Tag Archive | "Yardena Schwartz"

Bronx Israelites: A world of contrasts and a fight for identity

Text by Yardena Schwartz. Video produced by Nicola Kean and Yardena Schwartz. A powerful African drumbeat sprinkled with the shimmering sounds of tambourines pounded through the small room. The melody of a Bob Marley-like voice filled the room as the singer clicked two small wooden sticks in his hands to the rhythm of his words. “When I walk, I walk with love,” he crooned in a mesmerizing Jamaican accent. Every one of the 25 African-American men, women and children in the room sang and danced along with him. If you closed your eyes, it might seem like an intimate reggae concert. Resisting the urge to dance would be a losing battle. But open your eyes, and an entirely different scene emerges, revealing a world of contrasts. The congregation sings of a return to Zion, to their promised land of Israel, and praises Yahweh, the ancient name they use for God. All around them are adornments typical of a Jewish synagogue. On one wall hangs a giant map of Israel, and against the opposite wall stands the ark of the Torah, the sacred scrolls of the Old Testament. Punctuating the walls and the podium are Stars of David, a menorah, and depictions of the Ten Commandments. Along with these traditional ornaments are paintings of a black baby Moses, an African Abraham, and a poster of a young, still-black Michael Jackson that reads, “R.I.P. Michael: We will always love you.” Everyone in the room has dreadlocks, but the head of every boy and man is covered with a kippah, just like the traditional skullcap worn by orthodox Jewish men, only bigger and more colorful. The women wrap their long dreadlocks, some adorned with colorful beads, in scarves reminiscent of those covering the heads of orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn. The teenage boy playing the drums is named Moshe, Hebrew for Moses, and the name of the Jamaican man leading the spiritual song is Naphtali. Almost everyone in the room has a similar biblical or Hebrew name.
The temple sits in the shadow of the West Farms Square train tracks in East Tremont. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The temple sits in the shadow of the West Farms Square train tracks in East Tremont. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

