Fernando Tirado was early for an interview, but very late for lunch.
It was just before 4 p.m., and a plain slice and order of garlic knots sat abandoned on Tirado’s desk at Bronx Community Board 7. He’d have the meeting first, down the hall in a conference room. Lunch could wait.
Reminded of the virtue of hot pizza and the sin of starvation, he reconsidered, and chatted while he chewed.
His casual lunch and youthful, jeans-clad appearance aside, Fernando Tirado, 40, means business. He serves as district manager for Board 7, which includes Norwood, Bedford Park, and five other mostly working-class communities in the Northwest Bronx. He has been in the job for just two years but as recently as July, he intended to leave; Tirado was running for State Senate in the 33rd District, hoping to unseat controversial incumbent Pedro Espada Jr.
“It wasn’t necessarily because it was appealing,” he said. “It was more an act of necessity.” He wanted to work on crime, unemployment and education – issues he feels the incumbents are ignoring. His credentials included a 15-year career in public service and the experience he has gained living in the district, on tree-lined Mosholu Parkway in Bedford Park, with his wife and three teenage children.
But the Board of Elections forced him out of the race this summer. As The Daily News reported on Aug. 3, Tirado’s 736 signatures were short of the 1,000 required for him to appear on the primary ballot. How does he feel about the Board’s decision? “No comment,” he said with a grin. Who did he want to win September’s primary? “No comment.” Bigger grin. Clearly Tirado did have a comment, but didn’t want to give it from what is supposed to be a politically neutral post with the Community Board.
What Tirado would say is that he hopes the winner will work hard to address the area’s needs. Crime, especially robberies, has spiked this year; the 52nd Precinct reported a nearly 38 percent increase in robberies from mid-August to mid-September as compared to the same period last year. Unemployment remains high, and according to the latest figures from the New York City Department of City Planning in December 2008, nearly 45 percent of the district’s residents received some sort of public assistance. That’s why Tirado remains at Community Board 7, where he’ll work on projects like getting as many residents as possible hired at the Croton Water Filtration Plant.
He’s also collaborating with the Department of City Planning to transform Webster Avenue, a run-down industrial stretch on Norwood’s eastern edge, into a bustling retail and housing hub. “We want some smarter development,” Tirado said. The area has been commercial and crime-prone since the elevated Third Avenue train was taken down 30 years ago. But rezoning would create opportunity for residential development on Webster, with retail spaces on the ground levels. The project would also ease congestion in interior sections of Norwood and Bedford Park, where narrow streets saturated with stores make public resources tight.
It’s a big project, but “Tirado puts everything he’s got into what he does,” said Jerry Gonzalez, 39, who has been Tirado’s closest friend since they met at age 10 at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School in Washington Heights. “My wife comes first and Tirado comes second!” said Gonzalez, who described their 30-year friendship as more of a brotherhood. They were the best man in each other’s weddings and are godfathers to one of each other’s kids. “I know in his heart he wants to help the community grow,” Gonzalez said. “He’s got the drive and the commitment.”
That commitment emerged early, as Tirado grew up in a Washington Heights household that emphasized a strong work ethic. His father had his own accounting business and his mother still works as a medical assistant. Tirado earned an associate degree in biomedical engineering technology from SUNY Farmingdale, followed by a bachelor’s degree in political science from SUNY Stony Brook. The combined interests in health and government landed him his first job, as an inspector for the New York City Department of Health in the early 1990s.
He then worked on lead poisoning prevention for the city for eight years, followed by a stint at the Bronx District Health Office for three. Immediately before joining Board 7 in 2008, he ran the city’s initiatives on window fall prevention and day camp inspection. Tirado sought out the board job when he moved into the district. “There are too many people who are jaded by city government and rightfully so,” he said. “There has to be a customer-service approach.” Tirado learned this approach while managing his own graphic art and marketing business during the decade he worked in city health jobs; now he puts it to use by helping residents apply for Medicaid and running community meetings.
The Senate race behind him, he said he’s eager to do as much as he can for district residents from his current post. “My one-year agenda is economic stability,” Tirado explained. Part of that involves job creation efforts, such as the Croton Water Filtration Plant. But he also hopes to educate residents to be smart about housing prices in the area; prices have spiked with news of the potential rezoning project but Tirado thinks they aren’t sustainable.
Still, Tirado believes in the project and it appears the city does too. “Fernando provided thoughtful leadership and important insights into the community’s needs that helped us build consensus on the rezoning,” said Carol Samol, who runs City Planning’s Bronx office. That consensus should lead to a formal approval process, which Tirado estimated would start by November and end with a City Council vote by March.
His focus clearly on a successful rezoning, Tirado won’t say whether he’ll run for office again. In the meantime, he’s back to firing off emails and answering the phone lines with a pleasant “Good afternoon, Board 7,” – all in between big bites of his plain slice.