Tag Archive | "Sarah Wali"

Urban Gardener Looks for a New Dream to Plant

By Sarah Wali

Last month, Tanya Fields got a call she had been dreading from Michael Holosyzk, regional manager at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Liberated Urban Farm, the plot of land she had spent $500 and four months cultivating, would be cleared to make room for a playground.
Adjacent to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm.

Next to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm. Photo by Tanya Fields

“He called me on Thursday and told me they are excavating on Monday so if there’s anything you want you should go tomorrow and get it,” said Fields. She chuckles at his suggestion.   To start an urban farm, Fields and a team of community volunteers had to make raised beds, a gardening tool used to protect fertile soil from possibly polluted city soil by lining the dug-up earth with plywood.  Where would she put the plywood?  They had also planted decorative plants known to urban farmers as ornamentals.  They had no place to put them either. So she left the garden untouched.   When she came home from work that Monday, Parks and Recreation had cleared the land.  The newly planted flowers and trees were replaced with a half-acre of overturned dirt. “It’s gone,” she said.  “It was bulldozed, it’s gone.  The raised beds, the flowers -- they’re gone. “ Of 152 community gardens in the Bronx, 72 are currently facing the same fate as the Liberated Urban Farm.  Started by neighborhood activists and financed through their fundraising efforts, these plots aren’t legal and so the gardeners can’t stop the city from tearing them down. Aresh Javadi, board member of the gardening advocacy group More Gardens!, works with threatened gardens to create awareness and political support for their cause.   According to Javadi, the main problem is the lack of clear legal framework for obtaining and keeping community gardens in New York City. Instead, prospective gardeners must contact the Department of Housing and Preservation to make sure the city doesn’t have plans for the lot, and then wait for approval, a process that could take months and sometimes even years. Javadi instead urges would-be gardeners to just plunge in. “Buy bolt cutters at the local hardware store and open the garden gates,” he said. Javadi encourages green-thumbed activists to clear the land they are interested in farming and rally support from neighbors and politicians to expedite the licensing process.    By winning this battle, says Javadi, they are helping to fight the legal war. No laws insure the security of the more than 600 community gardens in the five boroughs.   While yearly licenses can be granted by Green Thumbs, there are no guarantees for renewal. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this clear on Jan. 10, 1999.  The city was in an economic boom, and housing was scarce. In an effort to raise more money, he announced he had allocated 115 of 700 community gardens for sale to the commercial market in May. “This is a free-market economy,” he said on a WABC radio show that  January. “The era for communism is over.” The city's community gardeners were furious. Protests in front of City hall blocked the streets for hours, and 92 activists were arrested for civil disobedience.   But demonstrators weren’t the only ones in court.   New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that Giuliani’s attempted sale of the gardens would break state environmental laws. Finally, two days before the auction, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land struck a $4 million deal with Giuliani.  They would buy 60 of the lots, be caretakers for the other 55, and, in return, the lawsuit against the mayor’s office was dropped. In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the first of his three terms, he revisited the issue of community gardening.  An agreement between Bloomberg and Spitzer laid out, for gardeners, a system that required the approval of politicians and council members for the city to take back plots from gardeners. Four years later, Bloomberg signed another agreement with Spitzer that gave gardeners five years to rally support from community leaders and prove their worth to their communities. That’s why Javadi encouraged prospective farmers to take up guerilla farming.   By first putting their money and efforts into the gardens and then rallying for support, More Gardens! hopes to keep community gardens on the political agenda. For urban farmers like Field, this can be risky.  The single mother of four has been living on Fox Street in a small two bedroom apartment since 2002.  She could see the huge playground and basketball court across the street from her living room window. “It seemed really strange to me that there was a plot of earth near a playground that hadn’t been built on,” she said. But she brushed her concerns aside and focused first on completing her B.A. in Political Science at Baruch College then finding work.  She began as an Environmental Justice Activist with Mother's on the move.  Her work with mothers on the move had opened her eyes to economic, social and environmental issues facing the people of Hunts Point.   So when she decided to start her gardening adventure, she was determined it would yield more than just tomatoes, sunflowers and basil. “I live in a community that has five shelters in a three-block radius,” she said. “I can’t fart without hitting someone who might be touched by this.” Eventually she became an Outreach coordinator with with Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit whose mission is to create programs that address policy and planning issues in the Hunts Point area. As a program assistant with Sustainable South Bronx, she worked to inform the community of their role in creating and implementing laws and procedure.  She was shocked by the abundance of health problems in the Hunts Point area, including asthma, diabetes and obesity. Fields decided to attack the root of these problems. “One of the parts that I really looked at that affects so many communities is lack of access to food,” she said.  “What people are consuming because of that lack of quality food, and how the psychosis of poverty manifests itself in the choices that we make in terms of what we put into our body.” She immersed herself in her work with Sustainable South Bronx, and eventually became a program assistant for Majora Carter LLC, the private for-profit consulting group that lead by Majora Carter, creator of  Sustainable South Bronx.   The harder she worked, the more concerned she became about the community around her. She could still see the half-acre of empty land from her window, but didn’t consider starting an urban farm until the issues she had been addressing at work hit home.  Fields had gained more than 25 pounds since she moved to Fox Street, and her kids had developed serious respiratory problems. “I’m doing this out of need,” she said.  “I was tired of buying the bad avocados at the supermarket.  I was seeing children in the community get too big and I watched myself get too big.” Fields found that in her Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the second poorest congressional district in the country, single women just like her ran three out of four households.  Convinced that poverty is tied to gender, she decided to create a community garden that would teach as well as feed. “I was thinking about the real business side of that would teach them real skills, things they could put on a resume,” she said. The idea was to create a community garden that would force those participating to create a viable business model to sell their produce.  The women would develop a marketing plan; find buyers; identify aspects of the project they would not be able to do themselves, such as transporting their products, and create partnerships with other vendors in the community. So, in June she found a partner in field manager Dwaine Lee, a co-worker at Sustainable South Bronx who had experience in farming.  Over the summer Lee provided technical assistance on how to set-up the plot of land for growing, and assisted with funding.   He also helped Fields get in touch with Just Foods, a non-profit organization that connects local growers with the communities around them.   They gained the support of Just Food’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, a program that allows community members to pay an annual fee of $400 to $600 and receive enough vegetables to feed a two or three people on a weekly basis. The project seemed to be moving along smoothly.  Fields and Lee began to raise awareness on their project, and a steady stream of volunteers came to assist with the garden.  They cleared the debris, and put in raised beds.  They planted hydrangea, an ornamental flower, cherry sandalwood trees and butterfly bushes to attract pollinating bees. With the garden created and the community behind them, they focused their efforts on garnering political support.  On Sept. 26, Fields threw the Liberated  Urban Farm Family Fun Block Party, and invited neighbors, politicians and community garden advocates.   Over 100 people attended the event, including council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo. Yet her political activities and hard work couldn’t stop Parks and Recreation from tearing down the garden in November.  Now, Fields has turned for help to the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, a grassroots organization that promotes community gardens through political advocacy. Karen Washington, president of the coalition and a long-time community gardening activist, created the group to insure the security of community gardens around the New York area.    Like Fields, Washington started with the empty lot in front of her house on Prospect Avenue in 1988.  From there she has created a group of 10 community gardens in the Bronx that regularly supply fruits and vegetables for the East Tremont Farmer’s market, called La Familia Verde (The Green Family). Because of her success in creating almost a dozen community gardens in the Bronx, Washington has emerged as a leader in the legal fight for community gardens.   She attributes her success to being able to make informed arguments that politicians will listen to. “You always follow protocol,” she said.  “Then when you go and meet your adversary, you know you’re facts and you go in there educated strong and with the nonviolent quietness of a mouse.  You don’t have to raise your voice because your words are so powerful people listen.” It is with this philosophy that Washington began the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, and has expanded beyond the Bronx and created partnerships with some of New York’s biggest community gardening activists.  Their goal is to get politicians to understand the impact and significance of community gardens. “What I try to do is make people accountable,” she said. ”I know the politicians hear what is going on in the neighborhoods, but some of them don’t take the time out to go and see.” To carry out this task, she created the Legislative Committee of the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, made up of three community gardeners, including Javadi.  The group has created a list of nine recommendations for legislation.   They ask for classification as state parks, first pick when lots become available and the opportunity to create gardens in communities that lack open space. While pro-green politicians such as Rep. Jose E. Serrano have stood beside the gardeners, the coalition still faces strong opposition from proponents of affordable housing. Yet for the gardeners, affordable housing and urban gardening should go hand in hand.   Urban gardens create a sense of community, and are a way for people to have a direct interest in their neighborhoods.  This, says Fields, could help instead of hurt housing development. “It gives people an investment in the community,” she said.  “When you do have people who have money who come into the community it’s not as scary because they feel like they do have a vested interest in the community.“ Standing in front of an empty field, Fields watches her children play in the playground adjacent to the plot.  It is they, she says, who give her the determination to make the Liberated Urban Farm dream a reality. “When I first took them out into the garden they were digging up the soil,” she said.  “That was the first time my six-year-old had seen an earthworm,” Fields said.  She’s hoping for many more “firsts” when her next garden takes root.

