Tag Archive | "Woodlawn Cemetery"

Next to Woodlawn Cemetery, another graveyard: abandoned cars

Abandoned vehicles that can be found on Webster Avenue between Gun Hill Road and 233rd Street. © Lila Hassan

Along a desolate stretch of Webster Avenue, sandwiched between the Bronx River Parkway on one side and the vast, storied Woodlawn cemetery on the other, sits another graveyard of sorts.

The street, which starts and ends between 233 Street and Gun Hill Road, has become an ad hoc dumping ground for dozens of abandoned vehicles from recreational vans to trailers and commercial trucks. It’s considered both a menace to residents and a rest stop for truck drivers.

A time-lapse of the Webster Avenue car graveyard on September 30, 2019. © Lila Hassan

A few have parking tickets stuck onto their windshield wipers or yellow boots on their tires, indicating their impending trip to the car pound, where police officers tow discarded cars.

The Department of Transportation, Sanitation, and local Assemblyman’s office have pointed to the local 47th precinct as the responsible party for enforcing traffic regulations and removals.

None of these government agencies are sure why the cars and trucks are not being removed promptly, and none have been able to answer where they go once towed or removed. Similarly, none of these departments, including the NYPD, know why the 18-wheel truck drivers come here to park, sleep, and take breaks on days-long assignments.

Local residents are fed up.

“The block is just a dump,” said Jasmine Miranda, whose parents’ home is at one end of Webster Avenue strip.  One morning in mid-August, there was no indication of abandoned vehicles and just a handful of trucks were parked.

Just one week later, there were as many as 50 vehicles scattered across the area, in defiance of alternate side parking rules. Some had their Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) scratched out. Others had open trunks and missing license plates and other parts. Alongside them were piles of beer bottles, takeout food containers, and even the occasional used mattress.

A week later, the same sad collection of cars and trucks were still there. Eventually some trash was removed, and several cars were towed, only for more cars to come in their place. 

“Companies park their trucks there in the evening. There are RVs, trash everywhere. It’s kind of an abandoned area,” said Shawn Guffey, board member at the Woodlawn Taxpayers Association, a local not-for-profit community organization. Woodlawn is the neighborhood at the north end of the car graveyard.

The Association first heard of the issue at one of its monthly open meetings when a community member complained about the street being full of trucks and trailers.

The New York Police Department’s 47th precinct, whose sector covers the entire strip on Webster Avenue and is responsible for ticketing and towing, said that giving summonses is useless, according to Commanding Chief, Inspector Erik Hernandez.

“They [truck drivers] would rather pay the parking summons that find storage for these trucks,” Hernandez said.

Jasmine and Theresa Miranda, 26 and 30, sisters whose parents’ home is at the other end near Gun Hill Road, view the street is an eyesore. At night, “it seems sort of ominous,” said Theresa.

Miranda recalled being spooked when she accidentally got off one subway stop too far on the Metro North at 233rd street, almost two miles away from her home on the other side of Webster Avenue. Afraid, “I basically ran that whole area in the dark,” she said.

Two of many 18-wheeler trucks on the Webster Avenue strip. Some, as in the photo, don’t have an attached vehicle to drive them away. © Lila Hassan

Miranda thinks the area is deteriorating. “Honestly, I try not to park there anymore,” she said. “People abandon their cars there and even if they’re booted, it won’t be towed away for weeks.” She doesn’t think the alternate side parking rules make a difference, because the “trucks don’t normally leave. It’s long term parking.”

A “Large Parking Lot”

The alternate side street signs that stretch along the 1.5-mile strip include three signs to indicate no parking for street cleaning on Monday and Thursday mornings, as well as one for Tuesday and Friday mornings.

But just because the rules are there doesn’t mean they’re enforced.

The white Acura left for over a month on the Webster Avenue strip. © Lila Hassan

The Bronx Ink paid a visit to the Webster Avenue car graveyard on August 21 and found a white Acura with missing license plates and a printed out temporary license that hung from the inside of the back window. Over a month later on September 30, the car was found in the same illegal spot, unmoved, with trash on the street nearby it. The seats in the front were cut up, and a used battery booster was left in the backseat.

On September 30, the Bronx Ink counted 26 18-wheel trucks, five apparently abandoned vehicles, four also apparently abandoned RV’s, eight parked tow trucks, six cargo vans, five minivans, three double decker buses, two piles of at least six trash bags each, and one dead raccoon.

The alternate side parking rules were put up just earlier this year, when Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz put in a request to Councilman Andrew Cohen.

