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Moshe Piller: How a New York Landlord Works the System

Selam Berhe, Sonia Dasgupta, Dan Fastenberg, The Bronx Ink
Laura Kusisto, Clare O’Connor, Thorsten Schier, The Brooklyn Ink

After 18 months of rehabilitation for a broken hip, all that Eta Eckstein wanted was to go back home to her Brooklyn apartment. The 92-year-old Holocaust survivor had lived at 8750 Bay Parkway for 40 years, but when her son visited her apartment while she was still at the Shore View Rehabilitation Center, he found a red eviction notice on the door.

Her son, Zvi Eckstein, continued to pay her monthly rent, but the landlord, Moshe Piller, evicted the long-time resident, claiming she had vacated the apartment. The building superintendent had told the neighbors she was dead. But according to her son’s affidavit, his mother could instead not move back in because the apartment was in such disrepair.

With the help of her family, Eckstein fought the eviction all the way to Housing Court. Piller settled the case after Judge Candy Gonzales warned him: “You’re playing with fire.”

Along with the right to live in her apartment, Eta Eckstein won the right to reclaim belongings that had been stored in an unlocked basement or scattered on the building’s landing. But she also won the right to live with faulty wiring in the living room, a collapsed ceiling in the bathroom, and clogged plumbing, according to her son’s affidavit. Victory for Eta Eckstein meant being allowed back into a building that currently has 99 open violations with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD.

Why would anyone fight so hard to get back into 8750 Bay Parkway? Since Piller took over the building in 2005, tenants say that conditions have deteriorated. But five years of decline do not matter as much to a 92-year-old woman as a lifetime of familiarity. “It’s been her home for over 40 years,” said her grandson, Idan Eckstein.

Like Eta Eckstein, tenants all around the Bronx and Brooklyn live in buildings that have rodents, collapsing ceilings, no heat in the winter and windows that don’t open in the summer, and unlocked security doors that allow people in to urinate and do drugs in the stairs. The system makes it almost impossible to demand better.

They are afraid to make trouble because they lack the language skills to make sense of the complaint process or because their work schedule makes it impossible to go to housing court during the day. The city’s housing bureaucracy struggles with a system that makes aggressive enforcement difficult. And landlords learn how to fly under the radar, paying fines or making minor repairs rather than making expensive improvements.

Eckstein is hardly an isolated victim, and her landlord, Moshe Piller, is not unique. In fact, there are far worse landlords: Piller does not appear on the Village Voice’s list of “10 Worst Landlords,” nor do any of his holdings appear on the HPD’s list of the 200 worst buildings in New York City. Piller, who occupied a berth on the HPD’s 2003 “Major Problem Landlords List,” with 7,313 open violations at 29 buildings, now escapes the agency’s sanction, and his current violations are down to over 1,700.

In an effort to understand how landlords like Piller work the New York housing system, The Brooklyn Ink and The Bronx Ink spent several months following the same process that many tenants do. Like them, reporters from the two websites talked to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Buildings and the district attorney’s office. They all provided different versions of the same answer: He hasn’t broken the law; there’s not much we can do about the condition of housing for many tenants.

Also like many tenants, we went to Piller’s office to talk to the landlord himself. We made several trips and finally spoke with his property manager, Mike Ross. Ross said they constantly making improvements to the properties, including beginning renovations in three apartments at 119 East 19th Street in the last month since we began investigating the building for this story.

“We’re trying our best,” said Ross. “There’s always more, more and more work.”


When a faucet is leaking or the oven is broken, the first step for tenants is to phone the landlord or superintendent and ask him to come fix it. But if residents wait and remind him and nothing is done, the next step is to complain to the HPD.

Under New York law, a landlord is not fined—even if a violation isn’t fixed—unless a tenant or the HPD takes the landlord to housing court. But often tenants cannot take time off work to go to court, according to Legal Aid chief litigator Judith Goldiner, who represents tenants in housing cases. Legal aid can only represent about one in eight tenants who come to complain, due to a lack of resources. For those who go to court unrepresented, the success rate is low.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what it means to live in a Piller building, but they do tell a compelling part of it. The Piller apartment buildings we identified in Brooklyn have 829 open HPD violations . Of those, 219 are Class C violations, which include lead paint and a lack of child safety bars. The buildings in the Bronx have 995 violations, with 297 Class C violations, the most serious violations.

(To see the violations by building, click here)

Piller’s tenants have taken him to court more than 95 times in Brooklyn and the Bronx since 1989. Many of these cases settled, with the landlord agreeing to perform repairs.

