Tag Archive | "Featured"

An uncertain future for Morrisania’s post office

Inside the two-story post office on 167th Street and Park Avenue, the door slammed every few minutes on a recent Monday morning as customers filtered in and out. Only two of the five customer windows were open, and the lines snaked all the way to the entrance. Nothing unusual there, according to customers in line.

“I’ve been coming here for 47 years,” said Hassan Forrest, who arrived early at the Morrisania post office to pick up his mail. The Metropolitan Transport Authority employee still lives in in the apartment he grew up in on nearby Webster Avenue and has never gotten  around to closing his family’s post office box.

But Forrest and other Morrisania residents may have to transfer their mail to another address if the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to close over 3,500 post offices throughout the nation. The White House proposed these drastic cut backs after the post office became insolvent the end of September. It had reached a borrowing ceiling of $15 billion, and used the last of its cash reserves.

The Morrisania post office, located in a building recognized as National Register of Historic Places in 1988, is one of 17 branches in the Bronx scheduled to close. Neither customers, nor Morrisania’s mail carriers seemed to be aware of the proposed cuts. A staff member who was rushing out of the post office building on her lunch break  cut short a reporter’s questions, saying the place wasn’t closing. The only changes she knew of were the maintenance work recently undertaken in one of the second floor rooms.

“For me it’s not a major issue, but some older people are coming here,” said Forrest, who was on his way to work in his MTA uniform. One retired nurse from the Bronx said she comes to the post office at least three times a week.

Pakala Dingle, 63, said she depends on the post office to pay her rent every month. Money orders cost only $1 compared to $3 or more at the bank.  Dingle wakes up at 6:30 every morning to exercise and walks to the post office to collect her mail for the small business of organic products she started a few years ago after she retired. She also picks up her Social Security checks at the post office.

Like many others, Dingle and Forrest believe the Internet has affected the postal system, along with competition from other private mailing services. On a two-block radius around the post office, at least six stores sold stamps and two shops offered cheap money orders.

President Obama’s plan, which was announced earlier last month, did not include its initial promise that mailing costs would stay the same. On  Oct. 18, the postal service announced that stamps would cost 45 cents, a one-cent increase, starting next January. The plan also suggested that post offices could offer non-postal products and cut out Saturday deliveries as a way to reduce debt.

Jimi Perez, a postal union delegate, criticized Obama’s proposals as ineffective. Even though Obama is willing to pay back the postal service $6.9 billion for having overpaid a federal retirement fund for years, Perez complained that the federal government owes the workers still more. “In its plan, Obama proposed to reimburse only $20 billion out of the $80 billion USPS has overpaid,” he said.

The closest post office to Morrisania is on Westchester and St. Ann’s Avenue, about 20 minutes away on the BX41 and BX55 buses. “If this post office closes, the old and disabled people that come here everyday will have to commute to a much further place,” said Perez, 59, who said anyone working for postal service  was threatened by the budget cut. “And how will they come to pick up their mail? In a taxi?”


View Is your Bronx post office threatened by the U.S. Postal Service budget cuts? in a larger map

 

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Tour de Bronx 2011

Some 6,000 cyclists biked the Bronx on Oct. 23. Bike enthusiasts young and old took over the streets from Bronx County Courthouse to the Sheridan Expressway and Pelham Bay Park.

 


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Superheroes from the Bronx

They do it for the love of comic art, to help change lives of the children in their community, and to rejuvenate comic art in the Bronx. Ed Mouzon and his partners are some of the key players in the independent comic art movement, started in the ’90s, that is responsible for reviving the deep-rooted comic art heritage in the Bronx.

The Bronx is his inspiration, Mouzon said. “I only need a pencil to doodle what I visualize in the streets of the Bronx.”

Mouzon’s draftsmanship is rich in details and colors, and his characterizations are filled with nuance. The 47-year-old said he has drawn 9,000 comic characters just by observing the streets. “The Bronx is a fertile soil for me,” he said.”These characters are us.”

