Tag Archive | "Morrisania"

A crying woman, shots and an officer down

By Alec Johnson

Early Monday afternoon Yesenia Rodriguez ran down the stairs from the second floor in the Morrisania Air Rights apartment complex at 3073 Park Ave. in the South Bronx.  She was crying. The man upstairs, she said in Spanish, had thrown her to the ground and threatened to kill her.

PO Robert Salerno

Police Officer Robert Salerno (NYPD)

She found neighbor, Jimmy Molina, 54, reading a newspaper in the lobby. She told him that Santiago Urena, the son of an elderly woman she cared for, was making repeated sexual advances towards her and she was fed up. When she threatened to call the police he pulled out a gun and yelled, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.”

She and Molina called 911 and as they waited she told him the story.  A few minutes later, about 12:30 p.m. four police officers from the 44th precinct entered the lobby.

“They asked where the guy with the gun was,” Molina said. He interpreted for the officers as Rodriguez told them Urena was on the second floor. Urena’s brother, Demetrio, 69, led them upstairs. Two cops, Molina said, ran up the stairs to apartment 2G and the other two took the elevator.

Less than a minute later Molina heard gunshots. Santiago Urena, 57, opened fire as officers approached a bedroom, police later said. Three .38 caliber bullets fired by Urena struck Police Officer Robert Salerno, 25. Two entered his unprotected lower abdomen and a third lodged in the bulletproof vest that covered his chest. Salerno returned fire, emptying his 16 round magazine. The three other officers shot a total of five times.

Molina was outside the building when about, he said, “two minutes later four cops brought him out carrying him.” Two held his legs and two held his hands — “running to the ambulance.”

Gun Recovered

This .38 caliber revolver was recovered by police from the crime scene. (NYPD)

Salerno, the first police officer shot in the line of duty this year, was taken to Lincoln Hospital where surgeons removed the bullets. Urena was not so lucky. Police who returned to the apartment after taking Salerno to the ambulance found Urena dead of what appeared to be a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. On Tuesday the medical examiner determined that police rounds killed Urena.

Urena’s 91-year-old mother was in another room of the apartment during the shooting and was later carried out of the building.

Police cordoned off the block and neighbors milled around the street in the afternoon rain. They were shocked by the shootout. Nelson Figuerola who lives on the 20th floor of the 23-floor building pointed across 158th street and said he would have expected gunplay over there, but not in his building.

“That building they call Vietnam,” he said. “This one is a lot better.”

Figuerola has lived in 2073 Park Ave. since 1982 and remembered Urena as a quiet man that used to work at the airport. “He cleaned airplanes,” he said. “Nobody expected this.”

Marie Garcia, 23, lives on the 16th floor and was awakened by sirens as dozens of police swarmed the area minutes after the shooting. She looked out her window and saw them running into the building. “They looked like sardines,” she said. “They were all trying to fit in the front door at once.”

The crowd of more than 100 that formed shortly after the shooting dispersed as heavier rain fell in the late afternoon. A handful returned after dark to watch the medical examiners wheel Urena’s body out on a stretcher.

A resident of 3073 Park Ave. in the Bronx reacts to questions by the media, Monday, after a police officer was shot in her building.

A resident of 3073 Park Ave. in the Bronx reacts to questions by the media, Monday, after a police officer was shot in her building. (Alec Johnson/The Bronx Ink)

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

McKinley Houses Reflect on Murder Conviction

The Rev. Wallace Diamond has lived at the McKinley Houses, a public housing project on East 161st Street, for 47 years. During that time, he has presided over the funerals of five young victims of gang violence. In August 2006, he buried the last two, 25-year-old Leonard Crocket and 20-year-old Jason Semidey, who were killed in a gang-related shooting in the complex’s basketball courts.

The basketball court where Leonard Crocket and Jason Semiday were shot to death, in August 2006. Photo by Alice Speri

On Tuesday, Gavin Murray, a Bloods gang member with a history of violence, was convicted of both murders.

Murray, who was 18 at the time of the incident, was arrested in June 2009 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. He was charged with murder, attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon and is also awaiting trial in relation to two earlier shootings. He faces up to life in prison.

For Diamond, who is also the president of the tenants association at McKinley Houses, the 2006 shooting marked a turning point in the community.

“The night that this happened I just got tired,” Diamond said. The next day, he summoned local authorities and community members, and led a demonstration to the site of the shooting.

“We took back our project,” he said. “Before, you couldn’t go in there because drug dealers had taken it, the kids couldn’t play there.”

“It’s quiet now, very quiet, no more drug dealers, nothing like that,” Diamond said, adding that more police have been patrolling the area. “The children are allowed to play out there.”

At the McKinley Houses, in Morrisania not everyone remembers the August 2006 shooting.

At the McKinley Houses, in Morrisania, not everyone remembers the August 2006 shooting. Photo by Alice Speri

Since then, Diamond has been mentoring local young people.

“They call us the OGs, the old guys,” he said of himself and other older residents who have been working to improve communication with the younger generation. “I earned their respect; they talk to me.”

Diamond has also helped Angela Griffin, the aunt of one of the victims, set up a foundation in his memory. The Jason Semidey Foundation, located at the nearby Forest Houses on Trinity Avenue, offers GED classes and assistance with resumes and job interviews.

“I knew Jason very well, he grew up with my kids, I used to encourage him to get a job,” said Diamond, adding that just two days before being shot, Semidey had started a job as a maintenance worker.

Diamond said that Semidey’s death has encouraged his friends to get jobs. “Something good came out of it,” he said. “He’s never gonna be forgotten.”

Some in the neighborhood, however, have forgotten the incident or moved on.

“I hate to be so nonchalant about this stuff,” said Daisy Hassel, a 30-year-old resident of the Forest Homes. “But I don’t remember that happening.”

There were 113 murders in the Bronx in 2009 alone, nearly a quarter of the total for the entire city. The number, however, shows a 14 percent decrease over the last four years.

