Tag Archive | "Connor Boals"

Lost Jobs Mean Lost Family

By Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

The main strip of Broadway running through the neighborhood of Kingsbridge in the Northwest Bronx looks the same since the Stella D’Oro cookie factory closed its doors for good in October. There is only one difference: the unmistakable scent of baked goods in the oven. “I used to get that aroma here,” said Eddie Marrero, a 30-year veteran of the plant, who lives blocks away in an apartment on Bailey Avenue. “When I’d go out on my terrace, I could tell what they were baking.” On October 8, 2009, the employees of Stella D’Oro went to work for the last time. About 140 employees, including Marrero, lost their jobs when the 78-year-old plant closed down for good. The closing came in the wake of a protracted dispute between the unionized workers and the current ownership that led to a lengthy labor strike. It left many workers--who felt like Stella D’Oro was family--unmoored in the weeks before the holiday season. Marrero, 50, said he started with Stella as a production packer in 1979. By the time the factory closed, he was a foreman baker who oversaw the ovens, the production lines and checked for quality control. “It’s not like a chocolate chip cookie,” Marrero said of the challenge of baking quality Stella D’Oro treats. “One day the breakfast treats can come out looking like crap.” Marrero’s live-in girlfriend Evelyn Rivera, got a job as a table packer two years ago, after she was laid off from her position as a clerk on Wall Street. Rivera began by working the overnight shift, packing snacks into trays alongside five to 10 other women from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. “I was used to paper work,” she said of the aches that came with manual labor. She pulled her finger back as if squeezing a gun to demonstrate how the muscles in her hand would freeze up from the “trigger finger” she developed packing up to 10,000 cookies a day. “It’s an art,” she said, “It’s not like “I Love Lucy” when they got jobs at the candy factory.” Marrero said that a Stella D’Oro job was one of the best jobs to be had in the Bronx. “Nobody is going to find a job like Stella D’Oro,” he said. “It was the only job in the Bronx that started you off at $14 an hour.” Marrero said he was making $21 and hour when the factory closed, coming out around $65,000 a year. Rivera, who began at $14 an hour, was on her second raise, making $16 an hour.

About 75 former employees, community members and labor activists protested outside the factory on October 9, 2009 after the factory was closed the day before. Video by Connor Boals