Posted in Bronx Life, FoodComments (2)

Hostos High Achievers Feel the Budget Pinch

By Maia Efrem and Sarah Wali

For Sarah Delany, this semester at Hostos Community College was looking good. She had been elected as the student senate representative, accepted into the highly competitive nursing program, and would continue to be part of the university sponsored Student Leadership Academy.
The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

The Student Leadership Academy holds workshops weekly that might be canceled due to budget cuts.

But professors delivered a shock to the  nursing students on the first day of classes. Students would have to pay for their own course materials this year, which included interactive textbooks, access to an online instructor, online practice exams, a DVD lecture review system and eight review books. The package  distributed by Assessment Technologies Institute, LLC would cost them $430. A grant covered the cost for last year's students.  There was no grant for this year. Delany didn't have the  money. Most students at Hostos live in households that make less than $30,000 per year. Adding material costs to a $350 tuition hike for the semester, many wondered how they could afford to stay in school. City University of New York cut $44 million in state and city aid for the 2008-2009 school year, and proposed to cut $10 million to community colleges for the upcoming year. To offset the budget cuts, tuition has increased this year (and is expected to increase another 15 percent next year). Programs are being cut and students are left without the financial means to support a higher education. With all these budget pressures, even Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to infuse $50 million in the CUNY system would not be enough to help students like Delany. Programs for CUNY's brightest, like the Student Leadership Academy and Registered Nursing program, are feeling the cuts. But, Councilman Charles Barron, who serves as chair of the Higher Education Committee, claims the money is there. “How can they say there’s no money when CUNY has a $2.6 billion budget?” he said. “They are just not spending it on community colleges.” Barron urges students to demand the money they deserve. “No generation has ever progressed without a student movement,” he said. “It has never happened.  The money is there. You have to show that you are a priority.” Armed with skills she learned at the Student Leadership Academy in the past year, Delany did just that. She became an advocate for nursing students at Hostos. She wrote a petition to the Student Senate asking for funds, and gained support for other initiatives from students and faculty. Although the administration has yet to come to an agreement on the proposed increase, Delany said her experience with the Student Leadership Academy gave her the confidence to advocate for the nursing students.  Through workshops and conferences, Delany learned how to make effective arguments. The director of the Student Leadership Academy, Jason Libfeld, said hurdles like the one Delany is facing as a nursing student are commonplace at Hostos. A graduate of Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, Libfield left his career as a teacher two years ago to establish this program that would help develop the highest achieving students into leaders through workshops, conferences and community service. To be an ambassador with the Student Leadership Association students had to demonstrate academic excellence with a grade point average above 3.4, commit to at least 40 hours a semester of community service and be willing to participate in conferences upstate and New Jersey. Most important, he hoped to create a sense of community otherwise missing at Hostos. “The first thing I asked for is mailboxes,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they came back to the office. If they had email I would never see them." Despite