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A ministry for a hurting community

Pastor Rebecca Vega (right) and her sister, Jacqueline Quinones (left), start the first service in the House of Healing's new location. (KIRAN ALVI/The Bronx Ink)

  The worshippers who crowded into the living room of the two-bedroom apartment on Marmion Avenue in East Tremont had known more than their share of losses and hardships. Their neighborhood has been through some tough times. On Aug. 24, a stray bullet on East 174th Street killed Yaritza Pacheco, 24. On Aug. 30, three people, ages 5, 2 and 20, were shot on 180th Street.  The next day, Phillip Richards, 35, was gunned down on East 181st Street. On Sept. 17, India Durant, 3, died after being found unconscious in her family’s home on East 180th Street. Kurt Lawrence, 17, was found with a gunshot wound to his chest on Nov. 26 on East 175th Street. But Pastors Anthony and Rebecca Vega, both 35 and married for 14 years, offer hope and healing in their ministry, which recently moved from their apartment into a location four times the size at 921 East Tremont Ave. On most Sundays, it was a struggle to fit the usual 60 worshippers into their apartment so the new location offers new opportunities for serving the community, they say. “We’re here to help everyone,” said Rebecca Vega, who has two boys of her own. “There’s especially no place for the youth to go around here. Nothing is free, and we want to give them things to be happy about.” Those things include preaching to youth members at a Juvenile Detention Center in Westchester once a month and hosting community events geared towards children. On Nov. 12, they hosted a glow-in-the-dark service in Tremont Park, the same location where they handed out book bags and school supplies to anyone who came back in September—all funded with their own money and church donations. The Vegas even let youth members lead services on Fridays. “What else do they have?” Rebecca Vega said. “It’s hard growing up in an environment where not only do you not have a lot, but then things, people get taken from you too.” The Vegas know what it is like. In 2005, their seven-year-old daughter, Abigail, died of acute metabolic acidosis, a condition in which the body either produces too much acid or the kidneys do not remove enough from the body. But after a part of their family “broke away,” Anthony Vega said, they were able to help join others. Rebecca Vega and her sister, Jacqueline Quinones, start the service with Spanish-language religious songs. Neither is shy with volume. And as some congregationalists play tambourines and drums, others loudly sing along, falling into a trance with the rhythmic melodies. The hand-holding, emotion-filled room gears up the church for the equally lively sermon given by Anthony Vega and Quinones’ husband, Melvin. “It’s like a family here and they really care about us, it’s like they’re our friends,” said Joanna Garay, 15, who joined the church in 2010 after stumbling upon a picnic the ministry had outside the apartment building. “There are so many kids doing the wrong things around this area but kids like it here so they come and can stay out of trouble.” “The church brought my family together,” said Garay, who did not come from a churchgoing family but has not missed a service since she first attended. “And now it feels like the church and everyone in it are my family.” Garay’s mother went with her daughter one day and then forced her other daughter, Valerie Lovo, to come. Today, Lovo is also an active member and led a service in the orange-painted living room on Oct. 14. Joanna Castro, 30, of Staten Island said that the living room in the Bronx changed her life. She found out about the House of Healing through a friend in 2006 and used to make the hour-long drive on Sundays. The pastors helped her find the confidence to get out of an abusive 13-year relationship in a year ago. On Oct. 2, after packing up the painful memories of Staten Island, she moved into an apartment Rebecca Vega helped her find, just four blocks away from the ministry. “I held on too long to the pain and the hardships I endured,” Castro said. “The pastors just told me that God has bigger plans for you and they helped me get out of it.” The neighborhood is home to many residents who have a lost many things, including hope, Anthony Vega said. “Then they end up making the wrong choices, and through God and positivity we want to help them find the strength to get through it.” Instead of walking through their apartment door every weekend, the ministry’s more than 60 people—almost half of whom are under 12 years old—will now be walking into a building and onto the second floor of a new House of Healing. “We’ve moved into our new location, but we don’t want the feeling to change,” Anthony Vega said seated in his now-empty living room. “We’re going to put a sign outside that reads ‘Welcome Home.’” “We’re not healed,” he  said. “So we want to help others heal and maybe we can all heal together. Not all is lost.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Video0 Comments