Still, the extent of the landlord’s holdings, and therefore the number of violations in his buildings, is impossible to determine, even for city officials. New York City keeps records of all the buildings in the city, but not of the individuals who own them. One of the problems that organizations like HPD face in regulating a landlord like Piller is that he registers his holdings under a corporation, not individual, name. He registers most of his holdings under separate corporations. Eckstein’s building, 8750 Bay Parkway, for example, is registered as “8750 Bay Parkway L.L.C.,” which we confirmed by checking the sign in the lobby.

The Brooklyn Ink identified 14 buildings that Piller owns in Brooklyn and seven in the Bronx. The buildings that are listed under his name were purchased in the early 90s. Most of them are small two- or three-story brick homes in the Borough Park area. They have no violations, and tenants we spoke to generally said he’s a good landlord.

But after the early 2000s, Piller stopped registering buildings under his own name. We searched the names of Piller’s family and his employees, but nothing came up. The only way to know for sure is to visit the buildings themselves, where the registration on the wall says the name of his company, “MP Management,” and his name, Moshe Piller.

After hours of searching city records, old news clippings, and reports by city agencies we found as much as we could about the buildings he might own. Then we went to the boroughs to confirm which buildings are still his, and to find out what it’s like for the people who live there.

Life at 119 East 19th from Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

From the outside, nothing seems amiss at 119 East 19th Street, in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn. The railing protecting the flowerbeds outside is freshly painted and the building’s light brown facade has been redone recently, according to the building’s manager, Mike Ross.

Inside the lobby, on white paper with black marker is noted the name of the landlord for the building: “Moshe Piller.”

In the stairwell, the smell of urine is overpowering and at the bottom of the stairs, there’s a rat hole, just one variety of the vermin—such as bedbugs, cockroaches and mice—that crawl throughout 119 East 19th.

The elevator had been out of order for a month when we visited—not for the first time, according to residents. When we came back two weeks later it was still not working.

The building on 19th Street has 152 open violations as of this week, according to HPD. Of those, 52 are Class C, the most serious violations. This is more than twice the number of violations in any other building in the neighborhood, and three times the majority of buildings in general.

Piller purchased the building for $218,000 in 1995. He currently has over $9,000 in Department of Buildings’ fines, mostly for the broken elevator. He charges most tenants between $900 to $1,200 in rent. He pays some of his fines, enough to stay out of trouble with the department.

The first thing that’s noticeable when entering Desmond Fontenelle’s small one-bedroom apartment 6J is a chair placed awkwardly in the middle of the room, which conceals a gaping hole big enough for a person’s foot. “I don’t wanna break my neck walking to the bathroom at night,” said Fontenelle, a gregarious man in his early 40s, with pale brown eyes and a St. Lucian accent.

In the bathroom, a broken faucet has been dripping water into a bucket for years. The floor is soaked and a towel has been placed over the wet patch where the bath leaks. When Fontenelle showers, it floods the apartment of the neighbor below him, so he tries to bathe as little as possible.

The bedroom windows are barred with a locked metal gate and the smoke detector does not have a battery. The stove has also been out of order for years. “I eat mostly at mother’s place these days,” said Fontenelle.

But for other problems, such as the disarray in the apartment and rotting food in the refrigerator, Fontenelle also bears responsibility.

Fontenelle has been living at 119 East 19th for 20 years, before Moshe Piller purchased it 15 years ago. He said he has confronted the landlord numerous times about the repairs. In the last week, men have brought paint buckets up to his apartment and the building manager, Ross, has arranged for someone to come fix the broken oven door.

Fontenelle has tried withholding his $900 rent to pressure Piller to fix the apartment, but this has led to numerous court cases and eviction notices in the mail. Piller has taken him to court 16 times in 15 years for late rent payments – although Ross said they only do this once the rent is at least three months overdue. Fontenelle always agrees to pay, but also uses the opportunity to complain to the judge about the lack of repairs in his apartment, according to court documents we read.

Finally, at the beginning of this year he contacted HPD, which gave Piller a month to do some of the repairs. More than a month later, nothing had changed, so Fontenelle took the landlord to housing court.

“He’s gonna keep taking you to court until you move out,” said Fontenelle. “Then he’ll fix up the place a little bit for the next people and jack up the rent.

“I mean the man deserves his money, but he’s got to give me some services.”

In a phone interview, Ross said that keeping on top of all the repairs in a building with 50 units is a challenge, but that they are constantly working to make conditions better for their tenants. Since we began working on this story, management has renovated two of the units. They’ve arranged for workers to come and paint Fontenelle’s unit and fix the broken stove door.

But the need for repairs is ongoing. Since these problems were fixed, the number of HPD violations in the building went from 148 to 152 this week.

The building has 50 units. Three complaints per unit is standard for buildings around the city, said Ross. But of the buildings in the neighborhood of similar size, most we found had around one-third of the violations in Piller’s buildings.


Life at 2860 Grand Concourse from Bronx Ink on Vimeo.

