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Mother’s Playground Shooting Latest Bronx Homicide Covered in Ambitious NYT Series

The fatal shooting of a South Bronx mother of three is the latest homicide to be covered by New York Times reporters Al Baker and Benjamin Mueller, whose project ‘Murder in the 4-0’ is tracking the life and death of every person to be murdered in the 40th Police Precinct in the Bronx this year.

Jessica White was killed on June 11th by a hooded gunman in a playground outside the John Adams Houses, a project in the Woodstock area of the Bronx, where she had been watching her young children play. It is believed that she may have been accidentally caught up in gang violence related to the trade in drugs.

To read White’s story, click here.

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Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing

Concerns over housing affordability and tenant displacement dominated Thursday night’s public hearing in the West Bronx, as local tenants, workers and activists grilled city officials on the proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue.

About halfway through the evening at Bronx Community College, advocates piled into the hall toting signs, sporting bright orange and yellow t-shirts, and injecting an impassioned and, at times, angry energy into proceedings.

“This plan is nothing less than a snatch and grab,” said Karen Smith, a Bronx resident.

The city was holding a hearing to gauge public reaction to draft plans to rezone 73 blocks of Jerome Avenue, published in August. It says that the controversial plans will create thousands of new homes.

Audience members, however, repeatedly argued that the rezoning plans would not, as they stand, help existing local residents, but instead hike already high rents and empower abusive landlords.

“No one asked the city to come into my neighborhood. That’s like forcing your way into my apartment and making changes so that other people can come in,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera, a leader of the tenant advocacy group Community Action for Safe Apartments, known as CASA.

“Mi casa no es su casa,” she rallied to sustained applause, meaning “My home is not your home” in Spanish.

Pedro Estevez, President of the United Auto Merchants Association, also raised the likely displacement of Jerome Avenue’s car repair shop industry.

As speakers lined up at the microphone, sporadic chants of “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx,” and “Si se puede,” or “Yes we can” in Spanish, echoed under the hearing room’s vaulted dome roof.

One speaker, meanwhile was harangued after standing up in support of the rezoning.

Residents were organized by member groups of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, including CASA and the North-West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Unions including Laborers Local 78, which represents hazardous waste handlers, and 32BJ, which represents property services workers, were also out in force.

“The draft seems too dogmatic to me. Everything seems like it’s written in stone,” said Reverend Dr Raymond Rivera, President of the Latino Pastoral Action Center, another member of the Coalition.

Earlier in the evening elected officials and community board representatives had addressed a largely empty auditorium. All expressed support for the rezoning, with some reservations.

“Saying no isn’t going to build any more affordable homes,” said City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, whose district covers the Southern part of the rezoning area. “The rate at which affordable housing eligibility is calculated, however, will need to go much further, with significant subsidies being made available.”

Concerns over public health, education, and disruption to public transit were also repeatedly raised.

Members of the public can submit written testimony to the Department of City Planning until 5pm October 10th. 

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Ambitious Plan is Hatched to Save Jerome Avenue’s Auto Industry

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An auto repair shop in Hunts Point that may soon be joined by a new auto mall rehousing competitors from Jerome Avenue.

Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx is lined by over 100 busy car repair shops. Metallic noise bounces off the cluttered walls as workers fix engines, touch up paint, or sell spare parts.

It is clear that most of these shops may have to shut if the city goes ahead with a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue, a 73-block plan to build thousands of new affordable rental units. What is much less clear is whether some might be able to relocate, and if so where this new home could be.

Pedro Estevez is the President of the United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), an industry group representing auto shop owners and workers. He wants to relocate the Jerome Avenue car repair shops to a state of the art “auto mall.” His favored destination for this facility would be Hunts Point, an existing car industry hub in the Southeast Bronx.

Although the Department for City Planning points to other rezoned areas of New York where auto businesses have been able to stay put, Estevez increasingly sees relocation as their only viable option.

“The automotive industry has zero opportunity to survive on Jerome,” he said. “The city is trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle if it thinks some shops can stay.”

