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Bronx Charter School teaches neighborhood art 

Kendra Sibley on the roof of the Bronx Community Charter School. Babette Stolk for the Bronx Ink

When asked about graffiti, eighth-grader Alexander Vazquez lights up. For him, painting is a way to escape dark thoughts.

“I used to be… not in my good side of my life. So I would do graffiti,” he said.

In a twist of fate, after Vazquez was caught painting graffiti in his school’s bathroom, the Bronx Community Charter school he attends is now allowing him to paint a mural on the roof.

It was a way the school could encourage Vazquez to find joy in coming to school, according to his art teacher, Kendra Sibley. This will give him a legal space to experiment, she said.

Vazquez’s is a unique case, as not all New York City schools afford children the opportunity to learn about or practice graffiti. Sibley estimates that roughly 40 percent of all art teachers incorporate graffiti, however, only 10 percent dedicate time to learning about different artists and their history. 

“For me, it’s been less about ‘let’s all learn how to draw graffiti letters’… But more about ‘let’s learn about these artists’… ‘let’s learn about the history,’” Sibley said

Her efforts to examine the art beyond the surface, allow kids like Vazquez to explore their own roots as well. 

“I wish I could do something that represents Mexico because that’s my country… I feel like (doing graffiti) is in my blood,” Vazquez said. 

And in a neighborhood like the Bronx, graffiti’s history is significant. 

“The Bronx is the mecca, a lot of people from different parts of the world come here to prove they can paint,” Sotero ‘Bg183’ Ortiz said. He is a member of Tats Cru, a Bronx-based group of professional muralists. The founders met during an art class in high school in the ‘80s and have been active ever since.

“What we paint becomes these kid’s Picasso, Monet, it’s the only art they see,” Hector ‘Nicer’ Nazario, another member of Tats Cru, said.

Sibley’s art curriculum acknowledges the colorful streets of the Bronx and incorporates street art and graffiti. For her, it is important that art is representative of her students. 

However, Sibley’s freedom to incorporate street art and the opportunity that Vazquez has gotten, as a result, is not necessarily common. In the words of Vazquez, the Bronx Community Charter School is ‘a special school.’ Apart from its progressive approach, charter schools also operate differently from regular public schools.

Charter schools are founded by a not-for-profit board of trustees. They have a lot more autonomy when it comes to curriculums, grading, and academic missions. 

According to the New York City Independent Budget Office, the schools are still publicly funded, which consists of per-pupil tuition funding, as well as additional funds, such as foundational grants, to cover the cost of ‘supplementary services.’ This means that they receive less public funding than traditional district schools.

As charter schools are independent public schools, budget cuts like the controversial one proposed by Mayor Eric Adams this year will not affect teachers like Sibley as much. 

“I spend about $2,000 on the supplies for the art room. But then throughout the year, as we’re doing things and working on projects…. Nobody ever says no to me when I send an e-mail saying that I need [something]… It’s really crazy that it’s so nice that way here,” Sibley said. 

Still, she voices concerns about what slashing $373 million might do to art programs in other schools.

“Because of lack of funding, I think materials end up being very limited and so people do a lot of drawing because it’s cheaper,” Sibley said.

In a 2019 roundtable survey, 67% of principals said that art funding is insufficient. Since then, the budget for the arts has decreased.

According to NYC’s comptroller, the cuts will affect 77% of all public schools and the Bronx is home to more than 100 of these schools. Apart from funding, the Department of Education provides principals with a guide for the arts, but the information is limited, making mention of the number of hours that art should be taught and that visual art, like drawing, is mandatory. The same department mentions including different cultures and local artists. However, this functions as a guide, not as a requirement. 

The minimum art requirements eighth-grade students must complete were only met by 34% of students in New York City in the past school year. This rate is unaffected by the pandemic, as it has remained similar since 2016. 

‘Scar’, which is Alex Vazquez’ tag

For Vazquez, the streets are his inspiration. Particularly, the art in the Yankee Stadium train station, which he pauses to look at on his way to therapy.

“I want to be just like them because it’s cool how you could just turn lines into something colorful and meaningful,” the thirteen-year-old said.

