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The pastelito lady

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Miguelina Moscoso's famous pastelito food stand is a fixture of West 234th St. in Kingsbridge. Photo by Irasema Romero

A regular workday for Miguelina Moscoso begins at 3:30 a.m. in her small two-bedroom apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx.

While her three children sleep, the 46-year-old Dominican mother quietly begins her routine, preparing and frying 140 Dominican pastelitos, cooking a batch of sweet arroz con leche, and squeezing lemons for lemonade.

Depending on the day, Moscoso’s pastelitos may be filled with ground beef, shredded seasoned chicken, or scrambled eggs with melted cheese. She wraps the crispy pastries in foil to keep them warm before placing them inside her styrofoam cooler.

By 9:45 a.m., Moscoso pushes her shopping cart out the door. Her hair pulled into a low ponytail and covered with a black cap, she walks uphill to her vending location on West 234th Street. A small, collapsed table and the cooler are secured inside the cart, while bottles of lemonade and iced tea hang loosely from strings on the sides.

When she reaches the light pole in front of the Unique Thrift Store, a handful of clients begin to shell out $1 apiece for egg and cheese pastelitos.

“One of the things that motivates me the most is that people like what I do,” Moscoso said in Spanish. She makes a conscious effort to keep costs down in order to keep a loyal clientele who may patronize her restaurant one day. “My biggest hope is to have my own place, like Mexicans who have their own stores and sell their tacos; I would like that.”

Two years ago, Moscoso was not quite so optimistic about her economic future.

A week before Thanksgiving 2008, she lost her job in Albasini, a Bronx chocolate factory that had been struggling financially. She was working as a temporary factory worker cleaning big chocolate mixers.

She tried to make ends meet by working temporary jobs in various factories around the city.  After six months, she decided she wanted the flexibility of having her own mobile food stand. As a single mother with no relatives or close friends in New York City, Moscoso said she needed work that kept her near her children, Dioneli, 13, Michael, 16, and Carlos, 25, who also lives at home.

Moscoso decided to renew the mobile food vendor license she obtained in 1999 from the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, an investment of $50 every two years. Her license renewal was approved in June 2009, and soon thereafter she started loading up her shopping cart with cooking from her kitchen.

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Moscoso sells her $1 pastelitos in a variety of flavors, straight from her cooler. Photo by Irasema Romero

One year later, Moscoso is still waiting to obtain a “unit” permit that would allow her to prepare pastelitos on a mobile food cart on the street. The waiting list is so long for so few licenses that it could take two to three years. The chosen few food vendors are then given six months to purchase the cart and get it inspected. In 2008 Moscoso won this lottery, but her $5,000 small business loan to buy the cart was approved with only a few days to spare, and she missed the inspection deadline.

The first time Moscoso pushed her shopping cart down West 234th St., a group of Thrift Store employees invited her to stop by everyday to sell them pastelitos during their work breaks.

“To this day, I say that thanks to them I’m selling here,” Moscoso said.

From then on, customers arbitrarily take turns using the folding chair Moscoso brings for herself. The big hot sauce bottle is conveniently placed on the table next to them, and before taking the first bite they pour its spicy contents over their favorite pastelito.

For Jonathan Cartagena, who has worked at the store for eight months, it’s all about the egg and bacon pastelitos.

“She doesn’t make them daily, but when we ask her about it a lot, she brings them,” Cartagena said of his favorite pastelito, which Moscoso offers only a couple of days a week. “Eggs are a bit expensive and the bacon is especially expensive, so it’s hard for her.”

Although Moscoso makes the rare exception of offering pastelitos filled with costly ingredients like shrimp and bacon, she also chooses longer trips to a store that provides more affordable prices. The goal is to keep the pastelitos to one dollar apiece to continue attracting new customers.

Around 3:30 p.m., Moscoso pushes her cart home,  and then climbs back out to the No. 1 train heading to Manhattan’s Mi País Supermarket on 181st and St. Nicholas. Instead of buying the 10-piece package of frozen empanada dough for $1.99 in the Bronx, she gets the same product for $1.29 at this Latin American grocery store. Other ingredients are also sold at a lower price in Mi País, and Moscoso does not mind making the trip if it means cutting costs.

