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Bronx Israelites: A world of contrasts and a fight for identity

Text by Yardena Schwartz. Video produced by Nicola Kean and Yardena Schwartz.

A powerful African drumbeat sprinkled with the shimmering sounds of tambourines pounded through the small room. The melody of a Bob Marley-like voice filled the room as the singer clicked two small wooden sticks in his hands to the rhythm of his words. “When I walk, I walk with love,” he crooned in a mesmerizing Jamaican accent. Every one of the 25 African-American men, women and children in the room sang and danced along with him.

If you closed your eyes, it might seem like an intimate reggae concert. Resisting the urge to dance would be a losing battle. But open your eyes, and an entirely different scene emerges, revealing a world of contrasts.

The congregation sings of a return to Zion, to their promised land of Israel, and praises Yahweh, the ancient name they use for God. All around them are adornments typical of a Jewish synagogue. On one wall hangs a giant map of Israel, and against the opposite wall stands the ark of the Torah, the sacred scrolls of the Old Testament. Punctuating the walls and the podium are Stars of David, a menorah, and depictions of the Ten Commandments. Along with these traditional ornaments are paintings of a black baby Moses, an African Abraham, and a poster of a young, still-black Michael Jackson that reads, “R.I.P. Michael: We will always love you.”

Everyone in the room has dreadlocks, but the head of every boy and man is covered with a kippah, just like the traditional skullcap worn by orthodox Jewish men, only bigger and more colorful. The women wrap their long dreadlocks, some adorned with colorful beads, in scarves reminiscent of those covering the heads of orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn. The teenage boy playing the drums is named Moshe, Hebrew for Moses, and the name of the Jamaican man leading the spiritual song is Naphtali. Almost everyone in the room has a similar biblical or Hebrew name.

The temple sits in the shadow of the West Farms Square train tracks in East Tremont. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The temple sits in the shadow of the West Farms Square train tracks in East Tremont. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

But this is neither a reggae club nor a Jewish synagogue. It is the sanctuary of an Israelite temple named Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, which for the past 40 years has stood on the corner of Boston Road and Longfellow Avenue in a dingy camel-colored brick building. Yet few people in the neighborhood know it is there.

“Most people don’t even know what Israelites are,” said 35-year-old Yahkenah Chavis, who has been coming to Kol Sh’aireit since she was six. “And if they do, they think we’re a cult, or the people yelling on the corner of 125th Street or Times Square.” Chavis and her fellow congregants say those street corner proselytizers belong to more radical strands of Israelite culture. Yet while they don’t scream at people on street corners, there is an extreme and controversial undertone running throughout Kol Sh’aireit. The difference is that it resides within the temple walls, where Saturday sermons denounce homosexuality, criticize an imperialistic U.S. government, and blame natural disasters on sinners who temple members believe will be killed on Judgment Day, which they predict will soon arrive.

At first glance, the shabby structure bearing the name “Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael” seems abandoned, a relic of a time when Jews once lived in this pocket of the Bronx. The small building is tucked away on a corner, nestled between the shadows of the West Farms Square train tracks and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Just across the street from a giant rock where local prostitutes are known to solicit customers, the building is flanked by a massive abandoned garage and an auto body shop. From the outside, the temple looks like it hasn’t been used in years. Yet every Saturday, the cacophony of trains overhead and cars outside competes with the harmony of drums, tambourines and hymns that take over the temple’s sanctuary as the Israelites ring in their holiest day of the week, the Shabbat.

The kosher kitchen and greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” might lead people to think that the members of Kol Sh’aireit are Jewish, but the Israelites vehemently reject that perception. In fact, assuming they are Jewish might elicit an angry response from some temple members. When asked if she was Jewish, one temple member named Yahelya launched into a tirade on how Jews are not true Israelites, as they are.

The temple's leader, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, refers to his legal name, Vanterpool, as his slave name. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The temple's leader, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, refers to his legal name, Vanterpool, as his slave name. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The leader of the temple, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, understands the misconception, as Jewish and Israelite customs are similar. “If you said I was a black Jew, I’d say you’re close to the mark but you haven’t hit the mark,” said Kahtriel, whose legal name is Steven Vanterpool. His adopted last name, Ben Yisrael, means son of Israel in Hebrew. (Many of the temple members have adopted the same last name.) He avoids the term Rabbi because it is associated with Judaism, opting instead for the title of “Moreh,” the Hebrew word for teacher. Like most temple members, Kahtriel refers to his legal name as his slave name, and plans to have it officially changed soon. “As long as we continue to have our slave master’s name, and learn his culture and his ways and know nothing about ourselves,” he said, “then we’re still slaves.” All of the temple members have adopted Hebrew names in order to shed the names they perceive as remnants of slavery. “Do I look like a Vanterpool?” asked Kahtriel on a recent Saturday, before answering his own question: “No. That’s the Dutch name given to my ancestors by a slave master.”

Israelites regard themselves not as members of a religion, but as a nationality, tied to a land, language, culture and heritage. The lives of the temple members are defined by an unwavering belief that they and all black people, not the Jews, are the true children of Israel, descendants of the 10 lost tribes. For the people of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, every day is a fight to reclaim and maintain that history and identity, which they feel was taken from them throughout centuries of slavery and oppression. “The so-called black people, African-Americans, we’ve lost all sense of what our ethnicity is,” said Kahtriel, sitting across from an encyclopedic chart delineating the tribes of Israel. He and his temple members struggle to hold tight to their newfound identity in what they see as a hostile world.

Kol Sh’aireit emerged in 1970 at the height of the Black Nationalism movement and amidst the “white flight,” during which many thousands of Jews left the Bronx for Riverdale, Westchester and other suburbs of New York. The temple’s founder was Yoseph Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel’s father. Yoseph, who died in 2004, opened the temple at a time of great upheaval within New York’s black community. On the heels of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam urged African-Americans to question the identity that had been created for them by white America. That call reawakened the Marcus Garvey movement of the 1920s, when black New Yorkers looked to Judaism and Islam as a means of revolting against the Christianity they associated with slavery, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and author of “When Harlem Was Jewish.”

Before Kahtriel was born, Yoseph was a staunch Catholic. Yet when he became active in Black Nationalist circles, he started to question his faith and seek what he felt would be a more authentic sense of self. Until then, recalled Kahtriel, he had been walking around with someone else’s identity forced upon him. So Yoseph went to his priests and asked them, “Why do I have the name Vanterpool? Where did we come from? Why are we just considered black? And why do they want us to think that our history started with slavery?” After growing tired of what he saw as empty responses from the priests — who told him, “You just have to believe,” — he searched for his own answers.

