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Prostitution and the playground

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Like most schools in the Bronx, P.S. 6 in West Farms has a sign on its gates that reads, “Drug Free Zone.” Another sign on its bright red doors warns visitors and teachers about “No smoking in front of the building.”

Yet the school on the corner of East Tremont and Bryant Avenues may wish it could host another warning sign: “No prostitution on the corner.”

From the vantage point of the elevated playground at P.S. 6, children are able to look down on a large rock covered with small trees and weeds where school employees said local prostitutes have constructed a make-shift tent that includes sheets, mattresses and couch cushions.

At all hours of the day, women in low-cut shirts and tight jeans stand on Bryant Avenue, approaching passing cars, bending over drivers’ windows, and occasionally entering the car or escorting the driver inside the tent-like structure on the rock. All of this happens within view of the school playground perched above and across from the rock.

“It’s not healthy for kids to see that,” said Janilka Chevalier, the mother of a three-year-old pre-K student at P.S. 6. “Their brains are like sponges. What they see is what they learn.”

The tent on the rock lies is in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The tent on the rock lies in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

While local police insist that the situation has improved in recent years, prostitution remains a bitter fact of life for residents in the area, especially parents of the 750 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students in P.S. 6.

“The 48th Precinct is number two in the Bronx for prostitution,” said T.K. Singleton of Bronx Community Solutions, a division of the Center for Court Innovation. According to data from the non-profit organization, which strives to keep prostitutes off the streets, the number of prostitution arrests in the past two years has increased by close to 25 percent. In 2008, police made 42 prostitution arrests near the school, accounting for 8.5 percent of all such arrests in the Bronx. A year later, that number shot up to 52 arrests, or nine percent of the borough’s total.

Police argue that the spike in arrests is a reflection of stronger law enforcement, not a rise in prostitution itself.

“It doesn’t mean it got worse,” said Police Officer Tony DiGiovanna, an officer at the 48th Precinct who has been cracking down on prostitution in the area for 17 years. “It could have been that we had more arrests, more officers out there.” Just 10 years ago, police were arresting at least 10 prostitutes in the area every month.

“Even if they took two months off, that’d be at least 100 a year,” said Officer Richard Marina.

The difference between then and now, according to DiGiovanna, “is night and day.” There used to be about 60 “regulars,” he said, who wore boots and barely-there clothing. Now the regulars have whittled down to about 12; half of them are trans-gender, and their wardrobe is more subtle.

The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

On a recent afternoon, the only clue that a woman dressed in a tight red sweater and hip-hugging pants may be a sex worker was when she bent over the window of a passing car. A few hours later, police arrested six of the regulars, giving them tickets for loitering.

“It’s one of the hardest things to prove, unless you catch them in the act,” said one of the officers, who asked not to be identified. “But it’s usually the repeat offenders.”

The relative decrease of prostitution in the area over the past decade is a result of numerous trends. Police in the 48th Precinct credit undercover operations, in which police officers pretend to solicit a prostitute in order to make an arrest.

Eight years ago, the community also managed to shut down The Alps Hotel on nearby Boston Road, which had allowed sex workers to rent rooms for one-hour time slots. The Alps was replaced by a Howard Johnson, whose owner cooperates with police and Community Board 6 to prevent prostitutes and johns from securing brief trysts. The situation was improved even more four years ago, when an empty lot around the corner from the school became an apartment building. Now with fewer places to hide in the shadows, prostitutes in the area have just one place to go: the rock across from the school playground.

“If they built a building there, maybe they’d leave,” said Singleton, “but as long as that space is open and unmaintained, they’re going to stay. It’s a place of discretion.” Singleton compared the situation to graffiti, saying that no matter how many times authorities try to wash tags off of buildings, people will come back to do more damage. Similarly, she said, no matter how many times they try to cut down the trees on the rock to make it a less hospitable place to hide, or arrest the prostitutes who solicit customers there, “they will always go back to it in the end.”

Teachers at P.S. 6 fear that getting used to the site of prostitutes at such an impressionable age could have a lasting impact on young students.

The view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

“The kids notice them,” said Maria Lugo, who has been teaching at the school for 11 years. “And they might think it’s an easy way out, because they see them on the corner every day.”

