Tag Archive | "The Bronx"

Firefighter from the Bronx commemorates 9/11 anniversary by helping flood victims

FDNY Captain Tom Yuneman spent the anniversary of 9/11 helping to relocate flood victims in Binghamton. The Daily News reports that Yuneman helped a 93-year old man whose home was destroyed find his wife. September 11 was their 64th wedding anniversary. “It made my day,” Yuneman said by phone on Monday. “Of all the days thatI could make him feel better. . . .”

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Judge Overturns Verdict in Firefighter Death Case

A Bronx Supreme Court Judge this morning overturned the conviction of a landlord found guilty in the deaths of two firefighters.

Cesar Rios was found guilty of criminal negligence after Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew were killed trying to battle flames in his Tremont apartment building. But in a rare move this morning, Judge Margaret Clancy of Bronx Supreme Court set aside that 2009 verdict, deciding there was not enough evidence to show that Rios was aware of the dangerous conditions that led to the firefighters’ deaths.

Six firefighters responded to the January 2005 fire that investigators said started when overloaded and spliced wires sparked, igniting bedding material. The men became trapped inside the apartment because of an illegal partition that blocked access to the fire escape and made thermal imaging of the fire less accurate. The partition also trapped the heat until it reached explosive levels, sending a fireball coursing through the narrow hallway and cutting off any escape route.

The firefighters were forced to jump out of the window onto pavement five stories below. Meyran and Bellew were killed on impact.

Rafael Castillo, the tenant who built the illegal partitions, was found innocent of negligent homicide in 2009. But a separate jury found Rios guilty.

Judge Clancy cited “complex issues” in the court’s decision to revisit the case, including the revelation that a juror contacted one of the firefighter witnesses over Facebook before returning a verdict. Clancy emphasized it was not this breach of conduct, but the lack of sufficient evidence that led her to overturn the guilty verdict. She said the prosecution never proved that Rios had actual knowledge that Castillo had built the partition that led to the deaths.

FireWife4Post

Jeannette Myran, seen five years ago with her children at the funeral of her firefighter husband, criticized Tuesday's decision in Bronx Supreme Court. (Photo: Associated Press Archive)

Family members, including the widows of the two firefighters killed in the blaze, watched bleary-eyed from the benches of the courtroom, trying to interpret the decision. “She let him go,” cried Jeanette Meyran, her brash voice tinged with bitterness at what she called a ridiculous liberal decision after six months of waiting.

“I hope she has a big pillow to put her head on tonight,” Meyran said. “The scar’s just been opened again and again.”

Surviving firefighter Jeffrey Cool was furious that Clancy could single-handedly overturn a verdict reached by 12 people. It is uncommon for a judge to set aside a conviction, although no one keeps statistics on how often it happens. “She’s supplanting a jury,” said defense attorney Delmas Costin. “This is huge.”

Columbia Law Professor David Richman said, “It’s certainly unusual.” But a judge may review the evidence and decide no reasonable jury would have convicted.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether it will appeal.

“There’s no consideration for the families,” said Jeanette Meyran. “It’s going to be 10 years before this is all over.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, East BronxComments (0)

Inside the Only Islamic School in the Bronx

By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Mubina Maricar instructs her students at the Islamic Leadership School. The school has 18 students, from pre-K to ninth grade. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Mubina Maricar instructs her students at the Islamic Leadership School. The school has 18 students, from pre-K to ninth grade. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

On a typical December morning in the Bronx’s only Islamic private school,  Mubina Maricar, a 62-year-old science teacher,  strained to be heard above the students’ voices reciting in unison from the adjacent classroom.

Her eight students in grades six through nine were learning about speed, velocity and acceleration. Five boys in the front rows and three veiled girls in the back seats were busily taking notes and answering the teachers’ questions, unfazed by the Qur’an verses emanating through the thin walls.

“Qul’A’udhu bi-rabbin-nas” (I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind).

“Melikin-Nas, Ilahin-Nas” (The king of mankind, the true God of mankind).

Suddenly, the recitation halted. Al-Aqib Coulibaly, the only 2nd grader in the Parkchester school, raised the light blue curtain covering the door between the classes, and walked into Maricar’s room.

Al-Aqib Coulibaly, the only 2nd grader, attends the Islamic Leadership School with his four brothers. He and his students wore their winter coats because the school's portable heaters were insufficient. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vura

Al-Aqib Coulibaly, the only 2nd grader, attends the Islamic Leadership School with his four brothers. Students wore their winter coats because the portable heaters were not enough to heat the classrooms. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The 7-year-old looked at the numbers and formulas on the small green board for a moment, then, walked between the boys and girls to grab an extra Qur’an from the shelf.

