Tag Archive | "Bronx"

One of Main Land Media's postcards

The Bronx is Branding

The Bronx has an image problem. Local artists and entrepreneurs still find themselves working against its most persistent stereotype made infamous during the 1977 World Series. That’s when sportscaster Howard Cosell looked up from his press box perch at fires raging beyond Yankee Stadium’s walls and declared, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

One of Main Land Media's post-cards

 Mainland Media postcard

But since then, the borough of 2014 has spawned more new businesses in the last two decades than any other. People are moving to the Bronx in larger numbers than any other. Music, food and art events are attracting more tourists now than in recent memory. Visitors doubled last year, according to 2013 figures from NYC & Company. And yet, its reputation as a burned-out borough plagued by drugs, poverty and violence is still tough to shake.

According to at least three proud Bronx entrepreneurs, the time is now for a public relations makeover. “The Bronx is the next new thing,” said Anthony Ramirez, one of the co-founders of Main Land Media, the promotional company he launched in 2006 with another fellow Bronxite, John Martin.  Together with Ramirez’s younger brother Paul, the three have opened the popular Bronx Beer Hall on Arthur Avenue and launched a Bronx themed retail website as well as a consulting firm for artists and business people who share their mission to boost the Bronx.

As the borough gears up to celebrate its centennial as an official county this year, new efforts are in the works to encourage people to start taking notice that the Bronx is back. This month, the on-going Yes The Bronx Film Festival, featured Hollywood movies that were connected to the Bronx, in hopes that more filmmakers would be encouraged to return to the borough for inspiration. Coinciding with Manhattan’s Fashion Week, this fall, the Bronx held its own Fashion Week for the first time, featuring local designers and models. On September 7, close to 30,000 people came from all over the state for the annual Italian feast in Belmont.

To Anthony Ramirez, “The Bronx is as rich in culture and history as any place in the world.”

Ramirez and Martin were working together in 2001 in the South Bronx community based organization called SoBRO. The mission of the South Bronx overall economic development organization is to build partnerships between businesses and community needs such as education, health and jobs. The two wanted to decorate their office space with Bronx memorabilia, and were stunned to discover that Bronx souvenirs were next to impossible to find. So they decided to take the matter into their own hands.

Both pitched in $2,000 from their personal saving to start a pro-Bronx business called Mainland Media. They named it Mainland because the Bronx is the only borough that is connected to New York State. They began creating their own memorabilia by renting a helicopter and flying above their home borough to take aerial photographs and make posters and post-cards. The point was to show the Bronx from a different perspective. The core purpose of their company was, and has ever since been, to re-introduce Bronx residents to their community and outsiders to the “proudest borough” in New York City.

From selling post-cards and posters the company expanded into selling a wide range of Bronx-themed merchandise on its retail website, fromthebronx.com. Their online business features clothes, posters, books, stickers, and many other miscellaneous items. One of their best sellers is a T-shirt advertising the borough’s music history as the birthplace of hip-hop. It is sold $60 and prices for this specific-to-the-Bronx merchandise range from 99 cents to $79.99.

Main Land Media debuted around the same time Facebook was taking off. The two friends managed to take advantage of all social media platforms and are now the most followed Bronx-based business, right after the Yankees. Close to 114,000 people follow them on Facebook as do 3,006 on Twitter under their “from the bronx” pseudonym. In 2013, Main Land Media’s merchandise was featured in the Museum Of Modern Art’s gift shop collection in New York City, Korea and Japan.

Anthony Ramirez and his younger brother, Paul, who joined the company in 2010, were born and raised in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. Both have fond memories of their upbringing surrounded by many of their Puerto Rican relatives, a large, sprawling, close-knit community unto itself. The brothers were raised around 18 first cousins and knew everyone in the neighborhood. “Our parents taught us to be proud of where we’re from and of who we are,” said Anthony Ramirez, the eldest of the three children. Their father is a musician who plays many instruments but focuses mainly on the piano and the trumpet. Their mother has worked as an administrative assistant ever since Anthony can remember. Both parents were also born in the Bronx, which makes Anthony and Paul the second generation of Bronx-Ramirezes.