“They’re always on the corner,” said Evelyn Vargas, the mother of a 10-year-old P.S. 6 student. “But you’ve just got to raise your kids well and teach them not to end up that way.”

Police said that in an ideal world, they would be able to stamp out the problem completely. But arresting prostitutes isn’t easy.

“We can’t pick them up for just standing on the street,” said Officer DiGiovanna. “They have to approach a number of vehicles.”

Even if they are arrested, keeping prostitutes away from the school is anything but guaranteed. According to statistics from Bronx Community Solutions, 79 percent of those arrested in 2009 received an average jail sentence of nine days. The rest were held for less than two days.

“A lot of times we bring them in, they get a slap on the wrist, and they’re back on the street the next day,” said  DiGiovanna.

On some nights, the illegal activity travels to the steps of the school, where a school safety agent who requested anonymity said janitors sweep up condoms and needles before students arrive in the morning.

A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

School officials feel that there is not much they can do to clean up the environment outside the school. And it shows. “This is the kind of school you send your kids to when you can’t get them into a better school,” said Bonnie Alexander, a mother of two P.S. 6 students. In its most recent progress report from the Department of Education, P.S. 6 earned an “F” for school environment.

“We schools are powerful in doing a lot of things, but there are some things in which we have no power,” said Myrna Rodriguez, the superintendent of School District 12. “The best thing we can do is make sure our kids learn well so that one day they can speak up in their communities to create change.”

The rest, she said, is up to other institutions, such as the police, community leaders and local business owners.

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

A healthy revolution in the school lunchroom

Kaci Strother is the new chef at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Kaci Strother is the new chef at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation. Photo: 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 percent 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 Neighborhoods, Education, Food, Health, Southern Bronx2 Comments

One suspect in the gruesome gay-bashing crime becomes teen father

Family members comforted each other while waiting outside the courtroom on Thursday. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Family and friends of suspects in the hate crime waited hours in Bronx Supreme Court for a glimpse of their loved ones. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Attorneys for eight of the suspects in the Morris Heights, anti-gay hate crime won more delays in court on Thursday, enough time for one of the youngest defendants, Nelson Falu, to become a father while he waited to make his court appearance in handcuffs.

Falu, 17, is one of 11 accused in the Oct. 3rd violent gay-bashing case that has captured the city’s attention. Falu’s 17-year-old girlfriend went into labor on Wednesday night and by Thursday afternoon, she gave birth to a premature, 4-pound boy, Ayden, while her boyfriend made his third court appearance since his arrest on Oct. 9.

“He is happy to be a father, but mad that he can’t be there with her,” said Falu’s mother, Caroline Ayala. Along with family and friends of the other suspects, Ayala and her daughter waited outside the courtroom for five hours on Thursday, only for defense attorneys to ask for more time to talk to their clients before they appear in court again on Friday and Monday.

A grand jury has begun its investigation, which promises to be lengthy due to the severity of the crime and the number of of suspects arrested. Attorneys on Thursday waived their clients’ rights to walk on current charges and reserved their rights to testify in trial. In buying time, defense attorneys hoped that the grand jury might reduce some of the charges. By Oct. 28, the jury is expected to  vote for or against indictment.

“People might just get charged for their role that night,” said Jason Foy, the attorney for 21-year-old David Rivera, outside of the courtroom. “I’d rather them get specific charges, so we’ll let them go ahead with their investigation and see where it goes.”

As it stands, the suspects, ranging in age from 16 to 26 are charged with gang assault, sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment, robbery, and other offenses, all as hate crimes, which carry a more severe penalty.

Police said the suspects beat and sodomized a 30-year-old openly gay Bronx man and two 17-year-old boys at 1910 Osborne Place on Oct. 3. The teenage victims were alleged members of the Latin King Goonies, the same gang as the suspects, who accused the teens of having sex with the man known in the neighborhood as “La Reina,” or queen. All of the suspects are now locked up in jail or juvenile detention, except for Ruddy Vargas, 22. Vargas is the only defendant in the case who turned himself into cops and is out on bail.

Surrounded by his friends and family outside the courtroom after his appearance, Vargas said, “Only me and god know what happened.”

