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Food Distributors Struggle With Thanksgiving Meals

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

As super-sized balloons bobbed through Manhattan in Thursday’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a white and red trailer led a different procession into the South Bronx.

The trailer is the command center for Mercy Chefs, a Virginia-based cooking crew that distributes food to victims to hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. For the second year the group drove to Hunts Point to serve hot Thanksgiving meals to cash-strapped families in the Bronx’ poorest neighborhood.

At 8 a.m., the trailer and a handful of follow cars stopped in front of the Hunts Point Recreation Center on Manida Street, which on Sundays houses the New Season Christian Center church. New Season partnered with the Bowery Mission in Manhattan to bring in the Mercy Chefs, which also sent teams to sites in the North Bronx and Brooklyn.

Gary Leblanc, director of the Mercy Chefs, brought three other cooks and enough food to serve up to 400 individuals. Huge plastic bags filled with carved turkey, potatoes, stuffing and gravy packed the trailer’s hulking freezer.

“At a hurricane or flood site, there is a tremendous sense of urgency; people need power and water and food,” Leblanc said. “Here it is a different sense of urgency because demand for food is up so much this year.”

Numbers from the Food Bank for New York City support Leblanc’s assertion. More than 90 percent of the group’s 1000 citywide distribution centers reported an increase in the number of people looking for food handouts this year, and half of those reported seeing an increase of 25 percent or more.

And while demand is up, the supply of donated food is down. In the wake of the recession, many donors, both private and public, simply do not have the surpluses in food or cash to give this year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 55 percent of assistance agencies in New York City said they weren’t able to distribute enough food to meet demands.

The food shortage is a major problem during the holidays, as many distribution centers around the city organize meals and food giveaways for Thanksgiving and Christmas that are larger than usual. The Rev. Paul Block, pastor at the Lutheran Transfiguration Food Pantry in Hunts Point said his group had difficulty with its Thanksgiving handouts this year. Lutheran Transfiguration does not organize a meal, but instead hands out whole turkeys the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Last year, the church’s food bank handed out 80 turkeys, but this year they only gave out 40. A donor, who Block would not name, was unable to supply the annual funds to purchase the birds. Block said he contemplated dipping into the bank’s funds to make up the difference, but decided otherwise.

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

“That would reduce the amount of food we’d be able to give out on Mondays for the rest of the year,” Block said. “Thanksgiving is just one day, and it can be an extravagance. How may of us really eat entire turkeys?”

Supplies are equally as tight with the Bowery Mission, which each year distributes approximately 350,000 meals to people in New York City. According to Efrain Ramos, the Bowery’s supervisor of outreach, the food pantry was 500 turkeys short this year after an unnamed donor group backed down from its 2008 commitment.

Ramos also said the Bowery’s food distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania, which is usually fully stocked before the holidays, is far below its usual capacity.

“Times are hard for everyone, and some people just can’t give,” said Ramos, 40. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a month. There are people relying on you to bring food, and you don’t want to let them down.”

Ramos said the Bowery scrambled to meet its food obligations, but rounded up donations from area and nationwide grocers, and cash contributions from private givers. Instead of asking for general food contributions, Ramos said, the Bowery organized food drives for specific foods such as cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy at area schools and churches.

Many of those supplies ended up in LeBlanc’s trailer. He and his crew spent the better part of the week before Thanksgiving at the Bowery cooking 600 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving fixings. The Chefs then flash-froze the food in vacuum-sealed the food, which they divvied up between the three meal sites.

They packed the food in the $100,000 trailer, which is powered by a 12-kilowatt gas generator, and supplies a water filtration system and a propane line. The trailer, Leblanc said, designed to distribute 4000 meals a day, and houses a six-burner industrial stove, three triple-rack ovens, two large refrigerators and a 10-foot long cooking and preparation table. All the chefs had to do was warm the meals in an oven and serve them.

However Leblanc said his group also faced shortfalls this year. Leblanc developed the Mercy Chefs idea in 2005 after working as a volunteer chef cooking meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The concept was a hit, and Leblanc quickly raised enough funding for six trailers and a staff of 32 volunteer chefs.