In the early ’90s when the indie comic came into its own, a team of local comic artists, including Mouzon and his longtime friend Gary Camp, founded  Creative One Comics, an independent comic publishing group based in the Bronx. “We just sat at a round table, and said there will be no hierarchy among us, thus we shall call it ‘One’,” Mouzon said.

Their mission was to focus on intelligent storytelling and promote positive messages — and to stay “independent”.

They maintained a roving office with no permanent space for a studio. “Our studio is where ever we are,” Mouzon said. “We meet at our own areas. We connect with young artists at open door spaces. We do it at a dining table, or while watching a horror movie, I even do the planning during the train trips.”

Creative One Comics publishes many books about Bronx politics and society: The BlakelyverseAn Industrial Strength taste-testLa Mala NocheLittle Miss Strange, and Pozitron. But the remarkable breakthrough was Bronx Heroes — a three-part mini series and a political statement in the guise of a comic book.

Bronx Heroes was first issued in 2007. “It moved us the most, it brought us an audience,” said Mouzon. “It got us in conventions, but it was only a bridge to what’s next for us.”

The sweeping story-telling enthusiasm has brought Mouzon and his partners a ringside view of the United States and Bronx history. “History was the glue for all our Bronx heroes,” said Mouzon.

Camp, 42, said, “We take history events like the Great Depression, and the 70s when the Bronx was burning, and spin it in a way, on superheroes.”

Mouzon, a Bronxite by birth and upbringing, studied zoology in college in Massachusetts but is a self-taught artist. He attended St. Raymond High School for Boys at a time when budget cuts meant no art classes.

“I started drawing when I was 4,” he said. “I was a good visualizer.”

Comic art became for him an act of redemption and a sacred calling especially after he  had  tumor in his right eye when he was 14 that almost cost him his sight.

Mouzon eventually returned to St. Raymond to teach art.  “I teach visual art, filmmaking, and storytelling, but above all I give the kids the spirit on how to become successful,” he said.

“Mouzon is very attached to his students,” Camp said. “I appreciate him for keeping it to the kids.”

Mouzon said he wants his students to surpass him. One example is a former student he urged to study art at the University of Southern California. “This kid is an intern now at Disney,” Mouzon said.

Mouzon also works with community centers in the Bronx to promote art within the borough.

At the moment, he is working with The Bronx River Art Center and students from the Junior High School at Morrison Avenue on an environmental awareness comic book. “It’s called Bronx Go Green,” said Mouzon, who meets once a week with 15 kids to work on the environmentally themed heroes drawings. “It’s the kids’ initiative and effort,” Mouzon said. “I am only putting it together, playing the role of a publisher.”

Ed Mouzon and Gary Camp showing some comic sketches (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

Mouzon and his partners think of themselves as community activists.

“We are not making money,” said Camp. “We don’t work for DC Comics or Marvel. I appreciate Spiderman, but if we work there, we won’t be able to be as active in the Bronx community.”

“Here we can help the kids, do conventions, write for the kids, and be able to immerse ourselves in the community to personify street characters from the Bronx,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We keep our day jobs to pay the bills, then we do it for the love.”

The group’s future plans includes re-launching the Creative One Comics website, and creating a studio to branch out into visual art, urban street art, video games art, to get a wider appeal and to expand the niche, as they continue publishing.

They also plan to publish a new series called Old City — a series of multicultural heroes who build collective power to fight crime, injustice, racism and social prejudice during the the Great Depression. Taking some of the characters from their old series,  Bronx Heroes, the new series aims to focus on the Bronx’s multicultural mix.

Many of the greatest comic artists of the past century — Stan Lee, Will Eisner, John Collins, Bob Kane — lived in the Bronx.

“It’s a legacy that we have give to the next generation, or it will die,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We just want to make books in a collective effort. That’s our model.”

For now, Mouzon and his partners enjoy their vision of success. They make no secret of their credo. It’s on the cover page of the last issue of Bronx Heroes: they “will not yield to evil.”

