Tag Archive | "Bronx"

Father arraigned for concealing his baby son’s corpse

James Currie, 37, was arraigned Thursday, on charges of concealing his infant son’s corpse. But so far, no charges have been laid in connection with the death of the baby, Mason Saldana.

The investigation is ongoing, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Currie allegedly disposed of the baby’s body in August, throwing it into the East River, and then took “three flights to three different parts of the world,” according to court documents.

Julie Saldana, the baby’s mother, received texts from Currie shortly after he landed in Bangkok, three days after the infant’s body was found in the river, according to police.

“The good news is we will never see each other again,” Currie wrote. Asked where he was, Currie replied, “i (sic) am not in the usa (sic).” In answer to where their son was, Currie wrote: “You will never see Mason again.” 

Currie had taken custody of their child for the weekend in early August. Surveillance footage showed Currie entered his apartment, in the Bronx that day, holding a live baby. Just over 24 hours later, Currie left his apartment wearing a child’s harness with a motionless bundle the size of baby, covered by a blanket, according to police.

Currie, an employee with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, then used his employer issued card to board a bus in the Bronx, before entering the subway at 23rd Street. Later that day, around the time Mason’s body was found, Currie re-entered the subway at Chambers Street in Manhattan, without the harness, bundle or blanket that was covering it, according to police.

Family and friends gathered in the Bronx, two weeks after Mason’s Saldana’s body was found, to say a final goodbye. Julie Saldana sat by the casket that held her son’s body, stroking his face, as police offered their condolences.

Currie’s next court hearing is Nov. 1st, according to prosecutors. He is being held at the Brooklyn Detention Complex without bail.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protesters hold signs accusing Carter of displacement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written with additional reporting by Lucas Manfield.

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From Street Vendor to Shop Owner

A green photo album rests on her open hands. Inside, there’s a collection of carefully photographed flower arrangements.

“I love plants, sometimes I feel like they’re talking to me,” said Carolina Bernal, 54, a Mexican immigrant who has been running her own flower shop in the southeast Bronx for two years. Surrounding herself with flowers has become a safe haven for her, having left everything she ever cherished behind.

Bernal is one of millions of Mexican immigrants who have risked their lives by crossing the border to the United States, trading their homes and families for an uncertain but promising future. Despite paying taxes and contributing to the U.S. economy, this group of undocumented immigrants lives in fear of deportation in an era of Donald Trump.

Flowers in the fridge

 

Life in the barrio

Bernal’s story as a hard worker starts when her life as a student came to an abrupt and unexpected end almost 40 years ago. Born and raised in Santa Cruz Meyehualco — a poor neighborhood in eastern Mexico City — she was the second daughter in a family of nine children.

Her mother kept pigs, geese, turkeys, and chickens to feed the family. Her stepfather provided for everything else.

When Bernal turned 17, her stepfather died, taking her childhood with him. He died of a liver disease. “He passed away from getting so terribly mad,” she said, holding her hands together, shifting her gaze to the floor.

As one of the oldest children, Bernal had to help her stay-at-home mother; she started looking for a job as an accountant’s assistant. The first man she interviewed with tried to sexually abuse her, so instead she took a low-paying shift in a plastic factory situated in the industrial belt that surrounds Mexico City.

Her life as a working high school student did not last; Bernal had to drop out of school to work both night and day shifts. She promised herself she’d only quit school for one year while things got back on track. But she ended up working for the company, Plásticos y Reparaciones de Monterrey, for the next 15 years.

Bernal began as a floor employee in a plastic injection plant. She had to work three shifts a day to buy one pair of shoes. It was 1982, she was barely 19, and Mexico was experiencing one of its most notorious economic crises.

As time went by, between one shift and the other, injecting plastic day in and day out, she slowly began to exercise leadership among the employees.

Ten years later, Bernal had worked her way up to quality control manager. She was in charge of making sure their main client, the rum manufacturer Bacardi, was happy with the product.

“At that time, I was negotiating millions of pesos. My signature carried weight,” said Bernal, as she sat on a plastic chair in the corner of her shop filled with flowers. “You know, engineers and businessmen would look at me and say ‘now, this woman is a motherfucker’ because I knew my business and delivered impeccable results”.

By this time, Bernal was 30 years old, and a single mother to a 5-year-old son. That’s when she married, had a daughter, and her life took a dark turn.

“A smart woman can go as far as she wants, until she falls in love,” said Bernal holding her now 23-year-old daughter’s hand behind the shop counter.

Her husband, she said, was jealous and possessive. She had a miscarriage and quit her job. Just like that, 15 years of her life came to another abrupt end.

Her daughter Gaby was born when she was still battling postpartum depression from her previous pregnancy. Soon after, she got a divorce. Bernal went back to work for Bacardi, but her responsibilities as a single mother of two children were overwhelming.

