Tag Archive | "South Bronx"

Bronx acupuncture center for addiction fighting to survive

In a dimly lit room at Lincoln Recovery Center in the South Bronx one September morning, six middle-aged men were sound asleep, five needles poking out each of their ears. Meditation music played from a 1990s cassette recorder.

This was acupuncture therapy, the first on the center’s agenda every weekday at the East 142nd drug treatment location. Next comes group therapy and reiki sessions.

Nearly a decade ago this center was a thriving community service hub and a crucial therapeutic refuge for those afflicted by rampaging heroin addiction in the South Bronx.

But two weeks ago, a dozen chairs in the acupuncture room remained empty. Apart from the occasional banter between patients, the waiting room was eerily quiet throughout the day.

“The center used to be more community-based,” said Angela Torres, the clinic’s supervisor and senior addiction counselor. She has been working for the program for 24 years. “We tried to keep it in the community, but there have been more regulations from the hospital.”

Lincoln Recovery Center began as a grassroots organization, developing into a core neighbourhood service treating drug addiction with experimental holistic methods. But, the treatment center has since disappeared from the heart of the community, and its patient census continues to decline.

In December 2011, Lincoln Hospital administrators relocated the center from a four-story building on East 140th Street, to the basement of the Segundo Ruiz Treatment Center half a mile away. Since then, the center has seen fewer patients every year. This current August, clinicians had 21 patients, less than a quarter of its monthly average of approximately 120 before the move.

Yet, opioid overdose rates have been increasing over the last decade, particularly in the South Bronx, which has become the epicenter of a growing supply of prescription opioid drugs.

In 2018, the borough had the highest rate of overdose rates in New York City. Nearly 400 residents died, up 9% from the previous year, according to a recent report by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Mott Haven-Hunts Point had the second highest rates in the borough.

Lincoln Recovery Center was established as part of a community activism in the 1970s to combat an epidemic of drug addiction in the area. At the time, the New York Times reported 20,000 drug addicts were roaming the streets of the South Bronx. Activist and militant groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers made headlines by marching into Lincoln hospital and taking over the sixth floor to implement a drug program that became known as “Lincoln Detox.”

“The detoxification program came out of desperation because the healthcare was substandard and there were no drug programs to help addicts in the Bronx,” said Carlos Alvarez, who started working for the program when it began.

Activists began treating patients with holistic practices and methadone, a synthetic opioid receptor that is prominently used today in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms. Concerned about the addictive nature of methadone, counselors began to experiment with acupuncture after hearing about the work of Dr. H.L Wen in Hong Kong, who found that acupuncture combined with electrical stimulation could relieve opioid withdrawal signs in addicts.

Conflicts between the program and hospital administration resulted in the unit being shut down in 1978 by city hospital officials from NYC Health and Hospitals, led by then-Mayor Ed Koch. It was then relocated to an abandoned 21,000 square-foot building on East 140th Street, which the corporation bought for one dollar.

A patient receiving the standard NADA protocol at Lincoln Recovery

Acupuncture became the center’s main treatment method, pioneered by Dr. Michael Smith, founder of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA). The association set the protocol known as “acudetox,” a non-verbal therapy approach, often set in a group setting that involves the gentle placement of five small, sterilized, disposable needles into specific sites in the ear.

The acupuncture association estimates that approximately 25,000 people have since been trained in this method worldwide, which continues to expand as a modality within addiction and behavioral health treatment, including prisons, military medicine and disaster relief.

Nancy Smalls began working from the program in 1973.“It was like a big family affair, it was wonderful,” she said. The center had a game room, a big backyard and would run weekly activities and trips.  “We had clients coming out of the woodwork. The acupuncture had to be doing something.” 

Smalls also launched the Maternal Substance Abuse program as part of the centre’s services in 1987. “No one was handling the drug treatment of women,” she said. “We found out that acupuncture worked even better for pregnant women who were withdrawing. It removed the want to get high.”

Studies on the science behind acupuncture remain varied and often inconclusive.