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Despite controversy, nun still calls Hunts Point home

On a warm and sunny morning a few Sundays ago, Sister Thomas found herself resting on a chair while overseeing the weekly rummage sale at the garage next to the red brick St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Hunts Point. The cramped structure serves as a storage facility for donated items that her group sells every Sunday. At 78, Sister Thomas is still as involved as she was 49 years ago, when she first arrived at the South Bronx neighborhood.

Only now, she’s no longer welcomed by church’s new pastor.

On July 1, 2010, the Rev. Jose Rivas of the neighboring St. John Chrysostom took over following the death of Rev. Bill Smith. Immediately after taking office, the Colombian-born priest dismissed long-time staff and informed Sister Thomas that her services were no longer needed.

At the same time, Rivas emptied the church rectory of the food and clothes that Sister Thomas collected for the weekly flea market. The nun has been raising money for needy families from Hunts Pont and Longwood. Rivas’s decision sparked a protest among long-time parishioners, who signed a petition to oust him.

Many residents said they were dismayed by the way the Sister Thomas was treated. Hunts Point native and former church worker Gladys Weinberg said it was the nun who stuck it out with the community during the difficult years, when much of South Bronx was burned down.

Bronx Ink requested an interview with Rivas, but he declined saying, “No comment, no comment, no comment.” The New York Archdiocese had no comment on the issue.

Noella Asencio, another parishioner, said she welcomes Rivas ‘ style of leadership. She said that within the last year, she has already seen a number of physical improvements in the church, including the repair of the altar.

“It’s nothing personal,” Asencio said, while pointing out that Rivas did not know Sister Thomas when he moved to the new parish.

Still, Weinberg insisted that because of her long service to Hunts Point, the nun deserves respect from Rivas. She said the priest should have been more diplomatic in dealing with the aging nun.

Weinberg remembers Sister Thomas’s legacy with fondness. During one of the community’s annual Halloween parades, for instance, Weinberg recalled that the nun wanted to be a flower pot. So her friends turned her into one — complete with a daisy headdress and an outfit covered with artificial leaves. Another year, she was dressed as an angel wearing flashing sunglasses.

But no matter what her disguise, everyone recognized her as the nun who marched along Southern Boulevard followed by children in costumes.

To many in this still struggling community, Sister Thomas is more than the lovable figure with snowy white hair who likes to joke around and hug neighborhood youngsters. To them, she is the activist nun who fought along Father Louis Gigante in the 1960s and 70s when many politicians had written off the area due to continuing fires and gun violence.

Last Sept. 3, the Brooklyn native marked her 60 years in the Sisters of Charity congregation. A special mass was held in her honor and it was attended by Gigante and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano. But her abrupt dismissal by the new pastor dampened the celebratory mood.

“It was a very difficult year,” Sister Thomas said, the lines in her forehead tightening, her blue eyes looking troubled.

Angela Centeno, 72, has been a parishioner of St. Athanasius for 51 years. She is no longer attending mass there since Rivas took over because she thinks  the new priest does not respect Sister Thomas.

“I feel so bad,” Centeno said. She said that Rivas told parishioners that if they do not like his management, “don’t come to this church.”

True to her reputation as a reformist nun who once faced down city officials including then-Mayor Edward Koch, Sister Thomas insisted she is not going away.

Despite her disagreement with Fr. Jose Rivas, the new pastor of St. Athanasius, Sister Thomas said she decided to stay at Hunts Point "because my heart is here and it will always be here." (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

“Even in my older age now, I may not be able to run as fast as I do, but my heart is open to everyone,” Sister Thomas said. Despite being kicked out of the rectory, she is staying with the parish. For the last three years, she has been staying alone at an apartment across the street from St. Athanasius.  The 105-unit building where she lives is owned by the non-profit housing agency SEBCO.

Sister Thomas said she would be “distraught” if told to go to another mission, “because my heart is here and it will always be here.”

Sister Thomas first came to Hunts Point in 1962 “out of obedience” to her congregation the Sisters of Charity to teach at St. Athanasius School. The Bronx was “starting to go bad” at that point, said Gigante, who remembered Sister Thomas for wearing a habit, which he described as “a funny bonnet in her head.”