One of the attorneys, John O’Connell, had been prepared to make a bail argument for 16-year-old suspect Brian Almonte, until unexpected legal issues got in his way. In asking the judge for more time with his client, O’Connell said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had put a detainer on Almonte and that he risked being deported. “I don’t know why,” O’Connell said outside the courtroom, adding, “he has a valid green card.”

Aside from asserting the innocence of the suspects, family members and attorneys gathered outside the courtroom questioned why the District Attorney’s office was not investigating the 30-year-old victim, who they claim was having sex with boys as young as 16.

“I don’t understand why the DA isn’t looking into this man having sex with underage children, and why no one is mentioning that,” said Sanders Denis, the attorney for 23-year-old Idelfonso Mendez. Denis told reporters outside the courtroom that Mendez, who has been painted as the ringleader of the attacks, had known the 30-year-old man for six years and was once friends with him. According to the criminal complaint against him, Mendez kicked and punched the man, then inserted a wooden stick into his rectum, asking him, “Are you a faggot? Do you like this?”

Speaking to people outside the courtroom, Denis hinted at things to come. “As this progresses,” he said of his client’s case, “you will hear more facts and the truth will come back. There is more there that people don’t know about.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special Reports0 Comments

Mary Mitchell community center fights for independence

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

On most days after school outside the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona, passersby hear the sounds of kids dancing to salsa music, practicing Jiu-Jitsu, or reciting the alphabet with one of the center’s tutors. But on the afternoon of Sept. 24, anyone within a five-block radius of Mapes Avenue and East 178th Street heard instead over one hundred people shouting, “Give it back!” over and over again.

The center was in jeopardy of closing down completely, a victim of the city’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit. Days before the rally, the Department of Education which owns the building, demanded that the center take over the $75,000 a year in maintenance costs or risk shutting the doors. For the non-profit community center that serves cash-strapped families, $75,000 represented nearly one-quarter of its budget, a cost it could not afford.

On Oct. 8, the city came back with a compromise. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott agreed to a plan whereby Mary Mitchell would pay $30,000. In exchange, the center would slash its hours, afterschool programs and community access. Lost would be its full menu of cultural activities, leadership training and opportunities for local organizations to use the space. Teens would no longer benefit from visits to colleges.

Negotiations are still ongoing.  The center’s director hopes instead for complete independence from the city, in order to own the building and return to normal hours and programming, without having to answer to the Department of Education. Hence their rallying cry to “Give it back!”

The city, staff believes, is looking for money in all the wrong places. “If we’re in an economic crisis, it’s because of Wall Street, not the poor kids in the Bronx,” said the center’s fiery, 42-year-old director, Heidi Hynes. “They should really reconsider how to raise resources.”

Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The center, directed and staffed by 10 community members, serves over 400 kids and 1000 adults in an area where, according to the non-profit child advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families make less than $35,000 a year.

The 14-year-old center is also used by 28 community organizations that lack facilities of their own to hold meetings and events.

“It’s like a second home for the kids,” said Asia Edwards, 29, whose 11-year old daughter and 6-year old son have been coming to Mary Mitchell for four years.

Officials at the Department of Education argue that the city is not in the financial place to help the center along.

“There are real costs associated with the maintenance of any DOE building,” said spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “Given the current fiscal reality, we are asking community organizations who have not been paying for these services to begin covering the costs.”

Yet according to Hynes, the center had never wanted that agreement with the department in the first place. It had been paying the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for month-to-month leases on the building from its inception in 1997. In 2000, the center was slated to sign a long-term lease in which the Department of Education would be its anchor tenant. Instead, officials decided to transfer ownership of the building entirely over to the Education Department, in a deal that waived the center’s rent, maintenance and security costs. In exchange, the center provided free after-school and weekend programs for children and teens, GED classes for adults, English classes for immigrants, and community access for dozens of organizations.

One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Now, 10 years and a deep recession later, the department has backed out of that agreement.

Community members have expressed shock that the Department of Education would strip at-risk kids of such essential activities.

“We don’t want our kids out on the streets selling drugs, being persuaded by their peers to do negative things,” said Ethel Sarpon, 57, whose Ghanaian organization holds monthly meetings at the center to educate African children about their culture. Her organization may need to find a new meeting ground, now that the center has cut back its hours.

