Tag Archive | "Bronx"

Gourmet Tacos in a Truck

by Matthew Huisman

Medardo Florencio, owner of Taqueria Guadalupe, cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview.

Medardo Florencio of Taqueria Guadalupe cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

It’s lunchtime on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx and my stomatch growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten since 9 a.m.  Instead of grabbing a greasy slice of pizza, or stopping in at one of the many fast food joints that litter the area, I opt instead for Taqueria Guadalupe.

The chrome taco truck sits where Manor and Westchester Avenues meet, a shining, silver oasis of food. Medardo Florencio–owner, chef and cashier–greets me at the window. There is no table, no cash register, no building–only Florencio’s truck converted into a mobile kitchen. The sole concessions to traditional dining are two lonely chairs leaning against the brick wall of D&G Fashions, a store that sells ladies wear and plus sizes.

Florencio didn’t ask what I’m ordering, only how many.

“Tres, por favor,” I said, as I was feeling particularly hungry.

Florencio immediately goes to work, dicing onion and pineapple. Together with a fistful of flavored pork, Florencio tosses the mixture on the grill. The meat sizzles, wafting the smell of al pastor tacos to the street curb. The reaction causes my mouth to water like one of Pavlov’s dogs. By this time I am not alone.

Jenny Cosme walks up to the window, glancess briefly at the menu and orders one bistec and one chicken taco and waits patiently.

“Their food is good, and it’s healthy too,” says Cosme. “It’s healthier than the fast food because it’s on a grill.”

Cosme likes crema y pico de gallo, a mixture of raw onion, tomato and cilantro, on her tacos.

“They cut everything daily,” Coseme said while piling on the pico.

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in the Soundview neighborhood. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Florencio has been feeding his hungry neighbors in the Soundview neighborhood for more than seven years. He arrived in this country 20 years ago from Guerrero, a state in southwest Mexico known for its tourism and silver. Florencio says he has about 80 customers a day, enough to support his wife and four kids. A fifth is on the way.

But on the streets of the Bronx, where good, cheap and healthy food can be as scarce as a Phillies fan, Taqueria Guadalupe is one of the few places that offer a healthier alternative.

“It’s all fresh,” Florencio says in Spanish pointing to a tray of toppings. “We make it fresh every day.”

Spicy red salsa, avacado puree, pico de gallo and fresh lime are a few of the extras that Florencio offers his customers.

In a few minutes my order is up. I pay the $7.50 and walk back to the chairs. Steam rises from the plate in the cold air. The first bite is packed with pineapple. The sweet juice runs down my chin and I lap it up with a lick of my tongue.

“No sense in being proper when you’re on the sidewalk,” I muse, plowing through the first taco.

I had no problem with the second and third. The spicy pork, tangy lime and crisp onion make a heavenly treat wrapped in two corn tortillas.

Sidewalk dining at its finest.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (0)

More Homeless in the City since the Great Depression

by Alex Berg and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Stephanie Francisco, a 19-year-old mother of one, returns to the shelter after she takes her 3-year-old Kiara to ticker treat. Photo by Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Stephanie Francisco, a 19-year-old mother, returns to the shelter after she takes her 3-year-old daughter trick-or-treating on Halloween. Photo by Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Karen Suazo left Honduras to come to the United States in 2002, hoping to find work in a hair salon, and to improve her life. Instead, five years after stepping onto U.S. soil, she moved into a homeless shelter, alone, unemployed and pregnant with her first son.

“I never think that I am going to be in the shelter. Never. So bad,” said Suazo, 25, holding her 3-month-old son in her arms.

For the last two years, Suazo has lived with her two children in East Tremont’s Cross Bronx Residence, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“Different people coming in every day, too much people coming in,” Suazo said, describing the near-constant flow of those seeking refuge.

Suazo is one of 39,000 people seeking shelter each night in the city’s homeless system, a record number that has grown by 45 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office eight years ago.

According to a recently released report from the Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy organization, more people are seeking shelter in 2009 in New York City than they did during the Great Depression of the 1930s—this despite Bloomberg’s 2004 initiative aimed at reducing the homeless population in the city by two-thirds in five years.

