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Tour de Bronx 2011

Some 6,000 cyclists biked the Bronx on Oct. 23. Bike enthusiasts young and old took over the streets from Bronx County Courthouse to the Sheridan Expressway and Pelham Bay Park.

 

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Despite controversy, nun still calls Hunts Point home

On a warm and sunny morning a few Sundays ago, Sister Thomas found herself resting on a chair while overseeing the weekly rummage sale at the garage next to the red brick St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Hunts Point. The cramped structure serves as a storage facility for donated items that her group sells every Sunday. At 78, Sister Thomas is still as involved as she was 49 years ago, when she first arrived at the South Bronx neighborhood.

Only now, she’s no longer welcomed by church’s new pastor.

On July 1, 2010, the Rev. Jose Rivas of the neighboring St. John Chrysostom took over following the death of Rev. Bill Smith. Immediately after taking office, the Colombian-born priest dismissed long-time staff and informed Sister Thomas that her services were no longer needed.

At the same time, Rivas emptied the church rectory of the food and clothes that Sister Thomas collected for the weekly flea market. The nun has been raising money for needy families from Hunts Pont and Longwood. Rivas’s decision sparked a protest among long-time parishioners, who signed a petition to oust him.

Many residents said they were dismayed by the way the Sister Thomas was treated. Hunts Point native and former church worker Gladys Weinberg said it was the nun who stuck it out with the community during the difficult years, when much of South Bronx was burned down.

Bronx Ink requested an interview with Rivas, but he declined saying, “No comment, no comment, no comment.” The New York Archdiocese had no comment on the issue.

Noella Asencio, another parishioner, said she welcomes Rivas ‘ style of leadership. She said that within the last year, she has already seen a number of physical improvements in the church, including the repair of the altar.

“It’s nothing personal,” Asencio said, while pointing out that Rivas did not know Sister Thomas when he moved to the new parish.

Still, Weinberg insisted that because of her long service to Hunts Point, the nun deserves respect from Rivas. She said the priest should have been more diplomatic in dealing with the aging nun.

Weinberg remembers Sister Thomas’s legacy with fondness. During one of the community’s annual Halloween parades, for instance, Weinberg recalled that the nun wanted to be a flower pot. So her friends turned her into one — complete with a daisy headdress and an outfit covered with artificial leaves. Another year, she was dressed as an angel wearing flashing sunglasses.

But no matter what her disguise, everyone recognized her as the nun who marched along Southern Boulevard followed by children in costumes.

To many in this still struggling community, Sister Thomas is more than the lovable figure with snowy white hair who likes to joke around and hug neighborhood youngsters. To them, she is the activist nun who fought along Father Louis Gigante in the 1960s and 70s when many politicians had written off the area due to continuing fires and gun violence.

Last Sept. 3, the Brooklyn native marked her 60 years in the Sisters of Charity congregation. A special mass was held in her honor and it was attended by Gigante and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano. But her abrupt dismissal by the new pastor dampened the celebratory mood.

“It was a very difficult year,” Sister Thomas said, the lines in her forehead tightening, her blue eyes looking troubled.

Angela Centeno, 72, has been a parishioner of St. Athanasius for 51 years. She is no longer attending mass there since Rivas took over because she thinks  the new priest does not respect Sister Thomas.

“I feel so bad,” Centeno said. She said that Rivas told parishioners that if they do not like his management, “don’t come to this church.”

True to her reputation as a reformist nun who once faced down city officials including then-Mayor Edward Koch, Sister Thomas insisted she is not going away.

Despite her disagreement with Fr. Jose Rivas, the new pastor of St. Athanasius, Sister Thomas said she decided to stay at Hunts Point "because my heart is here and it will always be here." (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

“Even in my older age now, I may not be able to run as fast as I do, but my heart is open to everyone,” Sister Thomas said. Despite being kicked out of the rectory, she is staying with the parish. For the last three years, she has been staying alone at an apartment across the street from St. Athanasius.  The 105-unit building where she lives is owned by the non-profit housing agency SEBCO.