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Dyan Kerr

Dyan Kerr deals with a wall of mold in her Williamsbridge apartment. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

With a single tap of the finger, mailboxes open at 1585 East 172nd Street in Soundview. It’s a trick anyone can pull off. “Social Security and Section 8 checks have gone missing,” said Andres Rios, the leader of the building’s tenant’s association. Broken mailboxes are just one problem facing Rios’ building, one of six notoriously distressed buildings in Highbridge, Morris Heights and Soundview. The buildings have been in disrepair since 2006, bouncing from owner to owner, each either without a plan to fix them or the money to carry the plans out. The buildings were sold again in September, this time to Bronx real estate agent Anthony Gazivoda, for $21.4 million. Gazivoda paid almost $7 million more than the previous owner, a surprisingly high purchase price that has tenants and housing advocates afraid that the new owner will find himself just as cash-strapped as the previous ones. “There is no financial story that justifies that sale,” said Dina Levy, executive director of the Urban Housing Assistance Board, the advocacy group that has been following the plight of the buildings. “You can twist it but you still can't justify it. There's no amount of rationalization that gets you to $21 million. That's troubling.” Anthony Gazivoda did not respond to numerous interview requests. From the outside, Gazivoda appears to have very few options for turning a profit on the buildings, which house low-income families who cannot afford to pay high rents. Gazivoda is also limited by city regulations, which prevent him from raising many of his tenants’ rents above a small percentage every year. With no clear profit prospects, tenants and housing advocates are worried that Gazivoda will not have the financial means to make the repairs that are desperately needed. Even worse, they fear that he will stop maintaining the buildings altogether, just like the previous owners. “I cannot believe we're here again,” said Levy. “Except this time it's more money, more money than has ever been put on these buildings.” The buildings, which sold for $13.5 million in 2010 to previous owner BXP 1 LLC, had 379 violations of the city’s housing code on Dec. 6. The violations range from broken windows and leaky ceilings to padlocked fire exits, entrances that do not lock, and exposed electrical wiring. Four of the buildings have lead-based paint violations.
History of Neglect Anthony Gazivoda is the fourth landlord in the past five years for the six Bronx buildings. The previous three have not been able to improve the dilapidated conditions in the buildings.
The problems are nothing new in the buildings, which have been poorly maintained since the now-defunct Ocelot group purchased them in 2006. After a bitter power struggle left Ocelot without the money to carry out repairs, the group became an absentee landlord, neglecting maintenance until things were so bad that the city took the group to court and ordered them to repair nearly 3,000 violations and pay a $60,000 fine. They were then sold in 2009 to Queens realtor Sam Suzuki of BXP 1 LLC. Suzuki ended up being no better than Ocelot; under his ownership the buildings racked up over 2,500 housing code violations and two of the Morris Heights buildings made the city’s most distressed list. Angered, the tenants of the Soundview buildings took Suzuki to court where a judge ordered that he make emergency repairs and sentenced him to jail when he failed to do so. The Manhattan-based Bluestone Group took control of the buildings in June of 2010, promising to make repairs and take a long-term interest in the buildings. Yet Bluestone orchestrated BXP 1’s sale of the buildings to Gazivoda a little over a year later, and angry tenants accused the company of doing just enough to sell the buildings for a profit. Tenants were initially weary when Gazivoda took over and reported that, like Bluestone before him, Gazivoda asked for a month to begin carrying out repairs. But since then, tenants in the Highbridge and Morris Heights buildings say that security has improved. “Most of these owners, when they first come here they promise one thing, but then it changes,” tenant Wilfreda Gonzalez said back in September. Gonzalez had high hopes when Gazivoda purchased her building at 1640 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. "This owner, at least I can say that he put in the cameras and intercoms.”
Anthony Gazivoda