Due to Sister Thomas’ heart condition, her movement these days is mostly restricted to the garage, which serves as her de facto office, or at her building, which was built in 2008 and was named after her. When she can, she also attends the daily mass, even the ones officiated by Rivas.

In the past couple of years, Sister Thomas underwent two heart bypass surgeries, consequently affecting her blood circulation and causing acute swelling of her legs hidden under her long fuchsia skirt. After reforms were instituted in the Catholic church in 1965, she switched to regular clothing in place of the typical nun’s habit.

Sister Thomas credits her upbringing for shaping her outlook in life. She was born on Aug. 3, 1933 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to Thomas Collins and Gertrude DeGenaro-Collins. Her parents named her Trude Collins. She had one younger brother. They came from a mix of Irish and Italian families, although she would also refer to herself as an adopted Puerto Rican because of her affinity to Hunts Point’s Latino community.

Growing up, Sister Thomas knew she wanted to be a nun. At age seven, she  recalled dressing up as a nun. She said she was influenced by her parents’ community involvement and service to the parish. Her father was in the military while his mother was a housewife.

As a teenager, Sister Thomas confessed earning the ire of her father once when she missed her curfew after accompanying a childhood friend to a dance.

After attending St. Mary’s, Mother of Jesus School and Bishop McDonell Memorial High School in Brooklyn, she joined the religious order Sisters of Charity and studied at College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. She also took the name Sister Thomas.

Since then she has dedicated her life to serving Hunts Point. Living with the people she serves is her expression of faith in God, she said.

As for her detractors, Sister Thomas said she has “forgiven them,” including Rivas.

“Every day is a celebration for me because I love what I am doing,” she said smiling.

Due to Sister Thomas' heart condition, which is affecting the blood circulation to her legs, she now uses a walker to move around. Here, she greets parishioners during a special mass held in her honor. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

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Yemenis in South Bronx can’t forget the turmoil they left behind

“Papa, take me with you,” Abu Hamad recalled his five-year-old son pleading with him on the phone from Sana’a last Oct. 10. The Hunts Point shopkeeper’s half smile could not hide the worry in his dark round eyes. His three young children and wife are still living in the capital of Yemen, he said. And not even his American citizenship could help them out of the mountain city that is reeling from an increasingly violent civil uprising.

On Sept. 24, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 33 years, returned to his homeland after a brief medical exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. He was forced out of the country after an assassination attempt. The departure raised hopes for reform in the Arabian Peninsula nation of 24 million people. But his abrupt return has sparked fresh violence, which has already claimed close to 2,500 causalities since February. On Oct. 16, 18 more people were killed and 30 others were wounded in clashes between Saleh’s troops and his rivals, according to news reports from the region.

It was mid-afternoon Monday in South Bronx. Save for the periodic chugging overhead of the No. 2 train and the occasional ringing of the cash register, it was quiet inside the 37-year-old cellphone dealer’s shop. But Abu Hamad’s restrained outrage was bubbling up time and time again. Two hours earlier, he was on the phone with his family and he learned that the neighborhood where they live is only getting an hour of electricity every day. It was especially upsetting because they live less than five minutes away from Saleh’s presidential palace, Abu Hamad said.

“What kind of life is that?” said Abu Hamad. “It’s a shame. We need to change the President.”

For now, Abu Hamad remains helpless. It has been four years since his last visit to Sana’a. Months ago, he had to meet secretly with his family in Egypt. But with their immigration documents pending and the U.S. embassy in Yemen shuttered, he could not fly them back to America.

Abdul Karim, former president of the Yemeni Immigrant Association in New York, warned that the situation in Yemen could get worse. The 52-year-old South Bronx businessman said Saleh cannot be trusted despite his pledge to resign before the next presidential election in 2013.

“President Saleh has been known to be a big liar,” said Karim, a Columbia University graduate and member of a lobby group asking for the U.S. government to pressure Saleh to resign. “That’s his tactics for the past 33 years. He’s been governing on such a premise. That’s basically his foundation for ruling the country.”

