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Two Strangers and a Shot in the Dark

By Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

She was a 92-year-old widow who enjoyed hosting luncheons for her friends on her newly remodeled back porch and traveling to Atlantic City every few months to play the slot machines. He is an 18-year-old with a tragic history, raised by his grandparents in a well-kept apartment building, a ten-minute walk from her home in Williamsbridge.

They didn’t know each other, but the lives of these two strangers intersected in the most devastating way in the early evening of Oct. 20, 2009.

Sadie Mitchell was watching television and getting ready to prepare dinner. On the streets outside her home on 224th Street in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a fight among young people escalated. A teen pulled the trigger, and a bullet pierced Mitchell’s first-floor living room window, taking her life in its path. Two days later, police arrested Jamal Blair, charging him with second-degree murder and weapon possession.

But is he the murderer or a second victim? Or both?

Shortly after the shot on 224th Street, the phone rang in Mitchell’s neighbors’ home. Mitchell told John Fields and his wife, who live across the street, that she was wounded, and they came running. They found her on the living room floor. At about the same time, Blair threw the gun to the crowd and walked off to his friend’s house, according to his confession to police. Forty-eight hours later, he was behind bars.

Blair, an 18-year-old high school freshman, has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. His life is on pause in Rikers Island, where he is being held without bail. “I’m sure it’s difficult for him,” Angelo MacDonald, Blair’s lawyer said. “I’m sure he’s obviously very scared and concerned.”

Even before his  imprisonment, Blair had it tough. When he was two years old, his father fatally shot his mother right in front of him. His father fled and was never convicted or even found, according to MacDonald. Blair’s grandparents, who both work, have raised him since then.

The family lives in a comfortable well-maintained apartment building on 233rd Street, nine blocks from Mitchell’s house. “For him to be in this situation is very troubling and sad for them,” MacDonald said. “They’re concerned about him.” Blair’s family is paying his legal bills, and MacDonald has met with Blair’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

If Blair were convicted, the maximum sentence would leave him in prison for 25 to life. It seems Blair’s entire family are doing their best to keep that from happening.

While Blair’s story may be a glimpse of the Bronx’s troubled future, Mitchell’s life is the picture of a more stable past. She was a housewife who was very active in Community Board 12 and in her church, Our Lady of Grace, where she was a parishioner for over 40 years.

“I can’t even eat; it hurts,” said Gloria Lord two days after the murder. She lives across the street from Mitchell, whom she called “the mother of the block.”

The day before the stray bullet ended Mitchell’s life, she and her daughter discussed a trip they were planning to Atlantic City. Mitchell wanted to make sure she had evening clothes to take with her, and talked about shopping for a new outfit. “She loved clothes, she loved shoes…she always dressed…the nails were always done,” said Mitchell’s daughter, Shahron Williams van Rooij, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

Mitchell, who read both the Daily News and The New York Times daily, had just come home from an exercise class at a local senior center on the day she was murdered. Her daughter said she was waiting for her favorite game show, Jeopardy, to air on television, and was about to make dinner when the bullet ended her evening plans, ended her Atlantic City vacation plans, and ended her life.

“I never felt the fear of being shot or stabbed,” van Rooij said of her childhood in Williamsbridge. “The Bronx was a very pleasant place at the time.” She said the only gang she knew was in the film West Side Story.

On recent visits to her mother, van Rooij said she noticed that the neighborhood had declined significantly, with more drug dealers, more teens in the streets during school hours, and a lot of young people fighting. Yet, her mother never felt unsafe. “That’s the irony of it,” she said.

Many Williamsbridge residents believe that the stray bullet is a byproduct of stray lives: teenagers who grew up with troubled childhoods in broken families or working families with little supervision or discipline.

“I don’t feel any safer,” said Mitchell’s neighbor, John Fields, on the day Blair was arrested. He is nervous that teens are still a threat to the neighborhood.

An Epidemic of Crime and Fear

Teen crime, especially robbery, has been on the rise, according to a 47th Precinct officer, who would not identify himself by name. He said the precinct’s school unit has increased to 10 officers, doubling since 2007. “I think it’s definitely the way parents are raising their children today,” he said. “Without a doubt.” He has been in the precinct, which covers the northeast Bronx, for 14 years. “The crime up here in general has been going up,” he said.