He said his group spends approximately $70,000 on groceries each year. But the majority of the food comes from major distributors in the form of donations. The former flood of food donations, Leblanc said, has slowed in recent months. He believes it’s because companies are no longer producing surpluses.

“It’s been more restricted this year, and people are very precise with their giving,” Leblanc said. “We’ve had to push on people a little harder this year. We’ve had to be much wiser with our resources.”

Leblanc and his crew showed up in Manhattan after working for two weeks in San Leon, Texas. The group had been feeding aid workers rebuilding two churches damaged in 2008 when Hurricane Ike slammed the area.

Mary Jo Hencye, a chef from Sarasota, Fla, was not in San Leon, but made the drive up from Virginia to help in the Bronx. Hencye volunteered with the Mercy Chefs in the Bronx in 2008 as well.

“In a disaster, people have some of the same needs as here, but in a way the situation here is a little more sad,” Hencye said. “In a serious disaster it seems so devastating but you know people are going to be able to put their lives back together. Here, this is their life.”

As Hencye and Leblanc began emptying bags into heated pans, the smell of gravy and sweet potatoes floated into the neighborhood. Rivera and fellow pastor Phillip Bonano walked out of the recreation center carrying armloads of pamphlets advertising the free meals. The two men then began knocking on nearby doors, telling neighbors about the 11 a.m. serving time.

Soon, a small collection of people queued up in front of the recreation center.

“I want to see what kind of flavor they have going on there,” said Ron Mack, 50, who stood outside the facility with his pit bull Roxy.

After heating a heaping tray of white meat, Leblanc walked into the recreation center with the day’s first serving. The group still had 45 minutes to spare until mealtime, and the trailer bustled with activity.

“People ask why we come here away from our own families on Thanksgiving,” Leblanc said. “The real question is why more people don’t.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food4 Comments

A Squatter’s Paradise?

By Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

Geovanni Janet remembers the first time he pushed open the door to Apartment 4A and peered inside. A tangle of broken furniture lay twisted on the living room floor and old bits of garbage littered the two bedrooms. Someone had ripped the kitchen sink from its fixture; its location was unknown. A moldy aroma wafted through the hallway.

Janet was homeless at the time and says he saw potential in the mess. He stepped across the threshold into his new home and into his new life as a squatter.

“I didn’t have no bed so I slept on the floor in my clothes,” Janet said. “I didn’t even have a pillow. I just used my shirt to keep the light out. I did that for two months. It was rough, man.”

That was back in May. In six months, the 35-year-old Janet transformed the Bronx flat into his home. It’s hardly luxury housing: large holes fill the ceiling, two windows are missing and Janet pours his drinking water from the bathtub faucet. But gone are the days of sleeping on the floor. Janet has furnished his bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a wooden chest of drawers he plucked from a dumpster. He even has a Playstation 2 on loan from a friend.

“It’s comfortable,” Janet said. “Nobody has ever told me to get out.”

The ease with which Janet has lived rent-free in Apartment 4A says a lot about the current housing crisis facing the Bronx. Hundreds of neglected apartment buildings dot the borough because their owners went bust in the sub-prime market crash in 2008. With no cash for upkeep, many of these structures have gone for a year or more without services and supervision. A recent survey by the United Housing Assistance Board (UHAB) estimates that at least 70,000 individual apartments, both inhabited and vacant, sit in various states of decay.

“If a window breaks and you don’t fix it, you are sending a message to the community that nobody is taking care of things,” said Dina Levy, associate director of the UHAB. “Buildings that were in decent condition are now in decline. Some activities that used to be not tolerated in these buildings are now going on.”

Janet’s building, for example, currently sits in an ownership purgatory. Its old owner, Ocelot Capital Group, is a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm that gobbled up nearly 30 Bronx buildings at the height of the housing bubble, and borrowed big sums to pay for the purchases.

After Ocelot defaulted in fall of 2008, Fannie Mae entered foreclosure proceedings on the company’s properties this spring. In early December 2009, the group Omni New York LLC purchased the building. Fore more than one year, the building went without basic services or supervision.

Like Ocelot, other real estate firms borrowed, bought high and went bust. The companies have left a trail of decaying structures, and an open doors for squatters.