Anthony Gazivoda

But more than a month later, the 11-year resident felt differently about ownership. A leak from the apartment above damaged her bathroom walls last summer, and the tiles have yet to be replaced. “They're giving me the runaround,” said Gonzalez, who has called the landlord repeatedly. “He bought the apartment and he has to fix it.” Gazivoda is both an important and mysterious figure in the Bronx real estate market. The 51-year-old Albanian realtor, who sits on the business development board at Hudson Valley Bank, has been in the real estate business since 1978. Since then, city records show that over 40 real estate companies tied to the Gazivoda family have come share the same 3200 Cruger Ave. address. Altogether, Gazivoda and his family own almost 40 buildings in the Bronx.
Bronx Albanians move into real estate Albanians first migrated to America in 1876, according to Constantine Demo, author of The Albanians in America. But they began to move to New York City in big numbers in the 1960s, settling in the Bronx around Morris Park, Arthur Avenue and Pelham Parkway, said Ismer Mjeku, the publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages, an annual guide for Albanian personal and commercial contacts all across the countryAs Albanian immigrants were settling in these Italian enclaves of the Bronx, they concentrated in the food and restaurant industry, which until then had been mainly run by Italian families. Gradually Albanians took over the business and, in the 1980s, displaced many Italian owners from those restaurants.In their pursuit of business diversification, Albanians got into real estate and started amassing properties. According to Mjeku, today the Albanian community owns almost a third of all the apartment buildings in the Bronx, although he said there is no official data to support his claim.The 2011 edition of the Albanian Yellow Pages shows at least 26 Albanian-owned real estate companies operating in the Bronx and Mt. Vernon. -Mahmoud Sabbagh
Despite owning so much land, very little is known about Gazivoda himself, and the lack of information is worrying to housing advocates. “Who these people are is not clear to us,” said Levy, who has worked at the Urban Housing Assistance Board for seven years. Levy added that Gazivoda “has a very insular network.” Gazivoda has a mixed record as a landlord. Some of his buildings have no violations, others have as many as 98. And though none of the buildings are as bad as his latest purchases, tenants in his more troubled buildings paint a negative picture of the landlord. Dyan Kerr lives in one of Gazivoda’s older properties with her family at 678 East 225th St. in Williamsbridge, where violations decreased from 58 to 26 from October to December. Despite the drop in violations, Kerr said she has been dealing with mice and mold for over a year. “I’m tired of this place,” said Kerr, who has inch-long mold dots clearly visible in her bathroom. Kerr said that management has cleaned the mold in the past, but it kept growing back. In addition, Kerr revealed brown filth in her kitchen cabinet that she said were mice droppings. “This is how we’re living now because people don’t want to fix nothing,” Kerr said. Bathroom mold is also a problem a few miles away in Belmont, where Shantelle Guzman lives in another of Gazivoda’s older properties. “They paint over the mold and the super doesn’t fix anything, he doesn’t live here,” said Guzman, who lives at 611 East 182nd St. Guzman’s apartment also has holes in the walls, where she said mice enter her one-bedroom apartment. She is also upset about shoddy heating that forces her and other residents to use their ovens for heat and an irregular flow of hot water in the building and would like to leave. Back in Soundview, moving has never been an option for Rios, who has led his tenant’s association through five different landlords in 14 years. If necessary, Rios is gearing up for the next battle. “I like to bark and bite,” said Rios, who showed Gazivoda the faulty mailboxes in front of a group of tenants at a meeting on Nov. 9. Before exiting, Gazivoda assured his tenants that the mailbox problem, as well as the dysfunctional fire alarms, would be addressed. “He said it would be taken care of but that it’s not going to be done quick,” he added, discouraged. “I guess to them it wasn’t a priority.”