The Hunts Point auto mall would be built up, rather than across. “You have two and a half miles inhabited by these businesses on Jerome. With this type of building you could put them all in four blocks,” said Estevez.

He describes a five-story leviathan, replete with car elevators and an efficient circulation flow between floors grouping businesses by the services they offer. The transition would be facilitated by ownership rights for businesses that currently rent their shop space, and up-to-the-minute technical training for employees.

The auto mall project is, however, just a vision for the time being. Estevez says he has talked to the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and said that the latter seemed receptive to his idea. The city, however, says that discussions remain at a very early stage.

“Every single business owner has agreed with the plan that we have. They would love the opportunity to have their own space,” said Estevez of the auto mall proposal. A recent survey conducted by UAMA found that 86 percent of owners would move, as long as they had no alternative and the city agreed to help them with the transition.

“I think our clients would move with us, because if they can’t get their cars repaired here they’ll have to look for another place to go,” said Naftali Fuerte, who runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostic, Inc on West 169th Street just off Jerome Avenue. “If this mall project happens it’ll come with a big publicity campaign so that people will know where we’re going to be located.”

Some bosses, however, do not agree that relocating to Hunts Point is a feasible suggestion. “There’s a lot of competition here as it is, and Hunts Point will be competitive too. How are we going to survive?” asked Roberto Vazquez, owner of Vazquez Muffler on Jerome and West 169th Street.

Many auto employees do not seem prepared to leave the area either. “People don’t want to move, they live here,” said Wascar Gonzalez. He is worried that the rezoning will put car shop workers in a double bind: unemployed and stuck in buildings where rents are being jacked up by speculation around the adjacent redevelopment.

If opinion about a possible move is divided along Jerome Avenue, those who already have established auto repair businesses in Hunts Point also have conflicting views on whether they could manage an influx of suddenly displaced competitors.

“Imagine there are four or five pizza restaurants next door to each other. You choose the cheapest at first but you can easily try them all,” said Eddie Runo, who has been in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “How often do you need your car fixed? Once a year? You’ll just go back to the cheapest guy.”

If Runo thinks that greater competition will drive down prices, however, Fred Donnelly counters that it could be a boon for his Hunts Point Auto business.

“I can’t fix every car in New York,” he said. “If I do my job right, I don’t have to worry about competition.” Donnelly claimed that when a new car shop moved in across the road a few years ago he actually got busier, mopping up some of his new competitor’s customer base.

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Fred Donnelly, President of Hunts Point Auto

The Jerome car shops are not the only ones to have eyed an escape to Hunts Point. Sunrise Co-op, a collective of 45 auto repair businesses kicked out of Willets Point, Queens by plans to build a mall next to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, is currently in the process of relocating to a huge warehouse at 1080 Leggett Avenue in the Bronx.

The new facility is a hulking hangar. Even if it doesn’t seem quite as space age as Estevez’s skyscraper car mall idea, it is retrofitted with booths framed by gleaming frames and dropdown grates. At present, however, it stands eerily empty.  A handful of workers putter around with various auto parts. Mainly, however, they sit, drink coffee, and wait.

It is not hard to see what Victor Pichardo, a state assembly member for a district on Jerome Avenue, means when he says that the Jerome workers’ story cannot be “a second Willets Point.” To begin with, hundreds of Queens workers have not been able to relocate, with many going out of business altogether.

Those who did get to make the move have seen their transition beset by problems. Having originally identified the facility in 2013, Sunrise says that it still hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy from the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which in 2015 was mandated to pay out nearly $5 million to help with relocation costs.

“We are ready to move in immediately,” said Sergio Aguirre, organizer of Sunrise co-op. “We could have moved in four months ago.”

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Sergio Aguirre (top) and colleagues Oscar Aravena (middle) and Juan Chavistad (bottom) of Sunrise Co-op at 1080 Leggett Avenue.

Aguirre remains hopeful that the move-in date will come sooner rather than later. Although not yet a formal part of the Hunts Point automotive scene, he said that he would also be more than happy to welcome any businesses who did come to the area from Jerome Avenue.