When she discovered the public school her children attended in Mexico City was illegally charging her a fee and putting her children to work mopping and scrubbing floors, she placed her kids in a private Catholic school.

In order to pay for the exorbitant tuition, Bernal moved in with her mother, went back to school, and started a business making school uniforms.

Five years later, her business collapsed when she lost her car in a crash and could no longer deliver the uniforms. With piling debts and no better options, she decided to cross the border into the U.S., making her way to 116th Street in Harlem. After sleeping in a church for a few nights, she moved to the Bronx.

That’s how, nine years ago, a 43-year-old Carolina Bernal crossed the Mexico-U.S. border through the dessert under a blazing sun. She was the oldest immigrant and only woman in the group of young men she was traveling with. Exhausted, one day she decided she couldn’t keep going, and asked to be left behind while lying on a hot black rock.Mexican flags

The boys wouldn’t have it. “Vámonos Doña Carolina”, said Bernal quoting her travel companions when they lifted her up from the rock. “That’s when people started calling me Doña”, she explained in Spanish, making it clear that her nickname was a sign of respect, due to her age.

Doña Carolina then became one of the 11.3 millions of immigrants without proper paperwork in the U.S. as of 2015, according to the PEW Research Center. Even if Mexican immigration has been decreasing since 2007, 49% of all undocumented immigrants are still Mexican; the majority of them work in service sector jobs, like flower design.

 

An unassuming entrepreneur

At age 43, and still without a high school degree, Doña Carolina found herself working as a nanny, a private cook, and a kitchen aid in several Mexican restaurants.

It was in 2007 after one of her long night shifts at the Pancho Villa restaurant that she took a cab home because she was too tired to navigate the subway. A drunk driver hit the taxi, and Doña Carolina was badly injured. She sued and was given a small settlement of $5,000, which she used to open Carolina Flower Shop.

Unable to work long shifts in the kitchen because of her new disabling column lesion, she looked for something that didn’t require as much physical work. Selling flowers was her solution.

Before owning her store, Doña Carolina sold flowers out of a bucket on the sidewalk. She stationed her mobile business in front of a small shop on Westchester Ave., in the shadow of the No. 6 line. But her life as a hawker only lasted a couple of months. Just when the flowers started freezing in the winter cold, the tenant of the shop moved out. Doña Carolina took the opportunity and used her savings as a down payment for the rent.

Doña Carolina had managed to secure a commercial space and open her own small business, but she didn’t know the first thing about actually arranging flowers. She taught herself quickly, using YouTube videos and practicing with fresh stems. Her customer service experience in Mexico prepared her for serving the clients.

Today, Carolina Flower Shop, a couple of blocks north of the St Lawrence Ave. subway station, brims with bamboo bunches in different-sized pots and multicolored alstroemerias resting in buckets of water inside the fridge. She has good-luck pink mini cactuses sitting sturdily next to elegant orchids.

The green plants with leaves reaching up next to the wall are believed to bring prosperity to new businesses. Inside the fridge, carnations look like pompons shoved against each other and gerberas explode in a rainbow of colors. In the corner, white lily buds are about to bloom.

Flower trade

Illustration by Alejandra Ibarra

Back in early 2014, when Doña Carolina’s enterprise was on the pavement, she used to get her flowers from warehouses like Select Roses in Hunts Point. Those big depots have container-sized refrigerators where the flowers are stacked in boxes. The warehouse owners import a bunch of 25 roses for $2.

Nowadays, Doña Carolina gets her flowers from a Korean deliveryman who goes directly to the airport customs office and delivers boxes of flowers twice a week to the doorstep of Carolina Flower Shop. The Korean middleman sells the same 25-rose bouquet for $17 to the florists.

Doña Carolina buys each rose at 60 cents more than its original value. She compensates for the cost of shipment and delivery by producing creative merchandise like flower arrangements and bouquets.

Each bouquet has about 12 roses, adorned with cheaper flowers used as filling, and various green leaves of different shades and shapes. She sells the bouquets — perkily poised in their cellophane wrapping — starting at $70.

Creating value is not the only challenge faced by Mexican shop owners like Doña Carolina. She’s also had to learn how to revive a flower that has been kept in refrigeration for months.

Withered flowers are easily identified; their twigs don’t snap when broken, their leaves are pale and opaque, and their buds are often stuck in the opening phase, like a teenager in arrested development. In order to bring them back to life, Carolina slices their stems diagonally, making it easier for the plant to absorb water.

According to the Department of Labor, there were 2,980 floral designers in New York in 2015, the second most in any state after California. Florists like Bernal earn an average hourly wage of $14.49 and an approximately $30,140 a year. Floral designers in New York are not among the best paid in the industry. In nearby Connecticut, florists make more than $36,000 a year, on average.