Bloomberg’s 2004 Housing Stability Plus program (HSP) aimed to provide a city-wide rental assistance program for homeless families, chronically homeless single adults in shelter and parents awaiting housing in order to reunify with their children in foster care.

The plan offered five-year housing subsidies to homeless families that decreased in value by 20 percent each year. This plan replaced the former system that gave priority to homeless individuals and families for public housing and federal Section 8 vouchers.

Many in the Cross Bronx shelter said it is more difficult than ever to find affordable housing, as a result. “People tell me that it was so easy before,” said Suazo. “You stay in shelter for six months and they take you to an apartment. Now, it is so hard. My friend has been living in the shelter for three years.”

Shandell Jackson, a 28-year old mother of one daughter at the Cross Bronx Residence, waited for two years for a voucher.

Jackson, who works for the Department of Parks and Recreation, entered the shelter system because she was a victim of domestic violence. She had been to six shelters over the past three years before coming to the Cross Bronx Residence.

Cross Bronx Residence is located at 505 East 175th Street in East Tremont, Bronx. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Cross Bronx Residence is located at 505 East 175th Street in East Tremont, Bronx. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

“We don’t get nothing.  Nothing ever gets done.  They try to get you put out of the shelter,” Jackson said.

The more than 50 families in the shelter are supposed to receive basic supplies such as pillows and blankets. Jackson complained that the supplies either don’t arrive or are stolen.

“It’s an argument if I go and ask for some tissue,” Jackson said.  “We don’t get roach spray–we’re supposed to get roach spray. You’ve got people in here that are not U.S. citizens and they don’t have anything.”

Despite everything, Karen Suazo, a Honduran immigrant, remains optimistic about eventually leaving the shelter with her children.

“I want to work hard,” Suazo said, “to give them a better life.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, PoliticsComments (1)

What Does It Take to Go from Fat to Fit?

by Sarah Wali

Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

The Bronx has seen its share of problems.  It was burning in the 1970s and stricken with a drug epidemic in the 1980s.  As the crime rates went down throughout the 1990s, a new statistic made headlines: the Bronx was getting fatter.

According to the New York City Community Health Survey,  obesity rates had more than doubled by the end of the 1990s to 24 percent.  By the time Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, it was the fattest borough in New York City, and by 2003, almost 62 percent of the Bronx was either obese or overweight.

In response to this health crisis, Mayor Bloomberg introduced a number of initiatives, including a law that requires all restaurants with 15 or more locations in New York City to display calorie counts on their menus, and 1,000 new licenses to Green Cart vendors, small carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables in areas with the least access to healthy food.

“It is the job of the government, if something is detrimental to your health to a, warn you and b, if it’s serious, try to prevent it,” he said at the Oct. 13 mayoral debate.

Mayor Bloomberg’s use of calorie count to warn diners that McDonald’s, KFC and other fast-food restaurants were unhealthy did little to deter shoppers from their cravings.  According to an Oct. 6 web article in Health Affairs, Bronx residents may have been shocked to find that a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts they once thought was a healthy alternative for a 220-calorie glazed donut was actually 630 calories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will buy lower calorie food.  Rather, researchers from New York University found that customers were, on average, buying 846 calories per meal, up from 825 before the implementation of the program.

Clearly, the Bronx is not slimming down. Karen Washington, a long-time health activist in the South Bronx, says that the main issue in the Bronx today is food  and obesity.

“The overall concern throughout the Bronx is health and nutrition,” she said.   “Lack of quality food need(s) to be addressed.”

Washington, who sits on the board for Just Food, an initiative to bring healthy community grown food the Bronx, has started the East Tremont Farmer’s market and is currently working on establishing a farmer’s school to help people learn how to grow their own food. She says she and her neighbors are limited by the fatty choices offered in their area.   Plus, with the financial crisis hitting the Bronx especially hard, residents are forced to consider expenses.

“When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family you are going to buy the cheapest food items,” she said.  “You need to feed your family.”

Bloomberg has tried to create an opportunity for Bronx residents to make healthier decisions.  In 2007, his administration began pushing legislation to license 1,500 fresh fruit and vegetable vendors in the fattest boroughs, including the Bronx.