being tucked away in what they call the broom closet, Libfeld and his students have created one of the most successful student associations in the CUNY system. Major achievements include providing a student representative at the World Trade Center Memorial with President Barack Obama, and with Mayor Bloomberg during a memorable trip upstate at the Mock Student Senate meeting. The Model Senate provides a forum for students to discuss real issues currently being raised in the State Senate. The annual conference is held in Albany, and requires hours of preparation. Students who do well can carve a path towards a political career. Sandra May Flowers, whose motto is "opportunities quickly diminish," secured an intership with Councilman Barron after her first year participating in the  mock senate. The professional workshops cost an average of $2,000 per  month and may be the first program Libfeld is forced to eliminate. Samantha Jackson's experience shows how important the workshops can be. She worked hard to earn the grades she needed in high school to be accepted into a four-year college. But her mother could  not afford the tuition, which forced her to attend Hostos. "At first, it hurt to go to Hostos with the grades I worked so hard for," said Jackson, a Jamaican immigrant.. But she reached out to the Academy and learned about the Jose E. Serrano Scholarship for Diplomatic Studies, a program that moves students from Hostos into Columbia University for a Bachelor of Arts followed by a two-year graduate program at Columbia Unviersity's School of International and Public Affairs. Jackson was accepted to the program, which requires students to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Jackson, now finishing her degree at Columbia, attributes her success to the Hostos programs that are facing budget cuts in the coming year. She says the Student leadership Academy’s emphasis on community service was what she was looking for, training in the field and insight from professionals. During her time in Hostos, Jackson was one of many students who supported a small increase to the cost of tuition in an effort to attract a desirable faculty with promise of higher pay. "The school could not keep educators because they could not pay them enough in today's bad economy," said Jackson. "A small tuition hike could have resolved a lot of issues. We could have raised the money that the city and state were not providing the school." However, according to Barron, students are fooling themselves if they think a tuition hike would mean more resources for students. “They bought the Kool-Aid from the administration,” he said. “They believe that if they increase tuition the school will then invest that money back into the programs.” Barron points to the $60 billion city budget and $131 billion state budget, claiming that it is up to the city to allocate appropriate funds for community colleges. “We can build Yankee Stadium?” he said. “We can build the Mets a new stadium, but we can’t provide money for CUNY students?” Despite the proposed budget cuts, and the continued financial stresses the students of the Student Leadership Academy are facing, they remain optimistic about the program’s future. Libfeld says one of his proudest moments with the Student Leadership Academy was planting 900 trees in one day at St. Mary’s park in the Bronx. He also remembers the day he took the students to Isabella Nursing Home. One of the students was so excited to be there, she talked until one of the senior citizens fell asleep. He and the students are resigned to continue on even if they lose workshop and field trip money. At least outreach would be saved. It costs nothing. Something Libfeld and his students don't mind. “If we have to go back to bare bones, then we’ll do that,” he said. "No matter what we will always have community service.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, MoneyComments (2)