Yoseph started to read the Old Testament, Kahtriel said, to find out “who we are, where we came from, what our history is, and why it was taken away from us.” The story of the Israelites immediately resonated with him. Reading about the exile of the 10 lost tribes of Israel to the four corners of the earth and their subsequent years in slavery led him to realize his true identity as a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel. “My father connected the dots,” said Kahtriel, “and came to the conclusion that the slaves that came here, who were dispersed across the world, were in fact the children of Israel.”

According to Columbia University religion professor Jonathan Schorsch, the author of “Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World,” many African-Americans look to the Old Testament for a sense of belonging and collective redemption. “It gives a comforting, glorious identity that’s been hidden and suppressed,” he said. “It also makes a lot of sense for African-Americans whose identity was really shattered, destroyed and taken in the course of the Atlantic slave trade.”

So began Yoseph’s quest to awaken his people and let them know that something precious had been taken away from them. In addition to founding Kol Sh’aireit, he also started two Israelite temples in Brooklyn named B’nai Adath and Sh’ma Yisrael. New York City is home to four other Israelite temples, including one more in the Bronx, called Mount Horab Congregation, located on Rev James A Polite Avenue and East 165th Street. Most of Kol Sh’aireit’s 50 members come from the Bronx, while the rest travel from surrounding boroughs. About half of them were born in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, while the other half come mostly from New York, with a few exceptions from other states.

Naphtali Ben Yisrael was born in Jamaica, where his family was already practicing Israelite customs. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Naphtali Ben Yisrael was born in Jamaica, where his family was already practicing Israelite customs. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Although all of the temple members consider themselves to be Israelites from birth, their process of realizing that identity varies. Some were born to parents who, on a mission to find out who they really were, heard about the Israelite community and embraced it. Others were on their own quest for identity and were drawn to the sense of history and the appeal of being chosen that comes with the Israelite narrative. Still others, particularly the older women of the temple, say that they always knew they were Israelites, and that growing up in the Caribbean, they never ate shellfish or pork because something inside them told them it wasn’t right. Jamaican-born Yahelya, 64, became an Israelite 14 years ago after hearing about Kol Sh’aireit through her son, a schoolmate of Kahtriel’s younger brother. Naheirah, Kahtriel’s wife, came to be an Israelite after meeting her husband. Younger temple members, like Joshua, 16, and Moshe, 15, knew they were Israelites all along because of their parents, Chaya and Naphtali Ben Yisrael, who discovered their Israelite heritage well before they had children.

Definitive estimates on the number of Israelites in the United States are hard to come by, as the boundaries between Israelites and black Jews are often blurred, and the Israelite community suffers from obscurity and fragmentation. Statistics that do exist vary widely, from 50,000 to 150,000, according to the late Gary Tobin, who founded the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. And the number of Israelites living in New York is just a few thousand, said Jeffrey Gurock, the Yeshiva University professor. But if you ask Kahtriel or his congregants, who refer to each other as brothers and sisters, there are really millions of Israelites. According to their beliefs, every black man, woman and child is a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel as long as they have slaves among their ancestors. Kahtriel refers to them as “Israelites in the Diaspora.”

This notion is a highly contentious one, as Judaism is steeped in the belief that the nation of Israel is at its roots, and that Jews are the modern children of Israel. Gurock characterizes the black Israelite claim as a myth like many others surrounding the lost tribes. “Any historian would have to be shown documentation, which simply doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s an attempt to create a historical narrative for themselves, but I don’t think any reputable historian would give it any credence. I certainly don’t.” Some scholars look at the Israelites’ claims through a less critical lens. According to Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, an Israeli professor of history at New York University and author of “The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History,” the Bible doesn’t speak in racial terms, so it is impossible to know the color of the ancient Israelites. “The question is not whether the argument is true or not,” he said. “It’s how beautiful it is, and it’s pretty beautiful.”

Kahtriel sees the dismissal of Israelite claims as another way to oppress his people, a way of keeping a heavy boot on the neck of the black community. “We’re met with questions that other people aren’t met with,” he said. “If you ask a Chinese man his identity, you understand a lot about it. But when I say I’m an Israelite, there’s a whole series of questions.”

Despite the tension, neither he nor his temple members treat Jews with hostility or resentment. In fact, they welcomed this Jewish reporter into their house of worship with open arms. To them, Jews are followers of a religion based on Israelite customs. They may not be true Israelites, but they are like family, and without them, Israelites couldn’t have retraced their path back to their own roots.

“They’ve maintained those customs, preserving our prayers, our holy days, and our traditions,” says Kahtriel, “so we’re able to look back and see the reflections of ourselves by the Jews maintaining our culture for us.”

As conflicting as their narratives are, the customs of Israelites are not so different from those of Orthodox Jews. The doorways of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael are marked with a traditional mezuzah, the small container of prayers found on the doorposts of many Jewish homes, and every temple member keeps kosher, refraining from pork and shellfish. Temple members perform ceremonial circumcisions for newborn sons, celebrate all of the High Holidays, and most can speak and read at least some Hebrew. The women dress with modesty, wearing long sleeves and ankle-length skirts or dresses and covering their hair with scarves. Male and female temple members wear tzitzit, short fringes of cloth tied to the bottom corners of their shirts, a custom adhered to by religious Jewish men. The temple also contains an elaborately decorated Torah, the scriptures of the Old Testament, which is an integral part of their services.

Kahtriel leads a Hebrew prayer on a recent Shabbat. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Kahtriel leads a Hebrew prayer on a recent Shabbat. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Yet the Shabbat service at Kol Sh’aireit diverges significantly from that of a Jewish synagogue. Similar to Muslim tradition, the temple members remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary and often kneel down with their heads on the ground while praying. The service begins with a unique tradition, as temple members line up behind Kahtriel at the sanctuary doorway and shout “Halleluyah!” in unison at least five times before entering in single file, singing “We’re marching onto Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.” Unlike Orthodox Jews, who don’t drive or use electricity on Shabbat, many temple members arrive by car, and Kahtriel commands the service using a microphone and speakers. While the prayers are similar, complete with the frequent “Baruch atah (blessed are you)” recited by Jews, the Israelites profusely praise “Yahweh,” a sacred word for God that is not spoken aloud by Jews. A typical Shabbat meal includes both collard greens, a staple of African-American cuisine, and salmon salad, found at many Jewish synagogues following Shabbat services. The food is served alongside Manischewitz and Welch’s Grape Juice. When services at Kol Sh’aireit end, congregants often hold Hebrew lessons while listening to Israelite rap music with lyrics about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