Sister Thomas said she would be “distraught” if told to go to another mission, “because my heart is here and it will always be here.”

Sister Thomas first came to Hunts Point in 1962 “out of obedience” to her congregation the Sisters of Charity to teach at St. Athanasius School. The Bronx was “starting to go bad” at that point, said Gigante, who remembered Sister Thomas for wearing a habit, which he described as “a funny bonnet in her head.”

Due to Sister Thomas’ heart condition, her movement these days is mostly restricted to the garage, which serves as her de facto office, or at her building, which was built in 2008 and was named after her. When she can, she also attends the daily mass, even the ones officiated by Rivas.

In the past couple of years, Sister Thomas underwent two heart bypass surgeries, consequently affecting her blood circulation and causing acute swelling of her legs hidden under her long fuchsia skirt. After reforms were instituted in the Catholic church in 1965, she switched to regular clothing in place of the typical nun’s habit.

Sister Thomas credits her upbringing for shaping her outlook in life. She was born on Aug. 3, 1933 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to Thomas Collins and Gertrude DeGenaro-Collins. Her parents named her Trude Collins. She had one younger brother. They came from a mix of Irish and Italian families, although she would also refer to herself as an adopted Puerto Rican because of her affinity to Hunts Point’s Latino community.

Growing up, Sister Thomas knew she wanted to be a nun. At age seven, she  recalled dressing up as a nun. She said she was influenced by her parents’ community involvement and service to the parish. Her father was in the military while his mother was a housewife.

As a teenager, Sister Thomas confessed earning the ire of her father once when she missed her curfew after accompanying a childhood friend to a dance.

After attending St. Mary’s, Mother of Jesus School and Bishop McDonell Memorial High School in Brooklyn, she joined the religious order Sisters of Charity and studied at College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. She also took the name Sister Thomas.

Since then she has dedicated her life to serving Hunts Point. Living with the people she serves is her expression of faith in God, she said.

As for her detractors, Sister Thomas said she has “forgiven them,” including Rivas.

“Every day is a celebration for me because I love what I am doing,” she said smiling.

Due to Sister Thomas' heart condition, which is affecting the blood circulation to her legs, she now uses a walker to move around. Here, she greets parishioners during a special mass held in her honor. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

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Yemenis in South Bronx can’t forget the turmoil they left behind

“Papa, take me with you,” Abu Hamad recalled his five-year-old son pleading with him on the phone from Sana’a last Oct. 10. The Hunts Point shopkeeper’s half smile could not hide the worry in his dark round eyes. His three young children and wife are still living in the capital of Yemen, he said. And not even his American citizenship could help them out of the mountain city that is reeling from an increasingly violent civil uprising.

On Sept. 24, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 33 years, returned to his homeland after a brief medical exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. He was forced out of the country after an assassination attempt. The departure raised hopes for reform in the Arabian Peninsula nation of 24 million people. But his abrupt return has sparked fresh violence, which has already claimed close to 2,500 causalities since February. On Oct. 16, 18 more people were killed and 30 others were wounded in clashes between Saleh’s troops and his rivals, according to news reports from the region.

It was mid-afternoon Monday in South Bronx. Save for the periodic chugging overhead of the No. 2 train and the occasional ringing of the cash register, it was quiet inside the 37-year-old cellphone dealer’s shop. But Abu Hamad’s restrained outrage was bubbling up time and time again. Two hours earlier, he was on the phone with his family and he learned that the neighborhood where they live is only getting an hour of electricity every day. It was especially upsetting because they live less than five minutes away from Saleh’s presidential palace, Abu Hamad said.

“What kind of life is that?” said Abu Hamad. “It’s a shame. We need to change the President.”

