Tag Archive | "Alec Johnson"

Year 87 of a Bronx Ritual

By Alec Johnson

At dawn the only person outside Yankee Stadium besides the street sweepers was one Chris McCably who waited for the ticket windows to open. He was from, of all places, Boston.

Freddy Schuman, 85, greets Claudio Beltral, 64, outside the Yankee's home opener against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday afternoon. (Alec Johnson/The Bronx Ink)

Freddy Schuman, 85, greets Claudio Beltran, 64, outside the Yankee's home opener against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday afternoon. (Alec Johnson/The Bronx Ink)

McCably, who co-owns a towing company, had left his home to catch a New York-bound bus at 1 a.m. By 5:20 he was in the city, and soon afterwards had planted himself on a bench between Gates Four and Six.

“I’m a Red Sox fan,” he said, “and I just wanted to experience an opening day and see them get the rings.”

So began the ritual that has taken place every spring since 1923: It was opening day for baseball in the Bronx.

By 7 a.m., McCably stopped chortling about his employees hard at work back in Boston to take note of the fact that he was still the only man on line. “I cannot believe it is this quiet,” he said, before adding the requisite Red Sox fan’s dig. ”In Boston a line would be wrapped around the building for tickets. I’m going to break down and buy a Yankees hat, just as a remembrance. But I won’t put it on my head.”

Soon, a teenage boy walked past and said he usually sells candy inside but because he didn’t have to work today he was hoping to get a ticket and actually watch the game without having to hawk snacks.

By 8 a.m. the Yankee Stadium support staff, numbering more than 2,000, began to assemble on the River Avenue side of the stadium. A line stretched the entire length of the building and cooks, cleaners and merchandise sales people shivered on the gray morning as they waited to go through metal detectors on their way to work. The delay, one said, was a result of everyone being issued new identification cards for the new season.

The Number 4 train rumbled overhead and the back-up beepers of a crew of forklifts echoed across the empty plaza. One deposited boxes packed with t-shirts, baseballs, pennants, pens, refrigerator magnets at a white tent near Gate Six.

The Yankee’s manager, Joe Girardi, zipped into the players’ entrance at 8:25. A few moments later the street sweepers made their last pass. A black Bentley Continental GT with smoked windows and black rims rolled in a few moments later. Joba Chaimberlain rolled down the window and gave a fan a fist bump.

Nearby, Tony Dipitero, who looked as if he had been attending Yankee games since the days of Babe Ruth and who keeps score of every  game in a 99-cent spiral notebook chatted with a friend. Dipitero comes to about 60 games a year and usually gets tickets from cops or other people in the neighborhood who recognize him.

“I’ve got my book and my radio,” he said. “If I don’t get tickets maybe I’ll go sit in the bar and listen to the game.”

Derek Jeter arrived at 8:40 and the line of fans and stadium employees was four hundred deep. Jeter drove a shiny black Ford SUV He slowed down long enough to tip a Starbucks coffee cup towards those on line. From behind the tinted glass, it appeared to be a Venti.

“That’s got to be a record for him,” said Dipitero. “Write that down. He’s early today.”

Then, he told his friend, “There’s a guy from Boston waiting for tickets over there. He might get one.”

Over the next half-hour the remaining players arrived in sports cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks with mud flaps. Some drove themselves; some had drivers and others were dropped off by their wives or girlfriends.

Meanwhile, Paulette Williams was waiting to start work on her first day as a cashier. She is training to be a drug counselor and took the stadium job to make some extra money. “This is exciting,” she said. “I love the Yankees.”

Nearby stood Ray Basques, who had traveled from Minnesota for the opener. He is 60 and has been a Yankee fan since he was 10. “Life begins when the season starts,” he said. He held up a disposable camera. “I’m trying to get some pictures of the players.”

Around the corner at the ticket window things were still quiet. It was 9:30 and four men who’d been waiting on line had their tickets. They were not entirely pleased. “I was planning on paying $50,” said John Bruno of New Paltz who has been to some 20 opening days. “But $100, that’s ok. I’m in there.”