Dinowitz said the Webster Avenue strip is more or less “a large parking lot.”

It’s difficult to tow big vehicles, he said. But he and his team look to “press the 47th precinct to enforce rules whenever they can.” 

“They’ve been very helpful,” said Dinowitz, and “it could get better, but then it gets bad again.”

Not A “Profitable or Actionable Collection”

Because the car graveyard on Webster Avenue is located in front of the cemetery and highway with no residential homes or buildings, the street is considered city property. It is unclear why enforcement of alternate side parking rules, towing, ticketing and clean-ups there are scarce.

Amanda Septimo, former district manager for Congressman Jose E. Serrano, and a lifelong resident of Hunts Point, said there is hyper vigilance and enforcement there with a larger police presence, which is not the case in other areas of the Bronx.

“The city might be targeting neighborhoods with actively present residents and not areas where there isn’t a profit or actionable collection,” she said.

Complaints to the city don’t seem to help either. Jasmine Miranda has said that other residents have given up reaching out to the city, thinking that 311 does not respond to their calls.

“Whenever a New Yorker calls 311 or uses our website or mobile app, their service request is instantly routed to the appropriate agency for a response,” according to Laura Feyer, deputy press secretary in the Office of the Mayor.

Several of the cars on Webster Avenue are booted, which indicate that the owner has received over $350 in tickets (whether for parking violations, red light violations, or bus lane violations), according to NYC 311.

The fate after this is towing, and if the vehicle remains unclaimed, it will be auctioned off. The owner of the vehicle is responsible for all the fees in towing, moving, and auctioning, and if the auction does not pay off the tickets and fees, the owner’s bank account and wages will be accessed to pay.

However, in cases where the abandoned cars’ VIN number (the unique identification) has been damaged or removed from the car, and the owner is untraceable, the DOT said in a phone call and over email that it could not answer this question because the NYPD is the responsible party for towing, removal, and enforcement.

The police are also responsible for determining what constitutes an abandoned vehicle or unidentifiable owner. The DOT sometimes relocates vehicles blocking paving jobs, but it doesn’t actually tow them, according to Scott Gastel, assistant commissioner for press. 

“Not Something That’s Not Dealt With”

The Department of Sanitation is “aware of the situation on this particular stretch of Webster Avenue,” according to Dina Montes, press secretary of public affairs at the DSNY.

From January to September, the DSNY Enforcement Unit issued 44 summonses for littering and public urination and seven summonses for illegal dumping. In September alone, the unit has issued 29 summonses for alternate side parking violations.

Problems Montes identified on the street include illegal dumping, non-compliance with alternate side parking rules, and abandoned and derelict vehicles.

The DSNY is responsible for removing only derelict vehicles, which means a vehicle has both “sustained physical damage” and is without license plates. Between July 2018 and September 2019, the DSNY removed 11 derelict vehicles. All other removals fall on the shoulders of the 47th precinct.

The 47th precinct did not provide requested statistics on the frequency of patrols, traffic violations, summonses, and tickets issued to this particular street despite many requests.

Police Officer Sherman Tyson, a Neighborhood Coordination Officer for the Woodlawn area, though not for this specific street, told the Bronx Ink that the dumping and abandoned cars are “not something that’s not dealt with,” and it is patrolled as equally as any other part of their district.

When asked what constitutes an abandoned vehicle, Tyson answered that it is a vehicle left unmoved for 48 hours, although he says this is not always enforced, and they don’t tow everyday.

“Is that a realistic expectation?” Tyson responded.

Hernandez, however, said concern with this strip is “legitimate,” but need vehicles to be flagged as problems for them to move it, otherwise they don’t know. If a car looks abandoned, he said, it doesn’t need to wait 48 hours to be removed.

In addition to the constant cycle, Hernandez said the private companies that the NYPD works with to tow – licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs – do not have the proper storage to hold the amount of cars that need removing, especially those larger than sedans. Hernandez said the precinct can only have three or four cars towed at a time.

Moving the trucks, on the other hand, is like “spitting into a fan.”

“As soon as we two one truck another one goes there in its replacement,” he said. 

Usually the precinct can remove 30-40 vehicles a month, including 5 trucks.

From January to August of this year, there have been 148 unregistered moving violations in the Bronx’s 47th Police Precinct, according to traffic violation stats obtained by the Bronx Ink, compared to 83 in the 48th precinct and 116 in the 46th.

“Nobody Bothers Us”

Cleaning his parked green 18-wheeler, truck driver Robert Caceres said that there is no commercial parking for trucks in the Bronx that are convenient, safe, and affordable.