On an average week, Moscoso brings in approximately $650, of which half is profit, after subtracting the cost of ingredients, plastic ware, ice for drinks and transportation.

With an average net income of $1,300 a month, she covers her $348 rent, which is subsidized by the New York City Housing Authority, and household expenses for the family.

Moscoso said, with hesitation, that she also has dreams of owning a house one day.

“I know maybe what I make is too little, but there is a saying, ‘no wait is too long for happiness,” she said.

This saying is what keeps her going even after almost 20 years of leaving Dominican Republic with her then first husband. Her daughter Dioneli said her mom often mentions returning to her native country, but she does not want to think about it today. When she talks about her family in Santo Domingo, her eyes water. She recently lost an uncle in the Dominican Republic but was not able to go back home for his funeral. She misses her father, she said.

Moscoso hopes her children will have an easier life than she. She is frustrated that she can not offer them more.

“If they would help me, I would make more,” she said, because her pastelitos sell out by 2 p.m. most days. “At times we argue because I am alone for everything. I tell them to help me squeeze the lemons. I could make more.”

On holidays, Moscoso adjusts her routine to make double the batch of pastelitos.

For Norma Ahmed, who lives near the Grand Concourse, Moscoso’s reputation precedes her. A friend told her to go to the store early to experience the pastelitos as part of her trip out.

“I was surprised when I come that day and saw her there,” Ahmed said of the first time she stopped at Moscoso’s food stand.

Ahmed was instantly curious about the pastelitos, and Moscoso humbly talked about her routine as she served other customers.

“As a woman, I hope she goes on to put her little own restaurant or maybe a store front,” Ahmed said. “Who knows where we’ll see Miguelina 5, 10 years from today.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Food and Beyond, Northwest Bronx, Special ReportsComments (4)

Seekers Hunt for Jobs in the Bronx

Seekers Hunt for Jobs in the Bronx

At the Morton Williams in Kingsbridge, people lined up to apply for an entry-level job. (Sam Fellman/Bronx Ink)

At the Morton Williams in Kingsbridge, people lined up to apply for an entry-level job. (Fellman/Bronx Ink)

Atavia Scott dreams of being a chef. Nicole Garcia wants to write about travel. And Sophia Pritchet wants to work at the retailer Forever 21. But each has had to put these dream jobs aside for now, and search more widely for that increasingly elusive commodity in the Bronx: the job.


Read more about umemployment in the Bronx here.


On a recent morning, they joined the line of some 40 job applicants at the Morton Williams in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, where the supermarket chain holds weekly interviews for openings at its 12 stores in the city. A manager laid out the application guidelines to the job seekers while a few shoppers strolled by.

“Again, you must know the name of the company and the address of the company” you use as a reference on the application form, explained Valerie Sloan, a vice president at the supermarket.

After explaining other aspects of the hiring process and twice stressing that those without proper identification should leave, Sloan, who declined any comment, returned to the small office perched in a corner above the store exit and called the first applicant.

Those near the front of the line sat down on the ledge running along the storefront window. The line snaked along the wall past the checkouts and the nine-foot-high stack of Malta India soda bottles until finally coming to an end half-way down aisle three just before the Stella D’Oro cookies. Since the supermarket chain holds their applications for six months, most of the job seekers were new.

Even as the national economy added 162,000 jobs nationally in March, according to the latest Department of Labor estimate, in the Bronx, where the unemployment rate is now at 14 percent, the employment market is becoming cutthroat, forcing experienced workers to apply for entry-level positions and others to vastly expand their job search.

Supermarket work wasn’t Atavia Scott’s first choice, but she lost her job as a health aide in January and has applied for over a dozen others without luck. In the last two weeks alone, Scott, who is 27 and lives in Soundview, has applied to more than 15 places—everything from health care to Rite Aid.

“Right now, I’ll work anywhere,” Scott said. “I’m not being a chooser.”

Scott said her interview with Sloan “went OK.” The manager told her that the supermarket was hiring five applicants to work as cashiers or in the deli, and that she’d get a call next week if they had a position for her. They were minimum wage jobs, Scott said, but at least there was a union and some benefits. Still, Scott wasn’t content to wait a week. Afterwards, she left to inquire at a home health agency in Mott Haven.

