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Church of the Holy Rollers

By Alex Berg

One by one, seven teenage boys zipped down the hallway on skateboards. Like successive bullets fired out of a shotgun, the teens hit a waist high ramp that launched them into a tango with the air and the board beneath their feet. Fifteen year-old Jose Castillo flew off the triangular ramp, air bound for mere seconds before his feet and board separated, bringing him crashing to the ground under a nearby basketball hoop.

The hoop was tagged with yellow, orange and red graffiti — “Jesus Lives.” The skate ramp was inside a South Bronx church.

Castillo is a member of HeavenBound7, a skateboarding team started by Henry Pena, a 51-year-old computer technician by day and volunteer youth minister by night at La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Church. Pena is something of a coach to the 30 to 40 teens on the team who come to the Morrisania church on Friday nights to skate on ramps and grind rails he built himself.

During some practices, Pena instructs Castillo to bend his knees or fix his form. Other times he is a quiet onlooker. But his mission is always clear: give kids a constructive activity in an unexpected location to get them off the streets in a neighborhood taxed by drugs and crime.

When the skaters tell outsiders they skateboard inside a church, they’re often met with crooked stares. The fusion of religion and skateboarding strikes people as novel, since religion is associated with discipline and skateboarding is an unconventional sport. Then again, skateboarding is simply a rarity in the Bronx, where there are only three skate parks – Mullaly near Yankee Stadium, one on Allerton Avenue towards the northeast and Throgs Neck in the far northeast – and none in the Central or South Bronx.

“The Bronx is gritty,” said Damion Blair, a 20-year-old student at the Art Institute of New York, who was one of the first to skate in the church with a congregation of 50. “It’s real hard to raise any kids with the violence. It’s not a good environment. You never hear skaters come to the Bronx to skate. Never. You hear skaters go to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Because there’s no safe environment for people to skate.”

The church HeavenBound7 calls home, an unexceptional tan building with traditional red doors and a well-lit sign, is located in a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of families lived in poverty in 2007. It is on 169th Street two blocks away from where a 15-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy when she was caught in gang cross fire walking home from school in November. She remarkably survived.

HeavenBound7 is the first of its kind in the Bronx, though skateboarding ministries are emerging around the country as a way to draw kids to church, said Steve Rodriguez, a representative of 5boro, a New York skate gear manufacturer and skate team sponsor.

“It’s funny to me because it’s like complete irony,” said Mathew Melendez, a 19-year-old City Tech student who was also one of the first to join HeavenBound7. “Skateboarding is all like rebels climbing over fences looking for good spots. And then church people are like good fellow people. Put that all together it’s like, what, a skateboarding team by a church? Whoa.”

At the end of practice, Pena, who counts woodworking as a hobby, used a drill to remove a railing attached to the floor. The team helped with the effort, moving the wood ramps and platforms to the corners of the recreation room. When everything was cleaned up, they congregated around Pena outside before he drove a few of them home. They can’t walk home around 9 p.m. because the streets are “hot,” in Pena’s words.

“I just feel there’s a need for people to be a little bit more sympathetic about kids,” Pena said, as his normally warm voice became raspy and choked up. “Because there’s so many people out there who are willing to say ‘Hey, want to sell some drugs? Want to go beat up this kid? Or go steal this? I want to give them a safe haven to get away from that.”

The team opens its doors to kids who often come from “disadvantaged homes, very sad situations,” said Chanabelle Arriaga, a member of the church and the president of the HeavenBound7 board that advises and supports the team. “I just wish there were more people who cared who would take an interest in the underprivileged and not turn their cheek.”

Pena, who has four daughters of his own, definitely does not turn a cheek; he literally invites kids off the streets into the church to add to the cacophonous clattering and clanking that echoes throughout the building thanks to the skating.

“We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Melanie Figueroa, the mother of Shane Rivera, one of the skaters. “They needed a male role model. They started out with one little trick and they gained so much knowledge.”