Al-Aqib then sauntered back to his classroom where three other students, including his older brother Ismail, were waiting.

Al-Aqib was not having his best day. He had forgotten to memorize his Qur’an verses. He couldn’t find his Arabic homework. He neglected to say, “As-salamu aleykum” (peace be upon you), when he entered the room.  Rules were not his favorite thing.

Al-Aqib tightened his black scarf around his head and arranged his black winter coat, as he took his seat in his classroom. Students in both classrooms were wearing their winter coats on Dec. 10 because the small portable heaters were insufficient to heat the classrooms.

Al-Aqib and his brothers are students of the Islamic Leadership School, an private school at 2008 Westchester Ave., founded on September 11, 2001 with 13 students. The school has grown to 18 students over the last eight years, to include children from pre-kindergarten to 9th grade.

The school is a part of an umbrella organization Islamic Cultural Center of North America (ICCNA), a Bronx-based organization that operates both the school and the mosque Masjid Al-Iman.

“My wife and I have one prenuptial agreement,” said Moussa Drammeh, 47, the school’s founder and operations manager.

“It was, if Allah blesses us to have children, they will never go to public school,” said Drammeh, who was born in Gambia, raised in Senegal, and immigrated to the United States in 1986. He is the executive director of ICCNA and the imam of Masjid Al-Iman.

The Drammehs wanted to shield their children from what they believe is the immoral and corrupt behavior of public school children. “In the public schools in the Bronx, children can walk around with their pants hanging down. Thirteen-year-old girls are having sex; they exchange dirty emails,” said Drammeh, who has lived in the Bronx since 1986.

Shireena Drammeh, the school's principal, goes over the course material with Qur'an teacher M. D. Amin ul-Islam. The school's curriculum includes math, biology and the Qur'an. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Shireena Drammeh, the school's principal, goes over the course material with Qur'an teacher M. D. Amin ul-Islam. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

He and his wife began looking for an Islamic school in the Bronx when their first daughter Ameena turned three years old.

They found none in the Bronx, said Shireena Drammeh, 38, who was born in Guyana into a Muslim family of Indian descent immigrated to the United States in 1986.

They checked out Islamic schools in Yonkers, Queens, New Jersey and Brooklyn.

“We went to Long Island, and found a school there. But unfortunately, the taxes there were horrendous,” said Shireena. “Then, we came back and we decided to start our own school.”

Few families resort to creating their own school like the Drammehs, but a growing number of parents are turning to existing private Islamic schools so that their children learn Islamic principles while acquiring basic state-required education.

“Parents are just awakening to the identity issue, and Islamic schools really are very important to establish Muslim identity for kids,” said Karen Keyworth, 52, co-founder of the Islamic Schools League of America, the only non-profit national organization that keeps track of and network full-time Islamic private schools across the U.S.

There were just 50 schools in 1987, said Keyworth referring to the first small-scale research ever done about this subject. Until the founding of the League, there had been no organization keeping track of Islamic schools in the country and doing research about them. According to the League’s research, the school numbers have not changed since the late 1990s. There are 240 full-time Islamic schools in the country with 32,000 students approximately according to the 2006 data.

New York and New Jersey combined have 17 percent of the Islamic school population in the United States, said Keyworth, who is married with four children and lives in Michigan where she manages the League. Keyworth converted to Islam 32 years ago.

The Islamic Leadership School was scheduled to open on what turned out to be a tragic day–September 11, 2001. Drammeh called an emergency meeting the moment he learned that the World Trade Center towers had been attacked by Al-Qaeda extremists.

“Some parents worried about retaliation, saying we should postpone opening,” said Drammeh. But, he refused. “Let the world know the difference between the criminals and peace-loving Muslims,” said Drammeh.  And the school has been open ever since.

Tuition for The Islamic Leadership School, located at 2008 Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, is $3,500 a year. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Tuition for The Islamic Leadership School, located at 2008 Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, is $3,500 a year. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The school takes up small part of the first floor of two-story 25,000 square-foot building on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx. The building used to be car repair shop, with a warehouse on the first floor and a parking lot on the second floor.

Inside the entrance is a large hall, with two administrative offices on the left that include two computers for students and a big mat spread over the floor where boys learn martial arts. At the end of the hall, two doors open out to a larger room for the mosque, Masjid Al-Imam, a vast space covered with plastic carpets for Muslims in the school and the community to pray.

