Tag Archive | "Mott Haven"

‘Outsider’ artist in the South Bronx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Killer nabbed by ‘tix fix’ cop pleads out, NY Post

A Bronx murder suspect whose arresting officer was caught on a wiretap fixing a ticket took a plea deal yesterday before a jury was selected
, New York Post reports.

Careem Johnson, 25, copped to manslaughter and accepted 25 years in prison for killing José Arvelo, 18, in Mott Haven in 2008.

It was initially speculated that Johnson — charged with second-degree murder — might walk because the cop who arrested him, Detective Jason Allison, was caught on wiretap allegedly trying to void a summons for a cop’s relative.

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Bloody Sunday in Mott Haven

Sunday was an unusually bloody day on the streets of Mott Haven, raising fears among residents that violence is becoming out of control.

It began in the early  morning with three shootings in a span of two hours, and moved on to a mugging in broad daylight.  By the end of the evening, Taiwon Turner was shot dead. Three of the five incidents occurred on the same street, East 141st Street. The shootings are indicated on the map below.


View October 9 Violence in Mott Haven in a larger map

The first shot was heard slightly after 4 am, right next to P.S. 65 on Powers Avenue. A teenager walking away from St Mary’s Park was shot in the buttocks and taken to Lincoln Hospital, police sources said.

An hour later, another man was rushed to the same hospital with a bullet in his back. He was shot outside Paradise Houses on Third Avenue, about 15 blocks away from the first incident, but on the same street. By 6 a.m., officers of the 40th Precinct were investigating their third shooting incident of the day, this one on 137th Street.

Around four in the afternoon, more than a dozen police and fire personnel were back on 141st Street, assisting an assault victim outside the Methodist Church on Beekman Avenue–a block away from Turner’s house, and two blocks away from the site of the day’s first shooting.

Police help an assault victim at Beekman Avenue. (NASR UL HADI/The Bronx Ink)

This unidentified victim had blood all over his shirt, multiple bruises on his face, and according to medical emergency staff on site, possibly a concussion. The attack occurred under two NYPD surveillance cameras, on a weekend afternoon, in front of pedestrians.

Police had no information yet on the suspects in this or the first three incidents. “He says he doesn’t know what happened,” said an officer. The bystanders claimed they hadn’t seen anything either. The surveillance cameras were of no help, because both were facing away from the place where the attack happened.

Residents are more afraid than ever. Crime statistics for the 40th Precinct show 345 serious assaults so farthis year, a rise of 3.6 percent from last year.

“My wife is pregnant; she was terrified,” said Ibrahim, a Nigerian student who has lived for more than five years in Paradise Houses. “We are all here to make a living,” said Ibrahim, “But when I hear of such attacks, I begin to wonder whether I should stay.”

 

 

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Advocates to Obama: Keep your promise

Around 400 concerned Bronx residents, politicians, and clergy marched down 159th Street and the Grand Concourse on Sunday imploring President Barack Obama to finally sign an executive order reforming America’s immigration laws.

It was an election promise the president failed to keep, the activists said. “Before he became President he promised us he will fix the problem with our immigration system in one year,” said Joel Bauza, pastor at Calvary Church in the Bronx and one of the organizers. “Three years later, we’re still waiting for him.”

Protesters said they became alarmed last week when the federal court in Alabama upheld a strict law requiring police and public school officials to verify the immigration status of detainees and students.

“The idea that just because you are brown skinned, you will be asked to show immigration papers is ridiculous and wrong,” said Bauza, from his perch in the back of an old pickup truck, where he was leading the marchers in chants. “They’re punishing all immigrants for the wrongdoing of a few.”

New York has approximately 625,000 undocumented immigrants, the fourth largest population in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic center, a nonpartisan research organization. Half of the city’s undocumented residents live in the Bronx.

New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., who called the March for Dignity of Immigrants, walked in front of the demonstrators arms linked with elected officials and ministers from the Hispanic clergy organization. The protesters chanted, “Yes we can, no more deportation, Obama, keep your promise, and no more separating families.”

The rally showed a growing disillusionment from the president’s key supporters in the last election. In 2008, an overwhelming 89 percent of Bronx voters cast their ballot for Obama. Sen. Diaz, Sr. warned that could change in 2012.

Others were more blunt. If the president doesn’t sign an immigration reform bill, he’s going to have to leave in 2012 said Dr. Hector Chiesa, a senior pastor at the Church of God on Third Avenue.