The Bronx is now home to 175 of the 1,000 Green Carts in the city.  It’s a promising idea, but it has only been in effect since this July.   The true impact of the Green Carts has yet to be seen.

The little carts covered by yellow and green umbrellas imprinted with the logo “NYC Green Carts” carry an array of fruits and vegetables.    From apples and oranges to okra and peppers, the carts are supposed to offer a healthy alternative for residents, and open doors for employment.

Mohamed Islam, who runs the Green Cart in front of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, makes the hour-and-a-half trip every morning from his home in Queens because he loves produce, and believes in the Green Cart program.

Islam, 44, arrived in the United States almost a year ago.  He waited years for an opportunity to leave his home in Bangladesh.  Finally, in October, 2008, his brother’s sponsorship was accepted, and he and his wife boarded the plane excited about the chance for a better life.

Now, he makes the long trek from Queens to the Bronx hoping he will one day be able to own his own Green Cart.   Although he struggles to find the words in English that describe his passion for food and produce, his smile radiates with emotion and his eyes light up as he explains that fresh produce is often overlooked by many in this country.  His is an expert opinion. In Bangladesh, he was a government employee who focused on teaching and promoting the importance of agriculture.

He feels that the Green Cart program is a great way to promote healthy produce decisions in the Bronx.  As he waits for approval from the city for his own license, he manages the Bronx cart and for $80 per day, sells $250 to $300 worth of fruits and vegetables per day at the corner of Mt. Eden Avenue and Grand Concourse.

But for activists like Karen Washington, the waiting game is over.   Washington and the Northwest Bronx Community Coalition have started a program to teach youth the importance of urban gardening, and have just launched a new farmer’s market in the East Tremont area.   She says these initiatives are designed to put the power of change back in the community’s hands.

“I felt really lucky that we started a farmer’s market,” she said,  “which not only produces locally grown produce, but we teach people in the neighborhood, not only how to grow it but how to use it and how to cook it, which is very, very important.  “

Posted in PoliticsComments (0)

The Bronx questions Bloomberg’s plans for jobs

by Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

Kwasi Akyeampong, member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance tying prayers cards to a fence outside the Armory. Related Companies says their proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Kwasi Akyeampong, a member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, ties prayer cards to a fence outside the armory. Related Companies says its proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

For nearly 80 years, the Stella D’Oro cookie factory in the northwest corner of the Bronx filled the air over the Major Deegan Expressway with the delicious scent of its trademark biscotti, breadsticks and Swiss Fudge cookies baking in the oven.

Then on Oct. 9, the aroma vanished. The Kingsbridge factory closed its doors on that day and its 150 remaining workers were out of a job. The brand had been purchased by Lance, Inc., a North Carolina snack manufacturer. The new owner intends to move the brand, its products and the machinery–but not its Bronx workers–to a non-union factory in Ashland, Ohio.

“Stella D’Oro is like a landmark in the Bronx,” said Mike Filipou, who had worked as a lead mechanic in the factory for 14 years. “You know, it’s like Yankee Stadium.”

On the last day, a group of about 75 former Stella D’Oro employees, community supporters and labor activists marched in a circle outside the empty factory, chanting in unison with pickets raised.

Most of their signs were directed at the bakery’s former owner, North Carolina-based Brynwood Partners, the new owner Lance, Inc. and one of Brynwood’s investors, Goldman Sachs. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not escape their wrath.

“Hey Bloomberg, thanks a lot. Bronx unemployment and poverty soaring. Keep Stella in the Bronx,” read several white signs with bold black letters held aloft in the circle.

“Businesses have to make a profit,” said Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist, who is running against Democratic incumbent Kristen Gillibrand for US Senate in 2010. “But we also have to value the community and value the workers that make this company work.”

A good job has been a hard find for quite some time in the Bronx. With unemployment in the borough reaching 13.3 percent in September, Bronxites are looking to the mayor for answers to unemployment in the coming election. In October, 2003, a year and a half after Bloomberg took office, Bronx unemployment was at 10.7 percent, according to the Comptroller’s office. In January, 2006, as the rest of the city saw an average unemployment of of 4.1 percent, the Bronx was 5.5 percent.