“There was no lock on the door, so I just came in,” said Janet, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. “It was as easy as that. A man doesn’t want to live in a shelter. He wants a home.”

Not all squatters are looking for a home; many come and go, leaving destruction in their wake. Squatters nearly overran the Ocelot property at 621 Manida St. in the Hunts Point neighborhood after vandals broke the locks off of doors. Unwanted entrants dug into the walls to steep metal pipes to sell for scrap. Others used vacant apartments to run drug and prostitution rings.

Tenants there called local police, who now regularly drive by the buildings for signs of unwanted guests.

“It’s a problem you have to stop early,” said Det. Art Warrick of the 42nd Precinct, “because the more people start moving in it becomes a coop for new squatters. They let other people know a building is open. It can become a haven for drugs or crime. We try to get to it before things get out of hand.”

Tenants faced a similar situation across the Bronx at 1744 Clay Ave., another building owned by Ocelot. When management stopped coming to the building in January 2009, repairs and care stopped. After a month, tenants noticed undesirables from the neighborhood loitering in the building’s lobby and on the roof. According to resident Carmen Piniero, it wasn’t long until squatters broke into the building’s four vacant apartments.

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay.  Photo by Fred Dreier

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay. Photo by Fred Dreier

“A neighbor came to me and said he heard people inside, doing drugs and having sex,” Piniero said. “We went into the apartment and found condoms. People had been doing drugs.”

Piniero said she and her neighbors collectively agreed to call the police on the squatter’s nest. Cops showed up and chased the newcomers off.

“Now we keep our eyes and ears open on the vacant apartments,” Piniero said. “We don’t want people coming into our homes who don’t live here.”

Janet said he isn’t worried that someone in his building might call the police or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and have him thrown out. A quick poll of Janet’s neighbors showed that many realize he is indeed living in the apartment without paying rent. But not one neighbor said they felt compelled to call the police on Janet.

The building’s superintendent, Victor Garcia, even exchanges heat and electricity with Janet for work around the building. Janet helps take out the garbage and helped Garcia clean two vacant apartments on the fourth floor.

“Geo – he’s ok. He usually just stays up in his apartment,” Garcia said. “He comes around asking if I have any jobs for him, and if I do, I put in to work.”

Janet said he rarely interacts with anyone other than the super. He passes his days working in the building, spending time with his 16-year-old daughter who lives in the neighborhood or watching borrowed DVDs on his Playstation.

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

“I feel like I gotta help,” said Janet. “I’m not working, so if neighbors need help it’s something to keep my mind focused.”

The housing crisis in the Bronx is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 90s, when a boom in vacancies and abandoned buildings matched a similar increase in joblessness and homelessness. That period was the pinnacle of New York City’s squatter movement and squatters took up residence in all five boroughs.

Squatter communities, which often included artists and actors, made headlines in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for their militant stand against HPD.

Writer Robert Neuwirth, whose book “Shadow Cities” chronicles squatting across the globe, followed the clashes between squatters and police.

“People were pretty savvy about picking which buildings to squat in,” Neuwirth said. “You had to find a building that was worth less than the taxes owed on it.”

Neuwirth said the squatter communities he followed renovated the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabited.

The Rev. Frank Morales is a Bronx priest and homeless advocate who helped establish squats in the 1970s and 80s. Morales now operates the Bronx-based non-profit Picture the Homeless, which advocates for low-cost housing for homeless people.

Morales is quick to point out the difference between harmful squatting — the kind involving drugs and prostitution — and what his group promotes. Morales defines his form of squatting as “urban homesteading.

“We are not like flies on a piece of food,” he said. “The squatting we’re talking about involves occupation and renovation. The notion is to develop housing based on ideological concerns for the community, not based on the conventional profit model.”

Morales believes the key to addressing the housing crisis is to allow groups like his to organize homesteading camps, and then move them into vacant buildings to work on renovations and live. In 2002, the City of New York turned over 11 city-owned buildings in the Lower East Side for legal squatting in a series of housing cooperatives. Homesteaders had established legal squats in the buildings and worked for years on renovations. Morales said it was a step toward a broader acceptance of homesteading in New York City.