“It’s not anything different from what happens in this area,” said Earl Childs, the program director at the McKinley Homes Community Center. “People get shot, life goes on.”

“Bloomberg says things are getting better,” Childs said. “But if you ask people around here, things are not getting better.” Childs also disagreed with Diamond about the increase in police presence.

“I don’t remember when is the last time I saw a cop around here,” Childs said.

Like Diamond, however, Childs refuses to give up and continues to mentor young people at the housing project, as he did before Crocket and Semidey were killed.

“The way we address this is to provide these kids with something else to do,” he said.

“We are talking about kids that live a life of hopelessness, there’s no way out; they think, I need to pick up a gun.” In a sense, Murray was a victim of this, too, Childs added.

To keep the memory of the victims alive, Diamond organizes a memorial event every Aug. 16 – the anniversary of the shooting – with candlelight vigils and a basketball tournament on the very court where Semidey fell to the ground.

But Childs says more has to be done.

“All programs are gonna have to work together,” he said. “All branches of the government, all youth services, the board of education.”

Diamond agreed.

“There’s gotta be more than a candlelight vigil,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern BronxComments (4)

An Ex-Addict Pushes a Message of Hope and Healing

By Amanda Staab

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz had to hit rock bottom before he could turn his life around and  stop his addiction. Now, he is an active member of the Bronx community, reaching out to as many young people as he can. Photo by Amanda Staab

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz had to hit rock bottom before he could turn his life around and stop his addiction. Now, he is an active member of the Bronx community, reaching out to as many young people as he can. Photo by Amanda Staab

On a recent cold and windy Friday night in the Bronx, rumors spread on the street about a gang initiation week about to start. While some residents were afraid to leave their homes after dark, one man opened the doors to a local church and invited the community to come together in song.

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz, a 40-year-old man with a robust frame and a big smile, took center stage alongside his seven teen backup singers, and the crowd joined in, singing “Healing rain is falling down. I’m not afraid,” a gospel song by Michael W. Smith.

La Iglesia Evangelio de Amor church on Van Nest Avenue was packed with kids and adults, all of them standing in rows and clapping to the beat, some of them closing their eyes and gently shaking their heads. The happy clamor echoed outside, and even more people came in and took a look around.

The focus of the event, though, was not the religion or the music. It was the young people of the Bronx.

“We want to show them that you can be part of a community without being part of a gang,” said Diaz, once he came down from the stage.

Diaz, commonly called Danny within the community, is a substance abuse counselor who has been organizing similar events up to three times a month at local churches, schools, and youth prisons. He began this work a year and a half ago through LifeCause, a grassroots organization he started from his parents’ basement in Soundview.

“I live right in the midst of this war zone, which I call the Bronx, New York City, and we’re fighting for the lives of our kids, to give them a shot,” he said.

LifeCause aims to raise awareness among young African-Americans and Hispanics about HIV and AIDS, gangs, substance abuse, domestic violence, and any other issue that disproportionately affects those communities. Since he started, Diaz has recruited approximately 12 kids who either met him through the various congregations he visits or at the events LifeCause sponsors.

In addition to acting out real-life scenarios in skits and helping distribute free AIDS tests, Diaz’s team tries to reach out to other teens and talk to them about the issues and whatever else they may be facing. The goal, said Diaz, is to send a message to the young people that they can persevere despite difficult circumstances.

“The dream is to let this movement, so to speak, LifeCause affect these kids and, hopefully, they’ll affect others and their families,” said Diaz. The group not only addresses awareness and prevention, but also what the kids are doing to prepare for a successful future.

“We try to get them involved in GED courses,” said Diaz. “We try to get them involved in jobs. We bring them back into community, help them get connected with other youth, other churches, and with other people who are striving to do the same thing.”

Though local churches and other community groups sometimes help host events, Diaz funds most LifeCause events entirely on his own, with his own money. Though he’s not a rich man – he makes little more than $40,000 salary – Diaz manages to make it work.

“This is not an overnight thing,” said Diaz. “I’ve been just saving and buying, saving and buying.” Little by little, he has accumulated tables, chairs, and sound equipment. This past summer, his parents and sister helped him purchase a concert-grade stage for LifeCause events.

Diaz and his team are careful about their methods. They don’t lecture. They try to break the issues down and present them in music, skits, or games, any way that will get through to the kids.

“We tell them how it is,” said Carlos Aristy, 21, who’s known Diaz for years and started helping him write and act out skits about drug abuse and gang violence. “This is real life. This is what they go through.”

Aristy was raised by his grandmother in Hunts Point. At a very young age, he had witnessed exactly how drug addiction can destroy a person’s life. While his peers hung out on the street, Aristy used that example to keep him motivated in school. He managed to graduate high school on time, but dropped out of college after only one year. After talking it out with Diaz, Aristy said he was inspired to go back to school, and now he plans to start at Bronx Community College in January to pursue a degree in digital arts.

While he’s in college, Aristy said he plans to continue helping Diaz. He said his experiences with the group have opened his eyes. The event that moved him most was two months ago. Diaz and his crew visited a Bronx youth prison, where Aristy noticed a small kid, a nine-year-old boy, sitting in the back of the room full of teenagers.

“I was like, ‘We really got to hit the community,’” said Aristy.

LifeCause also organized and sponsored several block parties this past summer with music, raffles, basketball, and even free haircuts. Local churches hosted the events, which also included health information and free HIV tests.

“Our goal is to make it so normal for a person to want to get tested or to want to implement a coping strategy or a condom negotiation strategy,” said Diaz. He’s also organized conferences for pastors, so that they can raise awareness about health concerns with their own parishioners.

LifeCause hosted a block party outside the Rock of Salvation Church at 1179 Hoe Ave. last October. Photo courtesy of LifeCause

LifeCause hosted a block party outside the Rock of Salvation Church at 1179 Hoe Ave. last October. Photo courtesy of LifeCause

“There are issues that need to be spoken about in church,” said Diaz. “People may not readily want to hear what the doctor has to say. They may trust the pastor.”

