Tag Archive | "highbridge"

Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Ramon rios looks through papers at his desk

Juan Ramon Rios works to combat smoking and promote health eating in Highbridge (NIGEL CHIWAYA/The Bronx Ink)

Hints into Juan Ramon Rios’s past and present are abundant.

The way Rios rolls the r’s in “Ramon Rios” speaks to his Puerto Rican heritage. The Yankees hat on his back shelf reveals a native allegiance to baseball. Photos of himself and students meeting with Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. hint at the appeal of political activism.

But it is the Harvard Law School banner that is the most curious. It’s the only reminder of his former life.

Rios, 45, was previously a litigation lawyer, a career that involved suits, ties and California sun. It was a life that thousands of law students dream of every year. But it kept the Mott Haven native away from the Bronx, and so it didn’t make Rios happy.

“My dream was to come back to the community and help,” said the dark-haired, bespectacled Rios. “But the work I was doing was interfering with that.”

Rios, who traveled the world to become a lawyer and escape the poverty of the South Bronx, found that the South Bronx was where he wanted to be all along. So Rios traded in the suit, tie and high salary to return to the Bronx improve the health of the children of the South Bronx.

Rios runs the center’s Healthy Highbridge program where he, among other things, has championed the city’s recent smoking ban in parks and beaches. Rios also created a health curriculum for the students of P.S. 73.

Rios stresses healthy habits to Bronx kids because he’s seen the effects of the bad ones. The son of two Puerto Rican immigrants, Rios grew up in the Mitchel housing project in Mott Haven and came of age during the Bronx’s low period in the 1970s, when crime, drugs and arson committed by landlords crippled the borough.

“A lot of my friends from that era,” said Rios, “are either dead, in prison, or they fell into substance abuse.”

Rios avoided falling into those same habits in part because of his parent’s work ethic. Neither of them spoke English fluently, but his mother taught herself while his father labored as a factory worker.

According to Rios, this dedication to hard work translated to their children. Rios’ older sister, Angela, graduated from Columbia University with an engineering degree.

Rios took a different route. He joined the military after high school, touring the world as an emergency medical technician in the Navy. Though he was stationed in California, Rios’ tour took him through Europe, Asia and Australia.

After four years in the Navy, Rios returned to New York and worked on Wall Street at Smith Barney, starting as a clerk and working his way up to the position of assistant broker despite never having gone to college.

The lack of a higher education degree caught up with Rios a few years later, when Rios said he “saw the ceiling” in finance. So Rios enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he studied government and philosophy and graduated with a 3.98 GPA – good enough to get him into Harvard Law School.

Timothy Stroup, a philosophy professor at John Jay, recalled Rios’s time at the college. Stroup, who taught Rios in an ethics and law class, noted that Rios “was always the first to volunteer” in class.

“He just has an unquenchable love of learning,” said Stroup, 68.

Stroup noted a mock affirmative action debate he held during the final class of the semester. The students were to argue against their natural belief. Rios was one of the three debate captains. Stroup was so impressed with the performance that he struck up a friendship with Rios and the two other captains, who went on to attend Boston College law school. With all three students in the Boston area, Stroup and his wife, Alice, would visit the students and take them out to dinner once a semester. Though the tradition has lagged in the past year, Stroup, who has been a professor for over 40 years, still speaks highly of Rios.

“He’s one of the students of which I’m most proud,” Stroup said.

After law school Rios went west, where he worked for the law firm Jones Day in California for two years.  He followed this up with a two-year stint at Gary Wright in New York.

According to Rios, life as a lawyer was tough. Rios said he waded through piles of documents and law books, researching complex trade laws and advising big clients.

The job came with a big paycheck, which Rios, who originally wanted to become a criminal prosecutor, needed to pay off the Harvard student loans, but it also came with a culture shock. The poor Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx was now a big-time lawyer, hanging out with other rich lawyers and seeing the disparity between where they lived and where his family still lives. Rios said that this “dark contrast” began to gnaw at him.

“It was really an eye-opener,” Rios said, “to see that certain classes have more than others. It instills an understanding that you have to come back.”

Stroup was unsurprised by his former student’s struggle to cope with the world of law, saying, “It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate in class. It’s another thing to have to actually represent real devils in business. Juan found it inconsistent to work for big corporations.”

Rios said he began to wonder what he could do to help those back home in the Bronx. He settled on children, realizing that if he couldn’t work as a prosecutor to keep criminals off the streets, he would try to reach them before they became criminals.

And so, in 2005, Rios changed careers again. This time he left law behind to become a New York City teaching fellow. Rios returned to the Bronx and was placed in Christopher Columbus High School in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, where he taught social studies to grades 9 and 12.

Rios, who now owns a house in Morrisania, said that he earned more satisfaction from his five years at Columbus than during his time as a lawyer. Rios is especially proud of his work with Columbus’ high school seniors, for whom Rios said he wrote “dozens” of college recommendations.