“Acupuncture can be helpful to any type of withdrawal, simply because it calms the sympathetic nervous system related to the fight or flight response,” said Pooja Shah, doctor of integrative and family medicine and a licensed acupuncturist. “It’s hard to research the effects, because there is a lot of variability that can change the outcome, such as the group dynamics and the relationship between the patient and the practitioner.”

A 2012 systematic review concluded that after 35 years of research by both Asian and Western scientists, the efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of opiate addiction had not been established. A 2017 study on NADA protocol states that is not a standalone intervention as a treatment for substance abuse.

Research into acupuncture’s mechanisms is currently being conducted in Brigham Young University. “Right now it can only be used as an adjunct therapy, but it has potential,” said Scott Steffensen, professor of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. “If you activate certain receptors in the body without using drugs, you can modify the whole nervous system in a way that it could be used to reverse the craving associated with opioid withdrawal.”

The relocation of the Lincoln Recovery Center in 2011 came as a shock to the local community and former employees. The building has been abandoned since then but is still under the ownership of NYC Health and Hospitals. 

“They said the rent was too high,” said Angela Torres. “We could all have chipped in to pay a dollar.” 

After the women’s program was closed down in 2013, Nancy Smalls retired. “Everybody we serviced, we made a difference in their lives,” she said. “I just don’t understand why they are not using that building. The city did a huge disservice to the population when they got rid of Dr. Smith.”

Numerous attempts to reach the communications department at Lincoln Hospital in person and by phone were unsuccessful.

Currently, 22 recovery services across New York offer acupuncture, according to the 2019 National Directory of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment Facilities.  Lincoln Recovery Center is the only facility listed in the Bronx.

The unveiling of the mural at September 7 event

Activist group South Bronx Unite has since been campaigning for the hospital agency to hand the building over to the local community. On September 7, plans were showcased to transform it into a H.E.A.R.T (Health, Education and the Arts) Center to house local non-profit organizations and a mural was unveiled on the side of the building.

The Lincoln Recovery Center has changed from a community hub to a more structured medical service.

“It used to give people somewhere to be, it had a homey kind of atmosphere,” said Dorine Seabrook. “Now it’s much more appointment driven, we are required to people in and out of treatment faster.” 

Patients at the Lincoln Recovery Center are now referred by the Consult for Addiction and Care Team in Hospitals team (CATCH) at Lincoln hospital, the courts, or by the city’s Human Resources Administration.

Dr. Mark Sinclair is Medical Director of the CATCH program and the Lincoln Recovery Center. “We try to encourage patients who need treatment to go there,” he said. “The services at the Lincoln Recovery are great but they need to be more integrated here in Lincoln Hospital with the other patient’s healthcare needs.”

Patients are referred depending on their needs, either using the center as their sole service or on top of their methadone program.

But employees cite the location as the main reason for the lack of patients and their frustration with the administration.

“Our biggest problem is that the program is a mile away from Lincoln hospital,” said Program Director Christina Laboy. “I have pushed to set up a transportation service. People don’t end up coming here.”

“We need exposure,” said Serge Ernandez, the licensed acupuncturist at the center. “No one knows we exist here anymore.”

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How HIV outreach is tackling an “invisible crisis” in The Bronx

Aviles looks on as his colleague prepares for a customer in a Bronx barber academy.

Charles Aviles, a 36 year-old Bronx resident, will always remember his mother’s childhood friend Ronnie when he thinks about growing up during the 1980s. Ronnie had treated Aviles like a son, helping him with things like tying his sneakers.

“He had one of those million-dollar smiles, like nothing ever bothered him,” he said.

But when Aviles was just 10-years-old, Ronnie passed away suddenly. That was when Aviles first became aware of AIDs. The global epidemic continued to rage throughout Aviles’s childhood years and into the early 1990s.

HIV and AIDs rates have decreased globally since the peak of the epidemic in the 1980s, and earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the number of HIV diagnoses in the state had declined by 28 percent since 2014. But that doesn’t mean progress is evenly spread: just as the Bronx was disproportionately affected during the crisis’s peak, today it is one of the Center for Disease Control’s 45 HIV hotspots across the country.