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MS Ventura sits at table with cabinet

Running for president of the Dominican Republic–from the South Bronx

Ventura standing in front of the salsa club

Real estate broker turned Bishop turned presidential candidate of the Dominican Republic, Roberto Quevedo Ventura, stands outside a salsa club before his party's Saturday night meeting. (KIRAN ALVI/The Bronx Ink)

Every Saturday night, 27 local residents meet in an abandoned salsa club in East Tremont to discuss Dominican Republic politics. The various clergymen, business people, and housewives are intent on getting the Bishop in their midst elected as the island’s next president in May. These Dominican expatriates have little campaign money, and even less political clout. Still they feel so strongly about the the chaos and poor education choices back home, they have convinced themselves that Bishop Roberto Quevedo has the moral backbone and business experience to win. "I trust Quevedo because he cares about the country the most," Orgilia Palmo, one of the campaign volunteers, said minutes before the meeting began. "He's a strong man who can help the D.R. that's falling into pieces." Others believed his experience as a volunteer is enough to convince voters of his suitability for president.  “He sends boxes of food, supplies, HIV testing material, everything to the country all through donations here, sometimes his own money,” said Nestor Rodriguez, Ventura’s friend of more than 30 years. “He organizes all this stuff to help the community here and now look at him – helping by running for president.” Besides, Ventura said he has always dreamed of going back. “There’s so much corruption with all the revenue the D.R. has," said Ventura, 56, a real estate broker and Bishop of East Tremont. "I want to see the money spent on the children, not the government.” To run, however, a candidate needs a party endorsement. So, Ventura and his comrades established one called Partido Para El Pueblo Dominicano (PPPD) on August 13. Their key platform is to redirect funds into education and social services for the elderly. Since 30 others are running for the office, and since only two parties--Partido Revolucionario Dominicano and Partido de la Liberación Dominican--have led in the polls since the early 1960s, Ventura's bid is hardly a given. For one thing, he has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Born in 1954 in the Dominican Republic to a father who was a grocer and a mother who worked in a textile factory, Ventura grew up around hard working people. He came to the U.S. in 1969 and spent his teenage years in an apartment on a tree-lined block on Manhattan Avenue in Harlem. He said even as the fifth child of nine, he wanted to take charge in the house. After immigrating to New York City with his grandmother, he got his real estate license in 1973 from North Country Community College in upstate New York. He still works as a broker in the South Bronx. Like his parents, he is self-employed. Ventura, a resident of Morris Avenue, owns two properties now. But it was one on 229 East Tremont that changed his life when a boiler exploded during installation in 1998. “My whole body was burned and a piece of the boiler went straight into my forehead,” Quevedo said. “The doctor said only a miracle could save me, and that’s what I believe it was.” The religious epiphany prompted Ventura to join a church and devote more of his time to God. By 1992, he became a pastor at the New Covenant Baptist Church in the Bronx and was ordained a bishop in 2008. Through the Baptist Church of all Denominations, a church he opened in 2008, Ventura runs community-wide drives to collect clothes and canned food to send back o the Dominican Republic. He ships the merchandise with his own money, so they only send boxes every couple of months, he said. “He’ll help anyone and he does it only because he wants to,” said Pastor Luis Coriano of the church Quevedo started. “Now his faith makes him want to help more. But I was surprised that he was running because religion and politics don’t mix.” The mix happened in 2006. Ventura took up an interest in politics after he attended a meeting in Manhattan with the General Council of the Dominican Republic that year. “There’s instability and a bad administration there, and the money isn’t being spent on the people, my people,” he said. Indeed, the World Bank loaned the government $300 million for social programs; Inter-American Development Bank loaned another $500 million  for the same purpose in 2010; and the government entered into an $8.6 billion trading partnership with the U.S. in 2009. These combined cash sources placed the Dominican Republic as the largest economy in the Caribbean and Central American region, according to a 2011 report from the Congressional Research Service. Still, more than 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. Ventura did not call it “corruption” of funds but others did. Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that publishes annual reports on international corruption, gave the Dominican Republic a score of 3 out 10; 0 being the most corrupt. The island was ranked 101 in a list of 178 countries, the highest ranking as the most corrupt. His campaign has a Facebook page with almost 200 friends and two YouTube videos with about 150 views combined. Ventura does not see the timid online presence as foreshadowing. “My biggest challenge will be the election," said Ventura, a tall man with graying hair and calm speech. If his Facebook following of 200 is any indication, the challenge is nearly insurmountable. “I want this from the bottom of my heart. If I don’t get it, I will persist and resist until the day I die.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Politics, Southern Bronx1 Comment