For now, Abu Hamad remains helpless. It has been four years since his last visit to Sana’a. Months ago, he had to meet secretly with his family in Egypt. But with their immigration documents pending and the U.S. embassy in Yemen shuttered, he could not fly them back to America.

Abdul Karim, former president of the Yemeni Immigrant Association in New York, warned that the situation in Yemen could get worse. The 52-year-old South Bronx businessman said Saleh cannot be trusted despite his pledge to resign before the next presidential election in 2013.

“President Saleh has been known to be a big liar,” said Karim, a Columbia University graduate and member of a lobby group asking for the U.S. government to pressure Saleh to resign. “That’s his tactics for the past 33 years. He’s been governing on such a premise. That’s basically his foundation for ruling the country.”

Karim, who has an international affairs degree from Columbia, said Saleh’s cooperation in hunting down top Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and other suspected terrorists within Yemen, has complicated the U.S. government’s effort to force him out of office. The U.S.-born Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed on Sept. 30, just six days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was also killed Oct. 14.

“The U.S. has been kind of looking the other way as long as it serves the American interest in eliminating radical elements,” said Karim, noting that many innocent civilians have also been killed. The former legislative candidate in Yemen’s highland city of Ta’izz said the U.S. has “no leverage” in its diplomatic run-in with Saleh.

Still, Karim said even if Saleh stays in power, his government is already “totally crippled.” “He can’t rule. It might turn to be ugly,” he said.

At this Yemeni-owned Hunts Point deli shop, talk of President Saleh's ouster is framed on the condition that it is done in an election. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aqel Allahabi, 22, manager and part owner of the Hunts Point Deli,  said he shares the sentiments of Karim and Abu Hamad. But he is not in favor of an armed rebellion against Saleh.

“If the people don’t like him, why did they vote for him?” Allahabi said, referring to the 2006 presidential election, when Saleh received more than three quarters of the vote. He said any change of leadership should be done in a “democratic way.”

Standing outside the door of Clinton Deli along East Tremont Avenue one weekday afternoon, Antar Al-Suhaidi said he could not be bothered by the political and armed conflict in his country of birth, which he left when he was only 14.

“It’s a deadlock,” said Al-Suhaidi. “We know nothing will change, so we stick to the main reason for our immigration, doing business here.”

The 20-year-old deli cashier said he works 12 to 13 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. “I work hard now, to enjoy a better life later in my home town,” said Al-Suhaidi, a native of Ibb in southwest Yemen. At the end of the day, he was too overworked to even think about politics, he said.

Abdul Karim said it is not that New York City’s Yemeni community, many of them in the grocery and deli business, are apathetic to their home country’s situation. But many are just caught up trying to survive and deal with their lives as new American immigrants.

“Life is very consuming here in America,” Karim said. “But are they aware of what’s going on in Yemen? Yes, they are aware of what’s going on.”

Back at the cell phone shop, Abu Hamad said his primary concern is the safety of his family. Abu Hamad, who came to the United States at 17, said he wants his children to enjoy what he went through when he first arrived in New York.

“I love it here,” Abu Hamad said. “When I am here, I’m in heaven. So if there’s a way, I would like them to have a good life, have a good education and to eat healthy.”

As he talked about reuniting with his family, Abu Hamad cocked a worried smile showing his perfectly aligned teeth, his tall and lanky frame sagging as if he was carrying the weight of the world. “God knows when that’s going to happen.”

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Family and neighbors remember life of slain Eastchester teen

Graboski Wine Bottle Kino

During a candlelight vigil on Oct. 1, Nico Browne, 19, poured a bottle of wine in the basketball court where his brother played basketball. Kino Browne, 17, died after an early morning stabbing just one day before in Eastchester, according to police. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

When newspapers report on homicides, some readers merely see a name and the cause of death. They move on to the next story, continue with their lives and forget the death in minutes.

The family of a recent homicide victim could not do the same.