“Despite the national economic downturn, which continues to make for trying times for many New Yorkers, our efforts to place people in jobs are paying off in record numbers,” said Bloomberg. “Eight years ago, the city’s workforce centers were placing New Yorkers in roughly 500 jobs a year. This year, we placed them in more than 6,800 – just in the last three months.”

Bloomberg’s approach to Bronx unemployment and poverty falls under his Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, his comprehensive strategy to bring New York City through the economic downturn as fast as possible. The Mayor’s office said the plan focuses on creating jobs for New Yorkers today, implementing a long-term vision for growing the city’s economy, and building affordable, attractive neighborhoods in every borough.

Specifically in the Bronx, the Mayor’s office said the city has helped place 4,526 people in jobs in the first nine months of 2009. Some 200 of these jobs were filled at the new Home Depot at the Gateway Center on River Avenue in the neighborhood of Morrisania.

But some residents have written the mayor off. “He has no interest in doing anything for the Bronx,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a founding member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance and member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “He has done nothing.”

Part of the plan is the implementation of the multi-agency South Bronx Initiative, which the mayor’s office says will spur $3 billion in public and private investment, create thousands of construction and permanent jobs and develop more than 8,000 units of housing.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Oct. 26 put Bloomberg well ahead of former City Comptroller William Thompson, in all five boroughs. In the Bronx, he leads 50 percent to 33 percent among likely voters.

“It’s been shaping up all along, and now the new numbers say it looks like a Bloomberg blow-out,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

About 500 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Sunday, October 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

About 200 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Oct. 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

At St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church on the corner of University Avenue and Fordham Road, hundreds of Bronxites gathered to voice their opposition after the City Planning Commission voted 8 to 4 to approve Related Companies’ redevelopment plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall that will appeal to shoppers across all the boroughs. The castle-like structure has been sitting vacant on West Kingsbridge Road near Jerome Avenue since 1996.

The city has spent $30 million restoring the armory which is being offered to Related for $5 million. Combined with the tax breaks it’s being afforded, this translates to about $40 million in subsidies for Related. The community’s concerns have centered on this distribution of money, which many community members say is inequitable. Residents like those gathered at Tolentine that evening say they could conceivably find jobs in the Armory, but their salaries will not pay enough for them to shop in its stores.

Protesters focused on the developer’s promises to create 1,200 jobs – jobs, the community advocates said, will be part-time, paying poverty-level wages with no benefits. But not everyone in the community shares the concern. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York recently withdrew its support of the protest and came out in favor of redevelopment.

The common sentiment in the auditorium was that the Democratic mayoral challenger, William Thompson, would be better at creating jobs in the Bronx. Mayor Bloomberg supported Related’s bid to create more low-income jobs, not sustainable work, said Pilgrim-Hunter. “Thompson will deliver for us what Bloomberg refuses to acknowledge,” she said.

Even if Related’s opponents muster votes to block the project, the city council would need a two-thirds majority to override the mayor’s seemingly inevitable veto. Bloomberg says this is an opportunity to bring thousands of jobs to the Bronx at a time when it needs it the most. “The armory has been closed to the public for decades, but now we have an enormous opportunity to revitalize it as a hub of activity and jobs in the West Bronx,” he said.”We don’t want to let that opportunity – or any more time – pass by without progress.”

But some residents think this progress targets a select few. “Bloomberg prides himself on development but at what cost?” asked Kwasi Akyeampong, a  member of Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. “People who benefit are his rich billionaire buddies. [Thompson’s] stand is consistent with ours. We want someone who will represent this community,” he said.

Thompson, who has consistently backed the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance’s demands, took the podium at Tolentine.  “The election is nine days away,” he told the energized crowd. “If we come out and fight for what is right, I will be the mayor of New York. This will not move forward.”

Pilgrim-Hunter doesn’t think that the plan is in the best interest of the Bronx. “His five-borough gentrification has made place for the rich. That isn’t the blueprint for our community. We hope the city council has heard us today,” she said. “Today was proof that the Bronx will not vote for Mayor Bloomberg.”

The Bronx has seen some of Bloomberg’s job creation initiatives come to fruition, but as the crowd marched to the Kingsbridge Armory chanting, “Whose armory? Our armory,” it was clear that the Bronx is still waiting for Bloomberg to show and prove.

