Tag Archive | "Bronx"

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.

Posted in Bronx Life, FoodComments (2)

Who Wants a Jail?

By Alex Berg

The new jail is proposed for the parking lot of the Vernon C. Bain center, a jail on a barge.  By Alex Berg

The new jail is proposed for the parking lot of the Vernon C. Bain center, a jail on a barge. By Alex Berg

From the second Lisa Ortega discovered a proposal for a new jail in her Hunts Point neighborhood three years ago she has been fighting it. Now that Bloomberg has appointed a new corrections’ commissioner, she is eager to find out what’s next.

But information about the status of the proposal has become even more difficult to obtain since September.

“It’s not going away. It’s not going to disappear,” said Ortega. “Whenever there is no news that means that things are brewing behind closed doors.”

The new jail was proposed for Halleck Street in the parking lot of the Vernon C. Bain Center, an 800-bed men’s jail on a barge adjacent to the New Fulton Fish Market. It would have 1,200 beds and cost $650 million, said Jaime Stein, an Environmental Policy Analyst at Sustainable South Bronx.

“We’re the poorest congressional district,” Ortega, the head of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, said. “We’re lacking in so many things that it’s actually ridiculous to put in a jail.”

The proposal for the jail is currently undergoing an environmental review to assess the impact a new jail would have on the surrounding area. The assessment will result in a document for the Department of Corrections and will pre-empt a public hearing about the jail. However, the time frame for the environmental review, and subsequent hearing, is unknown, said Craig Chin, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings and Construction. The Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment.

This is worrisome for Ortega, who espouses the maxim “No jails here. Not nowhere,” and was once incarcerated herself. Her organization is part of Community in Unity, a coalition of organizations opposed to building the new jail, including the Bronx Defenders, Critical Resistance, Sustainable South Bronx and about 15 others. Since 2006, Community in Unity has resisted the construction of the jail through meetings and rallies, and continues to meet every month.

However, the coalition has been unable to meet with the new corrections commissioner, Dora Schriro, who replaced former commissioner Martin Horn in September. Though the coalition has met with Horn in the past, Schriro has refused to meet with them, Ortega said.

Today Ortega said she believes that the proposal, which was initially for a 2,000 bed-jail on privately owned land in Oak Point, is moving forward behind closed doors and that Schriro may be meeting with Bronx politicians.

“I think this is bullshit. The community doesn’t know,” she said.

In the past, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, Hunts Point councilwoman, and Jose Serrano, 16th District Representative, have vehemently opposed a jail in Hunts Point, which is also home to the Bridges Juvenile Center. A spokesperson from Senator Jose Serrano’s office said she had not heard about the jail proposal. Last summer YourNabe.com reported Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. opposed the jail when he was an assemblyman. Now borough president, he could not be reached for comment.

Stein said she was concerned a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a process that publicizes plans for the city’s land, would be approved over the holidays. The procedure calls for public hearings and many advocacy organizations would not have a presence due to the holidays.

“They know that we’re keeping our ear to the ground. You sort of hear that they try to do these things,” Stein said.

Community in Unity opposes placing the jail in Hunts Point because it will not effectively confront the cause of crime and perpetuates a cycle of incarceration. The money could be better spent on other needs in the South Bronx, like childcare centers, housing and job training programs, Ortega said.

“Our ideology is just this: we don’t really believe that jails are productive,” Ortega said. “The Bronx is heavy in people who are recovering. Jail just doesn’t cut it. I’m a recovering addict, 19 years sober. The system didn’t do anything.”

The proposed site in the jail barge’s parking lot was originally swampland, which may not be suitable for a building. The lot is currently blocked in with fences and barbed wire, in the shadow of the impending light-blue barge and surrounded by empty lots, auto shops and industrial plants.

There is already two detention facilities in Hunts Point. By Alex Berg

There is already two detention facilities in Hunts Point. By Alex Berg

“We need a better use for the land and there are so many good uses you could put waterfront property to,” John Robert, Community Board 2 district manager, said.

Those in favor of the jail have said it will generate jobs and think that the Bronx should provide a jail for its own inmates who account for 22 percent of Rikers inmates while the population of the Bronx accounts for only 15 percent of New York City, Robert said.

The proposal, which has evolved over the last three years, was initially part of a plan conceived by Horn to construct jails in every borough to shorten the commute to jail for families and lawyers, and for inmates going to and from borough courts. The new jail would also replace some units at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail with less than favorable conditions.

Community in Unity first learned about the initial Oak Point proposal in 2006. Over the next two years, the coalition staged protests, rallies and meetings to fight the proposal and in 2008 the original proposal was withdrawn.

