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Youth football teams forced to practice in the dark at the Williamsbridge Oval

Youth football teams practice in the dark on the Williamsbridge Oval’s football field.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Williamsbridge Oval in The Bronx, kids, some of them as young as six, practice football and cheerleading.

But you probably won’t see them. More likely, you’ll only be able to make out the flashlights or glow-in-the-dark footballs they use during practices because the field at the oval doesn’t have any lights — and it hasn’t had any since at least 2013, the year The Bronx Knights Youth Tackle Football and Cheerleading participants started practicing there.

“It’s a reduced level of practice, but we practice nonetheless,” said Drake Holliday, president of The Bronx Knights.

And while football is already known to be a dangerous sport, playing in the dark raises even more safety concerns.

“Out of an abundance of caution, there’s certain things we cannot do,” said Holliday. “We have to scale back what the kids are actually doing, so it’s more walk-throughs than run-throughs.” 

There’s not much lighting in the oval as a whole. At some points, the only reliable light source comes from the streetlights that border the park’s perimeter.

Elisandra Perez, a Williamsbridge resident and the parent of two program participants, doesn’t feel safe in the oval on her own at night because of the lighting situation. “[Me and my daughter] don’t really even bother to go over there in the nighttime to walk our dog, because you can’t see anything,” Perez said.

The team has had to take extra precautions to make sure that participants remain safe during practice. 

“When [the kids] go to the restroom, they all go as a unit. No one goes to the restrooms or the community center unescorted,” Holliday said.

The Bronx Buccaneers, The Knights’ friendly neighborhood rival, have taken a different route: they use the oval’s facilities through August, and move to the nearby DeWitt Clinton High School in September when the days start getting shorter. 

The team pays over $500 per month to the Department of Education to practice on DeWitt Clinton’s well-lit field and use their restroom facilities — and those fees make up about 30% of their monthly budget.

As a result, if The Bucs want to offer to take the players on a recreational trip to, say, a nearby theme park, players’ parents have to pay for it on top of the program’s registration fees. 

“I have to short the kids on their jerseys, their uniforms, the things that we do with them outside of football, just to pay extra money so that they can have a safe football field to play on,” said Keith Spivey, who has been president of The Bucs for about eight years. 

Some parents don’t have enough to cover the fees, so Spivey works with them to come up with a payment plan.

Representatives from both teams say that while they’ve been in contact with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation about the issue, no action has been taken.

The department is “open to exploring a potential capital project there,” wrote Senior Press Officer Dan Kastanis in an email to The Bronx Ink.

A capital project is a long-term infrastructure investment that costs over $35,000. The majority of these projects are stand-alone contracts, which usually take about three and a half to four years to complete. 

Capital projects that involve sports field lighting are in progress at one park in Manhattan, six parks in Queens, five parks in Brooklyn and five parks in The Bronx. There are no active projects underway at the Williamsbridge Oval. 

“It’s always an obstacle, and we’re used to fighting through obstacles, but I would think if it comes to the safety of kids they would say ‘hey, let’s take a real look at this,’” said Spivey.

The Parks Department has previously told team representatives that one reason they haven’t added lights in the Oval is because doing so poses safety concerns, said Spivey, Holliday and The Knights’ General Manager Latanya Wilkinson. 

The department did not respond to repeated inquiries about these claims.

Spivey, Holliday and Wilkinson agree that lights are more likely to decrease crime rates in the park.

“I personally don’t understand what safety issue they’re talking about. I actually think [lights] would be a deterrent…because nobody wants to commit a crime under bright lights,” Spivey said.

The football fields in the Bronx’s Soundview Park and Macombs Dam Park are lit until 11:00 pm every night of the week, according to a Parks Department representative. 

“We do not give teams permits to play at unlit fields at night at any location, citywide,” wrote Kastanis.

The Bucs have explored other options in an effort to mitigate their costs.

Spivey looked into practicing on a field that had been rehabilitated by Take the Field, an early-aughts program that funded renovations for high school athletic field facilities across the boroughs. The program allows local groups, such as The Bucs, to use the updated facilities at no extra cost. 

Seven fields in The Bronx were rehabilitated. The Williamsbridge Oval was not among them. 

Spivey has elected not to make any of the rehabilitated fields The Bucs’ home base, because then parents and players would have to travel farther to get to and from each practice.

“It wouldn’t benefit us or the kids in our community…to travel an hour to go to football practice just because the facility is free,” said Spivey.