Diaz and his LifeCause team are praised by members of the community. “He’s great at what he does,” said Albie Sanabria, the youth minister at Crossway Church on Bruckner Boulevard who met Diaz at an event a year ago. “He loves people. I see the joy when he deals with people, even on the street.”

Diaz wasn’t always hitting the sidewalks and passing out pamphlets on HIV. He openly talks about the years he was a drug addict, lost on the streets.

“I came up in the city, and even though I had great parents, somewhere along the cracks, I was traumatized,” he said. Diaz said that he was sexually abused when he was four years old by a family friend who used to babysit him. He kept it a secret, but the effects carried into his adolescence.

“I started to act out,” he said. “I started to be very angry and wanting to hurt myself, and slowly but surely, I began to medicate.” Diaz got hooked on alcohol and drugs. He started with nicotine and moved on to marijuana, then cocaine.

Diaz dropped out of high school as a junior and began hitting the clubs. He eventually worked at a few, stocking the bars and collecting bottles during parties. For nearly three years, this kept him and his drug business busy. The extra money also helped him fuel his own habit.

By the time he was 20, Diaz hadn’t acknowledged the trauma of his past. He buried who he really was under a shell, he said, and it felt horrible. His addiction isolated him, and he was losing relationships. Diaz would be gone from home for days at a time, and his parents had no idea where he was. When he did sometimes return, he said his mother would hide her face and cry when she saw him.

“I was in the grips of addiction where all that was important for me was the next high,” said Diaz. It wasn’t until he found himself reeking of urine and smoking crack alone beneath the staircase of a Morrisania project that he thought he might have hit rock bottom. That’s when, he said, he asked for a sign from God.

“I decided to give him a chance,” said Diaz, “because I had lost a lot, lost relationships, lost family, was losing my home. The turn-around comes when you begin to lose everything and you become aware of it.”

Two days later, Diaz made his way home to tell his parents everything. His family had been praying for him and asking close friends to keep him in their thoughts. That afternoon, his older sister, Elizabeth Diaz, asked him to go with her to her church, a place where people had gone for help with problems similar to his.

As children, the two siblings had been very close. Diaz said every time someone offered him a candy, he always asked for another for his sister. He never left her out. As a teenager, Diaz wrote a rap with a friend that haunted his sister while she witnessed his decline. “‘There’s more to life than this,’” she said the hook went. “‘There’s more to life than this.’ That’s what comes to my mind when I think about those days.”

The church she took him to was the Love Gospel Assembly on the Grand Concourse  in the heart of the Bronx.  Diaz, hard and streetwise, took a seat in the back next to his sister. To his surprise, he recognized a prostitute he knew standing a few pews ahead with her hands up in the air, singing.

“I look at this woman, and I see the tracks, the heroin tracks on her arms, and I couldn’t believe that she was beautiful, clean, and she had tears in her eyes, but she was smiling,” said Diaz. “I was like, ‘How can she be smiling and crying at the same time?’ I didn’t understand, and then it hit me that she was experiencing something that I wanted.”

The pastor stopped the service in the middle and announced that God wanted  him to ask if there was anyone in the pews who needed to approach the altar and receive a blessing. Diaz’s sister looked over at him and told him to go.

“I challenged Danny that afternoon,” she said. “I said, ‘Danny, what’s it going to be? If you’re a real man, you’re going to go up there.’” Reluctantly, Diaz walked to the front of the church. The pastor placed a hand on Diaz’s forehead.

“It was like God stopped everything that he had to do in heaven just for me in that very moment and made himself real to me in that very moment,” said Diaz, who previously hadn’t been much of a believer. The blessing was his first experience with God, he said, and what made him really change his life.

That same pastor, the late Bishop Gerald Julius Kaufman, helped Diaz find a rehabilitation center, and when Diaz made it through the 18-month program, Kaufman hired him as a janitor for the church.

“That place made it happen for me,” said Diaz. Focusing on his new job and avoiding old acquaintances helped him stay clean. On his lunch breaks, said Diaz, he volunteered at the church’s kitchen, which served about 400 meals to the homeless every weekday. He was taking his apron off, getting ready to return to work, when a woman, a social worker who also attended the church, approached him.

She asked him to have a seat with her on the white marble stairs leading to the first floor. She told him that she could see his potential and that he could do whatever he wanted with his life. “You know what happened that day?” Diaz paused and started again a bit softer. “I believed her.”

The woman suggested he start with his GED, and he did. He went on to apply to Fordham University, but the admissions counselor there told him he might have a better chance getting in somewhere else. Just as he was walking back toward the subway and about to give up, his cousin told him, over the phone, about the college’s Higher Education Opportunity Program, run by the state to give economically and educationally disadvantaged students a chance at college. Diaz turned around and ran to the program director’s office and asked for a chance to prove himself. He said he also promised the director that if he did make the cut, he would stay in the city to reinvest in the young people who were just like him.

“When she saw that I was serious, she gave me a chance, she gave me a shot,” said Diaz. He was admitted and enrolled at the age of 24. Diaz graduated in four years, and that’s when he started his work as a substance abuse counselor in the Bronx.

Diaz is now helping recovering addicts through his job at the Next Steps program, run by Albert Einstein College of Medicine on 161st Street. “It’s the fulfillment of who I was born to be,” said Diaz. “I really feel that this is my purpose and calling in life. Anything that I do with it almost feels like part of a puzzle is coming together.”

In the future, Diaz plans to develop a program through LifeCause that would help at-risk teens or young people already abusing drugs or dealing with other issues get back on track and get access to education and jobs. For now, he is also taking night classes, working toward a dual master’s degree in social work and theology at Fordham.

His aim, though, is not be a pastor with a single congregation. Instead, Diaz said he would like to continue spending his weekends reaching out to as many young people as he can by walking the streets and organizing various LifeCause events.

“He’s a leader,” said Diaz’s sister. “He’s always been a leader, and to see him lead is really a beautiful thing.” He’s dynamic and creative, she said, and knows how to motivate people.