Relationships between police and Bronx teens are tense as officers try to maintain order in the 47th Precinct. On Thursday, Nov. 19, police walked a teenage boy out of A2Z Convenient Store on White Plains Road in handcuffs as they told a group of about 15 teenagers to leave the area. As police wrote down the teen’s information at the cop car, a girl approached one of the cops to make sure they knew that the boy did, in fact, pay for his juice. The officers were not amused by the situation, but were quite casual, as this was a nuance they had faced so many times before. “They’re really out of control,” one officer said. He blamed poor parenting and said that Williamsbridge has a high concentration of gangs, many involving teens. Another stepped in after hearing the first officers concerns, “They’re not brought up,” he said. “They’re brought down.”

Many Williamsbridge residents remember a time when they did not live in fear. Jacqueline Sams, 74, who grew up in Williamsbridge, remembers a different neighborhood. “In the 1940s, all parents weren’t working, she said.” She never came home to an empty house, but said now so many children are born into either single-parent homes or households with two working parents that no one is ever home. Sams no longer leaves her house after dark. “We actually changed our lifestyle gradually to feel safer.”

Almost all area high school students recognize that many of their classmates are in gangs, and some estimate that up to a third of their classmates may be involved.

Teens have their own ideas about why some of their classmates are drawn to gangs. “They’re easily vulnerable, so they do things that they shouldn’t,” said Matthew Anderson, a senior at the Evander Childs High School Campus on Gun Hill Road. He focuses his energy on acting, playing Malcolm in the school’s performance of Macbeth, and he credits his mother with keeping him on the right path. “My mom is still strict,” he said.

“I worry about getting robbed,” said O’Dell Davis, a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. He hangs out casually with some teens who are in gangs, but keeps his distance because he does not want to become involved. “They don’t all carry guns,” he said. “Most of them fight.” But he added that around Williamsbridge, “you can get a gun faster than you can get a job.”

Teens have handshakes and hand signals that are specific to their gangs, and they make signs to each other during class, said Davis’s friend, D’shawn Stevens, also a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. “They’re nice in school, but after school they’re a whole different person,” said Stevens, who has recently been staying inside more often, especially at night.

Other Bullets, Other Victims

An escalation of violence in the last few months justifies the uneasiness. Mitchell’s murder fits an alarming pattern of teen violence, stray bullets, and unintended victims.

In September, a stray bullet killed 25-year-old Aisha Santiago in front of her son as she was about to help her best friend do laundry in Mott Haven. A 25-year-old was charged with second-degree murder and a 16-year-old with attempted murder. In November, a stray bullet struck 14-year-old Vada Vasquez on her way home from school in Morrisania. After brain surgery and two weeks of fighting for her life at Lincoln Hospital, Vasquez has moved on to rehabilitation and doctors expect a full recovery, according to the Daily News.

On Nov. 23, at the National Day of Outrage vigil at the Bronx County Court, Aisha Santiago’s mother wept openly as she shared her pain. “I have problems sleeping because I still see her body lying there,” Yvette Montanez said. “I struggle to get up in the morning to go to work.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. held the National Day of Outrage, to stress the need for community action. “We will be proactive from now on, we will not be reactive,” he said.

Diaz pointed out one problem in particular that has led to teen crime. “Many of these young men don’t have male role models,” he said. “The Bronx has the highest number of single mothers. Fathers need to step it up.”

At the vigil, Heriberto Rodriguez, 20, who graduated from Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, said Bronx communities are partially responsible for teen violence. “There’s not a lot of programs for the youth,” he said. He added that the Bronx needs more community centers, an issue that has been addressed by many local activists lobbying for a center in the Northeast Bronx. Rodriguez now interns at Banana Kelly and helps organize a group of teens against violence called United Playaz, several of whom attended National Day of Outrage, where they held a sign that read, “It takes the hood to save the hood.”

George Stewart, 42, who grew up in the Northeast Bronx and whose family has been active in the community, blames his generation for problems with teens even though he has no children of his own. “My generation specifically, we’ve dropped the ball,” said Stewart, who is president of a debt recovery business. “We have to get black men engaging these young black males,” he said. Out of frustration, he sometimes stops kids on the street to tell them “where that style of grunge came from.” Wearing pants too low, he explains, is actually a signal used in prisons: “The farther down your pants, the more available you are.”

A Confession and a Life on Hold

The concern for teens that has been pouring through the Bronx recently may be too late for Jamal Blair.

“I went to a bush and pulled out a .22 caliber gun, and shot one shot in the air,” he confessed to police before pleading “not guilty.” “The gun belonged to an older man who lived on the block…and told me anytime I need it it’s there.” Blair said he and two friends were being chased by teens from the nearby Edenwald Houses when he shot the bullet.