Drammeh has plans to renovate the building and expand the school through high school and college.

For now, expansion plans are on hold as the school struggles to pay its rent, and finish renovations, which is in its third year.

Parents pay up to $3,500 a year for the school. “The tuition fees can just pay two teachers full salaries,” said Drammeh. The school relies completely on tuition and fundraising dollars, neither of which is substantial.

For the last four months, the school has not been able to pay its monthly $10,000 rent to the landlord, who is a Muslim immigrant from the Balkans.

“If he kills us, he goes to jail,” said Drammeh smiling. “If he exercises patience, Allah rewards him,” he added. “He chose the reward.”

“All the private schools by and large are in financial trouble,” said Keyworth. Islamic schools are not exceptions. Tuition and donations from the local community provide the school’s sole source of income, which barely cover operating costs.

“Our weakest ring is fundraising,” said Drammeh. The donations are almost non-existent.

But Drammeh would rather not talk business. The school for him is not a place of business. Pointing out his heart, he said he began the school with his heart, not with his brain.

The struggling school often admits students whose parents cannot afford to pay the $3500 tuition. Sometimes Drammeh strikes a bargain with the parents.

Al-Aqib’s mother, Berill Barna, 34, works as a cleaning woman and kindergarten aide at the school in exchange for the tuition for her five sons.

“There are 475 kids in our registry that we are in contact with, but could not offer education because of lack of space,” said Drammeh.

The majority of the school’s students come from Africa or Middle Eastern countries, which reflect the demographic changes in the Bronx Muslim population, which has been growing steadily with immigrants from Mali, Ghana, Gambia, and other West African and Middle Eastern countries.

“We are a big family here and it is a protected environment for our kids,” said Barna, who is a Polish immigrant and converted to Islam 11 years ago. Barna is married to a Muslim man from the Ivory Coast.

“We are family,” said Amani Ahmed, a 14-year-old of Yemeni origins, and the school’s only 9th grader, tucking her hair under a black headscarf. “We see everyone almost every day and everywhere.”

This could not be truer for Drammeh’s children, Ameena, a 12-year-old 8th grader; Mohammed, a 10-year-old 6th grader, and Mariam – Drammeh’s 9-year-old epileptic dauther in the 1st grade. They have become used to seeing their father Moussa and mother Shireena Drammeh almost every hour of every day, not just at home but at school since the first day she started the kindergarten.

Uniforms are a casual requirement: navy blue pants and white shirts for boys, and navy blue skirts and white, blue or black headscarves for girls.

Ameena Drammeh wants to be a doctor. Her parents checked out other Islamic schools in Yonkers, Queens, New Jersey and Brooklyn before settling at The Islamic Leadership School. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Ameena Drammeh wants to be a doctor. Her parents checked out other Islamic schools in Yonkers, Queens, New Jersey and Brooklyn before founding The Islamic Leadership School. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

“Actually boys wear uniform,” corrected Ameena and Amani. “The girl’s uniform is just to cover yourself,” added Amani. “No matter what you wear, the important thing is to cover yourself.”

The school starts at 8 a.m. and last until 4 p.m. except Fridays when it ends after “Salaat-ul-Jummah,” Friday prayer. On other weekdays, the students have to pray “dhuhr,” the noon prayer, and “asr,” afternoon prayer with their teachers in the masjid.

They are not allowed to leave the building during breaks, including lunch breaks, except on Fridays when they are allowed to go out with their teachers and even to eat some junk food.

Along with Arabic, Qur’an and Islamic Studies, a school day at the Islamic Leadership School is filled with standard academic subjects like English, Sciences, History, Math, and Geography. The school has seven teachers, all Muslim and women, except for the 28-year-old Qur’an teacher, M. D. Amin ul-Islam from Bangladesh.

Last year, 15 students took the Regents exams and “four of them did 100 percent out of 100 percent of the test, excellent,” said Drammeh while the rest passed the test with Level 4, the second highest score, added his wife Shireena Drammeh.

“When I walked in here, I saw that they needed help,” said Maricar, who had taught in Britain, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.  before she came to the Islamic Leadership School at the beginning of this academic year. She is not highly paid, “not like other schools or like public schools,” said Maricar. “But, I do not want to teach in public schools.”

Maricar teaches math, science and biology, which includes evolution.

“I tell the students that this is what scientists are telling us,” said Maricar, about the theory of evolution.”We do not want to be narrow minded,” added Maricar, who was born in Kenya and raised in Great Britain, graduated from the University of Sheffield in England. “But, this is not what Qur’an is saying.”

