Tag Archive | "Bronx"

Faithfully Fit in the Bronx

It’s a  few days after Thanksgiving and only two kids have turned up at the Bronx Christian Fellowship on Gun Hill Road. Jonathan Arroyo, 12, and Joseph Ross, 14 are ready for their weekly fitness class, wearing sweatpants and their new Army t-shirts. In the chilly church hall, Arroyo and Ross stand with a group of much less fit adults: Michelle Chapman, 45, Sharon Heyward, 44 and Jimmy Rodriguez, 44. They too wear sweatpants, baggy t-shirts and sneakers. Rather than reciting hymns, the small group reads aloud about the hazards of sugary beverages and how “water is all you need.” Loyce Godfry, health coordinator for the Bronx Christian Fellowship, stands off to the side and watches, occasionally mouthing along with the words of the script. This isn’t her first time teaching healthy habits to the Bronx community, many of who were adults.

Twenty kids have signed up for the class, but if Godfry is disappointed in the small turnout, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she is eager to push the benefits of more exercise and healthier eating, the message of “Fit to Lead,” a six-week youth fitness program in the church with volunteers from the Army’s Bronx Recruitment Center. “Fit to Lead is about reducing screen-time, reducing soda consumption, increase physical activity, and reduce junk food,” said Godfry.

Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Loyce Godfry is the creator of the faith-based fitness program Fine Fit and Fabulous. She works with the Bronx Christian Fellowship to implement a new program called "Fit to Lead"

Each Sunday, Army volunteers teach the participants how to exercise and maintain a fitness routine. Then, during the week, Army mentors call participants to make sure they are on track. Arryo and Ross are regulars and are called upon to demonstrate a proper crunch and push-up. The adults in class are there  getting healthy themselves and also to be role models. “I need to lose weight, and I need to eat healthier,” Heyward said as the class prepares to stretch. “Besides, I think it motivates the children if they see us doing it.”

The small group stands in a circle around Sgt. Emmanuel Zapata and begins to stretch their arms. Zapata explains each move but the two youngest participants—Arroyo and Ross—already seem well versed in this routine while the adults struggle to do just five sit-ups.

In a borough where French fries are more accessible than treadmills, a growing number of churches have stepped in to educate Bronx residents on the dangers of obesity. The need is great: nearly 42 percent of young people in the Bronx are obese, which puts them at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Public health agencies have tried to stem the crisis through efforts like Green Carts, which provide fresh produce in poor neighborhoods. But it’s clearly not enough. That’s where the churches come in. Because they represent an institution that people are familiar with and trust (in contrast to some doctors and hospitals), churches have a receptive audience. With obesity at record levels, a growing number of congregations say health and fitness should be part of their mission.

Godfry is a veteran of the faith-based fitness movement. “Fit to Lead” grew out of a 12-week adult diabetes-prevention program she created in 1999 called “Fine, Fit and Fabulous”  which she brought to churches throughout the Bronx and in Harlem. Now, she works for Bronx Health REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Health), an organization that aims to eliminate disparities in the healthcare industry. Bronx Health REACH created a specific section called the Faith-Based Outreach Initiative to implement programs like “Fine, Fit and Fabulous”, created fitness guides and healthy cookbooks, and gives  seminars on heart health and diabetes.

Godfry knows that faith-based fitness isn’t the whole answer, but she thinks it can be an important part of an overall health strategy in the borough. “There seems to be less weight gain,” Godfry said. “So in some kind of way, there is some kind of message that obesity a problem and it is a problem that we need to address. I think most faith-based group are hearing it loud and clear.” According to the data Bronx Health REACH collected last year, nearly 79 percent of participants in “Fine Fit and Fabulous” lost weight. On average, this year’s 17,000 participants lost 4.6 pounds.

The churches seem to be particularly effective in reaching African-Americans, and the need in that community is the most acute. According to the American Obesity Association, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans are overweight and 40 percent are obese, higher than the national average. Traditional public health outreach efforts haven’t been successful in reaching them. African-Americans are less likely to have health insurance than whites and more likely to be low-income—both of which make it harder to get access to healthcare. The disparity affects all ages from babies (black infant mortality is higher than whites) to adults. “A black man will wait longer in a waiting room than a white man,” said Joyce H. Davis, the health coordinator at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Highbridge. “We should stay healthy so we shouldn’t have to see any doctor. We are not trying to close down our hospitals, but we know that we have a lesser chance of getting ill this way.”

In other parts of the country, faith-based fitness programs are not confined to poor communities. Gwen Shamblin author of “The Weight Down Diet,” created a faith-based curriculum that focuses on portion control. The Tennessee-native has implemented her program across the country with workshops, seminars and through her book. Her own church, the Remnant Fellowship in Tennessee, has lost over 20,000 pounds altogether. Shamblin has also been featured on several television shows, such as Tyra Banks and the Today Show to talk about how God connects with a person’s greed. “I think people mean well but they know they are plagued with food, overindulging in alcohol drugs, cigarette,” said Shamblin. “But they need to get back into God’s boundaries. God is saying, ‘No that’s enough.’ The average person knows what they want. If you listen to the body, it will tell you how much and what you want to eat.”

Some critics say that linking faith to fitness in such an overt way could create a spiritual crisis if a participant fails to lose weight. But in the Bronx the message is less about God and more about health.

“The faith-based community is the core of every community,” said the Rev. Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in Pelham Parkway. “We reach the masses. You have a collective and built-in audience. The church creates a serene environment for people to cope with some of the problems they are having.” Fitness in the church is not a matter of praying off the pounds, English said. “It’s not like God is going to take the spoon out of your mouth,” she said. “God can help you with doing those things that are right. Instances in time where you feel like you fail, you can pick yourself back up and try again. You can always live in very positive way. That all stems from faith.”

For many Bronx residents, it’s far more powerful to hear the message of health and wellness from the pulpit than from a doctor, says the Rev. Robert L. Foley, the pastor of the Cosmopolitan Church of the Lord Jesus in Fordham. “I think it is true across the board that people place a lot of value on what comes from that pulpit,” he said. “It’s a word that they trust and believe in.”

Foley often places health-conscious messages in his sermons. “I try to include a health message—a reference to a health issue or concern or tip that will be beneficial to our members,” he  said. “Recently I delivered a message on retrospective–looking back. Even when I look back on our congregation I see members who have been with us for 30 years I can recall episodes in their lives when they were on the edge of a stroke. But as they assumed more responsibilities on their health, they improved.”

Godfry says it is the environments in which the fitness and nutrition are conducted that make the program so effective. After 12 weeks, the church can continue with the curriculum or make their own nutrition plan, reducing salt or sugar intake, or perhaps increase the amount of vegetables they consume.

Some changes are clearly taking place. Foley remembers that the after-service supper on Sundays used to be filled with plates of fried fish and fried chicken. Today supper is replaced with low-sodium and low-sugar foods, baked chicken and turkey and more vegetables.

