Tag Archive | "Hunts Point"

Ambitious Plan is Hatched to Save Jerome Avenue’s Auto Industry


An auto repair shop in Hunts Point that may soon be joined by a new auto mall rehousing competitors from Jerome Avenue.

Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx is lined by over 100 busy car repair shops. Metallic noise bounces off the cluttered walls as workers fix engines, touch up paint, or sell spare parts.

It is clear that most of these shops may have to shut if the city goes ahead with a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue, a 73-block plan to build thousands of new affordable rental units. What is much less clear is whether some might be able to relocate, and if so where this new home could be.

Pedro Estevez is the President of the United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), an industry group representing auto shop owners and workers. He wants to relocate the Jerome Avenue car repair shops to a state of the art “auto mall.” His favored destination for this facility would be Hunts Point, an existing car industry hub in the Southeast Bronx.

Although the Department for City Planning points to other rezoned areas of New York where auto businesses have been able to stay put, Estevez increasingly sees relocation as their only viable option.

“The automotive industry has zero opportunity to survive on Jerome,” he said. “The city is trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle if it thinks some shops can stay.”

The Hunts Point auto mall would be built up, rather than across. “You have two and a half miles inhabited by these businesses on Jerome. With this type of building you could put them all in four blocks,” said Estevez.

He describes a five-story leviathan, replete with car elevators and an efficient circulation flow between floors grouping businesses by the services they offer. The transition would be facilitated by ownership rights for businesses that currently rent their shop space, and up-to-the-minute technical training for employees.

The auto mall project is, however, just a vision for the time being. Estevez says he has talked to the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and said that the latter seemed receptive to his idea. The city, however, says that discussions remain at a very early stage.

“Every single business owner has agreed with the plan that we have. They would love the opportunity to have their own space,” said Estevez of the auto mall proposal. A recent survey conducted by UAMA found that 86 percent of owners would move, as long as they had no alternative and the city agreed to help them with the transition.

“I think our clients would move with us, because if they can’t get their cars repaired here they’ll have to look for another place to go,” said Naftali Fuerte, who runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostic, Inc on West 169th Street just off Jerome Avenue. “If this mall project happens it’ll come with a big publicity campaign so that people will know where we’re going to be located.”

Some bosses, however, do not agree that relocating to Hunts Point is a feasible suggestion. “There’s a lot of competition here as it is, and Hunts Point will be competitive too. How are we going to survive?” asked Roberto Vazquez, owner of Vazquez Muffler on Jerome and West 169th Street.

Many auto employees do not seem prepared to leave the area either. “People don’t want to move, they live here,” said Wascar Gonzalez. He is worried that the rezoning will put car shop workers in a double bind: unemployed and stuck in buildings where rents are being jacked up by speculation around the adjacent redevelopment.

If opinion about a possible move is divided along Jerome Avenue, those who already have established auto repair businesses in Hunts Point also have conflicting views on whether they could manage an influx of suddenly displaced competitors.

“Imagine there are four or five pizza restaurants next door to each other. You choose the cheapest at first but you can easily try them all,” said Eddie Runo, who has been in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “How often do you need your car fixed? Once a year? You’ll just go back to the cheapest guy.”

If Runo thinks that greater competition will drive down prices, however, Fred Donnelly counters that it could be a boon for his Hunts Point Auto business.

“I can’t fix every car in New York,” he said. “If I do my job right, I don’t have to worry about competition.” Donnelly claimed that when a new car shop moved in across the road a few years ago he actually got busier, mopping up some of his new competitor’s customer base.


Fred Donnelly, President of Hunts Point Auto

The Jerome car shops are not the only ones to have eyed an escape to Hunts Point. Sunrise Co-op, a collective of 45 auto repair businesses kicked out of Willets Point, Queens by plans to build a mall next to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, is currently in the process of relocating to a huge warehouse at 1080 Leggett Avenue in the Bronx.

The new facility is a hulking hangar. Even if it doesn’t seem quite as space age as Estevez’s skyscraper car mall idea, it is retrofitted with booths framed by gleaming frames and dropdown grates. At present, however, it stands eerily empty.  A handful of workers putter around with various auto parts. Mainly, however, they sit, drink coffee, and wait.

It is not hard to see what Victor Pichardo, a state assembly member for a district on Jerome Avenue, means when he says that the Jerome workers’ story cannot be “a second Willets Point.” To begin with, hundreds of Queens workers have not been able to relocate, with many going out of business altogether.

Those who did get to make the move have seen their transition beset by problems. Having originally identified the facility in 2013, Sunrise says that it still hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy from the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which in 2015 was mandated to pay out nearly $5 million to help with relocation costs.

“We are ready to move in immediately,” said Sergio Aguirre, organizer of Sunrise co-op. “We could have moved in four months ago.”




Sergio Aguirre (top) and colleagues Oscar Aravena (middle) and Juan Chavistad (bottom) of Sunrise Co-op at 1080 Leggett Avenue.

Aguirre remains hopeful that the move-in date will come sooner rather than later. Although not yet a formal part of the Hunts Point automotive scene, he said that he would also be more than happy to welcome any businesses who did come to the area from Jerome Avenue.

“We are in total favor of the Jerome businesses being relocated anywhere they need to go,” he said. “I pray to God that they will not live through the same bitter time that we went through. We’ll be brothers and sisters working hand in hand together.”

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said that he expects any effect of the rezoning on Jerome Avenue’s car shops to be natural and gradual. He pointed out that, unlike in Willets Point, the city has not threatened these businesses with eminent domain, the state’s right to seize property from private owners.

In the event of an uprooting conversations with businessmen like Aguirre and Donnelly paint Hunts Point as a potentially thriving home-from-home for New York’s vagrant car repair industry: a crossroads between Queens and the West Bronx that sings with a spirit of solidarity and imaginatively high-tech potential. The reality, however, seems likely to be beset by bureaucratic delays and a lack of enthusiastic will.

For the time being, Jerome Avenue’s car shops just want an end to the uncertainty. With the redevelopment of the area still in its early stages the city does not yet have a concrete plan to offer worried owners, who know only that they are unlikely to be able to stay.

“They are already distributing the spaces where the automotive industry is right now, before the rezoning even takes place,” said Estevez, waving the city’s recent Jerome Avenue environmental impact report in his hand. He pointed out a row of zeroes signifying the projected square footage the auto industry would occupy on a rezoned Jerome.

Right now, these zeroes are all the Jerome Avenue auto industry has. They do not have guarantees about their future, and they certainly do not have an auto mall in Hunts Point ready and waiting for them to move in.

“We are not against any development for affordable housing,” said Estevez. “But we have to have a plan so that all the auto businesses that are on Jerome can carry on being effective.”

And Estevez has stern words of warning should the city drag its feet.

“I don’t think the city will be prepared to confront the reaction of the automotive community. It could be very nasty,” said Estevez. “The South Bronx has a very noticeable reputation. You don’t mess with the people of the South Bronx”.

Additional reporting and translation by Sarah Blaskey.