At 2654 Valentine Ave. in the Bronx, men loiter in front of the grilled gate that closes off the front courtyard. The front door of the building gapes open, as if by a strong wind.

Many windows in its upper floor windows are broken and what glass remains is covered with blue-ink graffiti. Rodent feces are visible on the ground floor. On a recent Saturday, a woman sat on the steps leading up to the fourth floor with a syringe beside her, bobbing her head and mumbling, too lost to notice the disdainful look a tenant shot at her as he climbed down the stairs.

Inside the apartments, tenants complain of mold, caving ceilings, crumbling walls, mildew and sinking floors. The building has 164 open HPD violations, of which 44 are hazardous Class C violations. These include rodents, lead wall paint, cascading water from a seventh floor bathroom leak, and lack of heating, among others.

Piller owns 2654 Valentine Ave. and the adjacent 237 E 194th St., registered under Valentine Apartments L.L.C. He owns more buildings under different company names—2860 Grand Concourse and 2874 Grand Concourse, five blocks away, and 2501 Davidson Ave., on the other side of the Grand Concourse. But of all the buildings Piller owns in North Fordham, Valentine Apartments is the most visibly distressed.

William Plasenia and his wife have lived in apartment 4D for the past 13 years. A corner of the ceiling in one bedroom has burst open. The adjacent wall bulges with the weight of water pushing down. The kitchen floor slopes towards toward the center, like an upturned roof pitch. Plasenia says it is sinking. The bathroom ceiling sags and its peeled plaster flails mid air.

Plasenia, who hails from Cuba, speaks little English. He gestured to say that he fears the bathroom ceiling will collapse on his head soon. None of the violations in his apartment, however, show up in HPD files because he doesn’t know enough English to understand the system so said he does not file complaints.

At the buildings we visited, many tenants were non-English speakers who were unwilling to open their doors to strangers. In other cases, tenants were confused about the process for filing violations. Many said they simply call 311, which does not keep track of the number of complaints.


How can landlords get away with scores of violations? from Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

Even if tenants complain to HPD—Piller’s tenants have made thousands of complaints—there is nothing the HPD can do to bar a landlord from owning or renting property out to tenants.

Under HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, introduced in 2007, the HPD can enforce repairs on buildings it deems “distressed” or “hazardous.” Failure to comply could result in a lien being placed against the building. Of the 200 buildings on the most recent list, published on Feb. 15 of this year, none were Piller’s.

HPD can also refer buildings on this list to the district attorney for prosecution. The Kings County DA’s office could find no record of Moshe Piller in their referral files. The HPD declined to comment on whether they had referred Piller to the prosecutor.

In the meantime, the city continues to send some tenants to buildings we identified as Piller’s as part of its housing program for the homeless.

“You know, it’s very bittersweet sometimes as we send people into these buildings,” said Juanita Fernandez, a housing specialist at The Concourse House Shelter, who sent tenants to 2860 Grand Concourse, a Piller building, as recently as four months ago.

“We have no choice but to move people out after six months,” she said. “But yes, some of the places we send them to. I wouldn’t want to live there.”


In the absence of a clear enforcement mechanism, some tenants have organized to put pressure on Piller to fix the buildings.

In 2006, tenants drove two school buses to Piller’s home in Brooklyn and picketed there for a day, according to Xiamara Mejias, 40, who lives in apartment 3B at 2654 Valentine with her husband and three daughters. She’s the tenant organizer for the building and has been fighting the landlord for the past 10 years, relaying tenants’ grievances to authorities and the mortgage holder.

When they went to Piller’s house, his neighbors poked out of their homes to ask what was going on. “We told them your neighbor is a slumlord,” Mejias said. “And they started throwing eggs on us. Eggs!”

Since tenants took their paperwork and pictures to the building’s mortgage holder, the New York Community Bank, Piller has gotten better at repairing violations, according to Mejias. The open violations listed at the HPD today are half what they were in 2006.

Mejias said her bathroom still leaks and the hair salon beneath her apartment has complained. “This has been broken for a year,” she said pointing to her front door, which looks like someone had broken in. What is worse, the front door still doesn’t lock.

But Mejias also sometimes makes it impossible for repairs to get done. The piping in her bathroom is so old and rotten that it needs to be replaced. But when the super agreed to repair it, she told him, “I got three daughters who need to bathe every day. You can come in this morning … you can dig whatever, but when I come back home. I have to find a bathroom in there.’”

The hair salon eventually installed a ceiling to remedy the problem, but full repairs were never done.

Other tenants also get in the way of keeping the building in good repair. A week ago, all the hallway walls were painted a fresh round layer of brown yellow but someone has already sprayed graffiti on the fourth floor walls.