Puerto Rico in East Tremont

Wanda and Nester Rentas opened Taino Mayor in 1980 on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. After 20 years of selling merchandise straight from Puerto Rico, and serenading passersby with live music, it has come to be known as "Little Puerto Rico."

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fist of fight back program

Fighting their neighborhood

The Fight Back Program is a 10-year-old jiu jitsu and self-defense program run out of the Mary Mitchell Center in the East Tremont and Crotona neighborhoods. Its senseis have trained hundreds of local kids to use martial arts to resist negative pressures all around them.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Sports, Video0 Comments

Better luck at next year’s Savor the Bronx

eggplant

The legendary Mario's Restaurant served its regular fare for restaurant week (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

Holy cannoli.  No special prices at Mario's for the Bronx’s first annual restaurant week?
Instead, customers looking for a deal at the iconic Arthur Avenue restaurant were offered a free glass of Montepulciano red wine and a complimentary crash course in all things Italy. Ionic columns and brick arches frame the dining room overflowing with Roman sculptures, portraits of Tuscany, Italian flags, and endless family photos.
Owner Joseph Migliucci said he could not offer a special prix fixe menu because his family-owned business in Belmont already offers the best food on Arthur Avenue at a great price as it is. “Being here 92 years, we feel we’re the best restaurant on Arthur Avenue,” said Migliucci, 73, who has been working at the restaurant named after his father since he was 13 years old.
Mario’s was one of 40 restaurants chosen to participate in “Savor the Bronx,” an event that offered customers a chance to explore the borough’s culinary diversity at a discount from Nov. 1 to Nov. 13. Migliucci believed the promotional two weeks did not bring in any more customers this year.
What started as a pizza parlor with six tables in 1919 now seats more than 100 in what is now one of the most famous Italian restaurants in the city’s “Real Little Italy.”  Migliucci’s father Mario, his uncle Clemente, and great grandmother Scolastia--all originally from Naples--opened the restaurant after they moved to the United States.
The cheesy penne-rigate sorrentina made with southern Italian sauce went for $13.50e with southern Italian sauces. The pasta was hidden beneath a layer of baked mozzarella. Ricotta cheese oozed out of the thick tomato sauce. Another popular southern Italian dish is the stuffed eggplant for $9, also known as eggplant rollatini. Slightly under-cooked, it hid bits of beef and sausage not mentioned on the menu. For these heavier dishes, the pleasantly crispy sesame bread with olive oil and butter soaked up the savory tomato sauce. It’s worth a trip to Adieo, where the bread is made everyday, just two stores down. The clams oreganate at $9 for 5 were seasoned with oregano and baked with bread crumbs are somewhat lighter. The fresh clams--bought from the Cosenza’s fish market across the street--were served with squeezed lemon on top. “Restaurant Week did not really help us, but it was the first year,” said Migliucci.  “Maybe next year it will catch on.”  