Another concern is that the players’ aren’t reaching their full potential because of the issue.

The Bucs and The Knights each play against teams from the other boroughs. Many of those teams practice on well-lit fields, meaning they’re not as limited by the shortened days.

“We’re practicing in the dark, trying to compete with teams that have their own facilities,” said Holliday. “We’re short, especially in comparison to other communities, who have so much more.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Vying for a chance to be among NY’s first cannabis retailers

Mello Tymes’ Earl Jones Sr. (left) and Roger Thomas (right). Photo courtesy of Roger Thomas.

Growing up, Earl Jones Sr. was easily distracted and had trouble concentrating. Playing basketball and soccer helped, but they weren’t enough. Soon, his aunt suggested an unlikely solution: cannabis.

“I started smoking cannabis, not because I wanted to be cool or apart of the crowd, but because I wanted to feel…comfortable being in crowded spaces or around close family or friends,” Jones Sr. wrote in his application to be among the first legal distributors of cannabis in New York state.

Jones Sr. was later convicted for possession of cannabis. As a result, he lost his job as a construction worker. 

“I was the sole breadwinner for my family, so their peace of mind and comfort was also put at risk,” he wrote. 

Ironically, that conviction is what made Jones Sr. eligible to apply for a Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries license — one of the 903 applications received by New York State’s Office of Cannabis Management. The deadline to apply was Monday.

Jones Sr. is now the chief purchasing officer of cannabis brand and company, Mello Tymes. 

CAURD licensees will be among the first legal cannabis retailers in New York. The program aims to place those hardest hit by the war on drugs at the center of the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry. 

In order for a business to meet the eligibility requirements, a majority of it must be owned by a justice-involved person — meaning someone convicted of a marijuana-related offense or related to or dependent on someone convicted of such an offense. Other criteria includes qualifying business experience

“We listened to [the OCM] and did everything they asked us to do, so our chances is good,” said Mello Tymes CEO Roger Thomas, who has known Jones Sr. for 30 years. 

But Thomas wasn’t always so confident. When one of his friends and future business partners first told him about the program, he thought: “They’re not gonna let any Black folks own dispensaries in New York. That’s a long shot.” 

At the friend’s urging, Thomas looked into the program, and specifically the term “social equity,” which is one of its major focuses

“That’s when I realized we could do it,” Thomas said.

The application portal closed on Monday just before midnight. Each application required a non-refundable $2,000 fee, which will be deposited in the Cannabis Revenue Fund for administration of the program. Additionally, a percentage of the funds will go toward substance use treatment and public education in areas that opted in to cannabis sales, according to Aaron Ghitelman, the OCM’s deputy director of communications.

Flower City Dispensary’s Jayson Tantalo (left) and Britni Tantalo (right). Photo courtesy of Britni Tantalo.

Britni Tantalo is another hopeful CAURD applicant. 

She has been in the cannabis business with husband Jayson Tantalo since 2014. They began working on the wholesale side of the industry, selling equipment to retail hydroponic stores and smoke shops. But before that, she and Jayson had both been “victims of the war on drugs.” 

Tantalo grew up in the rural Livingston County, where she was convicted of possession of cannabis at 17. The conviction was “a scarlet letter on my back,” she said. 

For years, the couple kept an eye on the legalization efforts that had been underway in other states. They incorporated the Flower City Dispensary in Rochester in 2020 in anticipation of operating once cannabis became legal in New York. 

Tantalo believes that her chances of receiving a CAURD license are high. “We check all of [the] boxes. From social equity to holding cannabis convictions to being a minority woman-owned business and having a profitable business for greater than two years,” she said.

There are 150 available spots in the program. “Pure odds would say applicants have a 1-in-6 chance of getting a license/store,” tweeted Kaelan Castetter, managing director of the Castetter Cannabis Group, before the official number was released on Wednesday.

The CAURD application portal opened on August 25th. Eli Northrup, policy counsel for The Bronx Defenders, thinks it was a rushed process. “I think that comes from this desire to have people selling by the end of the year, which seems like an arbitrary deadline,” he said. 

If an applicant fails to meet the program’s eligibility requirements or is not selected for the program, there may be other opportunities for them to apply for a cannabis license in the future. Both Tantalo and Thomas expressed plans to apply again if their CAURD applications are not selected, although each is optimistic.

“It would mean a lot. Not just to us, but to other people who are like us… It would be some kind of hope,” said Thomas.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

A fish kill in The Bronx River leaves hundreds of fish dead

The Bronx River on a sunny day in September.

