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Norwood business owners still waiting to rebuild from the ashes of last year’s fire

A year later, the boarded up site of Norwood's Oct. 2009 fire. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A year later, the boarded up site of Norwood's October 2009 fire. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A field of dust and debris emerged in the heart of Norwood’s shopping hub on Bainbridge Avenue last Halloween, when a five-alarm blaze destroyed 10 retail shops in one large lot and badly damaged four more.  A full year later, the rubble remains at the first lot and no redevelopment has begun.  Two local small business owners are speaking out about their anger over the lack of action.

“I think it’s outrageous that the property hasn’t been developed,” said Allan Freilich, whose Freilich Jewelers is just over a block from the blaze site on 204th Street. “This is a community issue.  It makes us look like what the South Bronx looked like in the early 1970s.”  Freilich remembers those days.  The 58-year-old Bronx native starting working part-time in his father’s store 40 years ago and would eventually come to take over what is now the oldest family-run jewelry business in the borough.

His friend Bill Curran, 37, who owns and directs funerals at the John F. McKeon & Son Funeral Home, added that the fire created a big burden for residents, including him; he lives in an apartment above the funeral home on Perry Avenue, around the corner from the location of the fire.  “It’s affecting people’s ability to get essential day-to-day items in their community, and many people don’t have a way to go to a neighboring community to get those items,” he said, mentioning everything from fresh fish to baked goods.

Forty-five percent of residents in the jurisdiction of Community Board 7, which includes Norwood, receive public assistance, according to the Department of City Planning.  Traveling for everyday supplies simply is not practical for most.

As the Norwood News reported on Nov. 5, 2009, it took 198 firefighters more than five hours in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 last year to extinguish the flames that enveloped two buildings.  Ten storefronts had addresses ranging from 3083 to 3105 Bainbridge Ave. in one building.  Four others, from 3109 to 3119 Bainbridge Ave., were located in a second; these stores have since re-opened.  The destroyed stores included minimarts, a Mexican restaurant, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a fish market, a barber shop, a nail salon, a record store, and a realty group.

Rumors swirled then and until recently about where the fire originated and what caused it.  According to Community Board 7 district manager Fernando Tirado, the fire department reported at last week’s general board meeting that the investigation is now complete and there was no evidence of any criminal activity.  The fire was deemed accidental.

Construction crews were frequently on the site for the month or two after the fire to demolish what little remained, Curran and Freilich said.  They returned to wrap a plywood fence around the remaining dirt pit, and have not been seen since.

There were happy endings for at least two of the stores affected; European Minimarket moved to a vacant storefront down the street.  Bainbridge Bakery made a fresh start with a new name, Ana’s Bakery, on Williamsbridge Road in Kingsbridge.

But that is not necessarily a happy ending for Norwood, Freilich said.  The neighborhood no longer has a bakery.  The other shops that have not reopened mean lost jobs, lost services, and lost foot traffic on Bainbridge Avenue.

“People want to shop where the neighborhood looks clean and the businesses are thriving,” Freilich said.  “Having a huge series of boarded up property doesn’t make for an inviting shopping area.”   He thinks the entire 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue retail corridor, which spans more than six city blocks, is hurting.

Curran worries about what the issue could mean for the community, and how that might ultimately hurt his business.  “This has not impacted my business immediately,” Curran said.  “However the continued condition as it is will force people to relocate to other neighborhoods, which will then impact me.”

Freilich says the fire has also taken an emotional toll on people here.  “It’s a psychological attitude of depression, of look what’s happening here,” said Freilich, who once headed Norwood’s now-dormant 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue Merchants’ Association.  He said that in all the years he has been in Norwood,  he has never seen the neighborhood struggle so much.

While many Norwood residents and retailers look optimistically eastward to Webster Avenue, where a proposed zoning plan promises plenty of new retail and housing space, Curran and Freilich urge Norwood officials to pay attention to the area that has long been this community’s commercial heart.

There is speculation that the affected lot will be sold.  It is run by West Bronx Stores Inc., which is owned by Evelyn Jacobsen.  Jacobsen did not return repeated requests for comment.

“If the owner doesn’t want to build, sell to somebody else who will develop the property,” Freilich said.  “All the residents and business owners are suffering over this condition.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Reading, writing, and reporting

Youth Journalism Initiative students at work. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Youth Journalism Initiative students at work. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Yajaira Perez lined up her reporter’s notebook, pen, and copy of  “The New York Times” on her desk at Hostos Community College one October afternoon.  She tugged at her grey cardigan and tapped her black ballet flats on the floor in front of her.

Eyes fixed on her editor, the 17-year-old sat, waiting for her assignment.

Perez is a high school senior learning the tricks of the reporting and writing trade in the Youth Journalism Initiative, a 12-week intensive enrichment program run by the Bronx News Network.

The Network, which publishes the “Norwood News,” “Tremont Tribune,” and “Mount Hope Monitor,” plans to publish the students’ work in a supplement called Bronx Youth Heard at the end of the term.  The supplement will run in all three papers, to a total circulation of 25,000.