There are several factors that feed into the “invisible crisis” of HIV in the south Bronx, according to Dr. Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, director of the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health. HIV rates are higher among Latino and African American populations, which disproportionately populate the borough. There are also generally higher rates of HIV among men under 25 years old, particularly those who are gay and bisexual. The Bronx also has the largest youth population of any of New York’s five boroughs. Language and cultural differences also play a role.

Both government and non-profits have been trying to address the issue with outreach programs tailored to specific demographics.

For example, hair care professionals were one of the groups identified by the CDC as potential partners for its Business Response to AIDs initiative, which began in 1992. The program partners with businesses, health departments, community based organizations and government agencies to provide public education on HIV. As barbers in New York are already required by state law to receive training on contagious disease transmission associated with their professional duties, training centers for hair care professionals were an obvious group to incorporate into the program.

Aviles, who is training to become a barber at the Beyond Beauty & Barber Academy in the Bronx’s Westchester Square neighborhood, is also being trained to talk to people about HIV. For Aviles, it’s important not just to have practical knowledge about safe barber practices – sanitizing equipment, taking care with pimples and open wounds – but also about how the community provided by space can facilitate difficult talks.

“Barbershops are the places where you let loose, where you want to be able to talk sometimes and at home you can’t really have certain conversations,” he said. “But when the fellas are around, it’s a great environment to have certain conversations.”

But despite efforts like the CDC’s, there are several reasons that HIV rates remain high across the Bronx today.

There are fewer health services in the area than elsewhere in the city, and Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately uninsured, or have inadequate coverage. For many, that means that PrEP, a highly effective antiretroviral drug, often isn’t available to them. Bronx residents generally have lower incomes than in other parts of the city, Dr Guilamo-Ramos said, and other expenses might seem more urgent than medication for a chronic health condition.

People also feel scared about going into formal spaces like hospitals or clinics to take an HIV test test, said Daniel Leyva, the Latino Commission on AIDs’s press secretary. This discomfort can be especially prevalent among Latinos and people of color, who can feel socially and culturally excluded in places like sexual health clinics.

“It’s really sad to see that a lot of people in our community are still dealing with so much stigma,” said Ivan Ribera, a community engagement specialist at Latino Pride Center whose daily work involves approaching people to talk about HIV prevention.

All of this has grave consequences for the Bronx. The borough’s rate of premature deaths from HIV was twice as high as the New York City average in 2018, according to Community Health Profile data., which put the Bronx’s rate at 12.3 deaths per 100,000 compared to Brooklyn’s 6.4 and the New York City average of 5.9. In total, the Bronx saw 792 premature deaths from HIV last year.

Moreover, the South Bronx itself is a pocket with much higher HIV death rates than anywhere else in New York City. Morrisania, Mott Haven and Hunts Point were among the worst-affected areas.

HIV mortality rates in the South Bronx, compared to the rest of the city.

Dr. Guilamo-Ramos has piloted a number of pioneering outreach and education programs in recent years, but described youth infection rates as a “raging epidemic”. As a result, two of the programs he runs – Families Talking Together and Fathers Raising Responsible Men – target teenagers and work with families to communicate on the issue.

Ribera said he talks to approximately eleven people a week on an individual basis as part of his outreach work, and that much of it involves trying to get people to use condoms. “There’s this idea that NYC condoms don’t work,” he said, alluding to rumors that condoms issued by the city’s Health Department are faulty. “So we try to push condoms, to eliminate those patterns.” In addition to approaching people in the street, Ribera and the Latino Pride Center produce discreet boxes filled with a range of differently-sized and -flavored condoms and leave them in places like barbershops.

Churches are another space being leveraged to offer a culturally-specific outreach service, due to their standing in minority communities and the close personal relationships they often cultivate in areas such as the Bronx.