There is no music course at the Islamic Leadership School. “I do not oppose music in principle,” said Drammeh, “as long as there is no dancing, no slang and curse in lyrics and no profanity.” The music of  prominent convert Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, is an example of the kind he approves of.

Nor does the school provide physical activities for its students.

“We teach martial arts to the boys,” said Drammeh. But, there was nothing for girls.

The school has been part of an interfaith program with the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a Jewish school. School founder Moussa Drammeh explains the project as "two holy states in the Holy Land". Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The school has been part of an interfaith program with the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a Jewish school. School founder Moussa Drammeh explains another project called "two holy states in the Holy Land" for the peace in the Middle East. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

There will be a play named “Healthy Islamic Relationships,” that the students will be performing later in the academic year. And, there is a character for a female student to play.

The play authored by Moussa Drammeh is about Islamic gender roles and relationships between the sexes. The character called the “Groom” explains to the “Bride” how a healthy relationship works in Islam. Under his protection, the groom expects his wife to take care of the house and to aspire to be a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer, artist or banker.  The bride aggressively bombards the groom with questions, but in the end, happily agrees with him.

For the last five years, the Islamic Leadership School has been part of an interfaith program with the Jewish school, Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan.

“I actually got to learn more about Judaism and their beliefs and studies and we also got to meet lots of friends,” said Amani. “I taught the Jewish children about Islam. I think they know more about Islam than they did before.”

By noon on December 10th, students prepared for lunch by first performing “wuduu,” the Islamic cleansing ritual for “dhuhr,” the noon prayer.

Adel Mohammed recites the call for prayer. He returned to the school three years after he lived in Yemen. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Adel Mohammed recites the call for prayer. He returned to the school three years after he lived in Yemen. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The seventh grader, Adel Mohammed, 13, knew that day it was his turn to recite “adhan,” the Muslim call to prayer, for “dhuhr.”

He put the palms of his hands over his ears, and started to recite.  Students and teachers flocked to the dark blue plastic carpet of the masjid; men and boys lined up in the front carpet while women and girls lined up at the back.

Al-Aqib straggled in late to the prayer.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, EducationComments (3)

A Squatter’s Paradise?

By Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

Geovanni Janet remembers the first time he pushed open the door to Apartment 4A and peered inside. A tangle of broken furniture lay twisted on the living room floor and old bits of garbage littered the two bedrooms. Someone had ripped the kitchen sink from its fixture; its location was unknown. A moldy aroma wafted through the hallway.

Janet was homeless at the time and says he saw potential in the mess. He stepped across the threshold into his new home and into his new life as a squatter.

“I didn’t have no bed so I slept on the floor in my clothes,” Janet said. “I didn’t even have a pillow. I just used my shirt to keep the light out. I did that for two months. It was rough, man.”

That was back in May. In six months, the 35-year-old Janet transformed the Bronx flat into his home. It’s hardly luxury housing: large holes fill the ceiling, two windows are missing and Janet pours his drinking water from the bathtub faucet. But gone are the days of sleeping on the floor. Janet has furnished his bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a wooden chest of drawers he plucked from a dumpster. He even has a Playstation 2 on loan from a friend.

“It’s comfortable,” Janet said. “Nobody has ever told me to get out.”

The ease with which Janet has lived rent-free in Apartment 4A says a lot about the current housing crisis facing the Bronx. Hundreds of neglected apartment buildings dot the borough because their owners went bust in the sub-prime market crash in 2008. With no cash for upkeep, many of these structures have gone for a year or more without services and supervision. A recent survey by the United Housing Assistance Board (UHAB) estimates that at least 70,000 individual apartments, both inhabited and vacant, sit in various states of decay.

“If a window breaks and you don’t fix it, you are sending a message to the community that nobody is taking care of things,” said Dina Levy, associate director of the UHAB. “Buildings that were in decent condition are now in decline. Some activities that used to be not tolerated in these buildings are now going on.”

Janet’s building, for example, currently sits in an ownership purgatory. Its old owner, Ocelot Capital Group, is a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm that gobbled up nearly 30 Bronx buildings at the height of the housing bubble, and borrowed big sums to pay for the purchases.

After Ocelot defaulted in fall of 2008, Fannie Mae entered foreclosure proceedings on the company’s properties this spring. In early December 2009, the group Omni New York LLC purchased the building. Fore more than one year, the building went without basic services or supervision.

Like Ocelot, other real estate firms borrowed, bought high and went bust. The companies have left a trail of decaying structures, and an open doors for squatters.