After a couple minutes, Perez’s editor, a.k.a. program head teacher Katina Paron, 36, called her dozen pupils to attention to receive their first assignment.  “It’s Bronx news quiz time!” she said cheerily, to many grumbles.

Next on the agenda was the day’s main assignment– person-on-the-street interviews and photo-taking in groups of four.  That Wednesday, students were expected to leave the comfortable cocoon of Hostos’s hallways and talk to strangers along the Grand Concourse.  They developed their own questions, covering timely topics like the gay suicide at Rutgers and New York City’s potential soda tax.

As quickly as the teens had taken their seats, they were out of them again, armed with cameras (including program director Jordan Moss’s personal one) and 25 minutes for each group to talk to five people apiece.

Moss, 43, editor of the “Norwood Newsand executive editor and publisher for the Network, finds this non-traditional part of his job compelling.  “We’re doing this because we want to train the next generation of journalists at the grassroots and because Bronx teens have few if any way to communicate youth concerns to the general population,” he said.  “Bronx Youth Heard is a megaphone and a training ground.”

“I like gathering news and sharing it with people who don’t know much about it,” said Perez’s friend Brittni Hefflin, also 17.  Of the course she added, “It gives a sense of how college is going to be.”  Hefflin, whose pink eyeshadow matched her Converse sneakers, hopes to study fashion merchandise and design at FIT.  She aspires to be a fashion writer.

Paron expects hard work and great results from Hefflin and her classmates.  “From what I see, kids in the program leave learning how to write more concisely and how to be effective researchers,” critical skills for college and beyond, she said.  “They get a sense of their own power and that is exhilarating.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Rezoning confusion for Norwood’s business owners

A view of Webster Avenue in Norwood. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A view of Webster Avenue in Norwood. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Many business owners in the Norwood section of Webster Avenue were caught unaware last week when the city began its formal approval process for a rezoning plan to revitalize the commercial stretch.

“What rezoning?” asked Maurice Sarkissian, 40, whose Sarkissian Food Service Equipment & Supplies, a restaurant supply business, has been in his family – and on Webster Avenue – for 50 years.

If the plan is approved, Sarkissian and his business colleagues along the corridor may soon find out that it involves less commercial use on Webster Avenue from East Gun Hill Road to the north to East Fordham Road to the south.  The cutbacks would make way for the development of nearly 740 units of affordable housing and 100,000 square feet of retail space.  The goal is to make Webster Avenue a safe, lively and walkable corridor.

The Department of City Planning certified the plan last week, offering it for public review for up to 60 days.  From there, the plan faces several more levels of approval before making it to city council for a final vote.  Community Board 7 District Manager Fernando Tirado, 40, estimated that the vote could happen by March, and that construction could begin as early as the spring.

Sarkissian believes Webster Avenue’s wide boulevard will never be safe for children.  He believes that crime is not caused by businesses, but by poor policing.  The 52nd Precinct reported a five percent increase in crime complaints from early September to early October as compared to the same period last year. Sarkissian blames businesses that are open until 2 or 3 a.m. “They need to cut out all the hangouts,” he said.

Sarkissian defended most of the businesses in the area.  “We keep the neighborhood nice, clean,” he said, adding that businesses like his were vital to the local Norwood economy because they bring customers into the big retail hubs along 204th Street and Gun Hill Road. “To make a neighborhood, you can’t chase good people out,” Sarkissian said.

But Tirado said that the area has to look ahead. “We want some smarter development,” he said.  According to a city planning spokesperson, existing businesses would be grandfathered into the new zoning plan.  They can remain and invest in their properties, and potentially benefit from an expanded customer base and revived corridor.

A number of business owners, like Sarkissian, still felt their futures were in jeopardy, unsure if the changing dynamic of the neighborhood would create public pressure for commercial businesses to leave.

“That’s not too good cause we don’t know where we’re going to go,” said John Joe Bennett, 51, of the plan.  Bennett, a 51-year-old Jamaican immigrant with a wife and eight children to support, owns John Joe Auto.   His shop has been on Webster Avenue since 1992, and he said he felt secure only until his current lease ends, in December 2012.  “My customers are mostly local,” Bennett said.  “If we move, will they follow?”

One customer at an unmarked auto repair shop a few storefronts north of John Joe Auto thought the move was a good one.  Miguel Alcantara, 45, who drives a taxi for New College Car Service, praised the plan, saying “It needs to be safer here.” He said in the future he wouldn’t mind driving to a repair shop further away.

Public pressure could be a factor for Bennett, as his business does not fall within the confines of a three-block sliver of Webster Avenue north of 205th Street that will remain zoned for exclusively auto-industry businesses.

Neither does Edmund Tierney’s business.  Tierney, 50, owns Tierney’s Auto Repair in the same building as Bennett’s.   “if it brings more people to the area, it has to be good,” said Tierney, who lives in Yonkers with his wife and three children.