“We’ve made a conscientious effort so that we are not eating as much sugar and we are certainly not using as much salt as we’ve been accustomed to,” he said. But the Bronx pastor also remembers seeing more members of his church back then.

“There were some people who have been with me for 37 years,” said Foley. “But we’ve had some people who did not pay attention to sodium intake and high cholesterol foods and many of those folks are not here today.” The Cosmopolitan Church has adopted the Fine Fit and Fabulous curriculum and has a health committee that coordinates with the Bronx Health REACH once a month. “This is not just a philosophical thing,” he said. “I can see the impact. I buried them.” That’s experience he’s praying not to repeat too soon.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (2)

Food Distributors Struggle With Thanksgiving Meals

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

As super-sized balloons bobbed through Manhattan in Thursday’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a white and red trailer led a different procession into the South Bronx.

The trailer is the command center for Mercy Chefs, a Virginia-based cooking crew that distributes food to victims to hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. For the second year the group drove to Hunts Point to serve hot Thanksgiving meals to cash-strapped families in the Bronx’ poorest neighborhood.

At 8 a.m., the trailer and a handful of follow cars stopped in front of the Hunts Point Recreation Center on Manida Street, which on Sundays houses the New Season Christian Center church. New Season partnered with the Bowery Mission in Manhattan to bring in the Mercy Chefs, which also sent teams to sites in the North Bronx and Brooklyn.

Gary Leblanc, director of the Mercy Chefs, brought three other cooks and enough food to serve up to 400 individuals. Huge plastic bags filled with carved turkey, potatoes, stuffing and gravy packed the trailer’s hulking freezer.

“At a hurricane or flood site, there is a tremendous sense of urgency; people need power and water and food,” Leblanc said. “Here it is a different sense of urgency because demand for food is up so much this year.”

Numbers from the Food Bank for New York City support Leblanc’s assertion. More than 90 percent of the group’s 1000 citywide distribution centers reported an increase in the number of people looking for food handouts this year, and half of those reported seeing an increase of 25 percent or more.

And while demand is up, the supply of donated food is down. In the wake of the recession, many donors, both private and public, simply do not have the surpluses in food or cash to give this year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 55 percent of assistance agencies in New York City said they weren’t able to distribute enough food to meet demands.

The food shortage is a major problem during the holidays, as many distribution centers around the city organize meals and food giveaways for Thanksgiving and Christmas that are larger than usual. The Rev. Paul Block, pastor at the Lutheran Transfiguration Food Pantry in Hunts Point said his group had difficulty with its Thanksgiving handouts this year. Lutheran Transfiguration does not organize a meal, but instead hands out whole turkeys the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Last year, the church’s food bank handed out 80 turkeys, but this year they only gave out 40. A donor, who Block would not name, was unable to supply the annual funds to purchase the birds. Block said he contemplated dipping into the bank’s funds to make up the difference, but decided otherwise.

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

“That would reduce the amount of food we’d be able to give out on Mondays for the rest of the year,” Block said. “Thanksgiving is just one day, and it can be an extravagance. How may of us really eat entire turkeys?”

Supplies are equally as tight with the Bowery Mission, which each year distributes approximately 350,000 meals to people in New York City. According to Efrain Ramos, the Bowery’s supervisor of outreach, the food pantry was 500 turkeys short this year after an unnamed donor group backed down from its 2008 commitment.

Ramos also said the Bowery’s food distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania, which is usually fully stocked before the holidays, is far below its usual capacity.

“Times are hard for everyone, and some people just can’t give,” said Ramos, 40. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a month. There are people relying on you to bring food, and you don’t want to let them down.”

Ramos said the Bowery scrambled to meet its food obligations, but rounded up donations from area and nationwide grocers, and cash contributions from private givers. Instead of asking for general food contributions, Ramos said, the Bowery organized food drives for specific foods such as cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy at area schools and churches.

Many of those supplies ended up in LeBlanc’s trailer. He and his crew spent the better part of the week before Thanksgiving at the Bowery cooking 600 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving fixings. The Chefs then flash-froze the food in vacuum-sealed the food, which they divvied up between the three meal sites.

They packed the food in the $100,000 trailer, which is powered by a 12-kilowatt gas generator, and supplies a water filtration system and a propane line. The trailer, Leblanc said, designed to distribute 4000 meals a day, and houses a six-burner industrial stove, three triple-rack ovens, two large refrigerators and a 10-foot long cooking and preparation table. All the chefs had to do was warm the meals in an oven and serve them.

However Leblanc said his group also faced shortfalls this year. Leblanc developed the Mercy Chefs idea in 2005 after working as a volunteer chef cooking meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The concept was a hit, and Leblanc quickly raised enough funding for six trailers and a staff of 32 volunteer chefs.

He said his group spends approximately $70,000 on groceries each year. But the majority of the food comes from major distributors in the form of donations. The former flood of food donations, Leblanc said, has slowed in recent months. He believes it’s because companies are no longer producing surpluses.

“It’s been more restricted this year, and people are very precise with their giving,” Leblanc said. “We’ve had to push on people a little harder this year. We’ve had to be much wiser with our resources.”

Leblanc and his crew showed up in Manhattan after working for two weeks in San Leon, Texas. The group had been feeding aid workers rebuilding two churches damaged in 2008 when Hurricane Ike slammed the area.

Mary Jo Hencye, a chef from Sarasota, Fla, was not in San Leon, but made the drive up from Virginia to help in the Bronx. Hencye volunteered with the Mercy Chefs in the Bronx in 2008 as well.

“In a disaster, people have some of the same needs as here, but in a way the situation here is a little more sad,” Hencye said. “In a serious disaster it seems so devastating but you know people are going to be able to put their lives back together. Here, this is their life.”

As Hencye and Leblanc began emptying bags into heated pans, the smell of gravy and sweet potatoes floated into the neighborhood. Rivera and fellow pastor Phillip Bonano walked out of the recreation center carrying armloads of pamphlets advertising the free meals. The two men then began knocking on nearby doors, telling neighbors about the 11 a.m. serving time.

Soon, a small collection of people queued up in front of the recreation center.

“I want to see what kind of flavor they have going on there,” said Ron Mack, 50, who stood outside the facility with his pit bull Roxy.

After heating a heaping tray of white meat, Leblanc walked into the recreation center with the day’s first serving. The group still had 45 minutes to spare until mealtime, and the trailer bustled with activity.

“People ask why we come here away from our own families on Thanksgiving,” Leblanc said. “The real question is why more people don’t.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (4)

Heather Mills Picks Up the Check for a Vegan Cafe in Hunts Point

By Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills won millions in her bitter divorce from Paul McCartney, but the tabloid did direct damage to her public image. Now, she’s using some of that money to create good will and good health in the South Bronx by opening a vegan take-out cafe in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Hunts Point.

But so far, free food seems to be  the big draw at VBites, which opened in October. The vegan message seems to be secondary.