The Bronx River is home to dozens of species of fish and crustaceans, including sunfish with golden bellies, blue crabs with lapis claws and oval-mouthed suckers. On a sunny day in September, the water is a blueish brown, with occasional strokes of green that come from the reflection of trees that sometimes border the 23-mile-long waterway. 

Depending on where you are, the trickle of the running water can be a soothing respite from the borough’s honking traffic.

But that’s not how arborists from the New York Botanical Garden found the river on August 31st. While walking through the garden’s native forest, they spotted several floating dead fish. A thick, musty smell was coming from the water and a bubble bath-like foam had formed on its surface. 

Hundreds of dead fish, including catfish, dace, darters, and carp, among other species, were piled up along the river’s banks for several miles. The cause of this incident remains unclear. 

“We just lost so many of them and it just hurt because it really undid so much of that work that it took to bring the river back from this sewer that it had been turned into,” said Christian Murphy, an ecology coordinator for The Bronx River Alliance

The sudden death of a large number of fish or other aquatic animals is known as a fish kill or fish die-off. 

“Massive fish kills are not normal events,” said George Jackman, Riverkeep, Inc.’s Senior Habitat Restoration Manager. “It is mostly caused by some form of environmental stressor or a pathogen.”

Jackman has been investigating the source of the die-off. He has ruled out the possibility of a pathogen, because multiple fish species were affected. He believes that this incident was triggered by a human-caused event.

“I find it extremely upsetting, because there’s been a lot of sweat equity put into The Bronx River to help restore it,” said Jackman.

After spotting the fish, New York Botanical Garden representatives contacted the Fire Department of New York and the Bronx River Alliance, which called off its scheduled events. They also reported the incident to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which sent Environmental Conservation Police Officers to investigate.

DEC representatives could not analyze the water and fish samples given to the ECOs because they weren’t taken in a timely enough manner or stored properly, according to DEC spokesperson Adanna Roberts. A sample can degrade or not be representative of the cause of death if it’s not taken as soon as possible. Additionally, proper storage prevents outside contamination and preserves tissue. The samples have since been discarded.

“Unfortunately, they could not identify any source that would have accounted for the mortality,” said Roberts. “We are actively working with partners to help ensure that appropriate investigation protocols are in place when die-offs occur in the future.”

It’s not the first time an incident like this has occurred in the area. In 1988, the New York Times reported that thousands of dead herring had caused a foul odor and jammed waterways. The Bronx River Alliance received reports of dead fish in the river in October 2016. And as recently as October 2020, schools of fish were being found dead in the borough.  

“We’re really looking for help to try to figure out what happened and trying to make sure this never happens again,” said Murphy.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Poe Park reconstruction project gets support at Board 7 meeting

A woman, Marcha Johnson, presents on the Poe Park reconstruction project during Community Board 7’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs meeting.
Marcha Johnson presents on the Poe Park reconstruction project during Community Board 7’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs meeting.

Members of The Bronx’s Community Board 7 unanimously approved a letter of support in favor of construction on the southern third of Poe Park during Wednesday’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs meeting. The project aims to increase shade, greenery and accessibility in the area immediately surrounding the park’s historic bandstand. The total budget for the project is $3.4 million. 

Poe Park, named after poet Edgar Allan Poe, is unique for its programming, which includes fitness and dance classes, and for its historical significance as the location where Bill Finger and Bob Kane originated the character of Batman. 

“There’s so many interesting historical stories here…so there’s no end for celebrating and honoring all these different kinds of events and cultural aspects,” said New York City Department of Parks & Recreation Landscape Architect Marcha Johnson during her presentation on the reconstruction plan.

The asphalt ground surrounding the bandstand retains a considerable amount of heat, according to Johnson.

The new ground will be paved with a different kind of asphalt, one that includes white chips. 

“Even though it’ll have the same strength properties and behave like a paver, they won’t absorb as much heat,” said Johnson. 

New York City Council District 15 Member Oswald Feliz, who grew up near the park and has expressed concern over the effects of extreme heat, secured the funding for the project. Feliz serves on the New York City Council’s Committee on Health, among others.

NYC Parks aims to finalize the design by the end of this year, and construction is intended to begin towards the end of 2023. The construction contract will not exceed twelve months.

“I think it’s a good change of the space. I was very happy that someone took the time to think about it,” said Community Board member Tasha Andrews. “It opens up opportunities for people who didn’t have access to that area.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments