Tag Archive | "Bronx"

Leveling the Legal Playing Field: Tenants Fight for Homes with the Help of Right to Counsel

Elizabeth Thompson, 72, has been in and out of court for around 31 years. She finally got an exemption for a lawyer after Right to Counsel.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Elizabeth Thompson, a 72-year-old retired health care clerk, had been in and out of housing court since 1988. Usually, it was because her landlord claimed she was behind in the rent. 

It was a battle that Thompson largely fought on her own. Until recently.

This past March, Thompson’s landlord took her to court again because she owed $817 in rent, according to court documents. Thompson is on a fixed income from social security and it doesn’t always arrive at the same time, she said. At first, she represented herself.

But she faced little success in court and decided she needed a lawyer.

“They say I’m not qualified for a lawyer,” she said.

Thompson received too much money in retirement from social security to qualify for a free lawyer in housing court, but she couldn’t afford one on her own.

New York City passed its historic Universal Access to Legal Representation law, also known as Right to Counsel, in 2017. It ensures free legal services to low-income Bronx tenants living in four ZIP codes, 10457, 10462, 10467 and 10468. In just two years, evictions in the Bronx decreased by 23%, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice Annual Report. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, the Bronx claimed the highest decrease in evictions since Right to Counsel was implemented.

Currently, Right to Counsel is effective in these areas of the Bronx.
Hibah Ansari, The Bronx Ink

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advocated for the law. They’re now campaigning to expand it so that more tenants, like Thompson, can be eligible. They partner with other organizations like Legal Services NYC.

Right to Counsel gives power back to tenants, especially as they face landlords represented by powerful law firms, according to Heejung Kook, the housing unit deputy director for Legal Services NYC.

“No one really gives advice to the tenants,” Kook said. “Once the attorney gets involved through the tenant’s side, the tenant knows what their defenses are. So we can try to negotiate for better terms, or often just to fight hard to keep their apartment.”

Thompson asked the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Association for help, and they directed her to the Legal Aid Society. Although she didn’t qualify because her income was too high, she spoke with a supervisor and was approved anyway.

Everything changed after she found representation, Thompson said.

“The court lawyer went against our landlord’s lawyer and let him know that he had to do,” she said.

Nadia Hasan, the supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society NYC, took up her case.

“A lot of it has to do with just having someone on your side, someone listening and explaining things to you,” Hasan said about Right to Counsel. She added that tenants also get better terms with an attorney present.

Both parties have to comply with the agreement Hasan fought for — Thompson will follow a payment plan while the landlord addresses the repairs.

Brian Stark, a lawyer for her landlord, according to court documents, could not be reached for comment.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition is a grassroots social justice organization. Part of their mission is to advocate for tenants’ rights in the Bronx.

The Bronx has had the most evictions out of any borough for the last six years, according to the Office of Civil Justice report. Before the law was passed, city marshals carried out 7,438 evictions in the Bronx, compared to 5,984 eviction in Brooklyn and 2,843 in Manhattan.

To qualify for free legal services, a family of two would have to make an income of less than $32,480, according to the New York City Housing Court. Thompson earns about $40,000 per a year.

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition wants to increase the income eligibility so more tenants like Thompson can be covered. For a family of two, the income limit would be $67,640.

Thompson’s building is owned by Claflin Apartments LLC, which is registered to Moshe Piller, according to state business records. 

The Bronx Ink previously reported on the conditions of Piller’s buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2010. At the time, tenants complained of faulty wiring, a collapsed ceiling and clogged plumbing.

Thompson, who’s lived in the same Fordham apartment for 35 years, had similar complaints about her apartment.

Some days, the boiler in the building worked. Other days it didn’t. The electricity would occasionally go out — one time for eleven hours. Mice came through a hole under her kitchen sink. 

Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Inell Tolliver, 57, also lives in Thompson’s building. Tolliver said that the other tenants wouldn’t know how their landlord was responding to violations without Thompson, who tried to set up a meeting with building management.