An Israelite service is a stew of many cultures, with sometimes strident even disturbing messages. During a recent sermon at Kol Sh’aireit, Kahtriel spoke in a booming, emotional voice about how the Israelites were punished for not obeying Yahweh after they left Egypt, and were scattered to all corners of the earth, made to live in chains and sold as slaves, their identity stolen from them by their slave owners. He preached to a congregation nodding in agreement that they were still in captivity, and that Judgment Day was fast approaching, when the Most High would smite homosexuals, adulterers and other sinners, but redeem the obedient Israelites. “When the day of judgment comes, we’ll be able to walk through the fire that’s going to pierce the earth again, everybody knows its coming.” He insisted that Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti were punishing acts of God, and that Israel is at war because the land is occupied by two religions with no rightful claim to it. Several temple members echoed these sentiments in conversations following the service.

Kahtriel acknowledges that his service could seem radical or controversial to an outsider, but he sees no need to defend these beliefs to critics. His eye is on the common struggle of the Israelites, and on his own uphill battle to enlighten people about their Israelite heritage. “It’s not a popular movement,” he said, “because people have seen so many Black Nationalist movements that they’re skeptical of everything.” Just as his father’s epiphany led him on a mission to teach African-Americans about their identity by opening three Israelite temples, Kahtriel strives to continue that mission of uniting the Israelite people. “Imagine someone stealing your identity and you’re walking around in a strange place trying to survive without any connection to go forward,” he said. “That’s the state and condition of black people. We’re recovering from amnesia to find out that a lot has been taken away from us.”

When he’s not leading services at Kol Sh’aireiet Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel works in construction. His current project is at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, an irony not lost on the devout Israelite. According to the Torah, Mount Sinai was the mountain in ancient Israel where God delivered the Ten Commandments through Moses thousands of years ago. When Kahtriel first arrived on the job, he met some Israelites from other temples. “One was Gershon, the name of one of Moses’s sons,” he said. “That Shabbat, I told the congregation that at Mt. Sinai I met Moses’s son. They had a laugh.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, Rituals, Southern Bronx1 Comment

The forgotten building

The public housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave in Soundview

The public housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave in Soundview

When Jennifer Baez’s daughter Paris was two months old, her public housing apartment in Soundview was so infested with mice that they ended up chewing holes through all of her baby’s clothes.

“I had to go, with what little money I had, and buy more for her,” Baez said, as she gently rocked the stroller that held the nine-month-old toddler.

Until June, Baez had lived with her family at the Sonia Sotomayor housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave. in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Now she’s just visiting. Her family, unable to receive a transfer, remains in the building. “I couldn’t raise my daughter here,” Baez said, motioning to a dirty corridor and roaches crawling by the door of her family’s apartment. “No matter how hard you try to clean your house, the mice will not go away.”

Baez is not the only resident of the 40-year-old building to take matters into her own hands. Frustrated with a two-year wait for basic repairs, many of her low-income neighbors have resorted to finding ways to make the repairs themselves. Others have given up and applied to be transferred.

An outpost of the Sonia Sotomayor housing complex, 1471 Watson Ave is considered the “forgotten building” by residents. It sits more than 10 blocks away from the sprawling complex that was renamed in June for the U.S. Supreme Court judge who grew up in this Soundview project.

This building at 1471 Watson Ave. is just one of a number of troubled buildings around the city. The chair of a council that represents public housing tenants said the backlog of repair work was city wide. “The repair issues are very far behind schedule,” said Reginald Bowman. “People are very frustrated because it’s taking too long to get certain things done.” If not addressed, he speculated, the deferred maintenance would cause “a cascading problem of repairs.”

The last annual federal inspection of the Sonia Sotomayor complex completed last year reflected these complaints. The 33-building complex received a 68 percent rating from the federal housing authority, only 8 percentage points above failing.  “Building 32”, the official name of 1471 Watson Ave., received low scores for peeling paint, damaged walls, broken ceiling tiles, water and mildew damage. It also noted that roaches were visible in the kitchen of one of the apartments inspected.

The six-story building is one of more than 2,000 owned by the New York City Housing Authority, which was provided $3.5 billion this year by the city and federal government to maintain approximately 182,000 units. The property at 1471 Watson Ave. has lost more than a third of its market value since 2006, and is now worth just over $1.8 million. Funding cuts for the Housing Authority had meant a reduction in repair staff and the budget for repairing the aging buildings, Bowman said. “It is my belief that in the next cycle, the next annual plan of NYCHA, efforts are going to be made to create a more aggressive restoration and repair process,” he said.

Sheila Stainback, a spokesperson for the Authority, declined to answer specific questions relating to the building, citing a high volume of media inquiries. However, in a written statement, she said the Authority received inadequate funding to cope with maintaining two-thirds of the Authority’s buildings that are more than 40 years old. The Authority’s budget deficit for 2010 is projected to be $137 million, and it is predicted to remain in the red for the next four years. “The Authority respects and understands our residents’ frustration over the current backlog of repair and maintenance work,” the statement read.

The statement is cold comfort for Carmen Hernandez, a street evangelist, LGBT activist and long-time resident of the building. Hernandez zips around on a mobility scooter. Fibromyalgia and type 2 diabetes make it painful for her to walk much anymore. It was not long before the elevator door shut on her scooter, a common occurrence, she said. She had to buy a new, smaller scooter to avoid getting trapped in the door, something that had already happened three times during her 15-year occupancy of the building.

But poor health has not dampened Hernandez’s determination to fight for better conditions in the building. She is outraged that residents who pay their rent — a third of their income whether they are on public assistance or working — are paying for repairs on apartments they don’t own. The maximum income to be eligible for public housing for a family of two people is $30,700. For a family of four it is $38,400.

There is no opportunity for the repair bills to be refunded by the Housing Authority, said Geraldine Bellamy, the 15-year president of the building’s residents’ association. “A lot of people in here are frustrated,” she said. “They’ve been in here a long time and they have to pay for a contractor to come and do things.” She was considering hiring an outside contractor herself, to work on her leaking bathroom ceiling.

Mariam Davila obviously takes a lot pride in her apartment, in the 1471 wing of the building. Her maroon walls, decorated tastefully with pictures and masks, are a stark contrast to the grubby linoleum in the corridor outside. The 57-year-old, who has lived in the building for 20 years, paid out of her own pocket for repairs.