In a 2008 statement to the New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Horn said that a new proposal was downsized at the behest of Bronx elected officials and community members. In the statement, he said that Corrections would additionally consider removing the jail barge altogether.

Ortega said she is concerned Community in Unity will not be able to repeat this success because the new land is city property.

Instead of building new facilities altogether, some organizations believe Rikers should be rehabbed and transportation to get to and around the island should be boosted, said Maggie Williams, who worked at the Bronx Defenders Voter Enfranchisement program.

“Instead you would invest into busses that would go from the boroughs to Rikers. Busses on Rikers do not come frequently,” Williams said. “The conditions on Rikers are abysmal. We need new structures.”

Still for Ortega, jails don’t solve anything.

“We’re saying ‘look there’s a lot of things we want,’” she said. “Give us due process and we can have a community meeting to figure it out.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, PoliticsComments (0)

Fresh as a Daisy

By Leslie Minora

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan.

Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan. Photo by Leslie Minora

It is usually a cause for concern when a 99-year-old woman arrives at the hospital, but this was not the case on Nov. 23 in the cardiac rehabilitation center of Montefiore Hospital in the southeast Bronx.

The hospital’s doctors and staff threw a birthday celebration for Daisy McFadden in the rehabilitation exercise room, where she has worked out three times per week since her bypass surgery 11 years ago. Her actual birthday was the following day.

“We only do this for the best,” said April Vail, who has been the manager of rehabilitation for 12 years. “Everybody loves her.”

“I come to exercise; that’s number one,” said McFadden, who was a nurse for 34 years. But she had a few other secrets to pass on. “I eat five vegetables every day, three fruits, and I steam them,” she said. The Bronx elder, who wore a turquoise jacket with tangerine accents and a matching scarf, was very proud of her health regimen.

“You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people,” she said.

Her bypass surgeon and rehabilitation team stood around her as her friends and the hospital staff sang “Happy Birthday.” McFadden blew out all of the candles with a deep breath and a swift puff. “It was all that exercise,” she said.

“I’m just full of happiness,” she said beaming as she mingled with about 15 party guests. She was on her feet for most of the afternoon without a cane or walker and appeared energetic as she entertained the constant stream of people wishing her a happy birthday and asking her secrets to great skin, endless energy, and a long life.

The youthful senior goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes up at 5 a.m. “Yes, and I get fully dressed,” she said. McFadden orders her clothing from the Bloomingdales, Talbots, and Nordstrom catalogs. Bloomingdales petite sizes fit well, she said, because the arms of regular sizes are too long for McFadden, who is built small with tiny wrists. She enjoys getting dressed, and said aging hasn’t slowed down the process, except for those occasions when she must replace the tiny batteries of her two hearing aids.

McFadden is lucky to be alive and in good health, said Dr. Lari Attai, who performed her triple bypass surgery 11 years ago. “Without surgery, she would have gone on to have a heart attack,” he said. Attai, 77, who has been with the hospital for 52 years, stopped performing surgery last year, and now teaches at the hospital. “You look terrific,” he told McFadden, whom he calls a “young lady.”

When McFadden was an even younger lady, she used to attend local social events and dance with her husband, a New York Police Department officer, whom she married in 1934. “We had a good life together, wonderful life together…over 50 years,” she said. Her husband died in 1985.

Another painful loss struck McFadden three years ago, when her only son, a Massachusetts radiologist named Samuel after her husband, also died four months after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. “I miss him so,” McFadden said. “He was great.” His photo sits prominently on a side table in her living room, across from the front door, next to the couch. “It upsets me to talk about him,” she said. McFadden has two grandsons and two great-grandsons, who all live out of town.

McFadden was not only a nurse by profession, but a nurse by vocation to her family and friends. “I guess I was chosen to be a caregiver,” she said. “I’d do it all over again.”

An award from New York University’s nursing school hangs on her living room wall, honoring her for her career in nursing during which she spent 34 years working for the Bureau of Public Health. She is the only living graduate of her class.

Now, McFadden has so many people who care for her.  A week and a half after her party, the cluster of mylar balloons in her living room have deflated slightly, but four bouquets of flowers are still bright and perky. The table next to the big beige couch with its dark sturdy wooden legs is too crowded with family photos to fit any cards, but McFadden neatly lined up about 20 birthday well-wishes on several other tables throughout the spacious room, decorated with an upholstered chair donned with a lace doily and a stone corner fireplace.

The number of cards and flowers is surprising for a woman who has outlived her family and friends, but not if you know McFadden.

She lives by this advice and repeats it over and over to young people: “You collect friends a generation behind you and a generation behind them.” That’s right, two generations of friends, she says, because when people become too old to drive, so are their peers.