“Can I get hot dogs and chicken please?” said Amparo Espinosa, 25, as she stepped up to the counter. Her meal doesn’t sound vegan, but it is. The “hot dogs” and “chicken” are actually made with meat-free soy substitutes.

The cafe is handing out free take-away vegan food every Wednesday to local residents in need through a $1 million food donation by Mills. Jenny Cantarero, a 35-year old mother of two, comes frequently. “The kids love it and it’s healthy,” she said. Her six-year old son Ronal is looking over the counter to see what they get this time. “I love it,” he said. “I wanna get more.”

Getting people to enjoy vegan food was one of the goals of Mills when she opened the VBites cafe, which is named after her vegan food brand based in the UK. “We want to get children off fast food,” said Mills. But instead of expecting them to switch from a burger to plain vegetarian food, Mills proposed to replace “like for like,” meat-free versions of fast food favorites like hot dogs and burgers. “People can eat exactly what they like already,” Mills said, “but it’s much better for them and their family.”

The take-out cafe is located in the main building of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC). The project was born two years ago when Mills met James Costa, executive member on HPAC’s board, in Los Angeles. “She was talking about a food line,” said Costa.  “And we were thinking about how to bring healthy food into the neighborhood and we just brought those ideas together.”

Mills became convinced that the idea had potential after running a pilot version of VBites for the last year. The project, called the NoBeef Cafe, is located in the non-profit organization The Point and prepares free vegan meals as well. It will remain in operation.

On last week’s menu: chicken curry and beef stew prepared by chef Kelston Bascom with Mills’ products. “People like it,” Bascom said. “In the beginning, only two kids showed up.” Now, every seat is packed and Bascom said the cafe usuallydraws 45 to 60 people every Thursday.

With the NoBeef Cafe running, Mills was ready to open the VBites Cafe. “We certainly wanted to make sure that having a free vegan cafe is actually something people would enjoy – and they do,” said Mills. She said she beame a vegan after she was hit by a police motorcycle in 1993, and part of a leg. Vegan food made her healthy again, she said, and that is why she wants to make it more accessible.

Mills hopes that VBites Cafe in Hunts Point is going to encourage families to start eating vegan and then demanding vegan food in their local supermarkets and fast food chains. That is a huge challenge. Even though Hunts Point residents live next to the huge wholesale food market, they have little access to fresh produce in their local grocery stores.

But even if kids and their parents start to like vegan food, it is not guaranteed that they can afford to buy it on a regular basis in an area like Hunts Point, where 45.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line.  VBite’s burgers sell for an equivalent of $2 per slice on their online store while a complete hamburger at McDonalds costs $1. This applies just to VBite products, which are so far only available for purchase in the UK. If a family starts to switch to a vegan diet, there are many extra expenses. A gallon of cow’s milk is certainly cheaper than vegan alternatives such as soy or rice milk. And while VBite products are easy to cook – simply microwave – many Bronx residents will not know how to prepare vegan meals from scratch at home.

Vegan cooking classes at the non-profit organization Project Hope helped residents incorporate vegan cuisine in their routine. Cantarero said they explained how to use soy and other vegan ingredients and now she is teaching her friends how to cook vegan.

Mills is not planning on expanding VBites anywhere else in the Bronx for now, while she keeps her main focus on the British market, where she just opened her first vegan fast-food restaurant.

The profit made from the UK restaurant and the online shop are supposed to help fund projects like the VBites Cafe. The HPAC hopes to find new donors to support it after the money from Mills runs out in about five years, but so far nothing  has been set up yet.

For now, VBites Cafe brings healthy and free food onto tables of many families who could not afford it otherwise. It might not change Hunts Point into a vegan neighborhood, but it seems to have an effect on kids. “I try to eat more healthily but it is difficult,” said Anacelia Gomez, 16, a student at Jane Addams High School.  “We have little to no healthy food in our school cafeteria”. Although she still has to get used to the taste, she could imagine having vegan food in her school cafeteria soon. Nine-year old Angelique Taveras could not believe that what she was eating was vegan. “It’s really good,” she said. “When I found out its soy it was even better because I wasn’t eating an animal.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (1)

Two Strangers and a Shot in the Dark

By Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

She was a 92-year-old widow who enjoyed hosting luncheons for her friends on her newly remodeled back porch and traveling to Atlantic City every few months to play the slot machines. He is an 18-year-old with a tragic history, raised by his grandparents in a well-kept apartment building, a ten-minute walk from her home in Williamsbridge.

They didn’t know each other, but the lives of these two strangers intersected in the most devastating way in the early evening of Oct. 20, 2009.

Sadie Mitchell was watching television and getting ready to prepare dinner. On the streets outside her home on 224th Street in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a fight among young people escalated. A teen pulled the trigger, and a bullet pierced Mitchell’s first-floor living room window, taking her life in its path. Two days later, police arrested Jamal Blair, charging him with second-degree murder and weapon possession.

But is he the murderer or a second victim? Or both?

Shortly after the shot on 224th Street, the phone rang in Mitchell’s neighbors’ home. Mitchell told John Fields and his wife, who live across the street, that she was wounded, and they came running. They found her on the living room floor. At about the same time, Blair threw the gun to the crowd and walked off to his friend’s house, according to his confession to police. Forty-eight hours later, he was behind bars.

Blair, an 18-year-old high school freshman, has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. His life is on pause in Rikers Island, where he is being held without bail. “I’m sure it’s difficult for him,” Angelo MacDonald, Blair’s lawyer said. “I’m sure he’s obviously very scared and concerned.”

Even before his  imprisonment, Blair had it tough. When he was two years old, his father fatally shot his mother right in front of him. His father fled and was never convicted or even found, according to MacDonald. Blair’s grandparents, who both work, have raised him since then.

The family lives in a comfortable well-maintained apartment building on 233rd Street, nine blocks from Mitchell’s house. “For him to be in this situation is very troubling and sad for them,” MacDonald said. “They’re concerned about him.” Blair’s family is paying his legal bills, and MacDonald has met with Blair’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

If Blair were convicted, the maximum sentence would leave him in prison for 25 to life. It seems Blair’s entire family are doing their best to keep that from happening.

While Blair’s story may be a glimpse of the Bronx’s troubled future, Mitchell’s life is the picture of a more stable past. She was a housewife who was very active in Community Board 12 and in her church, Our Lady of Grace, where she was a parishioner for over 40 years.

“I can’t even eat; it hurts,” said Gloria Lord two days after the murder. She lives across the street from Mitchell, whom she called “the mother of the block.”

The day before the stray bullet ended Mitchell’s life, she and her daughter discussed a trip they were planning to Atlantic City. Mitchell wanted to make sure she had evening clothes to take with her, and talked about shopping for a new outfit. “She loved clothes, she loved shoes…she always dressed…the nails were always done,” said Mitchell’s daughter, Shahron Williams van Rooij, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

Mitchell, who read both the Daily News and The New York Times daily, had just come home from an exercise class at a local senior center on the day she was murdered. Her daughter said she was waiting for her favorite game show, Jeopardy, to air on television, and was about to make dinner when the bullet ended her evening plans, ended her Atlantic City vacation plans, and ended her life.