Shane Rivera has also acknowledged the benefits of the team, which spurned a personal commitment to school and self-improvement. It has provided Rivera with a religious outlet, though he normally attends a Catholic church closer to his home.

“It’s kind of a weird skate spot,” said Rivera, a muscular fifteen-year-old clad in a trendy skating t-shirt. “I think we’re the only team that does this; we’ll say a prayer before we skate.”

Nevertheless, none of the teens have skateboards that say “I follow Jesus Christ Skateboarder” on the underside of the deck, the wooden board, or t-shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” across the chest. (And there is most definitely no “Jesus died so you could skate” merchandise.)

A skater goes off the up-ramp at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

A skater "soars high" at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

Religious participation is not mandatory. There is an occasional Bible lesson or prayer, though Pena usually teaches about “soaring high” in other areas of life, like education, personal hygiene and getting a good job.

The results of Pena’s efforts are palpable. The team, which runs on a $500 stipend from the church and is mostly paid for out of Pena’s pocket, will be giving $2,000 towards two college scholarships in the spring, one for a HeavenBound7 skater and the other for a local high school student from fundraising and money donated by church outsiders and companies like Plaza Construction, where board president Arriaga works.

Some of the costs are due to Pena’s inclination to give out skateboards on the street, as he did before he started the team. After taking a class at the church that encouraged participants to delve into a hobby, Pena tried to construct a skateboard using his woodworking knowhow. He couldn’t build a functional skateboard, but his interest grew and he opened a skate shop with a friend, then one on his own in Mott Haven last year. He left both behind because they were too expensive and too much work to maintain.

Without the stores to worry about, the bills still add up. The team travels to New Jersey and Connecticut to go to skate parks and amateur competitions, where a few of the skaters have placed. Pena spent roughly $3,000 of his own money on raw materials to build the ramps and equipment for the team this year. The church should also purchase special insurance in the event of an injury that would cost $150 per month on top of its current insurance, but cannot afford it.

Fortunately, the skaters mostly throw 360 flips and ollies instead of, say, a “Christ air,” a trick where a skater lets go of their board entirely as he or she is launched off a ramp and holds his or her arms out to look like the image of crucified Christ.

“They want to complete a trick. So I think what’s appealing about it is a sense of accomplishment,” Pena, who became the youth minister nine years ago, said. “Then they transfer that sense of accomplishment to school. That’s one of my regulations. You do good in school you can come here and skate. You don’t do good in school, I’m sorry.”

Since Jose Castillo began participating in the team, he has improved in school because Pena asks to see report cards and he has begun helping neighborhood kids with their skating.

“I used to be the type of kid who used to be in the streets. And like, do nothing else,” said Castillo, who has lose, lanky limbs that matched his relaxed manner. “But after I got involved in skateboarding, met Henry and came over here, it’s like everything just changed. Became a new kid, actually.”

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail.  By Alex Berg

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail. By Alex Berg

For Castillo, skating has become an all-consuming way of life. He has to make a concerted effort to skate less. During one practice, he cut his foot from a fall. Pena bandaged it up in a bathroom the teens skate out of to propel themselves down a hallway and into the recreation room because they have limited space.

The skaters occasionally skate outside to escape the tight space, a relief from crashing into a wall at the end of the up-ramp. That has allowed some of the participants to go places they normally would not go.

“It opens up your mind to different things. It doesn’t make you secluded. You meet a lot of new people that you never thought you’d meet or talk to. If we never had a skateboard we’d never know half of the places in Manhattan,” Blair, who calls Pena a “second pops,” said.

While the skaters have found a venue for athleticism and personal growth in the team, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Many of the parishioners have voiced their differences with skating in the church, said William Garcia, the president of the church board and Pena’s brother in law.

Skateboarding leaves black marks on the church’s floors, which angers parishioners who want to preserve the condition of the recreation room. There have been scheduling conflicts to use the space and the skating is very loud. (The parishioners who are most vocal against the skateboarding did not return any calls or emails.)