Police have not found the gun, or if they have, no one has told Blair’s lawyer, Angelo MacDonald. The police have not released their investigation, so MacDonald has not formulated his defense. He has heard a rumor that Mitchell was struck by a 9 mm bullet, which would significantly weaken Blair’s original confession of shooting a .22 caliber gun. It’s still unclear whether Blair’s confessed shot was the shot. MacDonald implied that the case may not even go to trial if there is not quality evidence, and a murder weapon would certainly constitute quality evidence.

So, Blair sits in Rikers Island, waiting. His future depends on whatever evidence police uncover. He will appear in court on Jan. 8, when pre-trial motions will be made.

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s home on 224th Street appears exactly as it did when she was living inside. From the street, there is not even a visible crack in the window, but now the tidy light green house with a small fenced-in front yard is empty.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime1 Comment

Fresh as a Daisy

By Leslie Minora

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan.

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan. Photo by Leslie Minora

It is usually a cause for concern when a 99-year-old woman arrives at the hospital, but this was not the case on Nov. 23 in the cardiac rehabilitation center of Montefiore Hospital in the southeast Bronx.

The hospital’s doctors and staff threw a birthday celebration for Daisy McFadden in the rehabilitation exercise room, where she has worked out three times per week since her bypass surgery 11 years ago. Her actual birthday was the following day.

“We only do this for the best,” said April Vail, who has been the manager of rehabilitation for 12 years. “Everybody loves her.”

“I come to exercise; that’s number one,” said McFadden, who was a nurse for 34 years. But she had a few other secrets to pass on. “I eat five vegetables every day, three fruits, and I steam them,” she said. The Bronx elder, who wore a turquoise jacket with tangerine accents and a matching scarf, was very proud of her health regimen.

“You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people,” she said.

Her bypass surgeon and rehabilitation team stood around her as her friends and the hospital staff sang “Happy Birthday.” McFadden blew out all of the candles with a deep breath and a swift puff. “It was all that exercise,” she said.

“I’m just full of happiness,” she said beaming as she mingled with about 15 party guests. She was on her feet for most of the afternoon without a cane or walker and appeared energetic as she entertained the constant stream of people wishing her a happy birthday and asking her secrets to great skin, endless energy, and a long life.

The youthful senior goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes up at 5 a.m. “Yes, and I get fully dressed,” she said. McFadden orders her clothing from the Bloomingdales, Talbots, and Nordstrom catalogs. Bloomingdales petite sizes fit well, she said, because the arms of regular sizes are too long for McFadden, who is built small with tiny wrists. She enjoys getting dressed, and said aging hasn’t slowed down the process, except for those occasions when she must replace the tiny batteries of her two hearing aids.

McFadden is lucky to be alive and in good health, said Dr. Lari Attai, who performed her triple bypass surgery 11 years ago. “Without surgery, she would have gone on to have a heart attack,” he said. Attai, 77, who has been with the hospital for 52 years, stopped performing surgery last year, and now teaches at the hospital. “You look terrific,” he told McFadden, whom he calls a “young lady.”

When McFadden was an even younger lady, she used to attend local social events and dance with her husband, a New York Police Department officer, whom she married in 1934. “We had a good life together, wonderful life together…over 50 years,” she said. Her husband died in 1985.

Another painful loss struck McFadden three years ago, when her only son, a Massachusetts radiologist named Samuel after her husband, also died four months after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. “I miss him so,” McFadden said. “He was great.” His photo sits prominently on a side table in her living room, across from the front door, next to the couch. “It upsets me to talk about him,” she said. McFadden has two grandsons and two great-grandsons, who all live out of town.

McFadden was not only a nurse by profession, but a nurse by vocation to her family and friends. “I guess I was chosen to be a caregiver,” she said. “I’d do it all over again.”

An award from New York University’s nursing school hangs on her living room wall, honoring her for her career in nursing during which she spent 34 years working for the Bureau of Public Health. She is the only living graduate of her class.

Now, McFadden has so many people who care for her.  A week and a half after her party, the cluster of mylar balloons in her living room have deflated slightly, but four bouquets of flowers are still bright and perky. The table next to the big beige couch with its dark sturdy wooden legs is too crowded with family photos to fit any cards, but McFadden neatly lined up about 20 birthday well-wishes on several other tables throughout the spacious room, decorated with an upholstered chair donned with a lace doily and a stone corner fireplace.

The number of cards and flowers is surprising for a woman who has outlived her family and friends, but not if you know McFadden.

She lives by this advice and repeats it over and over to young people: “You collect friends a generation behind you and a generation behind them.” That’s right, two generations of friends, she says, because when people become too old to drive, so are their peers.

