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Still awaiting the return of Barnes and Noble

A Saks Off Fifth replaced the Barnes and Noble in the Mall at Bay Plaza

More than 20 months after closing the Bronx’s only bookstore, Barnes and Noble’s promised return has yet to materialize. Barnes and Noble in Co-op City closed almost two years ago, leaving the Bronx without a single general-interest bookstore. Corporate officials and Bronx politicians promised a swift return within 24 to 36 months but show no signs of progress.

The Bronx’s nearly 1.5 million residents are approaching two years without a bookstore, apart from a handful of religious, foreign language, or private university-owned book retailers. Once home to a thriving literary culture, the Bronx has struggled with a long decline in book availability. Barnes and Noble’s shutdown struck another blow to the chronically under-resourced borough.

The Bronx’s bibliophiles rallied behind the store and created an online petition that received more than 2,000 signatures, including several local officials, leading to the store’s decision to stay open. The impact of the grassroots effort, however, proved limited when the Barnes and Noble closed its doors in December 2016, rendering the Bronx a book desert in a harrowing end to two years of precarious survival. A department store, Saks Off Fifth, now sits in its place.

Barnes and Noble first planned to close in 2014, citing rising rents. The chain shuttered 71 of its stores between 2011-2017, according to Publishers Weekly.

Low-income communities like the Bronx struggle with book access nationwide. In an average community of concentrated poverty, only one book is available for every 300 children, compared to more affluent areas, which offer 13 books per child, according to a 2016 study conducted by education scholars from New York University.

Children who grow up without exposure to books are less likely to read as they grow older, according to a study in Reading Research Quarterly by literacy and communication scholars. This also poses consequences for low-income children’s cognitive function, which may become less advanced than their more advantaged peers. Such setbacks promote a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.

But for Bronxites, lack of access does not indicate absence of desire.

“For book lovers, bookstores are more than bookstores,” Lorraine Currelley, executive director of the Bronx Book Fair, wrote in an email. “They’re retreats for kindred spirits.”

The Barnes and Noble first opened in the Bronx in 1999 under pressure from assemblyman Stephen B. Kaufman, who denounced the retailer’s decision to double the size of their store in Yonkers rather than opening a bookstore in the Bronx.

Kaufman condemned the store, calling it “Barnes and ignoble.” His diatribe rang loudly throughout the borough and into the corporate world, resulting in Barnes and Noble’s eventual move into the Mall at Bay Plaza in Co-op City.

“It became a spot for people throughout the Bronx to come and enjoy themselves,” said Kaufman. “It’s intellectual curiosity, it showed that people had a desire to learn.”

Barnes and Noble continues to pledge a return, but their plans remain murky. “Nothing to report yet,” said Mary Ellen Keating, the company’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. “We’re still looking at locations.”

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who represents Co-op City in the state government and supported the citizens’ petition to keep Barnes and Noble, is not aware of a concrete proposal from Barnes and Noble.

“When it shut down a few years ago, it was supposed to finalize a new operating plan, which we have not received yet,” said his chief of staff, John Collazzi. According to Collazzi, the retailer is searching for an adequately sized space in the Mall at Bay Plaza. He maintains hope that Barnes and Noble will keep its word.

“They’re in the process of analyzing a new store plan. It should be soon,” he said.

Several representatives from Prestige Properties and Development, the property owners of the Mall at Bay Plaza, had no knowledge of plans for a Barnes and Noble opening.

The state of access to books in the Bronx has ruptured the borough from its literary roots. For centuries, the Bronx was home to a thriving literary culture.

“The area that was to become the Bronx was used as a locale by writers on the colonial period, both great and obscure,” wrote Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger in Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictoral History of the Borough.

Bronx poetry thrived during the Revolutionary War, where many battles were fought. Decades later, in the onset of the 19th century, Washington Irving immortalized Spuyten Duyvil in his 1809 book Knickerbocker History, while Edgar Allan Poe built his last home in Fordham, where, according to Smithsonian Magazine, he wrote his famed final poem, “Annabel Lee.”

As the Bronx urbanized, the narratives rising from the borough diverged from increasingly obsolete themes of solitude and nature, instead turning toward urban adventure. Jack Kerouac’s famed Road began in a train station on 242nd Street, according to the New York Times, after he attended a year of high school in Riverdale. James Baldwin, a fellow Bronx high schooler, picked up his predecessors’ literary baton to capture the racial, sexual, and political tensions of his time.

The last few decades have marked a stark difference in the Bronx’s lettered past.

Though many bookstores have struggled due to the rising dominance of Amazon, an increasing number of independent bookstores are slowly opening throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as book sales are rising across the country, according to the Association of American Publishers. The Bronx, however, has not had more than one general-interest bookstore in decades.