There have been 286 complaints registered against Thompson’s building since 1991, according to the Department of Buildings. There have been nine since January. The most frequent complaint is that the elevator stops working. The building has six floors.

The superintendent could not be reached for comment.

Tolliver cited mold, scraped floors and a locked laundry room in the basement. She also said that the hot water doesn’t always work and it’s been a recurring issue.

When the Bronx Ink tested Thompson’s sink, the water became warm but would not get hot.

Neither Piller or a representative from M. P. Management could be reached for comment.

By 2022, all tenants who are income-eligible in New York City should have access to free legal representation, according to the New York City Housing Court. But even now, as evictions are decreasing, more than half of the tenants at the Bronx Housing Court did not know about their eligibility for a free lawyer before arriving to court, according to a survey conducted by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

For the first time, funding for expansion of legal services for low-income New York City tenants exceeded $100 million in 2018. The city expects to increase funding until all low-income tenants are covered in 2022, according to the Office of Civil Justice. Legal Services NYC also receives funding from the federal and state government as well as charity organizations.

Kook has some doubts about Right to Counsel’s ability to expand to all ZIP codes by 2022. But she added that if the city continues to fund and support Right to Counsel providers in the long term, they can effectively expand their services and decrease evictions across the city.

“Anyone can change the law,” Kook said. “We’re really hoping that the city will continue doing this kind of work.”

Thompson has not been to court since July. Her attorney helped her reach an agreement that will keep her out if she keeps up with rent.

Posted in Housing Injustice Right to Counsel, Special ReportsComments (0)

Raise the Age law at work transforming youth’s futures

The Bronx Hall of Justice where the Raise the Age Law means fewer and fewer 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies are prosecuted as adults.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

On Oct. 2, Youth Part’s Judge Denis Boyle waited calmly from the bench in Bronx Criminal Court as attorneys, officers and aids busied themselves with preparations for the morning’s cases. All were gathered in Room 500 to decide the fate of the three teenagers on the docket.

It was the second day of the final phase of the 2017 law that raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York State. Starting Oct. 1, 17-year-olds arrested for felonies would now no longer automatically be treated as adults by the criminal justice system.

A prosecutor from the district attorney’s office in a grey and off-white suit readied at the desk among her colleagues. Yana Roy, a former Bronx prosecutor, sat on the front bench on the opposite side of the court reviewing her own case files, this time for the defense.

In the back row sat the accused, a tall, 17-year-old Bronx youth wearing a red Champions t-shirt and black sweatpants. He fidgeted next to Antoine Slater, his supervisor from the Youth Department of the Acacia Network, a nonprofit that focuses in part on youth rehabilitation.

The teenager, Neo C., stood accused of robbery in the second degree last November, when he was 16-years-old. His mother said that he’s been in court before, but for more minor crimes.

The previous year, Judge Boyle presided over the cases of 16-year-olds from the Bronx accused of crimes, moving all but a few of the most violent felony cases from adult court to Family Court. This fall, 17-year-olds now begin to fall under the same provision.

New York State was one of the last two states to halt automatically treating 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies as adults.

Before the 2017 Raise the Age law was passed, Neo would have ended up in Rikers Island correctional facility awaiting trial in adult court. But now, the Bronx teen stays at the Acacia Network, a nonprofit community service organization dedicated in part to troubled youth. Slater is his supervising youth worker.

The city transferred teens held in Rikers to Horizon Juvenile Center (above) in Mott Haven.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

According to the first annual report from the state on Raise the Age law, in the six-month period after October 2018, 16-year-olds arrested for felonies declined from an average of 244 to 155 per month, a reduction the report claims is due to “evidence-based interventions and services to address their needs.”

Felony arrests for 16-year-olds have been decreasing each year since 2013, according to a recent report from the Mayor’s office. In 2018, there was a record low of 1,915 felony arrests for 16-year-olds, down 11.3% from 2017.

Like Neo, these teens would have also ended up jailed with adults in Rikers Island had the state not raised the age of criminality to 18. The Rikers complex, known for a history of extreme violence, is slated to close for all prisoners by 2026.

