Tag Archive | "Nonprofit"

Activists raise concerns over the future of the Bronx River

Bronx environmental activists will meet this month to generate community interest in preventing the Bronx River from lapsing into its former life as a massive sewer.

Although the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spent the last couple years constructing structures to help keep the river clean, local activists charge the agency is neglecting crucial maintenance. They claim the city’s narrow approach to keeping pollution at bay and its limited attempt to engage local residents handicaps its long-term goal.

Robin Kriesberg, the Ecology Director at the Bronx River Alliance, said via email that although DEP supports a maintenance crew, “that will not be enough” to support the immense number of implemented and planned structures.

Jaime Stein, a visiting assistant professor at the Graduate Center for Planning at Pratt Institute said the city’s outreach to the public is “too little and too late.”

It took activists more than a decade to pressure the city to install a system that would keep storm water from overwhelming local sewers and sending waste into the river. In 2012, the DEP installed the first of a dozen bioswales – highly absorbent patches of green space on sidewalks that soak up heavy rainfall. Typically about ten feet by four feet in size, they feature thirsty plants like summersweet clethra and swamp milkweed. They look more like mini-parks than like sewage devices and thus double the advantage they bring to urban areas.

Storms can force sewer waste into waterways (http://newyork.thecityatlas.org/lifestyle/deps-green-infrastructure-plan/)

Storms can force sewer waste into waterways (New York City Atlas)

Bioswales extend five feet beneath their surface. Layers of absorbent soils and stones underneath the bioswale store around 2,244 gallons of water during a storm, which is equivalent to about 45 bathtubs of water.

A bioswale on Lafayette Avenue across from Soundview Park (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

A bioswale on Lafayette Avenue across from Soundview Park (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Although effective if properly maintained, bioswales quickly become useless when neglected, which is precisely what worries Bronx activists. As global climate change increases the likelihood of storms, controlling flooding, they say, is more urgent than ever in a city that has yet to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Storms often wash away a bioswale’s soil; left unattended, it will not be able to retain as much water. If its plants are not watered during dry spells, they will vanish and leave the bioswale feeble. Weeds and offending plants like mugworts, dandelions, and ground ivy can also decrease efficiency. If excess leaves and trash collect in a bioswale, they clog up it, rendering it useless.

Trash collected in a bioswale on Story Avenue by Colgate Avenue

Trash collected in a bioswale on Story Avenue by Colgate Avenue in Soundview (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Caretakers must be able to identify plant species, remove weeds, clear out trash, ensure soil has not been washed away, check vegetative health, and add water during dry spells.

A barren bioswale on the corner of Metcalf Avenue and Gleason Avenue

A dry bioswale on the corner of Metcalf Avenue and Gleason Avenue in Soundview (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

The DEP claims it funds gardeners from the Department of Parks specifically to take care of the bioswales. But activists and academics working with nonprofit organizations like Stormwater Infrastructure Matters Coalition (SWIM) doubt that the city can meet needs in light of its aggressive construction schedule. Though the city does not provide a precise account of how many bioswales it has installed, the 2013 DEP NYC Green Infrastructure Annual Report states that in the Bronx River Watershed between 2010 and 2013, it built 18 green infrastructures (which includes bioswales as well as raingardens, permeable pavements, stormwater harvesting and reuse systems, among other devices.) DEP is planning to build 57 more in 2014.

The Bronx River Alliance’s Kriesberg said she is unsure how the city will handle maintenance at this rapid rate of installation – a 217 percent increase over the last three years.

SWIM member Stein said the lack of community involvement in the city’s initial discussions on stormwater management, which would have boosted bioswale upkeep, will hinder future maintenance.

One longtime resident of Soundview in the Bronx, Nancy Reyes, 50, said she thinks the city is “trying to do a good thing” with the three bioswales she passes on the corner of Morrison and Lafayette as she makes her way into Soundview Park. But, the former customer service representative said, she “got no information” during their construction.

