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Say it Ain’t So, Yankees

Say it Ain’t So, Yankees

By Jose Leyva It was the best season for the Yankees in years. The Bronx Bombers won their 27th World Series in November. Derek Jeter broke the Yankees’ all time record for career hits. Tens of thousands of fans clambered into the new stadium for eight extra games this season. The merchants selling Yankee souvenirs around the stadium expected record sales. But instead, it was the worst season in a decade for the local business owners. Bronx Bomber merchandise has piled up unsold on their shelves and profits dropped by an estimated 20 or 30 percent. "Something wrong was happening," said Ali Ahmed, owner of Sand A. Sports store near the stadium.  Ahmed sat at the cash register in front of a full inventory of Yankee jerseys, hoodies and World Series 2009 caps. "We all had the same question," he said, referring to discussions with other merchants. "How can this be a bad year for us, if the fans are going crazy for the Yankees?" For the first time in ten years, Ahmed said he cannot afford to close his store at 161st Street and River Avenue for the winter. Ahmed and other merchants believe that the new stadium cut into their sales, because the new subway access led directly into the baseball park preventing fans from walking past their stores. In addition, the souvenir shops located inside the sports venue provided a glut of the same merchandise. Finally, the tickets for the new stadium were more expensive than in the past, leaving less money in fans’ pockets for souvenirs.
Sales at Sand A. Sports, a souvenir store near Yankee stadium, dropped around 30 per cent.  Photo by: Alex Abu Ata.

Sales at Sand A. Sports, a souvenir store near Yankee stadium, dropped around 30 per cent. Photo by: Alex Abu Ata.