“Churches are becoming a mediator between communities and its services people who are nervous about seeking services somewhere else,” said Leyva, adding that they can be particularly important for people who don’t see themselves as a part of at-risk groups or who don’t realize the breadth of health services they are entitled to use. “At the end of the day, it’s about promoting safe spaces for people to discuss sensitive issues.”

In Aviles’s mind, the necessary outreach work to combat HIV in the Bronx shouldn’t pose as many challenges as it appears to. “It doesn’t mean you got the cooties or anything like that. You’re just a normal person,” he said. “Things happen.”

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ASPCA to expand free, subsidized animal care to South Bronx

An ASPCA truck parked in the South Bronx on Sept. 19 serves low income pet owners who can’t afford to pay for pet services at a veterinarian. ASPCA is expanding their services by opening a community center in the South Bronx that is expected to open Spring 2020.

At 6 a.m., the sky began to light up as Perla Medina darted around a line that had already formed at the mobile vet clinic that wouldn’t arrive for another hour at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx. It was Thursday, and the clinic’s monthly visit to the park.

Medina wore a gray hoodie and held a loose sheet of lined notebook paper and a pen. As people arrived, the 13-year-old took their name and asked how many pets they had with them.

It was Medina and her sister, Daniella Estevez’s, third time at The American Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals mobile clinics and after two unsuccessful trips they wanted to make sure their two cats get a spot in line. Medina was taking names so that when the clinic arrived, the veterinarian technicians would know who’d been in line first. She didn’t want the others to wait unnecessarily if there was no hope for them to be seen.

The first time, she and her sister waited for two hours, according to Estevez, a 17-year-old high school student. The second time they happened to be number 26, out of 25 served.

“We could get there as early as we want, but we were always one behind the last person taken,” Medina said. . 

The ASPCA currently has  four ASPCA Mobile Spay/Neuter Clinics located at rotating locations throughout New York City, but can only accommodate up to 25 animals per day, according to ASPCA Media and Communications.

A community veterinary center  is expected to open in the South Bronx next spring to improve access to veterinarian services for lower income people. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty is spending $45 million on three new facilities. Each will provide free care to to cat and dog owners who have proof of public assistance or public housing, and subsidized services for others.

The center will be the first of its kind in New York City, followed by others scheduled to open in Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2020 and 2021 respectively, according to an ASPCA press release

The cost of pet care is rising – with pet owners spending more than $18 billion on veterinary care last year, a billion-dollar increase over the year before, according to American Pets Project Association

The communities that use the ASPCA mobile clinics hope the new centers will be able to address some of the issues with the mobile clinics such as long wait times with the risk of not being seen. 

Waiting to be seen

While Medina and her sister were lucky on their third trip and were able to have both of their cats Oreo and Storm seen, it was not the case for everyone.

While mobile clinics arrive at their rotating locations throughout the boroughs at 7 a.m., owners are recommended to arrive in advance, according to the Bronx September ASPCA calendar. Customers of ASPCA said they regularly arrived as early as 4:30 a.m. to guarantee a spot on the list.

Medina and Estevez arrived at 5 a.m. and were the sixth people in line for the 7 a.m. clinic. 

More Animals Served

Not a morning person, Emilia Rodriguez held her cat carrier and bounced up and down, trying to stay awake. This was her fourth visit to the mobile clinic as she got her last cat Little Bit, a stray from a funeral home, fixed.

“The clinics around here charge $100-$200 and here getting pets fixed is free,” said Rodriguez, a cashier at Family Dollar. “It’s really awesome for low income people. I have nothing bad to say about this truck. I’m serious. This truck is a god send.” 

On average, people spend $1,300 per dog and $900 per cats every year, according to a study by TD Ameritrade. But, the monthly average spent on pets in New York at $157 is higher than the national average, according to a study by Opploans.

The clinics are open every Tuesday through Saturday, with at least one clinic in each borough, and with two clinics in the Bronx every Tuesday and Friday, according to the ASPCA website

The ASPCA declined to cite how many animals were served in New York City in a year, but said it was in the tens of thousands. 

Once the three community centers are open, ASPCA expects to provide an additionally 30,000 spay/neuter services every year. The centers won’t replace the clinics, but will supplement their services. 