Her neighbor, Raquelle James, 51, a former employee of the Board of Education, said that the city needs news coverage from local stations to promote green infrastructure. Reyes and James want to know more but Reyes bemoaned they “don’t know where to begin.”

Peter Antonio, 44, a retired Soundview resident, said he “doesn’t know what’s going on,” with the bioswales next to Soundview Park, even though he often walks by them.

The Bronx River Alliance’s Kriesberg said that she is “hoping that DEP will install signs to let people know what is going on” wherever bioswales are placed.

Antonio expressed a desire to attend bioswale information workshops and would be interested in helping to maintain them – if he finds out about them.

The DEP began its “BioswaleCare Program” along with “Million Trees New York City” in the spring of 2013, after many bioswales had already been built. Only 77 community members participated in BioswaleCare workshops in 2013. Announcements of workshops are posted on the DEP’s website, which draws an audience of people already aware of the program.

Kriesberg said that attendance at past public meetings was low. She expects DEP will do more to attract the public – it is now offering free water bottles at meetings in Flushing Bay.

Even with a reliable and sufficient maintenance crew, the bioswales alone might not be enough to stave off river contamination in a storm, however.  Kriesberg said, “The models and results so far indicate that the approach will have to be expanded beyond bioswales.”

Stein, an environmental activist with SWIM, said that implementing multiple bioswales within a short period of time is too narrow an approach. The bioswales are limited by available public sidewalk space. Once the sidewalks are filled, Stein asks, what will the city do?

Stein compared the bioswale plan to the city’s Million Trees initiative, which intended to plant oxygen-producing trees throughout the South Bronx to improve air quality.  Good in theory, Stein said, but “there was not enough space for a million trees.” In addition, many of the planted trees were neglected and are now dead.

“The city won’t pay for maintenance,” said Soundview resident Patrick Holms, a 43-year-old accountant who lives near two bioswales on Morrison Avenue. Without information, “the community won’t get involved” to maintain the bioswales, he warned. Holms recommended that Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz, Jr. speak out on bioswale maintenance.  “If he made appearances, more people would care,” Holms said

DEP representatives did not respond by press time to repeated requests for comments.

Stein and members of SWIM are looking forward to the public meeting on October 27 to engage public officials, scientists, attorneys, representatives of nonprofits, and city agencies in the discussion on stormwater management in the face of rising temperatures and precipitation. They are hoping, too, that the meeting will be an occasion for involving the community in protecting its river.

Phil Pena, a letter carrier who has “been around a few years,” passes two bioswales on Gleason Avenue on his delivery route in Soundview. He said, “The city is trying to make the sidewalk look good.”

After finding out that they capture stormwater, he said that the city should have installed one on Metcalf Avenue, between Gleason and Watson Avenues. “The sidewalk gets flooded every time it rains,” he said. “Nobody talks about it,” and “I’ve got to walk in the street.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Southern BronxComments (1)

Bronx celebrates cinematic masterpieces at inaugural film festival

Conventional wisdom does not usually pair up Hollywood with The Bronx.  But the nonprofit Yes the Bronx would like to change that misperception this coming weekend with the inaugural Yes the Bronx Film Festival. Festival planners said the goal is to spark a discussion about how the borough has been portrayed in popular films.

“It happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Bronx,” said George Stephanopoulos, president of the organization and film festival director.  “If we are going to do something to promote the Bronx community, this is as good a year as any to launch.” Stephanopoulos is a television and film lawyer by trade, in addition to a producer and life-long aficionado of independent cinema – a combination that he felt might be put to good use in organizing the festival.

