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Back in baked goods

On a crisp mid-October morning in the northwest Bronx, a weary middle-aged woman lifted one tray after another filled with colorful cupcakes, creamy cheesecakes and pieces of baklava, a honey-soaked Mediterranean delicacy, inside their glass display racks. Flags flanked the “Grand Opening” sign outside the shop on 204th Street and Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood. Curious customers offered congratulations to Ana Mirdita on her bakery’s opening day, again.“Welcome back. We missed you,” said one elderly woman tenderly to Mirdita, after ordering a fresh loaf of Italian bread.

Two mysterious fires within a seven-month period had destroyed the family-owned Bainbridge Bakery in 2009, an iconic part of Norwood’s business section since 1981.

For the owners, husband and wife team Ana and Tony Mirdita, the bakery’s reopening ended their arduous struggle to keep doing what they’ve done since moving to New York from Montenegro more than 30 years before: provide Bronx residents with freshly-baked breads and sweet pastries.

“It’s so far so good,” said Mirdita, softly. “I think we will do well again. If God’s willing, everything is going to be all right.”

It was no wonder why Mirdita was saying her prayers. Luck was against the couple two years earlier, when a five-alarm fire destroyed 10 businesses along Bainbridge Avenue, gutting their bakery. She and her husband Tony, 62, a baker trained in Montenegro, were days away from reopening.

“We lost $1 million in the second fire. We lost everything,” said Mirdita, who looked stressed even on this more festive day.  “It was a big mess.”

Police eventually arrested a nearby diner owner, charging him with insurance fraud and hiring an arsonist. But it wasn’t enough to help the Mirditas. They didn’t yet have fire insurance. Having already taken out an additional mortgage on their home to invest in the bakery, the couple was left with nothing, and were forced to shut it down.

Losing their livelihood was agonizing, Mirdita said, adding that  the small business bureau and a local bank refused to help them rebuild.

“It was especially hard for my husband,” said Mirdita, adding that Tony, who is an ethnic Albanian, was hospitalized several times due to stress-related health problems.

Other businesses along Bainbridge Avenue had received a token of $1,000 from the city’s Department of Small Business Services after the mysterious first fire, but nothing after the second fire, said a local official.

“They didn’t receive any direct financial support,” said Fernando Tirado, district manager for Community Board 7. “I think maybe they had false expectations about what small business services would provide in the long-term.”

Instead, the couple turned to family and friends, who loaned them $350,000 to open up a new shop, Ana’s Bakery, last year in Williamsbridge on the Pelham Parkway.

But the troubles didn’t stop there. The Mirditas soon found out that the loyal customers of Norwood did not follow them to the new location.

“I come here, biggest mistake of my life,” said Tony, from the Williamsbridge bakery a couple of weeks ahead of his Norwood reopening. “There’s no business. There’s no customers. The rent is high over here.”

When a shop beside the still vacant lot that once held their Bainbridge Avenue bakery became available earlier this year, the couple jumped at the chance to move back. The Mirditas borrowed another $80,000, hoping that this third return would be their last.

The diner owner was charged with arson in the second fire. Mohammed Quadir, 51, is expected in court on November 22 of this year. The Mirditas said they were not following his case and barely knew Quadir before the fires.

Meanwhile, residents said they are ecstatic that the bakery has returned to its roots in Norwood, especially since many of the stores destroyed in the 2009 fires were never rebuilt.

“I’m pretty excited to have the bakery back,” said Greg Jost, 35, deputy director of a housing advocacy group and resident on nearby Rochambeau Avenue. “It’s still a pretty big drag to have a big vacant lot here, but I’m happy they are coming back.”

As to why the stalwart couple has never considered finding other ways to make a living, Ana Mirdita made it clear that the bakery business is in the family blood. One of her three children can often be found baking through the night, she said. He is expected to take over the business at some point. However, it’s Tony’s  devotion to the delicate art of creating tarts, pastries and cakes that has kept the family going.

“He’s a baker all his life,” said Mirdita lovingly of her husband. “It’s his baby.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Money, North Central Bronx0 Comments

Who has the oldest store in Norwood?