Soon after her business opened, Doña Carolina’s daughter joined the family in the Bronx. With a college degree and her mother’s earnings, Gaby came to New York City, and now helps her mom run the flower shop. Gaby is in charge of finances, social media accounts, English speaking costumers and theme party paraphernalia. Doña Carolina manages everything else.

“In spite of all the problems she had, my mom is an independent woman who never needed a man to succeed,” said her daughter, Gaby.

When her daughter finally made it to the U.S., she hadn’t seen her mother in seven years. “When she saw me here, she found a grown woman instead of the little her she had left behind.” The two make a good team, they say. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they laugh, but they always support each other.

“I have to rinse her tears and tell her that she’s wrong, just as she does with me,” Gaby said.

With no previous experience in the flower business, Doña Carolina’s biggest asset is customer service. She figures out ways to accommodate her clients, like when the employees of a deli off Grand Concourse needed a bouquet delivered on Sept. 29. Doña Carolina charged $15 for delivery and then paid for her daughter to take a cab to the deli, tucked behind Bronx Criminal Court. The flowers were for a woman who was forced to retire after nine years because of health problems. Holding the bouquet with her arthritic fingers, the woman said she loved the red and white arrangement.

In late September, Feliciana Danielle popped into Carolina Flower Shop with her husband. They were looking for a centerpiece for a black and gold themed party. Doña Carolina quickly sprayed a couple of green branches with gold and black spray paint and gave Danielle time to think.

After the $90 order was placed, Danielle said she was a returning customer. “I had been here years ago, when I bought the flower arrangements for my wedding.” She came back, knowing Bernal would know how to put together an arrangement that met all her needs.

Doña Carolina opens her shop every day at 8 a.m. After all her ordeals, she won’t stop working until she achieves her final dreams. Her next challenges are obtaining legal residency, getting a car to expand her business, and buying a small house in which she can spend her last days.

“I’ve been run over once and again,” Doña Carolina said. “But no matter what comes my way, I keep getting up.”

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Unofficial American: A Mexican Immigrant in the Bronx

“How can I help you?” asked Israel Sanchez, 20, at Ritchie Torres’ City Council office in the Bronx. He had a calm presence and professional tone, wore a button-down checkered shirt, and spoke with no accent. He was caught at the reception desk with no reference files in front of him but was still able to explain in detail the status of Latino immigrants in the neighborhood. He gave all reference contacts, including email addresses, accurately from memory.

It’s a topic Sanchez knows well. His family is not only part of the immigrant community in Fordham but among the most vulnerable.

“My parents and I live off the book. We pay taxes but the country doesn’t recognize us as legal residents,” he said. “On one hand, you love this country, but on the other, your life is really difficult.”

Meanwhile, a Latino family of ten crowded into the city council office, taking over the reception area that only tightly fits five chairs. Three adults and a flock of children, whose ages varied from toddler to early teen, all spoke Spanish to each other. The woman with the youngest on her lap shook her head with an awkward smile when she was asked if she spoke English. They needed Sanchez to help them communicate.

“People think things in elections won’t affect your lives. But it’s because of what Obama did, I was able to be here and do what I do,” he said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a presidential executive action that President Trump would rescind and President Clinton would defend. The Sanchez family, who cannot vote in the elections, hope the voters will make the right choice for them.

Protection against Deportation

Sanchez was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was two years old. His parents took him to climb over thorny fences at the Mexico-California border, and flew to New York. He qualifies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the executive action initiated by President Obama in June 2012. The action has temporarily protected more than 700,000 immigrants from deportation, 66.6 percent of whom are Mexicans. These immigrants, who are eligible for the executive action and are called the Dreamers, were brought to the United States as children and have made the country their home. Although the executive action does not offer a legal path to citizenship, the Dreamers approved are given temporary work permits.

Immediately after the policy announcement by President Obama, Sanchez applied for the executive action, eager to be able to work legally. He researched the application process, gathered all the legal documents, and submitted the application himself.

Sanchez is temporarily relieved that there is finally a policy that protects immigrants without legal permission like him. “I guess I would be more concerned to meet you if I’m not protected by DACA,” Sanchez said. “The concern is always at the back of our heads.”

His concern does not come from nowhere. The Obama administration has deported more immigrants than any previous president, and the number has been steadily increasing year by year. Although New York City is not among the cities with the top number of deportations, Sanchez and his family are still at risk every day. He deliberately avoids any unlawful activity – things that would be destructive but less devastating for American citizens to be caught doing, such as possession marijuana or working at an illegal business. His uncle’s experience taught the family a lesson.

Hoping to work and earn his living, Sanchez’s uncle landed a job at a company that manufactured counterfeit Nike shoes, where many of the workers were undocumented. Later, the company was reported to the police and had to shut down. Sanchez’s uncle was arrested, and his status was exposed, along with the other immigrant workers who did not have work permit. As a result, he was deported and sent back to Mexico in 2012, after living 20 years in the United States.

