating and sodomizing two youths and another man because they suspected the victims were gay.

On May 31, at a town hall meeting at the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, Bronx Community Board 7 and other local community organizers pinpointed lack of advertisement, religion, cultural bias and low socio-economic status as the main causes of the borough’s LGBT intolerance. To navigate these obstacles and improve the borough’s reputation, attendees and panelists suggested working with the police and increasing LGBT awareness, especially in notoriously anti-gay communities.

Panelist Francisco J. Lazala, of the Bronx Community Pride Center and Gay and the Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization (GALDE), said the goal is to host a town hall meeting in every Bronx-based community board and create a network to distribute LGBT services across the borough.

Many attendees expressed discontent with police response to harassment and hate crimes. Detective Jim Duffey, part of the NYPD’s three-person LGBT liaison team of openly gay officers, told the audience to call on his team if things weren’t working out through normal channels.

“If you have an incident, call the cops first,” Duffey said. “Those who respond may not be as compassionate. If you feel you are not being treated right, contact us.”

In comparison to the other boroughs, panelists and advocates said, the Bronx lacks LGBT advertisement, an effective tool for helping to humanize LGBT persons. Read more

Cabrera Bill Would Make Nabe Crime Stats Public

June 17, 2011

By Alex Kratz

Addressing a public safety issue raised by the Norwood News, Councilman Fernando Cabrera has drafted legislation to require the New York City Police Department to share neighborhood crime statistics with community boards and the general public on a quarterly basis.

Currently, the only stats made public are precinct-wide, the so-called Compstat reports that are compiled weekly and posted online at the NYPD’s website. But those stats cover large geographic areas – almost 150,000 people in the case of Community Board 7 — comprising many neighborhoods.

When crime goes down in a precinct, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has gone down in a neighborhood or series of blocks, which is why the Police Department carves precincts into sectors – for the purpose of identifying problem areas. But New Yorkers rarely see these breakdowns.

The Norwood News did publish sector stats provided by the precinct a couple of years ago, but the information has been kept under wraps ever since. The Norwood News submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the NYPD last June for the data and followed up in October. The NYPD has yet to comply with the request, despite indicating specific dates by which it would in two letters to the paper.

Greg Faulkner, Cabrera’s chief of staff, said his office decided to address the issue legislatively following the paper’s coverage, and when Norwood News reporter Alex Kratz raised the issue with Chief Philip Banks III, head of the NYPD community affairs department at a 52nd Precinct Community Council Meeting at Scott Tower, Banks said he didn’t know why the information wasn’t being provided.

A Norwood News editorial in May stated: All we’re asking for is information that will keep residents better informed and more able to help the NYPD keep our streets safer.

Since the editorial, the Bronx News Network has regularly published a clock ticking off the number of days and hours since the Norwood News first filed a Freedom of Information law request last June — as of now, 377 days.
Faulkner said the legislation will probably go through several drafts before it hits the Council floor.

As Deadline Passes, Legislators Continue Push for Stronger Rent Laws

June 17, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Housing advocates and local elected officials are making a last-ditch campaign to strengthen the state’s rent laws, which expired on Wednesday. Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to keep legislators in Albany until an agreement is reached.

On Monday, dozens of protesters—among them Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Harlem State Sen. Bill Perkins—were arrested for blocking the entrance to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office during a rowdy rally to draw attention to the law’s approaching expiration date.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos extended the deadline slightly to this Friday, June 17. The Emergency Tenant Protection Act guarantees rent-stabilized status for over a million apartments across the city, and hundred of thousands in the Bronx.

For months, pro-tenant groups and local politicians have been rallying to see that the law is not only renewed, which is likely to happen, but also strengthened—including the repeal of vacancy decontrol, the provision which deregulates apartments once they are vacated if the rent exceeds $2,000 a month.

“I would consider a straight renewal a defeat,” said Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, in a phone interview from Albany. Read more

Weapon Found in Dumpster Alarms Residents

June 17, 2011

By By Jordan Moss

Daniel Andujar holds up a photo of the artillery shell that he took on his cell phone. Isaac Servones, 2, is also pictured. (Photo by Jordan Moss)

Norwood residents got a good scare Tuesday morning, when emergency vehicles arrived at a construction site at 3524 Hull Ave. to remove what they thought might be a missile.

Found in a dumpster by workers at the building, it turned out to be an inert artillery shell, the NYPD said.

Residents who piled into the streets following the arrival of fire and emergency truck and a helicopter hovering over the site (just north of East Gun Hill Road) say that a member of the bomb squad simply carried the weapon in his bare arms to a truck that then took off with it. That sent all the other emergency trucks away and the workers back to work.