“People have become separated from the naked greed that pumped up the housing bubble and ruined our communities,” Morales said. “There’s the notion that these buildings are there. There are vacancies in them. And there are people living on the street. Why not let someone live in there?”

Others believe the tenants rights groups, not squatters, should be the ones to benefit from the current housing crisis. Levy called the housing dilemma an “opportunity” for established renters to take control of their own buildings.

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

“It would take a combination of government subsidy, tenant advocacy and some agreements from the banks,” Levy said. “If tenants can find capital sources, I think they have an opportunity to take back a lot of housing in the Bronx from speculators.”

But legal homesteading or tenant ownership in the Bronx would require radical actions by the banks that currently hold the debt on each property. And Levy said neither outcome is likely to happen, unless the city steps in and buys the properties.

“The banks are holding out and looking for more speculators,” she said. “The banks are still looking to get the highest possible value for these stupid loans and there are people out there who are willing to buy.”

Janet said does not think of himself as an activist or a homesteader, just a man who wanted a roof over his head. He said he does not panhandle, but instead finds money doing favors and odd jobs around the neighborhood. He also receives cash from his 16-year-old daughter who lives around the corner.

“It’s depressing,” Janet said. “I know it. It’s not easy for a person to change, but I’ve changed,. All I’m asking for is a job. I don’t want your money. I want to earn your money.”

Janet said that in a perfect world, he’d be able to land a job and begin working toward a new future. IHe would earn enough to buy a van, and then take a job delivering newspapers. He would save enough cash to buy gifts for his daughter and to buy groceries at the Fine Fare grocery store down the street.

He said he’d also earn enough cash to pay the rent.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing2 Comments

Fordham Retires Gregory-O’Connell No. 55

by Fred Dreier

Anne Gregory-O'Connell Meets Fordham's New Stars

Anne Gregory-O'Connell (right) meets the latest generation of Fordham University's basketball stars

Long before the New York Liberty and the WNBA, Anne Gregory owned the maple boards at Fordham University.

From 1976-1980, Gregory (now Gregory-O’Connell) scored more points (2584) than any woman in school history and grabbed more rebounds (1999) than any female collegiate player ever.

Her jersey now hangs next to Fordham’s only other retired shirt — the No. 11 worn by Ed Conlin.

The two jerseys tell two very different stories of post-college basketball. Conlin left Fordham after graduating in 1955 and joined the pro ranks with the primordial NBA franchise, the Syracuse Nationals, who would later become the Philadelphia 76ers. Gregory-O’Connell didn’t enjoy the same career opportunities when she finished school 25 years later.

Gregory-O’Connell crossed the pond to play in a French women’s league, residing in the Mediterranean town of Antibes. After six months she came back to her home in the Bronx. Her coach at Fordham, Kathy Mosolino, had become coach of the New Jersey Gems, one of the teams in the budding Women’s Basketball League (WBL), and Gregory-O’Connell enlisted. She earned about $10,000 for her efforts. But when the league folded in the spring of 1981, Gregory-O’Connell called it a career.

“I loved it, I didn’t want to give up playing basketball,” Gregory-O’Connell said. “When you grow up in a basketball family, you want to keep it going as long as you can.”

Now in her mid 50’s and a high school guidance counselor, Gregory-O’Connell still has the height and trim physique of a basketball player. She wonders whether she could have enjoyed a pro career, had the WNBA been around when she left school.

Even now, there are questions about whether a women’s professional league can survive. Thirteen years since its inception, the WNBA is struggling at the gate and with ratings. In 2009 110,000 fewer fans attended WNBA games live, a drop of nearly five percent. The WNBA lost ground on television as well. ESPN2 and ABC combined to televise only 13 total regular season games last year.

But it’s the evaporation of job opportunities that is most alarming. In May, the league mandated the trimming of rosters from 14 to 11 players, effectively putting 39 professionals out of work. Those 39 pro women must now fight with incoming prospects o secure a league job, which, in 2009 paid between $35,500 and $95,500 a year.

Teams can only bring 15 players to training camp, down from 18 in years past. Those 39 total tryout spots traditionally went to pro hopefuls, many of them recent college grads or players from overseas. That means even fewer opportunities for women, who come out of college like Gregory-O’Connell once did, with talent, youth and the motivation to keep playing basketball.