Communities fare better with local bookstores than corporate chains. Local retailers “keep 3.3 times as much revenue in the local economy as do their chain competitors,” according to a study from the American Booksellers Association. Keeping money in the local economy is even more urgent in low-income communities like the Bronx.

The Bronx is also at a disadvantage when it comes to online book access––the borough has 297 free WiFi hotspots, compared to 691 in Brooklyn and 1,603 in Manhattan, according to New York City Open Data.

Libraries compensate for much of the dearth of reading resources in the Bronx. Each New York Public Library branch is equipped with WiFi and several computers. The New York Public Library secured historic financial support for several branches in 2016, including three in The Bronx, after a significant increase in city funding, according to the library’s most recent annual report. In the beginning of October, the library broke ground on an $8 million renovation of the Van Cortlandt Library that will more than double the size of the current branch.

“I visit many of the libraries in the Bronx and they’re always filled with an intergenerational group of Bronx residents,” said Currelley. “The absence of bookstores has increased library attendance and has increased the number of readers.”

The Bronx Library Center is the fifth most attended library in New York City with over 718,000 yearly visitors, but only has a circulation rate of less than 586,000 books, compared to Flushing Library’s catalog of more than 2.2 million books, according to a 2015 study from the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based nonpartisan think tank.

Upset by chronic underinvestment, the closure of the Barnes and Noble galvanized Bronxites into action.

“The Bronx Book Fair’s mission is to increase literacy and readership in the Bronx as well as to connect book lovers of all ages to Bronx authors,” said Currelley.

Saraciea Fennell, a South Bronx native and book publisher, spearheaded the Bronx Book Festival and started a literacy program called The Bronx is Reading, which donates books to local school libraries. Rebekah Shoaf also operates pop-up bookstores called Boogie Down Books, with an emphasis on youth and educational literature.

Locals are also building brick and mortar stores to serve as community spaces. Noëlle Santos, a Soundview native and former human resources and payroll director for a Manhattan technology firm, crowdfunded nearly $155,000 last year to open an independent bookstore and wine bar in Mott Haven called The Lit. Bar.

“While my community’s lifeline was up for negotiation, I was somewhere in the South Bronx seizing the opportunity to create a sustainable, more accessible bookshop that addresses the shortcomings of big-box stores––reflecting and serving the unique needs of the communities they operate in,” wrote Santos, who could not be reached for comment, on her Indiegogo fundraising page.

According to her website, Santos plans to open The Lit. Bar on Alexander Avenue by November, the 23 month-mark without a bookstore in the Bronx. Her store windows are covered over with brown paper, but her website conveys steady progress, with painted walls and newly built shelves ready for books.

The Lit. Bar on Alexander Avenue is slated to open by November

“Our opening date is at the mercy of the NYC Department of This and That,” she wrote.

Even if Barnes and Noble delivers on its promise to return to a location in the Mall at Bay Plaza, the site will still be restrictive for most Bronx residents. The Bx12 bus is the only nearby public transportation; this line only services a limited area in the Bronx, meaning a trip to the store would consist of at least two legs for most locals.

The Bx12 line, the Mall at Bay Plaza’s only public transportation option, serves a limited portion of the Bronx

Kaufman is skeptical that Barnes and Noble will return.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Culture, Featured0 Comments

Bronx Teacher Behind Controversial Slavery Lesson Used ‘Poor Judgement’ – Investigators

A Bronx middle school teacher is under fire for having her students reenact the Middle Passage, where enslavers tortured Africans while forcing them to the Americas. The teacher, who is white, is calling the controversy an instance of “reverse racism.” School administrators are investigating the matter.

The Daily News has more here.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Incumbent Staves Off Leftist Insurgent in 84th Assembly District

Longtime incumbent Carmen Arroyo, 82, beat back a leftist insurgent challenger, Amanda Septimo, 27, in the race for assemblywoman in New York’s 84th district. Arroyo won 63 percent of the vote in a decisive victory for the South Bronx political establishment.

Arroyo was first elected in a 1994 special election and has sailed to successive re-elections since, despite numerous charges of election misconduct and fraud. Septimo, part of the wave of progressive newcomers sweeping elections, gave Arroyo her most significant challenge to date, winning 38 percent of the district’s voters.

Prior to this year, Arroyo’s most successful primary challenger won 32 percent of the vote. According to Vote Smart, a nonpartisan site that tracks American politicians’ voting records, she tends to vote along party lines and has spent years working on the alcohol and drug abuse, children and families, and aging committees.

Septimo’s political career began as the community liaison for U.S. Rep. José Serrano’s office, where she was quickly promoted to district director. She viewed affordable housing and universal after-school care among her top priorities.