By 10 a.m. the smell of lighter fluid permeated the air around a parking garage on River Avenue. Tailgating fans had arrived and were spread thin across the upper level. Some barbecued. A father and son played Wiffle Ball. A group of girls played beer pong on the back of a BMW. A man from New Jersey admitted he was playing hookie from work and wouldn’t give his name.

Patrons filled the Dugout on River Ave by 11:00 a.m.

Patrons filled the Dugout on River Avenue by 11:00 a.m. (Michael Ratliff / Bronx Ink)

Meanwhile the crowd was building on the stadium plaza in anticipation for the 11 a.m. gate opening. Swarms of men, women and children, many dressed for a warmer day, mingled and munched on street food as they waited.

Claudio Beltran, 64, wearing a ten-gallon blue straw hat posed for pictures with fans alongside the famed Freddy Schuman, 85, better known by his nickname, Freddy Sez, Freddy held onto his trademark shamrock-painted frying pan as a pack of people took their turns hitting it with a metal spoon for good luck.

At last the gates opened, six hours after Chris McCably had arrived. Fans in blue hats swarmed inside, moving like a school of tightly-packed sardines.

Tony Dipitero was nowhere to be found. He was last seen chatting up a police officer. “Hey Charlie, what’s up?” he had said Dipitero, adding “That’s the cop that hooks me up with tickets.”

(Slide show: Michael Ratliff and Alec Johnson for Bronx Ink)

(Homepage Photo: Michael Ratliff / Bronx Ink)

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, SportsComments (1)

AUDIO SLIDESHOW- Little Voices from a Big Zoo

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Tales, MultimediaComments (0)

A crying woman, shots and an officer down

By Alec Johnson

Early Monday afternoon Yesenia Rodriguez ran down the stairs from the second floor in the Morrisania Air Rights apartment complex at 3073 Park Ave. in the South Bronx.  She was crying. The man upstairs, she said in Spanish, had thrown her to the ground and threatened to kill her.

PO Robert Salerno

Police Officer Robert Salerno (NYPD)

She found neighbor, Jimmy Molina, 54, reading a newspaper in the lobby. She told him that Santiago Urena, the son of an elderly woman she cared for, was making repeated sexual advances towards her and she was fed up. When she threatened to call the police he pulled out a gun and yelled, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.”

She and Molina called 911 and as they waited she told him the story.  A few minutes later, about 12:30 p.m. four police officers from the 44th precinct entered the lobby.

“They asked where the guy with the gun was,” Molina said. He interpreted for the officers as Rodriguez told them Urena was on the second floor. Urena’s brother, Demetrio, 69, led them upstairs. Two cops, Molina said, ran up the stairs to apartment 2G and the other two took the elevator.

Less than a minute later Molina heard gunshots. Santiago Urena, 57, opened fire as officers approached a bedroom, police later said. Three .38 caliber bullets fired by Urena struck Police Officer Robert Salerno, 25. Two entered his unprotected lower abdomen and a third lodged in the bulletproof vest that covered his chest. Salerno returned fire, emptying his 16 round magazine. The three other officers shot a total of five times.

Molina was outside the building when about, he said, “two minutes later four cops brought him out carrying him.” Two held his legs and two held his hands — “running to the ambulance.”

Gun Recovered

This .38 caliber revolver was recovered by police from the crime scene. (NYPD)

Salerno, the first police officer shot in the line of duty this year, was taken to Lincoln Hospital where surgeons removed the bullets. Urena was not so lucky. Police who returned to the apartment after taking Salerno to the ambulance found Urena dead of what appeared to be a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. On Tuesday the medical examiner determined that police rounds killed Urena.

Urena’s 91-year-old mother was in another room of the apartment during the shooting and was later carried out of the building.

Police cordoned off the block and neighbors milled around the street in the afternoon rain. They were shocked by the shootout. Nelson Figuerola who lives on the 20th floor of the 23-floor building pointed across 158th street and said he would have expected gunplay over there, but not in his building.

“That building they call Vietnam,” he said. “This one is a lot better.”