Eileen Blake, Neo’s mother, rested her head on her arms on the back of the court room’s middle bench on Oct. 2. A fitness trainer by occupation, she wore green camo pants, her blue hair tied in a bun.

Attorney Roy and her client Neo assembled at one table in the courtroom, the prosecutors on the other. A court advocate between the groups was from The Fortune Society, an organization specializing in rehabilitation programs for the accused.

Now, because of the law, if Neo had committed a misdemeanor or non-violent felony, his case would be moved to Family Court.

“There are way more services for kids at Family Court,” said Deborah Rush, a juvenile attorney at the Bronx office of the Legal Aid Society.

Neo appeared before Judge Boyle because he is accused of a more serious crime, aggravated robbery. In New York, this means forcibly stealing property and harming an individual in the course of the theft.

Raise the Age created the adolescent offender category to refer to these 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies. For adolescent offenders, the legislation stipulates special holding facility requirements for children whom the judge determines need to be held before trial.

Acacia and Fortune Society are examples of accepted alternatives to being held with adults in Rikers.

Crossroads Juvenile Center, the city’s second holding facility for children, located in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

By Oct. 1, 2018, all teens under 18 were transferred to Horizon Juvenile Center, a detention facility in Mott Haven in the South Bronx, according an Oct. 1, 2018, statement from the Mayor’s office. Seventeen-year-olds arrested before Oct. 1, 2019, would go to Horizon, while Crossroads in Brownsville, Brooklyn, would house those under 17, according to the statement.

Their crimes are also less likely to follow them through the rest of their lives. Teens who comply with the judge’s stipulations and work with prosecutors, may have their records sealed if their offenses are eligible. Several crimes are not eligible for a sealed record, including sex crimes.

Other categories under Raise the Age law include those who were 13- to 15-years-old when they were charged with a serious crime. Another exception are juvenile delinquents who committed misdemeanors either before they were 16, or were sent from adult criminal court to Family Court when they were 16 or 17 years old.

It is possible for the judge to move cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court if they meet three criteria: the teen cannot have used a lethal weapon, caused serious physical harm, or have committed a sex crime.

In non-violent felonies, the District Attorney’s office can also block the case from entering Family Court if prosecutors prove “extraordinary circumstances” within 30 days, according to the 2018 Annual Report from the New York State Unified Court System.

Neo was 16 when he was arrested on the aggravated robbery charge. In the course of the robbery, a victim was injured. Because of this more serious charge, his case landed in the Youth Part of criminal court instead of Family Court.

The prosecution extended to Neo a guilty plea offer.

After discussion with his attorney, Neo accepted the offer. It meant that he would remain under supervision in the Acacia program. He would be required to remain substance-free, and stay on track to earn his GED diploma. If he complied and stayed out of trouble, he would be designated a youthful offender, which would mean all of his charges could potentially be removed from his record.

Neo’s supervisor at Acacia has been a youth worker at the organization for 19 years. Slater is currently responsible for over 40 kids ages 15 to 20, including Neo. The Bronx-based organization provides treatment based on the specific needs of the kids by creating one-on-one relationships between adults and teens.

“We specialize in behavior modification and substance abuse,” said Slater. 

Part of his work includes ensuring kids wake up for school on time, attend their classes, and generally behave. Slater also provides counseling. He makes himself available to the kids if they’re having a tough time and need to talk to someone.

Slater is also charged with providing a report to Judge Boyle on Neo’s progress.

Judge Boyle brought up Slater’s report during sentencing, saying he was pleased to see that Neo was on track to get his GED, respectful of staff and other kids, and substance-free.

“You may be able to help your peers. This may be a real challenge for you,” said Judge Boyle, looking directly at Neo. “But I think you’re up to it.”

Slater thinks that Neo will be able to earn his GED and graduate from the Acacia program in nine to twelve months. 

“One thing about him,” Slater said. “I think he’ll be successful.”