One worker who said he was part of a crew installing elevators at the site, said they measured the shell — a narrow, green projectile — at 39 inches. They said it had to have been left there overnight since they had been working with the dumpster the previous day. Several workers and residents got photos of the weapon on their cell phones.

Marlene Lopez, who runs K & M Daycare in her apartment across the street, said that emergency workers told her to close up for the day, after which she called parents and informed them of the situation.

Fight Over Worship at Schools Puts U-Heights Church in Spotlight

June 17, 2011

By Alex Kratz

A June 3rd court decision will ban churches, including Bronx Household of Faith (shown here in the PS/MS 15 auditorium) from worshipping inside city public schools. (Photo by Alex Kratz)

When the leaders of Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian congregation based in University Heights, first approached the city, in 1994, about using its public schools to hold worship services, they didn’t think much of it. They certainly did not think they would find themselves, 17 years later, fighting for freedom of religion and speech as part of a back-and-forth legal case that could end up in front of the Supreme Court.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Bob Hall, Bronx Household of Faith’s head pastor.

After being initially rebuffed, Bronx Household of Faith legally wrangled its way into the auditorium at PS/MS 15 on Andrews Avenue, where it has held services since 2002. But on June 3, a divided appeals court ruled the DOE could once again exclude churches from using schools for worship. That left Hall’s church, along with more than 60 other city churches, once again facing a daunting search for space.

City attorneys lauded the ruling. “The Department [of Education] is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice,” said Jane Gordon, who argued the city’s case. “The decision is a victory for the city’s schoolchildren and their families.”

But Bronx Household of Faith and its robust legal team say the DOE’s policy unfairly singles out religious worship services and has vowed to fight on.
Read more

Reservoir Access Fight Escalates as BP Takes Lead

June 17, 2011

By Rachel Sander

There’s a path around the Jerome Park Reservoir, just like the Central Park Reservoir. And while Manhattanites can run around theirs with a view of the water, Bronxites aren’t allowed to run and walk next to theirs and many are fed up.

Since construction on a filtration plant for the Croton Water System began in the depths of the Norwood section of Van Cortlandt Park several years ago, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has cited security as the reason why residents are kept outside of the two security fences surrounding the nearby reservoir (a wide path exists between the fences). Residents say that access and security are both possible and point to former commissioner Christopher Ward’s promise in 2004 to create a track around the reservoir similar to the one at the Central Park Reservoir.

At a June 2 hearing on the issue at Amalgamated Houses’ Vladeck Hall, residents, most of whom live on the west side of the reservoir, gave the DEP an earful.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. convened the meeting at the urging of the Croton Filtration Monitoring Committee (FMC), which had grown weary of the DEP’s lack of responsiveness. The tipping point was the agency’s March release of a long-delayed report that offered the public a mere few days of access in 2013.

Mark Lanaghan of the DEP said his agency attended the hearing to hear from the public. “We are open to exploring public access but we don’t know what you want,” he said, as community members groaned. Read more

Pride, Relief, and Uncertainty for Lehman Graduates

June 17, 2011

By Rachel Sander

“Why does King Lear suffer? What is a neutron?” poet Billy Collins asked a crowd of 3,000 anxious graduates, proud parents, and supportive friends, during his speech at Lehman College’s commencement ceremony two weeks ago in Bedford Park.

“It’s not about knowing the answers to these questions,” Collins said. “It’s about having the intelligence to know how to think.”

Emphasizing his point, Collins quoted the biography of Noah Webster, founding father of Webster’s Dictionary. For Webster, Collins said, “completing the requirements for his degree would signify not that he was a learned man, but that he had acquired the necessary tools to become one.”

Gloriana B. Waters, a vice chancellor at the school, echoed Collins’ theme. “Your time here has not only given you the education but the knowledge and with hard work and tenacity you can accomplish anything. You are all success stories!” Read more

Teen Chefs Wage Battle for Better Health

June 17, 2011

By Racehel Sander

Evander Childs Educational Campus students prepare the winning healthy meal during the Teen Battle Chef competition as Crystal Mayo, community organizer, Montefiore School Health Program, looks on. (Photo courtesy Montefiore)

Earlier this month teen chefs squared off in a final competition at Evander Childs Educational Campus. The program, sponsored by the Montefiore School Health Program, is part of its healthy eating initiative. Although the program is intended to promote good nutrition and healthy meals, it has not only transformed the way Evander students eat, but the way they connect with one another.