Figuerola has lived in 2073 Park Ave. since 1982 and remembered Urena as a quiet man that used to work at the airport. “He cleaned airplanes,” he said. “Nobody expected this.”

Marie Garcia, 23, lives on the 16th floor and was awakened by sirens as dozens of police swarmed the area minutes after the shooting. She looked out her window and saw them running into the building. “They looked like sardines,” she said. “They were all trying to fit in the front door at once.”

The crowd of more than 100 that formed shortly after the shooting dispersed as heavier rain fell in the late afternoon. A handful returned after dark to watch the medical examiners wheel Urena’s body out on a stretcher.

A resident of 3073 Park Ave. in the Bronx reacts to questions by the media, Monday, after a police officer was shot in her building.

A resident of 3073 Park Ave. in the Bronx reacts to questions by the media, Monday, after a police officer was shot in her building. (Alec Johnson/The Bronx Ink)

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern BronxComments (0)

Out of Work and Waiting for Another Chance

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. Photo: Alec Johnson

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson

There are lines everywhere. Lines to get in, lines to ask questions and lines for the bathroom. At an unemployment office in the Bronx, it seems like waiting is the only job that many who need work can get.

The Bronx is no stranger to joblessness. But as the poorest congressional district in the country,  Bronx County has been hit by the recession harder than much of the nation. Even residents who are used to getting a steady paycheck now find themselves competing for jobs that have disappeared. As national unemployment levels reached a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October, Bronx unemployment surged further to reach 13.3 percent. That translates into more than 185,000 Bronx residents who are out of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now, instead of earning a living, they wait in line. Their path to the Workforce I Career Center on 149th Street may have begun in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico or just up the street on the Grand Concourse. But now they are all looking for the same thing: hope.  Each face in the line tells a story. An immigrant from Ghana relies on his faith to keep him going.  A father struggles to find a way to support his family.  A former prisoner who admits he made mistakes searches for a way back into the world.

The newest faces in the line belong to former proud members of the working class, people who haven’t had to depend on social services in the past. Now, like so many others, they, too, can only wait. “A significant population of Bronx works in service and support jobs and when the main economic engine disappears that obviously ripples out,” said Jim Brown, an analyst for the state labor department.

Theresa Landau, the director of the Morrisania Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal nutrition program calls this group of recently unemployed, the “new poor.” The term, she said, characterizes those who held jobs that have evaporated because of the recession. A recent study by The New York Times found that unemployment has led to a large increase in reliance on food pantries and federal programs across the nation. The study found that 29 percent of Bronx residents are relying on food stamps.

These are the people who are actively trying to find jobs and don’t want to just sit back and collect government checks, but may soon be forced to. Last week, they streamed into the Work Force 1 office,  only to leave the same way they went in: unemployed.

“I’ve been coming here every day for seven weeks,” said Joe Cologne, a laid-off maintenance worker who is married, has three children between the ages of three and five and has lost two jobs in the past two years. Cologne’s daily trips over the past two months to the Workforce 1 office have left him discouraged.

“I want to make a good living,” he said. “At times I can’t sleep. I want to get a job.”

Leaning against the wall and squinting his eyes even though it was a cloudy day, Cologne spoke softly and sadly about why he waits in line every day.

“I’m trying to find something steady,” he said. “I’m sick of moving from job to job.”

Cologne had his last job for only six months and made $12.60 an hour.  Before that, he spent from January to March sending out resumes.

Happy that he saved some money for a rainy day and that his wife has managed to keep a low-paying custodial job, Cologne’s family hasn’t needed to count on public assistance. He is, however, worried that when he finds work, he will only get a minimum-wage job. Two years ago, the labor department set him up with a job that paid only $6.25 an hour.

“You can’t support a family and pay rent on that,” said Cologne, whose monthly rent is $1,300, not including utilities.

A minimum wage job, which now pays $7.25 an hour, is just a fraction of the $21 hourly wage guaranteed by his union, 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services workers union in the country.

A union job would be ideal for Cologne, but if one is not available, there are services such as food pantries and the WIC program that could help feed his kids.