Through a Spanish translator, Davila complained about the decline in cleanliness in the building. She stooped to rummage in a low kitchen cabinet and finally found what she was looking for: a sealed jam jar full of water. Congealed at the bottom was a thick gunk which, when shaken, turned the water an opaque brown. Until recently, this was coming out of her kitchen and bathroom taps, she said.

“They must know the conditions, they ain’t doing nothing about it,” Hernandez said. Her partner complains about walking through the building with her because she is a magnet for other residents’ complaints. “They call me the mayor here,” she added.

One of those residents is Ramona Mantalvo, 62, who lives with her 95-year-old father. Until a few months ago, Mantalvo cleaned the fifth floor hallway and the elevator herself each week. Now she just supplies Clorox, floor wax and other products to the regular cleaner so he can keep the floor to the level of cleanliness she likes.

But the rodent problems, combined with noise from an upstairs neighbor, have made her decide to leave. The exterminators used to come every two or three months, other residents confirm. Then it was every six months. Now the exterminators promised for October have yet to arrive. Mantalvo, who has lived in the building for 12 years, has applied for a transfer, but it is taking some time. “I want to move out but I can’t find a place,” she said explained.

All this comes as no surprise to Bellamy, who said she still had holes in the wall she first requested to be filled when she moved in 25 years ago. When residents call the Housing Authority communications center to complain, they are told they will have to wait to 2012, she said. “We have gaping holes underneath the windows because the moisture softens up the plaster and it’s all flaking off,” she said. “Because [NYCHA] don’t have that many plasterers, they don’t have that many painters, they don’t have anything, they don’t have the money.”

Courtney Saunders, the site manager for the Sonia Sotomayor complex, declined to comment on the complaints or the length of time it was taking to complete repairs. He said he had not received any complaints from residents. But Bellamy disputed his denial, adding that she had complained to Saunders on numerous occasions – two or three times alone recently about problems with sewerage that led to a stench in the basement of the building. “He’s not helpful or nothing,” she said.

The residents of 1471 Watson Avenue are not alone in being frustrated with long waits for repairs and rodent extermination. Runa Rajagopal, a senior staff attorney at the not for profit legal firm MFY Legal Services, said it is a problem she has witnessed in all five boroughs. MFY specialize in providing legal services for New Yorkers who can not afford it — Rajagopal specifically advises clients with mental health issues and has become a specialist in dealing with NYCHA.

Rajagopal said she believed the housing conditions she has seen throughout New York is a product of underfunding, understaffing and a lack of training. “I’ve found that a lot of people who work in the management office aren’t aware of NYCHA’s procedure for doing things, but if they are they don’t follow them.”

“Everything with NYCHA right now is at a standstill,” she said. “A lot of people try to reach out to agencies like ours, to city council members, to the media, that’s probably the best way to get them to do what they’re supposed to do.”

That is exactly what Carmen Hernandez is hoping. A few months ago, some of the building’s residents approached Bronx News 12, which sent a camera crew to the building. Now she said she has had enough of the building — her family is on a four year waiting list to be transferred. “It used to be a good building; I was very impressed,” she said. “Now after 10 years it’s down the drain.”

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

Living through art

Aponte leading a recycle to art workshop at Soundview Park

Aponte leading a recycle to art workshop at Soundview Park

Scattered around Lucy Aponte’s Soundview townhouse are paintings of children; little boys and girls with serious and sad expressions. Preserved on the walls in pastel, paint and pencil are not symbols of motherly and grandmotherly pride, but the children of her imagination.

Aponte always knew she wanted to be an artist, but life got in the way. “It was just what I always did,” she explained, describing how she taught herself to draw and write poetry as a child. Between a father who insisted she become a nurse and a school that insisted she learn to sew because she was Puerto Rican, Aponte was destined to make a living doing manual labor. There would never be time for art classes.

For many years art was just something she did in her spare time. She painted Mickey Mouse on her children’s walls and made drawing for friends. “I never called myself an artist, I thought of myself as someone with a hobby,” she said, sitting at the table in her sparse living room. After her children grew up she began to look around for others like her.

Three years ago, Aponte founded Living and Learning by the Arts, a community-focused non-profit arts organization that fulfills her vision. The project has received grants from the Bronx Council on the Arts to run art workshops for children and at-risk adults. “She’s a very pro-community type of artist, and very good with what she does,” said Americo Casiano, a grant administrator at the Council.

In particular, Casiano praised the work Aponte had done with homeless women. “She worked very strongly with the women, and tried to use the arts to empower them,” he said. “We need more artists to come into the community and bring their skills.”

Aponte said she decided on the name Living and Learning by the Arts because for her, art was a process of learning about herself. “One thing that I saw that was always there, with every single artist,” she said, “was that everything that they painted or drew had them in it.” She described one friend who made sculptures where every sculpture looked like him. Her own paintings and drawings of frightened children reflected her troubled and violent adolescence.

Art for her is like opening a door into herself, inch by inch, until she saw that what she was drawing was an expression of herself. “With my art, what was inside me was coming out in my work. But I didn’t know that,” she said. “It was a lot years before I began to draw children with smiles.”

Aponte’s family moved to the Bronx from Harlem when she was young, following the break up of her parent’s marriage. Her father, previously a gentle and loving man, began to beat her so badly she sometimes thought she would die, she said. At 18, fearing another beating, she left home. Her boyfriend’s sister took her in. By then she was already working as a nurse in a local hospital.

She described being beaten until she was unconscious and thinking next time she might die, concentrating very hard on her hands, laid out on the table in front of her. Then she laughed. “That’s why I became a foster mother, why I adopted children.”

Beginning in 1978, Aponte spent the next 17  years raising her own three daughters along with numerous foster care children. She has lost count of the number of children she fostered over that the time, she said. After she took a second foster child, the agency began calling her with desperate cases. “I became one of those who would take what they called special needs children,” she said.

One, aged 14, had been labeled homicidal by the foster agency, but she took him anyway. “I said ‘he’s not homicial, I’m going to straighten out this kid’. He got to the point where he got married,” she said proudly. Others had mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. She also took in neighborhood kids – friends of her daughters – when they needed a place to stay. Many of the young people are now tracking her down on Facebook, she said. “They were good kids, they were not bad kids.”

Aponte returned to nursing in 2006, helping homeless mothers and their babies at a shelter in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. But when the center lost funding earlier this year, she was laid off, she said. She still volunteers there from time to time and is looking for another nursing job, but she ultimately hopes to make it as an artist.