Neo stood beside his attorney with his arms wrapped behind his back as Judge Boyle addressed him. He shifted his weight from foot to foot.

His mother, Eileen Blake, said she wasn’t sure what she thought after they left the courtroom. A day later, she said that she still didn’t know why her son pleaded guilty. But, she added, she did respect the judge and is genuinely convinced that he wants children charged with a crime to be rehabilitated into society rather than locked up.

“I have no problem with him, because he’s always been fair,” she said. “I don’t believe [Judge Boyle] believes youth should be in jail.”

She and her ex-husband were fitness trainers, she said. Neo had an older brother. Growing up, Blake taught Neo how to play basketball. 

When he was in the public school system, Neo started playing the trumpet. Blake said that he excelled. Six months after he started, he played in the Bronx Day Parade.

“He took the city,” she said.

A few things happened in his life that pushed her younger son in a different direction, Blake said. She and her husband split up and Neo’s older brother joined the military. Then Neo switched public schools into a smaller program that didn’t have the resources to allow him to continue playing the trumpet.

“The public school system took everything away from my son that made him shine,” she said.

In Nov. 2018, Neo was arrested for the robbery that brought him before Judge Boyle. According to state criminal justice statistics, between January and June, 2017 to 2019, violent felonies committed by 16-year-olds went down 15% in New York City as a whole, while in the Bronx they decreased by a third. It’s too soon to tell how rates for 17-year-olds may be affected.

In New York City as a whole, violent felonies have decreased by 5.4% for 16-year-olds. In the Bronx, they have decreased by 15%.

“There have been some coordination glitches with the city,” said Deborah Rush, a juvenile defense attorney at the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, such as a van not reliably transporting teens to the Bronx Hall of Justice. 

But on the whole, she says the implementation of Raise the Age has gone well.

Because of his good behavior at Acacia, Neo earned a home pass, which means he got to visit home for a day on Saturday, Oct. 5, according to his mother.

This would never have been possible if he had been held in Rikers.

“Neo has a cat that misses him desperately,” said Blake. “Blue-kai. That’s the one that picked him.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, PrisonComments (0)

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Violent ads and fake nudes: AOC not sorry for blocking harassers on Twitter

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism following news that she was blocking some users from her personal Twitter account. In defense, Ocasio-Cortez said that the few accounts that she has blocked are those that subjected her to online harassment.

A violent ad paid for by New Faces GOP, a new right-wing political action committee, aired during the Democratic debate on Sept. 12, showing a photo of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face burning, followed by images of human remains.

Former California GOP congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng delivered the ad’s message: “This is the face of socialism and ignorance,” said Heng, as Ocasio-Cortez’s face burst into flames on screen and melted into images from the 1970s Cambodian genocide, which Heng’s parents survived.

The cost of the ad to the conservative PAC was close to $100,000, according to Federal Communications Commission financial documents.

Heng, who was defeated by incumbent Congressman Jim Costa, used much of the same imagery in the controversial ad as she did in a video for her congressional campaign in 2018, which became the center of a first amendment squabble after it was flagged by Facebook as inappropriate content and removed from the site, resulting in Republican outrage.

“My parents did not have the luxury of blocking the horrific content from the reality of their lives,” wrote Heng in a tweeted response in August 2018. “Why does Facebook feel they have the right to censor that content in the land of free speech?”

Five days after blocking the ad, Facebook reversed its decision and returned it to the site.

While Heng’s ads continue to spark controversy, this time the outrage rests largely on the other side of the political divide.

“Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter after the ad first aired on ABC following the Democratic debate.

The 29-year-old from the Bronx gained national attention after unexpectedly defeating longtime congressman Joe Crowley in a democratic primary in 2018 and has been a target of hostility from conservatives since she took office. This time, she said that Republicans are profiting from using her face to spread hate. That isn’t without consequence, she said.

“Who pays for heightened security? Who answers the phones for the threats resulting from a violent, false ad?” she wrote.