“There was no lock on the door, so I just came in,” said Janet, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. “It was as easy as that. A man doesn’t want to live in a shelter. He wants a home.”

Not all squatters are looking for a home; many come and go, leaving destruction in their wake. Squatters nearly overran the Ocelot property at 621 Manida St. in the Hunts Point neighborhood after vandals broke the locks off of doors. Unwanted entrants dug into the walls to steep metal pipes to sell for scrap. Others used vacant apartments to run drug and prostitution rings.

Tenants there called local police, who now regularly drive by the buildings for signs of unwanted guests.

“It’s a problem you have to stop early,” said Det. Art Warrick of the 42nd Precinct, “because the more people start moving in it becomes a coop for new squatters. They let other people know a building is open. It can become a haven for drugs or crime. We try to get to it before things get out of hand.”

Tenants faced a similar situation across the Bronx at 1744 Clay Ave., another building owned by Ocelot. When management stopped coming to the building in January 2009, repairs and care stopped. After a month, tenants noticed undesirables from the neighborhood loitering in the building’s lobby and on the roof. According to resident Carmen Piniero, it wasn’t long until squatters broke into the building’s four vacant apartments.

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay.  Photo by Fred Dreier

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay. Photo by Fred Dreier

“A neighbor came to me and said he heard people inside, doing drugs and having sex,” Piniero said. “We went into the apartment and found condoms. People had been doing drugs.”

Piniero said she and her neighbors collectively agreed to call the police on the squatter’s nest. Cops showed up and chased the newcomers off.

“Now we keep our eyes and ears open on the vacant apartments,” Piniero said. “We don’t want people coming into our homes who don’t live here.”

Janet said he isn’t worried that someone in his building might call the police or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and have him thrown out. A quick poll of Janet’s neighbors showed that many realize he is indeed living in the apartment without paying rent. But not one neighbor said they felt compelled to call the police on Janet.

The building’s superintendent, Victor Garcia, even exchanges heat and electricity with Janet for work around the building. Janet helps take out the garbage and helped Garcia clean two vacant apartments on the fourth floor.

“Geo – he’s ok. He usually just stays up in his apartment,” Garcia said. “He comes around asking if I have any jobs for him, and if I do, I put in to work.”

Janet said he rarely interacts with anyone other than the super. He passes his days working in the building, spending time with his 16-year-old daughter who lives in the neighborhood or watching borrowed DVDs on his Playstation.

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

“I feel like I gotta help,” said Janet. “I’m not working, so if neighbors need help it’s something to keep my mind focused.”

The housing crisis in the Bronx is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 90s, when a boom in vacancies and abandoned buildings matched a similar increase in joblessness and homelessness. That period was the pinnacle of New York City’s squatter movement and squatters took up residence in all five boroughs.

Squatter communities, which often included artists and actors, made headlines in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for their militant stand against HPD.

Writer Robert Neuwirth, whose book “Shadow Cities” chronicles squatting across the globe, followed the clashes between squatters and police.

“People were pretty savvy about picking which buildings to squat in,” Neuwirth said. “You had to find a building that was worth less than the taxes owed on it.”

Neuwirth said the squatter communities he followed renovated the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabited.

The Rev. Frank Morales is a Bronx priest and homeless advocate who helped establish squats in the 1970s and 80s. Morales now operates the Bronx-based non-profit Picture the Homeless, which advocates for low-cost housing for homeless people.

Morales is quick to point out the difference between harmful squatting — the kind involving drugs and prostitution — and what his group promotes. Morales defines his form of squatting as “urban homesteading.

“We are not like flies on a piece of food,” he said. “The squatting we’re talking about involves occupation and renovation. The notion is to develop housing based on ideological concerns for the community, not based on the conventional profit model.”

Morales believes the key to addressing the housing crisis is to allow groups like his to organize homesteading camps, and then move them into vacant buildings to work on renovations and live. In 2002, the City of New York turned over 11 city-owned buildings in the Lower East Side for legal squatting in a series of housing cooperatives. Homesteaders had established legal squats in the buildings and worked for years on renovations. Morales said it was a step toward a broader acceptance of homesteading in New York City.

“People have become separated from the naked greed that pumped up the housing bubble and ruined our communities,” Morales said. “There’s the notion that these buildings are there. There are vacancies in them. And there are people living on the street. Why not let someone live in there?”

Others believe the tenants rights groups, not squatters, should be the ones to benefit from the current housing crisis. Levy called the housing dilemma an “opportunity” for established renters to take control of their own buildings.