In many respects, Ben—who declined to give his last name because he feared it might hurt his prospects with the supermarket chain—has had a harder time. He said he had spent 30 years working in supermarkets, until he lost his job managing a food market in Queens in 2007. Ben, now 56, can’t find a job fitting his experience level.

“Some tell me I’m overqualified, some tell me I don’t have enough experience for the position that available,” he said. “All those fast food places—they’re all hiring. But it’s part time work at a minimum wage. They don’t require experience because they do on-the-job training.”

He’s applied to Macy’s, the Restaurant Depot, Sears. “I’ve gone so far as to apply for a job as a secretary,” he added.

Meanwhile, the pressure to stay solvent has been mounting, Ben said. Unable to afford his rent, he had to move his wife and two children to a shelter and now supports them on only $41 in food stamps and $1,720 in public assistance a month.

“It’s really hard to make ends meet when you don’t have much coming in each month,” he said. “I’m out here every day looking for a job. Even on Sundays.”

At the interview, Ben told Sloan that he was applying for a department head position at Morton Williams. Sloan said that no positions were available, but that she’d forward the application to her supervisor. Ben said the supermarket’s benefits were good—medical, dental, raises every six months—and hoped to hear back if a position opened up over the next few months.

Ana Pena, meanwhile, needed a job now. The 56-year-old Dominican immigrant has been out of work for nearly a year after she lost her job cleaning at a McDonald’s. Although she is living with a niece, she said that she wasn’t on Medicaid and needed to get a job as much for the pay as for the health insurance. She was attracted to Target for the employee benefits.

“I was trying to get a job with Target, but they never called me,” she said. “I wish I could get me a job making $8 an hour.”

Pena’s niece suggested she try Morton Williams. But Pena arrived at 9:30 am—15 minutes after they stopped accepting applications. Sloan told her to come back next week.

“It’s ok,” she said. “I’ll be here next time at 8 o’clock.”

Posted in Bronx Tales, MoneyComments (0)

The Bronx questions Bloomberg’s plans for jobs

by Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

Kwasi Akyeampong, member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance tying prayers cards to a fence outside the Armory. Related Companies says their proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Kwasi Akyeampong, a member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, ties prayer cards to a fence outside the armory. Related Companies says its proposed development will bring 1,200 jobs to the Bronx. Photo by Mamta Badkar

For nearly 80 years, the Stella D’Oro cookie factory in the northwest corner of the Bronx filled the air over the Major Deegan Expressway with the delicious scent of its trademark biscotti, breadsticks and Swiss Fudge cookies baking in the oven.

Then on Oct. 9, the aroma vanished. The Kingsbridge factory closed its doors on that day and its 150 remaining workers were out of a job. The brand had been purchased by Lance, Inc., a North Carolina snack manufacturer. The new owner intends to move the brand, its products and the machinery–but not its Bronx workers–to a non-union factory in Ashland, Ohio.

“Stella D’Oro is like a landmark in the Bronx,” said Mike Filipou, who had worked as a lead mechanic in the factory for 14 years. “You know, it’s like Yankee Stadium.”

On the last day, a group of about 75 former Stella D’Oro employees, community supporters and labor activists marched in a circle outside the empty factory, chanting in unison with pickets raised.

Most of their signs were directed at the bakery’s former owner, North Carolina-based Brynwood Partners, the new owner Lance, Inc. and one of Brynwood’s investors, Goldman Sachs. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not escape their wrath.

“Hey Bloomberg, thanks a lot. Bronx unemployment and poverty soaring. Keep Stella in the Bronx,” read several white signs with bold black letters held aloft in the circle.

“Businesses have to make a profit,” said Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist, who is running against Democratic incumbent Kristen Gillibrand for US Senate in 2010. “But we also have to value the community and value the workers that make this company work.”

A good job has been a hard find for quite some time in the Bronx. With unemployment in the borough reaching 13.3 percent in September, Bronxites are looking to the mayor for answers to unemployment in the coming election. In October, 2003, a year and a half after Bloomberg took office, Bronx unemployment was at 10.7 percent, according to the Comptroller’s office. In January, 2006, as the rest of the city saw an average unemployment of of 4.1 percent, the Bronx was 5.5 percent.

“Despite the national economic downturn, which continues to make for trying times for many New Yorkers, our efforts to place people in jobs are paying off in record numbers,” said Bloomberg. “Eight years ago, the city’s workforce centers were placing New Yorkers in roughly 500 jobs a year. This year, we placed them in more than 6,800 – just in the last three months.”