The Ramirez brothers intend to defend their roots from Bronx detractors who tend to regard Bronx residents as either urban survivors or potential threats. When Anthony Ramirez was an undergraduate student at Columbia University in 2000, he recalls one classmate’s frightened reaction when his pager went off. His friend explained to him; “You know, you’re from the Bronx, you have a pager…people automatically think you’re doing drugs.”

The stereotype sticks in large part because the problems of crime and poverty are still pervasive. The borough still has the highest number of people living below the poverty line in the city and is considered the poorest district in the nation according to the U.S Census Bureau. Its 9.8 percent unemployment rate is also the highest of all five boroughs according to the NYC Department of Labor, even though it is below 10 percent for the first time in six years.  Health wise, data shows the Bronx ranks second citywide in the number of AIDS diagnosis, with a 23.9 percent rate in 2010.

Yet the extreme violence and gutted landscape has dissipated to some extent, according to Professor Lloyd Ultan, a historian who was born and raised in the Bronx. To him the borough “is now almost perfectly safe, but nothing is perfect”. The crime rate has in fact plummeted since its peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the last 21 years, overall crime has plunged 71.3 percent in the Bronx according to city data. Moreover, thanks to pivotal figures such as Father Louis Gigante whose work improved housing, or urban planner Edward J. Logue who implemented single-family homes around the borough, the Bronx has emerged as a vibrant place to live.

The Bronx Beer Hall, inside Arthur Avenue's retail market (ALICE GUILHAMON/The Bronx Ink)

The Bronx Beer Hall, inside Arthur Avenue’s retail market (ALICE GUILHAMON/The Bronx Ink)

Main Land Media intends to make Bronx residents and others care about its transformation. In order to shed light on the borough’s underestimated cultural scene, the company opened several temporary “pop-up” stores around the borough where they showcase local designers, creators and artists. The last event was held in December 2011 in Arthur Avenue’s Retail Market where the brothers eventually opened a beer hall. They also hosted a beer tasting at the event, which may have inspired Paul Ramirez’s idea to open a beer hall.

“He might have been a little tipsy” to think of opening a beer hall in the middle of this covered Italian food market, said Anthony Ramirez about his brother. But the next day the two thought about it some more and came up with a business proposal. In need of new revenue, the retail market committee agreed to their plans.

The Bronx Beer Hall opened in 2013 and has been attracting more and more clients ever since. Michael Hoblin is one of the bartenders. He studies at Fordham University, which is at a 10 minutes walk from the beer hall. The opening of this new business has changed his perception of the area as he now dares to venture much farther within the borough than he used to.

From a four-person company, Main Land Media expanded to a business now employing 20 to 25 people depending on the projects. They are currently designing a new product line for their retail activity and looking to open an additional venue for the Bronx Beer Hall.

According to the brothers’ analysis, the main reason why both their businesses have been successful so far is because their focus is on promoting the Bronx as a whole, not just making profit.

For Anthony Ramirez, their customers need to believe their activity is community driven. This is also what they say to the various Bronx companies that come to them for marketing strategy advice. The rising non-profit photography gallery “Bronx Documentary Centre” is one of its clients along with the Bronx Borough President’s Office, the Police Athletic League and others. They wanted to be Bronxites helping Bronxites. The demand for their consulting services, which can cost up to $5,000 for 20 to 40 hours of counseling, is now so high they are turning clients down.

However successful they are, they are aware the Bronx still has challenges to overcome. Anthony Ramirez explained they employ people as much as possible from or living in the Bronx and always try to support local businesses. “We work so hard to help other Bronx businesses because we know we (the borough) still have a very long way to go,” said co-founder John Martin.