McFadden doesn’t drive, but that certainly doesn’t limit her activities. Since her retirement in 1972, she has been on the move more than most people a third her age. She retired early, at 62, because she wanted to travel. She went on island cruises with her husband;  visited Hawaii with her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and traveled extensively with the American Nurses Association, visiting India, Tokyo, Singapore, and Moscow. After retirement, she was very active in the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program, RSVP. Through this, she started the 60 Plus Food and Fun Club at her church. And to work off the food and fun, in the 1970s, she began the 60 Plus Swingers, an exercise and dance program. The dance group still exists though she said, “Many of the ones who started have passed on.” The Swingers perform at nursing homes, senior centers, and schools. Once, during a performance at Lehman College, one student yelled, “You go, grandma!” “That’s right. We are pretty hot,” she said, laughing.

The 60 Plus Swingers meetings are still part of McFadden’s routine, though she no longer can dance. Her knees have been hurting recently. “Of course, I’m the oldest one,” she said, adding that now she is the DJ. The Swingers dance to music from both records and CDs. “We’re up to date,” she said.

In addition to her church group, McFadden is a member of the 47th Precinct Council, the East 222nd Street Block Association, and a social club called “The Girlfriends” that began over 80 years ago. She is active in the alumni associations of both schools she attended, the Harlem Hospital Center School of Nursing, and New York University, where she earned her bachelors and masters degrees in nursing from 1951-1955 at a time when the school only cost $13 per credit. One birthday floral arrangement on her table is from the dean of the nursing program.

In the little spare time that McFadden has with all of her exercise and community involvement, she teaches a fitness class once a week at a local senior center as part of New York City’s Stay Well program. McFadden focuses on fitness as well as practical safety advice like turning on the light to go to the bathroom during the night to prevent falls.

“She’s been a positive role model to all of us,” said Jacqueline Sams, 74, whose mother went to nursing school with McFadden. Sams, who lives about five blocks from McFadden in Williamsbridge, calls her upbeat attitude “catchy.” Because of McFadden’s influence, Sams no longer eats red meat, and now says “74” proudly when asked her age.

McFadden is certainly not shy about her own age. She feels “blessed” to have lived such a long life, and her well-being has become her full-time job. Exercise at Montefiore, teaching at the senior center, grocery shopping, and cooking take up most of the day. But, she said, “there’s such a thing as necessary luxury.” For her, that means making time to get her hair and nails done twice a month at her favorite salon on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Access-A-Ride drives McFadden to the salon, and she takes the express bus back to Williamsbridge, where she has lived in her tidy home since 1938. “Everyone knows me on the block,” she said. Her home, one of five houses in 1938 on the now-crowded block, is set back from East 222nd Street. Gray stone arches around the front door and white planters holding pink blossoms sit on either side of the front stoop. It looks like something from the set of a Hansel and Gretel performance. The brick facade, significantly less worn than the siding covering most of the block’s houses, is perfectly in place without any moss, dirt or visible signs of age.

Perhaps it’s something in the air.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (2)

Theater with a Latin Twist Thrives in the South Bronx


by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

A large prop of Uncle Sam with glowing red eyes appears above the stage.  In a booming, deep voice, the threatening figure reprimands a wooden puppet for not working enough. “Go back to work!” orders the voice, making children and adults in the audience laugh. The scene is part of “Viva Pinocho!” (Pinocchio´s name in Spanish), a musical and puppet show that premiered last Friday at Teatro Pregones in the South Bronx. In an original twist of the children´s tale, Pinocchio is Mexican and immigrates to the United States to earn money instead of going to school.

The musical uses puppets, special effects and colorful props to tell a Latino version of the traditional tale. Instead of the fairy in the original story, there’s the Lady of Guadalupe, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary. Pinocchio is re-named Pino Nacho (“pino” is pine in Spanish, and Nacho is the contraction of the name Ignacio), which is shortened to “Pinocho.” The plot unfolds in a mix of English and Spanish, reflecting the local community. “Our audience lives and understands each other in many languages,” said Jorge Merced, 44, an associate artistic director.

The poverty-stricken South Bronx seems an unlikely soil for nurturing theater, but Teatro Pregones has defied the odds for three decades by rooting its productions in Puerto Rican and Latino culture. Its goal is to reach an audience that is often ignored. The formula is clearly a hit with the locals. Pregones celebrated its 30th anniversary last month with a musical entitled “Aloha Boricua,” inspired by a short story by the late Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero. The show was so successful that tickets sold out early, so Pregones plans to bring it back next spring.