McFadden doesn’t drive, but that certainly doesn’t limit her activities. Since her retirement in 1972, she has been on the move more than most people a third her age. She retired early, at 62, because she wanted to travel. She went on island cruises with her husband;  visited Hawaii with her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and traveled extensively with the American Nurses Association, visiting India, Tokyo, Singapore, and Moscow. After retirement, she was very active in the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program, RSVP. Through this, she started the 60 Plus Food and Fun Club at her church. And to work off the food and fun, in the 1970s, she began the 60 Plus Swingers, an exercise and dance program. The dance group still exists though she said, “Many of the ones who started have passed on.” The Swingers perform at nursing homes, senior centers, and schools. Once, during a performance at Lehman College, one student yelled, “You go, grandma!” “That’s right. We are pretty hot,” she said, laughing.

The 60 Plus Swingers meetings are still part of McFadden’s routine, though she no longer can dance. Her knees have been hurting recently. “Of course, I’m the oldest one,” she said, adding that now she is the DJ. The Swingers dance to music from both records and CDs. “We’re up to date,” she said.

In addition to her church group, McFadden is a member of the 47th Precinct Council, the East 222nd Street Block Association, and a social club called “The Girlfriends” that began over 80 years ago. She is active in the alumni associations of both schools she attended, the Harlem Hospital Center School of Nursing, and New York University, where she earned her bachelors and masters degrees in nursing from 1951-1955 at a time when the school only cost $13 per credit. One birthday floral arrangement on her table is from the dean of the nursing program.

In the little spare time that McFadden has with all of her exercise and community involvement, she teaches a fitness class once a week at a local senior center as part of New York City’s Stay Well program. McFadden focuses on fitness as well as practical safety advice like turning on the light to go to the bathroom during the night to prevent falls.

“She’s been a positive role model to all of us,” said Jacqueline Sams, 74, whose mother went to nursing school with McFadden. Sams, who lives about five blocks from McFadden in Williamsbridge, calls her upbeat attitude “catchy.” Because of McFadden’s influence, Sams no longer eats red meat, and now says “74” proudly when asked her age.

McFadden is certainly not shy about her own age. She feels “blessed” to have lived such a long life, and her well-being has become her full-time job. Exercise at Montefiore, teaching at the senior center, grocery shopping, and cooking take up most of the day. But, she said, “there’s such a thing as necessary luxury.” For her, that means making time to get her hair and nails done twice a month at her favorite salon on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Access-A-Ride drives McFadden to the salon, and she takes the express bus back to Williamsbridge, where she has lived in her tidy home since 1938. “Everyone knows me on the block,” she said. Her home, one of five houses in 1938 on the now-crowded block, is set back from East 222nd Street. Gray stone arches around the front door and white planters holding pink blossoms sit on either side of the front stoop. It looks like something from the set of a Hansel and Gretel performance. The brick facade, significantly less worn than the siding covering most of the block’s houses, is perfectly in place without any moss, dirt or visible signs of age.

Perhaps it’s something in the air.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods2 Comments

Scholarships for Teens When They Need Them Most

by Leslie Minora

de Castro enjoys the dancing at his East of Laconia Community Association annual scholarship luncheon. Photo by Leslie Minora

de Castro enjoys the dancing at his East of Laconia Community Association annual scholarship luncheon. Photo by Leslie Minora

Alonzo de Castro shimmied to his table in the spacious ballroom in the Eastwood Manor in Williamsbridge on Oct. 31, swinging his arms to the DJ’s music.

“He’s a great dancer. We were dancing together forever,” said Lucia, his wife of 59 years, who has been working alongside her husband to create college scholarships for Bronx teens for more than three decades.

The 82-year-old community leader was determined to greet all 250 of his guests at the annual banquet to honor 20 local teens. He knew almost everyone by  name.

This event for youth had never been so urgent in all its 32 years.

The shadow of a recent shooting lingered over the festivities. Three weeks earlier, 92-year-old Sadie Mitchell, a beloved community member, died when a stray bullet broke through her living room window. Police arrested a Williamsbridge teenager in connection with her killing.

“We could have saved two lives, Sadie Mitchell and the young man with the gun,” said de Castro in his opening speech. He made a strong case for the community’s responsibility to give young people direction, and was particularly frustrated that the area still lacked a recreation center, a project he and other community leaders have been promoting for years.

In addition to addressing the community’s needs, de Castro made it clear that this afternoon was to honor teens who have done well regardless. Local residents, business owners, and community groups donated the $600 scholarships, which serve to help teens with college expenses like books and fees. “They’re helping me further my education,” said Helma Tyler, 18, a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Tyler plans on attending law school after college, and interns for Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook.