Regardless of the ad’s violent nature, Ocasio-Cortez has no clear legal recourse to demand its removal. The conservative PAC’s right to produce and distribute the content is protected under the first amendment, and the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that hate speech is no exception when it comes to speech protections.

Personal attacks are nothing new for the congresswoman. Although people are free to say what they want about her, in cases in which she is subject to extreme forms of online abuse, she said she believes she can choose not to listen.

Her solution? The block button.

In August, a letter sent by Knight First Amendment Institute, a free speech protection organization at Columbia University, called the practice “unconstitutional.” Ocasio-Cortez responded, and said that she has only blocked 20 of her 5.3 million followers from her @AOC account.

Among the accounts blocked by the congresswoman is the Daily Caller, a conservative online news organization that shared a fake nude photo of her in January 2019. “Here’s the photo some people described as a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” read the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for a list of additional blocked accounts or specific examples of the behavior she is blocking.

Katie Fallow, a First Amendment lawyer with Knight First Amendment whose name appeared on the letter chastising Ocasio-Cortez for banning certain voices from her Twitter account said that in cases where a “true threat” is made, the rules change a bit, but didn’t provide a clear definition of what a true threat entailed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has over and over again upheld that public officials must withstand pretty withering and caustic criticism, not just about their policies but about their character,” said Fallow. “The theory is that it’s better to do that than to allow public officials to block speech based on viewpoint and determine when they think something is inappropriate or not.”

But Ocasio-Cortez issued a defiant response to the letter while at a Town Hall held in New York City Housing Authority Boston Post Road Plaza in the Bronx in late August.

“Free speech isn’t an entitlement to force someone to endure your harassment,” Ocasio-Cortez told a crowd of reporters after the meeting.

Currently, two other newly elected young, female representatives from the Bronx have joined Ocasio-Cortez and said that online harassment is a problem and should not be tolerated.

Bronx elected officials speak out

Alessandra Biaggi, a 33-year-old newly-elected New York state senator whose district overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s, said she believes the law on free speech is still adjusting to having women in power in the era of social media.

She, along with Ocasio-Cortez and New York Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez of the Bronx represent a growing number of young women and women of color running for and winning positions in public office at the city, state, and national level.

“This is not a knock on men, it’s just that so much about leadership has been defined by this male lens,” said Biaggi, who ousted 14-year incumbent Jeffrey Klein in the 2018 state senate election. “We have to work harder to define what it means to be a leader.”

Biaggi said she has experienced various degrees of gender related harassment since taking office, which has ranged from minor instances, like men using her physical appearance to belittle her position—calling her things like “cute” and “small” in business settings— to more extreme instances of threat and exploitation, such as threatening physical harm.

“I will listen to someone who disagrees with me, who’s angry at me for something,” said Biaggi. “But I don’t need to listen to someone calling me nasty degrading names or harassing me. Online is the perfect environment for that really outrageous behavior.”

Biaggi’s office did not respond to a request for further specification of the type of behavior that she believes crosses the line.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is escorted out of a Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29, as a man in attendance shouts that she’s a fraud.

Regardless, data makes clear that there are major gender-based differences in the experiences of members of public office, especially those engaged in online arenas.

Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organization, said that 70 percent of women in the US see online harassment as a major problem.

“That’s compared to only about half of men,” Anderson said.

More people are online today than ever before, according to Anderson, and that has fueled the necessity for greater research on online environments and the differences in perceptions of what constitutes online harassment.

Most notably, Pew research found that women experience much higher rates of sexual harassment, including receiving unsolicited pornographic images and having nude images of them shared without permission. Women between the ages of 18 and 29 reported being sexually harassed at rates that more than doubled their male counterparts.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez signs a magazine cover she’s featured on for a constituent in attendance following a housing Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29.

Assemblywoman Fernandez, a former staff member in the same office she now serves as an elected official, said she hasn’t had to block anybody, yet, but she’s seen the differences in how men and women in office are treated online, first-hand.