This is the challenge facing the Ramirez brothers, and all the other artists and businessmen who are trying to help the Bronx come out from under the shadow of its reputation as the epitome of urban decay and despair. It’s a reputation that has even followed the borough to Europe. In French, a popular expression to describe a chaotic situation is “C’est le Bronx ici”, which translates into “It’s the Bronx here,” aka, “a disaster.”

The latest album by a Queens-based hardcore band “Sick Of It All” features a song in which they apply a whole new meaning to the Bronx.

“It’s time to get Bronx,” now means the time has come to “stand up and fight.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Featured, MoneyComments (0)

BID works to keep shoppers in Fordham amid mall opening

Shoppers pass by Claire's jewelry store on East Fordham Rd in the Bronx.

Shoppers pass by Claire’s jewelry store, one of over 300 business located on Fordham Rd in the Bronx. (Lauren Foster/BRONX INK)

The mix of mom and pop shops and national retail chain stores along Fordham Road in the Bronx continue to thrive despite the new, enclosed Mall at Bay Plaza that opened nearby on August 14. The $300 million mall has 780,000 square feet of retail space and is about a 10-minute drive from the outdoor retail hub that is Fordham Road. The mall features hundreds of shops, a movie theater and restaurants and appeals to customers from both the Bronx and Westchester because of its location near the border between them. But well-braced for the impact, Fordham stores are holding on. Over the two years during which the mall was under construction, the Fordham business community prepared to stave off the threat of retail competition and is now seeing the results of its efforts.

“The mall did not affect my business at all,” said Adam Tapia, manager of Modell’s Sporting Goods on East Fordham Road. “I am up by a million and a half dollars in revenue from last year.”

The Fordham Road Business Improvement District (BID), a non-profit that bolsters Fordham businesses, has been working to retain shoppers in Fordham. The BID has been renovating local buildings and bringing in more diverse local offerings so that shoppers do not need to leave the area for any of the items on their shopping lists. Daniel Bernstein, the Deputy Director of the Fordham BID, said, The BID is always trying to make business better, but it’s also our goal to maintain what Fordham Road is known for — a balance of mom and pop shops and large national retail chains that has existed for 10 years.”

Fordham has boasted one of the lowest retail vacancy rates in the city at about 3 to 3.5 percent since 2005, according to the BID. In addition, some 80,000 people come through Fordham Road in a period of 12 hours on a typical weekday, the BID reports. There, they will find variety the mall does not provide, despite its dozens of stores, Bernstein said. “If people are looking for a unique, special item, they will find it here in Fordham.” At clothing and accessory store Embode Boutique on East Fordham Road, for example, one can purchase custom colored hats to match a pair of sneakers at prices ranging from $30 to $35.

The clientele for the Bay Plaza Mall and Fordham Road overlap, but are not identical. With its proximity to Westchester, the mall is targeting customers with more disposable income than those who live in and commute to or through Fordham. The mall features stores like Michael Kors and Swarovski alongside stores with lower price-points like Old Navy and Perfumania. Fordham residents do not support sit-down restaurants, which are a big attraction at the mall for other shoppers, according to Bernstein.

Thirty-three percent of Fordham residents live below the poverty level, according to 2006 findings by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Additionally, 65 percent of Fordham residents are on some type of income support, a number that has continued to grow since 2005.

But Bernstein said there is also a wider “built-in demographic” of shoppers in Fordham: “We have Fordham University, Monroe College, Lehman College, the 1199 building which is the largest union in New York City, and ridiculous amount of health care offices.” Bernstein also pointed to Fordham commuters. “There are thousands of people a day visiting the neighborhood, with so many people coming from so many different places. I see people commute with shopping bags.”

The BID has sponsored massive renovation projects, most recently re-doing Fordham Place, a complex that now boasts a Best Buy, office centers, retail, and the charter school Jonas Bronck Academy. Fordham Plaza is another development that has just been renovated by the BID with a Starbucks and TJ Maxx occupying its ground floor since June. The BID has also announced the recent purchase of another block for new development and plans to re-do additional stores and bring bigger brand names to the area.