Karim, who has an international affairs degree from Columbia, said Saleh’s cooperation in hunting down top Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and other suspected terrorists within Yemen, has complicated the U.S. government’s effort to force him out of office. The U.S.-born Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed on Sept. 30, just six days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was also killed Oct. 14.

“The U.S. has been kind of looking the other way as long as it serves the American interest in eliminating radical elements,” said Karim, noting that many innocent civilians have also been killed. The former legislative candidate in Yemen’s highland city of Ta’izz said the U.S. has “no leverage” in its diplomatic run-in with Saleh.

Still, Karim said even if Saleh stays in power, his government is already “totally crippled.” “He can’t rule. It might turn to be ugly,” he said.

At this Yemeni-owned Hunts Point deli shop, talk of President Saleh's ouster is framed on the condition that it is done in an election. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aqel Allahabi, 22, manager and part owner of the Hunts Point Deli,  said he shares the sentiments of Karim and Abu Hamad. But he is not in favor of an armed rebellion against Saleh.

“If the people don’t like him, why did they vote for him?” Allahabi said, referring to the 2006 presidential election, when Saleh received more than three quarters of the vote. He said any change of leadership should be done in a “democratic way.”

Standing outside the door of Clinton Deli along East Tremont Avenue one weekday afternoon, Antar Al-Suhaidi said he could not be bothered by the political and armed conflict in his country of birth, which he left when he was only 14.

“It’s a deadlock,” said Al-Suhaidi. “We know nothing will change, so we stick to the main reason for our immigration, doing business here.”

The 20-year-old deli cashier said he works 12 to 13 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. “I work hard now, to enjoy a better life later in my home town,” said Al-Suhaidi, a native of Ibb in southwest Yemen. At the end of the day, he was too overworked to even think about politics, he said.

Abdul Karim said it is not that New York City’s Yemeni community, many of them in the grocery and deli business, are apathetic to their home country’s situation. But many are just caught up trying to survive and deal with their lives as new American immigrants.

“Life is very consuming here in America,” Karim said. “But are they aware of what’s going on in Yemen? Yes, they are aware of what’s going on.”

Back at the cell phone shop, Abu Hamad said his primary concern is the safety of his family. Abu Hamad, who came to the United States at 17, said he wants his children to enjoy what he went through when he first arrived in New York.

“I love it here,” Abu Hamad said. “When I am here, I’m in heaven. So if there’s a way, I would like them to have a good life, have a good education and to eat healthy.”

As he talked about reuniting with his family, Abu Hamad cocked a worried smile showing his perfectly aligned teeth, his tall and lanky frame sagging as if he was carrying the weight of the world. “God knows when that’s going to happen.”

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Family and neighbors remember life of slain Eastchester teen

Graboski Wine Bottle Kino

During a candlelight vigil on Oct. 1, Nico Browne, 19, poured a bottle of wine in the basketball court where his brother played basketball. Kino Browne, 17, died after an early morning stabbing just one day before in Eastchester, according to police. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

When newspapers report on homicides, some readers merely see a name and the cause of death. They move on to the next story, continue with their lives and forget the death in minutes.

The family of a recent homicide victim could not do the same.

Cops said that at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 30, they responded to a 911 call reporting a stabbing near Bivona Street. Outside the Boston Secor public housing complex, they found Kino Browne, 17, with one wound to his torso. Browne was declared dead on arrival at Montefiore Hospital, police said.

During the ongoing investigation of the homicide, police said they arrested Wakefield resident Pedro Suazo, 22. They charged him with murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Despite efforts, Suazo’s family and lawyer could not be reached for comment.

It was in many ways a routine arrest — except to the people who knew and loved Kino Browne. “People need to know that this was not gang related,” said Eric Simmons Jr. of Mount Veron, Browne’s 31-year-old uncle. “He stayed to books, stayed to family, and anyone who knew him would tell you the same thing.”