Now, Marrero is “semi-retired,” still waiting for $7,000 owed to him from a National Labor Relations Board ruling against Brynwood Partners, the company that purchased Stella D’Oro two-and-a-half years ago. His son, Eddie is 23 and attends John Jay College where he studies criminal justice. Marrero covered his tuition until this year, now his son is taking care of his education through loans. Rivera’s daughter, Rosa, is 19 and a senior at John F. Kennedy High School. Come January, both mother and daughter will be students when Rivera goes back to school to get study medical coding in pursuit of a job in a medical billing department. For nearly 80 years the Stella D’Oro Cookie factory churned out its trademark cookies, breadsticks and pastries that are distributed nationwide. The bakery's iconic treats trace their heritage to Joseph Kresevich, who emigrated to the United States from Trieste, Italy in 1922. Ten years later, he and his wife Angela established Stella D’Oro, Italian for "gold star," in a small shop on Bailey Avenue in Kingsbridge. Although Stella D’Oro's cookies were based on the Italian pastries that Kresevich remembered from his homeland, they quickly became cross-cultural snacks.
The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The factory's neighborhood was largely filled with Jewish families, and the fact that the pastries were often made without eggs or butter meant that they were suitable for kosher customers. A particular favorite was the company's Swiss Fudge cookies, which many Jewish consumers dubbed "shtreimels," after the round fur hats that are traditionally worn on the Sabbath by Hasidic Jews. In 1992, Stella D’Oro was purchased by Nabisco, which subsequently became part of Kraft foods. In 2003, Kraft began experimenting with cheaper ingredients, ultimately dropping the “pareve” kosher designation from its label. This led to an immediate uproar among the Jewish consumers who formed the bulk of the company's customer base. Kraft quickly changed back to the original recipe and re-instituted its kosher certification. In 2006, Kraft sold Stella D’Oro to a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners for $17.5 million, a significant reduction compared to the $100 million price tag Kraft paid for the brand. Soon thereafter, Brynwood attempted to cut employee health and retirement benefits and proposed ending pensions in exchange for establishing 401(k)s. “A 401(k) can go in a blast,” Marrero said. “That ain’t no pension. If I live up to 100, I’m going to be getting that.” Marrero said that the pension plan he is on was a “golden eighties” plan which a worker qualified for after 15 or twenty years of service and then it paid out double the amount for every year worked. On August 13, 2008, 135 employees, all members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50 went on strike because of the demands the new owners had brought to the table. The Local 50 is a small union, with membership around 1,000 workers, so the a support group, the Stella D’Oro Solidarity Committee, consisting of community members, labor activists and union members According to the committee, Brynwood’s wanted to slash wages as much as 25 percent, impose “crushing” premiums to the health insurance plan, eliminate holidays, vacation and sick pay and do away with extra pay for working Saturdays. Marrero said the message he was hearing from Brynwood was that they didn’t have the money to pay for these things anymore. This confused Marrero because he never saw any cutbacks on production. “As soon as we were baking them, they were going into the trucks.” He said. “There was always work, we could work as long as we wanted.” Marrero said he would often work 40 hours a week, plus 11-12 hours in overtime where he was paid time-and-a-half. The union, which had represented the workers since the early 1960s, rejected the new company’s demands and began picketing. Brynwood immediately replaced them with backup workers that they had already gathered. Every day when the replacement workers emerged from the factory for a shift change, they were met with angry heckling. “Scabs!” the crowd roared. “I was going to get into a fight with a few of them,” Rivera said. This was Rivera’s first strike. Marrero had previously been through four during his tenure at Stella D’Oro. “I learned so much from it,” she said. “I never thought I would go on strike.” Rivera said that she is thankful to have been on strike. It was a pivotal experience, where she gained knowledge and friendship. “When I was out there in the strike, I got to know everybody. We got to know each other much better. It was a friendly atmosphere.” She said. “The strikers figured it would be two weeks,” said Micah Landau, a community supporter and graduate student at CUNY. “Then it started getting cold and it went from August 13 to October 13.” Landau said that Brynwood Partners intentionally created unreasonable demands to bust the union. “These guys, they provoke the strike, and its because they weren’t interested in negotiating,” he said. “It was like a siege. They were trying to starve people out.” The plight of the workers attracted the attention of many in the world of New York City politics and activism. Marrero said that nearly every New York City politician came out and show support at one time or another, all except for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “You have all these politicians but you only have one emperor,” he said of