Read more about the Jerome Avenue rezoning here:
Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx
Jerome Avenue Auto Workers Featured in Photoville Exhibition
Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Front Page, Politics, Southern BronxComments (0)

Challenging The Party Machine: Newcomer Runs Against Incumbent in the 85th Assembly District

Michael Beltzer speaks with a local worker.

Michael Beltzer speaks with a local worker.

The position of district leader doesn’t usually attract much attention in election coverage or amongst voters. It is unpaid, listed low on the ballot, and doesn’t involve direct legislative power. Despite this, Michael Beltzer, a 30-year-old independent democrat in the 85th Assembly District, has dedicated much of the last year to campaigning for the job. The race pits him against longtime incumbent, Marcos Crespo, who is also the assemblyman for the district, chairman of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, and chairman of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

It’s a David versus Goliath contest with low stakes, but Beltzer said it’s important to challenge the party machine.

“The way leadership has traditionally been is that there’s very consolidated power, a very top-down kind of hierarchy,” he said. “That’s where I have real fault with the leadership style in the Bronx. We can’t keep the next generation at bay.”

Beltzer said his goal in the campaign is less about winning and more about showing that it’s possible for politically engaged citizens – not just established party members – to run for local positions. “It’s a test of pure electoral politics,” he said of the race.

The role of district leader as Beltzer sees it, is to be “the eyes, ears and voice of the community.” But in the South Bronx, where voter turnout is notoriously low, there’s a bit more to it. In addition to monitoring and raising community issues to elected officials, district leaders are responsible for staffing poll sites for elections.

If a district leader is also running for Assembly, this is particularly advantageous. “If you do your work correctly, you can go into the election with 300 votes in the bag,” said Michael Benjamin, retired Assembly member for the 79th district.

Beltzer, a Long Island native, moved to the South Bronx in 2007. He got his start in New York politics working for John Liu on his 2009 campaign for comptroller, where he discovered the importance of making direct contact with individual voters. “You could tell that nobody really touched them, they never really met politicians, they didn’t know how do access local government,” he said.

He sees the role of district leader as an opportunity to close the gap between residents and their elected officials. “Your elected official should come to your tenant association meetings, be at your church events, and be at the park having conversations,” he said.

Beltzer has taken a very hands-on approach to canvassing. He collected all of his own signatures for his nomination petition, and spent weeks meeting residents and registering them to vote.

He is fearless about approaching people, is unfazed by rejection, and recites his introductory spiel perfectly every time. It begins with description of the position, with an emphasis on the fact that it’s unpaid, and includes a reference to the fact that his 6-year-old daughter goes to school in the district.

The official requirements to run for district leader are very straightforward – be a resident of your district, be registered democrat and get 500 signatures on a nominating petition – but getting on the ballot without County support in the Bronx is not an easy task. The nominating petitions of non-party candidates are often heavily scrutinized for cases of voter fraud – if a signature or an address doesn’t look quite right, it can easily be discarded. Given this, it is advisable to collect double the required of signatures, if not more, on nominating petitions (Beltzer collected 1500 signatures on his petition). Without a campaign staff, this is a labor intensive and time-consuming process. In addition to this, candidates need to have the resources to defend their petitions in court if accused of voter fraud. Because Beltzer isn’t working full-time at the moment, he was able to dedicate more time to this process than some of his contemporaries.

Candidates who are endorsed by the Bronx Democratic County Committee, on the other hand, can tap into the party’s manpower, legal, and financial resources.

“If you run against County, you’re not running against an individual,” said Julio Pabón, who ran for council and lost twice against County-backed candidates.

As a member of the Bronx Young Democrats, Beltzer initially tried to get County support for his campaign. He pitched the idea of running for district leader to his assemblyman, Marcos Crespo, the current district leader, in 2014. Eventually, though, he decided to run on his own. “I couldn’t just sit out a year, wait my turn, do things the ‘right’ way,” he said. Assemblyman Crespo could not be reached for this story at the time of publication.

Because of the difficulties associated with running against County endorsed candidates, few independents have tried to run in the past, allowing many officials to keep their positions for decades at a time. In the 2014 New York State primaries, the incumbent reelection rate was 96.67%. In next today’s election, however, there are several unaffiliated candidates who are challenging County-backed incumbents.

While chance of any of these candidates winning is low, they say the act of running – and providing an alternative to voters – is powerful in itself. For democracy to work, Pabón said, “we need to run people for every position – from dogcatcher up to US senators.” The challengers say they hope that by campaigning hard, registering people to vote, and raising community issues, incumbent candidates will be forced to do more on-the-ground work too.

For Michael Beltzer, if he is able to make any impact on the polls the campaign will have been worth it. “If we see an increased voter turnout,” he said, “there’s power in that and people will pay attention.”


Posted in Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

The Food Truck to Heaven


It was a sunny Saturday morning in Hunts Point. Seventy-two-year old John Peña strapped on his apron and fired up his food trailer. Hot steam seeped through the trailer’s windows into Lafayette Avenue, carried by the sound of classical music that blasted from his gold Chevy Astron. Now mostly wheelchair-bound, the once towering Puerto Rican military man turned food truck evangelist stood with shaky effort behind the counter, gently swaying side to side to Mozart as he uncovered steaming home-cooked dishes in large aluminum foil pans.

The first hungry customers were gathering at the street corner against the backdrop of the Corpus Christi monastery, the oldest Dominican Abbey in the country. Three homeless men from a nearby drop-in shelter stepped up to the trailer, sharing the last drag of a half-lit cigarette. “Watcha got today, Juan?” one asked impatiently, with a thick Latino accent.

”One more minute, Papi!” Peña replied with a diagonal smile, peering out through his red-tinted glasses. Peña’s boyish face barely betrays his scrappy past. His neat salt-and-pepper moustache is now mostly salt. He wore a navy polo shirt and a matching baseball cap, embellished with a pin of a golden eagle – a reminder of his military past.

Peña forced a sickly cough, slipped on latex gloves and unpacked some plastic cutlery. A minute later, the monastery clock struck 10 a.m. With one last check of his wristwatch, Peña called over his first customer: “What can I get for you, cariño? Some arroz con gandules, potato salad or mexican casserole?”

Peña is a one-man-show at Mission-o-Mercy, his own charitable street ministry that serves up a free weekly meal from a repurposed food trailer–the kind of two-wheeled vehicle that could be found on any given Manhattan street corner, selling hot dogs, Danish or Halal skewers.

Peña has a long, distinguished and checkered career as an army man, a community organizer and a law enforcement officer over the last seven decades, much of it spent in the Bronx. The free food truck is his most recent venture and it has been up and running since July, serving local Hunts Point residents from the morning hours until all of the food runs out. His policy is that everyone – wealthy or needy, young or old – gets exactly one plate for free. No exceptions. No questions asked.

“Once you give them a finger, they want the whole hand,” Peña said as he slapped some rice and beans into Chinese takeout-style foam boxes. 