Expanded Services

Samantha Arroyo held her small grey and white splotched cat in a pink carrier close to her. It was her second time in line at the mobile clinic. Arroyo was called in, but soon after she was sent back out again.

The clinic couldn’t fix her cat because it had pus in his mouth. She’ll have to go to another veterinarian and come back again. She had been turned away for the same reason the last time she was at there.

With the new community centers, it is possible that Arroyo could have had her cat treated and fixed at the same location, instead of visiting another vet, according to the ASPCA press release. 

Currently the clinics offer spay or neuter surgeries, vaccinations, nail trims and microchip placement, according to the ASPCA spokesperson. The community centers will expand their services, but it is unclear what additional services the clinics will offer and ASPCA declined further requests for information, including why the center opening was delayed. It was originally slated to open this fall.

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Stone Soup of the South Bronx

Sancochazo stew simmered over an open fire in Brook Park, South Bronx. Credit: Ciara Long.

Salsa rhythms pulsed from a hidden spot on the afternoon of Saturday September 28, floating over the trees shielding Brook Park from view along with wafts of cilantro, garlic and cassava. At the park’s entrance, a hand-painted yellow sign offered an explanation in capital letters for the 200-person crowd gathering inside: BIG BRONX SANCOCHAZO.

Now in its sixth year, the Big Bronx Sancochazo is an early fall staple organized by South Bronx’s Green Workers Cooperative. Centered around sancocho, a traditional cassava-based meat stew popular in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, participants are invited to bring something to the table: ingredients, entertainment or even just an extra pair of hands to help with the cooking.

Children paint slabs of wood and rocks, making balloon animals and playing in front of a community garden, while adults hug neighbors and community members like long-lost friends.

Laticosina worker makes maize tortillas to accompany the Sancochazo. Credit: Ciara Long

The idea behind the event originated from the children’s story of the Stone Soup, where a group of people work together to make and eat soup together as an illustration of community and cooperation. “So, we created the South Bronx version of the Stone Soup,” said Omar Freilla, Green Worker Cooperative’s director and founder.

Making the sancocho itself is a laborious, hours-long process that requires collaboration. Ysanet Batista, creator of plant-based Dominican catering service Woke Foods, oversaw the stew’s preparation. Over a sizzling hot plate, the women’s catering collective Laticosina made maize tortillas and pupusas, a typical Guatemalan snack made by stuffing corn flatbreads with vegetables, beans and cheese. Freilla, meanwhile, poked at the fire underneath thigh-high stew pots, sending scents of oregano and sweet potato flying through the air and cutting across people’s conversations.

“It’s a labor of love. It’s very Caribbean,” said Sheena Sheena Sepulvedam, a 28-year-old chef attending the Big Bronx Sancochazo for the first time. “It tastes really good, but it’s even better being surrounded by other people eating it as well, with that idea of communal cooking and communal energy along with the blessings.”

Ityopia Rootz, a catering co-op working with hydroponic vegetables, at El Gran Sancochazo del Bronx. Credit: Ciara Long

As they wait for the sancocho, a purple-haired DJ spins vinyl records from Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa, accompanied by a white-clad conga drummer. Riaan Tavares took the stage to teach salsa in 2, a faster incarnation of the traditional Latin American dance that originated in the Bronx.

Shortly before the food was served, indigenous Mexican Veronica Raya and her family performed traditional dances and invited participants to form a “friendship chain”, which they led in a meandering circuit across the yard. When the stew was finally ready, Raya and her family blessed the food with a chant as hungry Bronxites formed a patient line.

For Khadiedra Williams, the 31-year-old head of hairstyling cooperative Hair for Purpose, the mix of cultures and communities is what makes the Sancochazo special. “You have everything right here in a melting pot,” she said. “There’s nothing that specifically you or me, everything is for everybody.”

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A Zone of Neglect

A pile of syringes found under a tree on a sidewalk on St. Anne’s Avenue. These were a few of 1,200 syringes and identifiable needle parts found by the Bronx Ink in the area surrounding the Hub at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue on September 10.