Allan Freilich, owner of Freilich Jewelers, outside the family shop in Norwood (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

Eamonn McDwyer has operated McDwyer's pub since 1966 (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink

Two Norwood shop owners are locked in a feud over whose business is the oldest.

In one corner is Eamonn McDwyer, 74, owner of McDwyer’s Pub. In the other, Allan Freilich, 59, who runs Freilich Jewelers. Both businesses are on 204th Street; both men are longtime residents of the area.

McDwyer claims he alone has continuously run the pub since 1966, Freilich argues that when he took over the jewelry store in 1970, he was continuing his father’s business, which had opened shop in 1939.

Listen to their debate below:

Who do you think is right?

Which Norwood business do you believe is older? (See both sides of the debate here)

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Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, North Central Bronx0 Comments

Prepping for the city’s elite high schools

Benedit Medina, a shy but determined 11-year-old student in the Bronx, wants to be a detective when she grows up, just like the ones she sees on the crime television show “C.S.I.” To help achieve her dream, the sixth grade student at M.S. 80 on Mosholu Parkway in Norwood hopes to attend the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City’s top high schools.

“Science is the number one thing that they study,” Benedit explained, while her mother, Natalia Gonzalez, nodded vigorously beside her.

However, precedent is not exactly on Benedit’s side. School administrators said not a single student from M.S. 80 last year was accepted to any of the city’s eight elite high schools, public schools that selectively admit grade eight applicants based on their scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. According to the Bronx Borough President’s office, barely 6 percent of Bronx students last year were among the nearly 6,000 students across the city accepted into any of these specialized high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science in Bedford Park.

That’s why Benedit and her mother were among the two dozen parents and students gathered inside the auditorium at M.S. 80 last Saturday morning, to learn more about the start of a new tutoring program aimed at preparing students for the specialized exam.

Beginning Oct. 22, M.S. 80 will become the Bronx pilot site for the Science Schools Initiative, a Washington Heights-based tutoring service that provides free preparation for the exam to low-income students. The founders said the program, which will run Saturday mornings for about 60 students at the school, will help level the playing field for families who can’t afford pricey test preparation programs.

“We are trying to get kids who have the ability to get into these schools, but can’t afford expensive test preparation,” said Mike Mascetti, 27, co-founder of the Science Schools Initiative and a graduate of Stuyvesant High School. “It’s almost impossible to get into these schools and not have taken a test preparation program.”

The eight specialized high schools in the city, which include top-ranked schools like the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, admit only a handful of the nearly 28,000 eighth-grade students who write the specialized exam every year. The schools are largely seen as a gateway to prestigious colleges across the country, yet Bronx students, along with low-income black and Hispanic students, fare poorly  every year. According to city data compiled by, Hispanic and black students made up just 11 percent of those admitted to the specialized high schools for the 2011-2012 academic year, a number that has been steadily decreasing.

Mascetti, a Queens native, along with fellow Stuyvesant graduate Darren Guez, started the program in 2007 after realizing that many low-income students could not afford enrolling in private test preparation programs, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

“We were thinking maybe we should tutor people who are a little more like us, from low-income or middle-income backgrounds, who can’t afford test preparation,” said Mascetti, a law student at City University of New York. “Going to Stuyvesant was a transformative experience for me. There isn’t any question you are going to graduate, unlike at the other schools.”

Using donated classroom space at Columbia University’s medical school in Washington Heights, the program has so far helped 40 students gain entrance to a specialized high school, about a 50 percent success rate.

Mascetti said that they were looking to expand the program to other parts of the city earlier this year when a frustrated Bronx resident came knocking on their doors, angered by fact that Bronx students had a poor showing among the city’s most elite schools.

“The schools are rated the worst in the Bronx,” said Adaline Walker-Santiago, a former administrator in the city’s education department and chair of the long-term planning committee for Community Board 7. “These kids are just as smart as any kid in the city, but they are just not given the same opportunity for a good preparatory class.”