The theater group’s origins were much more humble, even by the standards of the South Bronx. In 1979, a group of young Puerto Rican actors living in New York decided to produce plays inspired by artists from their homeland. The result was “La Collecion, 100 Anos de Teatro Puertorriqueno 1878-1978” (“The Collection, 100 Years of Puerto Rican Theater 1878-1978”).  At first, the shows were performed in an Off-Broadway theatre provided by the husband of one of the actresses. In 1982, the Bronx Council of the Arts offered the group an office in an abandoned school in the Bronx, and Pregones settled for good in the borough. Between 1986 and 1994, the group worked in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.

Despite this continuous struggle, Pregones grew and finally found a permanent home on Walton Avenue in 2005. With donations from individuals and non-profits like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Pregones built a 130-seat theatre. The group now includes eight full-time professional artists and a dozen designers, technicians and artists on contract, and has received numerous awards and recognitions for its important cultural role in the borough. “We’re very happy, our neighbors are very happy, and the community is very happy,” said Alvan Colon Lespier, another artistic associate director at Pregones. “It’s a joy to be able to do this.”

Pregones has performed in 37 states, 18 countries and more than 400 cities. “We’ve become ambassadors of the Bronx,” said Lespier. The group’s aim is to show people that the Bronx is not the dreadful area that most think, explains Lespier. But even in the U.S., Pregones has been an ambassador of Latino culture. Fifteen years ago, recalls Lespier, the group was the first Latino group to perform in Whitesburg, KY. “They had never seen a Puerto Rican live, in the flesh,” said Lespier with a chuckle.

Lespier, 61, has been with the company for 26 years. During his first years with the group, in addition to taking care of the technical parts, Lespier performed in some of the plays—but he doesn’t miss acting. He is now in charge of the productions, and supervises all the productions showed at Pregones, whether theirs or the production of another company.

Pregones often works in collaboration with other Latin American cultural groups. In addition to its 50 original plays, Pregones presented over 100 visiting companies over 30 years, and has performed in other Latino theatres as well. “We try to support each other,” said Jorge Castilla, the production manager and assistant to the artistic director of Teatro Sea, a Latino children’s theater group and the creators of “Viva Pinocho.” The production was written, produced and performed by Manuel Antonio Moran, the founder and director of Teatro Sea.

The stories may evoke laughter from the audience, but they also carry a serious message.  “We’re touching a lot of social and political stuff, but in a fun way,” said Castilla, 40. In “Viva Pinocho!,” the mischievous puppet follows the advice of a coyote and immigrates to the United States. “I saw similarities between Pinocchio, who runs away from home, and Latino immigrants, who seek a better life in the U.S.,” said Moran, who started thinking about the story three years ago. In the musical, Pinocho crosses a Mexican border heavily guarded by American authorities before being hired in a circus as puppet and working under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam.

The story is inspired by the experiences of immigrants, who lose their cultural identity after leaving their country, explains Moran. “I try to be as respectful as possible, but also to motivate dialogue,” he said. In the end, Pinocho understands that the American authorities are simply doing their jobs and following the rules, and saves them from drowning.

The audience clearly identifies with the theme. Vicente Roman, who came to watch the musical with his wife and three children, learned about Pregones through a newspaper ad. Roman, 38, arrived in this country 16 years ago, and had to work two jobs at once in order to support his family. “Life is too expensive in the U.S.,” he said. Like Pinocho, Roman’s dream of obtaining a better life was replaced by the harsh reality of economic struggle and difficult integration that immigrants typically face; he now works as a driver and lives in Brooklyn.

But, at least for one night, Roman’s family can forget about these difficulties and enjoy the musical. Snacks and drinks are served in the lobby, which is decorated with Puerto Rican photographs and the many awards that the group received over the years. While waiting for the musical to begin, children run around, impatient to see the show. The audience, predominantly Hispanic, is a tight-knit community: many spectators know and greet each other and the theater staff as they arrive. Daniela, 7, Roman’s youngest daughter, is excited to see the musical, even though she doesn’t remember the story of Pinocchio. There’s a another draw: her 11-year-old sister Ana will be on stage with the Mariachi Academy of New York, which has been invited to perform at Pregones after the musical.

Like Teatro Sea, the Mariachi Academy, now in its seventh year, often collaborates with other Latino groups, explains Jorge Martinez, 39, a member of the board of directors of the academy. Ramon Ponce, the director, appears minutes before the musical begins. After Pinocho’s adventures, Ponce and a dozen children, all wearing traditional Mariachi costumes, appear on the stage forming a single line and play “Canta y no llores,” a famous Mexican song. The audience, familiar with the song, sings and claps along.