“I never felt the fear of being shot or stabbed,” van Rooij said of her childhood in Williamsbridge. “The Bronx was a very pleasant place at the time.” She said the only gang she knew was in the film West Side Story.

On recent visits to her mother, van Rooij said she noticed that the neighborhood had declined significantly, with more drug dealers, more teens in the streets during school hours, and a lot of young people fighting. Yet, her mother never felt unsafe. “That’s the irony of it,” she said.

Many Williamsbridge residents believe that the stray bullet is a byproduct of stray lives: teenagers who grew up with troubled childhoods in broken families or working families with little supervision or discipline.

“I don’t feel any safer,” said Mitchell’s neighbor, John Fields, on the day Blair was arrested. He is nervous that teens are still a threat to the neighborhood.

An Epidemic of Crime and Fear

Teen crime, especially robbery, has been on the rise, according to a 47th Precinct officer, who would not identify himself by name. He said the precinct’s school unit has increased to 10 officers, doubling since 2007. “I think it’s definitely the way parents are raising their children today,” he said. “Without a doubt.” He has been in the precinct, which covers the northeast Bronx, for 14 years. “The crime up here in general has been going up,” he said.

Relationships between police and Bronx teens are tense as officers try to maintain order in the 47th Precinct. On Thursday, Nov. 19, police walked a teenage boy out of A2Z Convenient Store on White Plains Road in handcuffs as they told a group of about 15 teenagers to leave the area. As police wrote down the teen’s information at the cop car, a girl approached one of the cops to make sure they knew that the boy did, in fact, pay for his juice. The officers were not amused by the situation, but were quite casual, as this was a nuance they had faced so many times before. “They’re really out of control,” one officer said. He blamed poor parenting and said that Williamsbridge has a high concentration of gangs, many involving teens. Another stepped in after hearing the first officers concerns, “They’re not brought up,” he said. “They’re brought down.”

Many Williamsbridge residents remember a time when they did not live in fear. Jacqueline Sams, 74, who grew up in Williamsbridge, remembers a different neighborhood. “In the 1940s, all parents weren’t working, she said.” She never came home to an empty house, but said now so many children are born into either single-parent homes or households with two working parents that no one is ever home. Sams no longer leaves her house after dark. “We actually changed our lifestyle gradually to feel safer.”

Almost all area high school students recognize that many of their classmates are in gangs, and some estimate that up to a third of their classmates may be involved.

Teens have their own ideas about why some of their classmates are drawn to gangs. “They’re easily vulnerable, so they do things that they shouldn’t,” said Matthew Anderson, a senior at the Evander Childs High School Campus on Gun Hill Road. He focuses his energy on acting, playing Malcolm in the school’s performance of Macbeth, and he credits his mother with keeping him on the right path. “My mom is still strict,” he said.

“I worry about getting robbed,” said O’Dell Davis, a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. He hangs out casually with some teens who are in gangs, but keeps his distance because he does not want to become involved. “They don’t all carry guns,” he said. “Most of them fight.” But he added that around Williamsbridge, “you can get a gun faster than you can get a job.”

Teens have handshakes and hand signals that are specific to their gangs, and they make signs to each other during class, said Davis’s friend, D’shawn Stevens, also a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. “They’re nice in school, but after school they’re a whole different person,” said Stevens, who has recently been staying inside more often, especially at night.

Other Bullets, Other Victims

An escalation of violence in the last few months justifies the uneasiness. Mitchell’s murder fits an alarming pattern of teen violence, stray bullets, and unintended victims.

In September, a stray bullet killed 25-year-old Aisha Santiago in front of her son as she was about to help her best friend do laundry in Mott Haven. A 25-year-old was charged with second-degree murder and a 16-year-old with attempted murder. In November, a stray bullet struck 14-year-old Vada Vasquez on her way home from school in Morrisania. After brain surgery and two weeks of fighting for her life at Lincoln Hospital, Vasquez has moved on to rehabilitation and doctors expect a full recovery, according to the Daily News.

On Nov. 23, at the National Day of Outrage vigil at the Bronx County Court, Aisha Santiago’s mother wept openly as she shared her pain. “I have problems sleeping because I still see her body lying there,” Yvette Montanez said. “I struggle to get up in the morning to go to work.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. held the National Day of Outrage, to stress the need for community action. “We will be proactive from now on, we will not be reactive,” he said.

Diaz pointed out one problem in particular that has led to teen crime. “Many of these young men don’t have male role models,” he said. “The Bronx has the highest number of single mothers. Fathers need to step it up.”

At the vigil, Heriberto Rodriguez, 20, who graduated from Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, said Bronx communities are partially responsible for teen violence. “There’s not a lot of programs for the youth,” he said. He added that the Bronx needs more community centers, an issue that has been addressed by many local activists lobbying for a center in the Northeast Bronx. Rodriguez now interns at Banana Kelly and helps organize a group of teens against violence called United Playaz, several of whom attended National Day of Outrage, where they held a sign that read, “It takes the hood to save the hood.”

George Stewart, 42, who grew up in the Northeast Bronx and whose family has been active in the community, blames his generation for problems with teens even though he has no children of his own. “My generation specifically, we’ve dropped the ball,” said Stewart, who is president of a debt recovery business. “We have to get black men engaging these young black males,” he said. Out of frustration, he sometimes stops kids on the street to tell them “where that style of grunge came from.” Wearing pants too low, he explains, is actually a signal used in prisons: “The farther down your pants, the more available you are.”

A Confession and a Life on Hold

The concern for teens that has been pouring through the Bronx recently may be too late for Jamal Blair.

“I went to a bush and pulled out a .22 caliber gun, and shot one shot in the air,” he confessed to police before pleading “not guilty.” “The gun belonged to an older man who lived on the block…and told me anytime I need it it’s there.” Blair said he and two friends were being chased by teens from the nearby Edenwald Houses when he shot the bullet.

Police have not found the gun, or if they have, no one has told Blair’s lawyer, Angelo MacDonald. The police have not released their investigation, so MacDonald has not formulated his defense. He has heard a rumor that Mitchell was struck by a 9 mm bullet, which would significantly weaken Blair’s original confession of shooting a .22 caliber gun. It’s still unclear whether Blair’s confessed shot was the shot. MacDonald implied that the case may not even go to trial if there is not quality evidence, and a murder weapon would certainly constitute quality evidence.

So, Blair sits in Rikers Island, waiting. His future depends on whatever evidence police uncover. He will appear in court on Jan. 8, when pre-trial motions will be made.

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s home on 224th Street appears exactly as it did when she was living inside. From the street, there is not even a visible crack in the window, but now the tidy light green house with a small fenced-in front yard is empty.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (1)

Hope for the “Ocelot” Tenants?