A lifelong resident of the Bronx Marty Rogers walked his familiar route on September 10 down Third Avenue to the Hub at 149th Street, the unofficial shopping and transit heart of the South Bronx. Rogers regularly visits this area dotted with orange plastic pieces of discarded syringes, neon lights alerting to all too familiar problem for the community. 

Knowing that students from 10 surrounding schools pass by all this danger and debris every day broke his heart. 

Antonio Merced, a volunteer at Brilla Middle School at Courtlandt Avenue and 148th Street, uses his cane to bend a syringe needle while students line up behind him to enter the school on September 10. Marty Rogers, a local activist, stands behind him.

“The subliminal message is just killing our kids,” said Rogers, 64, leader of a local grassroots movement called Take Back the Hub focused on bringing attention to this issue. “It wires our kids to become an addict of some kind.” 

The message, he said, is that drug use like this is a big part of what’s inevitable for these children.

On two separate days the week of September 10, a walk through the five block area fanning out from 149th Street and Third Avenue found nearly 1,000 pieces of needles and 200 intact syringes. The area observed by The Bronx Ink, included Patterson Playground and Lincoln Medical Center. 

In this same area are a total of 10 schools, spanning elementary to high school, both public and charter schools. 

The scope of the drug crisis is nothing new to residents of Mott Haven. The neighborhood has the third highest rate of overdose deaths in the city at a rate of 49.2 deaths per 100,000 citizens, according to Epi Data Brief by New York City Health.

“The rates of overdoses in the South Bronx are exceptionally high and if the the South Bronx was its own state it would have one of the highest rates in the country,” said Michelle Nolan, senior epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health.

This data was gathered using death certificates and information from the medical examiner’s office, which is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control standards, according to Nolan. 

What is no longer tenable to the local grassroots activists is how the city’s repeated neglect. The members believe that a lack of quality services, such as police, sanitation and healthcare, is to blame for the opioid problem and the number of discarded syringes. 

Rogers calls the area a “zone of neglect.” 

Residents can report discarded syringes to 311, according to Dina Montes, Press Secretary of the New York City Department of Sanitation. 

“The Department of Sanitation of New York investigates reports of syringes on a City public street or public sidewalk. If any are found, our Environmental Police Unit will collect them and ensure their proper, safe disposal,” said Montes in an email. “Our Environmental Police Unit found and removed 16 syringes with sharps attached in that area of East 149th Street on Tuesday, September 10.”

The committee is not interested in “demonizing” those suffering from addiction, according to Rogers. 

“They are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “They had a very sad situation because they’re addicted, but the real victim is the child that has to walk past the needles and the defecation. That is the victim.”

Roger’s collection of neighbors aren’t the only ones concerned. Antonio Merced, a volunteer at Brilla Middle School at Courtlandt Avenue and 148th Street, regularly uses his cane to bend syringe needles and gather them in a pile on the block before the students enter and leave the school.

“This is what it comes down to: parents, volunteers and guys getting paid who swept the needles up,” Rogers said. “I would challenge anyone to walk three blocks around this area and not find a cap or evidence of drug use.”

The movement plans to hold a vigil every Tuesday in The Hub, at 149th Street and Third Avenue  to bring attention to the number of improperly disposed syringes. 

“The people who join in, we have to keep reminding them, this isn’t one time,” said Francine Rogers, Marty’s wife. “We have to keep going.”

The office of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is aware of the situation, according to John DeSio, director of communications.  

“Our office is aware of the situation, and have been in regular contact with agencies, the police department, local businesses, non-profits and other stakeholders in the area to develop solutions moving forward,” DeSio said in an email. 

Meanwhile, the members of the committee are waiting for the political officials to call a rally and organize to end this problem. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the community is more on top of this issue than the political officials,” said Rogers. “I’m not saying they’re not trying but they’re failing.”