According to Bernstein, Fordham is more attractive to higher end chain stores than it used to be. Bernstein said, “A lot of stores that 10 years ago wouldn’t have thought of coming here are now open to the idea. And different types of shops, like healthy juice shops.”

Despite the BID’s efforts, one small store in Fordham has already felt the impact of the Bay Plaza mall. At Claire’s, an inexpensive girl’s fashion jewelry store on East Fordham Road, assistant manager Rebecca Edward said, “Our traffic has definitely cut down and our store is not making as much as before.” But this store is in the unusual position of facing competition from another branch of the same chain called Icing by Claire’s, whose fashion jewelry caters to a slightly older but overlapping clientele.

The Icing by Claire’s location at the Bay Plaza mall had a surge in customers despite being only a fourth of the size of the retail location in Fordham. Edward said, “Business might bounce back at our Fordham location after the appeal of the mall wears down, but right now people want to check out the mall because it’s new and fresh.”

“The Fordham Claire’s is still relatively new,” Bernstein said.“ It is common in New York that stores oversaturate areas and they are hurting themselves by doing that.”

Eventually, he added, the mall itself could be a draw for Fordham’s businesses.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, CultureComments (0)

Curry comes to Morrisania

Hungry Bird on East 164th Street, the newest restaurant to open in Morrisania, introduces Indian cuisine to the neighborhood for the first time. (SWATI GUPTA / The Bronx Ink)

A steady stream of customers wandered into Morrisania’s Hungry Bird one September evening, drawn inside the brand new restaurant accompanied by the unusual aroma of curried chicken. Indian cuisine was practically unknown on East 164th Street and Morris Avenue until local entrepreneur, Azizur Rahman, decided to open the quaint eatery three weeks earlier.

Wooden spoons hung on the painted walls behind him as the 47-year-old owner, originally from New Delhi, India greeted his customers.

Rahman’s life-long dream had been to introduce Morrisania to his native cooking. In addition to traditional Indian dishes, he plans to include Dominican and American menu items to ease the transition. “One step in, and people can get whatever they want,” said Rahman.

Local residents know Rahman as the manager of Dunkin’ Donuts four blocks away on 161st Street, where he has been working for the last 15 years. His plans to set up his own business finally took shape two years ago when his family in India was able to provide $100,000 in start-up capital. His younger sister Sabrina Khan and her husband Mahatab Hussein help out with the cash register and overseeing the kitchen.

The Hungry bird stands out among the very few restaurants that are scattered around a neighborhood mostly populated with grocery stores and 99 cent stores.

Small businesses have been opening up slowly in Morrisania in the past few years. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the number of restaurants has nearly doubled in the South Bronx between 2010 and 2011.

Michael Nixon, a business development officer at the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation said that his office received around 10 to 15 requests for new business loans every month. Most of those businesses like Rahman’s, he said, are financed by a close network of friends and families,.

Rahman, who immigrated to New York 16 years ago, still works at Dunkin’ Donuts, putting in 18-hour days working two jobs, and commuting back and forth from Brooklyn where he lives with his wife and two teenage children. His normal workday begins at 6 a.m. at Dunkin’ Donuts, and ends at 11 p.m. after he closes Hungry Bird. It’s a schedule he believes will pay off eventually. Early customer counts have already exceeded his early projections. He planned for 40 food orders a day and is currently seeing 70.

One customer agreed to talk only after he wiped his plate clean of the chicken and rice. As he paid his check, Sylla Boubacar said he was going to keep coming. “It is just the beginning,” said Boubacar, a long-time Morrisania resident.

Rahman has depended mostly on discount offers, incentives for referrals and word of mouth to encourage local residents to come through the door. Besides his family members, Rahman hired two local residents to distribute menus to passersby and do deliveries. One man, 43-year old Jeff Hargrove, is studying to become a food inspector eventually.

Rahman believes that one of the reasons his opening weeks have gone so well is the generosity from the people in the neighborhood. “People have been forthcoming whenever I have asked for help,” he said.