1744 Clay Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Workmen with blue shirts labeled “JLP Home Imp. Inc” were a welcome sight for the tenants of 1744 Clay Ave. in East Tremont one fall week in October. Their 73-year-old building has been collapsing rapidly into disrepair for the last two years.  For many, the conditions have become unbearable. The team of repairmen has been hired by JLP Management Inc., which holds a temporary lien on the property.  Five bathrooms have already received new tiles and a paint job. The rest of the repairs for the 42 units are expected to be completed by the end of the month. Still, tenants in the 38 occupied apartments continue to be overwhelmed by the mold, the collapsing ceilings, and the general decay that accelerated under Ocelot, and later Hunter Property Management LLC.  The tenants have filed 51 complaints with the Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) citing serious problems that include the broken elevator, the unstable structure, and problems with the heat. According to Carmen Pineiro, president of the tenants association, conditions turned from bad to worse when Hunter took over management of the building in November, 2008. Since then, she said, the tenants lost hot water and heat several times, the elevator went out of service for almost a year, and repairs to holes in the walls and ceilings were neglected. Niger Harris, who lives in apartment 1C, worries that the derelict conditions will affect the health of her asthmatic 7-year-old daughter, Nyla.  Doctors found that the levels of lead in Nyla’s system have tripled since the two moved into 1744 Clay Ave. along with Harris’s sister. According to Harris, doctors ordered a Bi-Level Positive Air Pressure (BIPAP) machine the machine when Nyla failed a sleeping test this year. She lost her ability to breathe for five seconds while she was asleep. Doctors warned Harris that her daughter’s health will not improve unless she moves out of the building. Others stay because they feel a deep connection to the building – even now. For many, 1744 Clay Ave. has been home for over 25 years.  Pineiro said they are connected to the building through memories and experiences and find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. There is a strong sense of community in the building.   The unlocked security gate doesn’t deter neighbors from keeping their apartment doors open.   While the halls may be stained with dirt by the years of neglect, they are clean enough for children to run and play in while adults stand around the stairs chatting.

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1804 Weeks Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The newly painted pink and blue walls in apartment 52 in the building at 1804 Weeks Ave. give the illusion of a well-cared for living space.  But the bright colors provide only a thin cover for the vermin-infested apartment Fernando Diaz shares with his wife and two young daughters. Outside, boarded-up windows and broken glass leave the impression that the East Tremont building is abandoned.  Inside, graffiti splashes the hallways, doors are missing, and the shaky staircase is pocked by holes. “Don’t Rent Here,” is scrawled on the doors of empty apartments. More than 20 families, most of them Latino, are attempting to survive in this five-story building,which was bought by an Ocelot entity in August 2007. It has been in foreclosure since April of this year. Twenty-seven of the 33 apartments are occupied and the rent averages $850 a month.  According to the Department of Housing and Preservation’s (HPD) records, tenants have filed 338 complaints in the past year. HPD took note of the broken windows, trash strewn floors, lack of security and hot water, and put the building under the Alternative Enforcement Program in early 2008.  The year-old program, was designed to identify and fix dwellings in severe distress.  The law allowed the city to sweep in to make necessary repairs, and then slap the derelict owner with a hefty fine. Yet this program has had little to no impact on the quality of life inside 1804 Weeks Ave.  According to the program’s report, as of Oct. 2007, the owners owed $19,100 as a tax lien to the city for open violations against the building.  This included a $16,500 fee that was carried over from the previous fiscal year on April 24, 2009.  Under the program’s guidelines, the city charges a fee for violations that remain unresolved. This building currently carries 581 outstanding violations, according to HPD. Diaz has been living on the fifth floor with his wife, Rosie Benitas, and their two daughters Jacquelin, 7, and Tanya, 4, since February. They used to live in a second-floor apartment, but a fire forced them to move upstairs. Diaz tried calling the maintenance supervisor in the building, he said. But he was told the super would not do any work in the apartment until he received his paycheck.  Diaz understands the super’s dilemma, but said he is more concerned about the mice and rats that could crawl into his daughters’ beds at night. Using 311, Diaz has attempted to file formal complaints about rodent problems, lack of hot water and falling ceilings.  However, after months of neglect, he decided to at least try and make the apartment cheery. Diaz painted the walls in bold hues to cover up the holes around the bathroom knobs.   The girls’ room was given a cool turquoise color to divert them from the windows that don’t open--creating an inferno in the summer. However, most of the damage cannot be ignored, he said.   His bedroom ceiling leaks when it rains, and the crack is edging closer to the light fixture.  At night he lays in bed, staring at his ceiling, hoping that faulty wires will not cause another fire, and force them out once more.