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Tough Choices at the Market in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him.

“All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said.  “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that.  They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “

With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down.   Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition.

Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets.  The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations.

Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration.  They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price.

Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists.   Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer.   She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice.

Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx.  For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing.    According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city.  They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices.

Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping.

“Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello.  “It’s cheaper.”

Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents.    The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand.  She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it.

Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats.  Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale.  At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello.  She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun.

Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said.  “I might as well buy it in a can.  It lasts longer and is cheaper.”

Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season.  Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each.

Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle.  She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50.  Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5.

Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef.  Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives.

Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5.

Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce.   They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack,  she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce.

“Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said.  “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.”

Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run.  She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too.  Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.

Posted in Food, MoneyComments (0)

Samaná’s Destiny

by Alex Berg

It is easy to see why “Conde Nast Traveler ” magazine named the Samaná peninsula in the Dominican Republic one of the top destinations in the world eight years ago. One photograph at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture exhibit featuring this unique landscape with its even more unique cultural heritage shows lush palms snaking along the pockets of sand lining the bright blue ocean water of Rincon Beach.

Another photograph in the Bronx center hints at the tension that underlies this would-be private paradise: Row after row of empty white beach chairs line the shore, reminders that foreign corporations have abandoned plans for development when the global recession hit. The news of stalled development for many locals was greeted with a mix of worry and relief.

Founded by former slaves from Philadelphia in the 1820s, Samaná has a rich legacy that many of its descendants in the Bronx and elsewhere are bent on preserving, said Wallace Edgecombe, director of the Hostos center.

“The locals are not trying to escape development,” Edgecombe said. “They just want it done right without displacing people and impoverishing people.”

The photos in the exhibit that is expected to run through Nov. 7 were taken by about 15 students and six professional photographers, faculty and staff who studied in Samaná last August and July. Students studied the eclectic aspects of this Afro-Dominican culture in Samaná, where English is the spoken language. The cuisine of choice includes American Southern food like Johnny cakes, for example. And the people are mostly practicing Methodists, Edgecombe said.

The area recently became coveted real estate after a road was constructed to the capital Santo Domingo, which cut the commute from eight hours to two, according to Carlos Sanabria, director of the Hostos Community College humanities department.

Edgecombe described one photo of a resort’s pastel façade – a block-long row of differently shaped attached houses with yellow, lavender, green and red paneling. It looked more like a Disney World imitation of a tropical bungalow than an authentic dwelling “an insult” said Edgecombe.

But most of the exhibit is dedicated to the rich cultural scenes of Los Afro-Americanos, as the locals are called.

“The idea of the photo exhibit is to inform people about these traditions so that they can have more of a sense of Afro-Dominican culture,” said Carlos Sanabria. In fact, the exhibit is part of Quijombo, a biennial festival celebration Afro-Dominican culture.

In one photo taken after a Methodist church service, adults and children join hands in a large circle on a field in front of the red and white paneled church. The women’s dresses, which are mostly blue, flow in and out the as their arms swing back and forth. The sun shines through trees creating shadows in the middle of the circle.

The circle is a variation of ring around the rosy, part of a series of games played after church services by the original Methodists who came to Samaná, according to Ryan Mann-Hamilton, a graduate student writing his dissertation about the area.

For Mann-Hamilton, the study abroad trip to Samaná resonated on a personal level. Mann-Hamilton is a descendant of Afro-Americanos and did not know anything about their history as former slaves until recently.

“My family was one of the families that migrated there in the 1800s,” Mann-Hamilton said. “I didn’t really understand what that migration entailed and how my family got to the Dominican Republic.”

Mann-Hamilton was surprised by the friendly reaction the locals had to the cameras and remembered one particularly poignant shot.

“There’s one of a young fellow, a child, really bulky, kind of strong,” he said. “I was just driving down the road with two other students and we stopped and he sort of came over to us.”

“We took a picture of him. He asked us to bring back the photo and bring back a bike. This is just the middle of nowhere. He just wanted something basic for himself.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

A Garden of Happiness Grows in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

Karen Washington traces her persuasive powers as a community leader back to 1966, when she was 12 years old. Her younger brother had insulted much bigger kids, and they were standing outside their building in Harlem waiting to beat him up.  Her mother pleaded with Karen to go down and calm the rowdy bunch.