“It is like [the tenants] see this disrepair and they add on it,” said Mejias.


Moshe Piller was once one of the city’s most notorious landlords and has now become one of dozens that the city’s agencies just don’t have the time or resources to deal with. But though he may have receded from the public gaze in the last few years, for his tenants the problems in his buildings are real and unlikely to go away any time soon.

More shocking is that these problems are common in far too many buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Like Eta Eckstein, many of the city’s residents have decided that for reasons of financial necessity and fear they’d rather make due than make trouble. Thanks to the weaknesses in a system that was meant to protect them, a place doesn’t have to be comfortable, clean or even safe to call it home.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, Multimedia1 Comment

Bronx Seniors Target Dangerous Intersections

Bronx Seniors Target Dangerous Intersections

AARP New York State Director Lois Aronstein attends the Complete Streets Week event in Parkchester.

AARP New York State Director Lois Aronstein attends the Complete Streets Week event in Parkchester. (AARP)

The corner of Wood Avenue and White Plains Road in the Parkchester section of the Bronx had more than its fair share of stop signs Friday morning. And for a good cause.

The intersection, which has a stop light, is one of the 50 most dangerous in New York City, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT). This prompted a group of about 40 seniors – wearing stop-sign red shirts – to set up camp at the intersection’s four corners to conduct a safety survey. They tracked everything from the timing of stoplights to the upkeep of the area’s asphalt.

The AARP’s grassroots “Create the Good” movement is coordinating the monitoring campaign. Its pedestrian safety surveys received the backing of several local Bronx politicians, including James Vacca, the New York City Council member for District 13.

“It is no longer an exception for people to live into their 80s,” said Vacca, the current chair of the council’s Transportation Committee. “It is the rule. And these folks still want to go out and do things like go out to the supermarket. We’ve got to make sure the streets are safe for them.”

By many standards, the streets are not safe. New York state has more pedestrian fatalities per year than all but two other states. The high incidence can be attributed to heavy traffic in New York City.

In 2008 alone, the area defined by the DOT as “downstate New York” – New York City, Long Island and Westchester, Rockland and Dutchess counties – suffered 232 pedestrian fatalities. Several incidents have highlighted particularly dangerous intersections, such as Broadway and 230th Street in the Bronx.

The intersection, which saw 19 crashes from 1995 to 2005, according to, claimed one more victim on March 22. Four year-old Josh Delarosa was blind-sided when heading to nursery school during Monday rush hour. He was rushed into critical care at the Columbia Presbyterian Children’s Hospital, whose spokesman confirmed to the Bronx Ink that he has since left. Calls to his daycare center – Growing Happy on 238th Street and Broadway – and his family went unanswered.

But Delarosa’s story is in keeping with that of the tri-state area. After a slight decline in overall pedestrian deaths from 2006 to 2008 in Connecticut, New Jersey and “downstate New York – from 443 to 407 – the earliest data from 2009 showed an uptick, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The fear of a pedestrian death is acutely felt among seniors. Two in five Americans over the age of 50 say their neighborhood sidewalks aren’t safe, a recent AARP study found.

“The light changes before you even get across the street,” 78-year-old Harriet Miller, who uses a walker, said about the corner of Wood and Metropolitan, also located in Parkchester. “What are you supposed to do with that?”

AARP organized the Friday event as part of National Volunteer Week. The initiative is called “Complete Streets Week: Making New York Walkable for All Generations.”

Hundreds of intersections are going to be surveyed by the end of the week. On Friday, the AARP team was conducting similar public events at notorious intersections in Harlem and Rockland County.

Jessica Lappin, the New York City Council Member for the Fifth District in Manhattan, made the trek up to Wood Avenue and White Plains Road to express her solidarity with the “Complete Streets Week” event. Her motivation – the death of an 82-year-old woman a week and a half ago at an intersection in her district, which includes the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island.

“An unsafe corner for seniors is an unsafe corner for me,” Lappin said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Cuba Takes Center Stage in the South Bronx

Cuba Takes Center Stage in the South Bronx

By Dan Fastenberg

Cuban Salsa singer Pepito Gomez performs at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. (Dan Fastenberg / The Bronx Ink)

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx may have been modeled on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris, but for the first Friday of every month, it will be evoking the spirit of Havana’s famous Malecon.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts, located in the Concourse section of the Bronx, has begun its “First Fridays” program, during which the 33,000-square-foot space will be used to showcase Cuban culture. Last Friday’s inaugural event was scheduled to coincide with the city’s 11th annual Havana Film Festival, planned to begin in Manhattan on Friday, April 16.

“In these hard economic times, it’s important to have a space for people to come together and relax on a Friday night,” said Ariel Fernandez, a Cuban-American and the program’s curator. “And also, we can show off a type of culture that’s not normally seen.”