His team members value the way Diaz has used his experiences to inspire others. “He’ll look at something, and he’ll say, ‘I want to do this, this, and that,’” said Adam Olazabal, 20, who volunteers as security for LifeCause events whenever he can. “He’ll come up with a little idea, and as he goes on, the idea will keep growing… and you’ll see it.”

Because he spends his own money to fund events, Diaz lives in a few rooms in his parents’ basement. The space that might otherwise serve as a bedroom is filled with folding tables, tents, a collapsible stage, sound equipment, and boxes upon boxes of HIV tests.

Diaz has managed to carve out a corner for his office, a small desk with a computer that is surrounded by shelves overflowing with books on health and religion.

“My thing now is reading up on gangs, homelessness, and all types of social ills that I address,” said Diaz, “things that help me sharpen my skills.” A thick book with Billy Graham’s smiling face on it was turned toward Diaz as he sat. He said he also tries to follow the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi.

Like some leaders from the past, Diaz believes his faith and his responsibility to his community go hand in hand. To explain it, he paraphrased words from the Bible: “Do away with your religious rites and your religious ceremony. That’s not important. Be just. Do what’s right by your brother.”

Though he grew up in Soundview, Diaz does most of his work in Morrisania, a section in the Bronx, he said, that really needs help. “Morrisania has one of the highest rates of everything,” said Diaz. He then listed diabetes, HIV infections, and gang violence. “It’s an epicenter.”

Poverty and an overall lack of resources and opportunities necessary to succeed, said Diaz, have held back several Bronx neighborhoods. And, many times, those who actually do make it, don’t come back to help.

“When people usually get it together, let’s say, they want to get out,” said Diaz. “To them, that means success. Nobody wants to stay. Nobody wants to reinvest within the community.”

Olazabal, who met Diaz at the church on Grand Concourse, grew up in Bronx projects and said he’s seen much of the same.

“Everybody feels they’ve done enough,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you know, I’ve already put my part in, so let me let the next person do whatever I didn’t really finish.’ That’s how a lot of things never get done. That’s how there are a lot of gaps.”

The young man said Diaz is different and he believes in what the LifeCause founder is trying to do. After all, Olazabal himself is another example of Diaz’s success. He recently took the GED exam, after Diaz helped him register. Olazabal, who’s been in and out of trouble, now plans on going to college, and he’s considering a career in music or carpentry.

Though Diaz himself is a success story, he has kept his promise and stayed to be a positive force in the Bronx. Again, he referred to the Bible:  “He said you are the salt of the city. He said you are the preservative of the city. If you leave, the city will rot, the city will go and be no more. In other words, the city needs you.” Then, he took a breath. “Powerful,” he said, and let out a bellowing laugh.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

In Class, Teen Immigrants Put Health on the Menu

By Amanda Staab

Bronx International High School students learn that some of their favorite foods in their new home, New York City, may not be so good for them. Photo by Amanda Staab

Bronx International High School students learn that some of their favorite foods in their new home, New York City, may not be so good for them. Photo by Amanda Staab

Most people who immigrate to the United States come seeking a better life, but a group of young newcomers in the Bronx are finding that some things were better back home in Central America.

“All the food that my mother used to cook over there, everything was fresh,” said Maria Mota, who explained that it is quite common for homes in the Dominican Republic to have their own fruit and vegetable gardens. “Here, we have to go to the supermarket.” And there, she said, the produce can be many days and thousands of miles from the soil where it was grown.

That’s one of the issues Mota and five fellow seniors at Bronx International High School in Morrisania are currently exploring in a city-run internship program that aims at helping teens learn more about getting healthy food in their new country.

Learn It, Grow It, Eat It, is run by the Council on the Environment of New York City. It replaces regularly scheduled classes every Friday, when students meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the project director, David Saphire.

“The food that is brought to New York comes from far away,” said senior Juan Carlos Vasquez, who immigrated four years ago, “so it loses vitamins.” In the Bronx, more specifically, it is sometimes even more difficult to find vitamin-rich foods, as most of the grocery stores are bodegas with  limited selections.

Shoppers, however, can get fresher, locally grown food at the Greenmarket near Lincoln Hospital, where the students recently filmed a short public service announcement explaining how to use food stamps at farmers’ markets. Mota, who’s been in this country seven years — the longest of anyone in the group —  narrated the video in both English and Spanish, while two other girls in the program, Nioluis Vargas and Patricia De La Rosa, acted out a purchase with an EBT card. When the video is ready, it could either appear on a local cable TV station or on the council’s web site.

The kids said it’s important to let people in the Bronx know that they can, in fact, get better produce, even if they are on food stamps.“Even though they want to, they don’t know they can buy fresh fruits from the Greenmarket,” said De La Rosa. The students prefer the Greenmarket, they said, because it carries many of the foods they recognize.

They also recently finished getting plots in three separate community gardens ready for the winter. They’ve spent weeks weeding out what remains of the last harvest and planting garlic, activities that they said remind them of their chores back home. “I used to do it in my home country,” said Vasquez, who also volunteered to do a little landscaping when a few branches on a tree in one of the gardens needed trimming.

Now that the weather has changed, the students have retreated to a classroom at the council’s headquarters on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Sitting at a long table flanked by overflowing bookshelves, they took a closer look at their eating and drinking habits, decoding the nutrition labels of some of their favorite foods.

“They’re trying to make it seem like this is a very healthy drink, but if you look at the very small print here, it says 30 percent juice,” said Saphire, holding up an empty bottle with pictures of fruit on its label. The other 70 percent, the students quickly guessed correctly, is sugar and water.

Saphire got out a box of sugar, a teaspoon, and a plastic drinking cup to demonstrate exactly how much sugar that would be. The students said that discovery has been the most surprising so far.

“I was consuming a lot of sugar,” said Vasquez, who had returned from his lunch run with only a stack of cheese to eat. “I’m trying to change my diet to something different because I have seen the stuff I am eating is not healthy for me.” His teacher joked that he could start by eating dairy products in moderation.