Karen stood tall and confident, and in a wise voice beyond her years told the big kids that her brother didn’t mean what he said, and that they probably didn’t want to get in trouble for hitting him.

She surprised them, she said, by confounding their expectations of African American women. “They don’t even know me, but they have this preconceived idea that I’m black, I’m loud, I’m uneducated,” said Washington. “So I use that sort of persona then with educated language and I get people to listen.”

Within five minutes, she had talked the angry teenagers out of hitting her brother.

Now, at 55, Karen Washington uses similar conflict resolution techniques to solve bigger problems in her current Bronx neighborhood.  In the 21 years that she has lived in East Tremont, she has taken on tough issues, such as crack and cocaine and street violence.  She brings the same focus and passion to her latest mission — providing healthy food to low-income New Yorkers and using neighborhood gardens to create community and ultimately battle crime.

“The social issues intertwine with food,” she said. “When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family, you are going to buy the cheapest food items for your family and you see an increase in crime.  You need to feed your family.”

Washington created La Familia Verde, a coalition of 12 community gardens in East Tremont in 1992, and started a local Bronx farmer’s market where everyone could sell their produce. She joined the board of Just Food, an organization which connects local and urban farms with communities, and the Mary Mitchell Center, a community center blocks from her house.

When Washington was looking to find funding for the Mary Mitchell Center, she called the one person she knew could help, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano.  She went to Washington, and explained how the center was going to fight crime by keeping kids of the street in after school activities, and increase job productivity by offering technology classes.

“He sees it,” said Washington. “He sees that people in low-income areas may not have the resources but we do have the knowledge and the power.”

Her passion for improving lives led her first to Hunter College, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in physical therapy.   By 1981, she had completed a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics, and began her career as a physical therapist.

Washington moved into 2161 Prospect Ave. in East Tremont from Harlem in 1985 to give her children, Kendra and Bryant, more space to play. The cozy row house seemed a perfect place to raise her little boy and girl, except for an empty lot across the street.  She was told developers were using the plot to build a row of houses similar to hers, but when they found too much bedrock in the soil, they abandoned the idea and the plot.

“Year after year, there was garbage and vans and stuff like that,” said Washington.    “If you live near garbage, people think that you are that garbage, and we are not garbage.”

Although she was working full-time as a physical therapist, Washington — with the help of her neighbor, Jose Lugo — set out to save the desolate patch of land.    By 1989, she had successfully petitioned Green Thumb, a city Parks and Recreations group, to help her transfer the city-owned plot to a community garden, the Garden of Happiness.

Neighbors flocked to the new garden to plant collard greens, mustard greens, kale, cantaloupe, corn, string beans and squash.  They spent hours comparing gardening tips, vegetables and stories about life in the Bronx.

“I learned they were having problems with health, schools, housing and jobs,”  she said.  “I felt that the community gardening work I do is great because it also helped bring out the social issues that were affecting the community, and they were huge.”

At first, Washington was hesitant about going to a community meeting.  She was a mother of two juggling a full time job and the management of the Garden of Happiness.    However, after much coaxing by a neighbor, she finally attended a Crotona Community Coalition meeting, and it changed her life.

“When I walked in there I saw at least 50 people talking about the same problems that were going on in the neighborhood,” she said.  “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’ ”

Washington became a regular at both the Crotona meetings and the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she presented solutions to the major issues the community was facing. When she was called upon, she marched up to the podium with her gray-streaked dredlocks swinging behind her, and in a firm tone gave solutions to community issues.

As she spoke, her eyes opened wide exuding the passion she felt for the cause.  Members would discuss issues with her after the meeting, and she would stand quietly looking at the floor, with her head tilted towards them listening attentively.

Kendra went on to become a school principal and Bryant an inspector for the Department of Health, and Washington focused more of her efforts on her community.

In 2003, she accepted the role of president of the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.  The Rev. Jai Dean of the Community Church, which is based in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, attributes the changes she has made to her ability to network and grab the right people’s attention.