 

The Identity

Although Sanchez’s parents have always told him to be extra careful, he was on TV once with Julissa Arce, an author and advocate for Mexican immigrants. In facing the topic, Sanchez never backs down, and his spine is always straight. After Sanchez received protection against deportation, he has become more active in speaking for immigrants like him. Margaret Calmer, Sanchez’s girlfriend since high school, recalled that their high school friends who used to joke about him being Mexican respected him more after knowing the hardships he has faced.

Without a second of hesitation, Sanchez identifies himself as an American. He enjoys Mexican food and music, but since his first memory, he has never stepped out of the country. He’s had an American education and upholds American values like independence and protection for human rights. He wants a career in government to make better policies for immigrants like him.

In order to achieve his goal, Sanchez interned at the city council office while he was a full-time college student and working at Staples for tuitions and expense. “He always works extra hard to prove that he deserves to be here,” Calmer said.

But he becomes frustrated when his identity clashes with how other people see him. “I think I’m an American, but it’s difficult to claim, since I’m not a citizen,” said Sanchez. He finds many people address him first in Spanish. He was once stopped on his way to Boston because his truck had a headlight out, but the police officers asked if he spoke English and searched his truck for drugs for half an hour. After private middle school, he was accepted to a private boarding high school in Virginia, but this dream school revoked the admission decision after the family visited the campus. The school told him that the revocation was a result of his legal status, but he speculated the real reason being that other students’ parents did not like his Mexican origin.

“I was the only Mexican kid. It was very difficult for people like me to go to a school with bunch of rich kids. You kinda feel you are out of the place” Sanchez said. “You kinda expected things like this to happen, but you didn’t think it would actually happen.”

The school admission office, on the other hand, stated that the school would verify the legal status of any applicant. The director of admission did not recall any incident of revocation of admission offer since 2006.

Sanchez’s road to the American Dream demands more efforts than his American peers. He says his Mexican parents hardly know how American society works, and, along with his two younger brothers, rely heavily on him to navigate their lives. Sanchez in many ways has become the third parent of the family. From credit cards to car insurance to college applications and internships, Sanchez has learned it all by himself.

“I have to explain little things like internships to my parents. Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he said.

 

Unseen Future

Because Sanchez’s temporary status comes from a presidential executive action, the next president, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, could revoke the policy. People like Sanchez would no longer be able to work legally and would not be protected from deportations. It’s his worst nightmare.

He is afraid that the new president will drop the policy, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service will report him to law enforcement units for deportations. “They know me now. They know I’m here,” he said.

Sanchez is graduating from Baruch College in two years. He has two scholarships that cover all his tuition, putting no financial burden on his family. But his political commitment to make immigrants’ lives better would be more promising if he were born in the country and had a U.S. passport.

“He’s just normal, like the rest of us. He jokes around and he enjoys his life. But until something changes, there’s always going to be legal status hanging over his mind preventing him from living an entirely normal life,” Calmer said. “All he wants is a normal life.”

“I can never be the President. That’s one thing,” half-joked Sanchez. But whoever does become president can determine whether he can become officially American.

Posted in Bronx Life, FeaturedComments (0)

Another Chance for Bronx Misdemeanor Ticket Holders

A small crowd trickled into the Mount Hope Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 17, hoping for help. Some clutched wrinkled pink police tickets, many held white invitation letters, folded three times, at their chest. At the front door, the new Bronx District Attorney, Darcel Clark, spoke to the press.

“So many times the Bronx is left out of things,” Clark said. “But I’m just going to make sure we always get what we deserve.”

The event, called Another Chance, was the first low-level summons warrant forgiveness program in the Bronx. There have been two in Manhattan and four in Brooklyn.

The Bronx has not been left out when it comes to the number of quality-of-life violation tickets issued. According to the Department of Investigation, the police department has issued more low-level misdemeanor tickets in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city. Residents who attended the event frequently described the tickets they received as “unnecessary” and “ridiculous.”

The Office of Court Administration sent 2,500 summons letters to Bronx residents who have outstanding low-level crime tickets. The letters invited the holders to come to the event and clean up their records. Ticket holders without letters from the other four boroughs were also welcomed. About 500 people attended.

The District Attorney’s Office tried to make the event light-hearted and relaxed. A DJ stationed near the front door of the community center played a song with the lyrics “tonight is going to be a good night”. Ticket holders got free lunch boxes with soda, chips, and sandwiches after meeting the judges. There were tables with information about community resources, including health insurance.

The Legal Aid Society helped organized the event. Attorneys at the front door pre-checked the eligibility of ticket holders who came to the event, making sure people with criminal summonses would not meet the judges and inadvertently get arrested.

