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Urban slaughterhouses on the rise

Lamb Arriving At a Vivero in the South Bronx. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Lambs arriving at a vivero in the South Bronx. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

One afternoon in early October, a 16-wheeled tractor-trailer held up traffic along Jerome Avenue in the South Bronx while it backed into an open garage bay. Passersby paused to gaze at the truck’s cargo. Through narrow slats in the trailer, dozens of goats and sheep stuck out their noses, sniffing their last seconds of sunshine before disappearing into the garage.

The truck had traveled from outside Harrisburg, Penn., one of its biweekly trips carrying animals delivered to the vivero, a live butcher shop, sandwiched between two auto body shops and across the street from a gas station. Above the garage bay, a colorful sign blares “Live Poultry!” with cartoonish images of roosters, ducks and goats.

This is “New York Live Poultry,” one in a vast and growing network of over a dozen urban slaughterhouses in the Bronx where customers can choose their dinner from a cage and have the animal slaughtered and butchered within minutes. These viveros are wedged all across the borough — along busy pedestrian avenues, nestled underneath railroad tracks, next to furniture stores, or across from playgrounds.

Once a niche business catering to a distinct segment of the population, viveros are evolving into a dynamic — if not unsettling — staple of everyday Bronx life, capitalizing on the ethnic diversity of a borough that is nearly 30 percent foreign born.

According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, 17 viveros are registered in the Bronx, among 83 total citywide. Some have been in business since the early 1990s. More recently, however, live poultry shops have sprung up with added frequency — thanks in part to the borough’s loose zoning restrictions, lack of supermarket competition and its rapidly growing number of Muslim Arabs and Africans who prefer their meat be killed live in accordance with halal practices. The rapid spread has helped to heighten tension with surrounding business owners. Some wonder how wise it is to butcher animals so near to crowded city streets.

“I don’t ever need my chicken that fresh,” said Bronx city councilwoman Helen Diane Foster. “But people swear by it.”

The Arab population in the city, most of whom are Muslim, has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990, according to a report by the city’s commission on human rights in 2003. More than 3,100 Arabs currently live in the Bronx, while the African population has more than doubled in the last two decades, to 60,000, many of whom are also Muslim and eat only halal meat products.

The majority of the viveros’ clientele are immigrants, and they frequent the shops for freshly butchered meat at a lower cost than the supermarket.. The prices, at less than $2 a pound in most places compare favorably with $2.50 per pound for a breast of chicken at local supermarkets.  Signs and menus are often written in Spanish, and many have images of mosques or Muslim symbols adorning the walls.

“We have all kinds of people coming here,” said Abdul Nahshel, the 18-year-old manager of Cross Bronx Live on Jerome Avenue. “Africans, Latins, even people from Michigan and Ohio.”

Nahshel said cultural preferences even play out with individual orders. Africans often buy older chickens to make soup from the tougher meat. Dominicans prefer Guinea fowl for roasting. Guyanese favor ducks for curry.

“Arab guys don’t buy from the supermarkets,” said Sah Mohmad, manager at Saba Live Poultry on the Grand Concourse, who added that 80 percent of his customers are either Arab or African.

Saba’s live food selection included turkeys, quails, rabbits, pigeons, sheep, goats, even calves — not atypical of an open-air market in the Middle East or Africa. For many Bronx immigrants, the viveros are a last pure vestige of home.

“I think it’s cultural,” said Foster. “Because of the large Dominican and West African population we have, it’s just really cultural.”

* * *

At about 6 p.m. each weeknight along Webster Avenue in Morrisania, workers at the local vivero drag plastic garbage bins packed with discarded animal parts onto the sidewalk.

A special garbage truck that specializes in hauling away such parts will be around shortly to collect the refuse. Until then, however, the stench of rotting meat chokes the neighborhood.

The vivero, Webster Live Chicken, sits snugly in the center of a bustling commercial district. A large furniture store is its neighbor to the right, a Dunkin’ Donuts to the left. Commuters standing at the bus stop on the nearby corner are subjected to wretched odors each evening.

Though no formal complaints have been made to Community District 3, a small petition was circulated by the owner of a liquor store around the corner, demanding the vivero cease its disposal practices.

Still, their popularity spreads, the locations of these slaughterhouses, often in residential and commercial areas, have led to occasional tension with the surrounding community. For neighboring businesses, the smell is enough to raise objections.

“It’s rotten, the smell is awful,” said Ramon Perez, owner of Olympic Cleaners, a dry cleaners around the corner from the vivero. “They put (the bins) outside and the heat makes it smell awful.”

Several women working in the cleaners shook their heads when describing the odor that often seeps through the wall the two stores share.

“They’re burning hair,” Perez said. “Almost everyday I have to go in there and tell them to stop burning.”