“We are in total favor of the Jerome businesses being relocated anywhere they need to go,” he said. “I pray to God that they will not live through the same bitter time that we went through. We’ll be brothers and sisters working hand in hand together.”

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said that he expects any effect of the rezoning on Jerome Avenue’s car shops to be natural and gradual. He pointed out that, unlike in Willets Point, the city has not threatened these businesses with eminent domain, the state’s right to seize property from private owners.

In the event of an uprooting conversations with businessmen like Aguirre and Donnelly paint Hunts Point as a potentially thriving home-from-home for New York’s vagrant car repair industry: a crossroads between Queens and the West Bronx that sings with a spirit of solidarity and imaginatively high-tech potential. The reality, however, seems likely to be beset by bureaucratic delays and a lack of enthusiastic will.

For the time being, Jerome Avenue’s car shops just want an end to the uncertainty. With the redevelopment of the area still in its early stages the city does not yet have a concrete plan to offer worried owners, who know only that they are unlikely to be able to stay.

“They are already distributing the spaces where the automotive industry is right now, before the rezoning even takes place,” said Estevez, waving the city’s recent Jerome Avenue environmental impact report in his hand. He pointed out a row of zeroes signifying the projected square footage the auto industry would occupy on a rezoned Jerome.

Right now, these zeroes are all the Jerome Avenue auto industry has. They do not have guarantees about their future, and they certainly do not have an auto mall in Hunts Point ready and waiting for them to move in.

“We are not against any development for affordable housing,” said Estevez. “But we have to have a plan so that all the auto businesses that are on Jerome can carry on being effective.”

And Estevez has stern words of warning should the city drag its feet.

“I don’t think the city will be prepared to confront the reaction of the automotive community. It could be very nasty,” said Estevez. “The South Bronx has a very noticeable reputation. You don’t mess with the people of the South Bronx”.

Additional reporting and translation by Sarah Blaskey.

Read more about the Jerome Avenue rezoning here:
Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx
Jerome Avenue Auto Workers Featured in Photoville Exhibition
Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Front Page, Politics, Southern Bronx1 Comment

Jerome Avenue Autoworkers Featured in Photoville Exhibit

Jose, a mechanic, stands diminutive in the shadow of a wall of stacked car tires. Mwanz, a street vendor who sells incense, poses by a flaking wall on Burnside Avenue. Julian of Prestige Mufflers sits outside, his face freckled by the pocks of sunlight piercing the brim of his straw hat.

These are some of the faces of a working class West Bronx community on display under the Brooklyn Bridge this week as part of Photoville, a major annual photography festival that turns old shipping containers into specialized galleries.

Children, hairdressers and religious leaders are also among the subjects of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, an exhibition that opened in one of the street’s auto shops in October 2015.

“Photoville approached us about the project,” said Michael Kamber, the exhibition’s curator and a contributing photographer. “Brooklyn was an obvious place to bring it. This is an exhibition about gentrification and this neighborhood knows all about that.”

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The project’s third showing comes weeks after the City published draft plans to rezone 73 blocks of Jerome Avenue, a move that would add affordable housing units to the area but would displace traditional auto businesses.

“The exhibition is meant to bring the community together, to understand what it takes to prevent a massive disruption,” added Osaretin Ugiagbe of the Bronx Photo League, the collective that created the project.

The Bronx Photo League is a group of Bronx-based photographers and photojournalists founded by Kamber in 2015. It is run out of the Bronx Documentary Center, an independent photography and film space in Mott Haven that Kamber also founded.

The Jerome Avenue Workers Project is a series of black and white portraits depicting people at work and leisure on Jerome Avenue. They are immediate and yet textured, infused with an almost halcyon timelessness.

“I love how the photographs accentuate the inequalities of the Bronx,” said Kwabena Charles on his way out of the exhibit. “It really shows that there are wonderful, beautiful people in the borough.”