Bloomberg. “He’s still ignoring us.” The tiny factory sparked a reaction from labor groups across New York, the country and even beyond the borders of the United States. On the day the factory closed, US Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Billy Talen all marched with about 50 former employees outside the factory on the day it was finally closed Talen, better know as “Reverend Billy” is a bouffant-adorned performance activist who runs the Church of Life after Shopping, a performance group dedicated to fighting the evils of capitalism. Reverend Billy performs “exorcisms,” preaches revival-style sermons and pops up on cable news with color commentary any time that capitalism is under examination. The Reverend, who was also the Green Party candidate for New York City mayor, dedicated his latest sermon to the plight of the Stella D’Oro workers. “The Stella D’Oro factory bakery was the backbone of this community,” Talen said. “It’s very sad.” Talen wasn’t the only anti-capitalist rabble-rouser to come to the aid of the workers. In September, the union workers asked Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, to purchase the factory and fund a Kingsbridge worker’s cooperative through Venezuela’s own oil and gas supplier, CITGO. Chavez took them seriously. Chavez, who was in New York City for the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, told the UN, “One of [the workers] said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the company?’” I said, ‘I’m going to look into it.’” “We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me,” Chavez said. “The company can be bought and handed over to the workers.” Chavez was no stranger to the Bronx. In the winter of 2005, according to the New York Times, he provided 8 million gallons of discounted heating oil to thousands of low-income residents in the South Bronx. Brynwood rebuffed Chavez’s offer. The company never answered any calls made on his behalf. With only 135 union members from a small union that only had 1,000 members total, the workers needed help from outside the union to have any chance, Landau said. Landau was working as a staff reporter for the United Federation of Teachers when he traveled to Kingsbridge to cover the strikers in December 2008. “They’d been on strike since August,” he said. “They were like starving to death on the picket line. It was like watching people die.” Soon he went from writer to community organizer, steering the community outreach and working to make sure the plight of the Stella D’Oro worker was getting attention from the media and the rest of the labor world. “I had just wanted to write about this thing,” he said. “I ended up getting involved to the point where the newspapers wouldn’t let me write about it anymore.” Landau has since moved to Chicago, passing the torch to Rene Rojas, 37, a PhD student at New York University. “The support committee itself is no longer functioning,” Rojas said. “I don’t think there will be a set of demands for Stella D’Oro anymore. The fight has shifted to getting the right severance package.” After the strike was ended by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, Rojas said, the court ordered a new severance package for the workers. Now, Brynwood Partners is trying to revert to an older, less generous package that existed before the ruling. “Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emelia Dursu, 58, who worked at the factory as a table packer, placing cookies in trays for 20 years. She said she began working at the factory in 1979 after she immigrated to the New York City from Ghana. She has three children, all of them grown. “I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive until my pension is around 2012 or 13.” Mike Filippou, who worked as a lead mechanic at Stella for over 14 years and orchestrated much of the rally efforts is taking classes to become a certified mechanic so that he can pursue work at a Wonderbread factory in Queens which is a member of the Local 50 Union. “I would say the majority of workers still have not been placed in jobs,” said Rojas. “It’s easier for those like Mike who have a certain skill, but the more unskilled workers will have a lot of trouble.” While losing the security of a full-time job in an economy where opportunities for work are not bountiful is a hard blow to suffer, many of the workers mourn the loss of the family atmosphere at the plant. “It was a job you were able to live off of,” Marrero said. “But it was also family-oriented.” Marrero has the scar to prove it. Beneath his faded blue New York Giants t-shirt is a faint 6-inch scar running up his left side from when he donated his kidney in 2000 to Jerry Fleck, a fellow Stella worker who had worked with Marrero since 1983. Fleck is godfather to Marrero’s son. “This is how we were at Stella D’Oro,” Marrero said. Marrero said that losing his job didn’t affect him greatly as he had qualified for his pension and had already been planning to retire at 55. For now, he plans to get his commercial driver’s license with hopes of driving a school bus, giving him plenty of time for fishing, a favorite hobby of his. As for the future of Stella D’Oro in their new home, Rivera is confident that Lance will get its comeuppance for moving the factory. “It’s not going to work out for them,” she said. Stella D’Oro can only be made in New York. It can only be with New York water.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, PoliticsComments (1)