Septimo received endorsements from a number of progressive groups such as the Working Families Party and Run for Something, and media endorsements from the Bronx Chronicle, El Diario, and Welcome2TheBronx. Her endorsers focused on Septimo’s progressive policy ideas and status as a young newcomer, compared to her 82 year-old rival whose financial scandals have plagued the last few years of her tenure.

“We deserve better. That doesn’t just mean better than Carmen Arroyo, though that’s true. It also means better than our elected officials.” said Septimo the day prior to the election. In contrast to Arroyo’s many endorsements from within her party, only two politicians have endorsed Septimo.

Arroyo received endorsements from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., the Bronx Democrats, and Speaker of the New York State Assembly Carl Heastie, in addition to various state senators and assemblymen. She encouraged Bronxites to “vote results not rhetoric,” and touted her voting record for progressive causes including increased minimum wage, paid family leave, and tuition-free college.

Between 2006 and 2013, the Board of Elections sued Arroyo 21 times for failing to disclose her campaign finances. In 2012, Arroyo’s primary challenger Maximino Rivera sued her and the New York City Board of Elections for election fraud. Rivera accused Arroyo of voter intimidation, claiming that she colluded with poll workers to steer voters in her favor. Arroyo’s daughter, a former city councilwoman who resigned in 2015, also led a scandal-ridden tenure ending in three charges of forgery against campaign officials.

Despite known misconduct, Bronx politics are difficult to crack. “She’s seen as a real defender of Latinos and she’s been there an awfully long time. It’s hard to beat incumbents, especially in the Bronx,” said Hank Sheinkopf, political expert and president of Sheinkopf Communications. “There has to be an extraordinary event that would cause her to lose. Especially in a low voting area, where people don’t have a history of voting on a Thursday in September. When you move dates around like that, it tends to protect incumbents.”

Septimo predicated much of her campaign on transparency.  She challenged Arroyo to a debate three times, but Arroyo neglected to respond.

Arroyo and Septimo shared similar views on many hot-button issues. Both candidates ran on platforms of gun control and holding the New York City Housing Authority accountable to their tenants. The crux of voters decisions laid in each candidate’s campaigning styles: while Arroyo has built up trust with South Bronx voters after decades of service, many voters were persuaded by Septimo’s grassroots style campaign. “She called me personally. I got a lot of calls from her office, and they convinced me. What she’s for, the reason she’s running, is what I’m for,” said Marian Langley, 83, a Hunts Point resident and voter.

Even those who stayed loyal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also beat back his progressive challenger last night to win the Democratic nomination for a third term, found Septimo’s status as a newcomer appealing. “I do appreciate the things Cuomo has done. There’s always sneaky stuff, but the stuff we know about I appreciate,” said Nick Rosado, a Mott Haven voter. 

This formula, however, did not hold for Arroyo. “I voted for Septimo,” said Rosado. “I’m not the most educated voter, but I read a lot of literature about her. She just seemed like a smart up-and-comer and I just wanted to give her a try.”

Voter turnout more than tripled compared to 2016, from 3,162 voters to 10,427 voters, surprising some residents. “I feel like a lot of people gave up because they are not seeing any difference at all,” said Biatou Camara, citing the failure of politicians to address the recent crises at NYCHA and ongoing gun violence in the neighborhood.

Septimo, who set her campaign office in a coworking space in the Hub, a bustling shopping district and transit center in the South Bronx, gained name recognition around the community by knocking on doors and making phone calls. By contrast, Arroyo spent much of her summer campaigning with Councilman Salamanca and attending events for residents of public housing and the elderly, where she had already built a rapport with fellow attendees.

Abetted by the wave of leftist candidates, some experts saw Septimo as a viable contender. “The race wasn’t on my radar at all as competitive, like many races are, and then about a week or two ago, somebody from a union said Arroyo might be in some trouble,” said Jerry Skurnik, founder of political consulting firm Prime New York. In the end, however, conventional wisdom won out.

Arroyo could not be reached for comment for this article.

PS 48 Joseph R. Drake, the Hunts Point polling station.
Credit: Savannah Jacobson

 

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Arroyo’s most significant challenger won 25 percent of the vote. It has since been updated.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Featured, Politics, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Protesters Denounce Majora Carter’s Wealth Protection Plan for Hunts Point Homeowners

Protesters outside Majora Carter’s homeowners’ meeting next door to her Boogie Down Grind Cafe.

“Majora Carter, we won’t let you sell us out! If you try to gentrify, we will come and chase you out!” cried jocular protesters on the evening of September 6 near her coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind Cafe on Hunts Point Avenue. The group of about 25 Bronx residents and activists had converged outside Carter’s meeting for the Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group to protest its emphasis on private ownership.

Take Back the Bronx, an organization that advocates community control of the borough, marched down Hunts Point Avenue around 6:30 p.m. Thursday night to confront a meeting that Carter, a controversial urban revitalization strategist in Hunts Point, was hosting for local homeowners to talk with developers about wealth creation and protection.