After his teaching licensed expired last year, Rios didn’t get it renewed. He decided to give one last shot at law, trying to run his own private practice. However, Rios said that “difficulties” led him to dissolve the partnership. Once again, Rios could go in any direction. Unsurprisingly, he decided to help the community.

Rios said he heard through friends that the Highbridge Community Life Center was looking for a program assistant that would help promote health in the neighborhood. With nothing to lose, the former medic decided to give it a shot.

One year later, Rios has already drafted the health and wellness curriculum for P.S. 73. The program, which features bilingual lessons on healthy eating, the dangers of smoking and the merits of exercise, debuted for fifth graders last year and was expanded to include fourth grades this year. Rios teaches the courses himself, fittingly placing him back in the classroom.

In addition, Rios has championed the smoke-free New York campaign, lobbying in Albany for a ban on smoking in parks, plazas and beaches. The law was successfully passed in February.

Outside of the Highbridge center, Rios is still active in the area. He sits on the community board four health committee and said he never misses a general meeting.

When asked why he works so hard for the children of the Bronx, Rios’ answer hints at a slight selfishness. Though Rios, who is engaged, doesn’t have any children of his own, he said he does have to look out for his former students.

“You could say,” Rios noted,  “that I have 8,000 kids.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Southern BronxComments (0)

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Flashback: Bush at Yankee Stadium after 9/11

On October 30, 2001, the Yankees played the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series. The Boston Herald recaps how, as President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, everyone was considered a potential terrorist – even George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre.

Bronx has 4 of NYC’s most ‘dangerous’ schools

The New York State Education Department posted a list “persistently dangerous” schools on its website last week. The New York Post reports that of the nine New York City schools on the list for 2011-12, four are in the Bronx – Aspire, Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship, PS 11 Highbridge, and IS 190. The Post says that Aspire Prep’s 554 students tallied 88 “violent and disruptive” incidents in 2009-10. These included sex crimes, robbery and assaults.

Bronxites help farm devastated by Irene

Two busloads of Bronx families traveled to Schoharie in upstate New York on Saturday with emergency supplies for a farm devastated by the remnants of Hurricane Irene, says an Associated Press report in the Wall Street Journal. These families from the South Bronx were just a few among the 1,000 and more that Richard Ball’s farm has been feeding since 2009.


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Highbridge food pantry could close

Highbridge food pantry could close

By Manuel Rueda

Wearing thick cotton gloves and a leopard print hat, Myriam Aquino hands out a one-pound bag of rice.  Her client pushes his small shopping cart forward and both arrive at the next shelf.  “You can pick one of these or one of those” she says in Spanish pointing to a bag of raisins and picking up a pack of figs.

The Community Food Pantry at Highbridge on Ogden Avenue, currently has no heating and the selection of brands is limited.  But food is free here, and for thousands of Bronx residents with low incomes or no jobs, the groceries on offer enable them to save $20 or $30 that can be spent on rising rents, transportation hikes or other non-negotiable expenditures.

Aquino volunteers regularly at the pantry and is currently unemployed.  She also takes some groceries home after everyone has been served. But she is also worried about the future of the pantry. Staff member salaries were suspended last week because the agency that runs the pantry is short of funds.  And the variety of food Aquino says “is never like it was before.”

Like hundreds of food pantries across New York, Highbridge is facing difficult times.  The 2008 recession, and the ensuing period of jobless economic growth has increased the number of people demanding the food pantry’s services.

In 2007, Highbridge used to get 800 unique visits per month says director Nurah Amatullah.  Now it averages about 1,200 a month.

But funds for running the pantry are becoming scarce and its director says she may have to shut the place down in March because there is little money to pay for staff or operational costs.

Myriam Aquino is not only a regular volunteer at the Highbridge food pantry. She is also a client.

“There are things in food poverty work that requires paid staff to do it.” Amatullah says in a subtle Trinidadian accent.

Hunger levels across the city are alarming according to the Food Bank for New York.  The nonprofit estimates that 37 percent of New Yorkers resorted to emergency food aid at some point in 2010.

That number is slightly below the 40 percent figure registered in 2009.  But Carlos Rodriguez, the Food Bank’s vice president for benefit access, points out that many New Yorkers are now limiting the amount of food they buy and its quality. His organization estimates that thirty percent of New Yorkers reduced their food intake last year.

Meanwhile, soup kitchens and food pantries across the city say greater numbers of people are showing up at their doors.

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an umbrella organization for emergency food providers, sent out a questionnaire last year to some 1,100 local soup kitchens and food pantries.  More than 200 returned the questionnaire with 85 percent reporting they had fed more people in 2010 than in 2009.

The coalition does not keep statistics on exactly how many people were fed.  But in its survey, 53 percent of respondents said the number of people they feed has increased “greatly.”

Executive Director Joel Berg says New York food pantries and soup kitchens improved their response to increased demand in 2010, thanks to greater investments by the federal government in food stamps.

In New York City last year, the federal government spent more than $3.2billion in food stamps through its Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program he says, taking pressure off local food pantries and soup kitchens.