“Job security is going down. I hear girls talking about it all the time,” said Laura Harper, a forward with the Sacramento Monarchs this past March. “It’s going to be different. You have to come ready, or you are going to get cut.”

In November the Monarchs announced they would not return for the 2010 season, and Harper was out of a job. The team was the second of the original eight to fold within the last year, after the Houston Comets called it quits in 2008.

Anne Gregory-O'Connell still holds school records for points scored (2,548), field goals (982), free throws (584), and blocks (200). Her 1999 career rebounds is the most in the history of women's college basketball. photo by Fred Dreier

Anne Gregory-O'Connell still holds school records for points scored (2,548), field goals (982), free throws (584), and blocks (200). Her 1999 career rebounds is the most in the history of women's college basketball. photo by Fred Dreier

So what would Gregory-O’Connell’s career path look like had she graduated from Fordham in today’s climate? Mosolino, who worked with ABC Sports and NBC after her coaching career, said Gregory-O’Connell would likely have followed a similar career path — play in Europe, then hope to transfer to a team in the United States.

“Anne would have to play overseas today, most of the kids in the WNBA do it,” said Mosolino. “It’s really tough to get a spot on one of those teams. The players are really good. There’s a lot more talent out there now.”

Had she had the chance to do it all over again, Gregory-O’Connell would gladly follow her dream of pro basketball. These days she works at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, New York, where she lives with her husband, AP sports writer Jim O’Connell, and their two sons. She still shoots hoops with her coworkers. And she follows women’s pro ball.

“I took my boys to a game in the first season of the WNBA,” Gregory-O’Connell said. “When the lights came on and they introduced the pros, I got chills. I think I would have loved to have played in [the WNBA].”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Sports1 Comment

422 East 178th St

By Fred Dreier

The facade of the four-story apartment building at 422 East 178th St. in the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx showcases recently painted brick and robust-looking windows that appear to be straight out of the box. The aesthetic improvements, however, hide a structure that racked up nearly 100 building code violations when a representative from the Housing Preservation and Development Commission (HPD) visited the site on September 28, 2009.

HPD’s September list of violations included peeling lead paint, non-flushing toilets, an infestation of cockroaches and mice, and a wide variety of plumbing issues.

That’s no surprise to the tenants of the eight occupied apartments in the half-vacant building.

“In the summer my kids get bit by the bugs,” said Justina Turull, who has lived on the fourth floor for eight years. “It looked like we were in the jungle.”

According to the New York City Department of Finance, eight separate firms have owned the building since 1981. Most of the owners held onto the apartment for three or four years before selling. The longest ownership was with the Queens-based Loran Realty Corporation, which held the building from 1999 until 2007.

On June 18, 2007, Loran sold the building to OCG VI, a subsidiary of Ocelot, for $1,295,500. The finance department does not list any of the building’s previous selling prices.

Turull said the building went downhill during Ocelot’s reign, and HPD records support her statement. The building racked up huge code violations in mid-2008, and its tenants went without heat or hot water during the winter of 2008-09. HPD records show that the building’s front door did not lock, and tenants reported holes in the floor and serious problems with plumbing and electricity.

After Ocelot went bankrupt in the spring of 2009, the building changed hands again, this time passing to the Brooklyn-based Five Star Realty, which purchased the building for $1,315,000 on Aug. 26.

Steve Porter, a manager with Five Star Realty, described the building’s condition as “poor” when his company took ownership.

“The roof was really bad,” Porter said. “The bathrooms and plumbing needed to go.”

Porter said Five Star has begun renovations on the building, and that he hopes the construction will last only two months. In September the company renovated the roof, and contractors painted the building’s face and installed new windows. Currently, workers are remodeling on the vacant apartments, tearing out walls, electrical cords and floorboards. According to Porter, Five Star’s plan is to move the current tenants into the renovated apartments once the construction is complete.

Turull said she’s not waiting around to see if the new owners live up to their word. The building’s front looks better than ever, but her apartment, she said, is still a haven for insects and rats. After eight years, she’s moving out.