Caceres cleaning his 18-wheel truck on a break. © Lila Hassan

If a truck driver works for 14 hours, they are legally required to take a 10-hour break. If they are caught driving during their break, they can receive a traffic citation.

“Parking is tough out here,” Caceres said. On Webster Avenue, “we’re not in front of nobody’s building.”

Caceres owns Tod Logistics Corp. in Yonkers, a one-driver, one-truck transport company and now controls his own hours. Before he had his own business, he often worked three to five day assignments.

Behind the driver’s seat, Caceres has two beds, a microwave, and drawers of instant food he used during his break time.

Caceres said he doesn’t know how other truck drivers know about Webster Avenue, but the strip’s view of the Metro North railroad and direct road to the Bronx River Parkway highway make the spot visible to passing drivers.

Occasionally police will ask drivers to move, he said, but they do not always feel the need to abide.

“Let’s say we’re not here. You think dumping is going to stop? There are no cops here. People will still come and sleep here regardless,” he said.

“Nobody bothers us.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Cars, Crime, Featured, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Photography, Police, The Bronx Beat, Transportation, VideoComments (0)

The cost of murder in Mott Haven

At 3 a.m. on October 15, Maria Rojas woke to the sound of her phone ringing. Police from the South Bronx’s 40th Precinct said that her eldest son had been stabbed. By the time she reached Lincoln Hospital, doctors had tried, and failed, to revive 24-year-old Joel.

Hours later, as she spoke to the local funeral director, Rojas, 42, felt her heart break for a second time that day. She was at least $1,800 short of what she needed to pay for the cheapest burial possible. That was more than she had ever made in a month.

By the end of the week, Joel was interred in Chietla, Mexico, 2,600 miles away from his family, only because they couldn’t afford to bury him in New York City.

View From New York to Chietla: Joel Rojas’ Journey in Death in a larger map

Death is an inevitable burden in any community. But in neighborhoods such as Mott Haven, epidemic levels of poverty, illegal immigration and violent crime provide the worst context to human loss. Rojas’ experience since her son’s death illustrates how this district, both as individual families and as a community, does not have the fiscal or social resources needed to deal with the consequences of murder.

Funeral expenses

Rojas washes employees’ uniforms at a restaurant in lower Manhattan. At the end of the month, she pays $1,300 in rent-cum-utilities and takes home about $200 to support a family of six — an unemployed ailing husband, three school-age children, and until recently, Joel. It took her five years, on a radically austere budget and a regular job, to rack up $700 in savings. She hoped, nervously, that it would be enough in case of an emergency.

It wasn’t enough. An average funeral in the United States costs at least $6,560.

Rojas’ options for a funeral were limited. A city burial, though free, would place Joel in the potter’s field on Hart Island, in an unmarked trench along with several other indigents. The most economical yet dignified option was a direct burial, which saved on costs like embalming, flowers, et cetera, because it didn’t involve a memorial service or visitation.

But Rojas’ budget still didn’t make the grade. “Our direct burials start at $2,547,” said Michael Ortiz, 73, owner of the R. G. Ortiz network of more than 20 funeral homes across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. “Add any of the optional elements that are part of traditional burials, and the cost can go up to $8,000.”

Ortiz’s chain is headquartered at Hunts Point, and has a smaller branch on Willis Avenue in Mott Haven. Most families in these areas have a median household income of about $1,600 per month, and cannot afford to bury their dead. Latinos like the Rojases, who comprise about 70 percent of this population, often choose to ship their dead back home instead.

Joel's memorial at the Rojases' apartment in Mott Haven, on the last day of the traditional Mexican mourning period. (NASR UL HADI/Bronx Ink)

“Sending Joel’s body to Mexico was the logical choice for many reasons,” said Rojas. The shipping process, mediated by Ortiz’s enterprise, cost a total of just $1,700 — about 35 percent less than what she would have paid in New York. The fact that the Mexican consulate sponsors the transport of remains when immigrants cannot afford it, allowed Rojas to spend her $700 savings on a small wake instead.

“For the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans or Mexicans, shipping their dead home just doesn’t cost as much as a grave in this city,” said Ortiz. Buying a burial plot in the Bronx costs anywhere between $650 and $6,450. “And this cost will only rise as the number of grave lots at cemeteries like St Raymond’s and Woodlawn goes down over the next few years.”