On April 9, the season’s First Friday program kicked off, with a screening of two Cuban independent films, 20 Años and Homo Erectus, a question and answer segment with Homo Erectus producer Alejandro Gonzalez and a musical performance by Pepito Gomez and his sextet. More than 250 people were in attendance.

Communist Cuba has come a long way since its earliest days in the 1960s, when the Castro regime rounded up homosexuals and sent them into labor camps, persecuting them for a behavior Havana deemed a deviant offshoot of capitalism.

Fidel Castro himself began speaking out against homophobia as early as 1979, and sex change operations have since been included in the nation’s health care program.

Gender-bending was at the heart of the First Friday’s feature presentation, Homo Erectus.

“Because of what’s going on in both the United States and in Cuba, it was a good moment to do a gay film,” said Gonzales, producer of Homo Erectus.

The 44-minute feature film, which was shot over a four-day period in the eastern Las Tunas province, follows two lovers, and their star-crossed romance. The catch, however, is that the protagonist, Benito, is a man discovering his latent desire to be a woman, as he falls for a transsexual going in the opposite direction. Hilarity naturally ensues amid a light-hearted Cuban environment far removed from the sturm and drang of Cuba’s half-century old political saga.

“I am a Cuban-American, and I am so grateful for this type of programming; it showed us the human side of Cuba, and that’s why I came,” said Carmela Fernandez, who went on to call herself a born and raised “Jersey Girl.”

New Jersey and Southern Florida have long been the primary homes of  the post-revolution Cuban diaspora. But among another tier of locales preferred by Cubans leaving communist Cuba have been New York neighborhoods like Astoria, Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Cubans living in the South Bronx include Cuban Link, who settled in Morrisania section of the Bronx after departing Cuba in 1980.

According to the last census, the Cuban population for the entire borough of the Bronx stood at roughly 9,000, making it the sixth largest of the 19 tracked Latin populations in New York’s northernmost borough, after Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans.

This year’s First Friday schedule, the fourth annual such offering, comes at a pivotal time in  U.S.-Cuban relations with Fidel Castro approaching his final twilight, and a more open administration in Washington under Barack Obama.

“At this crucial diplomatic moment, what we can do is display Cuban artists, who wouldn’t have been able to come before Obama,” said First Fridays curator Fernandez.

“We need to show what a normal Cuba is all about,” Fernandez went on, referring to Pepito Gomez, whose sextet performed directly after the world premieres of the two films. Gomez defected to New Jersey in 2008.

His booming Cuban salsa – aka Timba – singing swept the audience off their feet, sending them into a trance of dancing as if the Bronx Museum of Arts was situated along the Caribbean Sea, and not near the Harlem River.

And for the event organizer, any geographical boundaries within the Latin communities are checked at the U.S. Customs airport gate.

“We didn’t worry about the interest in Cuban-specific culture at the Bronx Musuem of Arts,” said Fernandez. “It’s a Latin thing. All Latin Americans come together around here.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Borough President Makes Push for Major Hotel

Borough President Makes Push for Major Hotel

The Bronx is ready for its first major hotel. So said Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. today while delivering the 2010 State of the Borough Address.

The address was Diaz’s first as borough president since he took office last April. His call for the construction of the first major hotel in the city’s northernmost borough was the high mark of an hourlong speech largely devoted to his economic growth plan for the Bronx.

Ruben Diaz Jr. delivers his first state of the borough address.

Ruben Diaz Jr. delivers his first state of the borough address. (Dan Fastenberg/The Bronx Ink)

Delayed for a week because of last week’s blizzard, the state of the borough address was delivered at the Evander Childs High School in the Norwood section of the northern Bronx. Diaz, the borough’s 13th president, made clear his view that economic growth through projects like the hotel is the vehicle for the Bronx’s further development.

“I am tired of visitors coming to the Bronx, and then spending their evenings in Westchester or New Jersey, taking with them the money that could be spent in our restaurants and shops,” Diaz said in reference to the hotel project.

He didn’t delve into any specifics on the plan. Diaz is not the first borough president to call for a major hotel in the Bronx. Fernando Ferrer, who was the 11th borough president from 1987 to 2001, looked into the construction of a hotel near Yankee Stadium.

“I think Diaz is right on target,” Ferrer said while sitting in the audience at Friday’s address. “He’s got the right energy, he’s forceful and he just gets it.”

Diaz has used the term “One Bronx” to describe his economic agenda, and he made use of the phrase again today while promoting plans to develop the waterfront along the Harlem River. And while also announcing plans for the creation of new retail retention zones for the borough, Diaz rolled out a strident defense of his version of development when discussing the move to kill the new mall at the Kingsbridge Armory, which remains empty.