But this is neither a reggae club nor a Jewish synagogue. It is the sanctuary of an Israelite temple named Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, which for the past 40 years has stood on the corner of Boston Road and Longfellow Avenue in a dingy camel-colored brick building. Yet few people in the neighborhood know it is there. “Most people don’t even know what Israelites are,” said 35-year-old Yahkenah Chavis, who has been coming to Kol Sh’aireit since she was six. “And if they do, they think we’re a cult, or the people yelling on the corner of 125th Street or Times Square.” Chavis and her fellow congregants say those street corner proselytizers belong to more radical strands of Israelite culture. Yet while they don’t scream at people on street corners, there is an extreme and controversial undertone running throughout Kol Sh’aireit. The difference is that it resides within the temple walls, where Saturday sermons denounce homosexuality, criticize an imperialistic U.S. government, and blame natural disasters on sinners who temple members believe will be killed on Judgment Day, which they predict will soon arrive. At first glance, the shabby structure bearing the name “Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael” seems abandoned, a relic of a time when Jews once lived in this pocket of the Bronx. The small building is tucked away on a corner, nestled between the shadows of the West Farms Square train tracks and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Just across the street from a giant rock where local prostitutes are known to solicit customers, the building is flanked by a massive abandoned garage and an auto body shop. From the outside, the temple looks like it hasn’t been used in years. Yet every Saturday, the cacophony of trains overhead and cars outside competes with the harmony of drums, tambourines and hymns that take over the temple’s sanctuary as the Israelites ring in their holiest day of the week, the Shabbat. The kosher kitchen and greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” might lead people to think that the members of Kol Sh’aireit are Jewish, but the Israelites vehemently reject that perception. In fact, assuming they are Jewish might elicit an angry response from some temple members. When asked if she was Jewish, one temple member named Yahelya launched into a tirade on how Jews are not true Israelites, as they are.
The temple's leader, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, refers to his legal name, Vanterpool, as his slave name. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The temple's leader, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, refers to his legal name, Vanterpool, as his slave name. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The leader of the temple, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, understands the misconception, as Jewish and Israelite customs are similar. “If you said I was a black Jew, I’d say you’re close to the mark but you haven’t hit the mark,” said Kahtriel, whose legal name is Steven Vanterpool. His adopted last name, Ben Yisrael, means son of Israel in Hebrew. (Many of the temple members have adopted the same last name.) He avoids the term Rabbi because it is associated with Judaism, opting instead for the title of “Moreh,” the Hebrew word for teacher. Like most temple members, Kahtriel refers to his legal name as his slave name, and plans to have it officially changed soon. “As long as we continue to have our slave master’s name, and learn his culture and his ways and know nothing about ourselves,” he said, “then we’re still slaves.” All of the temple members have adopted Hebrew names in order to shed the names they perceive as remnants of slavery. “Do I look like a Vanterpool?” asked Kahtriel on a recent Saturday, before answering his own question: “No. That’s the Dutch name given to my ancestors by a slave master.” Israelites regard themselves not as members of a religion, but as a nationality, tied to a land, language, culture and heritage. The lives of the temple members are defined by an unwavering belief that they and all black people, not the Jews, are the true children of Israel, descendants of the 10 lost tribes. For the people of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, every day is a fight to reclaim and maintain that history and identity, which they feel was taken from them throughout centuries of slavery and oppression. “The so-called black people, African-Americans, we’ve lost all sense of what our ethnicity is,” said Kahtriel, sitting across from an encyclopedic chart delineating the tribes of Israel. He and his temple members struggle to hold tight to their newfound identity in what they see as a hostile world. Kol Sh’aireit emerged in 1970 at the height of the Black Nationalism movement and amidst the “white flight,” during which many thousands of Jews left the Bronx for Riverdale, Westchester and other suburbs of New York. The temple’s founder was Yoseph Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel’s father. Yoseph, who died in 2004, opened the temple at a time of great upheaval within New York’s black community. On the heels of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam urged African-Americans to question the identity that had been created for them by white America. That call reawakened the Marcus Garvey movement of the 1920s, when black New Yorkers looked to Judaism and Islam as a means of revolting against the Christianity they associated with slavery, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and author of “When Harlem Was Jewish.” Before Kahtriel was born, Yoseph was a staunch Catholic. Yet when he became active in Black Nationalist circles, he started to question his faith and seek what he felt would be a more authentic sense of self. Until then, recalled Kahtriel, he had been walking around with someone else’s identity forced upon him. So Yoseph went to his priests and asked them, “Why do I have the name Vanterpool? Where did we come from? Why are we just considered black? And why do they want us to think that our history started with slavery?” After growing tired of what he saw as empty responses from the priests -- who told him, “You just have to believe,” -- he searched for his own answers. Yoseph started to read the Old Testament, Kahtriel said, to find out “who we are, where we came from, what our history is, and why it was taken away from us.” The story of the Israelites immediately resonated with him. Reading about the exile of the 10 lost tribes of Israel to the four corners of the earth and their subsequent years in slavery led him to realize his true identity as a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel. “My father connected the dots,” said Kahtriel, “and came to the conclusion that the slaves that came here, who were dispersed across the world, were in fact the children of Israel.” According to Columbia University religion professor Jonathan Schorsch, the author of “Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World,” many African-Americans look to the Old Testament for a sense of belonging and collective redemption. “It gives a comforting, glorious identity that's been hidden and suppressed,” he said. “It also makes a lot of sense for African-Americans whose identity was really shattered, destroyed and taken in the course of the Atlantic slave trade.” So began Yoseph’s quest to awaken his people and let them know that something precious had been taken away from them. In addition to founding Kol Sh’aireit, he also started two Israelite temples in Brooklyn named B’nai Adath and Sh’ma Yisrael. New York City is home to four other Israelite temples, including one more in the Bronx, called Mount Horab Congregation, located on Rev James A Polite Avenue and East 165th Street. Most of Kol Sh’aireit’s 50 members come from the Bronx, while the rest travel from surrounding boroughs. About half of them were born in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, while the other half come mostly from New York, with a few exceptions from other states.
Naphtali Ben Yisrael was born in Jamaica, where his family was already practicing Israelite customs. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Naphtali Ben Yisrael was born in Jamaica, where his family was already practicing Israelite customs. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Although all of the temple members consider themselves to be Israelites from birth, their process of realizing that identity varies. Some were born to parents who, on a mission to find out who they really were, heard about the Israelite community and embraced it. Others were on their own quest for identity and were drawn to the sense of history and the appeal of being chosen that comes with the Israelite narrative. Still others, particularly the older women of the temple, say that they always knew they were Israelites, and that growing up in the Caribbean, they never ate shellfish or pork because something inside them told them it wasn’t right. Jamaican-born Yahelya, 64, became an Israelite 14 years ago after hearing about Kol Sh’aireit through her son, a schoolmate of Kahtriel’s younger brother. Naheirah, Kahtriel’s wife, came to be an Israelite after meeting her husband. Younger temple members, like Joshua, 16, and Moshe, 15, knew they were Israelites all along because of their parents, Chaya and Naphtali Ben Yisrael, who discovered their Israelite heritage well before they had children. Definitive estimates on the number of Israelites in the United States are hard to come by, as the boundaries between Israelites and black Jews are often blurred, and the Israelite community suffers from obscurity and fragmentation. Statistics that do exist vary widely, from 50,000 to 150,000, according to the late Gary Tobin, who founded the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. And the number of Israelites living in New York is just a few thousand, said Jeffrey Gurock, the Yeshiva University professor. But if you ask Kahtriel or his congregants, who refer to each other as brothers and sisters, there are really millions of Israelites. According to their beliefs, every black man, woman and child is a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel as long as they have slaves among their ancestors. Kahtriel refers to them as “Israelites in the Diaspora.” This notion is a highly contentious one, as Judaism is steeped in the belief that the nation of Israel is at its roots, and that Jews are the modern children of Israel. Gurock characterizes the black Israelite claim as a myth like many others surrounding the lost tribes. “Any historian would have to be shown documentation, which simply doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s an attempt to create a historical narrative for themselves, but I don’t think any reputable historian would give it any credence. I certainly don’t.” Some scholars look at the Israelites’ claims through a less critical lens. According to Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, an Israeli professor of history at New York University and author of “The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History,” the Bible doesn’t speak in racial terms, so it is impossible to know the color of the ancient Israelites. “The question is not whether the argument is true or not,” he said. “It’s how beautiful it is, and it’s pretty beautiful.” Kahtriel sees the dismissal of Israelite claims as another way to oppress his people, a way of keeping a heavy boot on the neck of the black community. “We’re met with questions that other people aren’t met with,” he said. “If you ask a Chinese man his identity, you understand a lot about it. But when I say I’m an Israelite, there’s a whole series of questions.” Despite the tension, neither he nor his temple members treat Jews with hostility or resentment. In fact, they welcomed this Jewish reporter into their house of worship with open arms. To them, Jews are followers of a religion based on Israelite customs. They may not be true Israelites, but they are like family, and without them, Israelites couldn’t have retraced their path back to their own roots. “They’ve maintained those customs, preserving our prayers, our holy days, and our traditions,” says Kahtriel, “so we’re able to look back and see the reflections of ourselves by the Jews maintaining our culture for us.” As conflicting as their narratives are, the customs of Israelites are not so different from those of Orthodox Jews. The doorways of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael are marked with a traditional mezuzah, the small container of prayers found on the doorposts of many Jewish homes, and every temple member keeps kosher, refraining from pork and shellfish. Temple members perform ceremonial circumcisions for newborn sons, celebrate all of the High Holidays, and most can speak and read at least some Hebrew. The women dress with modesty, wearing long sleeves and ankle-length skirts or dresses and covering their hair with scarves. Male and female temple members wear tzitzit, short fringes of cloth tied to the bottom corners of their shirts, a custom adhered to by religious Jewish men. The temple also contains an elaborately decorated Torah, the scriptures of the Old Testament, which is an integral part of their services.
Kahtriel leads a Hebrew prayer on a recent Shabbat. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Kahtriel leads a Hebrew prayer on a recent Shabbat. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Yet the Shabbat service at Kol Sh’aireit diverges significantly from that of a Jewish synagogue. Similar to Muslim tradition, the temple members remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary and often kneel down with their heads on the ground while praying. The service begins with a unique tradition, as temple members line up behind Kahtriel at the sanctuary doorway and shout “Halleluyah!” in unison at least five times before entering in single file, singing “We’re marching onto Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.” Unlike Orthodox Jews, who don’t drive or use electricity on Shabbat, many temple members arrive by car, and Kahtriel commands the service using a microphone and speakers. While the prayers are similar, complete with the frequent “Baruch atah (blessed are you)” recited by Jews, the Israelites profusely praise “Yahweh,” a sacred word for God that is not spoken aloud by Jews. A typical Shabbat meal includes both collard greens, a staple of African-American cuisine, and salmon salad, found at many Jewish synagogues following Shabbat services. The food is served alongside Manischewitz and Welch’s Grape Juice. When services at Kol Sh’aireit end, congregants often hold Hebrew lessons while listening to Israelite rap music with lyrics about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An Israelite service is a stew of many cultures, with sometimes strident even disturbing messages. During a recent sermon at Kol Sh’aireit, Kahtriel spoke in a booming, emotional voice about how the Israelites were punished for not obeying Yahweh after they left Egypt, and were scattered to all corners of the earth, made to live in chains and sold as slaves, their identity stolen from them by their slave owners. He preached to a congregation nodding in agreement that they were still in captivity, and that Judgment Day was fast approaching, when the Most High would smite homosexuals, adulterers and other sinners, but redeem the obedient Israelites. “When the day of judgment comes, we’ll be able to walk through the fire that's going to pierce the earth again, everybody knows its coming.” He insisted that Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti were punishing acts of God, and that Israel is at war because the land is occupied by two religions with no rightful claim to it. Several temple members echoed these sentiments in conversations following the service. Kahtriel acknowledges that his service could seem radical or controversial to an outsider, but he sees no need to defend these beliefs to critics. His eye is on the common struggle of the Israelites, and on his own uphill battle to enlighten people about their Israelite heritage. “It’s not a popular movement,” he said, “because people have seen so many Black Nationalist movements that they’re skeptical of everything.” Just as his father’s epiphany led him on a mission to teach African-Americans about their identity by opening three Israelite temples, Kahtriel strives to continue that mission of uniting the Israelite people. “Imagine someone stealing your identity and you’re walking around in a strange place trying to survive without any connection to go forward,” he said. “That’s the state and condition of black people. We’re recovering from amnesia to find out that a lot has been taken away from us.” When he’s not leading services at Kol Sh’aireiet Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel works in construction. His current project is at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, an irony not lost on the devout Israelite. According to the Torah, Mount Sinai was the mountain in ancient Israel where God delivered the Ten Commandments through Moses thousands of years ago. When Kahtriel first arrived on the job, he met some Israelites from other temples. “One was Gershon, the name of one of Moses’s sons,” he said. “That Shabbat, I told the congregation that at Mt. Sinai I met Moses’s son. They had a laugh.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, Rituals, Southern BronxComments (1)