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Entrance to Manida Street building, Photo by Wanda Hellmund

By Wanda Hellmund

It was a moment the tenants in the decaying apartment buildings on Manida Street had sought for more than two years. “Omni bought the debt,” Carmen Rodriguez, head of the residents’ group, declared at a tenant meeting on December 7.

The room–filled with Hunts Point residents who have endured rats, collapsing ceilings and months with no heat or hot water–erupted in applause

It has been a long fight for residents in Manida Street and hundreds of other residents in the decrepit Ocelot-owned buildings all over the Bronx. This is their first victory. But it was a victory with a caveat.

“This is a huge success for the tenants,” said Jill Roche from the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, who represented the Manida  Street tenants. “But there is still a very long road ahead for us.”

On Dec. 2, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the sale of the portfolio of 14 of 26 Ocelot-owned buildings to Omni New York LLC, a low-income real-estate development company, as a boon for residents all over the city. “The sale of these buildings to an affordable housing developer with a track record as strong as Omni’s is a home run for the residents, the neighborhood, and all of New York City,” the mayor said in a statement. “That’s something all of us can cheer.”

“Omni is thrilled to have been chosen as the successful bidder for the Ocelot portfolio,” Omni’s co-owner Maurice “Mo” Vaughn said in a statement.  Vaughan is a former New York Met player. “We look forward to moving ahead with the foreclosure process and substantial rehabilitation of these properties.”

“I want Omni to do right by us,” said Rodriguez, a 35-year-old mother of five, who had help lead the fight against Ocelot Capital Group that bought the four Manida Street buildings and 22 others across the Bronx in between 2006 and 2008, only to abandon them to foreclosure months later.

“We don’t want to be treated like trash no more.”

This pyrrhic victory may have a broader impact on future tenants’ cases against their landlords. “This is a success not only for these tenants,” said Roche. “This is a success for tenants all over the country.”

But the victory is muted. Omni did not buy the buildings outright from Ocelot. It bought their $23.8 million debt from Fannie Mae and Deutsche Bank. As long as the deeds are still held in the hands of companies linked to Ocelot, improvements may take some time.

What does this deal mean for tenants tomorrow? “Not a whole lot,” said Roche at the meeting. “But this is a huge step. It just might take a year or so.”

Omni officials pledged to transfer $1 million in emergency repairs to the current receivers in various buildings, though they are well aware that one million will not go far.

“I think $30 million is the right figure to put these buildings back to where they ought to be,” said Omni manager, Gene Schneur, acknowledging the enormity of the buildings’ decay.

For instance, the Bryant and Morris Avenue receiver claimed in October that he needed $325,000 alone to make capital improvements such as waterproofing, sidewalk repairs and new electrical services.

“Nothing is going to happen until we get the deeds,” said Schneur. “This could take 12 months, this could take 18 months. We hope it doesn’t.”

A spokesperson for Fannie Mae, which owns much of Ocelot’s bad debt, said Ocelot has not been cooperative. “So we had to sell the notes for now to secure the deeds,” said Jon Searles.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez is hopeful. She visited some of the buildings Omni has rehabilitated in the city – a portfolio that includes 2,937 units of affordable housing.

“You should have seen these buildings,” Rodriguez told Manida residents at the tenants meeting. “These buildings looked beautiful!”

Tenants are both excited and skeptical about the new developments.   “We would have preferred a non-profit organization,” said Jonathan Levy, a lawyer for the Ocelot tenants. “But this is the second best option for us.”

Most prefer to hold out hope. “We didn’t have hot water and heat for a year,” said Tamara Taylor, a 48-year old Manida Street tenant and mother of two. “Nobody was there to help us. “I have waited this long. I can wait a few more months.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

A Squatter’s Paradise?

By Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

Geovanni Janet remembers the first time he pushed open the door to Apartment 4A and peered inside. A tangle of broken furniture lay twisted on the living room floor and old bits of garbage littered the two bedrooms. Someone had ripped the kitchen sink from its fixture; its location was unknown. A moldy aroma wafted through the hallway.

Janet was homeless at the time and says he saw potential in the mess. He stepped across the threshold into his new home and into his new life as a squatter.

“I didn’t have no bed so I slept on the floor in my clothes,” Janet said. “I didn’t even have a pillow. I just used my shirt to keep the light out. I did that for two months. It was rough, man.”

That was back in May. In six months, the 35-year-old Janet transformed the Bronx flat into his home. It’s hardly luxury housing: large holes fill the ceiling, two windows are missing and Janet pours his drinking water from the bathtub faucet. But gone are the days of sleeping on the floor. Janet has furnished his bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a wooden chest of drawers he plucked from a dumpster. He even has a Playstation 2 on loan from a friend.

“It’s comfortable,” Janet said. “Nobody has ever told me to get out.”

The ease with which Janet has lived rent-free in Apartment 4A says a lot about the current housing crisis facing the Bronx. Hundreds of neglected apartment buildings dot the borough because their owners went bust in the sub-prime market crash in 2008. With no cash for upkeep, many of these structures have gone for a year or more without services and supervision. A recent survey by the United Housing Assistance Board (UHAB) estimates that at least 70,000 individual apartments, both inhabited and vacant, sit in various states of decay.

“If a window breaks and you don’t fix it, you are sending a message to the community that nobody is taking care of things,” said Dina Levy, associate director of the UHAB. “Buildings that were in decent condition are now in decline. Some activities that used to be not tolerated in these buildings are now going on.”

Janet’s building, for example, currently sits in an ownership purgatory. Its old owner, Ocelot Capital Group, is a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm that gobbled up nearly 30 Bronx buildings at the height of the housing bubble, and borrowed big sums to pay for the purchases.

After Ocelot defaulted in fall of 2008, Fannie Mae entered foreclosure proceedings on the company’s properties this spring. In early December 2009, the group Omni New York LLC purchased the building. Fore more than one year, the building went without basic services or supervision.

Like Ocelot, other real estate firms borrowed, bought high and went bust. The companies have left a trail of decaying structures, and an open doors for squatters.

“There was no lock on the door, so I just came in,” said Janet, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. “It was as easy as that. A man doesn’t want to live in a shelter. He wants a home.”

Not all squatters are looking for a home; many come and go, leaving destruction in their wake. Squatters nearly overran the Ocelot property at 621 Manida St. in the Hunts Point neighborhood after vandals broke the locks off of doors. Unwanted entrants dug into the walls to steep metal pipes to sell for scrap. Others used vacant apartments to run drug and prostitution rings.

Tenants there called local police, who now regularly drive by the buildings for signs of unwanted guests.

“It’s a problem you have to stop early,” said Det. Art Warrick of the 42nd Precinct, “because the more people start moving in it becomes a coop for new squatters. They let other people know a building is open. It can become a haven for drugs or crime. We try to get to it before things get out of hand.”