Cops said that at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 30, they responded to a 911 call reporting a stabbing near Bivona Street. Outside the Boston Secor public housing complex, they found Kino Browne, 17, with one wound to his torso. Browne was declared dead on arrival at Montefiore Hospital, police said.

During the ongoing investigation of the homicide, police said they arrested Wakefield resident Pedro Suazo, 22. They charged him with murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Despite efforts, Suazo’s family and lawyer could not be reached for comment.

It was in many ways a routine arrest — except to the people who knew and loved Kino Browne. “People need to know that this was not gang related,” said Eric Simmons Jr. of Mount Veron, Browne’s 31-year-old uncle. “He stayed to books, stayed to family, and anyone who knew him would tell you the same thing.”

Neighbors said that his death resulted from a feud outside of a party in Browne’s building. The victim and his alleged assailant fought each other until Browne’s attacker grabbed a knife and struck a fatal blow, they said.

Afterwards, people who knew Browne  created a memorial outside of his building’s entrance. They placed candles, nearly empty bottles and stuffed animals by photos of the teenager taped to a glass window and a marble wall. The paper some participants set up for messages to Browne filled up quickly. By the afternoon of Oct. 1, the day after the crime, mourners wrote “R.I.P” with markers not just on the leaflets but across the walls of the lobby, the glass windows of the entrance and their steel frames.

Laticia Browne, the victim’s mother, stood with family members by the memorial on the Saturday afternoon after the stabbing. She said that her son made the varsity football team at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx this year and played for their junior varsity basketball and swim teams in the past. She added that he had an artistic side—he enjoyed drawing, and planned to go to Fordham University to study architecture and fashion design.

Some mourners remembered Kino Browne as a jokester who regularly poked fun at people’s appearances. “If he saw me, he would call me, ‘hey big head, where are you going?’” said Tamara Bell, a 19-year-old neighbor.

“If your outfit wasn’t looking too good, he’d flame you,” said Boston Secor resident Michael Sanchez, 18. According to Sanchez, he and Browne met in middle school and used to shoot hoops in the basketball court behind their building. “He was like the best left-handed basketball player in the Bronx,” he said.

Minutes after 7 p.m. on Saturday, more than a hundred mourners gathered outside of the entrance to Browne’s building. Some passed candles to each other to begin a vigil. Soon after, with his mother leading the group, they silently walked around the courtyard with their lit candles. They traveled to the sidewalk and then finally to the basketball court behind the building. The family stayed in the center to give messages of thanks and to caution young people against violence.

Simmons Jr. led the surrounding crowd in a prayer. “In Jesus name may we all pray that we get to see something beyond,” he said to the crowd. “Because this man was denied the greatest facets of life. Amen.” Those gathered replied with an amen and sobs.

Nico Browne, the 19-year-old brother of the victim, took a bottle of wine and poured it in the center of the court. He and Simmons Jr. struggled to place a lit candle inside the emptied container. It fell in and extinguished soon after. The family and the mourners left, leaving the bottle in the court where Kino Browne once played.

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Bringing the farm to the Grand Concourse

Nearly 40 people gathered Tuesday, Oct. 3 in a church on the Grand Concourse over a bounty that included arroz con gandules, pico de gallo, green plantains with cheese and three types of tacos. The meal was notable not for its Latino roots, but for its use of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables in an area of the South Bronx where it’s often hard to find healthy food.

The diners were all members of the Farm Fresh Project, a group of  50 Bronx residents who have signed up to receive weekly supplies of produce from an upstate farm. But the project has reached its membership limit so now organizers are hoping to spread the healthy eating message in other ways, such as the potluck supper, which was  made by members using their recent supply of produce.

“It’s a way to build community,” said Jackie Goulet, an Americorps member who coordinates Bronx CSA, a farm project for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s a way to learn about new ideas and good recipes.”