When asked why he chose the name “Hungry Bird”, he paused and said, “A bird has no job besides finding food. So, when humans get hungry, their characteristic changes to mimic a bird.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (0)

Defendant’s Girlfriend Testifies Against Him with iPhone Footage of Alleged Assault

A 25-year-old mother of two testified against the father of her six-month-old infant in Bronx Supreme Court on Wednesday, as the first witness in his trial on 28 counts of assault, possession of a weapon and attempted murder.

The witness, Vateya Prentiss, covered her face as the prosecutor showed the jury graphic video Prentiss had taken with her iPhone, recording the alleged crime that took place on January 6, 2013. “It’s disturbing. It bothers me, the way I was reacting and everything,” she said when Bronx District Attorney Marisol Martinez Alonso, asked why she had averted her gaze. Across the courtroom, wearing a trim dark suit, the defendant, Rodrigo Neri, 28, looked away as well.

Prentiss testified that she and Neri, her boyfriend of three years, were on their way to a friend’s house when they spotted an acquaintance, Jamell Mungin, standing outside of his apartment building at 863 Melrose Avenue near 161st Street. They saw Mungin run inside and come out again and Neri told Prentiss he thought Mungin had a gun, she said in her testimony. The two men began exchanging blows in a fistfight that Prentiss captured on her pink and white iPhone 4S.

The DA also played two other video clips, both from surveillance cameras outside of the victim’s building.

Together, the footage clearly shows Mungin swinging at Neri with a knife and stabbing him through his jacket before Neri shoved him down the concrete steps in front of his building. Mungin hit the pavement and lay there motionless. Neri, wearing Timberland boots, stomped Mungin’s head half-a-dozen times. Then Neri went up the stairs, calmly walked back down, and sliced Mungin’s face from his ear to his mouth. Mungin later received treatment for a fractured orbital socket and 60 stitches, according to the criminal complaint. Mungin has not been charged in the incident.

“I’m an animal,” Neri can be heard saying in iPhone the video.

Prentiss’s voice can be heard throughout the three-minute brawl, too. “Get that nigga, babe,” she said while continuing to film the altercation. “Get that bitch. Fuck him up.”

For egging her boyfriend on, Prentiss was also charged with assault and attempted murder. She pleaded guilty to the felony of assault with intent to cause serious physical injury, agreeing to testify in his trial in exchange for a sentence of five years probation.

The couple was also arrested for giving a false report to police on the day of the incident.  Leaving Mungin lying unconscious in a pool of blood, they took a cab to St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan –rather than going to nearby Lincoln Hospital — after Prentiss noticed that Neri was “leaking blood,” from stab wounds, according to her testimony. They told police at the hospital that Neri had acquired his wounds in a fight at a train station in the area.

At issue in the assault and murder case is whether Neri attacked Mungin with the intent to cause serious injury or to kill. The prosecution will argue that once Mungin was lying unconscious on the pavement and was no longer a threat, Neri crossed the line from self-defense into violent crime.

During a break in the trial on Wednesday, Neri dandled his young son, Princeton, on his hip for a few minutes before handing him over to a babysitter. After Neri left the area, Prentiss held Princeton and then pushed him in his stroller through the airy halls of the courthouse.

Prentiss said she and Neri are still a couple, but by court order, they are not allowed to see each other.

“It was nerve wracking to get up there and show people that video and have them paint whatever image they’re going to see of me based on that,” she said. “But the truth is the truth.”

Prentiss also faces a year in prison for an unrelated charge of assault against a friend, which violated the terms of her plea deal in this case.


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (0)

Bronx gang member convicted once, now tried again for the same murder

The second day in the retrial of a Bronx gang member charged with killing a 10-year-old girl and paralyzing another Bronx man began with pointed cross examination of the defendant’s St. James Boys associate, the prosecution’s key witness.

Enrique Sanchez, stony and monosyllabic, recalled very little about the shootings or their aftermath in his nearly three-hour testimony in Bronx Supreme Court yesterday. On trial is Edgar Morales, who is being charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and possession of a deadly weapon for the 12-year-old incident.