“I heard Five Star paid over a million dollars for this building,” Turull said. “There’s no way they’re going to make any of that back on this apartment.”

Posted in Housing0 Comments

MTA Pulls Ticket Agents from Subway Stations

Bars of steel cover this ticket desk in East Tremont

Bars of steel cover this ticket desk in East Tremont. Photo by Fred Dreier

by Fred Dreier

Inside the cavernous north entrance to the 174-175th Street subway station, an emergency-door alarm blares, a ticket machine is jammed and two men walk in and jump the barriers with ease. The station’s ticket booth, which used to house two station agents, is barred  and empty, blindly facing the turnstiles it once patrolled.

It’s a different scene at the south entrance to the station, which is not connected but serves the same B and D metro lines in the Morris Heights neighborhood. Customers queue up to functioning ticket machines. An MTA station agent, who asked to be identified only as “Joshua,” mans the booth and flips off the alarm when customers open the emergency door.

“If people see you, most of the time they are not going to jump over the barrier,” Joshua said.

The 174-175th Street stop is one of eight in the Bronx to lose its station agent in the latest round of cost cuts done by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On Sept. 20, the MTA trimmed 99 of the positions — called Station Customer Assistants — from 86 stations spread throughout the city’s five boroughs. It was the first wave of slices in a long-range plan to replace 772 positions with automated ticket selling machines by the middle of 2010.

According to spokesman Charles Seaton, the MTA cut personnel from lesser-used stations. The 174-175th Street station had 1.5 million visits in 2008, making it the 285th busiest out of the city’s 421 stations. In contrast, the city’s busiest station, 42nd Street-Times Square, saw more than 60 million riders year.

“Station Customer Assistant jobs are being cut because they do not sell fares,” Seaton wrote in an email. “The integration into the system of high-entry turnstiles, MetroCard vending machines and express machines has actually increased station access.”

Seaton said the agents themselves would not lose their jobs, but would be reassigned to other MTA jobs. Station agent positions, Seaton said, will gradually be phased out over the coming years.

But replacing human beings with machines isn’t a step in the right direction, says Dave Katzman, a spokesman for the Transportation Worker’s Union Local-100. Katzman added that the plan will actually cost the MTA more money than it saves.

“If the kiosks are dismantled, there will be additional costs,” Katzman said. “Despite the claim to be savings driven, this approach is ideological.”

The MTA cuts come despite a recent subway fare increase and a $2.3 billion emergency bailout from the New York State government in May. But the MTA faces falling revenues and $26.8 billion in debt, and Seaton said the cuts are needed for the agency to simply balance its 2009 budget.

Not all customers are feeling safe with the new changes. Dave Cisneros is a part-time cameraman whose apartment building is 100 yards from the 174-175th Street station. Cisneros said he does not enter the station at night.

“It’s just a big empty corridor down there and you’re a sitting duck,” Cisneros said. “People get robbed around here; it happens. When you see someone inside the subway, you feel safer.”

Delia Madera, 19, said the station agents provide a basic level of support when the ticket machines break down or the turnstiles malfunction.

“I see it as more of an annoyance,” Madera said. “If I’m in a hurry, maybe I won’t take the subway.”

The loss of agents also affects how law enforcement patrols the subway. Sgt. Tim Casey works with the New York Police Department’s transit district, which is located inside the 161st Street-Yankee Stadium subway station. The precinct patrols the subway system in the Bronx with officers in uniform and plain clothes.

Casey called the station agents the “eyes and ears” for the transit cops.

“We have a huge problem of theft in the stations, with people swiping MetroCards,” Casey said. “When station agents are there it is down to a minimum because they shoo the thieves away.”

Casey said his precinct had not drawn up a strategy for operating without the agents at select subway stops, but said that they will be missed.

“The overall picture doesn’t look good, Casey said. “It’s going to rear its ugly little head later on. When you replace people with machines, it doesn’t always work.”

The agents also manage problems with the ticket machines. Joshua said that with the closure of the ticket booth at the north entrance, he now receives constant intercom calls from customers complaining about broken ticket machines or jammed turnstiles. He or a coworker must walk over to the other entrance to fix the problems.

His repair work only lasts for so long. After a few hours of traffic, he said, the south entrance is usually back to its dysfunctional state.