Over the summer she organized weekly art workshops in Soundview Park, and has taken a lead role in the recently formed Friends of Soundview Park group. Carlos Martinez, Soundview Park co-ordinator for Partnerships for Parks, said she has tried to connect different resources to encourage positive use of the area.  “She is really committed to arts and cultural programming in the park,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Culture0 Comments

Castle Hill park riddled with contaminants

Castle Hill Homeowner's Association president Izzy Morales outside the fenced-off park

Castle Hill Homeowner's Association president Izzy Morales outside the fenced-off park

It had taken three years for Izzy Morales to get city officials to pay attention to the contaminated soil at Pugsley Creek, a riverfront park across the street from his house in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. But an eight-foot high fence was not what he was expecting.

The president of the Castle Hill homeowners’ association was walking his dog one morning in early September when he came across five workmen erecting the fence and digging holes in soil the city park department had warned was contaminated with mercury, lead and cadmium in 2007.

With this dangerous soil flying about in the neighborhood’s ever-present wind, Morales called a rally and invited local politicians. Shortly afterwards, the project halted, and the community has heard nothing since.

“We are concerned for our health, our kids’ health and our property,” said Morales, who has lived in the suburban neighborhood with this wife and three children for nine years. “Kids run in [the dirt] and take that stuff back home.”

But the potential health risks are not the only concerns playing on the minds of Morales and others in the Castle Hill community. Residents first heard about the contamination when the parks department gave a presentation to Community Board 9 in June 2007. Since then, the community has heard nothing, said Morales. “Why not inform the home owners around the park?” he asked. “Communities who live near parks should be kept abreast.”

The 77-acre park is encircled by the Castle Hill and Clason Point neighborhoods and meets the East River. In the 1950s, the riverfront area was known as the Castle Hill Beach Club and until the 1970s parts of the salt marsh were reclaimed by placing soil over construction material.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s vacant lots and waterfront areas became dumping grounds, said Francisco Gonzales, district manager for the community board. “No one 50, 60 years ago was watching and worrying about the future contamination,” he said.

The testing, carried out on the behalf of the city park department during 2006, revealed hot spots that contain higher than state recommended levels of mercury, lead and cadmium for residential areas. In a few spots, the mercury levels are more than three times what is recommended; for lead it is almost double. According to the parks department, exposure to the soil could be a health risk if it was ingested regularly. The contaminants in the soil have been linked to the dumping of batteries, pipes and paint, according to the 2007 parks department presentation.

“Since then they’ve done nothing,” said Kenneth Padilla, the former chair of the board’s parks committee. “They’ve just basically ignored our repeated requests.” Padilla and his unofficial vice-chair, recent Green state assembly candidate Walter Nestler, were not reappointed to the Community Board in June. As of the last meeting, the Parks Committee remains without a chair, frustrating Morales’ attempts to spur Board action on the matter.

For Morales, a retired community worker for the city Department of Sanitation, it was unacceptable for work on the park to begin without informing residents. It is not that he is against the planned restoration of the salt marsh, he said, but he wants to know it will be carried out safely. “No one is answering those questions, even though we keep on asking,” he said. “We don’t want nothing moving until we know what’s going on.”

The salt marsh restoration project at Pugsley Creek is part of a $247 million Bronx park beautification and improvement initiative. The money was set aside by the city as compensation for the construction of a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt park, after community members filed a lawsuit to have it stopped. Estimated to cost more than $1.7 million, the salt marsh restoration work will include the excavation of soil that had been placed over the wetland and the planting of native trees and grasses.

A spokesperson for the contractor, Calvin Brothers and Manhue Contracting, declined to comment on the project, referring all media requests to the city parks department. In a written statement, a spokesperson for the department stated that the only work the contractor was authorized to carry out was to erect fencing around the park.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation had said it was safe to re-use the contaminated soil underneath pathways and other covered areas, the statement read. However, at the request of the community board the soil will be removed entirely and disposed off-site. A community meeting was promised “once the procedural plan has been finalized and approved,” it read.

Morales said he not only wants to see a plan for the remediation of the contaminated soil,  but also the testing of houses in the neighborhood before and after the work is completed.

“We work hard to get a home, and your surrounding area is your investment,” he said. “I think other New Yorkers would look at this and say this is not right.”

Additional reporting by Brent Ardaugh

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

The Bronx loves Obama… still

Video by David Patrick Alexander and Elettra Fiumi.

Bronx voters bucked the national trend at the polling booths during Tuesday’s midterm elections, rallying behind President Barack Obama even as they expressed concerns about rising unemployment and the faltering economy.

The majority of 300 voters interviewed by Bronx Ink reporters at 29 polling stations Nov. 2 said they voted for the Democrats on the ballot in large part because they wanted to show their support for the president. Many believed that the halfway point was too early to judge his presidency.

“I think he’s doing good,” said Maritza Rivera, who voted in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. “There’s too much pressure on him; somebody else would have just passed out already.”

An engineer at St. Joseph’s School of Yorkville in Manhattan said he sympathized with the heavy burden born by the nation’s first black president. “He has resolved a little bit of the problems created by Bush,” said Jose Quinonez, as he voted in Belmont. “His hair is white now.”

Nationally, the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives and is expected win a number of state gubernatorial races previously held by Democrats. Control of the seats in the U.S. Senate, as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, was still in the balance.

In New York State, 13 Congressional seats are being contested. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo beat Republican Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino in a tighter than expected race for governor.

But in the Bronx, where nearly 90 percent of the population is non-white, many continued to vote Democratic down the line and hoped the party would keep the momentum it gained in 2008, when 89 percent of borough voters cast ballots for Obama.

“I’m concerned about Republicans gaining control over the House,” said Barbara Curran, who voted in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “They’re going to make getting President Obama out of office their mission.”

For some supporters, the rising national dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party and the Obama administration added extra incentive to get to a polling booth early in the morning. One Fordham voter said Obama needs confidence from his supporters to implement the changes he promised in the 2008 campaign.

“There’s a lot of excess baggage he walked into,” said Perneter McClary. “A lot of times when he tries to get something done, nobody wants to help him. And he can’t do it alone.”

But for others, the President still had a long way to go. “I still support him,” said Floyd Sykes of Highbridge, “but not as enthusiastically. Like a lot of people, I wish he’d show some emotion, get mad.”