4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

with additional reporting by Donal Griffin
Abandoned Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont that racked up over 100 violations, stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings are being restored by new owners, Paradise Management.  Photo by Mamta Badkar

Former Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings which racked up over 100 "immediately hazardous" violations are being restored by new owner Isaac Hershkovitz. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Four buildings once owned by Ocelot loom over a very different Park Avenue in the central Bronx neighborhood of Tremont. The buildings until recently were ghost-like shells, but are now beginning to stir with the sounds of renovation. Their troubled past, however, still follows them. The buildings are around 100 years old and among the oldest in the Ocelot portfolio. They are four-stories tall and contain between 20 and 24 units each. The façade has been defaced by graffiti, windows have been smashed in, and parts of the building have been stripped bare by the construction workers who point to sections where there are holes in the floor. The buildings all have a past full of violations with the New York City Department of Buildings that range from structural instability to defective boilers. Under Ocelot's management, the Park Avenue buildings racked up over 100 “immediately hazardous” violations by the end of 2008. Many of the complaints were structural. “Caller says every time the Long Island Railroad train passes the building shakes,” read a Feb. 22, 2007, complaint about 4301 Park Ave. to the Department of Buildings. “From the top to the base of the building is cracked on the outside at the top building.” Others address fire safety with a touch of the bizarre. “Caller notes the boiler is defective and caught fire on June 14, 2007. Boiler emits soot throughout the apartments,” read another complaint about 4289 Park Ave. filed on the same day as the fire. “And please inspectors take caution due to the large amount of pit bull dogs in basement.” The now vacant lots are subject to routine inspections by the New York City Fire Department. The market value of each building ranges from $381,000 to $504,000 according to City-Data.com. In all, the four buildings are worth over $1.7 million. “We aren’t stripping the buildings down, just patching them up,” said Joseph Silberman the current contractor. “These aren’t in Manhattan.” Now owned by Brooklyn-based Paradise Management with financing by Doral Bank, two of the properties are expected to be ready by January 1, 2010. “Only when the properties are fully occupied, will the bank go ahead with the others." Around the corner at Western Beef, store manager Jim Frisco said his business was hardly affected by the exodus. Neighbors and a member of the New York City Fire Department worried that at least one of the empty buildings were being used for drug activity. David Arroyo, the manager of Jochi Auto Repair Inc. who has lived on neighboring Webster Avenue for 16 years, said “the riff-raffs” had been moving out over a period of time but the buildings appeared completely vacant two months ago. “People were afraid to leave their cars because they were scared people would take their stuff,” he said, referring to the former occupants of the Ocelot properties. “Since they left, it’s gotten quiet and we’re doing pretty good.” But trouble still follows the buildings, which were part of a package of five buildings bought by OCG VI - an Ocelot company - in June of 2007 for $6.2 million. When Ocelot's backer, Israeli company Eldan Tech, abandoned the portfolio last last year, investors found a buyer for the Park Avenue buildings in Brooklyn property dealer, Issac Hershkovitz. Eldan Tech now alleges in a civil case filed in Manhattan's State Supreme Court, however, that Ocelot's president, Rachel Arfa, carved up the deal with Hershkovitz so that Ocelot only received $350,000 instead of $3 million, while she personally pocketed $300,000. Arfa has denied the allegations and counter-sued in the same court. Both cases are pending. Eldan Tech also alleges that Hershkovitz has failed to pay the $350,000. The property dealer has yet to lodge a defense.

Posted in HousingComments (2)

When The Bubble Burst

How a New York real estate deal went bad, causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families


View Ocelot in a larger map A map of all foreclosed and bankrupt Bronx properties mentioned in the story. Click on a location to read an in-depth story and watch an audio slideshow for each individual property. If you encounter problems viewing the map, click on the links below to view the slideshows and stories. red= Ocelot buildings currently in foreclosure. On Dec. 1, 2009, Fannie Mae sold the debt to Omni New York LLC. red806 E. 175th St. red1528 Bryant Ave. red1744 Clay Ave. red2254 Crotona Ave. red1663 Eastburn Ave. red1512-1524 Leland Ave. red621-627 Manida St. red1269-1271 Morris Ave. red1804 Weeks Avenue yellow= Ocelot buildings sold to BXP 1LLC on May 13, 2009. The buildings are managed by Hunter Property Management LLC. yellow1585-1589 E. 172nd St. yellow1350 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1636-1640 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1268 Stratford Avenue blue= Ocelot buildings sold to Bronx Apartments LLC on Aug. 26, 2009. blue422 East 178th St. blue4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway. Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.”
Nearly half the apartments are empty in the Manida Street buildings. <br> <br>Photo by Wanda Hellmund

In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments in the Bronx, including buildings on Manida Street which many of its low-income tenants refer to as the

A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx. Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

The police were recently called on the residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street when they attempted to organize against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come. The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in a contempt of court ruling, i.e. jail time.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008. Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