After the musical, the audience streams out . The children are excited about the story, and recall their favorite moment. “I like when Pinocho goes to the other side,” says Daniela, beaming. But Daniela doesn’t realize the “other side” was the country she is now living in, where her father works hard as part of a minority. Oblivious to the political implications, Daniela will go home with the memories of Pinocho’s new adventures, and a happy-ending: how Pinocho returns to Mexico, and becomes a real boy.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (1)

Hostos High Achievers Feel the Budget Pinch

By Maia Efrem and Sarah Wali

For Sarah Delany, this semester at Hostos Community College was looking good. She had been elected as the student senate representative, accepted into the highly competitive nursing program, and would continue to be part of the university sponsored Student Leadership Academy.

The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

But professors delivered a shock to the  nursing students on the first day of classes. Students would have to pay for their own course materials this year, which included interactive textbooks, access to an online instructor, online practice exams, a DVD lecture review system and eight review books.

The package  distributed by Assessment Technologies Institute, LLC would cost them $430. A grant covered the cost for last year’s students.  There was no grant for this year.

Delany didn’t have the  money.

Most students at Hostos live in households that make less than $30,000 per year. Adding material costs to a $350 tuition hike for the semester, many wondered how they could afford to stay in school.

City University of New York cut $44 million in state and city aid for the 2008-2009 school year, and proposed to cut $10 million to community colleges for the upcoming year. To offset the budget cuts, tuition has increased this year (and is expected to increase another 15 percent next year). Programs are being cut and students are left without the financial means to support a higher education. With all these budget pressures, even Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to infuse $50 million in the CUNY system would not be enough to help students like Delany.

Programs for CUNY’s brightest, like the Student Leadership Academy and Registered Nursing program, are feeling the cuts. But, Councilman Charles Barron, who serves as chair of the Higher Education Committee, claims the money is there.

“How can they say there’s no money when CUNY has a $2.6 billion budget?” he said. “They are just not spending it on community colleges.”

Barron urges students to demand the money they deserve.

“No generation has ever progressed without a student movement,” he said. “It has never happened.  The money is there. You have to show that you are a priority.”

Armed with skills she learned at the Student Leadership Academy in the past year, Delany did just that. She became an advocate for nursing students at Hostos. She wrote a petition to the Student Senate asking for funds, and gained support for other initiatives from students and faculty.

Although the administration has yet to come to an agreement on the proposed increase, Delany said her experience with the Student Leadership Academy gave her the confidence to advocate for the nursing students.  Through workshops and conferences, Delany learned how to make effective arguments.

The director of the Student Leadership Academy, Jason Libfeld, said hurdles like the one Delany is facing as a nursing student are commonplace at Hostos.

A graduate of Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, Libfield left his career as a teacher two years ago to establish this program that would help develop the highest achieving students into leaders through workshops, conferences and community service.

To be an ambassador with the Student Leadership Association students had to demonstrate academic excellence with a grade point average above 3.4, commit to at least 40 hours a semester of community service and be willing to participate in conferences upstate and New Jersey.

Most important, he hoped to create a sense of community otherwise missing at Hostos.

“The first thing I asked for is mailboxes,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they came back to the office. If they had email I would never see them.”

Despite being tucked away in what they call the broom closet, Libfeld and his students have created one of the most successful student associations in the CUNY system.

Major achievements include providing a student representative at the World Trade Center Memorial with President Barack Obama, and with Mayor Bloomberg during a memorable trip upstate at the Mock Student Senate meeting.

The Model Senate provides a forum for students to discuss real issues currently being raised in the State Senate. The annual conference is held in Albany, and requires hours of preparation. Students who do well can carve a path towards a political career.

Sandra May Flowers, whose motto is “opportunities quickly diminish,” secured an intership with Councilman Barron after her first year participating in the  mock senate.

The professional workshops cost an average of $2,000 per  month and may be the first program Libfeld is forced to eliminate.

Samantha Jackson’s experience shows how important the workshops can be. She worked hard to earn the grades she needed in high school to be accepted into a four-year college. But her mother could  not afford the tuition, which forced her to attend Hostos.

“At first, it hurt to go to Hostos with the grades I worked so hard for,” said Jackson, a Jamaican immigrant..

But she reached out to the Academy and learned about the Jose E. Serrano Scholarship for Diplomatic Studies, a program that moves students from Hostos into Columbia University for a Bachelor of Arts followed by a two-year graduate program at Columbia Unviersity’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Jackson was accepted to the program, which requires students to maintain a 3.0 GPA.

Jackson, now finishing her degree at Columbia, attributes her success to the Hostos programs that are facing budget cuts in the coming year. She says the Student leadership Academy’s emphasis on community service was what she was looking for, training in the field and insight from professionals.

During her time in Hostos, Jackson was one of many students who supported a small increase to the cost of tuition in an effort to attract a desirable faculty with promise of higher pay.

“The school could not keep educators because they could not pay them enough in today’s bad economy,” said Jackson. “A small tuition hike could have resolved a lot of issues. We could have raised the money that the city and state were not providing the school.”