According to a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national non-profit anti-crime organization, children left unsupervised after school are four times more likely to use drugs than those who are supervised, and violent juvenile crime triples between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m.

The Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center is the only after school option for most of the community, since its programs are free or redeemable through vouchers from the Administration for Children’s Services. It is also filling a vacuum left by schools that have cut their after-school activities in the wake of city budget cuts.

“Kids with parents who work, those are the ones who end up on the street,” said 12-year old Ezekiel Farrell, who has been coming to the center for four years with his 10-year old brother, Samuel. Both of their parents work, so they said their mom would have to quit her job to stay home with them if they couldn’t go to Mary Mitchell after school.

The city warned the center of its impending doom back in July, when education officials started rejecting the center’s permits unless it paid maintenance costs.

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Councilman Joel Rivera secured waivers for the center so its summer programs could go on. Then on Sept. 20, the Department of Education rejected the center’s permits again.

The following night, the city-funded custodian at the building closed the doors on staff members and 100 kids who had come for nighttime activities, including dance, Jiu-Jitsu and leadership classes. After two days of wrangling, the center was reopened, as Hynes worked to negotiate a deal with education officials.

To Hynes, transferring ownership of the building back to the center itself would help to lift the weight off of the city, while allowing the center to continue its important work.

“If they’re worried about costs, they should give us the building back,” she said.

The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Hynes believes it will be easier for the center to raise money for a building it owns, as opposed to paying rent to the city. It’s a way for the people of the neighborhood to have a stake in their own development.

“Community controlled assets are a huge step towards democracy,” she said. “If the kids are not safe and healthy, we fail as a society, as a city.”

Hynes will continue to meet with city officials to work out an agreement that will allow the center to return to its full hours and programming. But if it’s up to her, there will be only one option on the table.

“At this point we don’t want their agreement, since we can’t depend on them,” she said. “We want the building for ourselves.”

At the rally, Jannie Armstrong of the First Glorious Church led the crowd in a prayer to return the center to the community, its rightful owner. Later on she said, “I feel terrible about it, but we need to keep the faith. We gonna get this building back.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Dancing in Defiance

Dressed in a “BAAD” sweatshirt and black track pants, the fiery 47-year-old director of the Barretto Street Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance welcomed the audience to the October 16 dance performance with a strip show.

Arthur Aviles whipped off his sweatshirt to reveal a spaghetti-strapped tank top. Then he peeled off his pants and bent over, so the audience could read “BAAD Ass Woman” on his ladies-style tight red underwear. All items were for sale, later, after the show.

To anyone who hadn’t read about the recent anti-gay assault in the Bronx, this wild display would seem normal for the academy, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

“We’re scared and we don’t want to be in fear,” said Aviles later, who is openly gay. “So we turn fear into defiance.”

James Atkinson, Khiara Bridges and Edgar Peterson performing at BAAD! Photo: Connie Preti

Artists performing at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Over a week ago in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, police said 11 members of the Latin King Goonies, a local gang, carried out what officials have called the most gruesome hate crime in recent memory. Using a baseball bat and a plunger, the alleged attackers sodomized two 17-year-old boys and a 30-year-old man they suspected of being gay, beating them for hours and later robbing and beating the older man’s brother in his home.

Despite the notoriety of this attack and a wave of other anti-gay traumatic events, including the beating of a man in the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and the suicide of a gay Rutgers student, the performances on Saturday night seemed, if anything, emboldened.

The first dance was set to a song by the flamboyant pop star Adam Lambert, and many of the subsequent male performers were dressed in brightly colored, transparent tights and underwear.

Shizu Homma, who performed a solo act, modified her planned performance after the attack by starting out in drag, instead of her usual t-shirt and pants, eventually stripping down to rags and writhing on the floor. Her jarring movements reflected the pain of the victims, but also screamed resilience and perseverance.

“Our community is fierce,” said Aviles. “It knows how to stand up to craziness like that, to the macho attitudes of the world.”

As other gay advocacy groups are organizing rallies and political officials are condemning the attack, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance is taking a more active approach.

On November 7, BAAD will host a self-defense class in conjunction with the Center for Anti-Violence Education. If there is a high turnout, the class will be held on a regular basis, said Carlo Quispe, 32, the dance academy’s program manager.

Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

“It’s really the only thing we can do,” said Quispe. “People can continue to grandstand and get on their soapbox. What we want to provide is something more concrete, powerful, tangible. Something people can teach their friends.”

Aviles wishes there were a way to teach tolerance to the people who prey on them.

“I want to see these guys learn something that can change their view about how they see humanity,” Aviles said, referring to the suspects. “Jail is certainly not it.”

Other members of the gay community weren’t quite as sympathetic.

“They should be in solitary confinement, away from society,” said Ruben Thomas, 44, a gay videographer who volunteers at BAAD.

Yet Aviles believes that jail will only punish them, rather than help them to unlearn the intolerance that led them to commit their horrific crime.

“Call me Ann Frank, but I really believe that all people are good at heart,” he said. “And in this case, I really do feel that these guys can learn something. But I don’t think our legal system will allow us to come together in that way.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime3 Comments

Bronx-born artist leads $7 million art center restoration

Gail Nathan, director of the Bronx River Art Center, at a fundraising event at the Bronx Art Space. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Gail Nathan, director of the Bronx River Art Center, at a gallery exhibition at the Bronx Art Space. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Dressed in a crisp, button-down shirt, khaki cut-offs and Keds, her ginger bob peeking out from under a white fedora, Gail Nathan looked something like a 62-year old hipster as she climbed the four flights of stairs up to her messy office at the Bronx River Art Center in East Tremont.

It was 90 degrees in early September and there was no air conditioning. Nathan felt as determined as she was cranky.

Someone had left the center’s garden gates open the night before, and Nathan was livid. She grabbed the phone and fumed to an employee on the other end: “You never know what could have happened,” she said. “Leaving the center in that vulnerable situation was irresponsible and dangerous.”

The 23-year-old art center on East Tremont Avenue and Bronx Street is her baby, one she is about to transform into a state-of-the-art cultural force after seven years of lobbying for $7 million in restoration funds. And if Nathan doesn’t take care of it, no one will.

Driving her work is a fiery determination to provide quality art education to low-income families. She sees the center as a diamond in the rough, providing free art classes and events for children in an area where, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children, 54 percent live below the poverty line.

“The arts got me up and out of the Bronx and into my profession, so I know it can be done for others,” she said. “The arts are what divide humans from the animals, and people of limited means need to have that same opportunity.”

It’s a cause to which she has dedicated her life. Nathan has never been married or had children, and now lives alone in City Island. She doesn’t mind.

“I was too busy,” she said. “I’ve done what I do best, which is making sure underserved communities have opportunities to expand their lives through the arts.”

Nathan was born and raised on 149th Street between Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue. Her Jewish father worked as a Morse code and Teletype operator and her Catholic mother waited tables at Schrafft’s, a once-glamorous Manhattan restaurant.

Nathan spent her childhood playing on the streets in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, earning her and her friends the nickname, “The Stadium Kids.” Her father knew all the guys at the gate, so they went to games for free and sat in box seats.

“Now I can’t go to a Yankee game because I can’t afford the seats,” she said. “Sitting way up in the bleachers is not my style.”

Becoming an artist was Nathan’s earliest dream, and although it was an unlikely pursuit for a Jewish girl from the Bronx, she had plenty of support.

“My father was a latent artist of sorts,” she said. “So he lived out his desires to be an artist through me.”

After attending Public School 31 and Junior High School 22, both in the Bronx, Nathan attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

As a teenager, all of her Jewish friends escaped the Bronx for the suburbs, but Nathan, her parents and her older sister, Jeanne, stayed.

“It was the white flight,” she said, “but we weren’t suburban, so we never moved out.”

To fill the void left by her friends, Nathan took dance classes downtown and worked in the West Village theater scene. Yet despite her admiration for the performing arts, she yearned to become a visual artist.

After earning her Bachelor’s degree at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, she realized that painting was her true calling, and so became a painter, taught painting at New York University and commuted to New Jersey for her Master’s of Fine Arts at Rutgers University. All the while, she lived in an artist studio in SoHo, back when it was cheap.

“My first loft was $80 a month,” she said, “and my last one was $125 a month.”