Morales’s original trial gained fame when the Bronx District Attorney charged him in 2007 with a slew of offenses, including terrorism for “striking fear in the hearts of residents and business owners.” Morales, now 32, became the first lone gang member convicted under the new terrorism statute that was passed days after the 9/11 attacks. The charge that was accompanied by a stiffer jail sentence was overruled as overreaching by the State’s Court of Appeals two years ago. It then ordered a new trial.

The original crime took place on the evening of August 17, 2002, when the St. James Boys street gang erupted into an argument that turned fatal at a christening celebration at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran church in Parkchester. Ten-year-old Melanny Mendez died after a stray bullet struck her in the back of the head. Javier Tocchimani, a rival gang member, was paralyzed after being shot three times.

Both Morales and Sanchez were present at the scene of the crime. Sanchez told the court he was drunk at the time of the incident and that he only saw someone get hit by the bullet.

Morales’ defense team attempted to discredit Sanchez’s testimony by making references to conflicting accounts he has given over the last seven years in court, in interviews, and to detectives as far away as Arizona. Sanchez’s primary response to a majority of the questions asked during cross examination was, “I don’t remember.”

Eventually the defense asked, “Is your entire story about Edgar Morales doing the shooting a total fabrication?” Sanchez replied with the familiar, “I don’t remember.”

Sanchez was arrested in March 2004 for possession of a .38-caliber handgun. He was later indicted by the Bronx District Attorney for second degree murder charges in the shooting outside St. Paul’s Church and was facing between 15 years to life in prison. The DA’s office offered to lower the charges in exchange for Sanchez’s cooperation in Morales’ 2007 trial. He eventually served seven years in jail for manslaughter and was released in the beginning of 2011.

A few days prior to his release, Sanchez told the court, he was visited in prison by a pair of investigators and a pair of attorneys, all of them working on the Morales case. He claimed they wanted Sanchez “to help them out, for Edgar.” Sanchez testified that he was assured confidentiality in exchange for his cooperation.

“They were harassing me too much already,” said Sanchez. When asked by the defense if he remembered becoming emotional during the investigators’ visit, saying he did not want Morales to face time away from his child, Sanchez replied, “I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember breaking down?” Attorney Matthew Fishbein asked. “Is that something you could forget?”

The prosecution, which was led by Assistant District Attorney Christine Scaccia, said its office had worked with Sanchez for nearly ten years and believed that he gave a reliable account of what went down on August 17, 2002. A member of the team added that the St. James Boys gang had been terrorizing the Mexican-American community in St. James Park in Fordham for years through intimidation, murder, drug activities, and other gang-related violence.

Mendez’s mother, Antonia Gutierrez, was present in court. She hoped for the sentencing to rule in favor of the prosecution and to see Morales “stay in jail.”

Posted in CrimeComments (0)

Bronx Man Charged with Murder of Wife with Scissors

On Monday afternoon, the light over the front door of the sealed house was left on.

On Monday afternoon, the light over the front door of the sealed house was left on.                 (HAN ZHANG / The Bronx Ink)

On Monday, a 56-year-old man was charged with second degree murder, manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon after fatally stabbing his wife with a pair of scissors, according to police.

Around noon on Sunday, the wife, Cynthia Migliozzi, 57, was found unconscious and unresponsive in her Bronx home at 1581 Astor Avenue. With a puncture wound in her left armpit and shoulder, she was pronounced dead upon arrival at Jacobi Hospital, a few blocks away from her house.

The couple has lived in the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Pelham Gardens for more than 25 years, first with the husband’s parents, and then with the couple’s two sons, both of whom are in their early twenties. The family also kept a pug.

The neighborhood belongs to precinct 49, where the crime rate is the lowest among neighboring precincts. Last year, 10.06 crimes happened per 1000 residents in this area, lower than all but three precincts in Manhattan.

On Monday afternoon, the light over the front door of the sealed two-story, red brick house was left on and a silver Chrysler was parked in the weed-ridden yard.