Bloomberg’s approach to Bronx unemployment and poverty falls under his Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, his comprehensive strategy to bring New York City through the economic downturn as fast as possible. The Mayor’s office said the plan focuses on creating jobs for New Yorkers today, implementing a long-term vision for growing the city’s economy, and building affordable, attractive neighborhoods in every borough.

Specifically in the Bronx, the Mayor’s office said the city has helped place 4,526 people in jobs in the first nine months of 2009. Some 200 of these jobs were filled at the new Home Depot at the Gateway Center on River Avenue in the neighborhood of Morrisania.

But some residents have written the mayor off. “He has no interest in doing anything for the Bronx,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a founding member of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance and member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “He has done nothing.”

Part of the plan is the implementation of the multi-agency South Bronx Initiative, which the mayor’s office says will spur $3 billion in public and private investment, create thousands of construction and permanent jobs and develop more than 8,000 units of housing.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Oct. 26 put Bloomberg well ahead of former City Comptroller William Thompson, in all five boroughs. In the Bronx, he leads 50 percent to 33 percent among likely voters.

“It’s been shaping up all along, and now the new numbers say it looks like a Bloomberg blow-out,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

About 500 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Sunday, October 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

About 200 community members gathered outside the Kingsbridge Armory on Oct. 25 to call for living wages at the proposed retail development at the Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Mamta Badkar

At St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church on the corner of University Avenue and Fordham Road, hundreds of Bronxites gathered to voice their opposition after the City Planning Commission voted 8 to 4 to approve Related Companies’ redevelopment plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall that will appeal to shoppers across all the boroughs. The castle-like structure has been sitting vacant on West Kingsbridge Road near Jerome Avenue since 1996.

The city has spent $30 million restoring the armory which is being offered to Related for $5 million. Combined with the tax breaks it’s being afforded, this translates to about $40 million in subsidies for Related. The community’s concerns have centered on this distribution of money, which many community members say is inequitable. Residents like those gathered at Tolentine that evening say they could conceivably find jobs in the Armory, but their salaries will not pay enough for them to shop in its stores.

Protesters focused on the developer’s promises to create 1,200 jobs – jobs, the community advocates said, will be part-time, paying poverty-level wages with no benefits. But not everyone in the community shares the concern. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York recently withdrew its support of the protest and came out in favor of redevelopment.

The common sentiment in the auditorium was that the Democratic mayoral challenger, William Thompson, would be better at creating jobs in the Bronx. Mayor Bloomberg supported Related’s bid to create more low-income jobs, not sustainable work, said Pilgrim-Hunter. “Thompson will deliver for us what Bloomberg refuses to acknowledge,” she said.

Even if Related’s opponents muster votes to block the project, the city council would need a two-thirds majority to override the mayor’s seemingly inevitable veto. Bloomberg says this is an opportunity to bring thousands of jobs to the Bronx at a time when it needs it the most. “The armory has been closed to the public for decades, but now we have an enormous opportunity to revitalize it as a hub of activity and jobs in the West Bronx,” he said.”We don’t want to let that opportunity – or any more time – pass by without progress.”

But some residents think this progress targets a select few. “Bloomberg prides himself on development but at what cost?” asked Kwasi Akyeampong, a  member of Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. “People who benefit are his rich billionaire buddies. [Thompson’s] stand is consistent with ours. We want someone who will represent this community,” he said.

Thompson, who has consistently backed the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance’s demands, took the podium at Tolentine.  “The election is nine days away,” he told the energized crowd. “If we come out and fight for what is right, I will be the mayor of New York. This will not move forward.”

Pilgrim-Hunter doesn’t think that the plan is in the best interest of the Bronx. “His five-borough gentrification has made place for the rich. That isn’t the blueprint for our community. We hope the city council has heard us today,” she said. “Today was proof that the Bronx will not vote for Mayor Bloomberg.”

The Bronx has seen some of Bloomberg’s job creation initiatives come to fruition, but as the crowd marched to the Kingsbridge Armory chanting, “Whose armory? Our armory,” it was clear that the Bronx is still waiting for Bloomberg to show and prove.

Posted in PoliticsComments (0)

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