A fifth term for Diaz

Senator Diaz was out of the office on election day. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Diaz was out of the office on election day. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Bronx voters proved the power of incumbency on Tuesday, re-electing the Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr., an outspoken opponent of gay rights, to serve a fifth consecutive term as state senator. The veteran Democrat's re-election by an overwhelming majority comes amidst violent attacks on New York’s gay community and a public outcry against anti-gay hate crimes, the most brutal of which occurred in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx on Oct. 3. Diaz took the 32nd District by an overwhelming 94 percent margin over his opponent, Michael Walters — a slight dip from his 99 percent victory in 2008, but a sign that voters cared more about party loyalty than Diaz’s anti-gay stance. That’s a contrast to Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, who was vilified for his statements about gays during his campaign, words that may have hurt him in the race against Democrat Andrew Cuomo, which he lost by a 27 percent margin. Yet Diaz’s controversial stance on gay issues did not appear to present a similar hurdle to his quest for another two years in office. Of dozens of Bronx voters interviewed Tuesday, many distanced themselves from his extreme beliefs, yet voted for him nonetheless. “Everybody has the right to choose who they want to love and spend their life with,” said Darlene Cruz, 53, of Soundview. “I don’t really care for Diaz, but I voted Democrat down the line.” The wave of recent hostility against the gay community included the Oct. 3 hate crime, in which members of the Latin King Goonies allegedly tortured three Bronx men they suspected of being gay; the beating of two gay men at Julius Bar, New York’s oldest gay bar; and an attack on a gay man at the historic Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots largely credited with starting the modern gay rights movement. These incidents came after the highly publicized suicides of five gay teens across the country, among them Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22. Diaz, who is a Pentecostal minister at the Christian Community Neighborhood Church on Longfellow Avenue, has 17 siblings, two of whom are gay. He released a statement days after suspects were arrested in the Bronx hate crime, condemning the attack but not the bias that motivated it. The omission sparked outrage from the gay community, which blamed the attack, in part, on Diaz’s own rhetoric. Diaz’s office declined to respond to several requests for an interview. In the past, Diaz, the father of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., has called homosexuality an “abomination” and likened it to bestiality. He has also been the face of the opposition to same-sex marriage in the State Senate, blocking a May 2009 bill sponsored by Gov. David Paterson that would have legalized gay marriage in New York. If Bronx residents were dismayed by the senator’s remarks, however, it did not change their vote. “He’s entitled to his beliefs,” said Parkchester resident Lloyd Mitchell, 65. “I might not agree with everything he does, but I’ll still vote for him because he’s a Democrat.” Diaz has long benefited from wide support from senior citizens because of his role as chair of the Senate Aging Committee. His campaign this year focused on blocking tax cuts in order to balance the budget. Such work has struck a chord with Bronx voters, who did not seem to share the widespread dissatisfaction with incumbents that has surfaced in other parts of the country. “He does a lot for the community, especially the seniors,” said Marilyn Villanueva, 37, of Castle Hill. Seventy-eight-year old Antonia Rosado affirmed that sentiment: “He’s one of ours,” she said, adding, “He’s been here a long time so he has experience.” It may be Diaz’s connection to an older and more conservative constituency that has kept him in office. The most recent poll of New Yorkers on the legalization of same-sex marriage, from May 2009, showed a wide gap between support within younger and older generations. According to the Quinnipiac University poll, only 37 percent of New Yorkers older than 55 favor legalization, compared with 61 percent of those younger than 34. “He has a certain amount of Latino voters that are older and tend to be more conservative on social issues,” said West Farms resident James Goodridge, 50. “As long as he has them, he’s not going anywhere soon.” Last Tuesday, a rally outside Bronx Supreme Court gathered community activists who voiced their concern over the Morris Heights anti-gay hate crime. While there, they used bullhorns to vehemently denounce Diaz’s outspoken opposition to gay rights. But a week later, the polls revealed that his stance was not a factor in voters’ decision to keep him in office. While his positions on gay issues are controversial in light of recent incidents, they are not shocking to the voters who have come to know him. “He’s a Pentecostal preacher who doesn’t agree with gay marriage,” said Adam King, 36, of Throgs Neck. “For the gay community to fight about it only increases his defensiveness. The more they protest and criticize him, the more he wants to dig in.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Election 2010, Politics, Special ReportsComments (0)