The staggering unemployment rate in Bronx County also prompted many Bronxites to head to the polls. With the latest unemployment figures putting the number of jobless in the borough at 12.5 percent – almost 5 percent higher than Manhattan, according to the State Department of Labor – the economy was an issue for many voters.

“I’ve been unemployed for two years,” said Darlene Cruz who voted today in Soundview. “I voted Democrat down the line.”

Other issues raised by voters included health care, education, mayoral term limits, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration and gay rights.

“I care about maternal health and getting money for schools,” said Carmen Mojica outside St. Brendan School in the Norwood section of The Bronx. “I really didn’t care about the propositions. I honestly couldn’t care less about arguing over term limits. We could be voting for more important things.”

Beverly Scriven, a Jamaican immigrant who turned up to vote in Soundview just as the polls opened at 6 a.m., said health care was on her mind. “I care about the economy and Medicare. We’re seniors, so it affects us more than the youngsters. Regardless of the issues, we’ll come out and vote. It’s a privilege.”

On the State level, gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo was popular in the Bronx – even among the Bronx Ink survey’s few staunch Republicans. Williamsbridge resident and Republican Anna Presume said she voted for Cuomo because she liked his stance on crime. “I like Cuomo … I didn’t vote for him just because he’s good looking,” she laughed.

Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, was vilified for his offensive statements about gay people during his campaign, words that may cost him votes.

When asked if he had voted for Paladino, East Crotona Park resident Winston Collymore, who does not vote along party lines, replied, “Do you think I am crazy? Do I look crazy?”

Bronx Voters Sound Off:

Why I came out to vote?

“Right now the city never takes care of us,” said Iqbal Chowdhury, 55, from Norwood. “Robberies are way up. We don’t have enough police support.”

“I woke up at 5 a.m., and thought I should make history,” said Chevonne F. Johnson, 43, from East Tremont. “United we stand, divided we fall. That’s why I’m voting today.”

“I’m 53 and I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Lisa from Prospect Avenue, who did not want to reveal her last name.  “I got laid off from Department of Homeless Services and now I can’t find a job in this economy.”

“I came to vote so I can help keep Republicans from ruining the country,” said William Byne, 56. “Trickle down doesn’t work.”

“I always vote,” said Ousmane Bah, 49, from Grand Concourse. “People get killed for the right to vote, you have to come use it.”

Do I think Obama is doing a good job?

“I think that instead of a bag of gold, he got a bag of dirty laundry,” said Adam King, 36, a Board of Elections coordinator in Castle Hill but lives in Throgs Neck. “We can’t blame Obama for our problems since they came before him. And they’ll probably be here after him.”

“It may take more than ten years to fix all this mess,” said Sidney Ellis, 73, from East Tremont.

“I want him to take his time and do everything right,” said Natasha Williams, 25, from Tiebout Avenue. “I don’t want him to rush because of what other people said…He’s got eight years to clean up.”

“He has no experience. He’s not fit to be president,” said Robert Healy, 49, from Fordham. “A painter doesn’t paint a house unless he’s got experience. I didn’t vote for him before, and I won’t vote for him in 2012.”

“I think he’s doing a good job… There’s always going to be crises coming up,” said Luis Padilla, 45. “There’s more eyes on him because he’s the first black president.”

What party did I vote for?

“I never voted Republican in my life, and I’ve been voting a very long time,” said Kitty Lerin, 63, from Riverdale.

“I think the tea party is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing for the Republicans,” said Luis Agostini, 38, from Fordham.

“I’m for Cuomo, not Paladino,” said Ziph Hedrington, 43, from Melrose. “Paladino is somebody who I just didn’t trust. He seemed ‘gangsterish’ to me.”

“For me, I don’t need to know the candidates,” said Jennifer Clery, 50, from Mott Haven. “I want a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, a Democratic everything.”

What do I think about gay rights?

“It’s getting a little crazy out there,” said Anthony McDonald, 56, from Grand Concourse. “I do what I have to do.  I’m from the old school.  Whatever you do is your private business, but it shouldn’t be on TV.”

“I think gay rights are being used to get more votes,” said Anthony Neal, 50. “I don’t think any politician cares whether a person is gay or not.”

“You should allow people to be who they are,” said Chevone F. Johnson, 43, from East Tremont. “It’s not our job to judge each other. That’s God’s job to judge.”

“Friends of mine are suffering those problems due to the restrictions and the violence,” said Yvonne Long. “It affects everyone, it affects all of us.”

“I don’t care about gays,” said Bertram Ferrer, 69, from Fordham. “I retired from the military and I believe in ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.”

Additional reporting by David Alexander, Elisabeth Anderson, Alexander Besant, Elettra Fiumi, Amara Grautski, Nick Pandolfo, Catherine Pearson, Connie Preti, Irasema Romero, Zach Schonbrun, Yardena Schwartz, Yiting Sun and Caitlin Tremblay.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Election 2010, Politics, Special Reports1 Comment

School cafeteria trades burgers for grass-fed beef

Audio slideshow by Nicola Kean and Yardena Schwartz. Text by Yardena Schwartz.

After graduating from culinary school at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute in July, Bronx-born-and-bred chef Kaci Strother wasted no time getting back to her roots.

At noon earlier this month, the 32-year-old Strother was busy preparing an enticing lunch for more than 1,000 Bronx residents. Hustling back and forth between the cutting board, the oven and the stove, she diced up fresh onions and tomatoes, and mixed a sizzling cauldron of garlic-infused grass-fed beef sauce to accompany a giant batch of whole grain pasta. Dressed in a white apron and lemon yellow turban, Strother was the only lunch lady in the school kitchen not wearing a hair net.

The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a public sixth through ninth grade school, is one of four in the Bronx and 19 in New York City where gourmet chefs have become fixtures in the cafeteria kitchen.

For Urban Assembly and P.S. 67, the elementary school that shares the building on Mohegan Avenue, this means a gourmet chef is cooking lunch every day in a school where 87 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

To meet that standard, a student’s family must receive public assistance or fall under Federal Income Guidelines. According to the advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families in District 12, where the school is located, earn less than $35,000 a year. In comparison, the citywide average for free lunch qualifiers is 70 percent in elementary schools and 72 in middle schools, according to the non-profit organization Inside Schools.

This “Cook for Kids” initiative, funded by the non-profit New York City organization Wellness in the Schools, is part of a national movement to bring healthier eating habits to children in lower economic areas, where there is less accessibility to healthy food. The short-term goal is to revamp the entire school lunch menu by banishing processed food, incorporating more fresh produce and cooking-from-scratch methods, and teaching healthy cooking classes to students and their parents. The long-term goal is to lower the chances that kids will become obese or develop diabetes, two major threats to the health of Bronx residents.