A contentious debate over immigration rages on the campaign trail among Republican contenders. Activists in the Bronx said their concern is bigger than who wins the next election.

“The government that is for the people will remain, it doesn’t matter the party line,” said Bauza. “Everybody is trying to make immigration into a Republican, Democratic, liberal or conservative movement, what happened to the people?”

Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than one million immigrants have been deported from the United States. That has raised many eyebrows around the country. During a roundtable discussion with Latino media last month, Obama sought to explain the staggering number of deportation saying the statistics is deceptive.

“With the stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back,” said Obama. “That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day, or 48 hours.”

Activists insist separating loved ones is not a way to promote family values. “Deportation had left broken homes, children without fathers and mothers, families without hope,” said Diaz, Sr.. “The President can’t simply blame the Republicans or members of Congress for inaction. He can put this issue to rest if he wants to.”

The protesters welcomed the recent weeklong nationwide sweep that resulted in the arrest of 2901 convicted illegal immigrants, but cautioned that each case should be considered separately.

“Did they get arrested for criminal activities or simply because they were jaywalking?” asked Bauza.

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A Tough Harvest In Mott Haven, New York Times

Thieves broke into a farm in La Finca del Sur, reports David Gonzales for The New York Times.

The unusual farm, ran by Puerto Rican women, is in a shipping container tucked between a highway ramp and the Metro-North tracks on 138th Street and the Grand Concourse.

“It’s not the loss of material things,” said volunteer Nancy Ortiz-Surun, “it’s the sense of how vulnerable we are.”

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Bronx Alive does the double dip

Bronx Alive does the double dip

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Couples dance at Viva Bronx, celebrated on the first Sunday of October every year, by the community around Hostos College. (NASR UL HADI/The Bronx Ink)

The big man toe tapped with grace and flash that matched his fire-engine red coat and hat. He may be large, but the man knew his steps. If he missed one, it wasn’t because his partner was better at salsa. It was because half a dozen genres of music were playing on this street – everything from Latino pop to Caribbean reggae and African rap.

Every year, on the first Sunday of October, five blocks on the Grand Concourse in Mott Haven – from 144th to 149th streets, through Hostos College – erupt into a passionate display of color and music. From brunch to sundown, Bronxites of all ethnicities revel in a carnival of foods, crafts, games and prizes. Upcoming and established talents from the borough perform on stage and on the street to a packed crowd of thousands.

But this year, that audience was reduced by a third. Viva Bronx, or Bronx Alive, wasn’t as alive as it used to be. “We used to get a crowd of 10 to 15,000, popping in and out,” said Hernand Gonzalez, whose Miami-based company has produced the festival for the past few years. “This time, even 5,000 would be stretching it too far.”

It wasn’t just the crowds; there were fewer vendors as well. “I just couldn’t believe how empty it was,” said Maria Docarmo, who came all the way from Mount Vernon to set up her clothes stall. “There used to be so many of us every year, especially food vendors. This year, there was just one stall with kebabs and lemonade.”

The dip in participation at Viva Bronx comes at a time when several street fairs have been discontinued across the city because they couldn’t raise the funds they needed. “It’s the economy,” explained Wallace Edgecombe, Arts and Culture Director at Hostos College, who started the festival in 2005 with a seed grant from the Bronx Council of the Arts. “It takes a lot of money to organize fairs like this, and getting sponsors in this recession is becoming difficult.” Instead of the cola giants and top insurance companies that participated in previous years, the only big advertisers this time were Optimum Online, Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ FindHepC campaign, and the US Marines.

“This festival has always been held with Hostos’ homecoming,” said Edgecombe. “But this year the alumni decided to take a rest.” Hostos’ alumni office said that the homecoming is now a biennial event, because “it needed more time and effort.” Funds for the homecoming too depend in part on sponsors.

The performers felt let down by the low turnout. “It was much better last year, even though the weather was bad,” said Kurt Woodley, a music industry veteran who helps launch local artists. “This time, despite it being a beautiful day, people just haven’t come out. Maybe it’s because the show isn’t as big.”

Woodley was at Viva Bronx with his latest project, the Rok Fairies, Bronx’s Latina version of the Spice Girls. But as Sassy Alejandra and Flawless Kendri wrapped up their performance, he felt they could have picked a better stage debut for their latest single. “This fest used to attract a lot of big stars,” said Woodley. “Tito Puente Jr. closed the show last year. This time, the performers just weren’t as many, or as big.”