In addition to showing the students exactly how much sugar they could be drinking on a daily basis and emphasizing a balance in diet, Saphire also interjected tidbits of business theory. He explained that soda manufacturers often use high-fructose corn syrup, thought by some to lead to diabetes, instead of sugar because it’s cheaper. It also has a longer shelf life.

When the topic moved on to fast food, the kids were not surprised to learn that fresh fruit and vegetables are probably healthier than what they admitted was their favorite American cuisine, McDonald’s.

“It’s like something magic that makes it taste good,” said Vargas, who came to New York from Honduras four years ago. That “magic,” Saphire explained, is really all the salt, fat, and sugar. He has developed a McDonald’s IQ test that most of his students, and many adults, fail.

“Sometimes, things are very deceiving there,” said Saphire. “You think your common sense tells you which has the most fat, and then you’re wrong.” One surprise:  the deluxe warm cinnamon roll has more trans fat than a double quarter pounder with cheese.

De La Rosa was very surprised by the sodium in ketchup, 110 mg per packet –  a third of the salt in a large order of fries.

“I can’t live without ketchup,” she said. Last year, she used to go to McDonald’s with her friends every Friday after school, but this year, she’s already cut back to “sometimes.”

The point of the exercise, said Saphire, is not to scare the kids away from McDonald’s. “I’m not here to say, ‘Don’t go to McDonald’s,’ ” he said, “but I want them, when they are going to go, to get a sense of what they are eating.”

Saphire is an environmental scientist, not a nutritionist, but since he helped start the educational program six years ago, he’s become more knowledgeable and wants his students to know the difference between natural and processed foods. “It’s more like what does a reasonably intelligent person need to know to make an informed decision,” he said.

In addition to their lessons in nutrition, the students also sometimes get a bit of an English tutorial, covering forgotten and new words alike. In a recent week, words of the day were sausage, dilution, and bootleg. “It’s part of what I try to do also, build up certain vocabulary, whatever comes up,” said Saphire. In turn, the kids, he said, have inspired him to take a Spanish class.

When they have finally mastered the basics in food, the students plan to also offer a class for fellow students back at the high school and, maybe, other city schools.

“They don’t know what they are doing to themselves,” said Mota, “like the way that they eat, the type of food that they eat, so they are getting sick and stuff like that. So, we’re trying to tell them how to read the labels, so they know how many calories and how many teaspoons of sugar they are putting in their bodies.”

The students are also happy to expand their sphere of influence. “It’s not just helping in one place,” said Vasquez. “We are going to help many people.”

The program is also not only about food. After finding a broomstick and a tennis ball in one of the gardens, Saphire taught the kids an old American pastime, stickball. “We don’t have the tennis ball anymore,” said Vasquez, who immediately let out a laugh and confessed he was the one who lost it.

The internship coordinator at the Bronx International High School, Deo Persaud, said that it’s good for the kids to get out of the traditional classroom. “We are giving them the opportunity to develop job skills and also get a feel for the work environment before they graduate high school,” he said. The Bronx International High School, part of the Morris High School campus, serves approximately 360 students, many of whom will enter the workforce right after graduation, said Persaud.

All the students in the Learn It, Grow It, Eat It internship program said they plan to go to college, but not to study something food-related, they said — instead, they’ll look for  something “money-related.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (3)

For Two Old Friends, Wii Isn’t Child’s Play

Tyrone Owens plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Ave. in Morrisania. Photo by Alec Johnson

James Haggins, 61, plays Wii bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center on Franklin Avenue in Morrisania as Carlos Isa looks on. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson

They grew up with stickball in the streets. As classmates at P.S. 63 and Morris High School, they played basketball. Now two old buddies in Morrisania are continuing their decades-long competition  on Monday afternoons throwing strikes and spares in the recreation room of the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center, where they join a group of senior citizens to play Nintendo Wii.

“We’re regulars, said Tyrone Owens, 63, about himself and his lifelong friend, James Haggins, 61. “We go back 60 years in the same neighborhood.”

Owens and Haggins join about a half dozen others who compete in a videogame more common on a teenager’s Christmas list. The Wii is actually owned by the Morrisania Public Library, and librarian Ilham Al-Basri

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon.

James Haggins and Tyrone Owens take a break from Wii Bowling at the Arturo Schomburg Senior Center where they play every Monday afternoon. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

brings it to the center each week as part of the library’s outreach program.

“The senior citizens like the Wii,” said  Al-Basri, who got the idea for using  Wii Sports last year at the New York Public Library health fair.

Dedicated players aren’t the only asset in Morrisania. “We’re lucky the center has this big TV,” said Al-Basri, pointing to a screen wider than a bowling lane. “Wii Sports are better played on a bigger screen.”

The room doesn’t look much like a bowling alley, with its hanging plants and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. But there’s lots of room — it’s about 20 by 30 feet — and the players have the space they need to score high. On a recent Monday,  Owens was hot, throwing strike after strike and finishing with a winning score of 165. Haggins seems a little rusty; he didn’t break 100. (As in regular bowling, a score of 300 is a perfect game.)

Owens credited his history of athletic prowess. As a child, he rode a unicycle around Morrisania, and, when he was 12, he taught his brother Albert how to ride. Albert took the skill beyond the neighborhood to perform with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Although it has been decades since anyone has seen Owens ride, he insists he could still do it if he wanted to.

Al-Basri teased Haggins about his loss. “You missed last Monday,” he said. “It shows when you miss a Monday. Athletes need to practice every day.”

Al-Basri said the seniors chose Wii bowling over Wii tennis because it is more realistic. “Bowling is more energizing and it is more true to the real world,” said Al-Basri, who, as a tennis player, agrees that Wii tennis isn’t up to snuff.

In the nine months since the seniors started playing Wii, they have gained nicknames from the senior center’s janitor, Eric Dance, who christened Owens  “Ty Boogey” and calls Haggins “Moose” to encourage them. “Those guys are keeping it strong,” he said.