Seven out of ten agencies reporting to the Coalition Against Hunger last year, also said that they received additional funding from the federal government through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

But anti-hunger advocates say most of the money goes towards food and little is left for operational costs and staff.

On Webster Avenue, near the Botanical Garden, the nonprofit agency POTS, -Part of the Solution- runs a soup kitchen that serves 350 hot meals a day and a food pantry that gets approximately 40 daily visits.

The number of people attending the pantry has increased by 20 percent over the past 12 months says emergency food services director, Sister Mary Alice Annan, while at the soup kitchen Annan reckons attendance has increased by 50 percent.

Staffing which consists of 15 employees has remained the same for years, with POTS relying on  a large number of volunteers to stock food and serve the clientele.

“The need is getting so great and we don’t have enough money to pay for everything” says Sister Hannan. “So we would rather pay for food for the people than pay for staff.”

Like most who work in this industry however, Hannan says there are jobs that are best left to paid staff, such as operating databases, cooking in the soup kitchen and writing grant proposals. “Volunteers don’t always show up, so we use them to supplement what we do” she says.

Nurah Amatullah directs the Highbridge food pantry. She is struggling to pay her staff

Nurah Amatullah, from the Community Food Pantry at Highbridge says that while volunteers are a crucial part of her operation, she cannot rely on them to regularly receive and organize food deliveries that arrive at 8:30 am.

There is also a lack of people in the neighborhood trained to run databases that document how many attended the pantry, the number of people in their household and other data required by funders.

So while she advocates for the professional staffing of food pantries, Amatullah has had to furlough her staff of three, paying them small amounts of money as people donate cash to the food pantry through a PayPal account she set up in support of the pantry.

Amatullah’s organization -the Muslim Womens’ Institute for Research and Development- receives funds for operational costs from United Way and grants for staffing from Feeding America.

Funding from these sources has shrunk and Amatullah has not found another donor to fund pantry operations.   It costs $2,500 a week to fund Highbridge and its sister pantry in Parkchester Amatullah says, with less than one third of this money going to staff.

But the lack of funds is currently so severe that Amatullah does not know if they will make it through March. Staff are currently volunteering their time to do essential jobs like taking orders and keeping the client database at both pantries.  Amatullah claims this way of working is not sustainable.

Her three staff members are the main breadwinners for their families and they are already looking out for other job opportunities.   “When they don’t get a check it is not just them” she says.  “It is a household tethering on collapse.”

Posted in The Bronx BeatComments (0)

In its second year, Gateway Center earns mixed reviews

Nancy Marrero, a 2008 graduate of the New School with a master’s degree in human resources, was confident enough in her resume in 2009 to post it on a web site called the Bronx Fast Track Unit for employment at the then-unfinished Gateway Center in Highbridge.

Shoppers fill the 3-level mall for the holiday season, but good jobs are hard to come by. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Shoppers fill the 3-level mall for the holiday season, but good jobs are hard to come by. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Marrero had another thing going in her favor: she was born and raised in the Bronx.

So she filled out a digital application for an opening as an administrative assistant at the mall’s management office. The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, the entity that ran the job-search site, noticed her credentials and she was hired for a salaried, full-time office position with a company, Related Company, LP, that has promised room to grow.

“She fit the bill,” said Omar Benjamin, the business development manager of the job-hunting organization that found her.

To some, Marrero’s story nicely illuminates the 15-month-old Gateway Center’s potential influence on the community: thanks to Gateway, a hard-working local resident has a sturdy platform to start her ascendance toward the once seemingly unattainable middle class. To others, though, similar success stories have come too few and far between to deem the mall a savior on Highbridge’s blighted commercial horizon, and the promise that the Gateway Center will ever become that white knight may be even more distant.

As with most building developments in the Bronx, there were pros and cons about the $400 million Gateway Center from its conception, in 2004. There is little dispute that the mall was an aesthetic addition to the community when it replaced the derelict Bronx Terminal Market, which for years had festered as a dingy eyesore just 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium.

But the economic ripples caused by the Gateway Center’s splashy entrance are more difficult to parse out. Though the mall has introduced jobs to a neighborhood with a high poverty and joblessness rate, business advocates raise concerns about too many low-wage retail jobs flooding the borough, and community-based organizations openly question several measures taken by Gateway’s developers.

And while residents are pleased to have the new shopping options in their neighborhood, they grumble about the mall’s 2,600-space parking facility, which could be viewed as an appropriate symbol for Gateway’s complicated impact on the Bronx: it answers some of the area’s local parking concerns — while charging $3.50 an hour to park.

“It hasn’t been a win-win for both the community and the developer,” said City Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster. “It has been a situation where the developer’s needs and wants are put before the community.”

Others would counter Foster’s claim, pointing to the approximately 2,100 jobs that the mall has introduced to the community thanks to major retailers like Target, B.J.’s, and Home Depot, as well as the high-end shopping opportunities from stores like Bed Bath & Beyond or Best Buy that provide local consumers with convenient new options.

According to Related’s vice president, Joanna Rose, more than two-thirds of the mall’s jobs have been filled local residents, far exceeding the stipulation in the development’s Community Benefits Agreement, and minimum wage requirements even for sales positions were raised to approach the city’s living wage levels.