After announcing an intention to create a task force to decide the next step for the Armory, he defended the stop order, which came under fire from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others. Diaz said that the retailers’ wages should be higher than the minimum wage, and that health benefits should be included.

“I welcome development, but we must raise the standard,” he said. “We must stand up and demand that major projects that receive heavy taxpayer benefits offer more than poverty-level jobs.”

Diaz came into office last year after his predecessor, Adolfo Carrion Jr., was tapped by the Obama administration to serve as the director of urban affairs.

The 36-year old borough president also dedicated much of his address to his plans aimed at stemming some of the borough’s lagging indicators. He announced a May Food Summit, which is intended to bring healthier eating options and supermarkets into the borough. Bronx County was labeled last month as the most unhealthy county in the state in a much-publicized study produced by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The Bronx is also the home of the highest urban poverty rates in the country.  Diaz has spoken before about a need to remake the economic landscape of the borough, and today he put forward his plan to create growth through his sustainable development policy, which will place nearly 500 Bronxites in green manufacturing jobs. Diaz even referred to his economic plan as a “greenprint” for the Bronx, and he emphasized that the Bronx will withhold any project financing until a high level of environmental certification is met.

Diaz became borough president after a special election was held on April 21, 2009. He will be eligible to run for a second term in 2013.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Activist Looks Back on Efforts Against Stray Gun Violence

For someone known throughout the South Bronx as the “gun lady,” Gloria Cruz receives more than her fair share of hugs.

“I walk down St. Ann’s Avenue and people come up to me – grown men, men in their 20s – and they hug me. And they thank me,” the 48-year old Bronx native said. “They thank me because I talked to them when they were kids, which other people didn’t do. And they thank me for the work that I do.”

Cruz has spent the last five years as the leading voice in the South Bronx against gun violence. But unlike other gun activists, Cruz has focused her activism on the specific issue of random gun violence, defined as the injuries, deaths and rippling devastation caused by a stray bullet. Cruz conducts her work through the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV) group. She founded the Bronx chapter in 2006.

“She has her ears to the ground,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said in a statement released to the Bronx Ink through his press office. “She has relationships with everyone in her community – and knows how to speak to our youth about the danger of gun violence.”

Gloria Cruz holds a portrait of her niece, Naisha Pearson, who was the unintended target of a stray bullet in 2005. Dan Fastenberg / Bronx Ink.

Gloria Cruz holds a portrait of her niece, Naisha Pearson, who was the unintended target of a stray bullet in 2005. Dan Fastenberg / Bronx Ink.

So when the New York Police Department and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office teamed up to organize a gun buyback earlier in the year, it was no surprise the office turned to Cruz to spread the word. Once the drive was completed, almost 2,000 firearms were traded in for $200 each.

Cruz looked back on the gun drive.

“People are more comfortable walking into a church to hand over a gun than a police precinct,” she said in an interview at her headquarters, located in the St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Operating out of the church’s partially oak-paneled basement, Cruz has transformed the pastoral property into a bunker for a multipronged campaign in which news clippings of the latest acts of random gun violence pass for wallpaper.

For the mother of three and grandmother of one, the gun buyback event was just another day on the job of a five-year crusade against gun violence inspired by the death of her niece, a victim of a stray bullet fired during a neighborhood block party. Cruz’s niece, Naisha Pearson, was on her way to play on a scooter at a Labor Day barbecue when a fight broke out, sending an errant bullet into her chest along 137th Street and Brook Avenue in the South Bronx. When Pearson was taken to Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, the 10-year old was announced dead on arrival.

Five years on, as Cruz plans to pull back from her full-time commitment as a gun violence advocate and go back to earning a full-time salary, she took time to assess her years of activism.

“I’m sure I’ve made a difference,” she said. “I’ve had young people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, after what I’ve seen from you today, I don’t want to be in a gang.’ That means a lot to me. My niece’s killer got 50 years, and he’s only 18. He had a baby that he’ll never see.”

Crime rates throughout New York’s northernmost borough are down from the Bronx’s darkest days in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, homicides have dropped 80 percent over the last 20 years, going from 19,326 in 1990 to 3,516 in 2008. Burglary, grand theft auto and other acts of violent crime tell the same story. And while the district attorney’s office also reports an 11 percent drop in incidents of shootings from 2001 to 2009, the number of actual victims of gun violence over the same time period is up 16.1 percent. Moreover, last year’s total of incidents of gun violence stood at 404, an average of more than one shooting a day in the Bronx.

To try to beat back the onslaught of gun violence, Cruz has assembled an army of 63 supporters – the members of her New Yorkers Against Gun Violence chapter, most of whom have lost family members to random gun violence.