When he put the plan into effect, his first call was to famed film historian Foster Hirsch to assist in selecting the best films to program for the event, and organize the panels and talkbacks. The two experts settled upon five feature films: “The Pride of the Yankees” a 1942 film about Lou Gehrig, “The We and I” a 2012 picture about Bronx teenagers’ bus ride on the last day of school, “A Bronx Tale” the 1993 De Niro directorial debut about a Bronx boy’s two heroes, “Marty” the 1955 Best Picture Academy Award winner about a socially awkward Bronx butcher, and “City Island” the 2009 family comedy-drama.  The films all encompass different historical periods and perspectives of the borough – ranging from the heartwarming to the shockingly realistic, and tickets to each of the screenings cost between $10 and $15.

 

Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (courtesy of George Stephanopoulos, Yes the Bronx)

Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (Image courtesy of Yes the Bronx organization)

Compared to other film festivals that Hirsch has helped to curate,  this weekend’s festival has a larger focus on current films and lots of talk about the future. “We want response from the audience,” Hirsch said.  “What is the effect of this film on your thinking about the Bronx?  We want a sort of interactive connection between the spectators and the films.”

A key goal is to encourage the city to open up the Bronx to future filmmakers. To that end, on Saturday, Hirsch will moderate a panel entitled “The Bronx in Hollywood Films” featuring Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Commissioner Cynthia Lopez from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.“I think opening filming sites to the Bronx increases the variety of locations that New York has to offer and also corrects the misperception that filming in New York City is just about urban congestion and density,” Hirsch said.

In addition to the five films, the festival will also showcase several shorts shot by local Bronx filmmakers and artists. Stephanopoulos worked with the Bronx Artists Collective to create a short documentary film Artistic Energy: The Bronx, based upon the Bronx Artist Documentary Project – an exhibit featuring local visual artists on display at the historic Andrew Freedman home on the Grand Concourse.

The project is the brainchild of painter Daniel Hauben who, with his wife Judith Lane, worked on a series of photos documenting the artistic community of the Bronx. Lane said the idea to photograph artists at work came to her husband when he was painting on location in an artist friend’s studio.  He began ruminating about the significance of artist’s spaces, and thought non-artists would be interested as well.

Artistic Energy: The Bronx Trailer

So Hauben and Lane began to send photographers into artists’ studios in order to create an exhibition, with the help of New York Times photojournalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, Michael Kamber, who joined the project. The Documentary Project was intended to cap at 100 photos to celebrate the centennial, but the interest was so large that the project wound up expanding to document 110 different artists, a number that Lane says is ironically reflective of the “110 percent” that all participating artists gave.

A primary goal of the documentary is to allow those outside of the artistic community to recognize the local artists who are working on beautifying their neighborhoods. “This project was designed to get people connected with each other, to get collaborations going, to get friendships going,” Lane said.  “So that the arts community as a whole can grow and flourish within this new Bronx that is growing and flourishing.” Kamber noted the groundbreaking work and the “astonishing diversity of creativity that exists all over the Bronx.”

The Bronx itself is a “brand,” said Stephanopoulos.  “The aim is to showcase the borough’s renaissance.  But it has become clear that we really are also promoting the Bronx as a film site.” And Lane has one main sentiment that she hopes attendees will walk away with after the three-day festival. “I hope they think, ‘my entire viewpoint of the Bronx has changed and it is not what I thought it was, and I am going to go tell the world,’” she said.    

Yes the Bronx Film Festival runs from Friday, September 19 through Sunday, September 21 at Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre. You can view the complete schedule here.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, CultureComments (0)

New Tax Rules Shut Down Hundreds of Bronx Nonprofits

Experts estimate that, of the 842 Bronx nonprofits revoked since June 2011, about a third are small charities struggling to remain operational.  (MARIANA IONOVA / The Bronx Ink)

Music has always been a passion that Greg Waters wanted to share.

Since his early days at the University of North Texas, Waters was immersed in smooth jazz and whimsical instrumentals. He studied woodwind instruments and, later, composition at the Chicago Conservatory College. He has spent his whole life playing and teaching.