Tenants faced a similar situation across the Bronx at 1744 Clay Ave., another building owned by Ocelot. When management stopped coming to the building in January 2009, repairs and care stopped. After a month, tenants noticed undesirables from the neighborhood loitering in the building’s lobby and on the roof. According to resident Carmen Piniero, it wasn’t long until squatters broke into the building’s four vacant apartments.

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay.  Photo by Fred Dreier

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay. Photo by Fred Dreier

“A neighbor came to me and said he heard people inside, doing drugs and having sex,” Piniero said. “We went into the apartment and found condoms. People had been doing drugs.”

Piniero said she and her neighbors collectively agreed to call the police on the squatter’s nest. Cops showed up and chased the newcomers off.

“Now we keep our eyes and ears open on the vacant apartments,” Piniero said. “We don’t want people coming into our homes who don’t live here.”

Janet said he isn’t worried that someone in his building might call the police or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and have him thrown out. A quick poll of Janet’s neighbors showed that many realize he is indeed living in the apartment without paying rent. But not one neighbor said they felt compelled to call the police on Janet.

The building’s superintendent, Victor Garcia, even exchanges heat and electricity with Janet for work around the building. Janet helps take out the garbage and helped Garcia clean two vacant apartments on the fourth floor.

“Geo – he’s ok. He usually just stays up in his apartment,” Garcia said. “He comes around asking if I have any jobs for him, and if I do, I put in to work.”

Janet said he rarely interacts with anyone other than the super. He passes his days working in the building, spending time with his 16-year-old daughter who lives in the neighborhood or watching borrowed DVDs on his Playstation.

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

“I feel like I gotta help,” said Janet. “I’m not working, so if neighbors need help it’s something to keep my mind focused.”

The housing crisis in the Bronx is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 90s, when a boom in vacancies and abandoned buildings matched a similar increase in joblessness and homelessness. That period was the pinnacle of New York City’s squatter movement and squatters took up residence in all five boroughs.

Squatter communities, which often included artists and actors, made headlines in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for their militant stand against HPD.

Writer Robert Neuwirth, whose book “Shadow Cities” chronicles squatting across the globe, followed the clashes between squatters and police.

“People were pretty savvy about picking which buildings to squat in,” Neuwirth said. “You had to find a building that was worth less than the taxes owed on it.”

Neuwirth said the squatter communities he followed renovated the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabited.

The Rev. Frank Morales is a Bronx priest and homeless advocate who helped establish squats in the 1970s and 80s. Morales now operates the Bronx-based non-profit Picture the Homeless, which advocates for low-cost housing for homeless people.

Morales is quick to point out the difference between harmful squatting — the kind involving drugs and prostitution — and what his group promotes. Morales defines his form of squatting as “urban homesteading.

“We are not like flies on a piece of food,” he said. “The squatting we’re talking about involves occupation and renovation. The notion is to develop housing based on ideological concerns for the community, not based on the conventional profit model.”

Morales believes the key to addressing the housing crisis is to allow groups like his to organize homesteading camps, and then move them into vacant buildings to work on renovations and live. In 2002, the City of New York turned over 11 city-owned buildings in the Lower East Side for legal squatting in a series of housing cooperatives. Homesteaders had established legal squats in the buildings and worked for years on renovations. Morales said it was a step toward a broader acceptance of homesteading in New York City.

“People have become separated from the naked greed that pumped up the housing bubble and ruined our communities,” Morales said. “There’s the notion that these buildings are there. There are vacancies in them. And there are people living on the street. Why not let someone live in there?”

Others believe the tenants rights groups, not squatters, should be the ones to benefit from the current housing crisis. Levy called the housing dilemma an “opportunity” for established renters to take control of their own buildings.

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

“It would take a combination of government subsidy, tenant advocacy and some agreements from the banks,” Levy said. “If tenants can find capital sources, I think they have an opportunity to take back a lot of housing in the Bronx from speculators.”

But legal homesteading or tenant ownership in the Bronx would require radical actions by the banks that currently hold the debt on each property. And Levy said neither outcome is likely to happen, unless the city steps in and buys the properties.

“The banks are holding out and looking for more speculators,” she said. “The banks are still looking to get the highest possible value for these stupid loans and there are people out there who are willing to buy.”

Janet said does not think of himself as an activist or a homesteader, just a man who wanted a roof over his head. He said he does not panhandle, but instead finds money doing favors and odd jobs around the neighborhood. He also receives cash from his 16-year-old daughter who lives around the corner.

“It’s depressing,” Janet said. “I know it. It’s not easy for a person to change, but I’ve changed,. All I’m asking for is a job. I don’t want your money. I want to earn your money.”

Janet said that in a perfect world, he’d be able to land a job and begin working toward a new future. IHe would earn enough to buy a van, and then take a job delivering newspapers. He would save enough cash to buy gifts for his daughter and to buy groceries at the Fine Fare grocery store down the street.

He said he’d also earn enough cash to pay the rent.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

Caridad de la Luz: An Artist-Activist Bred in the Bronx

By Carmen Williams

Eight years ago, Caridad De La Luz, then a 27-year-old Puerto Rican poet and performer, finally found her artistic voice. It was just a month after the World Trade Center attacks and De La Luz — like most New Yorkers — was still in shock. But she was also inspired. The result was one of her best-known poems, WTC, which uses only carefully crafted three-word phrases that begin with the letters W, T or C: “What’s the cause/Work to connect/Wish to change/Want to cry…Wish time could/Wash this clean…Watched the Calamity/ Weakness to Courage.”

The poem is emblematic of De La Luz’s work. Through her art, she aims to transform tragedy into hope. Known by the stage name “La Bruja“, or witch, De La Luz performed recently at Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a part of “The Sense of a Woman” musical, dance and poetry exhibition. Her rhythmic speech, passionate raps and charismatic delivery wowed the crowd. “It’s not easy being a woman,” she told the audience. “We deal with menstruation, menopause and MySpace.”

Now 36, De La Luz has been performing on the popular East Village cafe’s stage for 13 years. During that time, she has evolved from community organizer and marketing rep to actress, singer, songwriter, comedian and artist-activist. She has also used her talents to give back to the community by working with local organizations that help young people, especially young Latinas.

Born in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx (where she still lives), De La Luz graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School and attended the State University of New York in Binghamton. But it wasn’t until she began working as a community organizer in Hunts Point in the 1990s that she witnessed the direct impact of high rates of teen pregnancy, low educational attainment, drug abuse and STDs. After her stint as an organizer, she worked in retail marketing for Bloomingdale’s but then quit to begin a full-time artist and poet. But even as she developed her artistic side, the energetic Bronx native couldn’t forget what she had seen as an organizer. Those memories led her to start Latinas4Life, an organization that runs high school workshops around the city.

“I worked with youth before becoming “La Bruja,” she said. “but once I saw the statistics of Latinas in particular, I felt the need to create something to bring awareness about these issues from a Latina perspective.”