In 1977, she was drawn back to her old streets when they became decimated by drugs, violence and poverty. Until 1980, she worked for the Bronx Museum of the Arts, organizing satellite gallery programs and painting public art murals. It was her first taste of community development through art, and after spending the next 18 years traveling the world as a visiting artist and professor, it was what brought her back to the Bronx.

In the interview for her job as center director in 1998, she raised the idea of restoring the building. Now, 12 years and countless hours of grant-writing later, Nathan is finally making the center’s appearance a reflection of what goes on inside of it.

“Gail had aggressive chutzpah to really put this renovation together,” said Daniel DelValle, a board member of the center since 1996. “She has an insightful vision of the future for us. Art classes existed here before her, but they were primitive.”

The Bronx River Art Center as it stands now. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The Bronx River Art Center as it stands now. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Nestled on the bank of the Bronx River, the center’s classes in drawing, painting, sculpting, cartooning, digital photography and filmmaking, some of which are held in the garden or on the riverbank, encourage students to gain artistic inspiration from and respect for the local environment. To Nathan, the center is a “Community-Based, 21st Century Bauhaus.”

Yet until now, it has been a destination for beauty on the inside, and an eye sore on the outside. The structure it calls home is a drab gray warehouse with no elevators. Aside from a small sign above the door proclaiming the center’s name, it’s hard to tell that an art center lies inside.

“Seven million dollars is not a lot of money to restore an 18,000 square foot, nearly 100-year-old building that sits next to a river,” Nathan insisted one recent afternoon.

On Sept. 30, the center closed its doors to prepare for the renovation that kicks off in January. The building itself is to stay, but elevators will be installed, along with LEED-certified central heating and cooling. There will be a full floor and a half dedicated to arts classes, another floor of artist studios at below market prices, an expanded gallery space, and a theater for performances and presentations of students’ and artists’ work. Visitors to the neighborhood should have no trouble finding the center, as its blue prints display a vibrant white exterior covered with giant green graphics of the center’s nickname, “BRAC.”

Architectural illustration of the renovated center. Photo courtesy of the Bronx River Art Center

Architectural illustration of the renovated center. Photo courtesy of the Bronx River Art Center

Yet, rather than feeling exalted about the renovation she’s worked so hard and long for, Nathan could only do what she does best: worry and plan her next endeavor.

Fear crept in that with the center closed for the next two years, people would assume that it had moved on.

“We stand here as a committed community-based cultural center,” she said, “and we’re not going to abandon the people who’ve come to trust us.”

So, for the next two years Nathan and her art center will travel like nomads throughout the borough, holding gallery events at The Bronx Art Space in Mott Haven, and free art classes at schools and community organizations across the Bronx. The center’s offices will assume temporary residency in another old building on Boston Road and East 179th Street until the center reopens. And once it does, Nathan will finally allow herself a moment of pride.

“This new and beautiful building will be a keystone of the revitalization of this neighborhood,” she said. “We’ll be the thing that turns this area into a destination.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

New birth certificate law for Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans in the Bronx are worried and confused about a new birth certificate law. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Like many Bronx Puerto Ricans, Nando Hernandez is worried about a new birth certificate law that could affect his mother, Maria. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Maria Delia Hernandez suffers from failing kidneys, gout, high blood pressure, asthma and a chronic liver disease. In her apartment on the Grand Concourse, the 75-year-old lies in bed hooked up to the dialysis machine she depends on to do her kidneys’ work.

But Hernandez worries more about her latest ailment: the invalidation of her legal status in the United States.

Hernandez is joined in this predicament by more than 105,000 other native Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, all birth certificates issued by Puerto Rico before July 1 will become null and void. The Puerto Rican government announced the new law in December 2009, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, to curb massive fraud and theft of Puerto Rican birth certificates.

Home to almost half of all island-born Puerto Ricans in New York City, the Bronx boasts one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, according to the Department of City Planning.

A birth certificate from Puerto Rico is valuable property for Hispanic immigrants seeking a quick path to U.S. citizenship, and until now it has been quite easy to get.

Puerto Rico was unique in the way its birth certificates were used in the past, said Sarah Echols, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. “Parents signing their kids up for school, Little League, church camps, anything part of daily life, had to turn over an original birth certificate,” said Echols. “I’ve heard stories where 10 to 12 original copies of one person’s birth certificate were floating around different organizations.”