"With the new stadium now, there is a kind of monopoly: the shops inside the stadium are the big winners here," said Alfred, a 42-year-old Korean owner of the Concourse Card Shop on 161st Street and Gerard Avenue. In the old Yankee Stadium, team stores occupied around 6,000 square- feet of the total surface of the park. In the new stadium, there are almost 12,000 square-feet in which merchandise is sold. In past years, Ahmed  would close his shop by late September. The profits he made during the regular season were sufficient to compensate for almost four months of inactivity. He figured it was more costly for him to pay salaries and electricity to keep it open in the off season. "Now I have to take my chances and I will open the store to try to get some of the tourists that are coming to see the new stadium," said Ahmed, as four customers entered the store, asked for prices, and walked out. Alfred, who declined to give his last name, decided to stay open and slash prices. Two fluorescent paper signs outside his shop announce 50%-off discounts. During the season, the caps cost $35.99. Now he is selling them in $32. Derek Jeter's Fatheads are $7 -- $2 less than at the beginning of the season. In the summer, Alfred laid off two employees because of poor sales. Now he and his wife work double shifts, taking only one day off during the week. The situation is similar at the Stadium Souvenir Shop, located at the southeast exit near the Yankee Stadium Subway Station. Abdulla Ramin said he lost considerable sales in the last six months because of the new design of the stadium. He argues that it is now inconvenient for fans to walk two or three extra blocks to get to the souvenir stores. "Yes we have visitors, but we don't have customers," said Ramin. 'Dissing' the South Bronx The merchants are not the only ones to lose out. The Yankee organization agreed to myriad give-backs in its Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a document it signed with Bronx officials in order to gain their support for its new stadium. Elected officials laid out specific commitments on the part of the Yankee to compensate the community's loss of 25 acres of parkland for the new stadium—commitments the organization has been delinquent in fulfilling. "They have been disrespectful," said Ramon Jimenez, one of the leaders of the local For the South Coalition.  "They haven't consulted us, they haven't spoken to us, and they refuse to disclose the information about the agreement." The coalition, a growing group of at least 40 Bronx residents, is planning to file a lawsuit against the Bombers next year with legal assistance from the Urban Justice Center. The group plans to consolidate a group of 10 to 20 plaintiffs affected by the new stadium. Back in 2006, when construction of the new baseball park began, the city promised to open the Heritage Park in the fall to replace the Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks. Those plans are now delayed until 2011. Meanwhile, parents and children who live in the shadow of the new stadium have to take a bus to eastern sections of the Bronx to play baseball. Others are forced to crowd onto a small, synthetic football field in front of the new stadium and share space with runners, soccer and other families. The Yankees also failed to inform the South Bronx community about the state of their commitments. The Yankees signed the CBA with the Bronx Borough President in April 2006. The CBA designated at least 25 percent of the new jobs created by the stadium would go to local Bronx residents. There is no public information about how many Bronx residents were employed in the construction or the post-construction. "I've asked personally Randy Levine for that information,” said Jimenez, referring to the New York Yankees President. “We also asked Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for that information. I asked for the names and the addresses of the workers."  He has  yet to receive an answer. Nationwide, more 30 Community Benefits Agreement are in place in other cities, according to Amy Lavine, a staff attorney at the Government Law Center of Albany Law School. Their details are different, but the contracts have always been negotiated and signed by community groups and the developer. The Yankee Stadium CBA was negotiated and signed between the Bronx officials and the Yankees, without taking into consideration the community groups based in Highbridge, Grand Concourse or Morris Heights, the surrounding neighborhoods of the new stadium. The Yankee Stadium CBA does not impress Lavine, who has written several papers on CBAs. "I don't want to say that is the worst nationwide" said Lavine, "but because it doesn't involve any community group, it is way down at the bottom of the list." Jimenez, an activist and a lawyer in the South Bronx, believes the CBA was a marketing device to get support from the community, rather than an honest attempt to engage community with the development. “How can they call it a Community Benefits Agreement if they didn’t invite any community group to sit on the table?” asked Jimenez, during a coalition meeting at on of the classrooms at Hostos Community College. One of the provisions in the agreement requires that the Yankees would create a trust fund it would distribute each year, beginning in 2006 and through 2046. The fund allocated $800,000 in cash grants to Bronx resident not-for-profit institutions. So far, the fund had only distributed $260,000 in 2008, and $1.6 millions in 2009. The fund also gave $500 grants to 24 Bronx Little League teams last year. The only way to contact the fund is by its webpage (http://www.bronxyankeefund.org/), and the site only had incomplete information about the application process to get a grant and the current grantees. For the last two weeks, the site has been down. “I've been trying to contact the chairman of the fund (Serafin Mariel)" said Robert Carrillo, a community organizer member of the For the South Bronx Coalition. "And I've tried to contact the fund by its webpage, but there is no response." According to Lavine, although the fund was created by a CBA, it’s a private institution and it isn’t obliged to disclose information about the grants. “But transparency and accountability are also very important for CBA, they usually report to the community groups”, said Lavine. Early this year, the All Hallows High School requested $40,000 from the Yankee fund because the school lost four recreation fields to the stadium. It asked for two buses to transport its baseball team to another field in the Bronx. Initially, the request was denied. Instead, the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund donated a 600-pound pitching machine to the school for batting practice. The machine was too big for the school’s gymnasium, so it was stored in the basement. According to Robert Carrillo, who is trying to keep track of the grants distributed by the Yankees fund, two weeks ago the All Hallows High School was given money to buy one bus.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Sports1 Comment

1350 Martin Luther King Blvd

By Jose Leyva

The residents at 1350 Martin Luther King Blvd. in the South Bronx, are forming a tenants association to ensure that their landlord, Hunter Management, makes comprehensive improvements to the building.

More than anything, the tenants do not want to live through another winter without heat or hot water. Last year, tenants in the 13-unit building lost hot water and heat several times, sometimes up to three days in a row.

"Most of our problems existed before Hunter Management bought the building, said Pat Joseph, president of the newly formed tenants association. “But we are starting to worry about the deterioration of our houses."

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development received 729 complaints from the tenants of the 1350 and the 1352 buildings since Oct. 30, 2008. Ninety per cent of the complaints related to the lack of hot water and heat. According to the city’s Department of Buildings, the building has nine open violations since 1993, only one in 2009, and none in 2008.

This apartment building at 1350 Martin Luther King Blvd. is in generally good condition. The lock to the main entrance works. The common areas are clean and the paint on the halls and the stairs looks almost new. According to three tenants, the heat has been working so far.

Currently, 10 of the apartments are occupied, and two of the three vacant ones are undergoing renovation to their bathrooms, kitchen and living rooms.

"The last time this building received major renovation was 10 years ago or so," said Mason, the former superintendent of the 80-year-old building.

