[Video: See an introduction to the Green Bronx Machine and then read about its plight below.]
This week on the Bronx Breakdown we break news about Discovery High School teacher Steve Ritz whose successful program somehow landed him in the basement and unable to continue the work he started. Plus, speaking out about the unspeakable violence over jackets, the Bronx’s famous new resident and what you should do this weekend.
The story of Steve Ritz, the special ed teacher at Discovery High School who turned an in-class science project into a training ground for environmentally-friendly food production and “green” jobs, has been well-documented here and in the pages of the Norwood News. It’s garnered nation attention and spawned a separate nonprofit group, Green Bronx Machine, that has nearly 3,000 Facebook fans. Last year, some 500 people came to Discovery and bought fresh produce that Ritz’s students had grown.
Tomorrow, Ritz is giving a presentation about the program at a high-profile TEDx (Technology, Education, Design) event in Manhattan called, “Changing the Way We Eat.” The Norwood native will attempt to show 245 slides in 13 minutes. Most of those slides will be from the Discovery High classroom where it all began more than two years ago.
There’s just one little problem. The program no longer exists at Discovery.
Local administrators forced it into homelessness this fall when Ritz was banished from his large, well-lit classroom with running water and high ceilings to a cramped, glorified closet in the basement that he shares with an English teacher. A large pipe hangs from the middle of the ceiling that might injure a big man on the Walton basketball team. There isn’t room to fit the vertical growing walls that Ritz used to teach and train his students and there isn’t any water source to feed the plants even if the walls did fit.
This has forced Ritz into an uncomfortable and frustrating position. Ritz says he often gets calls from people and organizations who want to get involved or replicate what he is doing. He’s been reluctant to criticize his administrators, including Principal Rolando Rivera, who Ritz calls “one of the hardest-working principals I’ve ever met.” But he also wants to strike while the iron is hot and grow the program while there is so much momentum.
At this point, that prospect is about as difficult as growing a vertical garden in a cramped basement classroom.
Ideally, Ritz says, “I’d like the program re-incarnated here where it was born. We’ve certainly met and exceeded expectations. And we’ve done it all for free!”
If it doesn’t work at Walton or Discovery — and Ritz says the administration, aside from moving him into the basement, has explicitly told him the program could no longer continue — then he will have to take his show elsewhere.
(Rivera could not be reached not for comment. [Update: Ritz says he was told by administrators they needed his old classroom to better handle an influx of new students.)
Even without Ritz, Discovery is a success story — having scored an “A” grade on its last two progress reports from the DOE — and Rivera, a tireless worker who lives nearby, is a big reason behind that success. So it appears odd that they would go to such lengths to eliminate such a strong, successful program like Ritz’s. (The program was even highlighted in a recent edition of Principal Leadership magazine.)
Up until now, Ritz has remained quiet about the situation, but attention coming from tomorrow’s TEDx event has unearthed the elephant in the basement. Now reporters (like myself) and elected officials, including Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and State Senator Gustavo Rivera, are trying to find out what’s going on.
If Ritz can’t “re-incarnate” the program somewhere else on the Walton campus or another DOE location, he has another idea: The Kingsbridge Armory, which you could hit with an organic tomato from Walton. Just give him a little corner of a space, he says, and he’ll grow food for “pennies on the dollar,” employ people at a living wage (plus benefits!) and feed the hungriest and most unhealthy borough in the city.
“Give me a few square feet of the Armory,” Ritz says. “Anywhere. I don’t care. Put me next to bullets. I’ll grow on top of bullets.”
But not in a cramped school basement.
Violence Over Apparel
In the past two months, we’ve seen two young Bronx boys, a 4-year-old and an 11-year-old, shot, apparently over stolen designer jackets. It’s a sad but true commentary on our misplaced values, says Walter Bell, a counselor at two Bronx hospitals who is now the chairman of Community Board 7’s public safety committee. “Society glorifies material wealth,” Bell told me the other night at CB7’s general meeting. “It’s to the point where we place more value on a Pele Pele jacket than the person who is wearing it.”
Bell wants to discuss this and other public safety issues at a forum at Monroe College’s King Hall Gymn, 2501 Jerome Ave., next Friday night, from 6 to 9 p.m.
Jerome, the Bronx Opossum
Meet Jerome, New York City’s most famous opossum, who stowed away on a Bronx-bound D train car and was reportedly later released into some wooded area near the train yard next to Jerome Avenue (hence the name) in Bedford Park.
What You Should Do This Weekend in the Bronx
I’ve got a couple of ideas. 1) Watch Ritz give his presentation at the TEDx event. The program starts at 10:30 a.m. Ritz is supposed to speak sometime between 1:20 and 3:15 p.m. Click here for the livestream. 2) Warm yourself up at the Botanical Garden’s Caribbean Garden, which opens tomorrow. 3) Go to the Hunts Point Recreation Center, 765 Manida St., tomorrow, between 11 a.m and 4 p.m., for the second annual Winterfest. You may need your snow shoes to get there. We’re supposed to get two to six inches tomorrow.
In any case, enjoy the Bronx. And please, tell us what you think in the comments section or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.