Neighbors said that his death resulted from a feud outside of a party in Browne’s building. The victim and his alleged assailant fought each other until Browne’s attacker grabbed a knife and struck a fatal blow, they said.

Afterwards, people who knew Browne  created a memorial outside of his building’s entrance. They placed candles, nearly empty bottles and stuffed animals by photos of the teenager taped to a glass window and a marble wall. The paper some participants set up for messages to Browne filled up quickly. By the afternoon of Oct. 1, the day after the crime, mourners wrote “R.I.P” with markers not just on the leaflets but across the walls of the lobby, the glass windows of the entrance and their steel frames.

Laticia Browne, the victim’s mother, stood with family members by the memorial on the Saturday afternoon after the stabbing. She said that her son made the varsity football team at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx this year and played for their junior varsity basketball and swim teams in the past. She added that he had an artistic side—he enjoyed drawing, and planned to go to Fordham University to study architecture and fashion design.

Some mourners remembered Kino Browne as a jokester who regularly poked fun at people’s appearances. “If he saw me, he would call me, ‘hey big head, where are you going?’” said Tamara Bell, a 19-year-old neighbor.

“If your outfit wasn’t looking too good, he’d flame you,” said Boston Secor resident Michael Sanchez, 18. According to Sanchez, he and Browne met in middle school and used to shoot hoops in the basketball court behind their building. “He was like the best left-handed basketball player in the Bronx,” he said.

Minutes after 7 p.m. on Saturday, more than a hundred mourners gathered outside of the entrance to Browne’s building. Some passed candles to each other to begin a vigil. Soon after, with his mother leading the group, they silently walked around the courtyard with their lit candles. They traveled to the sidewalk and then finally to the basketball court behind the building. The family stayed in the center to give messages of thanks and to caution young people against violence.

Simmons Jr. led the surrounding crowd in a prayer. “In Jesus name may we all pray that we get to see something beyond,” he said to the crowd. “Because this man was denied the greatest facets of life. Amen.” Those gathered replied with an amen and sobs.

Nico Browne, the 19-year-old brother of the victim, took a bottle of wine and poured it in the center of the court. He and Simmons Jr. struggled to place a lit candle inside the emptied container. It fell in and extinguished soon after. The family and the mourners left, leaving the bottle in the court where Kino Browne once played.

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Bringing the farm to the Grand Concourse

Nearly 40 people gathered Tuesday, Oct. 3 in a church on the Grand Concourse over a bounty that included arroz con gandules, pico de gallo, green plantains with cheese and three types of tacos. The meal was notable not for its Latino roots, but for its use of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables in an area of the South Bronx where it’s often hard to find healthy food.

The diners were all members of the Farm Fresh Project, a group of  50 Bronx residents who have signed up to receive weekly supplies of produce from an upstate farm. But the project has reached its membership limit so now organizers are hoping to spread the healthy eating message in other ways, such as the potluck supper, which was  made by members using their recent supply of produce.

“It’s a way to build community,” said Jackie Goulet, an Americorps member who coordinates Bronx CSA, a farm project for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s a way to learn about new ideas and good recipes.”

The project is the first of its kind in the South Bronx and is a small step toward addressing a perennial problem in the neighborhood, which faces both a lack of fresh food supply and an obesity problem. Nearby Highbridge has only two supermarkets to serve 34,000 people, causing many local residents to shop at bodegas, most of which have meager and expensive produce offerings, according to Healthy Highbridge Coordinator Juan Rios. According to a 2008 city study called “New York City Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage,” most of the districts in the South Bronx have too few places to buy fresh food. At the same time, a 2006 New York City Department of Health and Hygiene report shows four in 10 children and two out of three adults in the South Bronx are overweight or obese.

Community supported agriculture projects bring together a group of people who pay in advance for a season’s worth of goods from a nearby farm. This particular program offers food from Fresh Radish Farm, located 60 miles away in Goshen, NY. Area residents pick up vegetables, such as zucchini, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and greens weekly or biweekly. Whatever is left over is donated to the food pantry at Seventh Day Adventist Church at which the market is located.