The project is the first of its kind in the South Bronx and is a small step toward addressing a perennial problem in the neighborhood, which faces both a lack of fresh food supply and an obesity problem. Nearby Highbridge has only two supermarkets to serve 34,000 people, causing many local residents to shop at bodegas, most of which have meager and expensive produce offerings, according to Healthy Highbridge Coordinator Juan Rios. According to a 2008 city study called “New York City Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage,” most of the districts in the South Bronx have too few places to buy fresh food. At the same time, a 2006 New York City Department of Health and Hygiene report shows four in 10 children and two out of three adults in the South Bronx are overweight or obese.

Community supported agriculture projects bring together a group of people who pay in advance for a season’s worth of goods from a nearby farm. This particular program offers food from Fresh Radish Farm, located 60 miles away in Goshen, NY. Area residents pick up vegetables, such as zucchini, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and greens weekly or biweekly. Whatever is left over is donated to the food pantry at Seventh Day Adventist Church at which the market is located.

Unlike traditional farm shares, this one is subsidized by a one-time $30,000 Legacy Project Grant from the Bronx Health Reach, a community-based healthcare initiative. Residents must sign a contract ahead of time, but can pay each week with a sliding scale based on income. A family making over $50,000 would pay $485, but a family on food stamps pays only $120 for the whole season, which lasts from June to November.

A bag of assorted produce estimated to feed a family of four costs $5.45 a week for families who receive food stamps.

Americorps worker and food share organizer Jackie Goulet says most of the farm share members pay in food stamps.(Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

An overwhelming majority of Bronx farm share members gets food stamps, Goulet said. Food stamp eligibility involves a number of factors, such as family size and income, but generally a family cannot have more than $2,000 in resources, according to the government’s food stamp fact sheet.

Concourse resident Maria Hernandez, 28, heard about the market from a friend. She said that since the farm share began, she’s been able to afford to make her young daughter more vegetable dishes.

“If you have them, you see what you can do with them,” she said of the vegetables, which she pays for with her food stamp card. “If you have to buy them, you can think of something else to make”—something else quicker and without produce.

Most of the members are also Spanish speakers, so Goulet canvassed since winter distributing pamphlets in both English and Spanish.

“It took a really long time to get 50 people to sign up,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s a weird concept people haven’t heard of: asking people for money for something they haven’t even seen yet.”

Goulet writes a newsletter each week that includes nutrition facts, information about the farm, as well as “quick, easy and affordable” recipes geared at the produce—necessary as new products are introduced to the population.

One recipe, “Grilled Cheese with a Twist,” suggests adding red onion, garlic, spinach and tomato to the quick staple. “Chunky Vegetable Soup” addresses the changing offerings of a farm share by suggesting “soft vegetables like zucchini, green beans, summer squash, or leafy greens such as kale, spinach or collard greens.”

Grand Concourse residents load up on fresh produce. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As a handful of people arrived before the 5 p.m. weekly market start time, Goulet told some perplexed produce shoppers they could use the strange and soft pumpkin greens for soup. The farm share also offers more recognizable produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.

Eva Sanchez, 33, a mother of three whose young son would occasionally help translate for her, enjoys the offerings.

“It’s economical and the vegetables are good,” she said. Sanchez, who lives on the Grand Concourse,  prefers vegetables to meat but said choosing produce was harder before the farm share came to her neighborhood.

“It’s not difficult; it’s expensive,” said Sanchez, who heard about the project from a friend.

Sanchez also volunteers at the farm share, helping other people with their groceries. This is a step in the right direction, according to Goulet, who said normally farm shares are run by their members.

“It’s starting to take off on its own,” said Goulet, who commutes from her family’s home in Long Island. “That’s something I hoped would happen.”

Goulet ends her Americorps work in December but says she believes the project will go forward, adding that next year the farm share could carry fruit in addition to vegetables. This year a scheduling conflict prohibited the small organization from receiving fruit deliveries.

According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger spokeswoman Theresa Hassler, “It’s the first year, so of course we plan on growing. We definitely plan on expanding and growing in coming years as participation and interest grow.”

With that, farm share employees hope the community will grow healthier too.

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‘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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Rikers after the storm

It’s been over a month since Hurricane Irene hit New York City. Most residents have all but forgotten the scrambling for drinking water and candles, the mandatory evacuation warnings, the shut down of all public transportation, and the boarded-up windows in the prelude to what some thought would be a catastrophic storm.

But two mothers in the Bronx have not forgotten Irene. For them, the storm revealed a heartbreaking truth: in the event of a serious natural disaster the city would not protect their sons, detainees on Rikers Island.

Hurricane Irene was expected to hit New York early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 29. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of nearly 370,000 people living in low-lying areas of the city. A total of 91 evacuation centers with 70,000 cots were set up for evacuees. Of those evacuation centers, 65 made space for evacuated pets.  Airports were shut down, including La Guardia, whose runways are a mere 250 feet from Rikers Island. Airport employees were told to go home for their own safety.

But no one made plans to evacuate Rikers. When asked about an evacuation plan for Rikers — which lies in the middle of evacuation zones, is 75 percent landfill, and at some points sits just 20 feet above sea level — Bloomberg said, “There is no reason to evacuate Rikers Island.”

The families of inmates on Rikers listened to Bloomberg’s statement in shock. “I got a call from my sister-in-law on Saturday,” said Maria Mojica of Castle Hill, whose 19-year-old son Jason Mojica is awaiting trial on charges of theft. “She said turn on the news. The mayor just said they are leaving the kids on the island.”

As Mojica watched the press conference, she began to panic. “I had all these questions,” she said. “Is he safe? Can he call? Does he know there’s a hurricane coming?” She couldn’t sleep that night and, unlike every other day since her son has been at Rikers, he didn’t call.

Lisa Ortega of Hunts Point was also anxiously watching the news when she heard the mayor say Rikers Island would not be evacuated. Her son, Kendall “KD” Davis is awaiting trial on weapon possession charges. The then 16-year-old, who spent his 17th birthday on Rikers, suffers from anxiety and was also not allowed to use the phones.

“My stomach was in knots the entire night,” Ortega said. “I knew my baby was in there suffering and unable to call me. I just wanted to hear his voice and know he was okay.”

Ortega frantically called the jail throughout the day, trying to talk to anyone who could tell her what was going on. At one point, she said she finally reached a correctional officer who simply said, “We good here,” and hung up the phone.

A month later during an hour-long jail visit, Jason Mojica would talk about what happened at Rikers that night. Inside the jail on the Saturday before the storm, inmates began to hear news of Irene.

Mojica’s first concern was his mother and siblings. The hardened teenager’s face took on an expression of boyish concern when he remembered that night. “They wouldn’t let us use the phones,” Mojica said. “I was so worried about my mom. I didn’t know if she was being evacuated, or if my little brothers and sisters were safe.”

Mojica helped to raise his siblings while his mother and father worked. He took them to school and picked them up every day. Mojica’s father was visiting Puerto Rico when Irene hit New York, making Mojica even more concerned for the safety of his family.

Kendell (KD) Davis told his mother in a phone call that at 5 p.m., correctional officers entered the part of the jail where he was being held and told him that he wouldn’t be moved and couldn’t make any phone calls.

“It was complete chaos,” Davis told his mother. “No one knew what was happening and whether their families were safe.” He also claims that officers were telling the inmates that if the storm got really bad they would evacuate the island and leave the inmates to fend for themselves.

Davis was so anxious that he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until he heard his mother’s voice on Monday that he was able to relax.

Mojica was out in the Sprungs, white canvas tents outside of the jail facilities, when he heard news of the storm. The Sprungs sit approximately 100 feet from the shore of the island. Mojica and the men in his tent were moved to indoor facilities where they would stay for the night. “They came Saturday afternoon and told us that we had to evacuate,” he said. “They said there was no room in the main facilities so we had to stay in condemned buildings on the other side of the island.”