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Bronx Puerto Rican Parade Embraces Diversity

A mural in Soundview that showcases the diversity of the Bronx. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, was raised in the Soundview area of the borough. The piraguero depicted on her left, who sells Puerto Rican shaved ice, has flags from other countries on his cart.

The annual Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade along the Grand Concourse will be filled with classic bomba dancers and bedazzled floats carrying pageant queens, as tradition has dictated for the last three decades. 

But this year, the Sept. 22 parade is expected to include a stronger than ever showing of the borough’s growing ethnic diversity.  The cultural medley is expected to showcase Falun Dafa Drum Dance Team, a Queens-based Chinese musical group that will be drumming alongside salsa music. Central Americans, led by local Guatemalan TV host Chapín, are expected to walk the route alongside African-American and Taíno Indian groups. 

The parade is the second-largest Puerto Rican parade in the United States, next only to Manhattan’s two million-strong event. 

“Being part of the parade makes me feel closer to Puerto Rico,” said Maribel Mercado, 45, this year’s parade president, who has been involved with parade planning for 12 years. But, she said, the drive to recruit groups like Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Bangladeshis, Mexicans, African Americans and Chinese to the parade reflects the demographic realities in the Bronx.

Parade planners not only promote a unifying melting pot message, but it also helps boost parade attendance, which has been on the decline. Census data shows that the once-dominant Puerto Rican community has declined by 19%, from 338,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017. Parade attendance has fallen suit. As recently as 2005, the parade drew around 50,000 attendees, according to police. This year, the police estimate 15,000 attendees.

Puerto Ricans have always had a strong presence in the Bronx, which is still the case, despite the declining numbers, said Juan Gonzalez, Puerto Rican journalist and author. “Some have left the city, some have moved upstate, some have retired to Puerto Rico and Florida,” said Gonzalez. 

Many work at key healthcare and educational organizations, such as Hostos Community College and Bronx Lebanon Hospital said Gonzalez. Puerto Ricans also dominate county politics. Three of the last four borough presidents have been Puerto Rican — though that might change as older politicians retire and newer communities mobilize politically. 

In many ways, the focus on multicultural participants is an extension of the founder’s original mission. A South Bronx math teacher from Salinas, Angel Luis Rosario, founded the event in 1987 as the first Puerto Rican parade in New York with the idea that any group—not just Puerto Ricans—should celebrate their identity. 

Mercado said that this year’s parade leadership worked to secure sponsorships from new organizations like  Havana Café, a well-known Cuban restaurant. 

Francisco Gonzalez, a former parade chairman who just retired, planned the event for 26 years and has witnessed the Bronx’s demographic changes firsthand. He is confident that new leadership will continue his work to honor the Puerto Rican community as well as to adapt to the changing Bronx.


“We are very proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Francisco Gonzalez, who spends part of the year in Yauco, his family’s mountain hometown in Puerto Rico. “But we follow the Puerto Rican belief that mi casa es su casa. We open our arms to celebrating differences.”

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BankNote building, in Hunts Point, South Bronx

Cryptocurrency Comes to The Bronx

BankNote building, in Hunts Point, South Bronx

One August weekend, a dozen 18- and 19-year-olds filed into a large, former industrial building in the South Bronx for a class on how to better manage their money. Once a factory where pennies were minted and paper money was printed in the early 20th century, the landmark Hunts Point BankNote building found a new purpose in 2014 when it was converted into office spaces.

And for two full summer days, an entrepreneurship incubator inside the former money factory became a boot camp about the 21st century’s answer to currency woes: cryptocurrency, a form of digital currency that allows people to make financial transactions without using a bank.

Cryptocurrency allows individuals to make peer-to-peer transactions whose authenticity is verified by a network of computers rather than a third-party institution like a bank. People using cryptocurrency can use digital wallet apps to pay for goods and services.

It’s often heralded as a solution for developing countries where banks are scarce, but Morrisania high school teacher Carlos Acevedo argues that the cryptocurrency industry could have just as much impact closer to home.

“My point of view was that you don’t need to go that far,” said Acevedo, who lives in the suburbs of New York and has taught English in the Bronx high school for the last seven years. “You’re four miles from the World Trade Center, and this is the unbanked right here.”