Posted in Housing0 Comments

1636-1640 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd

By Jose Leyva

The tenants at 1636 and 1640 Martin Luther King Blvd. in Morris Heights share the same architectural design and the same entrance, along with the same complaint about their landlord. They say the company connected to Hunter Property management that currently owns the buildings is neglecting maintenance of them.

Since November, 2008, the tenants of the two buildings have filed 297 complaints with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

According to 10 of the residents, most of their demands for improvements have not been met. Last winter, the 50 apartments in the two, five-story buildings that were built in 1915 did not have hot water or heat for two weeks, according to HPD records.

“That was my main complaint and it’s my main worry for this winter,” said Luis Correa, a 33-year-old former superintendent at 1640.

Correa stopped paying his $340 monthly rent recently. Five other residents followed suit.

Since Sept. 21, 2009 to now, Correa has filed more than 20 complaints with HPD about everything from water leaks, holes on the ceiling, unusable electrical wiring and a rat infestation.

“They simply don’t care about the building.” said Melinda Thompson, who lives in apartment 2A. Thompson's main concern is the mold in her bathroom and kitchen. She offers complaints to the current superintendent, but nothing gets fixed.

From the street, the two buildings look as if they are in good condition. On closer look, their entrance doors are unsecured. One is missing a glass pane. The two buildings have 30 open violations with the city's Department of Buildings.

"We are now forming a tenants' association to try to get the landlord to court,” said Miriam Maldonado, the leader of the group that represents both buildings.

Posted in Housing0 Comments

Where Was Ruben Diaz Jr.?

by Jose Leyva

Ruben Diaz Jr. at William Thompson Jr.'s party last night. The borough president cancelled his plans to stump for Thompson at the last minute, appearing only to speak at the evening's event. Photo by Connor Boals

Ruben Diaz Jr. at William Thompson Jr.'s party last night. The borough president cancelled his plans to stump for Thompson at the last minute, appearing only to speak at the evening's event. Photo by Connor Boals

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. was nowhere to be seen on election day. He voted quietly before 6:30 a.m. at P.S. 93 in Soundview. Election workers and school employees at the voting site said Diaz arrived early and left quickly, as if in a rush. "He was one of the first voters,” said Diane Jones, a Republican poll worker at the P.S. 93 election site. “He said he came early because he had to take one of his children to Catholic school." Then, instead of stumping for William Thompson, the Democratic mayoral candidate he had endorsed early in the race, Diaz slipped from view. One of his only campaign statements appeared on his Facebook page on the eve of the election: “Don't forget to vote for me, Billy Thompson and the democratic ticket! On Tues. Nov. 3rd from 6am-9pm!!!!! Bring a friend!!!!!” The former city comptroller, Thompson, had to wait until 10:30 that evening to hear from Diaz at his election party at the Hilton Hotel Towers in mid-town Manhattan. By that point, Diaz had himself won re-election as borough president by a 73 percent margin, and early results pointed to an expected defeat to incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg by an unexpectedly close margin for Thompson in his bid for mayor. In his three-minute speech last night, an excited Diaz said change was needed in City Hall. "The Bronx needs a friend,” said Diaz. “Millionaire corporations are getting all the money, they are getting all the profits, and they are not doing business for the people. They are not paying wages, they are not giving benefits to the workers." Once on the podium, Diaz triggered some of the most excited applause of the evening. He talked about the Yankees’ domination in the World Series, the economic inequity of the city’s residents, and Bloomberg's indifference to the Bronx. "There are thousands of Democrats who understood that to be a true Democrat, we had to reach out and help our brothers and sisters out. We together never ever sold out," said Diaz, to a cheering crowd of about 300 people. Several Bronx Democrats expressed support for Ruben Diaz, Jr.’s next bid for borough  president, but were skeptical about changes in quality of life under another Bloomberg term. Inspite of the borough president’s absence on election day, Bronx voters went for Thompson on election day by a greater margin than any other borough (61 percent for Thompson, 37 percent for Bloomberg). Unofficial results pointed to a 51 percent Bloomberg win citywide, to 46 percent of the vote for Thompson. "I think Rubencito is trying, and I have to give him credit for that. But he needs more help, and I think that with Bill Thompson in office, a change might occur," said Beverly Dumpheys, a 34-year-old social worker living in Grand Concourse, earlier in the day. When asked at the Hilton party about a continuing relationship with Mayor Bloomberg, Diaz said, “I don' want to think about that." Diaz was set to fly to Puerto Rico the morning after the election to moderate a workshop on economic development at a five-day Hispanic legislative conference, called Somos el Futoro (We are the Future), according to his communications director, John Desio.