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

“It would take a combination of government subsidy, tenant advocacy and some agreements from the banks,” Levy said. “If tenants can find capital sources, I think they have an opportunity to take back a lot of housing in the Bronx from speculators.”

But legal homesteading or tenant ownership in the Bronx would require radical actions by the banks that currently hold the debt on each property. And Levy said neither outcome is likely to happen, unless the city steps in and buys the properties.

“The banks are holding out and looking for more speculators,” she said. “The banks are still looking to get the highest possible value for these stupid loans and there are people out there who are willing to buy.”

Janet said does not think of himself as an activist or a homesteader, just a man who wanted a roof over his head. He said he does not panhandle, but instead finds money doing favors and odd jobs around the neighborhood. He also receives cash from his 16-year-old daughter who lives around the corner.

“It’s depressing,” Janet said. “I know it. It’s not easy for a person to change, but I’ve changed,. All I’m asking for is a job. I don’t want your money. I want to earn your money.”

Janet said that in a perfect world, he’d be able to land a job and begin working toward a new future. IHe would earn enough to buy a van, and then take a job delivering newspapers. He would save enough cash to buy gifts for his daughter and to buy groceries at the Fine Fare grocery store down the street.

He said he’d also earn enough cash to pay the rent.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

Theater with a Latin Twist Thrives in the South Bronx


by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

A large prop of Uncle Sam with glowing red eyes appears above the stage.  In a booming, deep voice, the threatening figure reprimands a wooden puppet for not working enough. “Go back to work!” orders the voice, making children and adults in the audience laugh. The scene is part of “Viva Pinocho!” (Pinocchio´s name in Spanish), a musical and puppet show that premiered last Friday at Teatro Pregones in the South Bronx. In an original twist of the children´s tale, Pinocchio is Mexican and immigrates to the United States to earn money instead of going to school.

The musical uses puppets, special effects and colorful props to tell a Latino version of the traditional tale. Instead of the fairy in the original story, there’s the Lady of Guadalupe, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary. Pinocchio is re-named Pino Nacho (“pino” is pine in Spanish, and Nacho is the contraction of the name Ignacio), which is shortened to “Pinocho.” The plot unfolds in a mix of English and Spanish, reflecting the local community. “Our audience lives and understands each other in many languages,” said Jorge Merced, 44, an associate artistic director.

The poverty-stricken South Bronx seems an unlikely soil for nurturing theater, but Teatro Pregones has defied the odds for three decades by rooting its productions in Puerto Rican and Latino culture. Its goal is to reach an audience that is often ignored. The formula is clearly a hit with the locals. Pregones celebrated its 30th anniversary last month with a musical entitled “Aloha Boricua,” inspired by a short story by the late Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero. The show was so successful that tickets sold out early, so Pregones plans to bring it back next spring.

The theater group’s origins were much more humble, even by the standards of the South Bronx. In 1979, a group of young Puerto Rican actors living in New York decided to produce plays inspired by artists from their homeland. The result was “La Collecion, 100 Anos de Teatro Puertorriqueno 1878-1978” (“The Collection, 100 Years of Puerto Rican Theater 1878-1978”).  At first, the shows were performed in an Off-Broadway theatre provided by the husband of one of the actresses. In 1982, the Bronx Council of the Arts offered the group an office in an abandoned school in the Bronx, and Pregones settled for good in the borough. Between 1986 and 1994, the group worked in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.

Despite this continuous struggle, Pregones grew and finally found a permanent home on Walton Avenue in 2005. With donations from individuals and non-profits like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Pregones built a 130-seat theatre. The group now includes eight full-time professional artists and a dozen designers, technicians and artists on contract, and has received numerous awards and recognitions for its important cultural role in the borough. “We’re very happy, our neighbors are very happy, and the community is very happy,” said Alvan Colon Lespier, another artistic associate director at Pregones. “It’s a joy to be able to do this.”

Pregones has performed in 37 states, 18 countries and more than 400 cities. “We’ve become ambassadors of the Bronx,” said Lespier. The group’s aim is to show people that the Bronx is not the dreadful area that most think, explains Lespier. But even in the U.S., Pregones has been an ambassador of Latino culture. Fifteen years ago, recalls Lespier, the group was the first Latino group to perform in Whitesburg, KY. “They had never seen a Puerto Rican live, in the flesh,” said Lespier with a chuckle.

Lespier, 61, has been with the company for 26 years. During his first years with the group, in addition to taking care of the technical parts, Lespier performed in some of the plays—but he doesn’t miss acting. He is now in charge of the productions, and supervises all the productions showed at Pregones, whether theirs or the production of another company.