He said that they were given buckets, brooms and mops to clean out the cells where they were to stay for the following 48 hours.

“The cells were awful,” Mojica said. “They were full of trash, feces and some black substance covering the floors. Some of the cells had no running water and toilets that would not flush.”

On Monday, they were allowed to go back out to the Sprungs. He was also allowed to call his mother and learned that his family was safe.

The New York State Department of Corrections denies claims that inmates were unable to use phones during the storm. According to the warden of the facility, who was on site at Rikers throughout the storm, staff members were told that all inmates be allowed to make their phone calls.

But one former inmate who was released two years ago also remembers being unable to use the phones to call his family during storms at Rikers. Richard Hairston, of Hunts Point, was in and out of Rikers from the age of 18 until the age of 27. He was being held in the Sprungs during a major rainstorm in December, 2002.

“It rained for four days,” he said. “Four days with no phones.” Hairston’s mother was frantic. He explained that it’s natural for mothers to worry about their sons on Rikers during the rain. “We are on a small island in the middle of a huge river,” he said. “The thought of heavy rainfall or storms on Rikers just gets my mom panicked. She thinks of me drowning.”

When Hairston was finally allowed to use the phone after the storm, he immediately called his mother. “I was so grateful to hear her voice,” he said. “During all my years at Rikers and prisons upstate, I missed my mom the most.”

He also said that being moved from the Sprungs during a storm is a luxury. “When it rains, we get wet inside the Sprungs,” he said. “Water drips on us during the night making us too cold to sleep.” Each day the inmates would sweep standing water from the floor of the Sprungs so that it would not flood.  But Sharman Stein, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, maintains that the vast majority of Rikers Island is not located in a flood zone.

Prisoner rights groups such as Critical Resistance and Solitary Watch created a petition calling upon New York City to create an evacuation plan for Rikers Island in the event of a future storm. But no action has been taken. “Only one facility is located in a flood zone, but is not susceptible to loss of life.” Stein said in response to questioning about the progress of an evacuation plan for Rikers. “In that instance, the inmates and staff assigned to the first floor would be relocated to higher floors in the jail.”

New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association spokesman Michael Stilly does not think an anticipatory evacuation plan for Rikers is necessary.

He says that it is extremely difficult to evacuate 13,000 inmates under maximum security, plus hundreds of officers, to another location and still maintain the peace.

“We have to prepare for incidents as they come and trust our officers,” he said. “They look after society’s most violent criminals 24 hours a day. I believe they can weather a storm.” He also added that union members are their top priority.

But Ortega demands a plan. “Our sons deserve a way off the island in the event of a major storm,” she said. “They are just kids who are still awaiting trial. In they eyes of the law they are innocent. Don’t they deserve better than this?”

 

 

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Prepping for the city’s elite high schools

Benedit Medina, a shy but determined 11-year-old student in the Bronx, wants to be a detective when she grows up, just like the ones she sees on the crime television show “C.S.I.” To help achieve her dream, the sixth grade student at M.S. 80 on Mosholu Parkway in Norwood hopes to attend the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City’s top high schools.

“Science is the number one thing that they study,” Benedit explained, while her mother, Natalia Gonzalez, nodded vigorously beside her.

However, precedent is not exactly on Benedit’s side. School administrators said not a single student from M.S. 80 last year was accepted to any of the city’s eight elite high schools, public schools that selectively admit grade eight applicants based on their scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. According to the Bronx Borough President’s office, barely 6 percent of Bronx students last year were among the nearly 6,000 students across the city accepted into any of these specialized high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science in Bedford Park.

That’s why Benedit and her mother were among the two dozen parents and students gathered inside the auditorium at M.S. 80 last Saturday morning, to learn more about the start of a new tutoring program aimed at preparing students for the specialized exam.