Posted in Politics0 Comments

Parks for Some, Artificial Turf for Others

Parks for Some, Artificial Turf for Others

by Alex Abu Ata and Jose Leyva

Crotona Park. Photo by Jose Leyva

Crotona Park. Photo by Jose Leyva

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pumped a record $1.1 billion into New York City’s parks during his tenure, half of which was spent in the Bronx. That’s good news for many Bronx residents, depending on where they live. One father said he travels to several different parks in the borough three to four times a week with his family. “It's nice and safe, it's great for the kids,” said Robert Figueroa, Bronx resident and father of two. But for those who were counting on using the park the mayor pledged would replace the 25 acres of green space it lost to the new Yankee Stadium, it’s another story. They are still left scrambling for play space for their children, for perhaps two more years. "Our sons and daughters now have to take the bus to play baseball,” said Alex Fernandez, a 32-year-old Puerto Rican who lives in High Bridge, two blocks from Yankee Stadium. The new ball club was built where Macombs Dam Park and half of Mullaly Park used to be. Together the parks boasted four baseball fields and two basketball, 32 handball and 16 tennis courts. A football field was encircled by a race track. The promised new replacement park projects have been delayed until 2011. “It's good to hear that we are going to have new parks,” said Fernandez, “but we'll have to wait a long time." Elsewhere, however, Bronx residents who live along the waterfront now enjoy new green space that did not exist before. The Barretto Point Park opened in 2006 along the East River in Hunts Point. Nearby, a 2.7-acre Concrete Plant Park opened on October 30. It represents a segment of the Bronx River Greenway. By the end of 2007, 13 projects costing $16 million had been completed. Twenty more were under construction for an estimated $63 million. An additional $99 million had been allocated for 34 projects that were in design, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation’s 2006-2007 biennial report. Nearly half of the $600 million the Bloomberg administration spent on Bronx parks came from mitigation over the construction of the Croton Water Filtration Plant under the Van Cortlandt Park. The project had been criticized for its proximity to a densely populated area, and, following lawsuits from opposition groups, the city´s highest court rules in 2001 that the city could not proceed without approval from the State Legislature. Although the local Assembly member, Jeffrey Dinowitz, opposed the project, Bloomberg was able to bypass him by negotiating a deal with Bronx politicians. As a result, the plant will donate over $200 million of its water and sewer revenue to the city, which will be used to improve 75 parks in the Bronx over the next five years. Despite the investment, Bloomberg has been criticized for implementing new projects without consulting the communities concerned. "The new projects were determined by the administration, and not by the needs of the communities." said Geoffrey Croft, head of NYC Park Advocates. On Earth Day in 2007, Bloomberg announced a 25-year plan, dubbed PlaNYC, intended to improve the city’s environment. One of the goals of the plan was to provide a park within a 10-minute walk for every city resident. Besides opening new parks, the administration also plans to open schoolyards to the public. The financial crisis forced the Bloomberg administration to reduce its plans for city parks. The Parks Department’s five-year capital plan for projects through 2013 was cut to $2.3 billion--a $338 million reduction. Projects to rehabilitate eight parks throughout the city as part of PlaNYC--including Soundview Park in the Bronx--saw their budget shrink from $206 million to $102.9 million. The construction of the new Yankee Stadium during the Bloomberg administration was costly for the South Bronx community. In addition to the Bronx’s parkland, the Yankee organization received about $364 million in city tax breaks to build the ball club, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. When demolition began in 2006, the Bloomberg administration promised to open the new Heritage Park this fall. Construction has yet to begin and the city announced last week that it will be delayed for another two years. According to the New York City Department of Parks, the new projects will include four new parks with soccer and football fields, a track, four basketball courts, eight handball courts, a skateboard park, a playground, fitness equipment and a waterfront esplanade. These new facilities will ocupy 32 acres of recreational facilities, parkland and open space. Completion date is now set at 2011, five years after the demolition of the Macombs and Mullaly parks. While the community waits, the soccer field might be completed, but on synthetic turf—which costs less to the city to maintain, but also absorbs heat and can reach intolerable temperatures on a hot summer day. "The new Macombs park is too small,” said Deyani Martinez, a 28-year-old mother of two boys. Sometimes there are kids trying to play soccer, she said, while others are trying to play football, next to still others who are working out--all on the same artificial turf.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics1 Comment