However, according to Barron, students are fooling themselves if they think a tuition hike would mean more resources for students.

“They bought the Kool-Aid from the administration,” he said. “They believe that if they increase tuition the school will then invest that money back into the programs.”

Barron points to the $60 billion city budget and $131 billion state budget, claiming that it is up to the city to allocate appropriate funds for community colleges.

“We can build Yankee Stadium?” he said. “We can build the Mets a new stadium, but we can’t provide money for CUNY students?”

Despite the proposed budget cuts, and the continued financial stresses the students of the Student Leadership Academy are facing, they remain optimistic about the program’s future.

Libfeld says one of his proudest moments with the Student Leadership Academy was planting 900 trees in one day at St. Mary’s park in the Bronx. He also remembers the day he took the students to Isabella Nursing Home. One of the students was so excited to be there, she talked until one of the senior citizens fell asleep.

He and the students are resigned to continue on even if they lose workshop and field trip money.

At least outreach would be saved. It costs nothing.

Something Libfeld and his students don’t mind.

“If we have to go back to bare bones, then we’ll do that,” he said. “No matter what we will always have community service.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, MoneyComments (2)

Out of Work and Waiting for Another Chance

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. Photo: Alec Johnson

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson

There are lines everywhere. Lines to get in, lines to ask questions and lines for the bathroom. At an unemployment office in the Bronx, it seems like waiting is the only job that many who need work can get.

The Bronx is no stranger to joblessness. But as the poorest congressional district in the country,  Bronx County has been hit by the recession harder than much of the nation. Even residents who are used to getting a steady paycheck now find themselves competing for jobs that have disappeared. As national unemployment levels reached a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October, Bronx unemployment surged further to reach 13.3 percent. That translates into more than 185,000 Bronx residents who are out of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now, instead of earning a living, they wait in line. Their path to the Workforce I Career Center on 149th Street may have begun in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico or just up the street on the Grand Concourse. But now they are all looking for the same thing: hope.  Each face in the line tells a story. An immigrant from Ghana relies on his faith to keep him going.  A father struggles to find a way to support his family.  A former prisoner who admits he made mistakes searches for a way back into the world.

The newest faces in the line belong to former proud members of the working class, people who haven’t had to depend on social services in the past. Now, like so many others, they, too, can only wait. “A significant population of Bronx works in service and support jobs and when the main economic engine disappears that obviously ripples out,” said Jim Brown, an analyst for the state labor department.

Theresa Landau, the director of the Morrisania Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal nutrition program calls this group of recently unemployed, the “new poor.” The term, she said, characterizes those who held jobs that have evaporated because of the recession. A recent study by The New York Times found that unemployment has led to a large increase in reliance on food pantries and federal programs across the nation. The study found that 29 percent of Bronx residents are relying on food stamps.

These are the people who are actively trying to find jobs and don’t want to just sit back and collect government checks, but may soon be forced to. Last week, they streamed into the Work Force 1 office,  only to leave the same way they went in: unemployed.

“I’ve been coming here every day for seven weeks,” said Joe Cologne, a laid-off maintenance worker who is married, has three children between the ages of three and five and has lost two jobs in the past two years. Cologne’s daily trips over the past two months to the Workforce 1 office have left him discouraged.

“I want to make a good living,” he said. “At times I can’t sleep. I want to get a job.”

Leaning against the wall and squinting his eyes even though it was a cloudy day, Cologne spoke softly and sadly about why he waits in line every day.

“I’m trying to find something steady,” he said. “I’m sick of moving from job to job.”

Cologne had his last job for only six months and made $12.60 an hour.  Before that, he spent from January to March sending out resumes.

Happy that he saved some money for a rainy day and that his wife has managed to keep a low-paying custodial job, Cologne’s family hasn’t needed to count on public assistance. He is, however, worried that when he finds work, he will only get a minimum-wage job. Two years ago, the labor department set him up with a job that paid only $6.25 an hour.

“You can’t support a family and pay rent on that,” said Cologne, whose monthly rent is $1,300, not including utilities.

A minimum wage job, which now pays $7.25 an hour, is just a fraction of the $21 hourly wage guaranteed by his union, 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services workers union in the country.

A union job would be ideal for Cologne, but if one is not available, there are services such as food pantries and the WIC program that could help feed his kids.

According to Landau, the WIC program provides benefits to approximately 8,000 people in the Bronx and she hopes to increase that to 9,200 this year. Statewide, the number counting on WIC grew from 509,752 in August 2008 to 520,477 a year later.

“We’re hoping to open up new sites in communities that have not typically been considered low income,” she said, about targeting people like Cologne who would qualify for assistance because they have children under age five.