The manager of the Webster Avenue vivero declined comment.

A furniture store manager on the Grand Concourse boarded up the hallway leading to the entrance of the store to block some of the smell from an adjacent vivero and occasionally shoos away fugitive chickens from wandering inside.

“I have problems on many levels — just personally it kind of grosses me out,” Foster said. “But surprisingly enough, I have not heard or received any complaints about them.”

* * *

Cross Bronx Live manager Nahshel scoffed when asked if he hears objections from people in the community. “It’s chickens, everybody in the world eats chicken,” he said. “They’re probably against the slaughtering part but they’re not against eating it.”

Most viveros are characterized by a ramshackle appearance: corrugated iron, warped window signs, dusty fans, plastic windows. Inside, the floors are usually concrete, wet with feathers and entrails that clog the drains.

The screeching of Guinea fowl and persistent clucking of hens drowns out conversation between customers and can often be heard from outside the store. Yet, it is the smell that overwhelms the most. A pungent, soggy odor of blood is overlaid by the barnyard scent of tightly packed farm animals.

Despite their appearance, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the body that regulates these businesses, said that they are inspected at least four times per year and that each store must be given two separate licenses to practice: one to ensure the caged animals are healthy, the other regulated processing practices. Furthermore, since 2003, the outbreak of the Avian influenza virus, stores are forced to shut down for a day four times per year to clean and disinfect their entire facilities.

“We’re very familiar with the live bird markets,” a spokesperson for the Department said. “These stores would not be open if there wasn’t a demand for fresh poultry. We want to make sure they’re done in the cleanest, safest way possible.”

Though concerns have been raised in the past about issues with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the Department said, it has not needed to shut down a store in several years.

Some of these stores, like one owned by Musa Samreen on Third Avenue, have been around for decades and have faced the same strict regulations by state inspectors. Samreen, who opened his first store in 1989 and at one point ran three at a time, has voiced his concern that the number of stores has spread out of control.

He has witnessed copycat enterprises pop up throughout the borough, and, as he looked around his own near empty shop, he expressed disdain for how other shop owners have run their businesses with less care and attention to hygiene. Awkward placement in once blighted and now increasingly residential areas has taken its toll on his 21-year-old business, which he has filled with flat screen televisions and a seated waiting area. He foresees similar consequences for others.

“We don’t do 10 percent of the business we did before,” said Samreen, who came to New York from Jerusalem in 1981. “This used to be an industrial area and now it is becoming residential. The new people don’t shop here.”

* * *

On a clear Sunday afternoon, just as nearby churches began to empty, vans pulled up to the curb in front of a vivero underneath a train trestle as a cycle of drivers double park, run inside, and within 10 minutes reemerge with a blue plastic bag filled with chicken meat.

“I like buying fresh chickens; I don’t like frozen ones,” said Victor Reyes who came all the way from Shelton, Conn., for chicken that morning. “It’s organic, you know? You can pick the one you want.”

Outside the shop, a 10-year-old boy named Angel waited for his mother to finish collecting her weekly allowance of two whole chickens. The smell of the store bothered him, so he chose to sit patiently in the cool October air.

“If it was me, I would throw all those animals back into nature,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern BronxComments (0)

The little Mexican restaurant that could

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile.

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile. Photo: Alexander Besant

On any weekday morning, Alfredo Diego, co-owner of Coqui Mexicano restaurant, is busy cooking slivers of chicken for tacos, spooning out avocados for guacamole, and chopping onions, lettuce and tomatoes for garnish.

He then wipes down the counters, sits near the window overlooking a bleak strand of Third Avenue near 161st Street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and waits for customers to come. Sometimes he waits for hours.

Diego and his girlfriend, Danisha Nazario, 37, moved to the area in 2001 and have owned and run their small Mexican-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant and deli for just over two years. The restaurant, which serves tacos alongside black beans, rice and other regional cuisine in a stripped down bodega with just three tables, is just one of a handful of restaurants in the area – and one of the only ones that does not specialize in fried chicken.

“We try to make healthy food here,” said Danisha. “The area needs more healthy places.”

But two years after its opening, Coqui Mexicano has yet to break even. Nazario said the restaurant is getting closer to reaching the $5,000 necessary to stay out of debt each month, but so far, their sales have not turned a profit. Diego estimates that the restaurant serves about 30 customers per day, mostly regulars and mostly those coming for lunch from other local businesses. The couple is not sure how much longer they can last at the current rate.

In many ways, the couple may be two fragile steps ahead of the expected resurgence in this neighborhood. “This is a place where people are just starting to play,” Nazario said. “But there is no foot traffic at night.”