“It does not make sense,” Joshua said. “It is now the customer who is at risk.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime1 Comment

Visions of Poverty

From the rooftops in the Bronx, Manhattan's skyscrapers look like toys

From the rooftops in the Bronx, Manhattan's skyscrapers look like toys on the horizon.

by Fred Dreier

I have stood inside tin shanties in a South African township, strolled through decaying Costa Rican slums and ridden my bicycle past men burning garbage piles in rural China. But when I picture an image that best captures the squalor of poverty, I see Justina Turull´s apartment in the Bronx.

Moldy, stained mattresses cover a dusty floor filled with holes. Turull and her five children need a flashlight to use the single bathroom – she can´t remember when the lights went out in there. Flies hover over stacks of putrid diapers in a bedroom filled with boxes.

”The cockroaches walk around this house like they pay rent here,” Turull told me.

I met Turull this past Thursday. She is 36, and both she and her husband, who was not home at the time, are jobless and receive unemployment insurance. Turull has lived in the building for seven years. She receives federal housing assistance in the form of a Section 8 voucher. She said she pays about $85 of the $1100 monthly rent.

Turull said she had to stop working as a home care assistant due to a heart problem. She has five children, including a set of one-year-old twins and an infant, which lay atop the dirty mattress when I walked through the apartment.

I knocked on Turull´s door asking about conditions inside the four-story apartment building where she lives, which is located at 422 178th Street in the Fordham neighborhood. She and a handful of her neighbors told a story of neglect and despair. They went through the winter of 2008-09 without heat or hot water.

Half of the building´s 12 apartments are vacant and under construction, but nothing is being done to fix the occupied aparments. They have had three different superintendents in the last year, and none of them have addressed the services the building needs.

”One time a health inspector told me to just move away, that the building was going to fall apart,” she said.

Like many renters in the Bronx, Turull can follow the roots of her apartment´s problems all the way to Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Her building is one of over 20 tenements in the Bronx formerly owned by Ocelot, the company which abandoned the portfolio in late 2008.

Ocelot´s story of rapid rise and catastrophic crash is an all-too common tale from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown of 2008. The firm borrowed millions from Deutsche Bank and elsewhere to gobble up properties in the affordable housing sector, primarily in the rough and tumble Bronx. When the housing market tumbled, Ocelot was like many real estate firms unable to keep up maintenance of its buildings. It became one of the worst slumlords in the Bronx.

Turull told me she remembers that time all too clearly. The buildings’ boilers ran out of oil one day, and nobody bought new fuel. Her super, who had started a project removing lead paint from her walls, disappeared and never came back to finish. The hot water stopped running.

“Someone told me the building was sold. I was like, ‘You must be Donald Trump´s stupid son if you buy this building,’” Turull said.

The building went through a series of court-approved sales, the details of which are reported in our main story, “When the Housing Bubble Burst in the Bronx.” We do know that Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans for most of the buildings this spring. Then over the summer, the building´s current owner, Five Star Realty, took over.

I called Five Star and spoke with Steve Porter, a manager who could comment on the situation. He told me his company has already spent several thousand dollars renovating the building´s roof and front exterior. He said the grand plan is to renovate the empty apartments first, then move the existing tenants into the new ones.

“Each apartment needs new electricity and pipes,” Porter said. “But we can only do the ones that are vacant right now.”

I have ridden my bicycle past the building on Park Avenue most weeks, and I have returned on two occasions to watch the renovations. So far Porter has kept to his word. There is a team of contractors gutting the ground-floor apartments, putting in new drywall, wiring and pipes.

Whether Five Star indeed moves the existing tenants into the refurbished apartments is left to be seen. Turull told me she isn´t buying it. She said after eight years, she plans to leave the apartment as soon as the government approves a transfer of her Section 8 voucher to a new building.

After I left Turull´s apartment I climbed up the stairs and onto the rooftop. Like Porter said, there is new tar and paint on the top. From the rooftop, I could look down at the other drab low-income tenement houses that sprawl across the central Bronx.

I could also look south across the Hudson and see the skyscrapers of Wall Street standing on the horizon like expensive toys. They looked close enough to touch.

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