According to Landau, the WIC program provides benefits to approximately 8,000 people in the Bronx and she hopes to increase that to 9,200 this year. Statewide, the number counting on WIC grew from 509,752 in August 2008 to 520,477 a year later.

“We’re hoping to open up new sites in communities that have not typically been considered low income,” she said, about targeting people like Cologne who would qualify for assistance because they have children under age five.

WIC  is a Department of Health program for people who  make up to 85 percent more than the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a combined income of $40,793 would qualify if they had infants. Unlike a food pantry, WIC gives participants a check they can use to buy nutritious food, such as fruit, vegetables, milk, whole grain bread and eggs for pregnant women, infants and young children.

But looking for help from the government is still an uncomfortable experience for many in the line. One man outside Workforce 1 used to make his living helping people. Now, he’s the one who needs help.

“This is my first experience” with unemployment, said the man, who immigrated to New York from Ghana 12 years ago. “I always had work—no problem.”

The man, who is a U.S. citizen his late 60s would not give his name, but said he is a former employee of the Human Resources Administration of New York City. He was laid off two years ago from the city organization, which provides temporary relief for individuals with social service and economic needs, and now is in search of work himself.

“It is difficult to get a job,” he said.

Since losing his job, he has lived on his savings, a part of which he sends to his wife and children in Ghana. And although the unemployment office hasn’t yet found him a job, he said he has taken advantage of computer classes offered to the jobless and is in the process of getting a master’s degree in theology of the Christian ministry at the Bible College at the New Covenant Christian Church in the Bronx.

“You have to engage yourself in doing something,” he said. “You must force yourself into something and stick to that.”

His theology studies have “helped him through,” and eventually he hopes to enter the ministry where he will teach Bible school and counsel parishioners.

“I want to help people,” he said.

Stressing the importance of searching for work, he said. “You can be proud if you are looking for a job, but not if you collect assistance without trying.”

Factors such as difficulty with English, poor education and even criminal records contribute to the Bronx’s higher unemployment rate, said Brown.

That’s the case with Joe Carter, who hasn’t had a job in four years and is on food stamps. He was released from a three-year prison sentence for narcotics possession six months ago and has been looking for work since then.

“I need a job,” said Carter, a father of a five-year-old daughter. “I’m working every angle.”

Sharply dressed in shirt and tie and a black coat, he clutched a paper he thought would be a key to a job. He earned the training certificate in prison after taking a six-month course at Bronx Community College in building maintenance.

He said he couldn’t find a job before he got in trouble, “but it’s definitely worse now” and  he doesn’t see the end in sight.

“I’m just holding on,” he said. “I hope the economy picks up and I can get a job in the near future.”

According to Brown, there just aren’t enough jobs to go around in the Bronx.

A significant portion of Bronx residents need to travel outside the borough for work and the farther people need to go from their home to find work,  the more difficulties they have. In the city, it’s not so hard, he said. But when the jobless try to go north to Westchester County, for example — where the unemployment level is nearly six percentage points lower — affordable transportation is a huge obstacle.

Ed Buggs commutes every day from the Bronx to Queens for a low-wage job.  A former bus driver, Buggs, 45, lost that job last year and recently started driving for Access-A-Ride,  a car service that drives the elderly and disabled to appointments.

Although Buggs is employed, he said the driving job isn’t enough to fulfill his dream of going to college. “I’ve been putting out resumes and got one call back.” Buggs has his second interview at a hospital next week for a housekeeping position. The hospital, he said, offers tuition reimbursement, which would fund his education.

Buggs battled the lines inside the drab Workforce 1 office to get help writing a thank-you note to the hospital where he interviewed last week. If he gets the second job and goes to college, Buggs hopes to find a steady job so he never needs to wait in that line again.