Residents tend to share Tierney’s optimism.  “It’s not safe at night,” said Floyd Middleton, 44, who lives around the corner from Webster Avenue on 204th Street with his wife and two children.  “There’s a lot of gang-related violence at night.”  He believes the uptick in crime is related to fewer jobs; he has been looking for work himself for nearly a year.  Middleton thinks that bringing more retail positions to the area will help.

“If we develop, it’ll be a good thing,” he said.  He hoped to see large chain stores and a supermarket on Webster Avenue, so his family would not have to trek to Fordham Road or 125th Street in Manhattan for clothes and groceries.

But Chris McDonald, a 43-year-old Jamaican immigrant who is an apprentice auto mechanic at John Joe Auto, scratched his head over that notion.  Norwood is already awash in retail, he noted.  Not to mention his prospects for future work.  “I’ve just started,” McDonald said.  “I’d like to stay a while.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Housing, Money, Northwest Bronx, Politics0 Comments

Honoring a standout sister in Norwood

Sr. Catherine poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Sr. Catherine, left, poses with a friend. Photo: courtesy Sr. Anne Queenan

Dressed in a purple skirt suit and printed blouse, Sister Catherine Naughton squeezed hands, shared hugs, and greeted approximately 200 guests outside St. Brendan Catholic Church in the Norwood section of the Bronx.  The small 68-year-old nun paused to embrace a more robust Claire McCabe, 80, who hugged back – hard.

“If Sister Catherine left, our leisure club would fall apart,” McCabe said, of the church’s group for senior outings, activities, and exercise.

Naughton is revered for her ministry to seniors, and luckily for McCabe, she has no plans to retire.  The guests who came on an autumn Saturday to honor her 50 years of Catholic life at a Golden Jubilee mass included her family and her Dominican sisters from Sparkill, N.Y., where her order is based.

A dynamic community activist, Naughton is one of a shrinking group of women in religious life.  According to the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, there were 180,000 sisters in 1965.  By 2020 there will be just 40,000.

Naughton began her calling when Norwood was still full of McCabes.  Today, the neighborhood is half Hispanic.

In a changing community, Naughton has been a constant source of strength for many.  “Sister really has been an inspiration to me personally,” said the Rev. George Stewart, 42, pastor of St. Brendan and officiant at Naughton’s mass.  “As a man, as a priest, and as a pastor.”

For the past eight years, Naughton has run St. Brendan’s senior outreach program for more than 100 regular participants; it includes a leisure club, exercise classes, and a lunch program.  The 102-year-old parish boasts between 1,700 and 2,000 congregants, approximately 25 percent of whom are over age 65.

Naughton has also made a mark ministering to the parish’s sick.  “When Paul was in the hospital, she was at his bedside, bringing meals,” said Jeanne Hveem, 64, speaking of her husband, a deacon at St. Brendan, who recently suffered a heart attack.

Stewart stressed the importance of Naughton’s leadership role.  “She’s often my eyes and ears to what’s going on,” said Stewart.  “Who is sick, who is in the hospital, even who has passed.”  After a short commute from her home in Riverdale, she spends hours at a time in nursing homes and hospitals.

She started that committed approach to ministry 50 years ago on Sept. 8, when she and 57 other young women became Dominican sisters at Sparkill.  St. Dominic founded the Dominican Order in the 13th century with an emphasis on active service; hundreds of years ago, its friars traveled rather than live sequestered in monasteries.  In 1876, Alice Mary Thorpe founded the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The sisters came to St. Brendan in 1912 to start a religious education program at the new parish school.

Naughton came to St. Brendan in 2002.  Born in Washington Heights and a self-professed “city girl,” she was glad to be back in the Bronx, where she had worked 45 years ago.  Naughton had been looking for a new place to minister to seniors, and she sent letters to many parishes and to Rev. Patrick Hennessey, St. Brendan’s now-deceased former pastor, who hired her and put her in charge of senior outreach.

But Naughton hasn’t always worked with seniors.  Early in her career, sisters were not allowed to choose their own ministry, and she trained to be a teacher.  She said that when the policy changed in the aftermath of Vatican II, it was a defining moment for her.  “We’ve received the freedom to follow where our gifts are,” she said.  She tried her hand as a teacher, a hospital chaplain, and a senior housing worker, among other roles.

“I’m a Gemini,” she joked.  “So we kind of dabble!”  Her senior housing work led her to senior outreach, and she has not looked back.

At Naughton’s mass, Stewart presented her with a plaque and bouquet in appreciation.  “Why don’t you move to the center,” he asked from the altar, “so we can embarrass you some more.”

The vision in purple didn’t skip a beat as she walked up to embrace Stewart, to great applause.  “It’s a blessed event,” she said.  “I’m very honored.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life0 Comments

Fernando Tirado: A District Manager Looks Ahead

Fernando Tirado at work at Community Board 7. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Fernando Tirado at work at Community Board 7. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

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.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Northwest Bronx, Politics0 Comments

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