To their neighbors, the family seemed friendly but not particularly social.

“They really kept it to themselves,” said Josephine Venditti, 73, who has lived in the house next door to the Migliozzis’ since 1977.

“Their jobs were a big question mark. I don’t think they’ve ever worked,” said another close neighbor who preferred to remain anonymous.“Martin was actually very well-spoken when he talks. I think he told me that he used to study pharmacy before drugs messed him up.”

Police said that Martin Migliozzi had nine prior arrests, mostly for drug possession. The motive is still under investigation.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (1)

Bronx celebrates cinematic masterpieces at inaugural film festival

Conventional wisdom does not usually pair up Hollywood with The Bronx.  But the nonprofit Yes the Bronx would like to change that misperception this coming weekend with the inaugural Yes the Bronx Film Festival. Festival planners said the goal is to spark a discussion about how the borough has been portrayed in popular films.

“It happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Bronx,” said George Stephanopoulos, president of the organization and film festival director.  “If we are going to do something to promote the Bronx community, this is as good a year as any to launch.” Stephanopoulos is a television and film lawyer by trade, in addition to a producer and life-long aficionado of independent cinema – a combination that he felt might be put to good use in organizing the festival.

When he put the plan into effect, his first call was to famed film historian Foster Hirsch to assist in selecting the best films to program for the event, and organize the panels and talkbacks. The two experts settled upon five feature films: “The Pride of the Yankees” a 1942 film about Lou Gehrig, “The We and I” a 2012 picture about Bronx teenagers’ bus ride on the last day of school, “A Bronx Tale” the 1993 De Niro directorial debut about a Bronx boy’s two heroes, “Marty” the 1955 Best Picture Academy Award winner about a socially awkward Bronx butcher, and “City Island” the 2009 family comedy-drama.  The films all encompass different historical periods and perspectives of the borough – ranging from the heartwarming to the shockingly realistic, and tickets to each of the screenings cost between $10 and $15.


Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (courtesy of George Stephanopoulos, Yes the Bronx)

Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (Image courtesy of Yes the Bronx organization)

Compared to other film festivals that Hirsch has helped to curate,  this weekend’s festival has a larger focus on current films and lots of talk about the future. “We want response from the audience,” Hirsch said.  “What is the effect of this film on your thinking about the Bronx?  We want a sort of interactive connection between the spectators and the films.”

A key goal is to encourage the city to open up the Bronx to future filmmakers. To that end, on Saturday, Hirsch will moderate a panel entitled “The Bronx in Hollywood Films” featuring Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Commissioner Cynthia Lopez from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.“I think opening filming sites to the Bronx increases the variety of locations that New York has to offer and also corrects the misperception that filming in New York City is just about urban congestion and density,” Hirsch said.

In addition to the five films, the festival will also showcase several shorts shot by local Bronx filmmakers and artists. Stephanopoulos worked with the Bronx Artists Collective to create a short documentary film Artistic Energy: The Bronx, based upon the Bronx Artist Documentary Project – an exhibit featuring local visual artists on display at the historic Andrew Freedman home on the Grand Concourse.

The project is the brainchild of painter Daniel Hauben who, with his wife Judith Lane, worked on a series of photos documenting the artistic community of the Bronx. Lane said the idea to photograph artists at work came to her husband when he was painting on location in an artist friend’s studio.  He began ruminating about the significance of artist’s spaces, and thought non-artists would be interested as well.

Artistic Energy: The Bronx Trailer

So Hauben and Lane began to send photographers into artists’ studios in order to create an exhibition, with the help of New York Times photojournalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, Michael Kamber, who joined the project. The Documentary Project was intended to cap at 100 photos to celebrate the centennial, but the interest was so large that the project wound up expanding to document 110 different artists, a number that Lane says is ironically reflective of the “110 percent” that all participating artists gave.