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For Two Old Friends, Wii Isn’t Child’s Play

Tyrone Owens plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Ave. in Morrisania. Photo by Alec Johnson

James Haggins, 61, plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Avenue in Morrisania as Carlos Isa looks on. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson

They grew up with stickball in the streets. As classmates at P.S. 63 and Morris High School, they played basketball. Now two old buddies in Morrisania are continuing their decades-long competition  on Monday afternoons throwing strikes and spares in the recreation room of the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center, where they join a group of senior citizens to play Nintendo Wii.

“We’re regulars, said Tyrone Owens, 63, about himself and his lifelong friend, James Haggins, 61. “We go back 60 years in the same neighborhood.”

Owens and Haggins join about a half dozen others who compete in a videogame more common on a teenager’s Christmas list. The Wii is actually owned by the Morrisania Public Library, and librarian Ilham Al-Basri

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon.

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

brings it to the center each week as part of the library’s outreach program.

“The senior citizens like the Wii,” said  Al-Basri, who got the idea for using  Wii Sports last year at the New York Public Library health fair.

Dedicated players aren’t the only asset in Morrisania. “We’re lucky the center has this big TV,” said Al-Basri, pointing to a screen wider than a bowling lane. “Wii Sports are better played on a bigger screen.”

The room doesn’t look much like a bowling alley, with its hanging plants and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. But there’s lots of room — it’s about 20 by 30 feet — and the players have the space they need to score high. On a recent Monday,  Owens was hot, throwing strike after strike and finishing with a winning score of 165. Haggins seems a little rusty; he didn’t break 100. (As in regular bowling, a score of 300 is a perfect game.)

Owens credited his history of athletic prowess. As a child, he rode a unicycle around Morrisania, and, when he was 12, he taught his brother Albert how to ride. Albert took the skill beyond the neighborhood to perform with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Although it has been decades since anyone has seen Owens ride, he insists he could still do it if he wanted to.

Al-Basri teased Haggins about his loss. “You missed last Monday,” he said. “It shows when you miss a Monday. Athletes need to practice every day.”

Al-Basri said the seniors chose Wii bowling over Wii tennis because it is more realistic. “Bowling is more energizing and it is more true to the real world,” said Al-Basri, who, as a tennis player, agrees that Wii tennis isn’t up to snuff.

In the nine months since the seniors started playing Wii, they have gained nicknames from the senior center’s janitor, Eric Dance, who christened Owens  “Ty Boogey” and calls Haggins “Moose” to encourage them. “Those guys are keeping it strong,” he said.

“It’s show time, Ty Boogey,” Dance hollered as Owens set up for a frame. He leapt forward three steps, then swung his right arm and lifted his right leg as if he were hurling a 12-pound bowling ball at real pins in the local bowling ally. The digital ball rocketed down the lane and after all nine pins fell, the sound of a perfect strike resonated from the television. With a wide grin on his face, Owens returned to his seat and waited his next turn.

In the meantime, a determined Haggins stepped up, and bowled in an awkwardly quick shuffle. It was a little off the mark, but not enough so he couldn’t finish strong with a second shot. You would think Haggins and Owens were ninepin regulars, but neither has spent much time bowling for real.

“He’s back in the game with a spare,” hollered Dance, followed by a brief round of applause. That, however was the end of his rebound.

“This is good exercise and good motivation for the seniors,” said the Rev. Idus Nunn, director of the senior center. “I’m trying to get another day in the week or maybe a grant so we can get our own Wii.”

As  the top scorer of the day, Owens won a green fleece jacket donated to the senior center for the winner of the week’s tournament.

Looking down at his plate of mashed potatoes and a piece of chicken fried steak, Owens said, “This is a victory meal for me.”  It brought back memories. Growing up,  Owens and Haggins spent frequented each others’ houses. “My mama was the neighborhood cook,” said Haggins.

Despite the game’s outcome, Haggins and Owens both agreed that Wii bowling is much more fun than bingo. And although they see each other every day, they look forward to playing every week to keep their competition going for the rest of their lives.

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1528 Bryant Ave.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

From the outside, 1528 Bryant Ave. looks like a decent building. But once inside, it´s clear that years of neglect have taken a toll. Poor wiring, faulty plumbing,crumbling walls and filth caused by both old age and neglect plague the structure.