Peña loves doing “the lord’s work” with his solo non-profit. A small printout taped to the side of his food trailer reads: “Come Eat Free. God provides.” The born-again Christian is a certified chaplain, a layperson trained to console people in times of crisis. When he’s not directly feeding his customers, he spends much of his day listening to their problems. One homeless man lamented his inability to acquire the newest HIV medicine after wolfing down a Peña-provided meal. Another man pushing an orange shopping cart told the professional listener about his wife’s impending transfer to Rikers after she was arrested for drug possession. There are many similar stories throughout Hunts Point, a low-income neighborhood still known for its gang-infested, prostitute-ridden history.

“My mission is all about nourishing the souls of these people,” said Pena, with a powerful, sermon-like cadence. “There are many ways to do that, physically and spiritually.”


Pena takes a break from serving food to comfort a man from the area.

Peña is far from a rich man, living out his autumn years as a local food philanthropist. In addition to receiving Medicare and Medicaid, Pena lives off $956 in Social Security benefits and $121 dollars in Food Stamps. Peña said he uses most of the money for rent, a bare minimum of personal groceries, car insurance and cable television. Whatever is left over goes into the mission. This includes fresh ingredients for next week’s dishes and paying off a $4,000 bank loan for the second-hand food trailer he bought and rebuilt to his liking. “I don’t know how I do it,” he said, “but somehow I manage to pull it off every week.”

Most weeks, Peña receives cooking help from other community and church members in one way or another. He asks them to make whatever they like. Whether they bring white rice and or fancy salmon burgers, somebody in Hunts Point is always hungry. “We all love John,” said Raquel Welch, who promised to return the favor by bringing her famous Mac and Cheese the following Saturday. 


Local hero Pena is welcomed by two twins from the Hunts Point neighborhood. They call him ‘Abuelo Amigo’ – friendly grandfather.

Though the food is always free at Mission-O-Mercy, Peña does take donations. He keeps a roughed-up, gray cardboard box tucked away in his truck that looks more like an elementary school art project gone awry than a donation container. Once in while he will mention it in conversation, but the last thing he wants is for people to assume that he is hungry for their money. At the end of that September day, Peña fed close to 170 people and will have collected a mere $11.47 in donations. “At least it’s more that last week,” he chuckled, raising his eyebrows.

Though Peña is sick and disabled, he believes his work is more important than the physical pain he endures day after day. The former 400-pound gourmand has been suffering from prostate cancer, heart problems and diabetes for some time now and has recently shed over half his weight. He now enjoys food vicariously through his customers at his free Hunts Point Brunch. “I used to love to eat,” he said licking his lips. “But I don’t ever have an appetite anymore, so it’s great to see that others can enjoy my food.”

Peña lives in a overcrowded two-room apartment in an affordable senior housing complex, just steps away from where he serves food. Inspired by his Christian faith, he shares the living-room with creatures from sky, sea and land: a sharp-nosed Siberian Husky, four chirpy birds in stacked cages, a pet goldfish and a vertical garden that blocks much of his living room window. The little space that remains is obstructed by cooking hardware, canned goods and tangible memories of his many former lives. Most of his cooking for his ministry is done right here.

A perfectionist at heart, Peña sets himself very high standards when it come to his menu selection. “Either I do it right or I don’t do it at all.” Many nights he lies in his trapeze-assisted bed watching the Food Network or scours the online recipe world, concocting nutritious and culturally diverse dishes for the upcoming weeks. Other Saturdays he has served Vegetable Lo Mein with cheese, Tuna with West Indian Noodles or baked ziti.


John Pena’s bedroom in his two-room apartment in Hunts Point. Religious motifs and printed online recipes are scattered throughout.


“The other week I did this Paella,” he said, flipping through his self-made cookbook, a random selection of handwritten recipes, internet printouts and magazine cut-outs. “But I turned it around. In Spain they use seafood, but I couldn’t afford that so I used chicken instead.” He likes to do it the Frank Sinatra way. “I just do it my way – Peña style.”

In fact Peña has always done things his own way – for better or for worse. Whether as a community cop, an anti-poverty consigliere or now as a food minister, Pena brings all his volatility, his devil-may-care attitude, his free spirit and faith, but also his many regrets to his lifelong commitment to giving back to his world and his community. The father of eight says he now lives a simple life, but he is far from a simple soul. His story is filled with many paradoxes. It’s a tale as rich, messy and inspiring as the history of the Bronx itself: one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back.


Like Mother and Father, Like Son

Born in 1942 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Peña moved to New York when he was five-years-old and spent much of his early childhood in a military academy. “They really didn’t play games there,” he said. “I was a rowdy little guy, so my mother sent me there. But they drilled that right out of me.”

At age 12, Peña returned to the South Bronx to live with his mother and stepfather in a small apartment on Leggett Avenue. His mother, Mercedes, the namesake of Mission-O-Mercy, has always been his spiritual guide; the yang in his life. She owned a candy shop in Longwood and Peña helped her out most days after school. His father had left the two of them years earlier for another, richer, woman and a job at Bethlehem Steel corporation in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I have my mother’s soul, but my father’s temperament,” said Peña.

His stepfather, a late-shift musician at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, came home drunk most nights. “One night he hit my mom,” Peña remembers, his face hardening. “I was around 15 at the time and that night I just beat the living crap out of him.”


Pena and his stepfather in Puerto Rico in the 70s

Good Evening Vietnam

His stepfather threw him out of the house and he moved to Baltimore to live with his father. On his 17th birthday in 1959, he asked for his father’s permission to sign up for the army. “They’ll make a man out of you,” were his father’s departing words.

After finishing basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and a two-year stint in post-war Korea, Peña was shipped to the “boondocks” in Vietnam. He said he can’t remember much from his time in the Mekong Delta, other than a daze of jungle heat, cigarette smoke and a bullet to the elbow that sent him home only months after he arrived. “They called it the million dollar bullet. No permanent damage and no war,” he said, pulling up his sleeves and pointing to a slight disfigurement in his right arm.

Back on American soil in Fort Benning, Georgia, things quickly took an ugly turn. Peña was involved in a physical altercation with his higher-ranked officer. “This jerk kept calling me a dirty Puerto Rican, so I balled up my fists,” he said, clinching his fists to recreate the moment. “Then he touched my nose and kept on saying ‘Whatcha gonna do?’ So I just hit him. Next thing I know, the sergeant is running at me and I swing at him too.” Though he said he stood up for what he thought was right, he admitted now that it was a misguided decision, having lost him any entitlement to future Veteran benefits.


A picture from his days in the US Army hangs on Pena’s living room wall

Days of Power and Influence with Ramon Velez

In 1964, the 22-year old nomad returned to the Bronx and married his girlfriend, Consuelo, the mother of his first three children. Pena remembered being shocked at how bad things were in the Bronx back then. “It looked worst than Vietnam,” Pena recalled. “Garbage piled up to the second floor, everybody shooting at each other and kids selling all kinds of drugs. It was the Wild, Wild South.”