School cafeteria trades burgers for grass-fed beef

Audio slideshow by Nicola Kean and Yardena Schwartz. Text by Yardena Schwartz. After graduating from culinary school at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute in July, Bronx-born-and-bred chef Kaci Strother wasted no time getting back to her roots. At noon earlier this month, the 32-year-old Strother was busy preparing an enticing lunch for more than 1,000 Bronx residents. Hustling back and forth between the cutting board, the oven and the stove, she diced up fresh onions and tomatoes, and mixed a sizzling cauldron of garlic-infused grass-fed beef sauce to accompany a giant batch of whole grain pasta. Dressed in a white apron and lemon yellow turban, Strother was the only lunch lady in the school kitchen not wearing a hair net. The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a public sixth through ninth grade school, is one of four in the Bronx and 19 in New York City where gourmet chefs have become fixtures in the cafeteria kitchen. For Urban Assembly and P.S. 67, the elementary school that shares the building on Mohegan Avenue, this means a gourmet chef is cooking lunch every day in a school where 87 percent of students qualify for free lunch. To meet that standard, a student’s family must receive public assistance or fall under Federal Income Guidelines. According to the advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families in District 12, where the school is located, earn less than $35,000 a year. In comparison, the citywide average for free lunch qualifiers is 70 percent in elementary schools and 72 in middle schools, according to the non-profit organization Inside Schools. This “Cook for Kids” initiative, funded by the non-profit New York City organization Wellness in the Schools, is part of a national movement to bring healthier eating habits to children in lower economic areas, where there is less accessibility to healthy food. The short-term goal is to revamp the entire school lunch menu by banishing processed food, incorporating more fresh produce and cooking-from-scratch methods, and teaching healthy cooking classes to students and their parents. The long-term goal is to lower the chances that kids will become obese or develop diabetes, two major threats to the health of Bronx residents. In the Central Bronx, where the Urban Assembly School resides, more than six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, and 14 percent of Bronx adults have diabetes, according to the city’s Health Department. At this rate, it is estimated that half of all Bronx five-year-olds will develop diabetes in their lifetime. These findings and similar studies have sparked a national movement, most recently spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, to combat the obesity trend as early as possible. By feeding young kids healthier food at school, Strother hopes to attack the problem before it is too late. “We’re getting them early,” said Strother, who is three months pregnant herself. “There’s no reason a four-year-old can’t say ‘I prefer an apple, not the chips.’ But you have to teach that in a way they can absorb and respect.” Indeed, this school lunch program is so innovative that it helped to inspire Ms. Obama’s similar initiative, “Chefs Move to Schools,” which she announced this past June as part of her larger “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. The chef behind the Wellness in the Schools lunch program, Bill Telepan, who operates the upscale New York City restaurant bearing his name, was on the task force to create the First Lady’s initiative. Every two and a half weeks, he visits the kitchens of the 19 schools that are incorporating his recipes and healthier cooking practices. Wellness in the Schools approached the Urban Assembly School last April to start planning its partnership with the school in West Farms, and Strother began implementing the new lunch menu on Oct. 4. Old staples like mozzarella sticks, french fries, hamburgers and chicken patties have been erased from the menu, replaced by chicken, whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, all prepared from scratch. “It’s so needed, and children are so thirsty for it,” said Strother, stirring her homemade vinaigrette. “Even if there’s resistance at first, it’s so essential to their learning process.” Not surprisingly, there has been push-back from students, whose taste buds have grown fond of and accustomed to less healthy food. “I think it’s nasty,” said Luis Ruiz, a ninth grader, fiddling his fork over the steamed spinach served with his pasta and meat sauce. Told that his meat sauce was made with grass-fed-beef, Ruiz said, “Now it’s even worse.” He slid his plate a foot down the table, with the look of someone who had just found a maggot in their food. “I don’t even want it anymore. I miss the chocolate milk, the french fries and hamburgers.” While some students haven’t quite adapted to the healthier lunch menu, opting to skip the meal entirely or bring more familiar options, like Pop Tarts, others acknowledge what is best for them. “I miss the mozzarella sticks and the chicken strips,” said Kyle Farrell, a ninth grader, while he picked on his whole-wheat pasta. “But this is good because it’s more healthy.” On a recent visit to the school’s kitchen, Telepan was optimistic that more kids would embrace the new lunches eventually. “We know how to make food taste good, and it just turns out it’s healthy,” he said, tasting some of the meat sauce straight from the stove. “We’re not serving them cardboard here.” As she cooked more spinach and grass-fed-beef for later lunch shifts, Strother was well aware of the steep climb ahead. It will take time to wean children off of processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods. “What they were eating before,” she said, “though not necessarily good for them, was very tasty. We still have some convincing to do, but it will take time. Change doesn’t come easy.” Nor does it come free. According to Wellness in the Schools, the organization behind the program, the cost of implementing the new lunch plan and teaching the monthly cooking classes that start next month is $30,000 a year. As a small non-profit group, Wellness in the Schools relies on sponsors to fund the initiative, which launched at three other Bronx schools this year. Aside from the Urban Assembly School and P.S. 67, P.S. 53, P.S. 65 and P.S. 140 are also reaping the benefits of healthier lunchrooms. The North Carolina-based charity organization Samara Fund is footing the $30,000 bill for the program at Urban Assembly. The salad company Chop’t pays for the operation at P.S. 65. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition covers the fee for P.S. 53, and P.S. 140 receives the program through its sponsor, Share Our Strength, a national organization that fights hunger. “There’s a real movement afoot to look at these issues because we need to change this situation,” said Wellness in the Schools co-founder Nancy Easton. And the school cafeteria is the perfect place to start. “School Foods serves 860,000 kids a day,” said Easton, referring to the city’s provider of school food and kitchen staff, the largest school food service in the country. “If we can make a dent there, we could really tip the scales.” Obesity is not only a danger to children’s health, but also a heavy burden on the American economy. A 2009 study by the medical journal Health Affairs estimated that $147 billion is spent treating obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, every year. That accounts for almost 10 percent of all medical spending in the country, the study concluded. “Fast food seems cheaper,” said Strother, “but what you’re not paying here, you will pay in the hospital. So do you want to spend it on your food or on dialysis?” Feeding children healthy meals at school removes the financial barrier low-income families face when it comes to buying fresh, nutritious – and normally more expensive – food. The new lunch program isn’t the only ambitious health initiative that needy Bronx schools are embracing this school year. Urban Assembly — along with 10 other low-income schools that Wellness in the Schools has partnered with — also participate in the organization’s “Coach for Kids” program. For two hours a day, the organization sends counselors to school recess to encourage more activity. The coaches organize games for the kids, and specifically target children who normally sit on the sidelines. The coaching program costs $10,000 a year and is also sponsored by various donor organizations. “The ultimate goal is that the next generation of children will not have the same obesity crisis,” said Easton. Urban Assembly is particularly active in its efforts to combat childhood obesity and other health obstacles Bronx children face, such as less accessibility to and affordability of quality produce. Aside from the redesigned lunch menu and the recess coaches, Urban Assembly students also have the option of taking an after-school culinary class in sustainable, healthy, global cooking. The “Healthy Culinary Adventures” class, funded by the New York chapter of the international anti-fast food organization Slow Food, launched on Oct. 5 with 12 students from the ninth grade. The 10-week class teaches students recipes from around the world, complete with lessons on the nutritional values of every recipe ingredient and the climate conditions that nurture those ingredients. The course is taught by the school’s climate change instructor, Alex Rodriguez, and will be offered in three sessions throughout the school year. To increase its appeal to teenage students, the self-proclaimed health nut Rodriguez incorporates an “Iron Chef” style cooking competition into the program. If child health advocates have any doubt about kids’ enthusiasm for nutritious food, the excitement surrounding the after-school program offers much hope. Asked what part of the class she looks forward to most, 14-year-old Tiffany Miller had trouble singling out one thing. “Learning why some food tastes the way it does and why we’re so addicted to fast food,” she said. “We don’t even know exactly what we’re eating at this point. It will be good to know what we’re putting into our bodies, and to know how to actually cook a meal that’s healthy for us.” Strother hopes that more kids will get excited about eating healthier lunch food. Many children who at first turned away from vegetables were now starting to love them, she said. Whether they like it or not, she will do whatever it takes to help them lead healthier lives. “Aside from being extremely needed by the schools, parents and the city,” Strother said, taking a break to eat her own school lunch, “it’s also coming from the White House.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Food, Health, Multimedia, Southern BronxComments Off on School cafeteria trades burgers for grass-fed beef