Residents say that their five-story, 21-unit apartment building has not been regularly maintained for years. The city´s housing department has on file 483 open violations against 1528 Bryant Ave., 162 of them registered since October 13, 2008. The most common complaint was the lack of utilities.

The building´s rapid decline can be traced from July, 2007, when it was purchased by OCG VII, an Ocelot entity, with Fannie Mae financing. Ocelot imploded in late 2008, however, and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loan earlier this year. The City has now placed the building in its new Alternative Enforcement Program, under the supervision of Marc Landis, the court-appointed receiver.

Irma Aponte and her husband, Eddie, moved into the building 43 years ago and have seen it literally fall apart before their eyes over the past four decades.

“It was beautiful when we moved in,” said Irma Aponte who said the last few owners have walked away from the building after using it to make a little cash. “As soon as they got a few dollars in their pocket they left,” she said.

Aponte pointed to a leaky drainpipe in her apartment, which her husband patched up with a soda can and duct tape over one year ago. She said the electricity shorts out constantly, because of poor wiring all over the building.

“I can´t have air conditioning,” said Aponte who buys whole boxes of fuses when she sees them in stores because they are tough to get.

On Aug. 25, the city took over the building after foreclosing on Ocelot. The city´s Department of Preservation and Development then came in to make emergency repairs.

Since Fannie Mae foreclosed earlier this year, the city´s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has come in to make emergency repairs. A new roof and front door have been installed, securing the building from drug addicts, who Aponte claimed were wandering into the building to smoke crack in the stairwells. Ramos said the fuse boxes and wiring are scheduled to be replaced soon.

One abandoned apartment on the fourth floor has been turned into a pigeon coop, residents say, by someone who lives within the building.  Twenty pigeons roost on a baby crib. Bags of corn lay nearby in a red plastic container.

The birds and bird food attract vermin and roaches into the already decrepit building, Aponte said. “I would like to know what they´re going to do with the building,” she said, “because we have no landlord.”

Posted in HousingComments (1)

806 E. 175th St.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

Serious repairs are underway at the notoriously rundown apartment buildings at 806-808 E. 175th Street in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx. Earlier this year, a group of tenants convinced a Bronx judge to replace their negligent landlord with a new manager who would finally make the improvements.

The two adjoining brick structures near the north end of Crotona Park have five floors each and 43 units all together. They are now getting more than just a fresh coat of paint.

A recently installed new boiler ensures that every tenant has heat and hot water. New metal front doors are replacing the old wood ones that were considered fire hazards.

“It’s getting better,” said Gladys Archer, a retiree who has been a resident for nearly 20 years and heads up the tenant association.

Before February, the building had hundreds of violations on file with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that included collapsed ceilings and rodent infestations. But, in February, several residents took their landlord, Ocelot, to Bronx Housing Court, hoping to force the owners to make the necessary repairs.

“That’s what you have to do if you want to live where you’re going to live,” said Archer. “You gather together and you fight.”

She said that Ocelot managers kept promising that repairs would be made soon.

“We promise, promise, promise,” Archer said the owner told residents. “But, meanwhile, they were taking us to court for rent, and the building was coming down.”

Since then, the Bronx Housing Court has appointed a new administrator, Rafael Lara, an experienced manager and executive director of New City View Development, to look after the buildings and their tenants.

“We’ve been renovating most of the apartments,” said Lara. He has a $175,000 bond, forfeited by the landlord, to work with, and repairs have been ongoing since he stepped onto the scene.

In some cases, residents whose apartments have severe mold and mildew problems after years of continuous leaks have received new drywall in their units and even new kitchen cabinets. Some bathrooms have been renovated, and the hallways have been redecorated, wiping away graffiti. “We’ve been correcting it little by little,” said Lara.

Some residents complain that Lara is taking too long with the repairs.

“They’re all complaining he’s slow,” said Archer. “He’s taking care of the leaks, slowly, but it’s being done. February to now, it’s a lot of improvement.”