A DJ played songs at the event. Sept. 17, 2016

While several Legal Aid Society staff snapped cheerful group photos, the Bronx District Attorney Deputy Counsel Julian Bond O’Conner spoke about the event as a way to foster a “positive interaction with the legal system of the community.”

Bronx residents said they were relieved to clear their records. Romel Solano said he was having a bad day when he visited the 40th Precinct earlier this year. When a police officer ordered him to wait behind a line, Solano responded with a profanity and got a ticket.

“It was pretty unnecessary,” Solano said, about the summons.

Kevin Cuffee said he was with two other friends in a park after it closed, and he was issued a ticket for littering.

“I wasn’t even littering,” he said. “[The police officer] told me he’s just giving me a ticket because I was in the park after dark. It was a tiny park between the buildings. People sit there all the time.”

A man who said his name is Gustavo, but refused to give his last name, said he got a ticket for having an open container in public. He said he opened a beer after a day working at a store, when two police officers walked in.

“Haha we got lucky today,” Gustavo imitated the police as saying, before giving him a ticket.

By the end of the day, more than 500 people were given advice, 350 cases were resolved. No residents were arrested. But compared to similar events in Brooklyn, the number of warrants cleared in the Bronx was much lower. The Brooklyn events average more than 600 cases resolved each time.

“We would of course like to have many more people, and were prepared for that, but the turnout was good for a first event,” said Patrice O’Shaughnessey, from the district attorney’s office. “Since some of the warrants were years old, the people we sent the letter to may have moved away.”

The high rate of summons tickets in the Bronx is a byproduct of the “broken windows” policing strategy, initiated by former police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The effectiveness of the policy, which aims to lower the overall felony crime rate by excessively focusing on the issuing of low-level crime tickets, is controversial. According the Bronx District Attorney’s office, there are more than a million open low-level crime summonses in the city.

“The Bronx is over policed,” said Legal Aid Society Attorney Mary Peppito. “The NYPD seem to mainly focus on some areas.”

The Police Department has not responded to questions about the number of tickets issued in the Bronx.

An open summons or warrant could impede immigration, housing, or job applications. The Bronx District Attorney Office says it plans to hold the event again, hoping to have more residents come and clear their records and their worries.

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Jerome Avenue Autoworkers Featured in Photoville Exhibit

Jose, a mechanic, stands diminutive in the shadow of a wall of stacked car tires. Mwanz, a street vendor who sells incense, poses by a flaking wall on Burnside Avenue. Julian of Prestige Mufflers sits outside, his face freckled by the pocks of sunlight piercing the brim of his straw hat.

These are some of the faces of a working class West Bronx community on display under the Brooklyn Bridge this week as part of Photoville, a major annual photography festival that turns old shipping containers into specialized galleries.

Children, hairdressers and religious leaders are also among the subjects of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, an exhibition that opened in one of the street’s auto shops in October 2015.

“Photoville approached us about the project,” said Michael Kamber, the exhibition’s curator and a contributing photographer. “Brooklyn was an obvious place to bring it. This is an exhibition about gentrification and this neighborhood knows all about that.”

image1

The project’s third showing comes weeks after the City published draft plans to rezone 73 blocks of Jerome Avenue, a move that would add affordable housing units to the area but would displace traditional auto businesses.

“The exhibition is meant to bring the community together, to understand what it takes to prevent a massive disruption,” added Osaretin Ugiagbe of the Bronx Photo League, the collective that created the project.

The Bronx Photo League is a group of Bronx-based photographers and photojournalists founded by Kamber in 2015. It is run out of the Bronx Documentary Center, an independent photography and film space in Mott Haven that Kamber also founded.

The Jerome Avenue Workers Project is a series of black and white portraits depicting people at work and leisure on Jerome Avenue. They are immediate and yet textured, infused with an almost halcyon timelessness.

“I love how the photographs accentuate the inequalities of the Bronx,” said Kwabena Charles on his way out of the exhibit. “It really shows that there are wonderful, beautiful people in the borough.”

Charles, who works in real estate in Brooklyn, feels that neighborhoods like Jerome Avenue will continue to be ripe for development in the years to come. “Right now the Bronx is the target. Brooklyn is dead,” he said.

Kamber promised that the project would continue to track the workers’ plight as the rezoning moves forward.

“We’re going to follow the workers to see whether they’ll be able to stay in New York or whether they’ll have to move away,” said Kamber. “The City has claimed that around one hundred workers will be displaced. That’s ridiculous. We think it’ll be closer to a thousand.”

Photoville claims to be one of the best-attended photographic events in America. Other exhibitions this year include studies of the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. An interactive exhibit on texting in Syria sends real messages to visitors’ phones.

Photoville is open until 10pm in Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. It closes Sunday September 25.