When Target, which employs about 750 year-round workers, held its initial job fair for the community in the spring of 2009, more than 7,000 applications flooded its offices. Similar totals could be seen at B.J.’s, despite having only 300 job openings, and the Bronx Economic Development Corporation continues to see potential applicants looking for jobs at Gateway every day.

“It’s been a mass outcry of individuals asking for job opportunities,” Benjamin said.

From that standpoint, Gateway has appeared to work at helping residents find work.


In 2004, a private investment firm in New York City, Related Companies LP, purchased the Bronx Terminal Market property from landowner David Buntzman for $42.5 million with no public bidding. Critics, including Representative Anthony Weiner and City Council members Foster and Hiram Monserrate, lamented the swiftness of the deal, contending that it should have been opened to other developers, considering the high demand for the quality land just beyond Yankee Stadium. Weiner pointed toward the close relationship between Related’s C.E.O. Stephen M. Ross and Daniel Doctoroff, then the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, as proof of favoritism with the generous building subsidies bestowed on Related, which had recently completed construction of the new Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. But along with its detractors, however, there were ample groups of supporters, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion, who saw Gateway as one of the city’s most necessary revitalization projects. And by August 2006, construction on the 900,000 square-foot facility was already underway.

Twenty-three food merchants were evicted from Bronx Terminal Market, resulting in a loss of more than 400 jobs. According to a news release shortly after the Gateway development deal was made, Carrion stated that the mall was expected to bring in 3,700 jobs. That number was knocked down to 2,100 when the mall was finally opened in September 2009. The Community Benefits Agreement signed by Carrion and the City Council required that at least 25 percent of the jobs hired by Related would be from the community and that $3 million would be set aside for local hiring and job training programs.

Critics of the community agreement, such as Foster, argued that the draft was settled too hastily and that the $60,000 penalty for violating the agreement was an insufficient deterrent for a development firm like Related. In 2007, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. called for a full accounting investigation of funds appropriated by the agreement for the setup of the Bronx Fast Track Unit, a web site run by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation for the purpose of aiding local job training and hiring for the mall. Though the results of the investigation have not been issued, in September Diaz announced the appointment of a task force designed to enforce guidelines for further public benefit agreements in the borough.

The mall has brought stores like BestBuy and Target into the neighborhood for the first time. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

The mall has brought stores like BestBuy and Target into the neighborhood for the first time. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

The agreement wound up costing Related $5 million. Its major provisions included prohibiting the arrival of Wal-Mart, and a space set aside for childcare services and waste management in accordance with environmentally friendly certification guidelines. It did not mention parking prices, minimum wages or placement of the evicted tenants.

Related has no problem with the agreement and sees its Gateway Center as a successful “boon” to the community thus far.

“Our tenants have been very pleased,” Rose said. “They’ve ingratiated themselves in the community and their traffic has been very, very good.”

Before the agreement was signed, a “Task Force Coalition” was organized by Carrion to investigate the development and what the agreement would ultimately mean to the community. The coalition, handpicked by Carrion, consisted of more than a dozen grassroots business development groups, and, according to a report by the New York chapter of the American Planning Association, were given no legal guidance before negotiating with Related over the agreement. Only three members ended up signing the agreement, which was passed nonetheless. Mayor Bloomberg praised the agreement as one that “will go a long way toward meeting the community’s needs.”

“The whole (agreement) was so damned political — too political,” said Jose Rodriguez, the district manager of Community Board 4, which includes Highbridge. He was upset too few grassroots organizations were involved in the agreement’s drafting process. “I think you can hear it in my voice. It was a mess.”

The unemployment rate for the Bronx was at 12.5 percent through November, nearly three percentage points higher than the average for New York City, according to data from the New York State Department of Labor. Highbridge has managed to add more than 2,100 jobs in the last 10 years for an increase of 58 percent, the highest percent change in the borough.

But economists worry that too big an influx of low-wage, low-skill jobs is merely a short-term fix. According to the Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based think tank that examines workforce data, 42 percent of workers over the age of 18 in the Bronx have “low-wage jobs” earning less than $11.54 per hour or $24,003 per year. That percentage is by far the highest in the city; Queens, at 34 percent, comes next.

“I think the proliferation of low-wage jobs in this one borough is a legitimate concern,” said David Giles, a research associate at Center for an Urban Future. “I think it’s well within [the city’s] rights to talk to the developers and chain stores that are going into those places and talk about minimum wage requirements as a condition of whatever government subsidies or rezoning efforts.”

But Arthur Merlino, who heads the Bronx branch of the New York State Department of Labor, said it’s important to help people who are simply looking for part-time jobs, such as high school or college students who need extra money for tuition.

“You have to consider the full range of possibilities here,” Merlino said. “You have a lot of individuals going to high school and college that depend on flexible hours and weekend hours to help with some of their expenses.”