The same year Ramon Velez, the scandal-scarred South Bronx powerbroker, plucked jobless Peña from the streets to join his team at the infamous social services agency, Hunts Point Multi Service Center. Peña had stumbled into an ad-hoc political rally organized by Velez and said he openly questioned the organization’s work in the community. The next day Velez offered him a job. “He liked my ideas and my spirit,” said Pena.

Three years later Pena was promoted to head the newly-formed Management Information Systems department. He was responsible for a team of 35 employees that gathered demographic data on the South Bronx. Peña reported directly to Velez, who then used this information to help build his poverty program empire, one that included hundreds of employees, thousands of clients and nearly $300 million in government funds for health clinics, housing developments and drug-related services. The FBI routinely investigated the so-called South Bronx “poverty pimp” for lining his own pockets with poverty dollars, but he was never charged for any wrongdoing.

Peña claims that Velez, famous for using his non-profit networks to groom politicians, wanted “to fix me up too like he did other Puerto Ricans in the area.” It wasn’t his world. “I never wanted to say or do anything to look good. I just like to be me – without wheelin’ and dealin’. God knows you can’t do that as a politician.”

In 1972, Peña’s marriage broke down and he abandoned his children and the lucrative position in Velez’ innermost circle. He left for Puerto Rico, where he got involved with his stepfather’s niece, Christina. He fathered another five children, but eventually would leave his second family too.

Peña regrets not having been a better father. “I’m sad that I never lived the American dream – house, family, children and all,” he said about his fractured private life. “I often took the easy way out.”



Pena sketches an outline of the house he always dreamed of having.

His daughter, Carrie Pena, a Harvard graduate who now lives in Orlando, Florida, said that she had little contact with her father growing up. Today they have rekindled their relationship. “I love him like a family friend, but not like a father,” said Carrie, a lawyer and mother of two. Almost all of his children are service-minded, Carrie said about her siblings, a quality they inherited from their father. Two of Pena’s sons from his second family are succesful military men.

In 1985, Pena returned to Longwood to take care of his now-widowed mother. Eventually,  his mother ended up taking care of him. Almost 400 pounds and a chain smoker at the time, Pena’s health had deteriorated over the years. He had all the health problems associated with obesity: diabetes, sleep apnea, heart problems, just to name a few. Severely depressed and bedridden most of the time, his life once again took a dramatic turn in 1997.


His mother, who had only then recently turned to God, persuaded Peña to attend church with her. Peña said he mostly spent these Sundays outside smoking cigarettes. Much of what happened next is still a mystery to him. “I was sitting in the back, bored as hell, when BAM! My lights just went out,” he said, snapping his fingers to heighten the drama. “Next thing I know, I’m lying up front at the altar, tears streaming down my face and accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.” A few weeks later, born-again Peña and his mother got baptized together at the New Jerusalem Church in Brooklyn.

“I am not religious,” Peña said, pausing to find the right words. “But I do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” After his conversion, his health slowly improved and in 2000 Peña was ordained a community chaplain by the Latin American Chaplains Association.


Navigating Through Life

In 2003, Pena teamed up with the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation to direct the Neighborhood Navigator program. Peña had more than a dozen volunteers working for him, and together they acted as pseudo-watchdogs over the community, putting out fires wherever needed.  “We were like cops without weapons,” he said. The only weapons Peña had at his disposal were his persuasion skills and the unshakable passion to better his community.

Peña said he helped the effort to block off all streets coming in and out of the Hunts Point peninsula at night, an NYPD tactic that helped keep drug dealers and prostitutes off the streets and allowed for the area’s slow but steady recovery over the recent years.

Soon after, Peña began using this influential position to further his chaplaincy. He charmed local suppliers from the Hunts Point Cooperative Market – today one of the largest food supplying centers worldwide – to donate entire crates of fresh produce and protein that were nearing their expiry date. Pena would stack them in his empty storefront office and hand them out to hungry Hunts Point residents. The program was discontinued in 2007, when Peña was diagnosed with prostate cancer and spent the next years in and out of hospitals.

His portable food enterprise of today is essentially the continuation of the same vision, just on much a smaller scale. “It would be easier if they still knew me down in the markets, but I don’t have the same kind of clout anymore,” Pena said.

Peña still hasn’t given up on his dream of bringing his mission back to its former glory. Like any food-cart owner, he plans to expand and eventually have his own place. In his case, he imagines a restaurant-style soup kitchen for his ministry, where people can get counseling, showers and free clothing as well. “I imagine a place like the Waldorf Astoria. A place with dignity and flowers, where people can feel great about themselves.”

For now, Peña is focused on next Saturday’s menu and  – pork shoulder, chicken stew, white rice and lentils.


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, FeaturedComments (0)

Cirque du Bronx

Jean-Tae Francis (L) started out trying to learn a bit of everything the circus has to offer before he specialized in juggling. (THE POINT / Amy Chen)

Jean-Tae Francis (left) learned a bit of everything the circus has to offer before he specialized in juggling. (Amy Chen / THE POINT)

On a cool Tuesday evening in September, the empty lobby of Hunts Point’s community center filled with the whooshing sounds of colored balls flying through the air as instructor Jean-Tae Francis led a game of “100-ball juggling” with his group of aspiring circus performers.

Nineteen-year-old Francis stood in the middle, encircled by about 10 teenage circus students, began the game by juggling three red-colored balls. He called on his students one by one, to toss their juggling balls in his direction. The goal was to continue a three-ball juggling pattern amidst the flurry of incoming balls. Following Francis’ demonstration, each of the students took turns at the center, their high-pitched laughter echoing throughout the The Point Community Development Corporation.

In the auditorium next door, another dozen or so students practiced a series of rigorous cartwheels, somersaults and other potentially dangerous tumbling moves, a staple in professional circus acts. This circus program – the only one in the Bronx – is run for free two nights a week by Cirque du Monde, a social outreach program created by Cirque du Soleil. Each class has an average attendance of about 15 to 20 students, some of whom attend both sessions two nights a week throughout the academic year. According to Cirque du Monde’s website, the program combines “circus techniques together with educational social intervention to help young people.” But for some students, the circus is more than a temporary, after-school activity. It is a possible career choice.

Francis wandered into the Hunts Point circus class four years ago simply looking for something to occupy his time. “I came here to learn a few tricks, like how to do a flip or two, and continue with my life,” said Francis, as he looked around the lobby of The Point, which has now become almost like a second home to him. But, he said, he was slowly drawn into the world of circus not only as a social outlet, but also as a possible way of life.

The jovial teenager, with a small, permanent smile on his face, immigrated to the United States when he was 14 years old from Antigua and moved in with his aunt in New Jersey. “There weren’t many Caribbean people around so it was hard for me to make friends,” said Francis about his time in New Jersey. A year later, he moved to the Bronx, where the circus became his main social activity. “Most of my friends now are from the circus.” He settled in school and absorbed the culture shock as, he said, school life was very different back in the Caribbeans.