An Old Warrior Battles Yankee Fever

by Jose Leyva

Ramon Jimenez has built his career on building community movements and fighting legal battles on behalf of regular people in the Bronx, from injured construction workers to low-income tenants. But in his 20 years as a lawyer and activist, Jimenez has never faced such a formidable opponent as the New York Yankees. "The Yankee issue is like David against Goliath," said Jimenez, a 60-year-old Legal Aid attorney, speaking from his law office in the Hub at 149th Street and the Grand Concourse. Decorating its walls were various Puerto Rican flags, baseball posters, his Harvard degree and a painting of Campos, the great Puerto Rican independence leader. Four months ago, Jimenez organized a group of local leaders and residents calling themselves the South Bronx Coalition to pressure the Yankees organization to fulfill its pledge to the city spelled out in the Community Benefits Agreement it signed along with the city in 2006. Among its promises are a donation of $800,000 per year to non-profit Bronx organizations, and the employment of South Bronx construction workers to demolish the old stadium and build the new one. His newly formed coalition has so far staged a fundraiser, a demonstration outside Yankee Stadium and a silent vigil outside the home of Randy Levine, the Bronx Bombers´ president. Each event drew 50 to 60 protesters. The Yankees, so far, have not responded. "My goal is beyond Yankee Stadium," said Jimenez. "The problems are beyond Yankee Stadium. I would like to see a coalition of different groups and activists in the South Bronx fighting for community." His followers feel he is their best shot at getting the storied ball club to pay attention. "He is one of the people in the Bronx that have more knowledge about the challenges of the community," said Nilsa Amalia Saniel, one of the members of the coalition. "Besides that, people on the street believe in him." Since 1974, Ramon Jimenez, who wrote for the Village Voice about Latino politics in New York, has focused his activism on the South Bronx. After earning a law degree from Harvard University, he accepted a professor position at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. Months later, one of his many battles began. In 1976, the city tried to close the college, which promoted Puerto Rican heritage and the Spanish language. "We had an incredible movement-10,000 people marching down Lexington Avenue, Jimenez remembered, pausing to advise a client about his rights on a construction site. Jimenez led the protesters in a takeover of the Hostos College administration for 20 days. He was arrested, but "we built a movement that eventually stopped them from closing the school," he said, proudly. In the 1980´s, Jimenez faced another challenge when he tried to bring more Hispanic representation to the city by running for a State Senate seat. "I ran against the machine," said Jimenez. "They used to call my mother and father at midnight and they used to say, `We just blew up your son´s car. He is dead.´ And after I lost, they made it very hard for me to get a job." That experience helped prepare him for combat with the Yankees. Not only is he pursuing his long-term goals through the coalition, but he is challenging an organization with an estimated annual budget of $ 277 million. "I can't stand powerful forces that treat people so bad," said Jimenez, whose voice rose in anger when he talked about the Yankees´ poor relationship with the South Bronx. "It is like putting a red cape in front of a bull." The Yankees promised the community that it would replace the park used to build the new stadium, to employ people from the South Bronx, and to provide health, environmental and financial reports about the new sports venue. In Jimenez´s opinion, none of those commitments have been met. Jimenez hopes to nurture the next generation of activists with this coalition, beginning with his 26-year-old daughter, Laila, who coordinated the anti-Yankee fundraiser. This is Laila´s first time organizing with her father. “We have a lot of community organizations supporting us, said Laila, a student at Manhattan College, who belongs to various Puerto Rican groups in the city. "We expect to deliver results to the community soon." Edwin Santos, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society and longtime colleague of Jimenez´s, said the role he is playing in this social movement is more like a mentor. "I have to pass on I know to these young people before the end of my life," said Jimenez.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics, Sports1 Comment