Pregones often works in collaboration with other Latin American cultural groups. In addition to its 50 original plays, Pregones presented over 100 visiting companies over 30 years, and has performed in other Latino theatres as well. “We try to support each other,” said Jorge Castilla, the production manager and assistant to the artistic director of Teatro Sea, a Latino children’s theater group and the creators of “Viva Pinocho.” The production was written, produced and performed by Manuel Antonio Moran, the founder and director of Teatro Sea.

The stories may evoke laughter from the audience, but they also carry a serious message.  “We’re touching a lot of social and political stuff, but in a fun way,” said Castilla, 40. In “Viva Pinocho!,” the mischievous puppet follows the advice of a coyote and immigrates to the United States. “I saw similarities between Pinocchio, who runs away from home, and Latino immigrants, who seek a better life in the U.S.,” said Moran, who started thinking about the story three years ago. In the musical, Pinocho crosses a Mexican border heavily guarded by American authorities before being hired in a circus as puppet and working under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam.

The story is inspired by the experiences of immigrants, who lose their cultural identity after leaving their country, explains Moran. “I try to be as respectful as possible, but also to motivate dialogue,” he said. In the end, Pinocho understands that the American authorities are simply doing their jobs and following the rules, and saves them from drowning.

The audience clearly identifies with the theme. Vicente Roman, who came to watch the musical with his wife and three children, learned about Pregones through a newspaper ad. Roman, 38, arrived in this country 16 years ago, and had to work two jobs at once in order to support his family. “Life is too expensive in the U.S.,” he said. Like Pinocho, Roman’s dream of obtaining a better life was replaced by the harsh reality of economic struggle and difficult integration that immigrants typically face; he now works as a driver and lives in Brooklyn.

But, at least for one night, Roman’s family can forget about these difficulties and enjoy the musical. Snacks and drinks are served in the lobby, which is decorated with Puerto Rican photographs and the many awards that the group received over the years. While waiting for the musical to begin, children run around, impatient to see the show. The audience, predominantly Hispanic, is a tight-knit community: many spectators know and greet each other and the theater staff as they arrive. Daniela, 7, Roman’s youngest daughter, is excited to see the musical, even though she doesn’t remember the story of Pinocchio. There’s a another draw: her 11-year-old sister Ana will be on stage with the Mariachi Academy of New York, which has been invited to perform at Pregones after the musical.

Like Teatro Sea, the Mariachi Academy, now in its seventh year, often collaborates with other Latino groups, explains Jorge Martinez, 39, a member of the board of directors of the academy. Ramon Ponce, the director, appears minutes before the musical begins. After Pinocho’s adventures, Ponce and a dozen children, all wearing traditional Mariachi costumes, appear on the stage forming a single line and play “Canta y no llores,” a famous Mexican song. The audience, familiar with the song, sings and claps along.

After the musical, the audience streams out . The children are excited about the story, and recall their favorite moment. “I like when Pinocho goes to the other side,” says Daniela, beaming. But Daniela doesn’t realize the “other side” was the country she is now living in, where her father works hard as part of a minority. Oblivious to the political implications, Daniela will go home with the memories of Pinocho’s new adventures, and a happy-ending: how Pinocho returns to Mexico, and becomes a real boy.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (1)

Bronx Residents Protest Poor Living Conditions

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

1585-1589 E. 172nd St.

By Matthew Huisman

Martha Castro remembers when she moved into 1585 E. 172nd St. in  the Soundview section of the Bronx. “It was a very beautiful building,”  Castro said. “I’ve been here 22 years and this is the worst.”

Between 2006 and 2007, Ocelot bought 1585 and a neighboring building, 1589. After Ocelot ran out of money and abandoned the buildings, conditions deteriorated at a rapid rate. Tenants continued to pay rent, even as they lived with holes in the walls, rat infestations and sparse heat.

“All we want is to get our service done and live decently,” said Castro, 65. “It´s a struggle because you want to live comfortable and not having to worry about, `Are we gonna have hot water?´”

A company connected to Hunter Property Management purchased the two buildings, along with four other Ocelot properties, in May 2009. Since then, residents have been rebelling against their new landlords.