A primary goal of the documentary is to allow those outside of the artistic community to recognize the local artists who are working on beautifying their neighborhoods. “This project was designed to get people connected with each other, to get collaborations going, to get friendships going,” Lane said.  “So that the arts community as a whole can grow and flourish within this new Bronx that is growing and flourishing.” Kamber noted the groundbreaking work and the “astonishing diversity of creativity that exists all over the Bronx.”

The Bronx itself is a “brand,” said Stephanopoulos.  “The aim is to showcase the borough’s renaissance.  But it has become clear that we really are also promoting the Bronx as a film site.” And Lane has one main sentiment that she hopes attendees will walk away with after the three-day festival. “I hope they think, ‘my entire viewpoint of the Bronx has changed and it is not what I thought it was, and I am going to go tell the world,’” she said.    

Yes the Bronx Film Festival runs from Friday, September 19 through Sunday, September 21 at Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre. You can view the complete schedule here.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, CultureComments (0)

Fight against the stigma of AIDS marches on in Hunts Point



The AIDS Walk participants march down Southern Boulevard raising awareness for HIV/AIDS in the South Bronx (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Against the backdrop of gray skies, the roughly 100 participants of the Third Annual Community Board 2 AIDS Walk replaced the usual truck racket in the area with the odd chants of “HIV! GET TESTED!” and “SAFE SEX! USE CONDOMS!” Marching between Westchester and Hunts Point Avenue, the group called attention to the community-wide stigma of the disease, something the organizers believe may be a key obstacle to eradicating the virus. “We need to break the silence once and for all,” said Millie Colon, a community board activist and chairperson of the AIDS Walk. “People are no longer dying for lack of medication, but rather due to a lack of communication and education.” Silence is literally killing some Bronx residents. Colon encountered AIDS over 20 years ago when her nephew passed away from the disease. Three years ago she lost her brother to AIDS, after he spent four years refusing to see a doctor for fear of community backlash. Though the fight is deeply personal for her, Colon recognizes the larger context. She urged the community to overcome the “fear barrier” of getting tested, and she encouraged those who are infected to “come out of the closet” and receive the proper medication.

Millie Colon, chairperson of the Community Board 2 AIDS WALK, rallying the marchers before the walk begins in Hunts Point (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Millie Colon, chairperson of the Community Board 2 AIDS Walk, rallies the marchers before the walk begins in Hunts Point (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

From time to time the marchers, color coordinated in red and white, stopped along the 45-minute route to listen to community voices and pray for those that have lost their lives to a disease first recorded in the city 33 years ago. One of the marchers, Carmen Rodriguez, surprised many by revealing that her husband, who had been secretly living with HIV for 25 years, passed away last Monday. “He didn’t want nobody to know” she said, gently dabbing at her mascara-stained tears. “He was in denial for many years and when he started treatment eight years ago, it had already caused too much damage.”

Carmen Rodriguez stands outside the Hunts Point Recreational Center after revealing to the group of marchers that her husband passed away from AIDS just last week

Carmen Rodriguez stands outside the Hunts Point Recreational Center after revealing to the group of marchers that her husband passed away from AIDS just last week (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Rev. Kahli Mootoo, a Hunts Point pastor and former AIDS activist, commanded the megaphone for large parts of the walk, educating sidewalk spectators on the importance of getting tested. “The issue of HIV is losing steam” he said. “People are no longer scared of it, but does that mean they are not getting infected? Of course not!” Even though HIV numbers are consistently falling across the city according to the New York City Department of Health, the percentage of people dying from the disease continues to skew heavily towards low income neighborhoods. The Bronx has the highest death rates among the five boroughs, while Manhattan has the clearest survival advantage in New York City. These numbers were much more even back in 2005. Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 4.25.25 PM Though the organizers did not focus on these issues, Rev. Mootoo himself believes the issue is deeply entangled with poverty and political will. His view is that as long as HIV-related issues are contained in the most disenfranchised neighborhoods, city officials will see no reason to take action. “We always say the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Our community doesn’t have the power to squeak loud enough,” Mootoo said with a smile. “And god knows we could use some more oil around here.”

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