“It’s show time, Ty Boogey,” Dance hollered as Owens set up for a frame. He leapt forward three steps, then swung his right arm and lifted his right leg as if he were hurling a 12-pound bowling ball at real pins in the local bowling ally. The digital ball rocketed down the lane and after all nine pins fell, the sound of a perfect strike resonated from the television. With a wide grin on his face, Owens returned to his seat and waited his next turn.

In the meantime, a determined Haggins stepped up, and bowled in an awkwardly quick shuffle. It was a little off the mark, but not enough so he couldn’t finish strong with a second shot. You would think Haggins and Owens were ninepin regulars, but neither has spent much time bowling for real.

“He’s back in the game with a spare,” hollered Dance, followed by a brief round of applause. That, however was the end of his rebound.

“This is good exercise and good motivation for the seniors,” said the Rev. Idus Nunn, director of the senior center. “I’m trying to get another day in the week or maybe a grant so we can get our own Wii.”

As  the top scorer of the day, Owens won a green fleece jacket donated to the senior center for the winner of the week’s tournament.

Looking down at his plate of mashed potatoes and a piece of chicken fried steak, Owens said, “This is a victory meal for me.”  It brought back memories. Growing up,  Owens and Haggins spent frequented each others’ houses. “My mama was the neighborhood cook,” said Haggins.

Despite the game’s outcome, Haggins and Owens both agreed that Wii bowling is much more fun than bingo. And although they see each other every day, they look forward to playing every week to keep their competition going for the rest of their lives.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, SportsComments (0)

Church of the Holy Rollers

By Alex Berg

One by one, seven teenage boys zipped down the hallway on skateboards. Like successive bullets fired out of a shotgun, the teens hit a waist high ramp that launched them into a tango with the air and the board beneath their feet. Fifteen year-old Jose Castillo flew off the triangular ramp, air bound for mere seconds before his feet and board separated, bringing him crashing to the ground under a nearby basketball hoop.

The hoop was tagged with yellow, orange and red graffiti — “Jesus Lives.” The skate ramp was inside a South Bronx church.

Castillo is a member of HeavenBound7, a skateboarding team started by Henry Pena, a 51-year-old computer technician by day and volunteer youth minister by night at La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Church. Pena is something of a coach to the 30 to 40 teens on the team who come to the Morrisania church on Friday nights to skate on ramps and grind rails he built himself.

During some practices, Pena instructs Castillo to bend his knees or fix his form. Other times he is a quiet onlooker. But his mission is always clear: give kids a constructive activity in an unexpected location to get them off the streets in a neighborhood taxed by drugs and crime.

When the skaters tell outsiders they skateboard inside a church, they’re often met with crooked stares. The fusion of religion and skateboarding strikes people as novel, since religion is associated with discipline and skateboarding is an unconventional sport. Then again, skateboarding is simply a rarity in the Bronx, where there are only three skate parks – Mullaly near Yankee Stadium, one on Allerton Avenue towards the northeast and Throgs Neck in the far northeast – and none in the Central or South Bronx.

“The Bronx is gritty,” said Damion Blair, a 20-year-old student at the Art Institute of New York, who was one of the first to skate in the church with a congregation of 50. “It’s real hard to raise any kids with the violence. It’s not a good environment. You never hear skaters come to the Bronx to skate. Never. You hear skaters go to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Because there’s no safe environment for people to skate.”

The church HeavenBound7 calls home, an unexceptional tan building with traditional red doors and a well-lit sign, is located in a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of families lived in poverty in 2007. It is on 169th Street two blocks away from where a 15-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy when she was caught in gang cross fire walking home from school in November. She remarkably survived.

HeavenBound7 is the first of its kind in the Bronx, though skateboarding ministries are emerging around the country as a way to draw kids to church, said Steve Rodriguez, a representative of 5boro, a New York skate gear manufacturer and skate team sponsor.

“It’s funny to me because it’s like complete irony,” said Mathew Melendez, a 19-year-old City Tech student who was also one of the first to join HeavenBound7. “Skateboarding is all like rebels climbing over fences looking for good spots. And then church people are like good fellow people. Put that all together it’s like, what, a skateboarding team by a church? Whoa.”

At the end of practice, Pena, who counts woodworking as a hobby, used a drill to remove a railing attached to the floor. The team helped with the effort, moving the wood ramps and platforms to the corners of the recreation room. When everything was cleaned up, they congregated around Pena outside before he drove a few of them home. They can’t walk home around 9 p.m. because the streets are “hot,” in Pena’s words.

“I just feel there’s a need for people to be a little bit more sympathetic about kids,” Pena said, as his normally warm voice became raspy and choked up. “Because there’s so many people out there who are willing to say ‘Hey, want to sell some drugs? Want to go beat up this kid? Or go steal this? I want to give them a safe haven to get away from that.”

The team opens its doors to kids who often come from “disadvantaged homes, very sad situations,” said Chanabelle Arriaga, a member of the church and the president of the HeavenBound7 board that advises and supports the team. “I just wish there were more people who cared who would take an interest in the underprivileged and not turn their cheek.”

Pena, who has four daughters of his own, definitely does not turn a cheek; he literally invites kids off the streets into the church to add to the cacophonous clattering and clanking that echoes throughout the building thanks to the skating.

“We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Melanie Figueroa, the mother of Shane Rivera, one of the skaters. “They needed a male role model. They started out with one little trick and they gained so much knowledge.”

Shane Rivera has also acknowledged the benefits of the team, which spurned a personal commitment to school and self-improvement. It has provided Rivera with a religious outlet, though he normally attends a Catholic church closer to his home.

“It’s kind of a weird skate spot,” said Rivera, a muscular fifteen-year-old clad in a trendy skating t-shirt. “I think we’re the only team that does this; we’ll say a prayer before we skate.”

Nevertheless, none of the teens have skateboards that say “I follow Jesus Christ Skateboarder” on the underside of the deck, the wooden board, or t-shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” across the chest. (And there is most definitely no “Jesus died so you could skate” merchandise.)