After finding out about the Science Schools Initiative online, Walker-Santiago arranged a meeting with Mascetti and several middle school principals in the Bronx. It was decided in late spring that M.S. 80 would be the pilot site for the program, a school known for its poor test scores and high number of disabled and English-language learners. Two weeks ago, the city’s education department selected M.S. 80 for up to $2 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education to help turn around its poor performance. A portion of the funds is being directed towards launching the Science Schools Initiative, said school administrators.

“We’re very excited,” said Lovey Mazique-Rivera, principal of M.S. 80. “The parents love it. They are really appreciative the school is offering this service to them.”

About 60 sixth and seventh grade students at M.S. 80 were selected for the program based on their eligibility for free school lunch, and their performance on a mock selective exam that Mascetti and his team administered at the end of June. Both Mascetti and school administrators hope that 50 percent of them will eventually gain entrance to one of the city’s specialized high schools.

Inside M.S. 80’s auditorium, parents and students listened raptly to organizers of the Science Schools Initiative as they described the potential life-changing value, and rigorousness, of the program.

“We’re here to teach you how to take the test,” said co-founder Darren Guez, addressing some of the nervous looking students. “Every one of you here is smart enough to go to the Bronx High School of Science, as long as you put in the effort.”

For Juan Ynfante, who attended the meeting with her 12-year-old daughter Jaylene, the program is a chance not only to attend a better high school, but a chance for a better life.

“It gives a better opportunity to go to a good college,” said Ynfante, speaking through a Spanish translator. “I want her to do what I couldn’t do.”

For Walker-Santiago, the Bronx resident who brought the program to the borough, increasing the Bronx presence at specialized high schools is really a chance to improve the long-term prospects of the community.

“They are the future Robin Hoods of education,” she explained, referring to the preteens starting the program. “When they are making six figures, they will come back and give to the community.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Education, Featured, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Sally Dunford: a passionate advocate for Norwood

Sally Dunford: a passionate advocate for Norwood

Sally Dunford works to help Norwood residents with rent and landlord issues. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

In a tiny, first-floor office at the northern tip of the Bronx, Sally Dunford sat among two cluttered desks squeezed in by several more filing cabinets, fielding phone calls that came in every few minutes or so.
“Can I talk to you in five?” she said to one caller.

“I’m not sure if you’re in my district, but come in and let’s see if I can help you out,” she said to another.

Dunford is the executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a small operation that she’s been running for 17 years on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood. The job is a tough one, often putting the 60-year-old mother of four face to face with the dark and ugly world of housing in her struggling neighborhood. However for Dunford, who has lived in this pocket of the Bronx for the better part of 30 years alongside the very people she helps through her office, dedication to the same community where her mother grew up helps her get through what can be a frustrating job.

“Love is a part of this,” said Dunford, in between the many phone calls that kept coming in. “You can’t do this work for money. If you don’t really care about the people, you’re not going to be able to do this kind of job.”

Community District 7, which encompasses Norwood, Bedford Park and Kingsbridge, has one of the highest rates of housing code violations in the Bronx. People in this area are rent-burdened as well, where the average person pays more than a third of their income on rent, according to New York University’s Furnam Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Dunford’s organization alone handles about 1,250 cases a year among a staff of just three, who deal in everything from saving Bronx residents from living in the streets, managing the bureaucracy around city and state housing subsidies, and playing referee in landlord-tenant clashes.

But for Dunford, a heavy set woman with shoulder-length grey hair and a rapid fire tongue, it’s the Bronx’s gritty reality and loyal residents that prompted her to write in a recent open letter in the Norwood community newspaper, “Dear Bronx: I can’t remember when I didn’t love you.”

After growing up upstate in Yonkers, Dunford first came to Norwood with her husband Michael, a Vietnam War veteran and conscientious objector to the war, right out of Fordham University in the early 1970s. They met in a local bar while Dunford was involved in radical anti-war protests on campus, often getting arrested by campus police for civil disobedience.

Together, they moved out into an apartment on 208th Street, just a few blocks down from where Dunford’s mother had grown up. With the birth of their four kids – all boys ­– family and friends pressured the couple to move out of the Bronx.