Still, Edgecombe and Gonzalez are determined that the show must go on. “Mullti-block permits for street events are not easy to get,” said Edgecombe. “If we lose this one, we won’t get it back.”

Michael Max Knobbe, who heads BronxNet TV, agreed that the festival is crucial to this community’s development. “You see a lot of organizations here that want to connect with the community with information and opportunities,” he said. “You see all of them here, between the food and music.”

As it got darker, the salsa tunes wound down and the dancing couples closed their moves with the traditional dip. And everyone – the public, the vendors, the organizers – went home, hoping that this festival would be back next year, and survive what seems to be a second dip.

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Mott Haven garden offers tranquility and community spirit

Carlos Mendez marinades beef and cactus for a barbecue at Wanaqua Garden. (CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN/Bronx Ink)

“There was nothing here — nothing,” said Luis Rosario, 74, gesturing around his Mott Haven plot of land. The verdant vegetable patches of what is now Wanaqua  Garden are dotted with cheerful sunflowers.

Ten years ago the empty lot was teeming with trash. Residents used it as a fee-free garbage dump. Then the Department of Parks put up a sign by the plot on East 136th Street, welcoming neighbors to use it for gardening. Rosario gathered a group of friends and set to excavating it.

“It took us more than a year,” said Rosario, one of a handful of gardeners that has stuck with Wanaqua from the start. In the decade since, gardeners have come and gone — some who just wanted to try their hand at gardening, and others who stayed longer.

For greenhorns and gardeners alike, though, this 10,000 square-foot lot is a place to gather, make friends, and feel part of a community. Neighbors pop in to pick up fresh vegetables free of charge, and dozens of children troop in a few days a week to care for the vegetable patches their elementary schools have adopted.

But the long-time gardeners of Wanaqua are the heart of the community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rosario, who is Puerto Rican, combed through the tomato bushes looking for ingredients for a salad, while his friend Carlos Mendez, who has also gardened here for years, marinaded beef in herbs and beer for a barbeque. Soon, Mendez’s nephew would arrive for lunch. In the meantime, Rosario invited two passersby to join them — a father and daughter whom he had never met.

Even after a decade, Rosario said the garden, with its rows of beans, yams, pumpkins, and herbs like cilantro and papalo, still attracts new faces. And for Rosario and Mendez, it is a second home. The two old friends visit the garden seven days a week and say even the winter doesn’t put them off.

“It’s a beautiful garden,” said Mendez, 70, who hails from Mexico and has lived in the US for 37 years. “It feels like being in my country in the mountains.”

“It’s perfect,” he said. “Like today, we’ll grill some meat and enjoy a calm afternoon.”

The garden may offer respite on some days, but just as often, it’s alive with dozens of schoolchildren from neighboring Public School 43 and Mott Haven Academy Charter School, harvesting swiss chard and squealing at the sight of bumblebees.

Each school cares for a sizable section of the garden, where the elevated flowerbeds are living, breathing science labs, and the children can follow food from the seeds they plant to the salads on their lunch table.

Candace Williams, a science teacher at Mott Haven Academy, said announcing that it’s time to go the garden is a surefire way to liven the classroom. “The students are super excited. So excited that sometimes it’s a challenge to get them outside,” she said.

Fourth-grade teacher Peter Kalkau’s students at P.S. 43 have learned to test the pH of soil and replenish the nutrients in it with compost, and students at both schools have harvested vegetables for salads and other dishes.

That’s a good recipe for getting kids to try new things.

“Those are the vegetables they planted, so they want to know how they taste,” Kalkau said.

Starting this year, some students at P.S. 43 will have reading classes in the garden, too, following the addition of a garden house this month where the kids can sit outdoors in the shade. The garden house, courtesy of the nonprofit GrowNYC and corporate donors, replaced a dilapidated shed and gives the gardeners much needed storage space.

Even better, it gives them water. Palette Architects, the Brooklyn-based architecture firm that designed the garden house pro bono, created a roof that feeds rainwater into a 1,000-gallon barrel that should fill up in just a few weeks’ time.

For the gardeners, it’s a huge convenience: They had previously been fetching water from a pump on the street.

“It’s great,” Rosario said, admiring the garden house that seems to reward years of hard work on the garden.