Not to mention, since the days Pena was a teenager himself at the church after he was invited in by a youth minister, different administrations have been more or less welcoming of youth activities. Some have felt it is a nuisance and the church is not a place for teenagers while others have been open to youth activities.

“I feel like he’s the one actually bringing the kids in that church,” Nicole Ortiz, Pena’s 24-year-old daughter, said. “He’s the only one making an effort to reach out into the community. The church is being very rigid and conventional. They don’t want to try new things.”

The skaters are cognizant of the disagreements over the space. Melendez and Blair both said they understood why the congregation would want to preserve the space, since it is used for other activities.

Positive feedback from parents has temporarily assuaged the churchgoers’ gripes. However, there is no answer for the growing team’s need for a larger space. Pena’s next mission is to campaign for a skate park in the Central or South Bronx.

The skaters want one too. Yet Castillo is concerned that if there’s a skate park nearby, the skaters will have to deal with threats other than their safety. He frets that once other kids start skateboarding, they’ll fall in love with the sport and take each other’s boards.

“Around here you got all these projects and stuff,” Castillo said. “You put a skate park in the projects, some kid could come out of nowhere and say ‘hey, give me your skateboard.’ And then they’re going to get so addicted to it they’re going to come every day and take every single kid that comes to the park they’re skateboard.”

Still, more holy rollers would be welcomed, maybe even praised.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (3)

More Homeless in the City since the Great Depression

by Alex Berg and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Stephanie Francisco, a 19-year-old mother of one, returns to the shelter after she takes her 3-year-old Kiara to ticker treat. Photo by Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Stephanie Francisco, a 19-year-old mother, returns to the shelter after she takes her 3-year-old daughter trick-or-treating on Halloween. Photo by Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Karen Suazo left Honduras to come to the United States in 2002, hoping to find work in a hair salon, and to improve her life. Instead, five years after stepping onto U.S. soil, she moved into a homeless shelter, alone, unemployed and pregnant with her first son.

“I never think that I am going to be in the shelter. Never. So bad,” said Suazo, 25, holding her 3-month-old son in her arms.

For the last two years, Suazo has lived with her two children in East Tremont’s Cross Bronx Residence, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“Different people coming in every day, too much people coming in,” Suazo said, describing the near-constant flow of those seeking refuge.

Suazo is one of 39,000 people seeking shelter each night in the city’s homeless system, a record number that has grown by 45 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office eight years ago.

According to a recently released report from the Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy organization, more people are seeking shelter in 2009 in New York City than they did during the Great Depression of the 1930s—this despite Bloomberg’s 2004 initiative aimed at reducing the homeless population in the city by two-thirds in five years.

Bloomberg’s 2004 Housing Stability Plus program (HSP) aimed to provide a city-wide rental assistance program for homeless families, chronically homeless single adults in shelter and parents awaiting housing in order to reunify with their children in foster care.

The plan offered five-year housing subsidies to homeless families that decreased in value by 20 percent each year. This plan replaced the former system that gave priority to homeless individuals and families for public housing and federal Section 8 vouchers.

Many in the Cross Bronx shelter said it is more difficult than ever to find affordable housing, as a result. “People tell me that it was so easy before,” said Suazo. “You stay in shelter for six months and they take you to an apartment. Now, it is so hard. My friend has been living in the shelter for three years.”

Shandell Jackson, a 28-year old mother of one daughter at the Cross Bronx Residence, waited for two years for a voucher.

Jackson, who works for the Department of Parks and Recreation, entered the shelter system because she was a victim of domestic violence. She had been to six shelters over the past three years before coming to the Cross Bronx Residence.

Cross Bronx Residence is located at 505 East 175th Street in East Tremont, Bronx. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Cross Bronx Residence is located at 505 East 175th Street in East Tremont, Bronx. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

“We don’t get nothing.  Nothing ever gets done.  They try to get you put out of the shelter,” Jackson said.

The more than 50 families in the shelter are supposed to receive basic supplies such as pillows and blankets. Jackson complained that the supplies either don’t arrive or are stolen.

“It’s an argument if I go and ask for some tissue,” Jackson said.  “We don’t get roach spray–we’re supposed to get roach spray. You’ve got people in here that are not U.S. citizens and they don’t have anything.”

Despite everything, Karen Suazo, a Honduran immigrant, remains optimistic about eventually leaving the shelter with her children.

“I want to work hard,” Suazo said, “to give them a better life.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, PoliticsComments (1)

Samaná’s Destiny

by Alex Berg

It is easy to see why “Conde Nast Traveler ” magazine named the Samaná peninsula in the Dominican Republic one of the top destinations in the world eight years ago. One photograph at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture exhibit featuring this unique landscape with its even more unique cultural heritage shows lush palms snaking along the pockets of sand lining the bright blue ocean water of Rincon Beach.

Another photograph in the Bronx center hints at the tension that underlies this would-be private paradise: Row after row of empty white beach chairs line the shore, reminders that foreign corporations have abandoned plans for development when the global recession hit. The news of stalled development for many locals was greeted with a mix of worry and relief.

Founded by former slaves from Philadelphia in the 1820s, Samaná has a rich legacy that many of its descendants in the Bronx and elsewhere are bent on preserving, said Wallace Edgecombe, director of the Hostos center.

“The locals are not trying to escape development,” Edgecombe said. “They just want it done right without displacing people and impoverishing people.”

The photos in the exhibit that is expected to run through Nov. 7 were taken by about 15 students and six professional photographers, faculty and staff who studied in Samaná last August and July. Students studied the eclectic aspects of this Afro-Dominican culture in Samaná, where English is the spoken language. The cuisine of choice includes American Southern food like Johnny cakes, for example. And the people are mostly practicing Methodists, Edgecombe said.

The area recently became coveted real estate after a road was constructed to the capital Santo Domingo, which cut the commute from eight hours to two, according to Carlos Sanabria, director of the Hostos Community College humanities department.

Edgecombe described one photo of a resort’s pastel façade – a block-long row of differently shaped attached houses with yellow, lavender, green and red paneling. It looked more like a Disney World imitation of a tropical bungalow than an authentic dwelling “an insult” said Edgecombe.

But most of the exhibit is dedicated to the rich cultural scenes of Los Afro-Americanos, as the locals are called.

“The idea of the photo exhibit is to inform people about these traditions so that they can have more of a sense of Afro-Dominican culture,” said Carlos Sanabria. In fact, the exhibit is part of Quijombo, a biennial festival celebration Afro-Dominican culture.

In one photo taken after a Methodist church service, adults and children join hands in a large circle on a field in front of the red and white paneled church. The women’s dresses, which are mostly blue, flow in and out the as their arms swing back and forth. The sun shines through trees creating shadows in the middle of the circle.

The circle is a variation of ring around the rosy, part of a series of games played after church services by the original Methodists who came to Samaná, according to Ryan Mann-Hamilton, a graduate student writing his dissertation about the area.

For Mann-Hamilton, the study abroad trip to Samaná resonated on a personal level. Mann-Hamilton is a descendant of Afro-Americanos and did not know anything about their history as former slaves until recently.

“My family was one of the families that migrated there in the 1800s,” Mann-Hamilton said. “I didn’t really understand what that migration entailed and how my family got to the Dominican Republic.”

Mann-Hamilton was surprised by the friendly reaction the locals had to the cameras and remembered one particularly poignant shot.

“There’s one of a young fellow, a child, really bulky, kind of strong,” he said. “I was just driving down the road with two other students and we stopped and he sort of came over to us.”

“We took a picture of him. He asked us to bring back the photo and bring back a bike. This is just the middle of nowhere. He just wanted something basic for himself.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

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