100-ball juggle

A group of jugglers sat in a circle to play the 100-ball juggle game. It was the first meeting of the year for the circus program at The Point (Saheli Roy Choudhury / THE BRONX INK)

Francis has learned over the years that the world of the circus has more to offer beyond a sweaty, social diversion. The circus industry has gone through many changes over the last two decades with the rise of contemporary circuses that compete with the traditional ones. Traditional circuses like the Big Apple Circus provide an intimate, artistic performance experience under the iconic circus tent. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses  entertain with the razzle dazzle of three rings. Contemporary circuses like the world renowned Cirque du Soleil place emphasis on artistic performances, often supported by full orchestras.

The biggest change in the industry, according to Keith Nelson, founder of the vintage Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, is the decreasing number of traveling circuses around the country. Nelson believes the decline is related to the expense of traveling, with its higher insurance premiums as well as more paperwork. But there is reason to be optimistic, as a new vein of community-based circus performance is growing in popularity. It is creating new jobs in many non-profit groups that use circus performances as a means for education and social rehabilitation.

Francis started his foray into the circus by learning a little bit of everything. He learned tightrope walking along a thin, tensioned rope high above the ground. Francis found his favorite activity was mastering juggling with a variety of props like balls and clubs. He believes versatility is key to success in the circus. “If you’re in a circus and you only do one thing, “ said Francis, shaking his head a little, “you’re going to have a really hard time making money.”

The recent high school graduate has a lot of plans. He wants to study Information Technology at the Illinois State University because he likes “taking stuff apart and putting them back together.” But what he is hoping for is a spot with the university’s prestigious Gamma Phi Circus as a launching pad into the industry. The Gamma Phi Circus is the oldest collegiate circus in the country and its alumni have gone on to perform with many well-known circuses including Cirque du Soleil and the Roberts Brothers Circus.

For now, Francis focuses on practicing his skills to perfection. The teenager spends up to eight hours a day, most days after midnight, to practice his circus skills, particularly juggling. He said the improvements had been noticeable over the months, for which he had received high praise from Nelson and others, who see potential in him. He also teaches the juggling class at The Point to develop himself professionally. He’s part of the coaches-in-training program, geared toward teens who are serious about advancing their skills and also sharing the knowledge with peers. “I try to be as encouraging as I can,” said Francis about his teaching technique.

While the teens at The Point have aspiration in abundance, breaking into an industry as close-knit as the circus is an uphill task. Aside from stage performers, circus jobs can range from set designers to sound and light technicians to business managers. After the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, there was a mass influx of talented Eastern European circus artists into the United States. This resulted in the growth of many multi-generation troupes in the country. “It’s a family business,” said Paul Miller, a professional clown by training and the founder of Circus Mojo, an organization in Kentucky that teaches circus skills and performance to adults and youths.

Miller has been in the industry for almost two decades and said the circus follows an “apprenticeship model” where seasoned performers have routinely refused to teach the skills to anyone outside their families. They believe the circus is their intellectual property, said Miller, and they protect it fiercely. Miller’s breakthrough came with the Ringling Brothers circus in 1996 when he won an apprenticeship as a clown. “I was a Gadjo,” he said, referring to the derogatory Romani term used to describe new circus performers who did not inherit the job from their ancestors. “Real artists would rarely have given me the time of day.”

For aspiring performers, there are more opportunities available now than there were during Miller’s time. More circus training schools have opened up in recent years, dedicated to training the next generation of gadjo performers. There are many non-profit organizations, funded by city councils and state funds, offering free or inexpensive courses in circus training; the knowledge that was once aggressively protected is becoming democratized.

Sixteen-year-old Xia Greenberg, from Queens, made the one and a half hour journey from Queens to attend the Hunts Point circus program last month. It was her first day as she stood in a corner and watched as others somersaulted through the air. “There are no circus classes in my neighborhood that are free,” said Greenberg, who had been riding the unicycle since she was 11. Her eyes were fixed on the solitary trapeze bar that hung in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. After some hesitation, the 5-foot-3-inch teenager gathered enough courage to climb the horizontal bar, holding tightly onto the ropes. Knees bent, she swung experimentally and smiled with satisfaction on her first attempt.

Greenberg fully intends to enter circus college after graduating from high school. She’s currently looking at the New England Center For Circus Arts in Vermont, which teaches many varieties of circus arts to its students. For Greenberg, the circus is a place where she can be herself. “I’m a really quiet person,” said the soft-spoken teenager, “so when I do circus, I feel like I can express myself without having to speak.”

Miller is very receptive towards younger performers as he knows the difficulties of breaking into the industry where having connections is essential. Earlier in July, he gave Francis, and his peer at the program 19-year-old Omar Rodriguez, a chance to perform in Cirque DeVou, a joint production between Circus Mojo and the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, consisting of various circus acts like juggling and stilts walking, where the performer stands on small platforms elevated on a pair of poles. They performed before an audience of nearly 3,000. “My biggest crowd before that,” said Francis, smiling, “was 20 people.” Performing before a big crowd felt easier. “In a crowd of 20, if only 50 percent clap,” he said, “it’s not that much, but in a big crowd, it’s pretty loud.” It is a confidence booster.

The following month, Miller brought Francis to Germany with members of Circus Mojo on an international exchange program with a local circus, Circus Pimparello. “Germany’s a lot different from America,” said Francis, recalling the sense of wonder he felt on his first trip to Europe. “It was really fun and clean there. Not much trash cans but not a lot of trash either.” Francis immersed himself in classes in juggling and acrobatics and gave a series of street performances outside the Stuttgart Opera House, in Stuttgart, Germany. Though it was his first international street performance, he was not fazed. “People were just walking by and some stayed to watch,”he said, with a smile. “It was pretty fun.”

Francis believes juggling is the most difficult prop to master in the circus. He puts in four hours of practice every day. The improvements have been noticeable but there are “too many good jugglers out there.” He’s pragmatic about his chances of breaking into a professional circus, where having an extensive network makes a big difference. “I made a lot of connections this year,” he said beaming with confidence. “So I guess I’m off to a good start.”

Francis’ family back in Antigua, however, has set conditions for the young performer. “They’re pretty cool with it,” said Francis, as long as he gets a college degree first. They are not too thrilled with his recent spate of traveling for circus. Other parents have been more vocal in their disapproval of seeing their children run off to the circus. The stigma still exists, said Miller. “You know what they used say, lock your doors, lock your windows, the circus is in town!”

Within a big circus, there are a variety of non-performance jobs like house staff, ring crew who manage the day-to-day performances, the technical staff looking after lighting and sound, the kitchen staff, animal groomers, among others. The Cirque du Soleil, for example, is one of the biggest employers in the industry, hiring close to 4,000 employees, of which only 1,300 are artists.

New avenues for circus acts have also been on the rise with places like cruise ships, theme parks, nightclubs, shopping malls and casinos hiring skilled performers. The rise of social circus–where circus is used as a tool for social intervention and rehabilitation among high risk groups–has added to the demand for performers; for example, the Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care program is an outreach effort where clowns perform in pediatric facilities across the country.