Charles, who works in real estate in Brooklyn, feels that neighborhoods like Jerome Avenue will continue to be ripe for development in the years to come. “Right now the Bronx is the target. Brooklyn is dead,” he said.

Kamber promised that the project would continue to track the workers’ plight as the rezoning moves forward.

“We’re going to follow the workers to see whether they’ll be able to stay in New York or whether they’ll have to move away,” said Kamber. “The City has claimed that around one hundred workers will be displaced. That’s ridiculous. We think it’ll be closer to a thousand.”

Photoville claims to be one of the best-attended photographic events in America. Other exhibitions this year include studies of the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. An interactive exhibit on texting in Syria sends real messages to visitors’ phones.

Photoville is open until 10pm in Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. It closes Sunday September 25.

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Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s battle to build affordable housing in New York will echo under the girders of the Jerome Avenue railroad in the Bronx in the months to come, as residents raise concerns about rent rates and tenant displacement.

City Hall published plans in late August for a massive rezoning of the strip, which it claims will add 3000 affordable housing units spanning 73 blocks from 165th Street to 184th Street.

But the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, an alliance of local organizations, says that 78 percent of residents will not be eligible to apply for affordable housing under existing income thresholds.

The tenant advocates are campaigning for housing allocations to be calculated according to local, rather than citywide, wage averages.

The de Blasio administration made affordable housing provision and maintenance a top priority when it took office in 2014, promising hundreds of thousands of additional units over ten years.

The City says that the Jerome rezoning was one of the first to be planned under this touchstone initiative, prompted by repeated requests from local community board members and politicians. These local officials, however, stress that any new housing must be genuinely low cost.

“This side of the Bronx has an opportunity,” said Angel Caballero, vice-chair of Community Board 5 and Executive Director of the Davidson Community Center. “We need affordable housing for everyone, but the City has to spell out what it means by ‘affordable housing.’”

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Another key point of contention as the plans go out for public consultation is whether existing tenants will be displaced

The City says the rezoning is expected to displace fewer than 500 residents, so it will not conduct a detailed analysis of changes to the area’s socioeconomic make-up.

“How can they say that? The City doesn’t live here. They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Caballero.

“500 residents isn’t just a number, those are real people getting pushed out,” said Clara Cruz, an activist with the People Power Movement, a community organizing group.

A spokesperson for the New York Department of City Planning said it anticipates that significantly fewer than 500 people will be displaced, but that it remains committed to working with all those in the community likely to be affected by the rezoning.

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The draft plans for Jerome Avenue were released just two weeks after the City Council rejected a much smaller rezoning project in Inwood, Manhattan.

This ‘no’ vote was seen as a major defeat for a signature de Blasio policy, which would allow developers to skirt regulations if they commit to keeping a percentage of new homes affordable for lower income tenants.

In a context of rapidly rising rents, few locally dispute the idea that the West Bronx urgently requires more housing stock for low earners.

“We need it. Affordable housing, that is, not just housing,” said Wayne Logan, an entertainment manager. “I’m looking for a place.”

Many residents, however, didn’t seem to know that the rezoning was happening.

“99 percent of people don’t know about Jerome,” said Abdul Ali, whose family owns businesses on Burnside Avenue, which is slated to become a commercial corridor under the plans. “The City can do whatever it wants because people don’t know what’s going on.”

A public hearing with City officials is scheduled for September 29th at Bronx Community College. Local residents can submit written comments on the plans until 5pm on October 10th.

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Featured, Front Page, Northwest Bronx, Politics, Southern Bronx, Video0 Comments

The Kingsbridge Armory: 100 Years of History, 20 Years Empty

KINGSBRIDGE, BRONX — The Kingsbridge Armory has been all but empty for twenty years now.

It stands, silent, sentinel, a fairytale castle in an otherwise bustling West Bronx neighborhood.

Even now, plans to make an ice rink seem to be stalling.

As city and developer feud over funding, the Bronx Ink profiles this charismatic building.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Front Page, Multimedia, Northwest Bronx, Politics0 Comments

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