When he speaks, the 64-year-old Fordham resident often interrupts himself to breathlessly lament the state of uninspired, “copycat” music today. Art appreciation is on the decline, he says, and this fuels his quest to educate today’s youth about the beauty of finer music.

Waters started Creative Music Productions Inc., a charity dedicated to that goal, nearly 35 years ago. He never got much by way of donations but he did receive a few grants in the 1990s, which he used to produce television programming teaching children about jazz and instrumental music in half hour segments. Since then, his work has been smaller-scale, mainly consisting of his own volunteer efforts.

But, a few months ago, Waters opened a letter from the Internal Revenue Agency (IRS) and found out his homespun organization had lost its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. The notice said he had failed to file a new tax form required of charities under recently instituted IRS rules so he could no longer call himself a nonprofit. “It was very governmental, like an electric bill — pay your bill or we’ll turn it off,” he said.

The revocations have been looming since 2007, when a federal law changed the rules for nonprofits registering under $25,000 and began requiring them to submit an electronic 990 tax form, something smaller charities historically did not have to do. But Waters said this was the first he heard about the new requirements, which he believes create barriers for community volunteers. “It shouldn’t be so hard for people to give back to the community.”

Hundreds of other charitable organizations in the Bronx have also lost their nonprofit status amid these changes, which were meant to clear the system of defunct agencies but have inadvertently affected thousands of small nonprofits nationwide. The IRS gave charities three years to file the paperwork needed to keep their nonprofit status, which lets donors write off funds they contributed to the organization. Because of the new regulations, the tax bureau has revoked the status of more than 280,000 religious, educational, scientific, advocacy and sport nonprofits nationwide, 842 of them in the Bronx.

“There were many organizations in the Internal Revenue Agency’s list of exempt organizations of the smaller type and many of those organizations no longer existed,” said Dianne Besunder, the bureau’s spokesperson for New York State. “It is our belief that most of the ones that lost exempt status were in that situation.”

Yet, many of those revoked are small but legitimate community agencies lacking the knowledge and resources to make the changes, according to Abraham Jones, executive director of Claremont Neighborhood Centers, a Morrisania-based nonprofit that has provided the area with childcare, educational programs and other services since 1956.

“They get into trouble because they don’t have the expertise to fill the requirements for remaining a viable, recognized nonprofit,” Jones said.

The requirement changes have hit volunteer-run, community-based nonprofits like Waters’ the hardest, according to Francisco Gonzalez, district manager for Community Board 9 and president of the now-revoked nonprofit that organizes the Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the borough’s largest events. He said those affected by the revocations also include churches, community centers and local resource groups.

“Not-for-profits, many of them are constantly struggling to make ends meet,” Gonzalez said. “Yet they want to provide a service, yet they want to go out there and do the counseling…But you can’t do all of that and not have a person dedicated to submitting paperwork.”

But Besunder said the tax bureau tried to minimize the effect of the changes on legitimate nonprofits by issuing notices repeatedly and reaching out to inform them.

“If they drop off the list, we have already tried to contact these organizations,” she said. “People did receive letters that told them they were losing their status and explaining what their options are.”

The agency is also offering a transitional relief program for small organizations, which will help them get reinstated for a reduced fee if they apply by the Dec. 31 deadline and are approved by the bureau. The regular fee ranges from $400 to $800, depending on the size of the nonprofit but those qualifying for transitional relief will have to pay only $100, according to Besunder.

The Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade has taken steps to have its status reinstated and is currently waiting on results, according to Ruben Rios, vice-president of the organization. He maintained the agency’s revocation will not affect next year’s parade.

But Waters said he doesn’t have plans to apply for the reinstatement since his organization isn’t big enough to make it worthwhile. “What’s the point? They’re trying to get rid of the paperwork, to get us off their books.”

Mariana Ionova can be contacted via email at mi2300@columbia.edu or on Twitter.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, MoneyComments (0)