A retired post office employee originally from the British Virgin Islands, de Castro is the leader of Northeast Bronx Community Coalition in addition to the East of Laconia Community Association. He founded the Coalition with Shirley Fearon, president of the Williamsbridge NAACP, to expedite the fight for a recreational center and address other community needs regarding day care centers and the White Plains Road shopping area. “I have my two projects. That’s what keeps me going,” de Castro said.

“This community is very active, but Al is the most active,” said Bronx District Attorney, Robert Johnson.

Over 100 people attended a Coalition meeting to address the need for a recreational center last August.  Councilman Larry Seabrook said that he would contact the Bronx Borough President and others to kick off the project, de Castro said. “All it takes is people.”

Scholarship recipients pose for a photo at de Castro's luncheon. Photo by Leslie Minora

Scholarship recipients pose for a photo at de Castro's luncheon. Photo by Leslie Minora

Activism has been a life-long job, but de Castro has dedicated even more time to his community since his retirement in 1985. “I like to lead, and when I see a need, I have to speak out. I can’t be quiet,” de Castro said.

During his 39 years with the United States Post Office, he worked his way up from a substitute clerk position to becoming the manager of 13 of the largest post offices in Manhattan. de Castro married at 23-years-old, and worked hard so that his wife could stay home with their three daughters, Angela, Lydia, and Deborah.

“Whatever mission he’s on, it’s always based on family, self-pride, and community,” said Angela de Castro, a teacher who lives in the Bronx.

The community leader’s roots in activism extend to his childhood in the Virgin Islands, where his family members were very involved. “We have always worked for the underdog,” said de Castro, who was one of 13 children. “We were always activists.” His mother and older sister worked for an organization similar to the Red Cross in the Virgin Islands, and his older brother introduced the Boy Scouts organization to the Islands.

When he was 19, de Castro moved to the United States for economic reasons after becoming a naturalized citizen from his U.S. army service in Puerto Rico during World War II.

Tenacity is his key to success, said Lethia Williams, the Scholarship Chairperson of the Association. “He is relentless in standing up to the politicians who have the finances to get the jobs done.”

A 43-year Northeast Bronx resident, de Castro has been a continuous presence in the lives of many community members. “I’ve known him since I was knee high to a grasshopper,” George Stewart, 42, said at the scholarship luncheon. “He’s a great guy. He’s very focused.”

After de Castro gave a closing speech at the luncheon, he cued the DJ to play another song. De Castro had been dancing earlier in a crowd of people, and now others walked onto the dance floor for the last few songs of the day.

Afterwards, when de Castro exited Eastwood Manor, he paused while someone took his picture in front of a poster displaying photos of the scholarship recipients. De Castro proudly announced “the graduates” as he smiled for the photo.

“Al has a true desire to help people,” said Father Richard Gorman, Chairman of Northeast Bronx Community District 12. “ I hope he’s involved forever.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education2 Comments

Dr. Juice and His Holy Fruits

by Leslie Minora

Junior Morgan, "Dred", shows off his new White Plains Road juice bar. Photo by Leslie Minora

Junior Morgan, "Dread", shows off his new White Plains Road juice bar. Photo by Leslie Minora

It took a love of juice bordering on obsession to open Holy Fruits, a new Bronx juice bar, this past July.

“Whenever I see a juice bar, my skin catch a fire,” said Junior Morgan, the 45-year-old juice visionary, with his Jamaican lilt and his welcoming smile.

Morgan, who wears his faith in the form of a weighty crucifix on a big beaded necklace, never goes by Junior. Most people call him “Dread,” in honor of his tightly wound hair. And some customers at his wildly colorful establishment on White Plains Road call him simply “Dr. Juice.”

For “Dr. Juice,” juice is not simply, well, juice. His special combos have advertised powers beyond the obvious.

“I can taste something without tasting it,” said Morgan. He whips up concoctions like Sexy Body A, which contains apple, ginger, aloe vera, and pineapple. These are all ingredients that are very good for the physique, he said, especially when combined with his “Get Svelte” herb packet from Chinatown.  Other herb combos he buys there are “Happy Garden Tea” for stress relief, and Chinese Angelica Root for diabetes.

His research and palate led to an extensive portfolio of purposeful juices including Radiant Skin, Weight Loss, Hemorrhoids, and the stamina enhancing best-seller, “Tear Up Sheets.”

“Tear Up Sheets is tearin’ up the Bronx,” said Terence Ford, 31, who began working at the store in August.  The drink is a blend of okra, sea moss for stamina, ancient tree roots which “strengthens your back and sperm count,” and horse tonic.