“We made a very conscious decision for the children to not be raised in a suburban atmosphere,” Dunford said.  “I wanted them in the city and for them to get to know all sorts of different people. In retrospect, it was possibly the best decision we ever made.”

Soon after moving, troubles in the South Bronx pulled her out of domestic serenity, and back into the confrontation-style activism of her university days.

“After my second son was born in 1977, the Bronx at that point had begun to burn,” recalled Dunford.

Dunford said her family considered moving out of the borough again to escape the crime and fires that were creeping northward, but ultimately decided to stay. Dunford instead got involved with several community organizations, including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she lobbied in Washington to get the Community Reinvestment Act passed, a law ensuring banks made loans available to low-income neighborhoods.

After years of odd jobs and volunteer positions with various nonprofits throughout the city, a job opening came up via the Bronx Jewish Community Council, where Dunford had once worked part-time on housing cases. Brad Silver, the executive vice-president of the organization, was looking for someone to head up the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.

“He asked if I knew anyone, and I said, what about me?” Dunford remembered.

That was in 1994, and Dunford has been with the organization ever since.

For Silver, who supervises West Bronx Housing, Dunford’s value lies in her ability to count clients as her own neighbors.

“It’s unusual to find somebody who’s able to administer a program, and also somebody who lives in the neighborhood,” Silver said.

Sometimes, the job calls for much more than just dealing with housing issues. Silver recalled an instance when a woman walked into Dunford’s office, crying hysterically about her abusive husband’s pending release from jail.

“By the end of the day, she got the woman and her kid on a bus to Connecticut,” he said. “She cares deeply about the people and the neighborhood.”

Today, Dunford still lives on 208th Street in Norwood with her husband, Michael, who works as a nurse at nearby Montefiore Hospital. Her four sons, who Dunford believes have absorbed her social justice outlook growing up in the Bronx, now work as a teacher in the South Bronx, zoologist, health administrator, and a Target employee.

Despite the emotional issues that a job like Dunford’s inevitably brings, Dunford said her passion for the community is still her driving force.

“I have the most wonderful relationship in the community,” she said. “If I had a problem, I know people would come to my aid in a second.”

When asked if she’ll ever leave the job or retire, Dunford was quick to respond.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said vehemently. “I love this work. I love this neighborhood.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, North Central Bronx1 Comment

Pelham Bay landfill lawsuit set for court, The Bronx Times

A lawsuit against the Pelham Bay Landfill by families who claim their children developed cancer because of it, got the okay to fight their case in a court, reports The Bronx Times.

The landfill was shut down in 1979, however many continue to claim that contaminated air, soil and groundwater caused leukemia or Hodgkin’s disease in their children.

The First Department Appellate Division ruled that there is enough evidence for a jury to determine if toxic chemicals have caused cancer in children. No court date has been set yet.

Posted in Newswire1 Comment

5 civilians indicted in ticket-fixing case, NY Daily News

A Bronx grand jury has indicted 5 civilians along with 17 cops for the ticket-fixing scandal that has captivated the city, reports the New York Daily News.

The civilians are thought to be suspected drug dealers, or those caught doing financial favors to cops involved with the ticket-fixing scandal.

Though the grand jury is still sealed, charges against the 22 people in the case are expected to be revealed next week.


Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Heat season begins for apartments, NY1 News

“Heat season” has begun in New York City, the period in which the city requires building owners to provide heat and hot water to tenants, reports NY1 News.

The season typically begins on Oct. 1. Tenants should notify their building owner if heat is not being adequately supplied to the building.

“Heat Season” concludes May 31.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

HIV/AIDS clinic opens first Bronx location, Bronx Times

The Iris House South Bronx Outreach Center, an HIV/AIDS clinic and information center, opened its first location in the Bronx, reports the Bronx Times.

The clinic, which opened Monday, will be serving the Crotona community and will help to prevent the spread of HIV as well as those that are already positive.

Iris House already operates two locations in Harlem.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

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