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Closing the gap between health and education in a Morrisania public school

The school health coordinator, Barbara Alicea  speaks to a parent outside P.S. 140. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

Barbara Alicea, a new school health coordinator speaking to a parent via cell phone outside P.S. 140, the pilot site of a national health and learning initiative. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

Elpida Vlachos routinely takes her four children who attend Morrisania’s P.S. 140 on Eagle Avenue for regular doctor check ups. She said she felt confident that none had health problems. So it came as a surprise to the 38-year-old Bronx mother when her children came home one day from school with a note indicating they needed eyeglasses.

P.S. 140 in the South Bronx, an elementary school is the site of a new, national pilot program intended to make sure that students who need treatment for everything from poor vision to chronic asthma receive holistic health care coordinated at the school level. Called Healthy and Ready to Learn, the initiative was launched in September by Children’s Health Fund in three schools, two in the South Bronx and one in Harlem.

All the students in P.S. 140 who failed the vision screening are expected to be provided with two pairs of glasses – one to keep in school and one for home. These children will meet with an optometrist for free and choose the glasses they like, said Barbara Alicea, the school’s health coordinator, who acts as liaison between the health center and the school to bring together local health services for the children.

Also known as the “eye lady” in the school, children rush to hug Alicea as she explained her role. As health screenings continue in the school, Alicea will work with parents to help connect them to  basic needs like housing, insurance, public assistance, domestic violence and immigration issues.

Poor vision is just one of eight health-related barriers to good learning identified in this new initiative aimed at helping schools, parents and health center practitioners triage knowledge and treatment. According to a study conducted by The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools,  an estimated 22 per cent of children aged 6 to 11 have a vision problem.

The eight health issues to be targeted by the Healthy and Ready to Learn program include asthma, dental issues, hearing loss, hunger, behavioral problems, anemia and lead poisoning. Phoebe Browne, the director of the initiative, said that the organization chose these eight issues because they are fairly common, relatively easy to screen, preventable and manageable. The program will measure these health indicators over time next to school measures such as attendance and test scores to assess the program’s impact over time.

Once a child is identified with a particular health issue, the parents are informed and coordination will begin to provide the child with primary care. The program’s next hurdle is to figure out a way to screen for anemia and lead poisoning in school, two conditions that require blood tests to diagnose. “We do not provide primary care, but our school health coordinator will help the family to connect to primary care,” said Colby Kelly, communications director at the Children’s Health Fund.

P.S. 140’s assistant principal believes teachers are pleased to be part of this pilot. “We are monitoring the effects of the program,” said Assistant Principal Kevin Greene. “Eventually, over time, the teachers and parents will see the benefits.” The two other schools in the pilot are P.S. 49 in Mott Haven and P.S. 36 in West Harlem.

Finding local resources for the parents such as dentists, optometrists and primary care physicians is another work in progress. The next step after vision screening in P.S. 140 will be dental check ups and training for asthma control, Alicea said.

Children play outside the main building of P.S. 140 on Eagle Avenue. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

Children play outside the main building of P.S. 140 on Eagle Avenue. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

Poorly controlled asthma is one of the leading reasons children miss school through exhaustion or hospitalization.

Tonette McWilliams, a teacher at P.S. 140, said that she had a student who used to miss an entire week at a time due to chronic asthma since she had to be hospitalized. Severe attacks cannot be treated at home or in the school clinic. Under the new program, once a student has been identified with average or chronic asthma, the school health coordinator will work with the family to provide educational materials and training to train them in avoiding environmental triggers and exercising caution in physical activities. .

“We are looking for a scalable solution to these problems,” Kelly said. “Parents do not know about the triggers and it is a process of discovery, finding out the why.”

Asthma and behavioral problems represent the top two health barriers to learning, according to a 2013 survey of principals and assistant principals administered by the Children’s Health Fund and the city’s school supervisor’s union. In high poverty schools, 67 per cent of school officials identified asthma as a moderate or serious barrier to learning.

“P.S. 140 is located in the poorest congressional district in the country and there are social issues related to poverty and lack of insurance,” Green said. “We felt that having this program would provide us with assistance in some of the issues.”

Around 18 to 20 percent of P.S. 140’s 640 pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students live in homeless shelters; a few more live in foster care homes or transitional housing, said Greene.  As he spoke, a school administrator, Tuesday Brown, brought in a five-year-old boy who was extremely agitated. Greene reassured the child, and returned him to Brown after five minutes, saying he was a cancer survivor, who suffers from hyperactivity.

“Realistically, some students have underlying issues,” said Greene. “To get them ready for high school, college and future careers we have to work hard and build their self esteem and that is where Children’s Health Fund comes into play.”