Yes, horse tonic, a dark liquid in an industrial size plastic container that reads “Liquid Multi-vitamin Supplement for Horses,” which Morgan buys from a horse supply store. “You see how fast the horses run, right?” he said. “It’s for energy.” Who knows what horse tonic really does for humans, but it’s a hot seller nonetheless.

Morgan is unfazed by the dire economy and the neighborhood’s penchant for fried chicken, pizza, and Chinese takeout. Apparently, his customers are unfazed as well.

His business sits defiantly in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, where food choices are about as healthy and diverse as a Kennedy Fried Chicken menu.

Customers flow into the shop for the juice as well as comforting hospitality: “I am a people’s person,” said Morgan, with his welcoming smile. “Food sells. People are still living through this economy,” Morgan said. “People have to eat, and people have to drink juice.”

While some of his male customers come to the store for a “Tear Up Sheets” bedroom boost, many others are vegetarians who want a satisfying, healthy meal, which is hard to come by in Williamsbridge. “I like the way the food is, and I’m a vegetarian so I like the way he deal with it,” said Trace Jackson, who comes to Holy Fruits every other day and usually orders a protein shake.

“It’s the healthy food. That’s what I need,” echoes Idrissa Dhiam, who comes daily for carrot juice. Dhiam no longer has to order; Morgan sees him walk in and starts making his usual.

Morgan’s hospitality is likely the key factor in his success. “He’s really cool. He brings a warm environment to the community,” said Ford, one of three employees. Morgan gives free juice to customers who come without enough money, and he makes up deals on the spot. If a customer comes to the store to buy both herbs and juice, the juice is usually free.

The store is adorned with a lemon yellow awning, a neon green cardboard palm tree, and walls that look like they were peeled from a ripe orange. “Nobody has this color,” Morgan proudly said of his paint selection, which he chose to set his store apart. But for Morgan, opening a juice store has not been as simple as choosing paint.

He did all the tile work himself, and installed equipment he bought at an auction. Running the store costs about $3,000 per week in addition to the $2,550 per month rent and utility bills, Morgan said. Sales have been strong enough for him to keep up with his rent and employees’ pay checks, but he says it will take more time before he sees a profit at his current sales of $500 per day.

For Morgan, juice has always been part of his life. He spent his childhood in Jamaica, where he learned about medicinal herbs and juices from his grandfather, an herb doctor. Throughout his life, his grandfather and his mother would make special juices on Sundays. He loved papaya juice when he was young, he said, and he also would look forward to his mother’s carrot juice with condensed milk and nutmeg.

Morgan has lived in the Bronx since he was 18-years-old, and opened his first juice bar, Holy Grail, in the Castle Hill neighborhood in 2003. Two years later, he rented a larger space across the street, where he planned on renaming the store Cup of Life. He renovated the space himself, but construction took months longer than expected. Unable to pay the $2,700 per month rent, he was forced to leave.

Next, he made plans to reopen the store a half-mile away. He rented the space, but then learned that the building had a previous violation, and that he could not build his shop unless he paid someone else’s fine. So he moved on, but did not give up. “It’s crazy,” he said.

Morgan rented a fourth location in 2008, but he said, “Boom, I ran out of money again, for real.” So he paused renovations and worked doing odd jobs in construction for two months. After that, his juice bar dream once again became a nightmare. During the two months he left the store to work and save money, someone stole all of his tools, scaffolds, and building materials, about $40,000 worth, which he had left in the partially constructed juice store.

Having been defeated so many times in a three-year period, Morgan set aside his juice bar plans, and sold his restaurant appliances, which lead him to another job: selling restaurant equipment that he would purchase and refurbish. He rented a space on 215th Street and White Plains Road to sell his goods, but the restaurant equipment store never came to fruition as his plans morphed into a hybrid restaurant supply/juice store, and then the juice store gradually overtook the restaurant supply store in his mental floor plan.

“When I saw this location, you know what comes to mind – juice bar,” Morgan said. So that’s exactly what he built, designing and constructing the shop himself down to the colorful logo of a tree bearing many types of fruit that looks like it was carefully drawn with colored pencil.

Morgan has been fruitful in more than just his juice store. Perhaps “Tear up Sheets” is the reason Morgan has 16 children with 5 different mothers. He becomes serious when he talks about his children, and said he is close to them and does his best to support them, but he would not say anything further.