Acevedo hopes that the technology can help Morrisania and East Tremont, where 28 percent of the residents don’t have bank accounts, according to a 2013 study from the Urban Institute. That can mean paying additional fees when cashing checks or paying bills, and a higher likelihood to turn to predatory lenders in times of financial difficulty.

The Bronx has adopted cryptocurrency faster than almost anywhere else in New York because banks are so scarce, said Leighton Banton, a program assistant at BXL, an entrepreneurship incubator inside BankNote that hosted Acevedo’s class for the weekend.

“There are so many corporations that say they can’t make their way out here,” Banton said. “But I see people using Bitcoin ATMs all the time. They have more faith in the cryptocurrency than in the actual financial systems we have.”

The idea for this crypto boot camp came two years ago when Acevedo realized that even his most diligent Advanced Placement English students knew nothing about managing their personal finances. Many of his students’ parents had no bank accounts.

He began teaching voluntary classes after school hours to help them learn about bank accounts, credit cards and money management.

“Eighty to 90 percent of my students will have talked about having to send money home to family members,” said Acevedo, “or not being able to have a credit card, or having to pay money to get to a bank branch because they don’t have one near them.”

Acevedo said that in addition to a lack of financial knowledge among his students, there’s a noticeable absence of banks in the Bronx. In the four-mile stretch that he commutes every day, from Fordham University to the high school he teaches at in Morrisania, he barely sees any branches.

Despite more than two dozen ATMs, there are just six bank branches in his corner of the South Bronx, including one municipal credit union. Even other South Bronx neighborhoods are better served than Morrisania: Pelham Bay has 10 bank branches, eight of which are only a few hundred meters apart. By comparison, Manhattan’s Upper West Side has 38 branches.

“People get the short end of the stick and they don’t know what to do,” said Tashima Lee, one of the boot camp’s attendees and a former Acevedo student who became interested in cryptocurrency after one of the teacher’s financial lessons. “And they end up spending money because they burn it in a flash.”

For South Bronx residents, it made sense to find alternative ways to make essential financial transactions – like cashing a salary check – that didn’t involve paying to take public transport, or relying on restrictive opening hours.

Cryptocurrency provides a different way for South Bronx residents to make their financial transactions where banks are most scarce; despite the short time that the technology has been around, there are already seven cryptocurrency ATMs in Morrisania alone.

As a part of his education initiative, the Crypto Community Project, Acevedo rounded up eleven industry leaders from national firms including the Electric Coin Company and Gemini to speak to his former students about cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies (which underpin the security of cryptocurrency transactions) for a two-day boot camp.

In addition to lectures, the class gave students the chance to put theory into practice, using a digital wallet to purchase ice cream at the local ANC theater.

Leighton Banton said Acevedo’s initiative means that Bronx residents have a chance at becoming active participants rather than just consumers with cryptocurrencies.

“There are so many corporations that say they can’t make their way out here,” Banton said. “But I see people using Bitcoin ATMs all the time. They have more faith in the cryptocurrency than in the actual financial systems we have.”

Banton said Acevedo’s initiative means that Bronx residents have a chance at becoming active participants rather than just consumers with cryptocurrencies.

“Black and brown Bronx kids can get a $100,000 job without college if they apply themselves to this,” said Banton. “I know that someone from that program is going to be a millionaire one day, because of something they learned here.”

Jemima Joseph, an 18-year-old former Acevedo student, said that while she hadn’t spent the cryptocurrency during the workshop, she sees the potential it offers for when it comes to sending money to family outside of the U.S. She hopes that one day it will make it easier and cheaper for her to send money to relatives in Togo and Nigeria.

“This isn’t a short-term accomplishment,’ she said, when asked what the practical use of cryptocurrencies to her now. “It will take a while, but I see it gaining momentum.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Money, Morrisania, Morrisania, south bronx, Southern BronxComments (0)

A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

Posted in Culture, MorrisaniaComments (0)

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