Beginning Oct. 22, M.S. 80 will become the Bronx pilot site for the Science Schools Initiative, a Washington Heights-based tutoring service that provides free preparation for the exam to low-income students. The founders said the program, which will run Saturday mornings for about 60 students at the school, will help level the playing field for families who can’t afford pricey test preparation programs.

“We are trying to get kids who have the ability to get into these schools, but can’t afford expensive test preparation,” said Mike Mascetti, 27, co-founder of the Science Schools Initiative and a graduate of Stuyvesant High School. “It’s almost impossible to get into these schools and not have taken a test preparation program.”

The eight specialized high schools in the city, which include top-ranked schools like the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, admit only a handful of the nearly 28,000 eighth-grade students who write the specialized exam every year. The schools are largely seen as a gateway to prestigious colleges across the country, yet Bronx students, along with low-income black and Hispanic students, fare poorly  every year. According to city data compiled by GothamSchools.org, Hispanic and black students made up just 11 percent of those admitted to the specialized high schools for the 2011-2012 academic year, a number that has been steadily decreasing.

Mascetti, a Queens native, along with fellow Stuyvesant graduate Darren Guez, started the program in 2007 after realizing that many low-income students could not afford enrolling in private test preparation programs, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

“We were thinking maybe we should tutor people who are a little more like us, from low-income or middle-income backgrounds, who can’t afford test preparation,” said Mascetti, a law student at City University of New York. “Going to Stuyvesant was a transformative experience for me. There isn’t any question you are going to graduate, unlike at the other schools.”

Using donated classroom space at Columbia University’s medical school in Washington Heights, the program has so far helped 40 students gain entrance to a specialized high school, about a 50 percent success rate.

Mascetti said that they were looking to expand the program to other parts of the city earlier this year when a frustrated Bronx resident came knocking on their doors, angered by fact that Bronx students had a poor showing among the city’s most elite schools.

“The schools are rated the worst in the Bronx,” said Adaline Walker-Santiago, a former administrator in the city’s education department and chair of the long-term planning committee for Community Board 7. “These kids are just as smart as any kid in the city, but they are just not given the same opportunity for a good preparatory class.”

After finding out about the Science Schools Initiative online, Walker-Santiago arranged a meeting with Mascetti and several middle school principals in the Bronx. It was decided in late spring that M.S. 80 would be the pilot site for the program, a school known for its poor test scores and high number of disabled and English-language learners. Two weeks ago, the city’s education department selected M.S. 80 for up to $2 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education to help turn around its poor performance. A portion of the funds is being directed towards launching the Science Schools Initiative, said school administrators.

“We’re very excited,” said Lovey Mazique-Rivera, principal of M.S. 80. “The parents love it. They are really appreciative the school is offering this service to them.”

About 60 sixth and seventh grade students at M.S. 80 were selected for the program based on their eligibility for free school lunch, and their performance on a mock selective exam that Mascetti and his team administered at the end of June. Both Mascetti and school administrators hope that 50 percent of them will eventually gain entrance to one of the city’s specialized high schools.

Inside M.S. 80’s auditorium, parents and students listened raptly to organizers of the Science Schools Initiative as they described the potential life-changing value, and rigorousness, of the program.

“We’re here to teach you how to take the test,” said co-founder Darren Guez, addressing some of the nervous looking students. “Every one of you here is smart enough to go to the Bronx High School of Science, as long as you put in the effort.”

For Juan Ynfante, who attended the meeting with her 12-year-old daughter Jaylene, the program is a chance not only to attend a better high school, but a chance for a better life.

“It gives a better opportunity to go to a good college,” said Ynfante, speaking through a Spanish translator. “I want her to do what I couldn’t do.”

For Walker-Santiago, the Bronx resident who brought the program to the borough, increasing the Bronx presence at specialized high schools is really a chance to improve the long-term prospects of the community.

“They are the future Robin Hoods of education,” she explained, referring to the preteens starting the program. “When they are making six figures, they will come back and give to the community.”

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