Unlike traditional farm shares, this one is subsidized by a one-time $30,000 Legacy Project Grant from the Bronx Health Reach, a community-based healthcare initiative. Residents must sign a contract ahead of time, but can pay each week with a sliding scale based on income. A family making over $50,000 would pay $485, but a family on food stamps pays only $120 for the whole season, which lasts from June to November.

A bag of assorted produce estimated to feed a family of four costs $5.45 a week for families who receive food stamps.

Americorps worker and food share organizer Jackie Goulet says most of the farm share members pay in food stamps.(Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

An overwhelming majority of Bronx farm share members gets food stamps, Goulet said. Food stamp eligibility involves a number of factors, such as family size and income, but generally a family cannot have more than $2,000 in resources, according to the government’s food stamp fact sheet.

Concourse resident Maria Hernandez, 28, heard about the market from a friend. She said that since the farm share began, she’s been able to afford to make her young daughter more vegetable dishes.

“If you have them, you see what you can do with them,” she said of the vegetables, which she pays for with her food stamp card. “If you have to buy them, you can think of something else to make”—something else quicker and without produce.

Most of the members are also Spanish speakers, so Goulet canvassed since winter distributing pamphlets in both English and Spanish.

“It took a really long time to get 50 people to sign up,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s a weird concept people haven’t heard of: asking people for money for something they haven’t even seen yet.”

Goulet writes a newsletter each week that includes nutrition facts, information about the farm, as well as “quick, easy and affordable” recipes geared at the produce—necessary as new products are introduced to the population.

One recipe, “Grilled Cheese with a Twist,” suggests adding red onion, garlic, spinach and tomato to the quick staple. “Chunky Vegetable Soup” addresses the changing offerings of a farm share by suggesting “soft vegetables like zucchini, green beans, summer squash, or leafy greens such as kale, spinach or collard greens.”

Grand Concourse residents load up on fresh produce. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As a handful of people arrived before the 5 p.m. weekly market start time, Goulet told some perplexed produce shoppers they could use the strange and soft pumpkin greens for soup. The farm share also offers more recognizable produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.

Eva Sanchez, 33, a mother of three whose young son would occasionally help translate for her, enjoys the offerings.

“It’s economical and the vegetables are good,” she said. Sanchez, who lives on the Grand Concourse,  prefers vegetables to meat but said choosing produce was harder before the farm share came to her neighborhood.

“It’s not difficult; it’s expensive,” said Sanchez, who heard about the project from a friend.

Sanchez also volunteers at the farm share, helping other people with their groceries. This is a step in the right direction, according to Goulet, who said normally farm shares are run by their members.

“It’s starting to take off on its own,” said Goulet, who commutes from her family’s home in Long Island. “That’s something I hoped would happen.”

Goulet ends her Americorps work in December but says she believes the project will go forward, adding that next year the farm share could carry fruit in addition to vegetables. This year a scheduling conflict prohibited the small organization from receiving fruit deliveries.

According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger spokeswoman Theresa Hassler, “It’s the first year, so of course we plan on growing. We definitely plan on expanding and growing in coming years as participation and interest grow.”

With that, farm share employees hope the community will grow healthier too.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Culture, Food, HealthComments (1)

‘Outsider’ artist in the South Bronx

Augustine Cruz’s story is a reminder that it is possible for art to survive even in the country’s poorest neighborhoods. (NASR UL HADI/The Bronx Ink)

He won’t admit it, but Augustine Cruz has grown too old for this. His hand trembles as he rubs the figure he is carving. You can see the veins bulge on his balding head as he grimaces through the last few strokes. For just a moment, when he is done, his brown hands and the wooden body seem one.

As he wraps up his tools – a set of files, chisels and a mallet – the tremor in his short, thin, 61-year-old frame is less obvious. He looks satisfied with his sculpture, though it is far from finished. For more than 40 years, Cruz has carved wood into items that people could use, artifacts that shops would sell, or illustrations of problems that society should fix.

But while his work has made it to galleries, museums and libraries across the Bronx – particularly in the Mott Haven ‘art district’ – this Puerto Rican woodcarver has lived his entire adult life in the same rent-controlled apartment in Hunts Point, collecting welfare checks that place him halfway below the United States’ official poverty line of $22,350.

Cruz’s story is typical of self-taught or ‘outsider’ artists in the South Bronx. Their art, though widely appreciated, never sells for much. Many of them are disabled, forced to live off social security and food stamps. But they remain an important part of the population, a reminder that it is possible for art to survive even in the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

Life, as Cruz remembers it, started around his second birthday. He had his first epileptic fit, and landed in an orphanage in upstate New York. He didn’t see his parents for the next 10 years. “My father was an alcoholic,” he recalled. “He fought with my mother all the time. They couldn’t take care of me, so I ended up at St Agatha’s Home.”

He returned to his mother for a while when he was a teenager. An uncle who worked with oils was an early influence, and young Cruz found himself looking for landscapes to paint. But he was quick to realize that this wouldn’t work out. “I couldn’t afford the colors, the brushes or the canvas,” he said. “Then I found wood, and I found it everywhere, without having to pay for it.” His first carving tool was a butter knife.

Medication was the other thing Cruz needed regularly but couldn’t afford. He dropped out of high school after a seizure in class. “The kids were okay with it, but the teachers didn’t want to see me go all epileptic on them again,” he said. In the years that followed, he tried to salvage his life between the frequent trips to the hospital. “The up side was that it motivated me to work for myself,” he said. The woodcarving continued. He got better with practice, and cut himself less often.

During his 20s, the Bronx began to burn – and his life with it. It wasn’t just the fires. “Drug abuse destroyed my family,” he said. “We were nine brothers and sisters. Three of them eventually died of AIDS. One is in prison for life. Edwin, who lives nearby, managed to rehabilitate himself. But the rest, I don’t know where they are.”

That’s why he moved to Hunts Point, and began to explore the human situation with his woodwork. A friend brought him a two-foot square of hardwood from the Caribbean; Cruz carved it for two years, pouring his feelings about drugs into the sculpture. “I portrayed actual addictions,” he recalled, “in the gestures of three nudes – drinking with a reclining male, smoking with a female, and ‘spacing out’ with a seated male. They had cracks on their bodies, not only to allude to the drug, but also to express how addicts fall apart. They destroy much more than their lives. It affects their relationships, communities and society at large.”

He mentioned his addict mother as an afterthought: “The last time I heard from her was 10 years ago. I don’t know if she is still alive.”

It is all this love he never had – from parents, partners or children – that Cruz brings to his woodwork. His experiences haven’t hardened him. “He is very compassionate,” said Carey Clark, who runs The Point on Garrison Avenue, an organization that helps local artists become more independent. “There was a time when he let more than 40 birds share his one-bedroom apartment. Animals have been a recurring theme in his work.”

A top credit consultant and online radio host recently paid $500 for a bird sculpture, making it Cruz’s most expensive work till date. But this is a one-time success, and he remains limited by both his health and finances. “As a sculptor, he needs more materials to work with,” said Jose Rivera, another outsider artist with physical challenges, whose work is often showcased with Cruz’s. “But acquiring mahogany or redwood is expensive,” said Rivera. Cruz’s only option is to get all the wood he can when he finds a tree felled by man or nature.

Cruz remains the people’s artist he always was. When he started in the 60s, he made snake-headed walking canes that were the fad. When America’s war on drugs peaked, he depicted it as an eagle trying to fly a skull out of debris. “He is not an egoist,” said Clark. “Before starting to work on an idea, he asks people for their opinion. It’s his own little survey of the public demand.”

But his current piece, the still unfinished nude lovers, is different. For a change, Cruz is sharing a personal conversation, in wood. “I have never made love,” he said, with an indifference, that gave away nothing of the pain of 61 years spent trying to survive severe epilepsy, an orphaned childhood, a broken family, a fledgling career and a dangerous South Bronx – with just his art for company.

 

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