For eight weeks, students met together after school every Thursday. “We’ve become one happy family,” said ninth grader Krystal Rivera, adding that the program has gotten her to spend time with people that she normally wouldn’t hang out with.

The rigorous application process requires students to participate in a group interview and prepare a mock menu.
The 24 students chosen for the program are divided into two teams which “battle” to prepare multi-ethnic meals using healthy ingredients and advanced culinary techniques.

Earlier this month the two teams entered the final round of the competition. After weeks of preparing different recipes, the two teams got to create their own menu. Grace Walfall, director of community health at the School Health Program, said the students had to present their meal to the judges and explain how it was prepared and why the meal is nutritional. Read more

Honoring Megan Charlop by Doing

June 17, 2011

By Jordan Moss

The staff of the Montefiore School Health Program coordinated the first community service day in honor of Megan Charlop, the beloved Norwood resident and longtime Bronx activist who died in a tragic accident while riding her bike to work in March 2010. The inaugural Meg Charlop Day of Service on a sweltering June 9 resulted in 480 trees planted along the wetlands trail in Van Cortlandt Park near the Mosholu Golf Course and Shandler Recreation Area. The participants removed invasive species as well.

School Health Program staff say they want to involve kids from local schools next year.  The goal is to participate in service projects that will benefit Bronx kids and contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

Goulden Avenue: Closed For Construction

June 17, 2011

By Kristen Gwynne

Starting on July 5, a stretch of Goulden Avenue, from 205th Street to about one block north, will be entirely closed off to traffic as workers connect water pipes underneath the street. The pipes will connect the Jerome Park Reservoir to the new water filtration plant being built in Van Cortlandt Park.

The Department of Environmental Protection, which is managing the project, says that stretch of Goulden Avenue will be closed until school resumes in early September, at which point the DEP will open one lane of traffic going in each direction.

Before the opening, motorists and the BX10 bus will be detoured down Paul Avenue, which is parallel to Goulden.

The construction to begin this summer is one of two segments. The second, on Goulden Avenue adjacent to Gate House No. 7 at the reservoir, is expected to start at an undisclosed time in 2012, and will take four to five months, though DEP spokesman Michael Stasiak said some work outside the street boundary will take longer.

Stasiak said minimizing disruption to Bronx Science motivated the decision to do the projects separately. “The excavation across from Bronx HS of Science is the priority, as the work must be completed for operation of the filtration plant [in Van Cortlandt Park],” said Stasiak in an e-mail. “If we wait, we would miss the opportunity to get the noisy work outside Bronx HS of Science started when school is out of session this summer.”

Bronx Science is not the only school to be affected by the construction. Several others, including Lehman College, DeWitt Clinton High School, and High School for American Studies, are very close to where the work will take place.

Clinton Principal Geraldine Ambrosio said students do not take that route and will be largely unaffected by the traffic change, but noted other small inconveniences may arise. “It’ll probably congest the other areas — if they go down Paul Avenue. We have a lot of teachers who use that parking [on Goulden Avenue], and the neighborhood people park there overnight,” Ambrosio said.

The DEP also said it will not use rock blasting, another controversial issue, and will excavate with drilling instead.
The DEP says once school is back in session it will do quiet work during school hours and save louder work for late afternoon, when classes have ended.

The filtration plant is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2012.

City Offers Discount Prescription Drug Card

June 17, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Last month, the city introduced its first prescription drug discount card, called the BigAppleRx card, which anyone—even non-city residents—can use for purchases at thousands of participating pharmacies throughout the five boroughs.

“All too often, the rising costs of prescription drugs place a burden on New York City households. And this is particularly true for the more than one million New Yorkers who don’t have health insurance,” Mayor Bloomberg said at a press conference introducing the card on May 18.

“Having access to a free prescription drug card can mean the difference between being able to afford prescriptions and being forced to skip doses.”

According to a press release, the card could save an average of 47 percent on most prescription drug purchases. A diabetic who regularly buys generic glucose control medication, for example, would save an estimated $831 a year.

The card can be printed online, no registration required, and used at any participating pharmacies, including big name chains like Target, or at local mom-and-pops like Oval Pharmacy on East Gun Hill Road.

Visit www.bigapplerx.com to print out your card or to find a pharmacy near you that accepts it.

Senator Looks to Shed Pounds, Promote Healthy Living

June 17, 2011

By Fausto Giovanny Pinto

Dressed in Rocky-esque training attire — hooded sweatshirt, jogging pants and sneakers — State Senator Gustavo Rivera walked into the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center and challenged himself to a weigh-in.