In the Central Bronx, where the Urban Assembly School resides, more than six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, and 14 percent of Bronx adults have diabetes, according to the city’s Health Department. At this rate, it is estimated that half of all Bronx five-year-olds will develop diabetes in their lifetime. These findings and similar studies have sparked a national movement, most recently spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, to combat the obesity trend as early as possible. By feeding young kids healthier food at school, Strother hopes to attack the problem before it is too late.

“We’re getting them early,” said Strother, who is three months pregnant herself. “There’s no reason a four-year-old can’t say ‘I prefer an apple, not the chips.’ But you have to teach that in a way they can absorb and respect.”

Indeed, this school lunch program is so innovative that it helped to inspire Ms. Obama’s similar initiative, “Chefs Move to Schools,” which she announced this past June as part of her larger “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. The chef behind the Wellness in the Schools lunch program, Bill Telepan, who operates the upscale New York City restaurant bearing his name, was on the task force to create the First Lady’s initiative. Every two and a half weeks, he visits the kitchens of the 19 schools that are incorporating his recipes and healthier cooking practices.

Wellness in the Schools approached the Urban Assembly School last April to start planning its partnership with the school in West Farms, and Strother began implementing the new lunch menu on Oct. 4. Old staples like mozzarella sticks, french fries, hamburgers and chicken patties have been erased from the menu, replaced by chicken, whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, all prepared from scratch.

“It’s so needed, and children are so thirsty for it,” said Strother, stirring her homemade vinaigrette. “Even if there’s resistance at first, it’s so essential to their learning process.” Not surprisingly, there has been push-back from students, whose taste buds have grown fond of and accustomed to less healthy food.

“I think it’s nasty,” said Luis Ruiz, a ninth grader, fiddling his fork over the steamed spinach served with his pasta and meat sauce. Told that his meat sauce was made with grass-fed-beef, Ruiz said, “Now it’s even worse.” He slid his plate a foot down the table, with the look of someone who had just found a maggot in their food. “I don’t even want it anymore. I miss the chocolate milk, the french fries and hamburgers.”

While some students haven’t quite adapted to the healthier lunch menu, opting to skip the meal entirely or bring more familiar options, like Pop Tarts, others acknowledge what is best for them. “I miss the mozzarella sticks and the chicken strips,” said Kyle Farrell, a ninth grader, while he picked on his whole-wheat pasta. “But this is good because it’s more healthy.”

On a recent visit to the school’s kitchen, Telepan was optimistic that more kids would embrace the new lunches eventually. “We know how to make food taste good, and it just turns out it’s healthy,” he said, tasting some of the meat sauce straight from the stove. “We’re not serving them cardboard here.”

As she cooked more spinach and grass-fed-beef for later lunch shifts, Strother was well aware of the steep climb ahead. It will take time to wean children off of processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods. “What they were eating before,” she said, “though not necessarily good for them, was very tasty. We still have some convincing to do, but it will take time. Change doesn’t come easy.”

Nor does it come free. According to Wellness in the Schools, the organization behind the program, the cost of implementing the new lunch plan and teaching the monthly cooking classes that start next month is $30,000 a year. As a small non-profit group, Wellness in the Schools relies on sponsors to fund the initiative, which launched at three other Bronx schools this year. Aside from the Urban Assembly School and P.S. 67, P.S. 53, P.S. 65 and P.S. 140 are also reaping the benefits of healthier lunchrooms. The North Carolina-based charity organization Samara Fund is footing the $30,000 bill for the program at Urban Assembly. The salad company Chop’t pays for the operation at P.S. 65. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition covers the fee for P.S. 53, and P.S. 140 receives the program through its sponsor, Share Our Strength, a national organization that fights hunger.

“There’s a real movement afoot to look at these issues because we need to change this situation,” said Wellness in the Schools co-founder Nancy Easton. And the school cafeteria is the perfect place to start. “School Foods serves 860,000 kids a day,” said Easton, referring to the city’s provider of school food and kitchen staff, the largest school food service in the country. “If we can make a dent there, we could really tip the scales.”

Obesity is not only a danger to children’s health, but also a heavy burden on the American economy. A 2009 study by the medical journal Health Affairs estimated that $147 billion is spent treating obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, every year. That accounts for almost 10 percent of all medical spending in the country, the study concluded.

“Fast food seems cheaper,” said Strother, “but what you’re not paying here, you will pay in the hospital. So do you want to spend it on your food or on dialysis?” Feeding children healthy meals at school removes the financial barrier low-income families face when it comes to buying fresh, nutritious – and normally more expensive – food.

The new lunch program isn’t the only ambitious health initiative that needy Bronx schools are embracing this school year. Urban Assembly — along with 10 other low-income schools that Wellness in the Schools has partnered with — also participate in the organization’s “Coach for Kids” program. For two hours a day, the organization sends counselors to school recess to encourage more activity. The coaches organize games for the kids, and specifically target children who normally sit on the sidelines. The coaching program costs $10,000 a year and is also sponsored by various donor organizations.

“The ultimate goal is that the next generation of children will not have the same obesity crisis,” said Easton. Urban Assembly is particularly active in its efforts to combat childhood obesity and other health obstacles Bronx children face, such as less accessibility to and affordability of quality produce. Aside from the redesigned lunch menu and the recess coaches, Urban Assembly students also have the option of taking an after-school culinary class in sustainable, healthy, global cooking. The “Healthy Culinary Adventures” class, funded by the New York chapter of the international anti-fast food organization Slow Food, launched on Oct. 5 with 12 students from the ninth grade. The 10-week class teaches students recipes from around the world, complete with lessons on the nutritional values of every recipe ingredient and the climate conditions that nurture those ingredients. The course is taught by the school’s climate change instructor, Alex Rodriguez, and will be offered in three sessions throughout the school year. To increase its appeal to teenage students, the self-proclaimed health nut Rodriguez incorporates an “Iron Chef” style cooking competition into the program.

If child health advocates have any doubt about kids’ enthusiasm for nutritious food, the excitement surrounding the after-school program offers much hope. Asked what part of the class she looks forward to most, 14-year-old Tiffany Miller had trouble singling out one thing. “Learning why some food tastes the way it does and why we’re so addicted to fast food,” she said. “We don’t even know exactly what we’re eating at this point. It will be good to know what we’re putting into our bodies, and to know how to actually cook a meal that’s healthy for us.”