The community agreement stipulated a “maximum effort” to pay employees a “living wage,” which for New York City would be $11.86 per hour. Shannon Rzasa, the director of the Bronx Workforce1 Career Center, which facilitates much of the hiring at Gateway, said the mall’s stores ensure a minimum of $10 per hour for most sales job, and others, like a position on the “Geek Squad” at Best Buy, will pay up to $20 per hour.

Businesses like Best Buy and Target, Rzasa said, are also well known for their reputation to promote from within and develop career tracks starting at a sales or cashier level.

“I think people understand those brands,” Rzasa said. “That it’s not just a $10 per hour job, it’s a start.”

Others are not so optimistic and draw parallels between cashier jobs at big-box retailers and flipping burgers at fast-food chains: rises through the ranks, while occasional, are by no means an ordinary career path.

“I would love for everyone to be honest to the fact that these are low-pay, low-skill and there really is no future within the organization with these types of jobs,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe one or two become managers and then they move on. But I haven’t heard that type of story. It’s somewhat what I expected. Retail work is retail work.”

Gateway’s retailers have worked almost exclusively with the New York State Department of Labor and the Bronx Workforce1 Career Center, an employment service run by the city’s department of small businesses, to fill jobs at most of the retailers at the facility. But they have not worked in the same way with other community-based employment networks, like BronxWorks, a local organization with a substantial workforce development program.

The director of that program, Jessica Nathan, said BronxWorks helps about 3,000 people every year find jobs in Highbridge. She estimated only 15-20 of her clients have been offered jobs at Gateway, and only one or two were offered managerial positions.

“It’s the nature of the game,” Nathan said. “A large employer would shy away from working with a whole number of community-based organizations. We’re thankful those employers come to the Bronx and hire Bronx residents, but can we establish relationships with them? Not always.”


On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in mid-November, the Gateway mall was crammed with customers zipping up and down the escalators and rattling shopping carts along the concrete outer corridors. The carts are mechanized so that their wheels stop spinning once they reach a certain limit outside the store in order to prevent theft. But some people have nonetheless managed to carve out a niche business lifting the stalled carts to customers’ cars.

They are called the hustlers — usually teenagers who ask for a few bucks in return for a lift — and they join a busy micro-economy that has stemmed from the new mall: gypsy cabs who line up along the first level of the parking garage waiting for fares; gyro venders whose carts fill the sidewalks along River Avenue; parking attendants who fill neighboring lots; street hawkers who set up tables filled with candy bars to attract passersby.

They come to take advantage of the foot traffic now centralized at Gateway, after years gone wasted at the old Bronx Terminal Market. These are the undervalued positives of a new community center: the tiny flicks of opportunity that surface after a major development has made its splash.

In speaking with shoppers, almost all would agree that Gateway has been a welcomed addition to the community. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving but Toys ‘R’ Us was already bustling with activity. The wholesale giant B.J.’s accepts food stamps and offers half-priced membership for low-income families so a constant stream of customers rolled out lugging packages of bulk food packages.

The mall has its expected discount chains — Marshall’s, Target, Payless — but also a few that have never been in that section of the Bronx before, like the home goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond and the upscale furniture seller Raymour & Flanigan.

“I love this store,” said Bronx resident Rosa Cassado, pushing a cart full of goods outside Bed Bath & Beyond. “I’d come here every day if I could. The prices are so good, and the people take care of you here. It’s fabulous.”

Cassado used to have to travel to Yonkers or midtown Manhattan to find shopping that is now located within walking distance from her apartment on 164th Street. Last year, a two-level Bed Bath & Beyond closed in Bay Plaza, making the Gateway Center’s store the only one in the borough.

“I usually get things here for my apartment,” said Shaniqua Morrero, 25, of Pelham Bay. “I like the stuff here.”

“Now they’ve realized the power of our dollar,” said Rodriguez of the high-end chain outlets at the mall. “I think it kind of promotes community development. It promotes economic diversity.”

Rodriguez and others, however, have expressed concern over another issue at Gateway — the cost of parking in the mall’s six-level garage. The mall’s parking lot, owned by Manhattan Parking Group, a private company that controls more than 60 lots across New York City, has a capacity of 2,600 cars and charges up to $3.50 an hour to park — a source of tension in the community for many residents unable to afford such steep prices to park.

“A pay-to-park lot is egregious,” said Foster, who has battled over parking in the Bronx since she was first elected City Councilwoman in 2001. “It is another means by which money is being made off of the working poor.”

Rose said repeatedly that the prices the garage charges are consistent with what other indoor facilities charge within the area. She declined to answer whether or not there is discussion about waiving the fees.

On an average weekday, Gateway’s indoor structure will shelter around 2,000 vehicles, according to M.D. Hossain, the garage’s assistant manager. But Hossain acknowledged those numbers are slipping, and Rodriguez is concerned that that will hurt business at the stores.

“I think it just doesn’t make any sense,” Rodriguez said. “You have a similar type of development in Westchester County and the parking is free, totally free.”