“I take this experience from having had to manage a social media account for a male elected official,” said Fernandez, who added that followers have messaged her professional account to make a pass at her, called her beautiful and ask her personal questions about what she’s doing and where she’s at. “Now, seeing my own account, I do see different messages come in.”

When asked whether or not she thought Trump blocking somebody on Twitter (he received a letter from the Knight Foundation in 2017 and recently lost a lawsuit raised by Knight First Amendment) was the same as AOC blocking somebody on Twitter, Fernandez said, “absolutely not.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, FeaturedComments (0)

Looking for answers from a psychic in The Bronx

Ave Castellanos owns the Deluxe Candle Products botanica in Highbridge

A simple Google search won’t do to find Ave Castellanos, a 47 year-old Bronx-based psychic. She doesn’t have a Yelp profile, or an Instagram or Facebook account, and yet it’s common to see a line of people waiting to hear her advice.

Seer, clairvoyant and master tarotist is how Castellanos described her job. She sees between 20 to 25 clients a day at her office inside Deluxe Candle Products, a three story botanica in Highbridge, one of at least seven stores in the neighborhood that offer esoteric services. Castellanos has a network of people who refer her work to their friends and family after they visit her for the first time, she said. And, according to her, people from different states, and as far away as Brazil and China, travel to New York to see her. But Castellanos won’t offer names of her clients, she said, because she assures them confidentiality. While impossible to confirm Castellanos’ self-proclaimed popularity, on this past Labor Day morning, one customer who was waiting his turn, said he was acting as a liaison for his brother, who was calling from Denver, Colorado.  

Botanicas also sell scented water for rituals

This is a very exclusive business, Castellanos said, “If you ask me if I know any psychic, I would tell you I don’t. Someone needs to refer you,” she said sitting in a high chair surrounded by candles, herbs and oils that are sold at her botanica. Even people associated to a religion visit her. Catholics, Jewish and Muslim people “everyone is curious,” Castellanos said.

Religious people who look for this kind of counseling could be seeking comfort, said Joseph Nuzzi, director of Evangelization at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. People want control over the future or to know if they are on the right path. Religions like Judaism and Christianity offer advice on broader aspects, such as peace, justice and mercy, but there’s something missing, Nuzzi said. “Faith does not give people the gritty detail of ‘is this the right person for me?’ ‘Is this the right job for me?’”

Castellanos wouldn’t reveal how much she charges for her advice. “If you can pay, you pay whatever you want.” However, in other parts of the Bronx, tarot readers charge from $30 to $50 for a session.

“Since I was a child I knew there was something supernatural in me,” Castellanos said, which led her to have a lonely childhood while growing up at the Dominican Republic. When she moved to New York City 30 years ago, she started her tarot reading business in her apartment in Washington Heights. Castellanos later moved to The Bronx because she needed more space for her job. 

Other botanicas in The Bronx include products related to Santería

Almost three miles away from her shop, in a botanica in Fordham, Carlos, another psychic, who prefers to be called “Frodo,” said he had a similar experience while growing up in Puerto Rico. “I didn’t have any friends, they judge you and tell you you’re weird,” he said while pouring gold glitter in a candle meant to be lit for a saint. He doesn’t socialize with other psychics either, because there might be a conflict with their clients.

It’s about faith

Botanicas in The Bronx offer sprays that promise better luck in love and money

Faith is crucial for an accurate reading, Castellanos said. That’s a common guideline related to the Barnum effect in psychology, in which psychics use people’s reactions to test different statements until finding what suits their client’s life. Clients often leave psychic meetings remembering only selected sections that match what they wish or are afraid to believe. This attracts “less analytical people,” who want to find shortcut answers through structures like religion or paranormality, said Svetlana Komissarouk, a social psychology professor at Columbia University.  

“All humans are struggling to find some illusion of control,” Komissarouk said. They want tools to change their destinies and find happiness. “They look for some kind of causality because otherwise, everything is just chaotic and scary.” 

Castellanos was reluctant to talk about her clients. But, when asked about what people tend to look for the most,  she didn’t hesitate. “Most of them want to know about love”.