WIC  is a Department of Health program for people who  make up to 85 percent more than the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a combined income of $40,793 would qualify if they had infants. Unlike a food pantry, WIC gives participants a check they can use to buy nutritious food, such as fruit, vegetables, milk, whole grain bread and eggs for pregnant women, infants and young children.

But looking for help from the government is still an uncomfortable experience for many in the line. One man outside Workforce 1 used to make his living helping people. Now, he’s the one who needs help.

“This is my first experience” with unemployment, said the man, who immigrated to New York from Ghana 12 years ago. “I always had work—no problem.”

The man, who is a U.S. citizen his late 60s would not give his name, but said he is a former employee of the Human Resources Administration of New York City. He was laid off two years ago from the city organization, which provides temporary relief for individuals with social service and economic needs, and now is in search of work himself.

“It is difficult to get a job,” he said.

Since losing his job, he has lived on his savings, a part of which he sends to his wife and children in Ghana. And although the unemployment office hasn’t yet found him a job, he said he has taken advantage of computer classes offered to the jobless and is in the process of getting a master’s degree in theology of the Christian ministry at the Bible College at the New Covenant Christian Church in the Bronx.

“You have to engage yourself in doing something,” he said. “You must force yourself into something and stick to that.”

His theology studies have “helped him through,” and eventually he hopes to enter the ministry where he will teach Bible school and counsel parishioners.

“I want to help people,” he said.

Stressing the importance of searching for work, he said. “You can be proud if you are looking for a job, but not if you collect assistance without trying.”

Factors such as difficulty with English, poor education and even criminal records contribute to the Bronx’s higher unemployment rate, said Brown.

That’s the case with Joe Carter, who hasn’t had a job in four years and is on food stamps. He was released from a three-year prison sentence for narcotics possession six months ago and has been looking for work since then.

“I need a job,” said Carter, a father of a five-year-old daughter. “I’m working every angle.”

Sharply dressed in shirt and tie and a black coat, he clutched a paper he thought would be a key to a job. He earned the training certificate in prison after taking a six-month course at Bronx Community College in building maintenance.

He said he couldn’t find a job before he got in trouble, “but it’s definitely worse now” and  he doesn’t see the end in sight.

“I’m just holding on,” he said. “I hope the economy picks up and I can get a job in the near future.”

According to Brown, there just aren’t enough jobs to go around in the Bronx.

A significant portion of Bronx residents need to travel outside the borough for work and the farther people need to go from their home to find work,  the more difficulties they have. In the city, it’s not so hard, he said. But when the jobless try to go north to Westchester County, for example — where the unemployment level is nearly six percentage points lower — affordable transportation is a huge obstacle.

Ed Buggs commutes every day from the Bronx to Queens for a low-wage job.  A former bus driver, Buggs, 45, lost that job last year and recently started driving for Access-A-Ride,  a car service that drives the elderly and disabled to appointments.

Although Buggs is employed, he said the driving job isn’t enough to fulfill his dream of going to college. “I’ve been putting out resumes and got one call back.” Buggs has his second interview at a hospital next week for a housekeeping position. The hospital, he said, offers tuition reimbursement, which would fund his education.

Buggs battled the lines inside the drab Workforce 1 office to get help writing a thank-you note to the hospital where he interviewed last week. If he gets the second job and goes to college, Buggs hopes to find a steady job so he never needs to wait in that line again.

Posted in Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (1)

Church of the Holy Rollers

By Alex Berg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (3)

The Riveras are One in a Million

By Mustafa Mehdi Vural and Jose Leyva

rivera3

The Riveras share their 18th floor apartment with three chihuahuas, birds and a small aquarium. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The elevators break down at least twice a month in the Murphy Houses, a 20-story, low-income complex at 1805 Crotona Ave. in the Bronx.

Disrupted service is an inconvenience for all its 714 residents. But a broken elevator poses an extra burden for Francisco Rivera, 31, from Puerto Rico, who lives on the 18th floor with his wife and two children.

Francisco Rivera’s right leg was amputated 13 years ago when doctors found a cancerous tumor on his knee in Puerto Rico. At that time, Rivera was an 18-year-old boxer in high school, and also a husband and father of one daughter.

Doctors at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx found and removed another tumor in his brain last May, bringing his total number of tumors to 18. After numerous operations, he has lost half of his right lung and part of his groin.

“There are no hospitals in Puerto Rico like in the U.S., there is no such technology,” said Rivera’s 29-year-old wife, Elizabeth, in Spanish. She was 13 when she met Francisco and 15 when she first gave birth to their daughter, Franshely.