“These stores will say, ‘We’re losing money because people are not using these facilities so we’ve got to go,’ ” he added. “So now they’ll tell corporate America, ‘Don’t come to the Bronx because you won’t make any money.’ ”

It is another issue of debate, atop a long list trailing the new focal point of the Bronx’s commercial landscape.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern BronxComments (0)

New city childcare plan could radically reshape Bronx preschools

Childcare centers, like BronxWorks, could be forced to make alterations to their programs come 2011. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Childcare centers, like BronxWorks, could be forced to make alterations to their programs come 2011. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

It was early in the afternoon, and the 15 preschool children in Room 4 at BronxWorks’s Learning Center had just finished naptime. Their instructor, Diane Semper, gathered the group in a semicircle on the navy blue rug in the back of the brightly lit classroom and began reading a picture book to the wide-eyed group of three-year-olds. It was about a Thanksgiving turkey being threatened by a fox.

Day care facilities, like this one in Highbridge, are facing their own impending threat as the city prepares to issue a proposal for re-evaluation of its funding of public childcare programs, a shakeup that could potentially alter how preschoolers are educated in the borough.

An outline of the plan drawn up in April titled “EarlyLearn NYC” is currently under revision by the Administration for Child Services (ACS) but is due to be finalized as a proposal by January. It will radically reformat the criteria for how public childcare facilities across the city receive funding and geographically organize their classrooms, and could reduce the overall number of contracts awarded to daycare providers. A new stipulation forcing directors to match an unspecified amount of funding for their programs is a special concern for centers in low-income neighborhoods.

A year after the city shuttered four daycare centers in the Bronx, including one in Highbridge, many program directors are unsure what the new measure will mean for their facilities.

“That’s a major, major issue that’s now on the boards,” said James Nathaniel, chief executive officer of the Highbridge Advisory Council, a non-profit  childhood education organization. “We don’t know what the future holds.”

Nathaniel’s organization is the largest community-based childcare provider in the Bronx, serving approximately 1,200 children in eight facilities throughout the district. But funding cutbacks in the last year have knocked away one classroom, slashed spending and dropped current teaching positions to the minimum student-teacher ratio.

Now, Nathaniel has another item to worry about: if the proposal goes through, he would need to reapply to continue running his agency, with no guarantee it will stay in his hands. Furthermore, the application for bidding for day care agencies will now be open to for-profit along with non-profit companies, adding to the competition for services and raising questions about where the overall system is headed.

“We’re not sure the level of quality the for-profits will adhere to for their programs,” said Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Daycare Council of New York, a federation that helps operate more than 300 public child care centers in the city. “Our programs are required to adhere to certain educational standards. That may not be the case with for-profits.”

The original proposal for “Early Learn” drafted on April 2 centered around three models for child-care services in New York City, according to its outline. No numbers have yet been released for how many children each model must support or how many programs could be cut entirely, though the outline indicated a decrease to 350 from the 570 contracts it currently holds with programs throughout the city.

An ACS spokesperson contended that the timing was necessary to allow for competitive bidding on contracts, some of which have been in place for nearly a decade. The city’s procurement policy board enforces how often proposals on services are issued, and, according to the spokesperson, the ACS was already overdue.

The move comes as New York City struggles to close a budget deficit of more than $60 million for ACS. In March, the city announced the closing of 15 daycare centers, for a savings of $9 million as part of the 2011 budget, as well as the plan to move five-year-olds into kindergarten classrooms and out of ACS’s hands. But the new budget is still $51 million less than the 2010 fiscal year budget, from $783 million to $732 million, according to a hearing on the budget.

The Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded agency that analyses and reviews New York City’s budget, determined it was the first time since 2005 that the city’s child-care budget dropped. Furthermore, an October report from the budget office stated that the Child Care Block Grant, a state funding source, will receive $12 million less money in 2011, meaning even less grant money for city centers.

The outline of the proposal received substantial criticism after its release, including rebuttals from the Day Care Council of New York, Inc., Head Start and the United Neighborhood Houses organization. All appeared before the City Council in May. Anthony said she is worried about converting to a childcare system that has not been tested.

“I’m really sorry to see it being released without more background or insight as far as how it will fare,” Anthony said.

Anthony also criticized the new requirement that providers match funding with money from outside sources. It’s unclear how big that match will have to be but Anthony said indications are it  will not be more than 10 percent. Still, that could be a challenge for facilities in low-income areas.

In his November 2010 financial plan, Mayor Bloomberg proposed saving $13 million by raising parent fees for children in subsidized child care to 17 percent from 12 percent, along with a minimum co-payment of $15 per week. That would not include money given to directors to help in their provider-match obligations.

“You can’t squeeze money from a rock,” Anthony said.

“The larger agencies with multiple locations and a large infrastructure are more set up to respond to this,” said Nancy Kolben, executive director of the Center for Children’s Initiatives, a non-profit organization focused on promoting early learning. “For others, it could be a real radical change.”

At BronxWorks, a borough-wide community organization based in Highbridge, administrators expect substantial cuts to the family childcare network, which encompasses more than 50 small, home-based daycare centers. Each network center, which typically is run by one person with only a handful of young pupils, is at risk of being eliminated if BronxWorks does not qualify for a minimum number of allowable network centers.