Prostitution and the playground

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Like most schools in the Bronx, P.S. 6 in West Farms has a sign on its gates that reads, “Drug Free Zone.” Another sign on its bright red doors warns visitors and teachers about “No smoking in front of the building.” Yet the school on the corner of East Tremont and Bryant Avenues may wish it could host another warning sign: "No prostitution on the corner." From the vantage point of the elevated playground at P.S. 6, children are able to look down on a large rock covered with small trees and weeds where school employees said local prostitutes have constructed a make-shift tent that includes sheets, mattresses and couch cushions. At all hours of the day, women in low-cut shirts and tight jeans stand on Bryant Avenue, approaching passing cars, bending over drivers' windows, and occasionally entering the car or escorting the driver inside the tent-like structure on the rock. All of this happens within view of the school playground perched above and across from the rock. “It’s not healthy for kids to see that,” said Janilka Chevalier, the mother of a three-year-old pre-K student at P.S. 6. “Their brains are like sponges. What they see is what they learn.”
The tent on the rock lies is in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The tent on the rock lies in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

While local police insist that the situation has improved in recent years, prostitution remains a bitter fact of life for residents in the area, especially parents of the 750 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students in P.S. 6. “The 48th Precinct is number two in the Bronx for prostitution,” said T.K. Singleton of Bronx Community Solutions, a division of the Center for Court Innovation. According to data from the non-profit organization, which strives to keep prostitutes off the streets, the number of prostitution arrests in the past two years has increased by close to 25 percent. In 2008, police made 42 prostitution arrests near the school, accounting for 8.5 percent of all such arrests in the Bronx. A year later, that number shot up to 52 arrests, or nine percent of the borough’s total. Police argue that the spike in arrests is a reflection of stronger law enforcement, not a rise in prostitution itself. “It doesn’t mean it got worse,” said Police Officer Tony DiGiovanna, an officer at the 48th Precinct who has been cracking down on prostitution in the area for 17 years. “It could have been that we had more arrests, more officers out there.” Just 10 years ago, police were arresting at least 10 prostitutes in the area every month. “Even if they took two months off, that’d be at least 100 a year," said Officer Richard Marina. The difference between then and now, according to DiGiovanna, “is night and day.” There used to be about 60 “regulars,” he said, who wore boots and barely-there clothing. Now the regulars have whittled down to about 12; half of them are trans-gender, and their wardrobe is more subtle.
The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

On a recent afternoon, the only clue that a woman dressed in a tight red sweater and hip-hugging pants may be a sex worker was when she bent over the window of a passing car. A few hours later, police arrested six of the regulars, giving them tickets for loitering. “It’s one of the hardest things to prove, unless you catch them in the act,” said one of the officers, who asked not to be identified. “But it’s usually the repeat offenders.” The relative decrease of prostitution in the area over the past decade is a result of numerous trends. Police in the 48th Precinct credit undercover operations, in which police officers pretend to solicit a prostitute in order to make an arrest. Eight years ago, the community also managed to shut down The Alps Hotel on nearby Boston Road, which had allowed sex workers to rent rooms for one-hour time slots. The Alps was replaced by a Howard Johnson, whose owner cooperates with police and Community Board 6 to prevent prostitutes and johns from securing brief trysts. The situation was improved even more four years ago, when an empty lot around the corner from the school became an apartment building. Now with fewer places to hide in the shadows, prostitutes in the area have just one place to go: the rock across from the school playground. "If they built a building there, maybe they’d leave," said Singleton, "but as long as that space is open and unmaintained, they’re going to stay. It's a place of discretion." Singleton compared the situation to graffiti, saying that no matter how many times authorities try to wash tags off of buildings, people will come back to do more damage. Similarly, she said, no matter how many times they try to cut down the trees on the rock to make it a less hospitable place to hide, or arrest the prostitutes who solicit customers there, "they will always go back to it in the end." Teachers at P.S. 6 fear that getting used to the site of prostitutes at such an impressionable age could have a lasting impact on young students.
The view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

“The kids notice them,” said Maria Lugo, who has been teaching at the school for 11 years. “And they might think it’s an easy way out, because they see them on the corner every day." "They’re always on the corner,” said Evelyn Vargas, the mother of a 10-year-old P.S. 6 student. “But you’ve just got to raise your kids well and teach them not to end up that way.” Police said that in an ideal world, they would be able to stamp out the problem completely. But arresting prostitutes isn’t easy. “We can’t pick them up for just standing on the street,” said Officer DiGiovanna. “They have to approach a number of vehicles.” Even if they are arrested, keeping prostitutes away from the school is anything but guaranteed. According to statistics from Bronx Community Solutions, 79 percent of those arrested in 2009 received an average jail sentence of nine days. The rest were held for less than two days. “A lot of times we bring them in, they get a slap on the wrist, and they’re back on the street the next day,” said  DiGiovanna. On some nights, the illegal activity travels to the steps of the school, where a school safety agent who requested anonymity said janitors sweep up condoms and needles before students arrive in the morning.
A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

School officials feel that there is not much they can do to clean up the environment outside the school. And it shows. “This is the kind of school you send your kids to when you can’t get them into a better school,” said Bonnie Alexander, a mother of two P.S. 6 students. In its most recent progress report from the Department of Education, P.S. 6 earned an “F” for school environment. “We schools are powerful in doing a lot of things, but there are some things in which we have no power,” said Myrna Rodriguez, the superintendent of School District 12. “The best thing we can do is make sure our kids learn well so that one day they can speak up in their communities to create change.” The rest, she said, is up to other institutions, such as the police, community leaders and local business owners.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Education, Southern BronxComments (0)