“She was active, she knew the politicians, and she knew who to call to get things done,” he said.

Last year, she took her concerns to a City Council hearing.  There, she spoke about the problems she had encountered with the Green Thumb program.

“By the time she had finished her presentation, it was like we can all go home now,” said Dyanne Norris, principal administrative associate for Green Thumb.  “She was most articulate, and the one person who presented answers to the questions, and I was just overwhelmed.”

Washington focused her efforts on providing the tools her community would need to succeed. In 2005, a devastating fire in the Garden of Happiness reassured her that her community appreciated and needed the work she had done.

“We stood out there, and we were crying,” she said.  “Then the neighbors came by to pat us on the back and say ‘Don’t worry, we’ll build again.’ I knew right then and there how much the community loved that garden.”

She applied for the grant program at Orange Thumb, a garden tool making company, explaining the situation at the Garden of Happiness.  The application was accepted and the group was awarded $4,500 in cash and Home Depot gift certificates.

“That’s my passion,” she said. “I love to grow food.”

One rainy Sunday afternoon in October, Washington sat at her East Tremont kitchen, eating yogurt and granola, listening to WFAN. The Yankees were beating the Red Sox.

Ashley and Noodles, her two rescue cats, played at her feet.

She looked out her window at the Garden of Happiness, and smiled.

Posted in Food, PoliticsComments (0)

Vanishing Post Offices

by Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Janice Houston finds Crotona Park Post Office convenient and fast. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Janice Houston finds Crotona Park Post Office convenient and fast. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Almost every week in good weather, Barbara Harris leaves her Bronx apartment to walk one block to her local post office on Boston Road in Crotona Park East in the Bronx to send presents to one of her 21 grand children living in Texas and Florida.

The trip may soon become impossible for the 59-year-old grandmother. The Crotona Park Station Post Office is on the list of U.S. Post Offices slated for closure.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service announced it would be forced to shutter 677 local post offices around the country, including 53 in the city, due to last year´s record $7 billion loss in revenue. A recent revised list slated 371 to close, including 16 in the city. Seven in the Bronx are included on both lists, including the station in Crotona.

“It is going to be tragic for me,” said Harris, clutching her shopping cart handle for support. “I cannot go to another one. I cannot get around easily.”

“A lot of people do not drive and they need this place where it is. It is not fair,” said Daman Brown, a 41-year-old traffic agent at the New York Police Department, placing his mail in a mail box before rushing away.

One customer has used this post office for nearly 50 years.

“I got here in 1960 and the post office was where it is today,” said Taylor Carton, a 71-year-old retired resident, waiting in line to send his mail.

Crotona Park Post Office is located at a busy hub where Boston Road and Southern Boulevard intersect East 174th Street.

Others wondered how local businesses might be affected if the post office closed its doors. “Possibly some people will lose their jobs,” said Patrick Onapie, a 47-year-old broker and notary, rushing from the post office to his office across the street. “The post office is the life blood of businessmen around this area.”

The closure of the Crotona Park Post Office would leave the vast Boston Road north-south corridor from East 167th Street to Bronx Park South without a postal outlet.

“I think that since it is still open, I have not heard any complaints,” said John Dudley, District Manager of Bronx Community Board Three. That will likely change once it is locked.

Elected officials of the Bronx, including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Congressmen Joseph Crowley and Eliot Engel asked the U.S. Postal Service by letter to reconsider closing all seven, which amounts to 17 percent of all the postal stations in the Bronx.

Along with Crotona Park, the other branches on the list are Botanical, Clason Point, Hillside, Melcourt, Oak Point, and Van Nest post offices.

Six of the proposed locations are one mile and a half or more away from the nearest station.

Closing post offices is not the only solution to the loss of mail volume caused by the recession and changes in consumer on-line use.

John Potter, the 72nd Postmaster General of the 234-year-old US Postal Service, already cut $6 billion in expenses and reduced the postal service workforce by 40,000 positions. But he still predicts $5 billion per year for the foreseeable future.

“There are critics of the post office who contend that we should simply shut it down,” said Richard R. John, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism in Columbia University. “I think there is a vital role for the post office and I do not believe that law makers are going to permit the post office to lose the privileges that keep this hybrid government institution.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

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