That would potentially force an additional 300 children to BronxWorks’s main classrooms, a surge it would not be able to handle.

“We don’t have the facilities,” said John Weed, assistant executive director of Bronx Works.

The United Neighborhood Housing organization, a New York community-based group that works with low-income families, believes the number of children served by public providers in the future will ultimately be cut back.

“Right now, [ACS is] serving about 27 percent of eligible children in New York City,” said Gregory Blender, the organization’s early childhood and education policy analyst. “We want that number to go higher and in fact what they’ve said publically is that under this the actual capacity will shrink.”

Weed said BronxWorks has managed to avoid funding cuts in the last year but, like Nathaniel’s program, survives with a minimum ratio of teachers to students allowable by the Department of Health, which regulates daycare providers.

Its main facility, along the Grand Concourse, teemed with youngsters in its four large preschool classrooms, all decorated in autumn colors, and it was clear that its director, Marcia Lawrence, had her hands full. The program recently added two free half-day programs with 18 students apiece, making BronxWorks a hectic but popular spot for local parents to send their kids.

In Highbridge alone there are only 18 main daycare facilities in place to serve a population of nearly 14,000 children under five years old. According to the 2000 Census, 37 percent live with a single mother and nearly 35 percent are not proficient in English.

“The impact of this (in the Bronx) could be quite substantial,” Kolben said, “whether you would see programs closing, programs combining, new partnerships. There are opportunities in this if the funding level is appropriate. That’s the real challenge: Is there the money to support this kind of change?”

The total funding for “EarlyLearn” was estimated at just under $617 million, according to the briefing presentation given after release of the outline in April.

In a precursor to the published outline that was acquired by the Bronx Ink, ACS cited numerous national studies in basing its “EarlyLearn” proposal on the principles of bringing more teachers into the classroom, improving curriculum, and enhancing collaboration with parents through more family support services — all ideals that could be outweighed by the stark financial realities the new proposal represents.

“We don’t want (children) to lose what little they have left,” Anthony said.

As their daycare director frets over potential shifting, the children at BronxWorks sit in blissful, cross-legged innocence as Semper wraps up her story. Tomorrow, they will draw turkeys using painted outlines of their tiny hands. And that is as far into the future as they care to look.

“These children really need a fighting chance,” Lawrence said. “If they don’t get it, I’m really scared about what could happen to them.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Southern BronxComments (0)

Like a Supermarket, but the Food Here Is Free

Video by Shreeya Sinha

The line outside the food pantry at Highbridge Community Church forms three times every week, even in the biting cold.

The pantry, located at 1272 Ogden Ave., is open for just two hours a day, three times a week. Bundled in overcoats, most visitors take food home in shopping carts, though one woman on Wednesday loaded food into a rolling suitcase with a green and pink floral print.

The line is a familiar scene for Denise Richards, an administrator at the food pantry, who said that the number of people visiting the food pantry doubled in the past six months.

“I know a lot more people are unemployed; I’ve seen a lot more younger people coming in, people in their 20s, people my age, since a year ago until now,” said Richards, who is 26.

The scene outside the Highbridge food pantry reflects a stark reality. In some Bronx neighborhoods, more than one-third of the people report having difficulty getting enough to eat. New data also ranks the Bronx as the unhealthiest county in the state.

According to the results of a survey published last month by the Food Resource Action Center, 36.9 percent of respondents in Congressional District 16, which includes Morrisania, Highbridge and Mott Haven, reported difficulty in finding food over the past year. This translates to the nation’s highest hunger rate.

“By definition, hunger is that feeling or uneasiness and questioning about where your next meal is going to come from,” said Kate MacKenzie, director of policy and government relations for City Harvest, an organization that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to food banks.

The second study published on Wednesday by the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health found that the borough was the least healthiest county in the state. The Bronx has the second-highest mortality rate and the least availability of clinical care.

MacKenzie sees the two reports together painting a bleak picture for some Bronx residents.

“Poverty, hunger and health are interrelated,” she said.

City Harvest saw demand for emergency food increase by 17 percent from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the fourth quarter of 2009,  MacKenzie said. She also said that more than half of the affiliated food agencies in the Bronx have seen an increase in the number of visits by children over the same time period. The Food Resource Action Center study concluded that families with children were 1.6 times more likely to experience difficulty in finding food than those without children.

On Friday, New York State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. announced a $200,000 grant for the Davidson Community Center. The money will defray the costs of running social programs, including a food pantry. Other pantries, like the one in Highbridge, still struggle for money.

Richards said that increased demand has stretched the food pantry’s resources to the point where it was forced to cut back hours and ration the amounts of food it distributed.

“Recently, we’ve had to shut down. We’ve had to close certain days due to lack of food,” Richards said. “We’ve had to adjust the number of food items someone can get.”

Bronx residents who face shortages at their primary food pantries can often make up the gap by moving around the area.