The clash erupted over Carter’s Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group, which bills itself as “an avenue for local homeowners and aspiring homeowners within the community to strengthen their ability and resources to reinvest and support local wealth creation.” Invited speakers included non-profit lenders, who shared opportunities with attendees for low-interest loans to purchase a home.

“Not a majority, but a pivotal minority are in a position to purchase a home,” said James Chase, the Vice President of marketing for the Majora Carter Group and Carter’s husband. “To me, it’s a tragedy that so little has been done to maintain home ownership, especially among minority homeowners.” According to the Department of City Planning, only 6.8 percent of Hunts Point residents own their homes. The rest are renters.

By contrast, Take Back the Bronx advocates for Community Land Trusts. “CLTs for the people!” chanted protesters outside Carter’s meeting. Community Land Trusts act as publicly owned land. “CLTs give the people a say in how public resources are used and how their neighborhoods are developed,” according to the New York City Community Land Initiative.

“As far as I can tell, they do not allow for personal wealth creation,” said Chase of Community Land Trusts.

South Bronx Unite, an organization allied with Take Back the Bronx, wrote a statement of support prior to the protest.  The group argued that decisions about who owns land and housing should include everyone in the community, particularly the poor, the homeless, or the soon-to-be homeless. “They are not served by the private market or for profit developers,” the statement said.

Carter often employs the term “self-gentrification” when speaking about development in the Bronx, meaning that residents should want to improve their own neighborhoods. “Majora stresses talent retention as a way to economically diversify,” said Chase.

“Our community should feel proud that a woman like her has taken it to the next level and the next step,” said José Gálvez, social impact strategist and consultant with the Majora Carter Group and PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. “And that she’s not selfish enough that she wants to keep it for herself but that she wants to help her community do the same.”  

Protesters hold signs accusing Carter of displacement.

Critics believe that Hunts Point needs housing more than it needs a coffee shop. “I’m a business owner, and I’m happy that she is one. But don’t ever say I wanna bring a business before you bring a building,” says Larissma Jacobs, owner of Larissma Jacobs Daycare in Hunts Point. Hunts Point residents have named affordable housing as their most pressing concern for the last three years, according to the Department of City Planning.

Carter has also argued that residents against development are stuck in a mindset of poverty. “People with ill hearts are putting in the hearts of young kids, a really bad mindset so they cannot escape from the cycle of poverty mindset,” said Gálvez. Some residents have taken offense to the statement, which echoes former longtime New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous argument about a stultifying culture of poverty within black families and communities. “Actually, Bronx culture is about fighting poverty,” said Shellyne Rodriguez, an organizer of the protest.

Once a hero of the South Bronx, many residents feel that Carter has abandoned her beliefs. Carter started Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, an environmental non-profit that undertook many successful initiatives like the opening of Riverside Park and the co-founding of the Bronx River Alliance. She won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2005 for her efforts. In 2008, she left Sustainable South Bronx and opened the Majora Carter Group, a consulting firm located in Hunts Point.

In 2012, FreshDirect hired Carter to aid their move to the Bronx. Their facilities opened in Port Morris in July of 2018 with the support of Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz, Jr. despite community backlash. Those who fought FreshDirect’s move argue that their trucks pollute neighborhoods already suffering from exorbitantly high asthma rates.

Carter’s Boogie Down Grind Cafe was littered with flyers that protesters handed out depicting her as a carnival-like figure with snakes on her head. The flyers read “Majora Carter the Sellout of Hunts Point.”

Outside the Hunts Point Landowners meeting on Thursday night, protesters held a banner that read, “Majora Carter $ell$ the Bronx Out! One coffee at a time!” Carter’s staff donned shirts that read “if Majora Carter is a sell out then so am I.” They yelled back at protesters, “nothing but love.”

Protesters pressed signs against the large glass windows where the landowner’s meeting was taking place. Carter largely ignored the protest, but at one point turned around and blew kisses to the demonstrators outside the window, while mouthing “this is my ‘hood” and shrugging.

According to Chase, he and Carter make a habit of inviting those who protest against her to sit down and talk. “We say, hey it looks like there might be some confusion and we want to listen to you and we want to tell you what we’re doing so there cannot be this animosity,” said Chase. “We all live in the South Bronx so it’s not hard to get together, we even built a cafe. Coffee’s on us. Or we’ll meet in a neutral space.”

Chase admits, however, “we may be a little tone deaf in that a lot of people probably are experiencing pressure, they’re fearful they feel it’s unjust, all of those things are valid.”

“We want her to know that if she’s not for us, she’s against us,” said Monica Flores, a photojournalist and activist.

This article was written with additional reporting by Lucas Manfield.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Community Resources, Featured, Housing, Southern Bronx0 Comments