While Fannie Mae is looking for

Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling. Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Many of the low-income residents have dealt with rats, leaky ceilings and faulty wiring. Photo by Connor Boals

In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

How a New York real estate deal went bad causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan

LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway.
The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.” A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot. From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in criminal charges. Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki. Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing. In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

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Thompson Concedes, After a Last-Minute Surge of Hope

By Connor Boals and Maia Efrem

Comptroller William Thompson, Jr. announces his defeat to his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers Tuesday evening. Photo by Connor Boals

Comptroller William Thompson Jr. announces his defeat to his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers Tuesday evening. Photo by Connor Boals

As the early polling results came in, the supporters of Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr., believed they were going to witness the upset of the most expensive campaign in New York City’s history. They almost did. At 9:30 p.m., the air was electric. Hundreds of supporters were gathered inside the third floor Trianon lounge of the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers in midtown Manhattan. At 9:51 p.m., with nine percent reporting, Thompson was only one percent behind his opponent Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was still anyone’s race. Strangers hugged, fists were raised and even a few tears were shed. “I believe we have victory,” said the Rev. J.T. Causer from Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Thompson supporters celebrate early poll results that put Mayor Bloomberg only one percent ahead of Thompson. Photo by Connor Boals

Thompson supporters celebrate early poll results that put Mayor Bloomberg only one percent ahead. Photo by Connor Boals

Others, like Sybyl Silverstein, an education consultant from Floral Park, Queens, maintained a “cautious compassion” as the pundits had almost unanimously predicted Bloomberg in a landslide. Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem acted as master of ceremonies for the evening. He and a string of labor leaders and borough politicians delivered rousing chants of “eight is enough!” and “We can’t be bought!” at an ear-blasting volume. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. dominated the stage and announced the Bronx votes had gone to Thompson. "In the city of New York, while there was a billionaire who wanted to buy the election, there were thousands of people who would not sell out," said Diaz,  as he pumped a fist in the air. As the results trickled in, Bloomberg crept ahead, but only by four percent with 17 percent reporting. Gov. David Paterson waited by the stage for almost half an hour as other politicians gave short inspirational speeches to the crowd. The tiny stage was swelling with a who’s who of the city’s Democratic leaders. After a short stump speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton, he took the stage with a tone of seriousness. "I would like to thank Thompson for keeping the dream alive for those who are told 'no' but believe 'yes,' " he told the cheering crowd. With praise came reproach as well. "Too many Democrats stayed home today,” he said. “And too many Democrats who should have stayed home were tantalized away."
Thompson supporters watch the poll results being reported. Bloomberg's one percent gap eventually expanded and Thompson conceded the race at 11:40 p.m. Photo by Connor Boals

Thompson supporters watch the poll results being reported. Bloomberg's one percent gap eventually expanded and Thompson conceded the race at 11:40 p.m. Photo by Connor Boals

At 11:40 p.m., Thompson, his wife and his daughter approached the podium. He was met with vigorous applause. “A few minutes ago, I called Mayor Bloomberg to congratulate him on his victory,” he said. A wave of boos swept forward, overwhelming Thompson, who calmly asked for order. “Tonight the votes are not in our favor,” he said. “But we still have so much to be proud of. This campaign was about standing strong.” Monica Hankins, an office manager from Story Avenue in the Bronx said she felt Bloomberg's term limit was one of the key issues in the election. At the end of the four years, she wanted the question of reversing the three-term limit to be put to the voters. "I feel like Bloomberg disrespected us," she said. "It feels like a dictatorship now." Another Bronx resident from Pelham Parkway, Aisha Ahmed, said she was "disgusted" by the results. "We live in a rich country where a mayor just spent $100 million on a campaign but people still sleep outside of churches,"  said Ahmed, the president of a medical consulting company. Although the mayor’s seat didn’t go to the Democrats, spirits were high over the election of Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “The Democratic Party had some tremendous gains tonight, the people rejected the politics of Mayor Bloomberg,” said Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx borough president and 2005 mayoral candidate. “I think he’s going to have a rough four years.”

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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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