Strother hopes that more kids will get excited about eating healthier lunch food. Many children who at first turned away from vegetables were now starting to love them, she said. Whether they like it or not, she will do whatever it takes to help them lead healthier lives. “Aside from being extremely needed by the schools, parents and the city,” Strother said, taking a break to eat her own school lunch, “it’s also coming from the White House.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Food, Health, Multimedia, Southern BronxComments Off on School cafeteria trades burgers for grass-fed beef

Whose dump is it anyway?

Volunteers pick up trash from Soundview Park. Photo: US EPA

Volunteers pick up trash from Soundview Park. Photo: US EPA

Plastic bags, diapers, unwanted refrigerators, and burned-out car parts: these items are just a small sample of the trash being dumped in the undergrowth at Soundview Park.

More than 6,000 items weighing in at 3,000 pounds were picked up by volunteers at the park’s Fall Festival last month as part of the International Coastal Cleanup, according to an analysis by the world-wide organizer, Washington D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy.

Abandoned food wrappers and plastic bags were the main culprits, making up almost half of the trash collected by the 40 to 50 volunteers on September 25.

One volunteer said she was not surprised by the amount of garbage. “This area used to be a city dump where people used to actually dump things, so it was accepted,” said Lucy Aponte, a local artist and community advocate from the Friends of Soundview Park. “I think it’s just something that continues from that.”

Bordering the East River and overlooking Hunts Point, the 205-acre park was constructed on what was a city landfill until the 1960s, according to historical data on the City Park Department website.

Debris from a burned-out car and random pieces of unidentified metal were among the stranger items collected during the clean up, said Robin Kriesberg, ecology director at the Bronx River Alliance, an environmental organization.

The trash suggested changing habits of people using the park, said Kriesberg. Fewer cigarette butts were picked up compared with the past two years the clean up had been done in the park, a reflection of the increasing cost of smoking, she said. There were also fewer plastic bottles than usual because of cash-back options, she said.

“To me it wasn’t shocking, it was just a lot of little stuff that cumulatively definitely adds up,” said Kriesberg.

Most of the trash was picked up in the undergrowth and in the woods, away from the paths where park staff regularly cleaned up, she said. The Bronx River Alliance, in association with Partnerships for Parks, a joint City Parks Foundation and City Parks Department program, was asking for more trash cans in the area, she said.

“I’m hoping that they can do some outreach and education, but again without the trash cans there — you’ve got to give people the chance to do the right thing. Make it easy,” said Kriesberg.

Partnerships for Parks Soundview coordinator Carlos Martinez echoed the need for more education about litter — especially as developments under way in the park would mean greater traffic.

Under Plan NYC, the park is due for an extensive makeover beginning next spring, including the development of a new playground, amphitheater and sports grounds.

“It’s a common trend for Soundview Park, people using the park for dumping construction materials and all the unwanted stuff,” Martinez said. “If you visit the park on Monday morning it’s a real mess because people use the park for picnicking and for drinking beer.”

All but one area of the park had acceptable levels of cleanliness in the most recent city inspections in March and June, according to the Parks Department website. Zone four, including the ball fields and lawns along Lafayette Avenue, were deemed to have an unacceptable level of cleanliness.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said the most active areas of the park were cleaned daily, with large zones cleaned three times a week on a rotating basis. “We add trash cans every year.  We feel the current number is sufficient,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Long road ahead for new senator

The Soundview Heath Centre, run by former state senator Pedro Espada, Jr. and at the centre of allegations against him. Photo: Nicola Kean

The Soundview Heath Centre, run by former state senator Pedro Espada, Jr., and at the centre of allegations against him. Photo: Nicola Kean

Gustavo Rivera may be packing for Albany after ousting the tainted Pedro Espada, Jr. from his state senate seat by a two-to-one margin in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

But for some residents, the former campaign worker still has a long road ahead to earn the trust of the Bronxites who voted for him.

“Usually a lot of these officials, they come into office they say they need your vote to do this, to do that, but when they get to office nothing is done,” said 25-year-old Soundview resident Antony Johnson. “It’s a big disappointment. They fly away, whatever they do.”

Simon Delacruz, 57, who was standing with Johnson on the corner of White Plains Road and Lafayette Avenue, couldn’t contain his cynicism.

“They show up when they want something from you,” Delacruz said. “But after that it’s hard to see the people.”

Fordham resident Jackie Rivera, 36, said she didn’t have time to vote, but even if she had, would not have voted anyway.

“I don’t really like Espada, and Rivera I don’t know him much,” she said, “but I don’t think any of them are worth it.”

Although Rivera posted a convincing margin, Monroe College business professor Will Crittendon believes voters were more interested in ousting Espada than securing a Rivera victory. Crittendon said he didn’t vote in the primary because he was turned off by both campaigns.

But Rivera, who said he knocked on doors every day in the months leading up to the primary, argued that his experience was vastly different. He believes Bronx residents were strongly dissatisfied with the status quo in Albany.

“It was clear that they do have an understanding that not only have they been failed by the current senator,” Rivera said, “they also have an understanding that dysfunction in Albany impacts their lives. If that was not the case, we would not have had the numbers that we had.”

Rivera had spent about $76,400 less on his campaign than Espada as of Sept. 3, when both candidates were required to file their disclosure forms with the State Board of Elections, but drew in 6,870 voters, according to Espada grabbed 3,607 votes. And Dan Padernacht, who had withdrawn his candidacy, yet remained on the ballot, finished with 567 votes.

Although he is not sworn in until January and does not yet have an office or staff, Rivera plans to start holding town hall forums with other community politicians and state agencies. “This district has been ignored for way too long,” he said.

Rivera’s campaign stances ranged from marriage equality to creating a clean energy economy to improving schools, but perhaps the cornerstone was restoring trust in the government.

For now, Rivera is spending time thanking members of the community who helped with his campaign and is focused on developing a transitional plan.

“I understand why people would be resistant to believing change is possible,” Rivera said. “The only thing I can ask from them is to keep me accountable just like we kept Espada accountable on Tuesday. I will work to make sure that I gain their trust…I understand the responsibility that entails. I’m taking that seriously, and I understand who I work for.”

Tonight David King from Gotham Gazette and Roberto Perez from the Perez Notes will delve deeper into the primary election reaction on BronxTalk. Bronx residents can tune in at 9 p.m. on Bronxnet’s channel 67, or phone in their own opinions during the program by calling 718-960-7241

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics1 Comment

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