Posted in Culture, Southern BronxComments (2)

Putting Little Yemen on The Map

At a small intersection with an under-developed park called Green Streets, no longer than the length of three tightly parked cars, lies the center of Little Yemen in Morris Park. Door-to-door services crowd the street in front, including Al-Meraj, a halal meat market, and Gamal Business Services, where Arabic-language employees provide tax, translation, and notary services.

The Green Steets intersection that Yahay Obeid hopes to rename “Little Yemen” park.

For Yahay Obeid, this is also the center of his dream.

Obeid, a control supervisor at JFK Airport, serves on Community Board 11 as the public committee safety chair and is the outreach liaison for his local mosque. His current mission is to establish the enclave’s identity as Little Yemen on Google Maps.

Obeid wants the official designation because it will encourage residents to feel a sense of belonging and pride in the Bronx, he said.

His goal is to give residents “a place where they can say, ‘Yeah, I’m waiting for you at the Little Yemen triangle.’”

The heart of the neighborhood is on White Plains Road and Rhinelander Avenue, where the most popular Yemeni restaurant, Arth Aljanatain, is located. The restaurant’s windowed walls offer a view of Green Streets, where passersby can see local Yemeni customers sitting on one of their eight tables. It’s where the coach of the Yemen United Soccer Club takes his his sons for dishes such as salta, a meat broth-based soup, and rice and chicken dishes. The main mosque of the area – that holds two Friday prayer services to accommodate the worshippers – is here too. Hookah cafes, a Yemeni supermarket, and Yemeni delis and pharmacies surround that one intersection.

Little Yemen, which encompasses pockets from Van Nest and Bronx Park East, is a small pocket of the approximate 120,000 residents in the area, according to the NYU Furman Center.

Local Islamic-wear boutique, across the street from the Bronx Muslim Center.

And it’s even a smaller fraction of the approximate 6,900 Yemenis in New York State, estimated by the Arab American Institute Foundation. The number of Yemenis residing in the Bronx and specifically in District 11 is unclear to community officials. 

Obeid got the idea to reach out to Google earlier this summer, when he took part in the planning of the city’s first-ever Yemeni-American Day Parade. Anwar Alomaisi, the parade’s volunteer photographer, took a drone photo that captured the crowd at the triangle intersection. Once Obeid saw it, he was inspired to try to create “Little Yemen.”

Obeid submitted his request to Google using its My Business mobile application. Google verified the location and a few weeks later, Little Yemen was on the map. Sort of. It appears on Google Maps as a museum open 24/7. All Google Maps users can also manually add suggestions for businesses, hospitals, streets, and other places, where it will go through a verification process, but they cannot add neighborhoods.

Screenshot of Little Yemen on Google Maps as of September 5, 2019.

“It might not be an official museum, but people will check it out,” Obeid said about the designation.

Separately, Obeid has made a request to the Department of Parks and Recreation to rename the park to “Little Yemen.” He will reach out to Google to change the museum designation if the park is renamed with a sponsorship from the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the meanwhile, “it will be somewhat of an outdoor museum of the Yemeni community.”

Google retrieves neighborhood information from third-party providers and public sources that they describe as local government websites and transportation operators, according to a Google Spokesperson.

They define borders with a red outline to map boundaries. 

Establishing Little Yemen on the map would solidify the Arab presence in the area, said Jeremy Warneke, Community Board 11 District Manager.

“They’re very visible and present, and you can either embrace the future or do your best to deny it,” Warneke said.

Ethnic enclaves, or Littles, in New York City, are typically defined by “commercial, residential, and institutional concentration of a particular ethnic group,” said Tarry Hum, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, CUNY

She notes that neighborhoods develop out of  “reciprocity and ethnic solidarity, class relations (and conflict) [that are] tempered by shared culture, language, experience of racial discrimination.”