The numbers are indeed grim. In New York City, a third of Latinas leave high school without graduating. One in every four Latina teens becomes pregnant. And even more disturbing are the effects of these issues. Nationally, one of every seven Latinas will attempt suicide.

De La Luz believes that many of the difficulties young Latinas experience are the result of trying to balance two cultures, family roots and American identity. Research backs that up. A 1999 study conducted by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services found that the lack of communication between daughters and mothers and the lack of information about how to deal with the conflict between old and new values was a factor in suicide attempts by Latinas.

But she thinks its possible to successfully reconcile both cultures, as she has. “I don’t think you have to choose,” she said. “You can embrace both cultures at once. Have a balance and love both sides for the ugliness and the beauty.”

Her work as a role model extends beyond Latinas4Life. “She’s very connected to the community and she’s a great representative of the Bronx,” says Victoria Sammartino, founder and executive director of Voices UnBroken, a non-profit organization that produces writing workshops for Bronx young people in foster care, as well as adults in homeless shelters and correctional facilities. De La Luz is a board member of the group and has helped with workshops. “It’s important to the participants because they know that someone who has achieved success is actually interested in them and their work,” Sammartino said. “They’re all big fans of hers and feel connected to her.”

Caridad de la Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices Unbroken at Yankee Stadium with La India.  Photo Courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

De La Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices UnBroken at Yankee Stadium with La India. Photo Courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

But Latinas4Life is closest to her own journey. Through the group’s workshops, she has heard harrowing tales from young teens: tales of rape, suicide attempts and depression. De La Luz can relate because she has experienced these issues herself. She overcome bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and date rape, the subject of her poem She: “She fought, she yelled, she lost, she fell/She left her body there and swore never to tell/She let some years pass believing she was at fault.”

“It took me 15 years to write that poem and share it,” she said. Her hope is that talking about her experiences will help others heal. “This work is transformational,” she said. “It’s about transforming lives without leaving someone behind.”

She is often emotionally drained after a workshop. “We think because they’re teenagers, they don’t deal with this,” she said. “But most of these girls have been dealing with these issues. They’re dying to pull themselves out.”

De La Luz tries to correct these issues in her own home, talking candidly about problems with her son Kelson, 11, and daughter Carina, 9. She even broaches conversations with her kids that are still taboo within her traditional culture. “The old Latina way is to not tell the truth about things like sex but when you treat it as not natural and you grow up with complexes and insecurities,” she said. “I share with my daughter the things I’ve seen.”

She and her husband, G. Bo Vasquez, a professional DJ, live next door to her parents. And she says they have no intention of leaving. She’s close to her parents and says they encouraged her to pursue her passion, even though it was an unconventional career. Her late great-grandmother sparked her desire to write poetry by teaching her poems that she would recite them in front of family members. It was a poem inspired by her grandmother in 1995 that laid the foundation for her work as a full-time artist.

“My best friend’s brother told me about Nuyorican Cafe,” she said. “The first poem I performed was so full of pride and love for my island and culture. It was like my grandmother was talking to me.”

She received a standing ovation for her performance, and eventually her poems earned her a monthly slot at the cafe. Since she first appeared on the stage, the poet has developed in many artistic areas–actress, singer, song-writer.

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd.  Picture is courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd. Photo courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

“The thing that’s always impressed me about La Bruja is her combination of talent,” said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of the cafe. “Last year, she did a two-week run, and every single night she had a different show. She has enough breadth of talent that different audiences know her for different reasons–comedian, actress, singer, poet.”

“Her talents match the venue,” Gallant said. “She’s developed great characters at the cafe. She has range.”

Some of those developed characters were on display this summer when De La Luz portrayed seven different family members in her play “Boogie Rican Blvd.” She said the play was meant to be entertaining, but it also served as a healing tool.

“It was a labor of love, and I hope to shop it around to other theaters,” she said.

She has also become involved in the organization LatinosNYC through her assistant, Paul Rios. He met De La Luz two years ago after he contacted her over MySpace to perform at an event for suicide awareness. LatinosNYC gives information about HIV awareness, domestic violence, suicide to the Latino community.

“I contacted La Bruja, [to perform] and on the day of the show, she showed up and did a hell of a job,” Rios said. “I admire her for what she stands for–a poet, actor, activist, hip hop artist, mother and wife.”

Rios hopes many other will get to see that talent. “I would like her to reach the skies with her talent and beyond any limits that society sets on people, especially Latina females,” he said.

De La Luz is also excited about her future. She’s working on an anthology of her work and she’s slated to release an album next month on her independent record label. She will also continue her charity work.

“I have schools lined up for this year and I want to get the organization registered as non-profit status,” she said. “I am going to continue to grow.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

Urban Gardener Looks for a New Dream to Plant

By Sarah Wali

Last month, Tanya Fields got a call she had been dreading from Michael Holosyzk, regional manager at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Liberated Urban Farm, the plot of land she had spent $500 and four months cultivating, would be cleared to make room for a playground.

Adjacent to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm.

Next to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm. Photo by Tanya Fields

“He called me on Thursday and told me they are excavating on Monday so if there’s anything you want you should go tomorrow and get it,” said Fields.

She chuckles at his suggestion.   To start an urban farm, Fields and a team of community volunteers had to make raised beds, a gardening tool used to protect fertile soil from possibly polluted city soil by lining the dug-up earth with plywood.  Where would she put the plywood?  They had also planted decorative plants known to urban farmers as ornamentals.  They had no place to put them either.

So she left the garden untouched.   When she came home from work that Monday, Parks and Recreation had cleared the land.  The newly planted flowers and trees were replaced with a half-acre of overturned dirt.

“It’s gone,” she said.  “It was bulldozed, it’s gone.  The raised beds, the flowers — they’re gone. “

Of 152 community gardens in the Bronx, 72 are currently facing the same fate as the Liberated Urban Farm.  Started by neighborhood activists and financed through their fundraising efforts, these plots aren’t legal and so the gardeners can’t stop the city from tearing them down.

Aresh Javadi, board member of the gardening advocacy group More Gardens!, works with threatened gardens to create awareness and political support for their cause.   According to Javadi, the main problem is the lack of clear legal framework for obtaining and keeping community gardens in New York City.

Instead, prospective gardeners must contact the Department of Housing and Preservation to make sure the city doesn’t have plans for the lot, and then wait for approval, a process that could take months and sometimes even years.

Javadi instead urges would-be gardeners to just plunge in.

“Buy bolt cutters at the local hardware store and open the garden gates,” he said.

Javadi encourages green-thumbed activists to clear the land they are interested in farming and rally support from neighbors and politicians to expedite the licensing process.    By winning this battle, says Javadi, they are helping to fight the legal war.

No laws insure the security of the more than 600 community gardens in the five boroughs.   While yearly licenses can be granted by Green Thumbs, there are no guarantees for renewal.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this clear on Jan. 10, 1999.  The city was in an economic boom, and housing was scarce. In an effort to raise more money, he announced he had allocated 115 of 700 community gardens for sale to the commercial market in May. “This is a free-market economy,” he said on a WABC radio show that  January. “The era for communism is over.”