Morgan’s dream for the future is to own a chain of juice stores with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some day, “Tear Up Sheets” might be tearing up every borough.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food3 Comments

Bloomberg Parties On

Bloomberg gives his victory speech at midnight, after a very close election. Photo by Leslie Minora

Bloomberg gives his victory speech at midnight, after a very close election. Photo by Leslie Minora

by Leslie Minora and Matthew Huisman

Mayor Michael Bloomberg celebrated a surprisingly close win over his rival William Thompson for a third term Tuesday night at the lavish Metropolitan Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

Bloomberg narrowly edged out Thompson by only 50,000 votes, with more votes going to his challenger than polls had predicted. Unofficial results showed the mayor won by a 51 to 46 percent margin, with a light turnout of more than 1.1 million New Yorkers going to the polls.

In his victory speech, Bloomberg tried to put uncertain voters’ minds at ease. “Conventional wisdom says that historically third terms haven’t been too successful,” Bloomberg said from the ballroom stage. “We’ve spent the past eight years defying conventional wisdom.”

He added, “If you think you’ve seen progress over the past eight years, I’ve got news for you. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The mayoral victory party was a carefully choreographed and obviously expensive event at the Sheraton on 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue, an appropriate finale to his record $90 million bid for re-election.

Waiters in starchy suits served mini-burgers, mini-hot dogs, and chicken fingers on silver platters, while the open bar kept the guests supplied with Brooklyn Lager—all in keeping with the New York food theme. There was even Amstel Light for the financial investment crowd and mini-veggie burgers for the non-meat eaters. It was a people-pleasing event that catered to a crowd very diverse in age, background, and profession.

One retired construction worker originally from Ecuador, Alberto Pedro Savinovich, 86, who has worked for all three of the Bloomberg campaigns, said this party was the nicest of all.

Bloomberg supporters chanted "four more years" throughout the night. Photo by Leslie Minora

Bloomberg supporters chanted "four more years" throughout the night. Photo by Leslie Minora

The ballroom walls were covered in blue with star shapes reflected by lighting. Accents of red and white completed the patriotic theme. Jumbo screens in each corner set on a loop showing Bloomberg high-fiving and smiling at people of all colors, shapes, and sizes. New Yorkers filled the soccer field-sized room as a full band played crowd favorites like “Celebration” and “We Are Family”.

Speakers took the stage periodically, drawing larger and larger crowds as the evening progressed. Like fans waiting for the headliner of a concert, supporters anxiously awaited the arrival of their rock-star mayor. Positions near the lectern were highly coveted by both press and party-goers. Elbows were thrown and spots were saved as the night drew on.

At about midnight, Jimmy Fallon, host of “Late Night,” introduced the newly reelected mayor to screaming supporters. In his 20-minute speech, Bloomberg promised to create more jobs and small businesses, improve schools and make New York City more environmentally friendly. Bloomberg also said that while the entire country is suffering from the recession, New York City is doing its best to recover quickly.

“We have come so far in these past years by staying united, and that’s how we’ll climb out of this national recession–together,” Bloomberg said.

“I think he’s a uniter, not a divider, said Scott Weinberg, 28, who is a bus boy and a registered Democrat. “This is the guy that’s really going to bring the city together.”

Throughout the party, supporters stressed their personal reasons for attending. “For right now, he has proven that he is the best man for the job,” said Carmel Geoghean, 27, who works in advertising. “He knows what New York needs.”

One Bloomberg supporter summed up the celebration: “This is probably the hottest party in New York City tonight,” said Mark Robinson, 45, a campaign volunteer.

Reporting contributed by Alex Abu Ata

Posted in Politics0 Comments

Day Care Cuts Create Overcrowded Kindergartens

by Leslie Minora

The Williamsbridge NAACP day care lost one classroom of students when the city cut kindergarten classes out of city-funded day cares. Photo by Leslie Minora

The Williamsbridge NAACP day care lost one classroom of students when the city cut kindergarten classes out of city-funded day cares. Photo by Leslie Minora

When school opened this fall, Chrystal Deans was forced to move her 5-year-old daughter from the Williamsbridge NAACP Early Childhood Education Center where she would have attended kindergarten, to P.S. 21, six blocks away, where class sizes are larger and the day is three hours shorter.

The move, mandated by a new Bloomberg policy to lower city costs, pushed kindergarten children like Deans’s daughter Kyla out of city day care centers and into public schools. It has meant that Kyla can no longer attend the day care until 6 p.m., a service that Kyla enjoyed and Deans needs when she stays late at her college or has an afternoon appointment.

“I don’t trust just anyone with my kid,” said Deans, who now has to scramble to arrange childcare. She added that Kyla used to come home from day care sharing learning experiences like which letter of the alphabet began her name, but that she no longer says these things. Deans is afraid that Kyla has slipped through the cracks in kindergarten because she is a quiet child in a large class.

At P.S. 21, the early childhood classes have on average 29 children, five more than is contractually allowed. “They don’t have enough time for the kids because there are just too many kids in the classroom,” said Deans.