Rivera was joined by Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. (sans workout attire) and numerous organizations, to launch the Bronx CAN Health Initiative.

CAN, which stands for Change Attitudes Now, looks to promote a healthier lifestyle among Bronxites, who often rank last on health polls. To help promote the initiative, which will encourage Bronxites to set healthy goals, Rivera said his goal was to lose 20 pounds by the end of the summer without using any gimmicky diet or workout program.

“There is no magic. Eat three-fourths of a plate, less fat, less sugar, less salt, less everything,” said Rivera.

Dr. Jane Bedell, assistant commissioner for the Bronx District Public Health Office, prefaced the weigh-in with some grim facts. One-third of Bronx adults are currently obese, she said. Even more startling was the prediction that if trends don’t change, as many as 50 percent of Bronx children will develop diabetes.

“We have come together before when our children were in danger and now it’s time to come together again,” said Bedell, comparing how Bronxites passed laws in the past for child hazards such as lead poisoning. Read more

Rent Hike Rattles Tracey Towers

June 1, 2011

By Alex Kratz

Residents at Tracey Towers, the twin concrete high-rises on Mosholu Parkway, are bracing for another battle with management over their desire to raise rents up to 77 percent over the course of the next three years.

In a recent letter to tenants, RY Management, which has run the 869-unit apartment complex since the early 1980s, said the current rent rates do not cover the cost of maintaining the buildings and they had applied for a rent increase with the city’s department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD). Because it was built under the state’s Mitchell-Llama program, HPD must approve any rent increase.

Tracey residents claim RY’s problems are the result of mismanagement and they shouldn’t be the ones to shoulder all of the burden.

In the past, tenants say, RY has squandered funding that tenants have paid for. A few years ago, RY received a $4 million loan to repair the roof and do some work on the façade, which was cracking and causing leaks. They paid to erect scaffolding, but instead of doing the roof and façade work, RY used the money to replace the boilers. Meanwhile, the scaffolding remains at a cost of $5,000 a month even though it isn’t being used.

The unattended roof and façade work has led to significant leakage. Tenant Association leader Sam Gillian said several apartments cannot be rented because they are in such disrepair from water damage.

At the Tracey buildings, where a Chinese delivery man once spent four days trapped in a broken-down elevator, there are more than 800 open housing code violations. “Instead of taking care of the violations, they just pay the fines,” said Lorraine Stuart, a Tracey tenant for 35 years. Read more

‘Gun Hill Road’ Isn’t Your Typical Bronx Tale

June 1, 2011

By Alex Kratz

One of the great pleasures of watching “Gun Hill Road,” a new independent film by Bronx native Rashaad Ernesto Green that debuted in front of a New York audience during the first-ever Bronx Week Film Festival in mid-May, is its familiarity.

Look, there’s New Capitol diner on Kingsbridge Road and Jerome! Is he getting on the 2 train or the 4 train? Wait, isn’t that the bodega on Gun Hill Road in Norwood?

“The Bronx itself is a character,” Green said during a question-and-answer session after the screening.

While the setting, characters and dialogue all feel like the Bronx, the storyline deals with difficult topics — most notably, transgender lifestyle choices and how they play out in Latino families — that are only now starting to be discussed openly in the borough.

The history of Bronx-based film is filled with crime stories and gangster tales (think: “A Bronx Tale,” “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” or “The Wanderers”). And “Gun Hill Road,” shot entirely in the Bronx, contains some of those elements. It begins with a prison cafeteria stabbing carried out by the main character, a father played by Bronx-native Esai Morales, who has lived a life of crime.

But the heart of the story centers around how Morales’ character, having just been released from prison, deals with the discovery that his teenage son is transgender. Read more

Divinely Inspired, Youth Hoops League Takes on Devoe Park

June 1, 2011

By Alex Kratz

A new youth basketball program with a focus on values is growing and having an impact at the troubled Devoe Park. (Photo by Adi Talwar)

Shane Barker, a 16-year-old University Heights resident, does not usually use Devoe Park, the triangular and hilly green space that sits on the corner of Fordham Road and University Avenue and is just blocks from his home.

“Me and my brother don’t come down here because there’s troublemakers,” he says.

But today is different. It’s a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning and Shane, sporting cornrows and the wispy beginnings of facial hair, is one of 70 kids participating in a newly-formed basketball program created by a Bronx-based group called the New York City Christian Athletic League.

Aided by word of mouth and an infusion of funding from local Councilman Fernando Cabrera, the hoops program is flourishing in a park that has become synonomous with trouble.