Much of Cruz’s life revolves around the members of this group and its work. The roughly 20 people contacted for this story were at a loss when trying to provide details of Cruz’s life outside of her activist work. And even when discussing her own interest in science fiction books, and watching movies like “Titanic,” she made sure to deplore the 1983 movie “Scarface,” which she says glorifies gun violence.

Apart from advocating for stronger gun laws, gun turn-ins, increased education and other attempts at trying to rally against gun violence, Cruz serves as a grief counselor for survivors and family members affected by gun violence. Every Thanksgiving, she organizes a fellowship dinner for people who have lost someone to a shooting to come together and console one another.

And when 25-year old Aisha Santiago was killed in September after putting herself in the line of fire to protect her son while walking out of a self-service laundry on 146th Street between Willis and Brook Avenues, Cruz came to her family’s side.

“Gloria was there from the start,” said Santiago’s mother, Yvette Montanez. “She went so far as to even accompany me to all my daily appointments after my daughter died.”

Her drive to respond to gun violence through civic action has caught on among the members of her chapter.

“It’s a calling for any of us, “ said Bronx chapter member Davina Perez, herself a survivor of random gun violence. “When groups like the [National Rifle Association] are up against you, it’s not easy. We could sit at home and watch soap operas, but this is something that’s been ordained to us.”

In keeping with the spirit of the gun buybacks, the chapter openly promotes throughout the South Bronx the turning in of “community guns,” a term used to describe a firearm passed around by gang members to hide the weapon from the authorities.

“Cooperation with the police is not new, not in this area, and not in New York,” said 40th Precinct Capt. Elias Nikas, during an interview in his cinderblock office located on Alexander Avenue in the South Bronx. “But around here we are seeing enhanced cooperation. No doubt about it. Not just from active community members, but from everyone. People are coming up to us all the time and trying to give us tips.”

Gloria Cruz flips through newspaper clippings in her office in St. Ann's Church. Dan Fastenberg/The Bronx Ink

Gloria Cruz flips through newspaper clippings in her office in St. Ann's Church. Dan Fastenberg/The Bronx Ink

As the public face of a campaign that calls for the turning in of neighbors through phone hot lines, what some would deride as “snitching,” Cruz is undoubtedly putting her own life on the line.

“I think her life is in danger everyday,” said Bronx chapter member Annette De Jesus. “Her activism shows where her heart is. We all know about the Crips and Bloods. Well someone should start the Gloria Cruz gang, because she needs backup.”

For Cruz, a woman whose demeanor is about as menacing as a librarian, the choice of not acting poses the greater threat.

“Yes, I am afraid for myself,” she said. “But if we don’t do this, my niece will have died in vain. We make sure everything is anonymous, all the calls and tips. We speak and connect families. If we put a face to this stuff, maybe it will stop the nonsense. Bullets, after all, have no destination and they don’t discriminate.”

No relevant body, neither the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services in Albany nor the New York Police Department, has ever gathered statistics specifically devoted to cases of random gun violence.

But after losing her niece, Cruz began to do just that.

The year following the loss of her niece, David Pacheco Jr., a 2-year-old boy became the unintended target of a stray bullet on the way to an Easter dinner. That event was followed just a few weeks later by the death of 18-year-old Samantha Guzman, a prom queen who was shot in the middle of a street on Mother’s Day.

“A lot of people are afraid to speak,” Cruz said. “I am not. I believe God has put me on a mission to save lives.”

In the wake of the deaths, Cruz decided in 2005 to leave her job as an office manager for Toys ‘R Us. Through financing provided by the Trinity Foundation of the Trinity Cathedral located in downtown Manhattan, she became a full-time activist against gun violence. Her efforts took off a year later, when she organized her first Walk Against Gun Violence, a rally that has become an annual event, and was soon complemented by an annual April Gun Lobby Day in Albany.

The two marches have become the cornerstones of Cruz’s lobbying calendar. This spring will mark the final time Cruz will oversee the marches while heading up the Bronx chapter of the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. She’s also leaving behind the Bronx chapter of the Million Mom March that she’s overseen for five years.

For Cruz and many others, the local gun violence problem can be traced to the lax gun laws that allow firearms to enter New York.

Bordering states do have much looser gun laws, according to New York State Assemblyman Robert Castelli, an expert on guns and law enforcement who is also a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But, Castelli said, “It’s a non sequitur to say if we had more laws we’d have less violence.”

“When we see criminality, what we naturally clamor for are more laws,’’ he said. “New York City already has the toughest gun laws in the country. So the issue comes down to enforcement and education. We need to get into the schools and educate not after a crime has occurred but before.”

Schools are exactly where much of Cruz’s remaining energy is spent.

This year’s gun marches will be run in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Cruz hopes one of her legacies to a new generation of activists will be a closer link between the anti-gun movement and schools. She regularly attends after-school programs and other educational events to talk about violence and pass out cards that list phone numbers for places to hand in guns.