Health and Ready to Learn is funded by international organizations like H&M Conscious Foundation, Jaguar Land Rover and individual donors. Both corporations have committed to providing the funds that are required for the screenings, trainings and equipment. P.S. 140 is currently working without corporate funding but Children’s Health Fund is in the process of identifying donors. Along with funding partners, it is collaborating with various organizations and experts who are providing valuable data and research.

Children chat with each other as they walk out of school on a Thursday afternoon. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

Children chat with each other as they walk out of school on a Thursday afternoon. (SWATI GUPTA / Bronx Ink)

The Children’s Health Fund was co-founded 27 years ago by singer/songwriter Paul Simon and Columbia University’s Dr. Irwin Redlener. The organization set up two dozen national network programs and 50 mobile units that bring medical care to children in poor neighborhood. One of the oldest national networks is located in the South Bronx in partnership Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The South Bronx Health Center located at 871 Prospect Ave, provides a medical home for underserved children and families.

Healthy and Reading to Learn was launched in response to the need to do more to reach out to more children who need care. Hospitals and mobile vans proved to be insufficient. Organizers believed that going directly into public schools was the next logical step.

School officials at P.S. 140 hope the program will help improve attendance rates, which were 89 percent last year. The goal is to reach 93.5 percent, said McWilliams. “When it comes to education, I’ll try anything,” said Ligia Perez, a second grade teacher at P.S. 140. “And if this program can help then I am on board.”

“If something is going to work,” said Greene, “it can be only through communication between the teachers, parents and the community.”

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Bangladeshi families prep for controversial specialized high school exam

About 40 middle school children—all but one from Bangladeshi immigrant families in the Bronx—sat quietly inside a stark classroom at Khan’s Tutorial in Parkchester on a Sunday afternoon in September. Barely audible from the upstairs classroom were the sounds of children playing at a nearby park as the 12 and 13-year-olds reviewed fractions, greatest common factors and least common multiples.

Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman, with the beginnings of a moustache and a mouthful of braces, reviewed again and again the one math problem he missed on a practice test from that morning. Rafsan’s name was up on the Khan’s Tutorial room whiteboard as it had been nearly every week. It meant that he was the top scorer on the 100-question practice exam for the specialized high school admissions test, known as the SHSAT, the all important gateway exam into the city’s eight legendary, elite public high schools. It was set to be given on October 24 and 25–in just two weeks.

Eighth grade student Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Still, for Rafsan, one wrong answer meant there was room for improvement. Parents said they can spend up to $4,000 for the year-long tutoring program. Their hopes for their children’s futures depend on a high score.

“Every time the score comes back it gives me more information of what I need to study,” said Rafsan, tightly clutching an algebra practice book under his arm. The eighth grader expects to get into Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, considered the best of the best of the elite schools that include Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia School of the Arts. Admissions decisions are based solely on results from the highly competitive SHSAT, a requirement that is currently up for debate in the state legislature.

“It sets the way for college and career,” Rafsan said.

Three rows behind Rafsan sat Rahat Mahbub, also an eighth grader, but with a younger face and gentler demeanor. Rahat worried that his reading comprehension scores would not be good enough. His mother, Taamina Mahbub, enrolled him in Khan’s SHSAT prep program in June of 2013. She feels almost the same pressure as her son, and urges him to keep studying. “The process is stressful and the culture is competitive,” Taamina Mahbub said. “I am really nervous—usually the parent is more nervous than the child.”

For the last two decades, this private SHSAT tutoring company has successfully targeted the city’s growing Bangladeshi immigrant community. Khan’s Tutorial, a 20-year-old institution begun in Queens, recently set up its second center in the Bronx, following the Bangladeshi immigrant migration from Jackson Heights to Parkchester that began in the 1990s. The website advertises prices at $15 per hour. Parents said they pay as much as $4,000 for their children to attend tutoring nearly two years before the exam, hoping a high score will help guarantee placement in a good university down the road.

Since its founding in 1994, Khan’s has sent 1,400 students to specialized high schools. Some students come two weeks prior to the exam for tutoring, some start as early as the sixth grade. The company’s administrators recommend that students prepare for the exam at least one year in advance. “For South Asians or Asian Americans, the SHSAT has been the common path to pursue in our culture,” said Sami Raab, director of Khan’s Tutorial in Jamaica Queens. “You see testing as important and that carries over to first generation children.”

Khan's Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

Khan’s Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

For students who are well prepped, scoring high on the SHSAT is possible, but for those who can’t afford tutoring programs, or don’t know about the test at all, access to specialized high schools remains out of reach. Bronx students have historically ranked at the bottom in the city in terms of the number of children who take the test, and who score high enough to be considered for admission. Although the city provides free tutorials, such as the DREAM Specialized High School Institute (SHSI)—a rigorous 22-month program offered to sixth graders with high test scores and financial need—some feel that more needs to be done. Many, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, believe that the single test criterion is unjust and leads to student bodies in the elite schools that do not represent the public school population.