The league’s founder, Edwin Santiago, and his “right-hand man,” Frank Abarca, both attend Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian church that meets at PS 15/291 on Andrews Avenue in University Heights.

In 2005, Santiago, who lives in Soundview and works part-time at Horace Mann, started a men’s softball league that has grown to the point where it now includes 10 other city churches. He wanted to expand the league to include youth leagues, but only recently decided to take “a leap of faith” and go for it. Read more

Parks Dept: Oval Playground To Open in Late June

June 1, 2011

By Jordan Moss

An early burst of summer weather has residents anxious to utilize a new playground, spray showers and basketball courts in the southern part of Williamsbridge Oval Park.

But they’ll have to wait a little while longer.

The Parks Department says the long anticipated upgrades, funded in connection with the political deal that paved the way for the mammoth water filtration plan now taking root in the Norwood section of Van Cortlandt Park, will be completed in late June after the contractor finishes punch list items. The original completion date was last January but the severe winter pushed the work back, an agency spokesman said.

A rehab of the recreation center, including upgraded bathrooms and ADA compliance, which was supposed to be done by May 31, also suffered from the relentless cold weather and is only 70 percent finished. That building will be completed at the end of the summer.

Park advocates say they love the design of the new playground but hope there are no more delays.

“Friends of the Oval just wants to make sure the park is open as quickly as possible,” said Eileen Markey, a member of the volunteer organization, adding that the sprinklers are “a public health need” that help keep the peace in the heat of summer.

Startling Statistics Put Focus on Latina Suicides

June 1, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Health care professionals and the city’s elected officials are looking for ways to tackle the daunting problem of teen suicides, as data from several sources shows that Hispanic teenagers, especially young Latinas, are disproportionately at risk for self-harm compared to other racial groups.

In the Bronx, 15.3 percent of Latina teenagers reported having attempted suicide in a 2009 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which looked at  youth  behavior (numbers in Staten Island and Brooklyn were even higher).

City data shows the same disturbing trend: according to a 2008 report from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 46 percent of Hispanic teenage girls polled reported feelings of “persistent sadness.”

“It’s pretty startling across the board,” said Alan Ross, executive director for the Samaritans of New York, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization that also runs a 24-hour emergency hotline. Read more

Neighborhood ‘Gem’ Mary Vallati Honored

June 1, 2011

Mary Vallati, an outspoken and tireless member of the Norwood and Bedford Park communities for the past several decades, was rendered nearly

Longtime community activist Mary Vallati. (Photo by David Wong of the 52nd Precinct)

speechless when she received two surprise proclamations for her outstanding community service last week.

Members of the 52nd Precinct Community Council, of which Vallati, 95, has been a member since the 1970s, organized the proclamation presentation without telling the honoree.

During the council meeting last Thursday night at Scott Tower, Vallati sat in the front row while a group of family and friends gathered in the corner of the room, waiting patiently to unleash the surprise, which didn’t come until an hour and a half into the meeting.

Representatives for Councilman Fernando Cabrera and State Senator Gustavo Rivera each presented Vallati with separate proclamations. Cabrera’s chief of staff Greg Faulkner called Vallati one of the “jewels in the crown” of this community.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Vallati, who is also a longtime member of the Bedford Mosholu Community Association. Later, she did say, “I’m proud of the work we do. It’s been keeping me going all these years.”

Fellow council member Grace Siemer said, “We need more Marys in young people. A lot of people complain but don’t come through and participate.”

DOE Holds Do-Over Council Elections After Lawsuit

June 1, 2011

By Jeanmarie Evelly

Marred by complaints from parents and the threat of a lawsuit, the Department of Education agreed to hold a second round of voting for its Community Education Councils, the nine-member parent panels that oversee each of the city’s 32 school districts.

The original election started May 1, and parents had until May 7 to go online and cast their votes. That session was voided, however, after myriad complaints and a lawsuit filed on behalf of parents citing numerous problems, including a shortage of candidates running, inaccurate information about candidates on ballots and that there was so little outreach about the election that few parents knew it was happening, much less how to go about voting.

“This is the fifth election, and they still can’t get it right,” said Marvin Shelton, Council president for Bronx District 10.

Community education councils are largely advisory bodies that were put in place to foster community involvement when Mayor Bloomberg took control of the DOE in 2002. CEC elections have been held every two years since and are overseen by the DOE’s Office for Family Information and Action.

Parent advocates argue the elections should be run by a body independent of the DOE, which they say has failed to keep parents informed and involved in decision-making.

“There needs to be independent oversight of the DOE, in total,” Shelton said, adding that parent participation overall has dropped since the mayor took over. Read more

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