The city’s community gardeners were furious. Protests in front of City hall blocked the streets for hours, and 92 activists were arrested for civil disobedience.   But demonstrators weren’t the only ones in court.   New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that Giuliani’s attempted sale of the gardens would break state environmental laws.

Finally, two days before the auction, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land struck a $4 million deal with Giuliani.  They would buy 60 of the lots, be caretakers for the other 55, and, in return, the lawsuit against the mayor’s office was dropped.

In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the first of his three terms, he revisited the issue of community gardening.  An agreement between Bloomberg and Spitzer laid out, for gardeners, a system that required the approval of politicians and council members for the city to take back plots from gardeners.

Four years later, Bloomberg signed another agreement with Spitzer that gave gardeners five years to rally support from community leaders and prove their worth to their communities.

That’s why Javadi encouraged prospective farmers to take up guerilla farming.   By first putting their money and efforts into the gardens and then rallying for support, More Gardens! hopes to keep community gardens on the political agenda.

For urban farmers like Field, this can be risky.  The single mother of four has been living on Fox Street in a small two bedroom apartment since 2002.  She could see the huge playground and basketball court across the street from her living room window.

“It seemed really strange to me that there was a plot of earth near a playground that hadn’t been built on,” she said.

But she brushed her concerns aside and focused first on completing her B.A. in Political Science at Baruch College then finding work.  She began as an Environmental Justice Activist with Mother’s on the move.  Her work with mothers on the move had opened her eyes to economic, social and environmental issues facing the people of Hunts Point.   So when she decided to start her gardening adventure, she was determined it would yield more than just tomatoes, sunflowers and basil.

“I live in a community that has five shelters in a three-block radius,” she said. “I can’t fart without hitting someone who might be touched by this.”

Eventually she became an Outreach coordinator with with Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit whose mission is to create programs that address policy and planning issues in the Hunts Point area. As a program assistant with Sustainable South Bronx, she worked to inform the community of their role in creating and implementing laws and procedure.  She was shocked by the abundance of health problems in the Hunts Point area, including asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Fields decided to attack the root of these problems. “One of the parts that I really looked at that affects so many communities is lack of access to food,” she said.  “What people are consuming because of that lack of quality food, and how the psychosis of poverty manifests itself in the choices that we make in terms of what we put into our body.”

She immersed herself in her work with Sustainable South Bronx, and eventually became a program assistant for Majora Carter LLC, the private for-profit consulting group that lead by Majora Carter, creator of  Sustainable South Bronx.   The harder she worked, the more concerned she became about the community around her. She could still see the half-acre of empty land from her window, but didn’t consider starting an urban farm until the issues she had been addressing at work hit home.  Fields had gained more than 25 pounds since she moved to Fox Street, and her kids had developed serious respiratory problems.

“I’m doing this out of need,” she said.  “I was tired of buying the bad avocados at the supermarket.  I was seeing children in the community get too big and I watched myself get too big.”

Fields found that in her Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the second poorest congressional district in the country, single women just like her ran three out of four households.  Convinced that poverty is tied to gender, she decided to create a community garden that would teach as well as feed.

“I was thinking about the real business side of that would teach them real skills, things they could put on a resume,” she said.

The idea was to create a community garden that would force those participating to create a viable business model to sell their produce.  The women would develop a marketing plan; find buyers; identify aspects of the project they would not be able to do themselves, such as transporting their products, and create partnerships with other vendors in the community.

So, in June she found a partner in field manager Dwaine Lee, a co-worker at Sustainable South Bronx who had experience in farming.  Over the summer Lee provided technical assistance on how to set-up the plot of land for growing, and assisted with funding.   He also helped Fields get in touch with Just Foods, a non-profit organization that connects local growers with the communities around them.   They gained the support of Just Food’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, a program that allows community members to pay an annual fee of $400 to $600 and receive enough vegetables to feed a two or three people on a weekly basis.

The project seemed to be moving along smoothly.  Fields and Lee began to raise awareness on their project, and a steady stream of volunteers came to assist with the garden.  They cleared the debris, and put in raised beds.  They planted hydrangea, an ornamental flower, cherry sandalwood trees and butterfly bushes to attract pollinating bees.

With the garden created and the community behind them, they focused their efforts on garnering political support.  On Sept. 26, Fields threw the Liberated  Urban Farm Family Fun Block Party, and invited neighbors, politicians and community garden advocates.   Over 100 people attended the event, including council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo.

Yet her political activities and hard work couldn’t stop Parks and Recreation from tearing down the garden in November.  Now, Fields has turned for help to the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, a grassroots organization that promotes community gardens through political advocacy.

Karen Washington, president of the coalition and a long-time community gardening activist, created the group to insure the security of community gardens around the New York area.    Like Fields, Washington started with the empty lot in front of her house on Prospect Avenue in 1988.  From there she has created a group of 10 community gardens in the Bronx that regularly supply fruits and vegetables for the East Tremont Farmer’s market, called La Familia Verde (The Green Family).

Because of her success in creating almost a dozen community gardens in the Bronx, Washington has emerged as a leader in the legal fight for community gardens.   She attributes her success to being able to make informed arguments that politicians will listen to.

“You always follow protocol,” she said.  “Then when you go and meet your adversary, you know you’re facts and you go in there educated strong and with the nonviolent quietness of a mouse.  You don’t have to raise your voice because your words are so powerful people listen.”

It is with this philosophy that Washington began the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, and has expanded beyond the Bronx and created partnerships with some of New York’s biggest community gardening activists.  Their goal is to get politicians to understand the impact and significance of community gardens.

“What I try to do is make people accountable,” she said. ”I know the politicians hear what is going on in the neighborhoods, but some of them don’t take the time out to go and see.”

To carry out this task, she created the Legislative Committee of the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, made up of three community gardeners, including Javadi.  The group has created a list of nine recommendations for legislation.   They ask for classification as state parks, first pick when lots become available and the opportunity to create gardens in communities that lack open space.

While pro-green politicians such as Rep. Jose E. Serrano have stood beside the gardeners, the coalition still faces strong opposition from proponents of affordable housing.

Yet for the gardeners, affordable housing and urban gardening should go hand in hand.   Urban gardens create a sense of community, and are a way for people to have a direct interest in their neighborhoods.  This, says Fields, could help instead of hurt housing development.

“It gives people an investment in the community,” she said.  “When you do have people who have money who come into the community it’s not as scary because they feel like they do have a vested interest in the community.“

Standing in front of an empty field, Fields watches her children play in the playground adjacent to the plot.  It is they, she says, who give her the determination to make the Liberated Urban Farm dream a reality.

“When I first took them out into the garden they were digging up the soil,” she said.  “That was the first time my six-year-old had seen an earthworm,” Fields said.  She’s hoping for many more “firsts” when her next garden takes root.

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