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When The Bubble Burst

How a New York real estate deal went bad, causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families


View Ocelot in a larger map A map of all foreclosed and bankrupt Bronx properties mentioned in the story. Click on a location to read an in-depth story and watch an audio slideshow for each individual property. If you encounter problems viewing the map, click on the links below to view the slideshows and stories. red= Ocelot buildings currently in foreclosure. On Dec. 1, 2009, Fannie Mae sold the debt to Omni New York LLC. red806 E. 175th St. red1528 Bryant Ave. red1744 Clay Ave. red2254 Crotona Ave. red1663 Eastburn Ave. red1512-1524 Leland Ave. red621-627 Manida St. red1269-1271 Morris Ave. red1804 Weeks Avenue yellow= Ocelot buildings sold to BXP 1LLC on May 13, 2009. The buildings are managed by Hunter Property Management LLC. yellow1585-1589 E. 172nd St. yellow1350 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1636-1640 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1268 Stratford Avenue blue= Ocelot buildings sold to Bronx Apartments LLC on Aug. 26, 2009. blue422 East 178th St. blue4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway. Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.”
Nearly half the apartments are empty in the Manida Street buildings. <br> <br>Photo by Wanda Hellmund

In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments in the Bronx, including buildings on Manida Street which many of its low-income tenants refer to as the

A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx. Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

The police were recently called on the residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street when they attempted to organize against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come. The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in a contempt of court ruling, i.e. jail time.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008. Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

While Fannie Mae is looking for

Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling. Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Many of the low-income residents have dealt with rats, leaky ceilings and faulty wiring. Photo by Connor Boals

In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

How a New York real estate deal went bad causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan

LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway.
The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.” A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot. From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in criminal charges. Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki. Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing. In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

Tenants Complain of ‘House of Horrors’