This practice left certified original birth certificates sitting in largely unsecured offices, and criminals took advantage.

“There were cases of fraud rings breaking into schools, finding the files, and taking the birth certificates out to sell them on the black market,” Echols said.

According to federal officials, Puerto Rican birth certificates were selling illegally for up to $10,000 a piece. The U.S. State Department discovered that 40 percent of the 8,000 cases of passport fraud it investigated were tied to Puerto Rican birth certificates.

The new law aims to combat fraud not only by requiring people to apply for the new birth certificate, which means those stolen birth certificates will no longer be valid; it also mandates that no agency can retain a copy of a person’s original birth certificate. People may have to show the document, or provide a photocopy, but the law prohibits anyone from having to hand over an original copy of his or her birth certificate for any reason.

But for elderly Puerto Ricans like Hernandez and others who no longer have the documents they need to comply, the law has become troubling.

Lisa Velez, 44, of Mott Haven, is still trying to figure out how her 65-year-old mother will get her new birth certificate. Her mother, Elba Caraballo can’t find her old birth certificate, and has never had a driver’s license or passport.

Velez didn’t know her mother needed a new birth certificate until the New York City Housing Authority asked for it in order to re-certify her public housing benefits. Velez is afraid her sick mother, who rarely leaves her apartment because of anxiety, will have to go to Puerto Rico in order to prove her citizenship there.

“I really don’t want her traveling, and I don’t do planes,” ” said Velez. “Not after 9/11.”

Critics say that many Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as they refer to the United States, have never heard about the law.

“The Puerto Rican government hasn’t done enough to communicate it to the Puerto Rican community here, so most of them know nothing about it,” said Ana Maldonado, chief operating officer at Promesa, a community development group that works with Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

Hernandez found out about the law when she was contacted by a city housing representative, and she’s been in a panic ever since. She hasn’t seen her birth certificate in 10 years, and has forgotten her birth date and hometown, information she needs in order to apply for the new certificate.

Representatives of the Puerto Rican government insist they have done everything in their power to inform their citizens in New York about the new law.

“News reports are a result of our outreach,” said Luis Balzac, who heads the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in New York. “We’ve done seminars, presentations, group meetings with nonprofits and elected officials to make sure the Puerto Rican community is aware of the benefits of this law.”

Originally the law stated that old birth certificates would become invalid on July 1, the same day people could start applying for the new one. That would have allowed no time for people or government agencies to prepare for the mass invalidation of their documents. Bowing to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, the law was amended in late June, extending the deadline through the end of September.

Some say that still isn’t enough time. “We should have until December,” said Maldonado, “and that extension should be accompanied by an aggressive communications campaign.”

There could be serious consequences for those who don’t know about the law, or who have trouble obtaining the new document.

“Many native Puerto Ricans without the new birth certificate could be denied social services, health care, public schooling, jobs, drivers licenses and public housing benefits,” said Maldonado. In an economy where finding a job is hard enough, not having a valid birth certificate is yet another barrier to employment.

Hernandez is afraid that she could lose the right to her Section 8 apartment, which she’s been living in for two decades.

“They keep bothering us to get the new certificate, but we can’t,” said her son, Louis Figueroa, 51.

Adding to this seemingly endless list of complications is that the Puerto Rican government has failed to send many law-abiding Puerto Rican citizens new birth certificates in time for their own deadline. Ivine Galarza, the district manager of Bronx Community Board 6, who was born in Puerto Rico, has been assisting locals in the application process through appointments in her office. She and the dozens of people she helped to fill out the application in early July are anxiously awaiting their new birth certificates more than two months later.

As the deadline approaches, “we’re starting to wonder what’s going on,” Galarza said. “People are scrambling because this piece of paper impacts almost every aspect of your life.”

As for Hernandez, these frustrations add stress to an already fragile life. Her son, Louis, appreciates the desire to protect his mother’s identity, but said, “The Puerto Rican government didn’t do their job, and now the poor and helpless are paying for it.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods1 Comment

Riding camels in the Bronx

The Bronx Zoo has been offering camel rides for half a century.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Multimedia, North Central Bronx1 Comment

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