A healthy revolution in the school lunchroom

Kaci Strother is the new chef at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Kaci Strother is the new chef at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

After graduating from culinary school at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute in July, Bronx-born-and-bred chef Kaci Strother wasted no time getting back to her roots. At noon earlier this month, the 32-year-old Strother was busy preparing an enticing lunch for more than 1,000 Bronx residents. Hustling back and forth between the cutting board, the oven and the stove, she diced up fresh onions and tomatoes, and mixed a sizzling cauldron of garlic-infused grass-fed beef sauce to accompany a giant batch of whole grain pasta. Dressed in a white apron and lemon yellow turban, Strother was the only lunch lady in the school kitchen not wearing a hair net. The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a public sixth through ninth grade school, is one of four in the Bronx and 19 in New York City where gourmet chefs have become fixtures in the cafeteria kitchen. For Urban Assembly and P.S. 67, the elementary school that shares the building on Mohegan Avenue, this means a gourmet chef is cooking lunch every day in a school where 87 percent of students qualify for free lunch. To meet that standard, a student’s family must receive public assistance or fall under Federal Income Guidelines. According to the advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families in District 12, where the school is located, earn less than $35,000 a year. In comparison, the citywide average for free lunch qualifiers is 70 percent in elementary schools and 72 percent in middle schools, according to the non-profit organization Inside Schools. This “Cook for Kids” initiative, funded by the non-profit New York City organization Wellness in the Schools, is part of a national movement to bring healthier eating habits to children in lower economic areas, where there is less accessibility to healthy food. The short-term goal is to revamp the entire school lunch menu by banishing processed food, incorporating more fresh produce and cooking-from-scratch methods, and teaching healthy cooking classes to students and their parents. The long-term goal is to lower the chances that kids will become obese or develop diabetes, two major threats to the health of Bronx residents. In the Central Bronx, where the Urban Assembly School resides, more than six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, and 14 percent of Bronx adults have diabetes, according to the city’s Health Department. At this rate, it is estimated that half of all Bronx five-year-olds will develop diabetes in their lifetime. These findings and similar studies have sparked a national movement, most recently spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, to combat the obesity trend as early as possible. By feeding young kids healthier food at school, Strother hopes to attack the problem before it is too late. “We’re getting them early,” said Strother, who is three months pregnant herself. “There’s no reason a four-year-old can’t say 'I prefer an apple, not the chips.' But you have to teach that in a way they can absorb and respect.” Indeed, this school lunch program is so innovative that it helped to inspire Ms. Obama’s similar initiative, “Chefs Move to Schools,” which she announced this past June as part of her larger “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. The chef behind the Wellness in the Schools lunch program, Bill Telepan, who operates the upscale New York City restaurant bearing his name, was on the task force to create the First Lady’s initiative. Every two and a half weeks, he visits the kitchens of the 19 schools that are incorporating his recipes and healthier cooking practices. Wellness in the Schools approached the Urban Assembly School last April to start planning its partnership with the school in West Farms, and Strother began implementing the new lunch menu on Oct. 4. Old staples like mozzarella sticks, french fries, hamburgers and chicken patties have been erased from the menu, replaced by chicken, whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, all prepared from scratch. “It’s so needed, and children are so thirsty for it,” said Strother, stirring her homemade vinaigrette. “Even if there’s resistance at first, it’s so essential to their learning process.” Not surprisingly, there has been push-back from students, whose taste buds have grown fond of and accustomed to less healthy food. “I think it’s nasty,” said Luis Ruiz, a ninth grader, fiddling his fork over the steamed spinach served with his pasta and meat sauce. Told that his meat sauce was made with grass-fed-beef, Ruiz said, “Now it’s even worse.” He slid his plate a foot down the table, with the look of someone who had just found a maggot in their food. “I don’t even want it anymore. I miss the chocolate milk, the french fries and hamburgers.” While some students haven’t quite adapted to the healthier lunch menu, opting to skip the meal entirely or bring more familiar options, like Pop Tarts, others acknowledge what is best for them. “I miss the mozzarella sticks and the chicken strips,” said Kyle Farrell, a ninth grader, while he picked on his whole-wheat pasta. “But this is good because it’s more healthy.” On a recent visit to the school's kitchen, Telepan was optimistic that more kids would embrace the new lunches eventually. “We know how to make food taste good, and it just turns out it’s healthy,” he said, tasting some of the meat sauce straight from the stove. “We’re not serving them cardboard here.” As she cooked more spinach and grass-fed-beef for later lunch shifts, Strother was well aware of the steep climb ahead. It will take time to wean children off of processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods. “What they were eating before," she said, "though not necessarily good for them, was very tasty. We still have some convincing to do, but it will take time. Change doesn’t come easy.” Nor does it come free. According to Wellness in the Schools, the organization behind the program, the cost of implementing the new lunch plan and teaching the monthly cooking classes that start next month is $30,000 a year. As a small non-profit group, Wellness in the Schools relies on sponsors to fund the initiative, which launched at three other Bronx schools this year. Aside from the Urban Assembly School and P.S. 67, P.S. 53, P.S. 65 and P.S. 140 are also reaping the benefits of healthier lunchrooms. The North Carolina-based charity organization Samara Fund is footing the $30,000 bill for the program at Urban Assembly. The salad company Chop’t pays for the operation at P.S. 65. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition covers the fee for P.S. 53, and P.S. 140 receives the program through its sponsor, Share Our Strength, a national organization that fights hunger. “There’s a real movement afoot to look at these issues because we need to change this situation,” said Wellness in the Schools co-founder Nancy Easton. And the school cafeteria is the perfect place to start. “School Foods serves 860,000 kids a day,” said Easton, referring to the city’s provider of school food and kitchen staff, the largest school food service in the country. “If we can make a dent there, we could really tip the scales.” Obesity is not only a danger to children’s health, but also a heavy burden on the American economy. A 2009 study by the medical journal Health Affairs estimated that $147 billion is spent treating obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, every year. That accounts for almost 10 percent of all medical spending in the country, the study concluded. “Fast food seems cheaper,” said Strother, “but what you’re not paying here, you will pay in the hospital. So do you want to spend it on your food or on dialysis?” Feeding children healthy meals at school removes the financial barrier low-income families face when it comes to buying fresh, nutritious - and normally more expensive - food. The new lunch program isn’t the only ambitious health initiative that needy Bronx schools are embracing this school year. Urban Assembly -- along with 10 other low-income schools that Wellness in the Schools has partnered with -- also participate in the organization’s “Coach for Kids” program. For two hours a day, the organization sends counselors to school recess to encourage more activity. The coaches organize games for the kids, and specifically target children who normally sit on the sidelines. The coaching program costs $10,000 a year and is also sponsored by various donor organizations. “The ultimate goal is that the next generation of children will not have the same obesity crisis,” said Easton. Urban Assembly is particularly active in its efforts to combat childhood obesity and other health obstacles Bronx children face, such as less accessibility to and affordability of quality produce. Aside from the redesigned lunch menu and the recess coaches, Urban Assembly students also have the option of taking an after-school culinary class in sustainable, healthy, global cooking. The “Healthy Culinary Adventures” class, funded by the New York chapter of the international anti-fast food organization Slow Food, launched on Oct. 5 with 12 students from the ninth grade. The 10-week class teaches students recipes from around the world, complete with lessons on the nutritional values of every recipe ingredient and the climate conditions that nurture those ingredients. The course is taught by the school's climate change instructor, Alex Rodriguez, and will be offered in three sessions throughout the school year. To increase its appeal to teenage students, the self-proclaimed health nut Rodriguez incorporates an “Iron Chef” style cooking competition into the program. If child health advocates have any doubt about kids' enthusiasm for nutritious food, the excitement surrounding the after-school program offers much hope. Asked what part of the class she looks forward to most, 14-year-old Tiffany Miller had trouble singling out one thing. “Learning why some food tastes the way it does and why we’re so addicted to fast food,” she said. “We don’t even know exactly what we’re eating at this point. It will be good to know what we’re putting into our bodies, and to know how to actually cook a meal that’s healthy for us.” Strother hopes that more kids will get excited about eating healthier lunch food. Many children who at first turned away from vegetables were now starting to love them, she said. Whether they like it or not, she will do whatever it takes to help them lead healthier lives. “Aside from being extremely needed by the schools, parents and the city,” Strother said, taking a break to eat her own school lunch, “it’s also coming from the White House.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Food, Health, Southern BronxComments (2)