“Doctors told me that I had a year to live,” said Rivera recounting their ordeal in Puerto Rico. His cane leaned against the couch. And the walls in the living room were covered with the Puerto Rican flag.

The Rivera family immigrated to the United States in 2000 in search of better medical treatment.

Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

"I am a fighter, I have always been fighting for my life and for my family's well being," said Francisco Rivera. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

“The doctors say I am a miracle,” said Rivera. “I tell my husband you’re a living miracle, because I’ve seen cases like yours and they just don’t make it,” said Elizabeth.

Francisco survived brain surgery in May, but it has left his vision impaired in his left eye, and visible scars in his skull, which was reconstructed with metal implants.

“I have small memory problems. Right now I’m taking pills to prevent epilepsy,” said Rivera.

On a Monday afternoon in late October, the elevator was out of service again in the Murphy Houses. So the Rivera family had to make it down the stairs to go to Old Navy department store in Co-op City, in the Bronx.

They were not going shopping. They were going to collect a $1,000 gift, along with new clothes as part of Old Navy’s nation-wide project called “One in a Million.”

“It is inspiring to know that such a huge fashion store is interested in helping people like us,” said Rivera. “I think they are recognizing my own efforts to overcome the cancer.”

This project is meant for each store manager to invest $1,000 in his or her community. The company reserved $1 million in total for this nationwide project that hopes to reach out to 1,000 families in need.

“Anything that they can get is a help during this tough economy,” said Jenira Lopez, the store manager of Old Navy in Coop City.

Early in October, Lopez reached out to Ivine Galarza, the District Manager of the Community Board 6, to identify a needy family in East Tremont.

She had many residents to choose from.

More than 40,000 people receive public assistance in East Tremont, which comes to over 50 percent of the population. In the Bronx, overall, 41 percent of the population is on welfare, 10 points more than the citywide average, according to 2008 district profile data.

“Anyone of these families would have been candidate for this award that Francisco Rivera got,” said Galarza.

“I immediately thought of him,” said Galarza. “I know of him and of his family and of his conditions for years. The situation that they are going through is terrible.”

Galarza noted that the city does not do enough to take care of the poor in her district.

“This is unrealistic–$4 a day for a person to have lunch,” said Galarza, pointing to the figure in the official city document called “Guide to Cash Assistance Budgeting.” “At least in this holiday season, we are making one family happy out of 175,000 families that live in the confines of the Community Board 6.”

The Rivera family’s yearly income is approximately $20,400 a year, $1,000 below the poverty line for a family of four. The average household income in the Bronx is $34,031 compared to $53,448 citywide.

Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The Riveras have been married for 16 years and have spent 13 of those in hospitals. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Francisco’s wife is the family’s main income provider. She works 30 hours a week as home health care attendant for Gotham Per Diem. “I take care of patients with cancer,” said Elizabeth. She earns $9 per hour, providing 60 percent of the family’s income – almost $1,000 a month. The rest comes from the Supplemental Security Income, a federal welfare program for disabled people.

“I just can’t work. It wasn’t a decision I made,” said Rivera. He spends half of his time at home and the other half in the hospital. “I cook, clean the house and take care of our kids.”

It is not easy for Francisco Rivera to execute his daily routine tasks without taking a morphine derivative to fight pain.

Nor is it easy to make ends meet.

The Riveras pay $510 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, which means that each of the family members live on approximately $10 a day.

Elizabeth and Francisco know how to be economical and can now pay their bills without problem. But they realize their family’s expenses will increase as the kids grow up.

Franshely Rivera, 14, is a 9th grader in Wings Academy in the Bronx. She is also taking ballet classes. Miguel Rivera, 10, is a 5th grader in CS 92 and he plays Little League baseball in “Caribe Little League,” the biggest league for the kids in the Bronx.

But difficulties over the years have not kept the Riveras away from making long-term plans for the future.

“The only thing I want, I dream of, is that my children finish undergraduate school and raise a family if they want,” said Rivera.

College tuition will be difficult to manage. “We are going to save for the kids’ education,” said Rivera about the $1,000 gift from Old Navy.

Miguel, however, would prefer a plasma TV and Nintendo Wii, the latest model video game.

“My children are respectful, obedient and studious,” said Rivera. He loves to spend time with his kids, who takes Miguel to baseball practice and to school. He even taught his son how to ride a bike with his amputated leg.

“In the next three years I would like to take my family to Puerto Rico, I want my children to know their country and to meet our family,” said Rivera.

Though Francisco has spent his entire adult life in hospitals, it is not a cause for disappointment for him. He said he sees hope in operation rooms, consultations, and the pills that he takes.

“I am still alive, thank God. He has given me the strength to go forward and fight for my family which I adore,” said Rivera.

“I haven’t surrendered.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, MoneyComments (1)

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