He continued searching for tomatoes and soon had a bagful. The garden produces more than the gardeners and their families can eat, but nothing goes to waste.

“I give it away,” Rosario said. “If someone needs it, I give it.”

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Avoiding banks, immigrants save their own way

Denisse Lina Chavez keeps her cash savings in a Heineken bottle that she hides behind the counter of her store in Mott Haven, a practice she has kept for at least 10 years. This unique  savings method helped Chavez pay for her expansion to a neighboring store and then later to open a Mexican restaurant she ran for a while before selling it. While she could have placed that money in a bank and collected interest, she said she doesn’t trust banks and prefers her system instead.
Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings

Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Chavez is one of thousands in the Bronx shying away from the formal financial system. According to a June 2010 report released by the Office of Consumer Affairs Department of Financial Empowerment, the Bronx, at 28.6 percent, is the borough with the highest percentage of unbanked people. While 13.4 percent of New York City residents are without bank accounts, a staggering 56 percent of the roughly 86,000 residents of the neighborhoods Mott Haven and Melrose are unbanked.

But just because many people are not using formal banks does not mean they lack access to savings and credit services. Mexican immigrants bring their cultural practices to the Bronx in the form of informal savings groups called sociedades.   They consist of a group of people who contribute some amount of money on a regular basis. Then,  each member takes the entire pool of money weekly or monthly.

“The point is that you are forcing yourself to save,” said Adrian Franco, director of financial advocacy non-profit Qualitas of Life. “It’s a way to develop an attitude to saving money.”

Chavez is the organizer of a sociedad. In hers, 11 women each contribute $400 weekly, and the pot of $4,400 is given to a different member over the course of 11 weeks. Although the formal group is only 11 women, members without enough money during any given week may ask family and friends to contribute.

“We don’t get rich,” said Chavez. “We just help each other.”

But her group has a much greater chance of bigger returns than most other savings clubs like it. Franco explained that the $400 weekly contribution is extremely high for sociedades, with people normally giving more like $50 a month or $15 or $25 a week. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were as many as 50 or 60 people indirectly participating in Chavez’s sociedad.

Chavez explained that in her sociedad, no interest is charged and the group functions to create opportunities for people to make bigger purchases that may be necessary like clothing and rent, or to cover an emergency. She said that a member and her husband have bought two houses in Mexico with their shares of the money.

Sociedades are not replacements for banks, however, because they don’t provide people with a formal credit history. Experts and financial advocates said they serve to help people, especially women, collect savings and attain some financial independence by creating a social structure through the sociedad. Belonging to a sociedad carries with it certain cultural practices and assumptions.

“There is a social pressure attached,” said Alicia Portada, a financial literacy coordinator at the Union Settlement Federal Credit Union, a non-profit group that works in all five boroughs. “You don’t want to be the one who didn’t give the money. Everybody will wonder why and you’ll get left out in the future.”

It is difficult to track how many sociedades actually exist because members are often undocumented and there is no paper trail. But it’s easy to understand why they are so popular.

In all of Mott Haven and Melrose, there are only eight banks, as compared to the 44 across the river in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Financial illiteracy also plays a big role in pushing these alternative systems forward, “It might be that they don’t know better.” said Portada. “It takes time to learn the minimum required.”

Lack of English skills also drives people to sociedades, said Adrian Franco, director of Qualitas of Life, another non-profit  group providing financial literacy classes to Hispanics. Immigrants who don’t understand a bank’s policies and complicated procedures prefer these informal savings groups where they can communicate with other members in their native language.

Sociedades and other groups like them have their pitfalls as well. It’s easy for people to run away with the money, which is why these functions work best with friends and family members. “They must be managed well or people can fail to pay and the system collapses,” said Deyanira del Rio, who works at a financial advocacy non-profit organization called the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. “If it works well, it can be a disciplined form of savings.”

Margarita Gutierrez, a former member of Chavez’s sociedad, used her savings to buy her store on 138th Street. Four of the 11 members of Chavez’s group were recommended by Gutierrez. “It’s good because it gives credit to people who don’t have social security numbers or documents,” said Gutierrez.

Advocacy groups working toward increasing financial literacy in immigrant populations see the value in being part of an informal savings group like sociedades, but are careful to also acknowledge their limitations.

“It’s a tool,” said Catherine Barnett, vice president of Project Enterprise, a non-profit that administers small business loans to immigrants. “It’s filling a gap. It’s not the total gap, but it’s a start.”

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