Both remain remain hopeful. The restaurant lies at heart of a revitalization that is expected to include new housing units and restaurants surrounded the recently completed satellite campus of Boricua College. Construction has begun to attract hundreds of new residents, those who Nazario and Diego hope will become frequent customers.

However, according to Nazario, currently, the new population seems to prefer Manhattan for its nightlife, so far. Construction is slow, and the hints of revitalization she and Diego saw years earlier has not yet panned out.

Born in Puerto Rico, Nazario has lived most of her life in the United States. She graduated in International Marketing from Baruch College and later worked at Dallas BBQ, the New York City food chain where she met Diego.

Later, she took a position in the business center of the Essex Hotel in midtown Manhattan where she continues to head to work at 5:30 a.m. every weekday.

“I still go to work ‘till the business can hold itself,” said Nazario.

Diego, who now works full-time at the restaurant, was born in Acapulco, Mexico. Though he remains coy about his life story, he says that he learned to cook at home in Mexico where, as a boy, he would often make meals for his siblings to help his mother – an experience that put him off cooking for years.

He arrived in the United States some 20 years ago and has worked all over Manhattan in food stores, restaurants and bodegas, finally ending up at Dallas BBQ.

Diego and Nazario began renting the Bronx storefront in the spring of 2008 on the site of a former grocery store that, according to the couple, was a drug den that housed a brothel in a back room.

“The woman who owned it lived in New Jersey,” said Nazario. “She didn’t care about what her business was doing to the neighborhood.”

It took the couple three months to clean out the store, which was in abysmal shape, full of decaying food products and garbage. During the cleaning, Diego developed a lung infection from the noxious fumes that emanated from the debris found in the store.

“It was horrible,” said Nazario. “The store was disgusting.”

Though the couple had readied the restaurant for business in mid-summer, they were not given the go ahead by the city for another few months until Nazario went downtown and caused what she called, “a scene,” in the department that issues restaurant permits. They were awarded a license to serve food in September, after having spent $10,000 for five months rent without making a dollar.

The couple faced another obstacle just after opening: discrimination from the local community.

“There has also been a lot of controversy because I am Puerto Rican and Diego is Mexican,” said Nazario. “A lot of people in the community did not accept this. We would get racist remarks and everyday lots of people telling us to get out of the neighborhood.”

The couple’s problems went beyond neighborhood xenophobia, as they recognized that overhead costs climbed higher than expected and that the neighborhood had not changed as fast as they had hoped – many of the buildings around them were just being constructed with potential customers not moving into the area soon enough.

In that first year, business was slow.

In desperation Nazario got on the Internet and searched for cheap ways to promote the business. She joined Facebook and began randomly contacting residents of the area, asking them to come out and try the restaurant.

“I had never used anything like it before,” she said. “Facebook really saved my ass.”

She even began sending e-mail messages to local U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, tempting him with homemade guava cake.

To get word out to the community, Nazario also helped to create an informal neighborhood pact whereby area business owners agreed to patronize one another’s stores to help support local commerce.

The pact includes a local bodega, a community college and a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by a husband and wife team who have experienced similar problems to Nazario and Diego.

“She and I have a lot in common,” said Nazario. “We tell each other our problems and about how business is going.”

Yet her efforts were still not enough to make the bills stop piling up and in March of this year, the couple was handed an eviction notice for having not made rent payments to the landlord. At that point, they were eating soup every day to save money for rent.

But just before their scheduled court date to fight the eviction, their luck changed.

The couple received an email from Agnes Rodriguez, 31, an arraignment clerk at the Bronx Defenders inviting them to a fundraiser at their restaurant. Rodriguez had organized the fundraiser after hearing that the restaurant, where many Bronx Defenders’ staff eat lunch, was struggling.

“We love them dearly at the Bronx Defenders,” said Rodriguez. “And I always want to support Latino businesses in the area.”

The couple was touched by Rodriquez’s gesture, which raised hundreds of dollars for the restaurant – money they needed to keep Coqui Mexicano alive.

On top of that, Rep. Serrano, who had finally come in to taste the guava cake almost a year before, helped Nazario negotiate a payment plan with the landlord, which came to an end this month.

“Even if we hadn’t survived it would be worth it because we made so many friends,” said Nazario.

These days, the couple is trying to build on their positive momentum, however slight, by generating a more solid customer base.

They have established a small lending library in the form of stuffed bookshelf near the front door that they hope will bring more people in, even if they don’t want to eat. And they have hosted concerts by local musicians, too, hoping to generate buzz around the restaurant.

Nazario admits that the difficulties of keeping the restaurant open have put a strain on her relationship. She and Diego take their problems from work home with them at night.

Yet she is adamant that they are not ready to give up. The couple plans to keep the business alive for as long as they can.

“We’ve been through so much,” Nazario said. “But we’ll pull through.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Money, Special ReportsComments (0)