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A North Country Perspective on the 23rd District Race

By Alec Johnson

Until I moved to Manhattan in August, I lived most of my life in an upstate city that most people have never heard of. But after yesterday’s election, people around the world know the name of Watertown, the heart of New York’s 23rd Congressional District. Depending on which report you read, the vote was either a referendum on President Barack Obama or the right-wing of the Republican Party or even the star power of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, who sang the praises of the Conservative Party candidate, Douglas L. Hoffman.

But forget the pundits for a moment. If you want to understand what really happened in Watertown, take a look at the scalpers hawking Yankee tickets in the Bronx or the street vendors selling knockoff watches, sunglasses, and handbags nearly every day on the streets of New York City. Those are scams, as I quickly learned when I arrived. So was this election – right up until the moment when the votes were counted.

The Republican Party, with its sights set on luring the conservative right, tricked the district out of a qualified moderate candidate. The scam might have worked, but the voters were savvy. In the end, the seat went to a Democrat for the first time in a century.

The results might have surprised some people who associate anything north of the Bronx with right-wing gun nuts. But the 23rd is very different from what New Yorkers might imagine. It covers 13,000 square miles of rural farmland, the Adirondack Mountains, hundreds of small communities, and one large Army base. At first glance, it couldn’t be more different from my current beat, the three-square mile 16th District in the Bronx, the poorest district in the nation. But these two areas – 320 miles apart – actually have something very important in common. They both are home to many people who need government support to survive.

I grew up in a yellow house in Watertown, the district’s largest city with a population of 27,000. We had a big back yard and friendly elderly neighbors who fed their leftover meatloaf to my chocolate lab. But just a short drive away were the rolling hills of some of the most fertile dairy farms in the country; which depend on federal milk subsidies to stay in business.

The race for the 23rd began in June when the popular longtime congressman, John M. McHugh, was selected by Obama to become the Secretary of the Army. We in the North Country were happy for him. At the same time however, we realized that we had lost our influential voice in Congress and that the looming special election would be a challenge. Over the years, McHugh has been a champion for the North Country in securing much needed federal dollars that have kept the region alive.

Local Republican Party leaders selected Dierdre  Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman, to run on the Republican ticket. The Democrats chose Bill Owens, a lawyer from Plattsburg. Scozzafava, well-versed in local issues, had  a 150-year history of Republican control on her side. Then the street peddlers with the $20 Rolexes came to town.

National Republicans saw the pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage Scozzafava as too moderate to support and cut her off from the party. They chose Doug Hoffman, an accountant with no political experience who lived outside the district to run on the Conservative Party line, financed by the Republican Party. Hoffman campaigned on conservative federal issues such as small government, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and failed a Watertown Daily Times local issues quiz. Republicans attempted to fool voters by placing Hoffman in a shiny box wrapped in big-name conservatives, like Sarah Palin, thinking he would be an easy sell.

But the Republican Party tried tricking the wrong voters. Although the district was red for many years, red is not what makes people in the North Country tick. We’re mostly moderates with a core that is uncomfortable with extremism, on either side. We’re dairy farmers, mechanical tradesmen and generally middle of the road hard-working people.

These moderate values cause voters to vary their support between local and national elections. Locally, moderate Republicans hold office, because North Country residents vote for like-minded people, who happen to call themselves Republicans. Local races are focused on issues most important to the community.

But for years, the North Country also supported a very liberal Democratic senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and last year, Obama carried the district.

The ultra-conservative party saw the district as an opportunity for a litmus test to prove they could shove an unknown into the race and win an election. But Scozzafava foiled that plan by dropping out on Saturday and endorsing Owens, the Democrat, on Sunday; because he is moderate and can better represent the district.

In the final weeks, both parties pulled the stops and got every big name they could to stump for their candidates. The day before the election, Vice President Joe Biden attended a rally at Watertown’s largest community center for Owens. And the same day, Republicans brought in Big from the country music duo Big & Rich who sang Hoffman’s praises alongside Fred Thompson.

In the end, my fellow voters in the 23rd voted for the person they thought would best represent them. He may be a Democrat, but he’s really one of us.

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