For Cruz, like Assemblyman Castelli, the focus is on reaching youngsters before they start mixing with the wrong crowds, before they get into trouble.

“You have all these kids who are the aftermath of the crack era,” she went on. “So they have no parents. Some of the parents are gone because of AIDS or drugs. Or they’re in jail …. They’re looking for a place to belong and that’s where the gangs come in. And we’d hope they’d join our gang.”

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Bronx Eats: La Lechonera Criolla

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VIDEO – Inside the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse

Video produced by Dan Fastenberg and Dan Lieberman

For a city known for its cramped quarters, it’s not everyday you come across an 85,000 square foot building empty for more than 30 years. But the Old Bronx Courthouse is vacant and no one can agree what to do with it.

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Yankee Stadium Has a New Wild Pitch: Standup Comedy

Davian Velez hosts the Championship Comedy Series at Yankee Stadium. Dan Fasteneberg / The Bronx Ink

Davian Velez hosts the Championship Comedy Series at Yankee Stadium. Dan Fasteneberg / The Bronx Ink

By Dan Fastenberg

Pitchers and catchers may have just begun reporting to spring training in Florida, but a lineup of heavy hitters was already looking to slam it out of the park at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night.

Their goal, however, was not to send a classic five-ounce, red-stitch baseball over the center field wall, but to deliver a killer joke.

On Feb. 17, four established comics from the New York comedy world descended on the least likely of venues – Yankee Stadium – to take part in the Championship Comedy Series.  Taking the stage at the NYY Steak restaurant located at Gate Six of the Yankees’ new home, Lynne Koplitz, Kenny Williams, Davian Velez and Mark Viera turned the house that Jeter built into a veritable comedy club – a feat unthinkable at the first Yankee Stadium. The new stadium became the official home of the Yankees last season.

“The old Yankee Stadium, that was just a ballpark,” said Joseph DeJesus, the manager of NYY Steak, referring to the empty building still standing on the other side of 161st Street that was the Yankees’ turf from 1923 to 2008. “This new one is a convention center,” he added.

The comedy night is in keeping with the concept of a multipurpose Yankee Stadium that is in use 12 months a year, even when the ballplayers are not taking the field. Indeed, on the very same day as the Championship Comedy Series, the stadium was busy trying to coordinate a scheduling conflict between a professional boxing event and a bar mitzvah, according to a report by The New York Times published on Feb. 17.

Last year the stadium even played host to New York University’s graduation ceremony.  And plans are already in the works for a college football Yankee Bowl. Local residents in attendance at the Championship Comedy Series see the retro-fitting of Yankee Stadium as a homerun.

“Things like this bring people to the area,” South Bronx resident Joe Bernard said. “It brings money, but it also builds self-esteem.”

But on the night of Feb. 17, the $1.5 billion stadium had only one marquee – the comedians.

The stand-up comics team performed before a crowd of about 120 people, and their material was largely geared to the local community in attendance. No group was spared.

“So my sister married a black guy,” Davian Velez, a Puerto Rican comic who hosts the comedy series, told the crowd.  “So she’s Puerto Rican and he’s black. So my grandmother says that will make my niece and nephew Dominican.”

The comic Mark Viera devoted much of his time on stage to his first-generation immigrant grandmother, who Viera said can only see the world through a Latin lens, referring even to Saddam Hussein as Saddam Miguel after the ousted Iraqi leader’s capture in 2003.

Viera, who has appeared on NBC’s “30 Rock,” has his own sitcom scheduled to premiere on Fox this summer.

“Being a Bronx native, it’s an absolute honor to perform at Yankee Stadium,” said Viera, who hails from the Castle Hill section of eastern Bronx. “I think the stadium could definitely become a regular cultural space, and it only shows that the future direction of the area is upwards.”

“The idea is to bring locals in; there’s a misconception that the new Yankee Stadium is too pricey,” said Joseph DeJesus from the NYY Steak restaurant.

Tickets to the Championship Comedy Series cost $20 when bought in advance, $25 at the door. The price is within the same range as New York’s most famous comedy clubs like Caroline’s and The Comedy Cellar, both of which require a two-drink minimum along with cover charge.

The NYY Steak restaurant, a low-lit bar and steakhouse with parquet red oak floors, will also host wine tasting and jazz nights. The next Championship Comedy Series will take place on March 10.

Lynne Koplitz, the co-host of Z-Rock on the IFC Channel, said the venue should have no trouble finding a place for itself in the New York comedy world.

“I absolutely think this could become a regular stop for comedians,” Koplitz said. “It’s really not too far out of the way if you live in Manhattan. And plus we’re comedians. If you pay well, we’ll come.”

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