The principal of P.S. 21 said kindergarten registration is the highest she has seen. “For the first time we just kept accepting more children than we usually do,” said Principal Joyce Coleman.  Coleman said the Department of Education has urged her to accept as many children as possible, and she wants to accommodate as many families as she can.

As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s many shifts in education management, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees city day care centers, closed all kindergarten classrooms in its city-funded day care centers as of Sept. 2009, shifting as many as 3,200 students to public school kindergartens.

Now, many kindergartens have class sizes that are several students higher than the norm and double-digit waiting list numbers, meaning many children are still not enrolled in kindergarten, which is not mandatory in New York City. “Most of the parents don’t have a lot of options,” said Coleman. “They’re working parents.” The situation hits particularly hard in the Bronx, where 41 percent of children are living below the poverty line, compared to 27 percent in Manhattan.

Even with the larger class sizes, Principal Coleman estimates that 15 to 20 children are still on the kindergarten waiting list at P.S. 21. If children are turned away from their local public school, they will eventually be placed elsewhere. Coleman expects bussing from P.S. 21 to other kindergartens to begin soon.

Phyllis Forde, a Northeast Bronx resident brings her 5-year-old grandson to the South Bronx for kindergarten so that her daughter can go to work in the North Bronx. She considers her situation lucky because she was able to get him into a kindergarten near her workplace, the Gwendolyn B. Bland Day Care on 163rd St., where she is the director.

Forde goes slightly out of her way to get her grandson to kindergarten, but she faces much larger problems when she arrives at the day care. “I am grossly under-enrolled,” she said. Her facility had 97 children on Sept. 1, about a week before the Administration for Children’s Services moved kindergartners out of day cares, and her enrollment was 67 as of the last week of October.

“I think Mr. Bloomberg is not concerned with working poor parents,” she said. “I don’t think childcare is a priority in the city of New York.”

This dramatic drop in enrollment is a huge issue for Forde and many other day care directors because of another city program, Project Full Enrollment. The Administration of Children’s Services reported that the program, which went into effect September of last year, will allocate funding to city day cares according to the number of children enrolled, instead of the program’s budgeted capacity.

“This is just overwhelming now,” Forde said. “I hold the cards of my teachers in my hands.” Forde and all other city-funded day care directors are responsible for enrollment and registration in addition to the daily management of their facilities. The Administration of Children’s Services had employees dedicated to enrollment and registration in the past, but the responsibilities on the day care directors have gradually and steadily increased without compensation as the Administration laid off its enrollment employees in recent years.

The Williamsbridge NAACP Early Childhood Education Center faces similar enrollment issues. This facility had 84 students as of the last week of October, and full enrollment is 100, according to Executive Director, Cheryl Dewitt. “The crunch is on,” she said. A federal bail-out has saved many day care jobs, including those of one teacher and one administrative worker at the NAACP day care that were on the Administration’s chopping block at the end of 2008. The bailout extends through March 31, 2010, at which point there is further uncertainty.

Forde, Dewitt, and two directors from the National Council of Negro Women Child Development Center all made it clear that the extra space due to the kindergarten policy change is not due to lack of demand for day care. The requirements for city-funded day care have become stricter as of this past summer, Forde said. Parents who have lost their jobs and parents who are looking for jobs do not qualify, she said. Parents who are sick and need dialysis or chemotherapy treatments are also ineligible for day care.

This intricate back-and-forth of day care enrollment numbers and overcrowding of public school kindergartens comes in the wake of encouraging promises made by city administrations. The Department of Education’s Five Year Class Size Reduction Plan, approved by the New York State Education Department in Nov. 2007 plainly states, “the current capital plan has explicitly included K-3 class size reduction as a target…In addition, the Department continues to be committed to reducing class size in the early grades (i.e., grades K-3) via the Early Grade Class Size Reduction program.” Three years remain in the five-year plan, but the system is currently working against itself if the kindergarten situation is any indication.

An Administration for Children’s Services representative could not be reached, but the press office offered a statement that said, “The $62 million deficit in our child care budget means that we have had to make budgetary and programmatic changes in

order to continue serving as many families with young children as possible, many of whom have no other options while their parents work. We can no longer afford to offer the option used by some parents until now to enroll their 5-year olds in Children’s Services contracted child care centers.”

With two terms completed and other possible term on the horizon, Bloomberg has not made many friends in the day care business, and has not yet delivered on the plan to shrink kindergarten class sizes. Yet, Dewitt of the NAACP day care said, “The bottom line is we never like to give up.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Politics2 Comments