One suspect in the gruesome gay-bashing crime becomes teen father

Family members comforted each other while waiting outside the courtroom on Thursday. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Family and friends of suspects in the hate crime waited hours in Bronx Supreme Court for a glimpse of their loved ones. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Attorneys for eight of the suspects in the Morris Heights, anti-gay hate crime won more delays in court on Thursday, enough time for one of the youngest defendants, Nelson Falu, to become a father while he waited to make his court appearance in handcuffs. Falu, 17, is one of 11 accused in the Oct. 3rd violent gay-bashing case that has captured the city's attention. Falu's 17-year-old girlfriend went into labor on Wednesday night and by Thursday afternoon, she gave birth to a premature, 4-pound boy, Ayden, while her boyfriend made his third court appearance since his arrest on Oct. 9. “He is happy to be a father, but mad that he can’t be there with her,” said Falu’s mother, Caroline Ayala. Along with family and friends of the other suspects, Ayala and her daughter waited outside the courtroom for five hours on Thursday, only for defense attorneys to ask for more time to talk to their clients before they appear in court again on Friday and Monday. A grand jury has begun its investigation, which promises to be lengthy due to the severity of the crime and the number of of suspects arrested. Attorneys on Thursday waived their clients’ rights to walk on current charges and reserved their rights to testify in trial. In buying time, defense attorneys hoped that the grand jury might reduce some of the charges. By Oct. 28, the jury is expected to  vote for or against indictment. “People might just get charged for their role that night,” said Jason Foy, the attorney for 21-year-old David Rivera, outside of the courtroom. “I’d rather them get specific charges, so we’ll let them go ahead with their investigation and see where it goes.” As it stands, the suspects, ranging in age from 16 to 26 are charged with gang assault, sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment, robbery, and other offenses, all as hate crimes, which carry a more severe penalty. Police said the suspects beat and sodomized a 30-year-old openly gay Bronx man and two 17-year-old boys at 1910 Osborne Place on Oct. 3. The teenage victims were alleged members of the Latin King Goonies, the same gang as the suspects, who accused the teens of having sex with the man known in the neighborhood as “La Reina,” or queen. All of the suspects are now locked up in jail or juvenile detention, except for Ruddy Vargas, 22. Vargas is the only defendant in the case who turned himself into cops and is out on bail. Surrounded by his friends and family outside the courtroom after his appearance, Vargas said, “Only me and god know what happened.” One of the attorneys, John O’Connell, had been prepared to make a bail argument for 16-year-old suspect Brian Almonte, until unexpected legal issues got in his way. In asking the judge for more time with his client, O’Connell said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had put a detainer on Almonte and that he risked being deported. “I don’t know why,” O’Connell said outside the courtroom, adding, “he has a valid green card.” Aside from asserting the innocence of the suspects, family members and attorneys gathered outside the courtroom questioned why the District Attorney’s office was not investigating the 30-year-old victim, who they claim was having sex with boys as young as 16. “I don’t understand why the DA isn’t looking into this man having sex with underage children, and why no one is mentioning that,” said Sanders Denis, the attorney for 23-year-old Idelfonso Mendez. Denis told reporters outside the courtroom that Mendez, who has been painted as the ringleader of the attacks, had known the 30-year-old man for six years and was once friends with him. According to the criminal complaint against him, Mendez kicked and punched the man, then inserted a wooden stick into his rectum, asking him, “Are you a faggot? Do you like this?” Speaking to people outside the courtroom, Denis hinted at things to come. “As this progresses,” he said of his client’s case, “you will hear more facts and the truth will come back. There is more there that people don’t know about.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special ReportsComments (0)