Juggling at Bryant Park

Omar Rodriguez, 19, is a regular at The Point’s circus program. Along with Jean-Tae Francis, Omar can frequently be seen juggling at Bryant Park on Saturday afternoons. (Saheli Roy Choudhury / THE BRONX INK)

Rookies work long hours, do grueling tasks, and get very little pay. But Miller reckons starting small and climbing up the ladder is the traditional way to go. When he started his clown apprenticeship with the Ringling Brothers, he worked 60 hours a week and earned $237; which amounted to $4 an hour, slightly below the minimum wage rate of $5.15 in 1997. Miller defended the “exploitative” nature of the circus towards newcomers and said rewards for perseverance are high. Following his apprenticeship, Miller went on to work as a circus performer in casinos around the country, making $500 a day; more recently, he worked for six months in Japan, putting in “12 minutes a day” worth of effort, and was paid $2,000.

For athletic performers, the lifespan is relatively short. By 40, most of them are “old, broken circus performers” reduced to manning the concession stands, said Miller. With many big circuses like Cirque du Soleil opting to hire Olympic athletes and professionally trained dancers, many young, talented circus performers are also going out of work. Jugglers have a longer lifespan, which makes it more competitive – a fact Francis said motivates him to work harder. “I met a lot of really good jugglers this year,” he said, which made him focus more on developing his technique and skills.

The road has been bumpy for Francis. Two years ago, he had his first opportunity to go on an overseas trip to Italy to perform with a circus troupe. “While the trip was upcoming, I didn’t have my U.S. passport at that time, so I wasn’t able to go,” said Francis. Disheartened and frustrated, Francis wanted nothing to do with the circus anymore. For the next three months, he hung out with his friends on the basketball court. Eventually, he could no longer ignore the call of the stage and returned to the circus program. Francis still thinks about giving up circus when going through a bad patch. “But I never actually go through with it,” said Francis, with a smile.

One of the most important persons Francis turns to, whenever he experiences his moments of self-doubt, is the circus program coordinator at The Point. With short hair, a pair of t-shirt and three-quarters, and a warm, welcoming smile, Amy Chen easily stands out in the crowd. The coordinator herself is a trained juggler, trapeze artist, and acrobat, and occasionally performs one of the toughest circus acts–fire breathing.

When she started working at the teen program, her goal was to promote the ideas of community building and peer support, along with teaching the teens about circus. “Most of the students came in their cliques of friends and were primarily interested in furthering their individual skills,” said Chen. The tumblers had no interest in juggling while the jugglers did not care much about aerials. Everyone wanted to focus on their own interests and on ways to further them. The sense of collaboration and togetherness took time to build and nurture. Chen keeps careful track of each and every student who drops by the program and works to build a tight-knit circus family. “They have each other’s backs–so no matter what they choose to do with their circus skills in the future, they have each other,” she said.

Back at The Point, when practice time was over, most of the teens stayed back and continued with their juggling and tumbling routines even as the night grew darker. Francis was one of the last to leave. Though the dedication of the students and the instructors were evident, the program has yet to place a graduate with a professional circus. The overwhelming odds do not deter Francis about his future. For now, he wants to simply focus on perfecting his techniques. “It makes me happy to juggle,” he said. “It makes me happy to make other people happy when I’m doing it well.”

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Art of Memory

In memory of their friend who was fatally stabbed five years ago, the House of Spoof Art Collective opened a new show in Hunts Point’s Brick House Gallery on August 23, celebrating young talent from the Bronx and beyond, and expanding the gallery’s role in the burgeoning Bronx arts scene.

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The Brick House Gallery in Hunts Point is used by the House of Spoof art collective as both a studio and a gallery space. It currently houses the collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

This year’s Annual Summer Show, the fourth, is its largest exhibit to-date and combines a wide selection of photos, videos and paintings from 32 different artists that fill the gallery walls top to bottom. While shows there typically confront social and political issues, this exhibit is not bound by any thematic, aesthetic or geographic constraints. The all-embracing organizing rubric, intended to draw a diverse range of submissions, was “Community and Culture.”

“It’s a celebration of art,” said Misra Walker, art student at Cooper Union and co-founder of the Spoof Collective. She said one of her goals is to facilitate rather than curate: all artists who submitted work in response to a call through social media were accepted. Misra said she wanted to help kickstart some careers with this event rather than be a gatekeeper.

This is also the group’s first effort to reach out to likeminded artists beyond the South Bronx. Participating artists came from California, France, and the Netherlands, as well as from New York. Danish photographer Petrine Clausen flew in from her new hometown of Amsterdam to see her five color prints on display. “This is my first time in the Bronx and it’s very different from what I know,” she said with a wink, sipping wine from college-style plastic cups and sampling homemade fried chicken outside the gallery.

Capturing unposed moments in artsy party scenes in Europe, her photos of white young people in shiny outfits may seem out of sync in the midst of Hunts Point, but fit the exhibit’s underlying theme by opening a window on a particular community.

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Danish artist Petrine Clausen’s photograph of a European party scene is shown at the House of Spoof art collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

Randy Clinton’s photographs, in contrast, are stark cityscapes expressing the beauty of the borough. The former Marine Corps photographer, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008, shoots with a camera phone and prints the digitally enhanced pictures on square metal sheets that give the images a bright sheen. “I just want to try to capture everything around me as it happens,” he said, explaining the freedom he feels without lugging around the cameras and lenses he used as a Marine. “My iPhone makes that process easier.”

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Former US Marine photographer Randy Clinton standing in front of his collection of submitted photographs. (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Most of the contributing artists applied by submitting five samples through JotForm, a social media platform. The number of submissions surprised the gallery collective, who cut their own work from the show to accommodate all 32 applicants. “We don’t agree on everything,” said Richard Palacios, co-founder and multimedia artist, describing how members of the collective held different views of the work they received, but supported the principle of the open call. “I guess there was some kind of democratic process behind it,” he said.

The House of Spoof Collective (THOSC) was officially founded in 2011, when four friends working summer jobs at The Point CDC, the renown community art and activist center in Hunts Point, sought to honor the passing of their close friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright.

Wright, who would have turned 26 on the day of the show’s opening, was a flourishing South Bronx photographer who was brutally killed 2009. Mistaken for a rival gang member by a group out for revenge, Wright was stabbed to death outside his grandmother’s Lower East Side apartment.

“After Spoof’s death we were in group therapy sessions and decided to channel our grief and his spirit by creating this project,” said Palacios, 24, one of the co-founding quartet including fellow art students Misra Walker, 22, Ryan Smith, 24, and Alberto Inamagua, 27. Only a couple of months later they had already curated their first show in a space provided by The Point.

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The House of Spoof co-founder Misra Walker stans under a portrait of her murdered friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright that hangs permanently in the gallery (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Though they continue to present a rotating selection of Wright’s black-and-white photos at every show, the group has since moved beyond the original premise of keeping Spoof’s legacy alive.