A skater goes off the up-ramp at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

A skater "soars high" at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

Religious participation is not mandatory. There is an occasional Bible lesson or prayer, though Pena usually teaches about “soaring high” in other areas of life, like education, personal hygiene and getting a good job.

The results of Pena’s efforts are palpable. The team, which runs on a $500 stipend from the church and is mostly paid for out of Pena’s pocket, will be giving $2,000 towards two college scholarships in the spring, one for a HeavenBound7 skater and the other for a local high school student from fundraising and money donated by church outsiders and companies like Plaza Construction, where board president Arriaga works.

Some of the costs are due to Pena’s inclination to give out skateboards on the street, as he did before he started the team. After taking a class at the church that encouraged participants to delve into a hobby, Pena tried to construct a skateboard using his woodworking knowhow. He couldn’t build a functional skateboard, but his interest grew and he opened a skate shop with a friend, then one on his own in Mott Haven last year. He left both behind because they were too expensive and too much work to maintain.

Without the stores to worry about, the bills still add up. The team travels to New Jersey and Connecticut to go to skate parks and amateur competitions, where a few of the skaters have placed. Pena spent roughly $3,000 of his own money on raw materials to build the ramps and equipment for the team this year. The church should also purchase special insurance in the event of an injury that would cost $150 per month on top of its current insurance, but cannot afford it.

Fortunately, the skaters mostly throw 360 flips and ollies instead of, say, a “Christ air,” a trick where a skater lets go of their board entirely as he or she is launched off a ramp and holds his or her arms out to look like the image of crucified Christ.

“They want to complete a trick. So I think what’s appealing about it is a sense of accomplishment,” Pena, who became the youth minister nine years ago, said. “Then they transfer that sense of accomplishment to school. That’s one of my regulations. You do good in school you can come here and skate. You don’t do good in school, I’m sorry.”

Since Jose Castillo began participating in the team, he has improved in school because Pena asks to see report cards and he has begun helping neighborhood kids with their skating.

“I used to be the type of kid who used to be in the streets. And like, do nothing else,” said Castillo, who has lose, lanky limbs that matched his relaxed manner. “But after I got involved in skateboarding, met Henry and came over here, it’s like everything just changed. Became a new kid, actually.”

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail.  By Alex Berg

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail. By Alex Berg

For Castillo, skating has become an all-consuming way of life. He has to make a concerted effort to skate less. During one practice, he cut his foot from a fall. Pena bandaged it up in a bathroom the teens skate out of to propel themselves down a hallway and into the recreation room because they have limited space.

The skaters occasionally skate outside to escape the tight space, a relief from crashing into a wall at the end of the up-ramp. That has allowed some of the participants to go places they normally would not go.

“It opens up your mind to different things. It doesn’t make you secluded. You meet a lot of new people that you never thought you’d meet or talk to. If we never had a skateboard we’d never know half of the places in Manhattan,” Blair, who calls Pena a “second pops,” said.

While the skaters have found a venue for athleticism and personal growth in the team, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Many of the parishioners have voiced their differences with skating in the church, said William Garcia, the president of the church board and Pena’s brother in law.

Skateboarding leaves black marks on the church’s floors, which angers parishioners who want to preserve the condition of the recreation room. There have been scheduling conflicts to use the space and the skating is very loud. (The parishioners who are most vocal against the skateboarding did not return any calls or emails.)

Not to mention, since the days Pena was a teenager himself at the church after he was invited in by a youth minister, different administrations have been more or less welcoming of youth activities. Some have felt it is a nuisance and the church is not a place for teenagers while others have been open to youth activities.

“I feel like he’s the one actually bringing the kids in that church,” Nicole Ortiz, Pena’s 24-year-old daughter, said. “He’s the only one making an effort to reach out into the community. The church is being very rigid and conventional. They don’t want to try new things.”

The skaters are cognizant of the disagreements over the space. Melendez and Blair both said they understood why the congregation would want to preserve the space, since it is used for other activities.

Positive feedback from parents has temporarily assuaged the churchgoers’ gripes. However, there is no answer for the growing team’s need for a larger space. Pena’s next mission is to campaign for a skate park in the Central or South Bronx.

The skaters want one too. Yet Castillo is concerned that if there’s a skate park nearby, the skaters will have to deal with threats other than their safety. He frets that once other kids start skateboarding, they’ll fall in love with the sport and take each other’s boards.

“Around here you got all these projects and stuff,” Castillo said. “You put a skate park in the projects, some kid could come out of nowhere and say ‘hey, give me your skateboard.’ And then they’re going to get so addicted to it they’re going to come every day and take every single kid that comes to the park they’re skateboard.”

Still, more holy rollers would be welcomed, maybe even praised.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (3)

1269-1271 Morris Ave

By Alex Berg and Alex Abu Ata

Two weeks after Carmen Perez moved into her apartment at 1271 Morris Ave. in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, the bathroom ceiling collapsed. Water gushed into the apartment she shares with her seven children. That was last November, the beginning of an entire winter Perez endured without heat or hot water.

The ceiling was finally repaired only three months ago, 10 months later.

Perez’s problems are common to the tenants at 1271 and its sister building next door at 1269 Morris Ave. Many tenants live in rodent-infested apartments with sinking floors, cracked walls and tiling, leaks and broken windows. Last winter, Fidelina Espinal said she had no heat for four weeks in her apartment in 1271.

The management company has not been responsive to these problems.

“By the time you wait for these people you die,” said Linda Gonzales, who lives on the first floor of 1269.

Ocelot purchased the buildings for $1.95 million in 2007 from FJF Management, according to the city register. After the real estate investment company ran out of money in July, the building went into receivership. It is currently being maintained by receiver Marc Landis through Treetop Management, a company based in New Jersey. Treetop has been making some repairs to the building to prepare it for sale, according to the superintendent Juan Ruiz, who has lived in 1269 for three years.