Mary Mitchell community center fights for independence

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

On most days after school outside the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona, passersby hear the sounds of kids dancing to salsa music, practicing Jiu-Jitsu, or reciting the alphabet with one of the center’s tutors. But on the afternoon of Sept. 24, anyone within a five-block radius of Mapes Avenue and East 178th Street heard instead over one hundred people shouting, “Give it back!” over and over again. The center was in jeopardy of closing down completely, a victim of the city’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit. Days before the rally, the Department of Education which owns the building, demanded that the center take over the $75,000 a year in maintenance costs or risk shutting the doors. For the non-profit community center that serves cash-strapped families, $75,000 represented nearly one-quarter of its budget, a cost it could not afford. On Oct. 8, the city came back with a compromise. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott agreed to a plan whereby Mary Mitchell would pay $30,000. In exchange, the center would slash its hours, afterschool programs and community access. Lost would be its full menu of cultural activities, leadership training and opportunities for local organizations to use the space. Teens would no longer benefit from visits to colleges. Negotiations are still ongoing.  The center's director hopes instead for complete independence from the city, in order to own the building and return to normal hours and programming, without having to answer to the Department of Education. Hence their rallying cry to "Give it back!" The city, staff believes, is looking for money in all the wrong places. “If we’re in an economic crisis, it’s because of Wall Street, not the poor kids in the Bronx,” said the center’s fiery, 42-year-old director, Heidi Hynes. “They should really reconsider how to raise resources.”
Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The center, directed and staffed by 10 community members, serves over 400 kids and 1000 adults in an area where, according to the non-profit child advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families make less than $35,000 a year. The 14-year-old center is also used by 28 community organizations that lack facilities of their own to hold meetings and events. “It’s like a second home for the kids,” said Asia Edwards, 29, whose 11-year old daughter and 6-year old son have been coming to Mary Mitchell for four years. Officials at the Department of Education argue that the city is not in the financial place to help the center along. “There are real costs associated with the maintenance of any DOE building,” said spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “Given the current fiscal reality, we are asking community organizations who have not been paying for these services to begin covering the costs.” Yet according to Hynes, the center had never wanted that agreement with the department in the first place. It had been paying the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for month-to-month leases on the building from its inception in 1997. In 2000, the center was slated to sign a long-term lease in which the Department of Education would be its anchor tenant. Instead, officials decided to transfer ownership of the building entirely over to the Education Department, in a deal that waived the center’s rent, maintenance and security costs. In exchange, the center provided free after-school and weekend programs for children and teens, GED classes for adults, English classes for immigrants, and community access for dozens of organizations.
One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Now, 10 years and a deep recession later, the department has backed out of that agreement. Community members have expressed shock that the Department of Education would strip at-risk kids of such essential activities. “We don’t want our kids out on the streets selling drugs, being persuaded by their peers to do negative things,” said Ethel Sarpon, 57, whose Ghanaian organization holds monthly meetings at the center to educate African children about their culture. Her organization may need to find a new meeting ground, now that the center has cut back its hours. According to a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national non-profit anti-crime organization, children left unsupervised after school are four times more likely to use drugs than those who are supervised, and violent juvenile crime triples between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m. The Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center is the only after school option for most of the community, since its programs are free or redeemable through vouchers from the Administration for Children’s Services. It is also filling a vacuum left by schools that have cut their after-school activities in the wake of city budget cuts. “Kids with parents who work, those are the ones who end up on the street,” said 12-year old Ezekiel Farrell, who has been coming to the center for four years with his 10-year old brother, Samuel. Both of their parents work, so they said their mom would have to quit her job to stay home with them if they couldn’t go to Mary Mitchell after school. The city warned the center of its impending doom back in July, when education officials started rejecting the center’s permits unless it paid maintenance costs. Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Councilman Joel Rivera secured waivers for the center so its summer programs could go on. Then on Sept. 20, the Department of Education rejected the center’s permits again. The following night, the city-funded custodian at the building closed the doors on staff members and 100 kids who had come for nighttime activities, including dance, Jiu-Jitsu and leadership classes. After two days of wrangling, the center was reopened, as Hynes worked to negotiate a deal with education officials. To Hynes, transferring ownership of the building back to the center itself would help to lift the weight off of the city, while allowing the center to continue its important work. “If they’re worried about costs, they should give us the building back,” she said.
The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Hynes believes it will be easier for the center to raise money for a building it owns, as opposed to paying rent to the city. It's a way for the people of the neighborhood to have a stake in their own development. “Community controlled assets are a huge step towards democracy,” she said. “If the kids are not safe and healthy, we fail as a society, as a city.” Hynes will continue to meet with city officials to work out an agreement that will allow the center to return to its full hours and programming. But if it’s up to her, there will be only one option on the table. “At this point we don’t want their agreement, since we can’t depend on them,” she said. “We want the building for ourselves.” At the rally, Jannie Armstrong of the First Glorious Church led the crowd in a prayer to return the center to the community, its rightful owner. Later on she said, “I feel terrible about it, but we need to keep the faith. We gonna get this building back.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern BronxComments (0)

Dancing in Defiance

Dressed in a "BAAD" sweatshirt and black track pants, the fiery 47-year-old director of the Barretto Street Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance welcomed the audience to the October 16 dance performance with a strip show. Arthur Aviles whipped off his sweatshirt to reveal a spaghetti-strapped tank top. Then he peeled off his pants and bent over, so the audience could read "BAAD Ass Woman" on his ladies-style tight red underwear. All items were for sale, later, after the show. To anyone who hadn't read about the recent anti-gay assault in the Bronx, this wild display would seem normal for the academy, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. "We’re scared and we don’t want to be in fear," said Aviles later, who is openly gay. "So we turn fear into defiance."
James Atkinson, Khiara Bridges and Edgar Peterson performing at BAAD! Photo: Connie Preti

Artists performing at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Over a week ago in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, police said 11 members of the Latin King Goonies, a local gang, carried out what officials have called the most gruesome hate crime in recent memory. Using a baseball bat and a plunger, the alleged attackers sodomized two 17-year-old boys and a 30-year-old man they suspected of being gay, beating them for hours and later robbing and beating the older man's brother in his home. Despite the notoriety of this attack and a wave of other anti-gay traumatic events, including the beating of a man in the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and the suicide of a gay Rutgers student, the performances on Saturday night seemed, if anything, emboldened. The first dance was set to a song by the flamboyant pop star Adam Lambert, and many of the subsequent male performers were dressed in brightly colored, transparent tights and underwear. Shizu Homma, who performed a solo act, modified her planned performance after the attack by starting out in drag, instead of her usual t-shirt and pants, eventually stripping down to rags and writhing on the floor. Her jarring movements reflected the pain of the victims, but also screamed resilience and perseverance. "Our community is fierce," said Aviles. "It knows how to stand up to craziness like that, to the macho attitudes of the world." As other gay advocacy groups are organizing rallies and political officials are condemning the attack, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance is taking a more active approach. On November 7, BAAD will host a self-defense class in conjunction with the Center for Anti-Violence Education. If there is a high turnout, the class will be held on a regular basis, said Carlo Quispe, 32, the dance academy's program manager.
Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

Carlo Quispe is the program manager at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Photo: Connie Preti

"It's really the only thing we can do," said Quispe. "People can continue to grandstand and get on their soapbox. What we want to provide is something more concrete, powerful, tangible. Something people can teach their friends." Aviles wishes there were a way to teach tolerance to the people who prey on them. "I want to see these guys learn something that can change their view about how they see humanity," Aviles said, referring to the suspects. "Jail is certainly not it." Other members of the gay community weren't quite as sympathetic. "They should be in solitary confinement, away from society," said Ruben Thomas, 44, a gay videographer who volunteers at BAAD. Yet Aviles believes that jail will only punish them, rather than help them to unlearn the intolerance that led them to commit their horrific crime. "Call me Ann Frank, but I really believe that all people are good at heart," he said. "And in this case, I really do feel that these guys can learn something. But I don't think our legal system will allow us to come together in that way."

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (3)

Page 1 of 212