Last year, 375 Latino and 243 African American public middle school students were offered admission at the eight specialized high schools, compared with 2,601 Asian and 1,256 white students; this in a system where 72 percent of the public school students are black and Latino. After a complaint lodged by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the increased controversy over the schools’ one test admission process, Mayor de Blasio proposed a bill in June that would allow for criteria such as attendance and grade point average to be considered as well. Those in favor of the bill claim the legislation would give students without extended tutoring and prep, a better shot at specialized high schools.

Assembly member Luis Sepulveda who represents Castle Hill and Parkchester, is a co sponsor on the bill. He called the 12 percent of African American and Latino students at the elite three specialized high schools—Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science “dismal” and “unacceptable.”

“Anyone can have a bad day and do poorly on a test,” Sepulveda said. “Schools have to look at other criteria. It’s not solely about your education, it’s about your involvement in your community.”

The day after de Blasio proposed the bill last June, coalitions in favor of the test formed in protest.  Don’t Abolish The SHSAT and CoalitionEdu, as well as parent and alumni associations from the specialized schools, argued that the test did not cause a lack of diversity in the high schools. Instead, they said, the fault lay with a school system that failed to prepare more diverse students to pass it. Don’t Abolish The SHSAT has collected 4,198 signatures through its website and CoalitionEdu offers politicians’ contact information, urging parents and students to get involved. These groups claim the school district’s lack of communication about the test leaves students from low socioeconomic backgrounds out of the loop until it’s too late to study.

“The overall issue is failing K through Sixth grade and middle school systems throughout New York City,” said the head of Khan’s Tutorial, Ivan Khan. “By proposing a more holistic approach, wealthier families will have better access to more subjective resources. We strongly feel that those should be explored further rather than changing the criteria.”

While Khan’s Tutorial addresses the bill from the corporate level, tutors keep the issue at bay during weekend test prep. Rafsan and Rahat had two more Saturday classes before they took take the two-hour test alongside 27,000 other eighth graders on October 25 or 26.

“It’s just a test,” said Rahat, with uncommon calmness. “I know it’s the most convenient way, but one Saturday moment doesn’t determine everything.” Rahat’s mother believes an essay or report card should be included. His stay-at-home mom has seen too many bright students miss out on the opportunity to go to a specialized high school because of the single criterion. “It should change,” Mahbub said. “One test is not fair. One or two points and you have to go to another school.”

Still, tensions are high as the test date approaches. It may abate after the test is given, but will likely return in February when the results are announced. Middle schools, tutoring centers and the Parkchester neighborhood unofficially referred to as Bangla Bazaar, will buzz with the news of who got in where. And who didn’t.

Mohammad Rahman, a 14-year-old from Castle Hill, remembers the day last February when his SHSAT results came back. Fifteen months of prep at Khan’s in Castle Hill and countless hours studying at home were for naught—Mohammad’s scores weren’t high enough to get accepted. He would not join his brother at a specialized high school. “I felt to an extent ashamed I didn’t get in,” Mohammad said. “My mom felt I should follow in [my brother’s] footsteps.” Now a freshman at Manhattan Center for Math and Science, Mohammad thinks maybe the single test process isn’t fair. “People just study the test format,” he said.

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Wasi Choudhury writes the top scoring students’ names on the whiteboard as incentive for all of the students to study harder. “Everyone’s goal is to get on that list,” he said.

 

Photocopies of practice tests fill Rafsan’s backpack. He estimates he has taken over 20 by now. Because Khan’s Tutorial is known for giving diagnostic tests that are more difficult than the actual SHSAT, Rafsan is hopeful. “If you can get a 95 or a 96 on these tests, you can definitely get into a specialized high school,” he said.

Rafsan’s tutor at Khan’s Tutorial, Wasi Choudhury, will continue to write the top scorers’ names on the whiteboard for the class to see. There are only 2,500 seats in the top three specialized high schools and students know their competition is each other.

“Everyone’s goal is to get on that list,” Choudhury said. “It pushes them to get up there.” Choudhury, a student at New York University and an alumnus of Bronx Science said Rafsan has a good shot of “going specialized,” though tutors can never know for sure. “Stress ruins it for a lot of students,” Choudhury said. “There were kids that we said were sure to get in and failed the test.”

Rahat lives a few blocks away from Khan’s center in Parkchester and looks forward to the coming weeks when he doesn’t have to come sit for four hours on the weekends. This summer his family will be able to visit Bangladesh—a vacation forgone last summer due to his tutoring schedule. In November, Rahat plans to apply to private schools, in case the test day doesn’t go as planned.

But life will be good, he said, if he scores high enough on the test. “I’m going to play six hours a day. Nothing will matter because you got into a specialized high school.”

 

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