Walker admitted that the group is still very young — “We often have no idea what we are doing,” she said — and that their current work is only a stepping stone to bigger goals. They plan to create an art incubator for young artists and “bring back that Andy Warhol, factory-feel to art in New York City.”

In many ways their work space reflects their own transformation. Set on a remote stretch along Hunts Point’s industrial waterfront, the stocky Brick House Gallery is the only remnant of a burnt down fur-tanning factory that was converted into an experimental art spot for the community in 2007.

Working out of the South Bronx in an impoverished area with scarce public resources, the group has always seen location and context as a central element of their work. They see themselves as activist artists, tackling local issues related to violence, neglect, and the environment. They are currently building a greenhouse out of discarded soda bottles. The group conducts free art workshops for Hunts Point’s residents throughout the year.

“We want to make the art accessible to the Hunts Point community,” explained Walker, who gave an emotional TED TALK on activism through art back in 2009. “Art has always been really important in this community and we want to keep that going. That’s what Glenn would have done – given back to the community.”

The Bronx has historically been a hotbed for the arts — it is the birthplace of both hip-hop and modern street art — and is currently seeing a resurgence, with a host of galleries and shows opening across the borough.

Among the work in the Summer Show, photographs by Tiffany Williams stand out: prints showing colorful smoke wisping against a black background. Williams, one of the group’s mentors and the co-creator of The Point’s after-school photography program, has been active in the Bronx arts community for more than a decade. “The Bronx has been involved with the arts way before Brooklyn ever got cool for its art scene,” she said, basking in the late afternoon sun in Hunts Point. “It might take time, but we’re bringing the conversation back.”

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Local garden reignites long-lost community spirit

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 921. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 924. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

On Saturday morning in Hunts Point, children on Kelly Street had free rein of the pavement, which some of them brightened with colored chalk. Some kids played catch while others were engrossed in arts and crafts. With the help of adult volunteers, children cut out bananas from cardboard and painted them, some coloring them yellow, others maroon and sky blue. Residents from neighboring blocks looked on. They had gathered at the newly renovated Kelly Street Garden at block 924 of the famously banana-shaped street to celebrate the second annual Field Day organized by the non-profit outfit, The Laundromat Project.

The star of the event was the Kelly Street Garden, which has become a symbol of revival to a community that had lost its vibrancy through time and neglect. It was unveiled in the first week of June this year. On Saturday, the garden opened its gates to residents in neighboring buildings, some of whom help to tend its 1,541 square feet of harvest area that grows cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale, and eggplant, among other produce that helps sustain the community.

Field Day at Hunts Point aimed to encourage community involvement through art and yoga workshops, cooking demonstrations, a photo exhibition, storytelling sessions, a barbecue, and walking tours led by local artists Misra Walker and Joseph “Donjai” Gilmore. Walker and Gilmore’s walking tours explored the rich cultural history of the neighborhood by focusing on creative practices of local artists throughout the community.

This arts-led initiative took place concurrently in three neighborhoods — Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant on September 20 and 21. “We wanted to highlight  the assets that are already in these neighborhoods, and to amplify them as much as possible,” said Kemi Ilesanmi, the executive director of the Laundromat Project.

Kelly Street Garden

On the itinerary was a Kelly Street Garden tour. The garden grows approximately 20 types of produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale and eggplant. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Long-time Kelly Street resident Robert Foster, 63, said the garden was a “‘great way to bring the community back together.” He lamented how closed off neighbors have become, preferring to stay indoors instead of interacting.

Foster was around in the late 1970s when the first garden was inaugurated in block 924, where he helped plant the first batch of seeds. “It ain’t as luxurious,” he said of the old garden, but the spirit of community thrived due to the large presence of children. “You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a kid,” he said, smiling. Over the years, the conditions of the houses deteriorated, the streets became unsafe as murders and drug activities rose, and the children disappeared behind closed doors. “I can’t fault people for not wanting to have their kids out there,” Foster said, hoping the newly renovated buildings will signal a safer environment for children to come out and play.

The kids were out in full force on Saturday, running around the raised beds on the pebbled pathway, only to be told repeatedly by Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, the garden caretaker, not to stomp on the plants. Ramirez moved to the neighborhood last December and as caretaker she holds regular office hours tending the the garden. Since its opening, the garden “picked up a lot of momentum,” she said, as a new wave of residents followed in Foster’s footsteps and helped out with maintenance.

Until three years ago, Ramirez said many of the buildings on Kelly Street suffered from dire neglect, and the garden lay forgotten. Then Workforce Housing Group intervened. The group, in partnership with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Organization, another non-profit outfit, rehabilitated apartments in five buildings on Kelly Street. With a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, the two organizations were able to fund the purchase of plants, seeds, and fertilizer for the new garden.

Another long-time resident, who gave only her first name, Maria, 45, spoke in Spanish about the dire living conditions prior to the intervention by the Workforce Housing Group. Speaking through a translator, Maria said her building lacked hot water every winter between 2001 and 2011; many of the buildings did not have a superintendent to look after maintenance. There were severe hygiene issues, she added, rat infestations, and lack of security. All complaints by residents fell on deaf ears. Today, Maria is satisfied with her renovated apartment. It now has a constant supply of hot water, the staircase landings are clean, the building is regularly maintained, and the security is much better.

Ramirez said the garden provides valuable community bonding time as residents now work together to water the plants, harvest the produce, and distribute it through the neighborhood. Residents who volunteer their time to look after the garden get first pick of the produce. Some of it is used in cooking classes taught by “community chefs” at the garden to encourage an exchange of healthy recipes. Ramirez also sets up a table on the pavement in the evening and gives away the remaining produce to passersby for free.


The community gathered outside 924 Kelly Street to celebrate Field Day. Activities included arts and crafts for children, yoga workshops for children and adults, and a barbecue. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Field Day was organized by five artists who were recipients of a fellowship at The Laundromat Project and wanted to give back to the community. Through the fellowship, they took a number of professional development classes in community engagement and were assigned to a neighborhood in which to execute an outreach program.

One of the fellows, Ro Garrido, 25, said the experience helped overcome the discomfort of working in a community in a different borough. “I don’t have roots here,” Garrido, who hails from Queens, said about the experience in negotiating the differences between Hunts Point and Jackson Heights. “It’s about respecting the people at the garden and how they worked.”

The fellows received $500 from the Laundromat Project, as well as donations from Green Mountain Energy, Workforce Housing Group, and others to purchase art supplies, arrange for food, and other logistics. Though Field Day organizers did not have a final headcount by press time, they said they expected the number of participants among the three neighborhood events in Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bed-Stuy, to exceed last year’s 500.

As the overcast afternoon gradually faded into evening, the echoes of children’s laughter reverberated along Kelly Street. Residents stayed out longer than usual, embracing a new-found communal spirit.