There are currently 301 violations for 1269 and 237 for 1271, according to the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Different management companies and building superintendents have come and gone in the last couple of years. Many of the tenants, however, attribute much of the buildings’ disrepair to Ocelot.

“The previous owners? There were a lot of problems,” said Ivan Jimenez, who has lived in a fourth floor apartment in 1271 for 30 years. “The super can’t do anything unless the landlord gives him the money to do so. But if the landlord doesn’t give him the money and the supplies, he can’t do anything.”

Of the 15 apartments in each building, seven are vacant in 1269 and two are vacant in 1271. There are no locks on the front doors of either building. Peeling paint, trash, condoms, mold and dirt line the hallways on many of the floors. Official complaints in both buildings range from mold to lead, and in 2007, 1271 was named one of the 200 most poorly maintained buildings by HPD.

“At one point rats came out of the ceiling,” Jimenez said. “Six rats fell into the tub.”

Some tenants pay low subsidized rent, around $400, or no rent at all like Perez, whose $1,100 rent is entirely subsidized. Many of the tenants owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent.

Last week, the tenants’ concerns were briefly appeased when the heat came on. But some, like Carmen Perez, are unsure whether they’ll continue to live in the building after their lease runs out.

Posted in HousingComments (0)

In McKinley Square, an Unlikely Grocer

by Amanda Staab

Staab_marketstory_storypage

At the Youthmarket, buyers get healthy bargains and sellers learn about the business of farming. Photo by Amanda Staab

On McKinley Square, a small, paved island in the middle of the busy intersection between Boston Road and East 169th Street, local students run an outdoor farmers’ market, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the South Bronx.

“For the community, it’s providing access to healthy food at a reasonable price, and for the kids, it’s helping them develop all kinds of skills,” said David Saphire, the project director for Learn it, Grow it, Eat it, a summer program that teaches students about eating healthy and growing their own food. For six weeks, the kids get their hands dirty in three community gardens in Morrisania, and a portion of that harvest is sold at the outdoor market.

The market in Morrisania, open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  from July through October, is one of four Youthmarkets, which are considered satellites of the larger, more established Greenmarkets. They are organized by the New York City Council on the Environment in the Bronx, with others in Marble Hill, Tremont, and Riverdale.

“There are some neighborhoods that farmers are reluctant to dedicate a whole day to working in because they feel they wouldn’t have the sales, but yet, there is still a demand for fresh produce,” said Saphire.

The goal behind the markets is to provide healthy food to poor communities, and in its second year, the market has seen business change, as cash sales dropped and food stamp sales soared to more than half the total transactions.

Youthmarkets stand out from other farmers’ markets in New York City that don’t have the same pressure to cater to lower income crowds.

“It’s marvelous that the farmers’ market has come to the South Bronx for less fortunate people with healthy, good products that we definitely need in this community,” said Arlene Overstreet, a Morrisania resident for 31 years who recently bought all the produce for her family dinner for just $6.

The produce comes mostly from farms in upstate New York. It supplements the limited selection ordinarily available to residents in the Bronx.

“There’s a shortage of venues for buying healthy food, for buying fresh produce, and it’s even more difficult to find locally grown fresh produce,” said Saphire. He would not call Morrisania a “food desert,” a new term used to describe regions with close to no healthy food access, he said, because there are grocers in the neighborhood. “It’s just that the predominant stores are bodegas that don’t sell very much fresh fruit and vegetables.”

As an environmental scientist, Saphire researched reusable packaging for everyday products for 10 years before he joined the New York City Council on the Environment. Six years ago, he was asked to head up a high school educational program that eventually developed into Learn it, Grow it, Eat it.

A Brooklyn native who spent many summers outdoors in upstate New York, Saphire decided the best way to get urban kids to connect with the environment was through food.

“Kids related most to the environmental issues that had to do with their health, and then I thought, food would be such a good, unifying theme for that,” said Saphire. His students, he said, had a fairly good sense of what was healthy and what was not, but they hadn’t really taken the time to evaluate their own habits.

In addition to teaching them exactly how much sugar is in some of their favorite beverages and other helpful healthy tips, Saphire took his students out into the field, including  three underutilized community gardens.

Farming doesn’t thrill every student, said Saphire, but some of them really take to it. “It’s cool for them,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow.’ They just get into it.” The most enthusiastic students are invited to participate in the Youthmarket.

Stephanie De Jesus, a 19-year-old student reorganizing the tomatoes laid out on the stand, said Learn it, Grow it, Eat it changed her eating habits, as she experimented with cooking meals without the high sodium seasoning popularly used in Hispanic cooking.

“It taught me how to substitute those ingredients for healthier ones,” she said. Her time in the gardens not only inspired her cooking but also gave her a deeper appreciation for the outdoors, which has influenced her  hobby of painting.

Local shoppers often ask the kids about the food and its effect on health. “I like it,” said Qiana Nicolau, who just completed trade school for cosmetology. “It’s actually showing people new things they didn’t know.” When customers come back to the market, they often tell her how much better the fresh produce tasted compared with what’s available at local grocers.

The market also serves as a classroom for nutritionist Alicia Flynn, who works two blocks away at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, and her clients. Many times, Flynn has taken patients with hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes to the market where Saphire and his crew show them what healthy foods the land produces for them to eat.

Pointing to the bounty on the table, she said, “People can see that these are actually grown from the ground. It doesn’t come from a package.”

Her biggest obstacle, she said, is usually getting her clients over the hurdle of their own cultural foods, containing mostly just starch and protein and very little fresh produce.

“First, we have to convince the people that they want it,” said Flynn. “We got to give them ways to taste foods. You got to eat it, then believe it.”

When the market retires for the winter, she knows her clients will return to their diet of mostly rice, beans, potatoes, and meat because fresh produce just isn’t that readily available.

“Grocery stores have it,” she said, “but it’s expensive.”

Despite the struggle to find affordable, healthy food, Overstreet said she has already seen a change in the way her neighbors view fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They are buying more and they’re appreciating it,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (1)

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