“The food does run out sometimes,” said Kenia Abreu, who is 39 years old and lives on Ogden Avenue. “That’s when I get prepared and look at the calendar and see what I can get from other pantries, because this is not the only pantry I come to. I go to other areas, as well.”

Abreu worked as a teacher’s aide until October 2009, when she was laid off. She relies on food pantries to help support her three children, aged 8, 6 and 4.

“It’s important for me, not only because I’m going for the economic situation, but also because the things they give here is healthy,” Abreu said. “We have the bread, which is something that we need for the kids. We have the cereal, the juices, the milk.”

William Clark, who lives on Summit Avenue, arrived at Highbridge Church at 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 minutes before the pantry opened. He was bundled in a blue coat, his hood pulled over his head and tightly around his face, to protect from a sharp wind. Clark lives with his son and daughter, and he was picking up enough food from the community center to last his family about one week. He didn’t make it inside until well after 5 p.m.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern BronxComments (3)

Highbridge Man Charged with Murder in Girlfriend’s Death

By Selamawit Gebrekidan and Dan Lieberman

Anthony "Nova" Jimenez's gaffiti  lines many walls on Nelson Avenue in Highrbidge, Bronx. Photo by Selamawit Gebrekidan

Anthony "Nova" Jimenez's graffiti lines many walls on Nelson Ave. in Highbridge, Bronx. Photo by Selamawit Gebrekidan

On Nelson Ave. in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, one side of a rundown store bears the markings of a graffiti artist, who, in blue paint, signed this tribute one month ago:  “Nova loves Anna.”

Last Sunday, Nova – Anthony Jimenez, 30 – was arrested for the murder of Anna Radzimirski, 25, his girlfriend of four years, who was fatally shot in the head and chest, according to the police.

The night before, Jimenez and his friend Jordan Miles, 17, were playing video games in the cramped second floor apartment the couple shared at 1066 Woodycrest Ave., according to Miles. Just before midnight, Jimenez was on the phone with another friend trying to comfort the caller, as Radzimirski slept in the same room.

“He started talking about how things is going to be alright,” Miles remembered. “He said ‘God is great,’ over and over again, and then it got to the point that he was screaming.”

This woke Radzimirski, who complained to him about the noise and tried to calm him down, according to Miles.  She then spoke to a friend on the phone about how Jimenez was not the same person, and that she could “see it in his eyes,” Miles said.

Suddenly, Jimenez grabbed his silver gun, cocked it and shot Radzimirski in the head, according to Miles.

“After he shot her, my eyes were on the gun and my reflex was to grab it,” Miles said on Monday pulling down his sweatshirt to show his bandaged arm and bite marks. He said that he tackled Jimenez and they both tripped over the narrow stairs in the house to the first floor. The gun went off again and grazed Miles on his left arm. Finally prying the gun out of Jimenenz’s grip, Miles ran the two blocks to his basement apartment at 1149 Nelson Ave. and called the police.

Miles was taken to Lincoln Hospital on Saturday night after sustaining a gunshot wound on his left arm. Photo by Selamawit Gebrekidan

Miles was taken to Lincoln Hospital on Saturday night after sustaining a gunshot wound on his left arm. Photo by Selamawit Gebrekidan

Neighbors had different accounts about the night. Hassan Toure, 19, who lives on the first floor, said he heard two shots in the apartment and another down the street. Two other tenants in the two-story apartment said they didn’t hear a single shot.

Toure said that the couple spent a lot of time together and dressed alike in large sweaters and polyester pants. He said that every day, the couple drove off with a heavyset man, who Toure said was Radzimirski’s father.  He would pick the couple up in a white van to take them to work, Toure said.

On Saturday night, Toure was frying plantains in his tiny kitchen on the first floor when he overheard the arguments through the thin walls. Thinking they were fighting over “small stuff,” because they were usually quiet, he ignored the noise and went on to watch a movie but soon heard two gun shots.

“I would never think that this would happen between those two because they were too sweet together,” he said.

According to neighbors, all seven tenants at the Woodycrest Ave. apartment recently moved in after the landlord parceled the single-story, one-family apartment into five separate units in November. Tenants on the second floor share a kitchen downstairs where numerous signs beg for silence and cleanliness. The couple moved in early December. Another neighbor, who asked for anonymity, said she remembered overhearing the couple fight many times.

Friends and neighbors said that Jimenez had a history of drug abuse with a predilection for PCP or “Angel Dust”– a habit they said his girlfriend shared.

Despite his repeated shouts of “God is great,” Miles said, Jimenez was not religious.

According to Toure, Jimenez liked to smoke in the small foyer by the front door. He also brought a lot of friends to the apartment which, Toure said, might have led to a burglary at the couple’s apartment a month and a half ago.

Jimenez was arraigned on Sunday for second degree murder, criminal possession of a weapon and second degree assault. He is now at Riker’s Island prison waiting for his first day in court scheduled for Friday.

On Tuesday, the second floor room was sealed by police and a dripping green paint on the door read “Slime Time.”

Posted in Crime, Southern BronxComments (0)

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