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Healthcare startups still struggling while the industry booms

The historic Banknote building in Hunts Point houses as many as eight healthcare startups in South Bronx. (SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink)

The historic Banknote Building in Hunts Point houses as many as eight healthcare startups in the South Bronx. (SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink)

In a cubicle on the second floor of the historic Banknote Building in Hunts Point, Thelvis Alston worked the phones one September afternoon, canvassing potential clients for the new data services startup he helps to run. Sector-Wide Health, which opened in January last year, has faced stiff competition from larger companies ever since the Affordable Care Act contributed to this growing economic sector in the borough.

The company has had a “difficult” start, said Alston, a 41-year-old Bronx native and vice president of operations.  Building a client base of doctors who want help digitizing their medical records has been “slow but steady.” Bronx’s healthcare industry has been on the upswing over the last five years. One reason for the mini-boom is the Affordable Care Act, which offers more medical access to more people throughout the borough. Between 2009 and 2013, the sector added nearly 5,000 new jobs in private hospitals, clinics, and other agencies. But the growth has not affected all businesses equally. Small businesses such as Sector-Wide Health have trouble breaking into a market face with so many larger healthcare organizations and agencies that are significantly better funded, like the Urban Health Plan for example.

Alston believes there is still an untapped need by doctors need to digitize their medical records to comply with new regulations for Medicaid and Medicare incentives under the Affordable Care Act. Sector-Wide Health are best situated to fill that need. Alston regularly meets with neighborhood doctors to identify what type of digitization software would work best for their practice. He then guides them through the transition process. “It’s about talking to doctors just to get them comfortable with the thought of where their business is going to go in the next ten years,” Alston said. Sector-Wide Health’s growing number of clients mainly include private practitioners and small clinics in the Bronx.

Joe Carrano, another Bronx native, remains upbeat about the prospects for healthcare outfits, both big and small, in the borough. “The industry is huge and healthcare technology is really growing here right now,” said the 25-year-old Carrano, who is director at the Bronx Business Incubator in Hunts Point. The incubator houses 66 start-ups and eight of them, including Sector-Wide Health, are in the business of providing healthcare and healthcare-related service.

Carrano believes the Bronx has more room for growth, for the healthcare and healthcare-related industry, than any other borough. Its close location to Manhattan and its relatively cheap real estate makes it attractive for investors, he said. The incubator provides startups with consultations, networking opportunities, and affordable office space. It has approximately 180 workspaces, comprising virtual offices, physical workstations, conference rooms, and meeting areas. “It’s up to entrepreneurs in the Bronx to shape the development of the business community,” said Carrano.

For Sector-Wide Health, the road ahead is uphill. It is still relatively new, has a comparatively low budget, and comprises a small team of employees. The Affordable Care Act, Alston believes, provided an important point of entry into the market. In order to survive against bigger, better-endowed competitors, the startup has to quickly carve out a niche area of service.

Some entrepreneurs believe the Affordable Care Act works against small businesses in an already saturated healthcare industry. One of them is Michael Harris, a registered nurse and owner of a startup called Transparency in Registered Nursing. His startup, founded in 2009, brings “high-tech nurses into the homes of patients” for both emergency treatments and long-term outpatient care. Harris believes the Act “drove out small businesses” that have no interest in doing business with the insurance plans that are part of the marketplace. Unless businesses sign up to be part of the marketplace, he said, they cannot exist within the healthcare ecosystem created by the Act.

Harris’ gripe with the Act boils down to “nine insurance companies in downtown New York State” that control the marketplace, and the participating hospitals and practitioners that provide “substandard treatment.” He said those are the main reasons why he did not sign his company up to be part of it. Harris would not specify which of the nine insurance companies he talks about but there are at least 16 participating in the Affordable Care Act marketplace in New York State. As a result, he now markets his services mainly to people who can afford insurance plans that offer “unbiased, out-of-network benefits.”

Alston does not share Harris’ skepticism and remains optimistic about the future for healthcare startups. He thinks opportunities and benefits created by the Affordable Care Act will eventually benefit small business outfits. “People will catch up,” he said with a smile.

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Fight against the stigma of AIDS marches on in Hunts Point



The AIDS Walk participants march down Southern Boulevard raising awareness for HIV/AIDS in the South Bronx (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Against the backdrop of gray skies, the roughly 100 participants of the Third Annual Community Board 2 AIDS Walk replaced the usual truck racket in the area with the odd chants of “HIV! GET TESTED!” and “SAFE SEX! USE CONDOMS!” Marching between Westchester and Hunts Point Avenue, the group called attention to the community-wide stigma of the disease, something the organizers believe may be a key obstacle to eradicating the virus. “We need to break the silence once and for all,” said Millie Colon, a community board activist and chairperson of the AIDS Walk. “People are no longer dying for lack of medication, but rather due to a lack of communication and education.” Silence is literally killing some Bronx residents. Colon encountered AIDS over 20 years ago when her nephew passed away from the disease. Three years ago she lost her brother to AIDS, after he spent four years refusing to see a doctor for fear of community backlash. Though the fight is deeply personal for her, Colon recognizes the larger context. She urged the community to overcome the “fear barrier” of getting tested, and she encouraged those who are infected to “come out of the closet” and receive the proper medication.

Millie Colon, chairperson of the Community Board 2 AIDS WALK, rallying the marchers before the walk begins in Hunts Point (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Millie Colon, chairperson of the Community Board 2 AIDS Walk, rallies the marchers before the walk begins in Hunts Point (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

From time to time the marchers, color coordinated in red and white, stopped along the 45-minute route to listen to community voices and pray for those that have lost their lives to a disease first recorded in the city 33 years ago. One of the marchers, Carmen Rodriguez, surprised many by revealing that her husband, who had been secretly living with HIV for 25 years, passed away last Monday. “He didn’t want nobody to know” she said, gently dabbing at her mascara-stained tears. “He was in denial for many years and when he started treatment eight years ago, it had already caused too much damage.”

Carmen Rodriguez stands outside the Hunts Point Recreational Center after revealing to the group of marchers that her husband passed away from AIDS just last week

Carmen Rodriguez stands outside the Hunts Point Recreational Center after revealing to the group of marchers that her husband passed away from AIDS just last week (BENJAMIN BERGMANN/The Bronx Ink)

Rev. Kahli Mootoo, a Hunts Point pastor and former AIDS activist, commanded the megaphone for large parts of the walk, educating sidewalk spectators on the importance of getting tested. “The issue of HIV is losing steam” he said. “People are no longer scared of it, but does that mean they are not getting infected? Of course not!” Even though HIV numbers are consistently falling across the city according to the New York City Department of Health, the percentage of people dying from the disease continues to skew heavily towards low income neighborhoods. The Bronx has the highest death rates among the five boroughs, while Manhattan has the clearest survival advantage in New York City. These numbers were much more even back in 2005. Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 4.25.25 PM Though the organizers did not focus on these issues, Rev. Mootoo himself believes the issue is deeply entangled with poverty and political will. His view is that as long as HIV-related issues are contained in the most disenfranchised neighborhoods, city officials will see no reason to take action. “We always say the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Our community doesn’t have the power to squeak loud enough,” Mootoo said with a smile. “And god knows we could use some more oil around here.”

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