Many Littles in New York don’t appear on Google Maps. The New York Times mapped out several based on population concentrations. In the Bronx alone, there are at least six distinctive neighborhoods, including Little Ireland in Woodlawn Heights, Little Albania in Pelham Parkway, and Little Ghana in Concourse Village, which are just some of the 30 Littles the Bronx Ink identified throughout New York City.

Obeid considers his efforts “a gift to the Yemeni community.” 

“Now they see us out of the grocery stores.”

On October 3, 2019, a few weeks after this story went live, The Bronx Ink discovered that Little Yemen’s designation on Google Maps changed from museum to neighborhood. The new designation can be viewed by clicking this Google Maps link.

This story was updated to reflect the following correction: Yahay made the request to change the name of the park to the Department of Parks and Recreation, not the community board.

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Bronx Political Trailblazer and Civil Rights Leader Rev. Wendell Foster Remembered

Rev. Wendell Foster, a civil rights activist who marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King and the first black city council representative from the Bronx, died on Tuesday, Sept. 3. He was 95 years old.

“He endured Jim Crow, marched for civil rights, fought to open doors of opportunity for his constituents in the Bronx, and blazed a trail for black lawmakers across our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Wednesday. “Our hearts are with the Foster family tonight.”

Pastor of Morrisania’s Christ Church for 52 years, Foster was known for his deep connections to the neighborhoods he served both spiritually and politically.

“Rev. Wendell Foster was a pioneer, and someone who helped to make the Bronx and our nation a better place,” said Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. in a statement. “As the first black elected representing the Bronx in the City Council, Rev. Foster was a historic figure in our borough and a dedicated public servant who inspired a whole generation of elected officials to serve their community.”

Foster told the New York Times in 2009 that he came to New York from Alabama when he was 13 years old after reading in a black newspaper about “what people were doing ‘up north.’” The bus station he left from was segregated.

He became an ordained minister and was then sent by a bishop to Bermuda, where he met his wife, Helen Foster. The two returned to New York, settling down on Woodycrest Avenue in the Bronx. Their 63rd anniversary would have been Monday, Sept. 9

Foster’s first run for city council in 1973 proved unsuccessful. One of his opponents, south Bronx political power-broker Ramon Velez, sent Foster one of his own sound trucks to advertise his campaign message throughout the neighborhood, according to Rev. Bruce Rivera, who took over for Foster as senior pastor at Christ Church last year.

“Could you imagine any opponent sending assistance to help?” said Rivera, who was 16 years old at the time.  “We didn’t know anything about how politics operated in the Bronx. We didn’t know anything about petitions.”

Rivera was introduced to Foster the same year he helped out on Foster’s first campaign. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably would have been another lost kid in the South Bronx,” Rivera said. “His influence deeply changed my life.”

Foster finally won the 16th council district seat on his third try in 1977. The district encompasses the Morrisania, Highbridge and Crotona neighborhoods. According to Rivera, many of Foster’s policies were developed by asking neighbors and community members what their needs were.

Foster was the primary sponsor of 74 city council resolutions, according to New York City data, targeting everything from police reform and better access to libraries and parks, to increased public housing and always for equity in black and Hispanic Bronx residents.

Foster served on the council until 2002 He was succeeded by his daughter, Helen Foster. She was the first black woman elected official in the Bronx, where she represented the 16th district for 11 years, stepping down in 2013.

 “He was a committed and dedicated public servant who gave his all to making a difference during a challenging time in the Bronx,” said Vanessa Gibson, current councilperson representing the 16th district. “His work paved the way for African American elected officials in the Bronx and I proudly stand upon his shoulders thankful for his service through the years.”

After his years on the council, Foster continued to serve his community through his church and as a community advocate.

 “The liberation movement has never ceased: It’s always been,” said Foster in his 2009 New York Times interview. “You’ll always find a few nuts like myself out there, trying to better things.”

Foster is survived by his wife, Helen, his two daughters, Helen and Rebekah, and two grandchildren.

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Father arraigned for concealing his baby son’s corpse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protesters hold signs accusing Carter of displacement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written with additional reporting by Lucas Manfield.

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