by Sarah Wali

LaDonna Clements the white tile pictured above were a preventive measure against mold on her bathroom ceiling, but realized her mistake when it too was covered.  LaDonna Clements waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs at 689 E. 187th St. in the Bronx one afternoon in October. She and her son, Rondell, were moving some of their belongings to another, safer apartment in Harlem.  A loud crash sent her running. On the third floor landing she saw her son’s left leg dangling from the landing above her.  He had fallen through, spraining his back and neck, and twisting his ankle. “We knew eventually the staircase was gonna cave in,” said Clements, a 32-year-old nursing aide.   “We knew, we had a feeling because it would shake.” Tenants had filed complaints about conditions in this building regularly, according to the New York City Department of Housing and Development. In the past year, it received 31 citations. Although inspectors from the city’s Building Department deemed it safe, the owner, Solieman Rabanipour, was cited for failure to maintain the property. Rabanipour adamantly denies tenants’ claims of disrepair in the apartment.  He blames Clements and her son for the damage on the landing. “She’s lying,” said Rabanipour, when asked about Clements’ claims that the stairs were dangerous.  “They were moving furniture, they dropped a piece and the steps broke.” Rabanipour pointed out that there are no open violations against the building.   He fixed the issues raised in the citations. However, the dilapidated conditions are hard to miss. A wooden block replaces the broken landing between the shaky structure’s third and fourth floors.  Out of the six units, five are currently occupied.  Tenants complain of vermin, falling ceilings and lack of hot water. Yet, Clements, at least at first, felt blessed for the opportunity to move into this real home.  She, like many of her new neighbors, had been living in homeless shelters with her son for months.  She craved stability.  But living without reliable hot water, heat and electricity killed her spirit. She said her living room windowpane came off shortly after she arrived.  Then mold and mildew piled up until it caked the bathroom ceiling and Rondell ’s bedroom.  If a fuse blew at night, they would have to wait until morning for the restaurant downstairs to open and give them access to the fuse box. Clements says she tried calling Rabanipour, a Manhattan dentist with a home on Long Island, but got no response.    After over a dozen attempts to file a complaint with the city through 311, an inspector came to check on her apartment in this February. “They had to close down my living room because they said it was poisonous,” she said. According to the Department Housing and Development, inspectors found high levels of asbestos and lead poisoning from the paint in the room.    To pass inspection the room had to be gutted and redone.   It was only then, she said, that Rabanipour sent someone to fix the mold problem in the bathroom. At first she thought the newly installed white plastic on the ceiling was to prevent the problem from occurring once more.   She quickly realized it had only been covered up when it too was spotted with the dark green. In May, Clements said inspectors advised her to stop paying rent, and to move out of the apartment.  She and Rondell took what they could, and relocated to a housing project in Manhattan. Rabanipour claims he didn’t know the apartment had been vacant for four months. “If I knew they had left, why wouldn’t I rent the apartment out to someone else?” he said. Yessina Rodriguez, 25, who lives in the apartment directly below LaDonna’s, said she has attempted to call the landlord about the damage in her apartment since she moved in a year ago.  The first time she saw anything being fixed was after Rondell fell through the stairs. “We don’t have a super at all,” she said.  “We have a guy from the restaurant downstairs who comes and cleans once a month, that’s it.” Rodriquez doesn’t allow her 3 and 8-year-olds to leave the apartment because she feels the hallway is dangerous.  With no buzzer on the door, the narrow dark stairwell is an ideal spot for strangers to loiter.  By morning, she said, the hallway reeks of urine because two of the three windows are jammed shut. She hasn’t received mail for the year she’s been in her apartment because her mailbox door is broken.  There is no superintendent to fix it, so she’s stuck paying her bills online and finding and trying to keep up with her due dates.  When she tried to call Rabanipour, she couldn’t reach him, and he has yet to return her calls. Rabanipour claimed Rodriquez  never called him about her complaints.   He blamed the tenants for breaking the buzzer, and not locking the front door. “I’m there once a week,” he said. “I have a super there.  I don’t understand what they want.  I can’t be there 24-hours a day.” Rodriquez decided to take things in her own hands when she found mice in her pantry.   The rodents were eating through her food supply, and she could not afford to let food go to waste. No matter how high she put her food, the mice would come to get it.   She bought a small mixed breed puppy to scare them off, even though it’s a pet-free building. “I don’t care,” she said.  “I’m afraid of putting my hand on the kitchen wall in the dark because I don’t know what will crawl on it.” According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development Rodriquez has called 311 more than 50 times to file complaints, since her attempts to contact the landlord were futile. Now, fresh patches of paint spot the wall.  Tenants say the building is the cleanest it has ever been.   The dirt-stained floor has been swept and the putrid smell is slightly masked by fresh paint.    But they still worry about the shaking staircase. To Rabanipour, this is just part of owning a building, and there is nothing wrong with 689 E. 187th St. “It’s in perfectly livable shape,” he said. Rodriquez may disagree, but without steady work she has no other option.  She will continue to endure its conditions for the next two years, until her lease runs out.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (1)

What Does It Take to Go from Fat to Fit?

by Sarah Wali
Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

Mohamed Islam manages one of the 175 new Green Carts in the Bronx in East Tremont.