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

Police were called when residents at 1585 E. 172nd Street organized a protest in the lobby. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents’ anger at the decrepit living conditions bubbled over during a tenants’ meeting on Oct. 14. Castro, president of the tenants association, invited the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a non-profit organization that helps low-income residents collectively own and govern their buildings, to talk to residents about ways to improve their quality of life.
“Management apparently called the police and said there was some disturbance at their building,” said Dan DeSloover of Urban Homesteading.  “We told police the tenants are holding a meeting and they invited us to come. Then they left.”

A lawyer for Sam Suzuki, the principal manager of Hunter Management, said her client had no problem with tenants organizing, but the police were called because the UHAB members at the meeting were trespassing.

“The buildings have over 3,000 code violations total,” said DeSloover of the six Hunter-owned buildings. “These buildings were under Ocelot before  Hunter and so the people here have had bad, bad conditions for years.”
DeSloover and his colleagues from Urban Homesteading are chronicling the conditions that continue to exist in the five-story apartment buildings that butt up against one another. DeSloover said he plans to present this evidence to Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg, the bank that issued the mortgages initially for Ocelot, then for Hunter in May 2009.  ”It will help make our case if we do get a meeting with the bank,” said DeSloover. “Maybe we can work with them to change ownership and better conditions.”
mlh2171@columbia.edu

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

with additional reporting by Donal Griffin

Abandoned Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont that racked up over 100 violations, stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings are being restored by new owners, Paradise Management.  Photo by Mamta Badkar

Former Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings which racked up over 100 "immediately hazardous" violations are being restored by new owner Isaac Hershkovitz. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Four buildings once owned by Ocelot loom over a very different Park Avenue in the central Bronx neighborhood of Tremont. The buildings until recently were ghost-like shells, but are now beginning to stir with the sounds of renovation. Their troubled past, however, still follows them.

The buildings are around 100 years old and among the oldest in the Ocelot portfolio. They are four-stories tall and contain between 20 and 24 units each. The façade has been defaced by graffiti, windows have been smashed in, and parts of the building have been stripped bare by the construction workers who point to sections where there are holes in the floor.

The buildings all have a past full of violations with the New York City Department of Buildings that range from structural instability to defective boilers. Under Ocelot’s management, the Park Avenue buildings racked up over 100 “immediately hazardous” violations by the end of 2008.

Many of the complaints were structural. “Caller says every time the Long Island Railroad train passes the building shakes,” read a Feb. 22, 2007, complaint about 4301 Park Ave. to the Department of Buildings. “From the top to the base of the building is cracked on the outside at the top building.”

Others address fire safety with a touch of the bizarre. “Caller notes the boiler is defective and caught fire on June 14, 2007. Boiler emits soot throughout the apartments,” read another complaint about 4289 Park Ave. filed on the same day as the fire. “And please inspectors take caution due to the large amount of pit bull dogs in basement.”

The now vacant lots are subject to routine inspections by the New York City Fire Department. The market value of each building ranges from $381,000 to $504,000 according to City-Data.com. In all, the four buildings are worth over $1.7 million.

“We aren’t stripping the buildings down, just patching them up,” said Joseph Silberman the current contractor. “These aren’t in Manhattan.” Now owned by Brooklyn-based Paradise Management with financing by Doral Bank, two of the properties are expected to be ready by January 1, 2010. “Only when the properties are fully occupied, will the bank go ahead with the others.”

Around the corner at Western Beef, store manager Jim Frisco said his business was hardly affected by the exodus. Neighbors and a member of the New York City Fire Department worried that at least one of the empty buildings were being used for drug activity.

David Arroyo, the manager of Jochi Auto Repair Inc. who has lived on neighboring Webster Avenue for 16 years, said “the riff-raffs” had been moving out over a period of time but the buildings appeared completely vacant two months ago.

“People were afraid to leave their cars because they were scared people would take their stuff,” he said, referring to the former occupants of the Ocelot properties. “Since they left, it’s gotten quiet and we’re doing pretty good.”

But trouble still follows the buildings, which were part of a package of five buildings bought by OCG VI – an Ocelot company – in June of 2007 for $6.2 million. When Ocelot’s backer, Israeli company Eldan Tech, abandoned the portfolio last last year, investors found a buyer for the Park Avenue buildings in Brooklyn property dealer, Issac Hershkovitz. Eldan Tech now alleges in a civil case filed in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court, however, that Ocelot’s president, Rachel Arfa, carved up the deal with Hershkovitz so that Ocelot only received $350,000 instead of $3 million, while she personally pocketed $300,000. Arfa has denied the allegations and counter-sued in the same court. Both cases are pending.

Eldan Tech also alleges that Hershkovitz has failed to pay the $350,000. The property dealer has yet to lodge a defense.

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