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Slideshows0 Comments

Poe’s Cottage reopens

Last Saturday, dozens of visitors were able once again to view the newly refurbished cottage that was home to celebrated American poet and author Edgar Allen Poe in the mid 19th century.  The city's parks department and Bronx Historical Society re-opened the cottage doors on October 15 in Poe Park, showcasing the historical home's year-long $500,000 face lift. Edgar Allen Poe moved into this white cottage in 1844 with his wife, Virginia. His original rocking chair is on display. The study upstairs and master bedroom, which contains his original bed, are still under renovation and are set to open later this year.

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Ruben and officials outside the closing of Bridges Juvenile Center

Mott Haven neighbors gather around a campfire for all the kids in jail

Ruben and officials outside the closing of Bridges Juvenile Center

Ruben Austria stands with city officials at the closing of Bridges Juvenile Center in March 2011 (Photo Courtesy of Community Connections for Youth)

More than 70 local residents gathered around a campfire in Mott Haven’s Brook Park Tuesday evening. A handful of boys and girls danced salsa-hip-hop to the beat of percussion instruments, passed around the circle. The purpose was to draw attention to the families whose kids have been swept into the juvenile justice system. “We’re born in the ghetto, so we’re expected to do drugs, have kids in our teens, be in gangs,” said Candice Lozada, 17, one of the dancers. “We’re an example that we can live above the influence.” “Putting kids in the justice system isn’t the way to help them, it doesn’t reform them and makes them more aggressive against authority,” said Ruben Austria, who started Community Connection for Youth in 2009, the campfire’s organizing group, to find community-based alternatives for youth detention. “This is about helping them through community, research-based intervention programs so that our kids don’t become criminalized by the system.” Earlier this year, Austria saw his organization's efforts come to fruition when the Bridges Juvenile Center, formerly known as Spofford, was shut down in March. Austria and his organization started an online petition in 2009 under the United to Stop Spofford Campaign. Advocates, clergy, youth and families rallied behind the cause to close the notorious juvenile center. Jeannette Bocanegro, an organizer for the program, emphasized, “Families have ideas and solutions to fix the problems too.” The South Bronx continues to have one of the highest levels of juvenile detention rates in New York City, with roughly 22 percent of its juveniles sentenced to jail for one year or less. Manhattan has close to none; Brooklyn and Queens have six percent, according to a 2007 report by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. One participant experienced what she believed was a flawed justice system unexpectedly. Kim Krocker’s phone rang during the event. It was her 18-year-old son, Anthony, who had been taken from Krocker's mother’s apartment at 3 a.m. for unspecified “drug charges.” This was the first time his mother had spoken to him since his arrest on Sunday. She said her son was innocently swept up in a police operation in the neighborhood intended to clean up gang racketeering. Krocker said she came despite being overwhelmed by everything going on because more people in the community needed to know about they can deal with – and help – the juvenile justice system. She said she felt helpless not knowing how the justice system worked. “Of course this is going to have a negative impact on him,” she said. “What other alternative is anyone offering? Once a kid is institutionalized, that’s it. I have to get him out there. There are other ways to discipline these kids!” Community Connections for Youth hopes to address concerns like Krocker’s with its collaboration with Justice for Families, a national advocacy group with similar goals. It announced yesterday its intent to conduct a survey of families affected by the juvenile justice system in the South Bronx. So far, Bocanegro has collected more than 100 surveys from families documenting what they need the system to provide. Explanation of the court process, transportation to detention facilities, and even more than 15 minutes to talk on the phone are some of the ideas. The survey also reflects how families support using federal and state detention money for public education and after-school programs. Bocanegro said, “Give me half of the thousands you spend each year on a kid in a facility and I’ll be able to work miracles.” The survey is being conducted by various supporters of Justice for Families, like Community Connections for Youth, in 14 other states. Justice for Families will organize the data by November and hope to send it to legislators by February of 2012. “Families are so scared to come out and talk about it, like it’s taboo,” Bocanegro said. “But it becomes taboo if we don’t address the issue. We can’t have that.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern Bronx0 Comments