The Bronx has seen its share of problems.  It was burning in the 1970s and stricken with a drug epidemic in the 1980s.  As the crime rates went down throughout the 1990s, a new statistic made headlines: the Bronx was getting fatter. According to the New York City Community Health Survey,  obesity rates had more than doubled by the end of the 1990s to 24 percent.  By the time Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, it was the fattest borough in New York City, and by 2003, almost 62 percent of the Bronx was either obese or overweight. In response to this health crisis, Mayor Bloomberg introduced a number of initiatives, including a law that requires all restaurants with 15 or more locations in New York City to display calorie counts on their menus, and 1,000 new licenses to Green Cart vendors, small carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables in areas with the least access to healthy food. “It is the job of the government, if something is detrimental to your health to a, warn you and b, if it’s serious, try to prevent it,” he said at the Oct. 13 mayoral debate. Mayor Bloomberg’s use of calorie count to warn diners that McDonald’s, KFC and other fast-food restaurants were unhealthy did little to deter shoppers from their cravings.  According to an Oct. 6 web article in Health Affairs, Bronx residents may have been shocked to find that a muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts they once thought was a healthy alternative for a 220-calorie glazed donut was actually 630 calories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will buy lower calorie food.  Rather, researchers from New York University found that customers were, on average, buying 846 calories per meal, up from 825 before the implementation of the program. Clearly, the Bronx is not slimming down. Karen Washington, a long-time health activist in the South Bronx, says that the main issue in the Bronx today is food  and obesity. “The overall concern throughout the Bronx is health and nutrition,” she said.   “Lack of quality food need(s) to be addressed.” Washington, who sits on the board for Just Food, an initiative to bring healthy community grown food the Bronx, has started the East Tremont Farmer’s market and is currently working on establishing a farmer’s school to help people learn how to grow their own food. She says she and her neighbors are limited by the fatty choices offered in their area.   Plus, with the financial crisis hitting the Bronx especially hard, residents are forced to consider expenses. “When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family you are going to buy the cheapest food items,” she said.  “You need to feed your family." Bloomberg has tried to create an opportunity for Bronx residents to make healthier decisions.  In 2007, his administration began pushing legislation to license 1,500 fresh fruit and vegetable vendors in the fattest boroughs, including the Bronx. The Bronx is now home to 175 of the 1,000 Green Carts in the city.  It's a promising idea, but it has only been in effect since this July.   The true impact of the Green Carts has yet to be seen. The little carts covered by yellow and green umbrellas imprinted with the logo "NYC Green Carts" carry an array of fruits and vegetables.    From apples and oranges to okra and peppers, the carts are supposed to offer a healthy alternative for residents, and open doors for employment. Mohamed Islam, who runs the Green Cart in front of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, makes the hour-and-a-half trip every morning from his home in Queens because he loves produce, and believes in the Green Cart program. Islam, 44, arrived in the United States almost a year ago.  He waited years for an opportunity to leave his home in Bangladesh.  Finally, in October, 2008, his brother’s sponsorship was accepted, and he and his wife boarded the plane excited about the chance for a better life. Now, he makes the long trek from Queens to the Bronx hoping he will one day be able to own his own Green Cart.   Although he struggles to find the words in English that describe his passion for food and produce, his smile radiates with emotion and his eyes light up as he explains that fresh produce is often overlooked by many in this country.  His is an expert opinion. In Bangladesh, he was a government employee who focused on teaching and promoting the importance of agriculture. He feels that the Green Cart program is a great way to promote healthy produce decisions in the Bronx.  As he waits for approval from the city for his own license, he manages the Bronx cart and for $80 per day, sells $250 to $300 worth of fruits and vegetables per day at the corner of Mt. Eden Avenue and Grand Concourse. But for activists like Karen Washington, the waiting game is over.   Washington and the Northwest Bronx Community Coalition have started a program to teach youth the importance of urban gardening, and have just launched a new farmer’s market in the East Tremont area.   She says these initiatives are designed to put the power of change back in the community’s hands. “I felt really lucky that we started a farmer’s market,” she said,  “which not only produces locally grown produce, but we teach people in the neighborhood, not only how to grow it but how to use it and how to cook it, which is very, very important.  “

Posted in PoliticsComments (0)

Tough Choices at the Market in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him. “All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said.  “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that.  They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “ With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down.   Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition. Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets.  The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations. Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration.  They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price. Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists.   Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer.   She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice. Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx.  For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing.    According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city.  They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices. Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping. “Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello.  “It’s cheaper.” Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents.    The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand.  She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it. Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats.  Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale.  At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello.  She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun. Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said.  “I might as well buy it in a can.  It lasts longer and is cheaper.” Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season.  Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each. Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle.  She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50.  Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5. Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef.  Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives. Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5. Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce.   They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack,  she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce. “Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said.  “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.” Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run.  She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too.  Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.

Posted in Food, MoneyComments (0)

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