That’s why more and more people are switching to cremation. The cost of interring then comes down to anything between $600 and $1,450. The management at Woodlawn too pointed out this trend. “Ten years ago, our annual burial and cremation count was 1,200 each,” said Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s director of historical services. “This year so far, we have already had over 2,400 cremations with just about a 1,000 burials.” There is no denying that cost has been a major factor. “We also offer another low-cost option, which clients find more ‘engaging’ — glass entombment of memorabilia in our mausoleum,” said Olsen.

Cost-efficient or not, Rojas, a devout Catholic, just wouldn’t consider cremating her son. “He might not be near us, but I feel content that he is near our ancestors. With the money I had, that is more than I could have asked for,” she said.

Trauma and stress

Funeral expenses are the most obvious fallout of murder. But there is also an intangible component to the cost, which includes fear and psychological injury, among other consequences. The City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that 10 percent of adults suffer from serious psychological distress in Mott Haven and Hunts Point.

“Our neighborhoods are just not equipped with support systems to help families affected by murder,” said Lew Zuchman, director at the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network (SCAN), an organization that works with youth to prevent violence. “The only city employees a victim’s family sees after the tragedy are cops. But their job is to investigate the case, not help the family deal with it.”

Rojas couldn’t agree more. Joel’s stabbing was caught on security cameras, and the police released a photograph of the suspect. Two months later, they are yet to make an arrest. In the video below, Rojas describes how she tried hard to improve her access to police information, but hit a dead end each time. ”I went back to the precinct several times, but they didn’t let me see the detective handling Joel’s case. I don’t know where else to go,” she said.

Rojas said she had no idea there were city agencies who could help her.  “If there are agencies to help these people, they don’t reach out to you,” said Zuchman. “You need to know how to find them.” The U.S. Department of Justice said between 2000 and 2009, less than 10 percent of Americans affected by serious violent crime received direct assistance from victim service agencies.

Access to victim services or other organizations is much more limited in newer migrants, said Howard Jordan, professor of criminal justice at Hostos College in Mott Haven. “There is a lack of information due to a lack of organization,” he said. “The Mexicans have a harder time because they are the most recent migrants.”

Jordan added that the Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have representatives at various levels of governance to help them communicate their grievances. The Dominicans may not have been around as long, but they too have robust community organizations. In fact, they are organized enough to run Dominican presidential campaigns from the South Bronx.

“We Mexicans are still working to build social networks,” said Angelo Cabrera, president of the Mexican American Students’ Alliance (MASA). “Most of our organizations, like MASA or the Hands Community Center at St. Jerome’s Church, focus on education and employment training. We still don’t have the resources or political connections needed to help in situations like the Rojas case.” Cabrera also said that since most Mexicans are illegal residents, they are afraid to come forward with such issues, and try to deal with them on their own.

Loss of life

The cost of murders is felt not only by victims’ families, but also by the larger community. A study at Iowa State University in 2009 analyzed all tangible and intangible costs for murder (such as trauma, and work loss) in the United States, to calculate an average cost per murder victim. Their estimate exceeded $4.7 million. If costs to the system, such as those of investigation, incarceration, et cetera, were included, an average community in the country lost more than $17.2 million per murder.

One such intangible cost is years of potential life lost (YPLL), calculated by the City’s Department of Health as the difference between a person’s age at death and 75, the life expectancy in New York. Since the average age of homicide victims in the 40th Precinct this year was 25, the community lost 50 years of potential life per victim. With 20 homicides registered so far in 2011 — the highest toll in five years — Mott Haven-Melrose lost at least 1,000 years of potential life to murder in a single year.

Potential life is one loss that Maria Rojas understands immediately. Joel’s murder cost the Rojases 51 years of potential life.

“My son died much before his time,” she said on the last evening of the nine-day mourning period, a Mexican tradition. “He was a child who still had to live his life.”

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Cemetery for famous registered as national landmark, Norwood News

Since 1863, the sprawling Woodlawn Cemetery has seen jazz greats, literary giants, political leaders and everyone in between entombed above and beneath its hallowed grounds. On Sunday, Oct. 16, the cemetery was inducted into the National Historic Landmark Registry. It is the sixth Bronx institution to make the list, Norwood News reported.

“From every racial background, the Woodlawn Cemetery represents the largest and most distinguished register of mausoleums in the country,” said John Liu, the New York City Comptroller.

The ceremony joined together Woodlawn Cemetery President John P. Toale, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., State Senator Jeffrey Klein, Bronx Historian Lloyd Ultan, Lehman College President Ricardo Fernandez, and many others who assisted in distinguishing the cemetery as a National Landmark.


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