The roof of the Community Bronx Charter School is an open canvas, divided into different sides that are organized by color. While Vazquez’ plans for his mural are still in the making, he thinks his end product will feature learning blocks that children play with, together spelling out the word “blue”. And the mural is just the start; Vazquez has big plans for his future. 

“My dream piece…is Godzilla holding my name,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

‘We liberate trees.’ Volunteers remove invasive species in Van Cortlandt Park

Volunteers looking at Bittersweet in Van Cortlandt Park on Sunday, October 16. Babette Stolk for the Bronx Ink.

John Butler pulled at a cluster of vines in Van Cortlandt Park and ripped them out of the ground. It sounded similar to walking on fresh snow, but the volunteers agreed: the sound can’t match the satisfaction of the action itself.

“Here’s a tree that is ten years old and we’re giving it a chance to be 400,” Butler said.

Butler, Van Cortlandt Park’s program director of restoration and stewardship, was one of a handful of people who gathered Saturday morning in the park. As part of his job, he guided volunteers to help maintain the park’s health by removing non-indigenous plants. 

Removing these plants is the work of volunteers, specifically the Van Cortlandt Alliance, which was formed in 2019. 

“Having a larger staff would be nice, but… community input is important, especially in an urban heart where so many people live right next to it,” Butler said. 

Van Cortlandt Park is New York City’s third-largest park and is home to many different animals and plants. It contains 86.2 acres that are protected, which is 88% of all protected wetland acres in the Bronx.

The group’s mission on this Sunday was to remove bittersweet, a plant that strangles trees, causing them to die. Ripping out the vines of the invasive species to protect the trees preserves the forest’s biodiversity. Without it, the park would be at risk.

“If we had the same species… [one] disease will wipe out the entire forest,” Butler said.

Marks left on a tree after removing Bittersweet. Babette Stolk for the Bronx Ink.

However, the importance of biodiversity is one part of the events, and the connection between the volunteers is another. As part of the Van Cortland Park Alliance, years of ripping out vines have sparked a connection. The group’s demographic ranged widely, from volunteer veterans such as Norma Silva, who is involved in 15 non-profits, to a Fordham student who attended as part of his urban ecology class.

“It’s a nice community, I met my partner here,” musician Chris Chalfant said.

According to Nat Xu, the natural areas volunteer coordinator, the events serve as a way for community members to feel ownership over the park; a way to connect with the nature that surrounds you. Especially during the pandemic, the work and network provided a purpose.  

“The trees talk to you,” Chalfant said.

Butler, dubbed as a walking encyclopedia, named trees by giving them one look, compared leaves to mittens and ghosts, and lifted rocks in search of salamanders.

“I like to think of [trees] as skyscrapers filled with insects,” he said

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

A forgotten hero: Putting Cornell Benjamin on the map

In December 1971 Cornell Benjamin, a member of the Ghetto Brothers, was on his way to negotiate peace between two street gangs in the South Bronx. Before Benjamin could fulfill his quest, a pipe hit him in the skull; he was murdered.

Back then, Benjamin’s death only heightened the tension between the gangs, but his mother was clear: her son died for peace. And as a result, the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, attended by dozens of gangs, sealed a truce.

Benjamin, who was known as “Black Benjie” in the 70s, was nearly forgotten. His name rarely appears in print. Even people who have lived in the South Bronx their entire lives have never heard of him. 

But Wednesday night, nearly 51 years after Benjamin’s death, members of the Bronx Community Board 2 unanimously agreed to sign a letter of support to co-name East 165th Street and Rogers Place, the street on which Benjamin died, Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin.

The effort to co-name the street was led by social worker Bonnie Massey. She is one of the long-time Bronxites who until five years ago, didn’t know who Benjamin was. After seeing the documentary Rubble Kings by Shan Nicholson, Massey became inspired to put Benjamin’s name on the map.

“Everybody talks about the Bronx was burning, blah, blah, blah, right. People don’t talk about when everybody ignored the young people that were here, Black and Latino that were here, they weren’t just gang members. They were the people that made peace,” Massey said.

And so, in 2018 the “Black Benjie Vive” campaign was born. In order to solidify his name in history and give Benjamin permanent recognition, Massey began the process of co-naming the street on which he died.

Massey is a social worker at the Bronx Community Charter School and got her students involved in her effort. Through the school, Massey met Lorine Padilla, a former gang member, retired social worker, and community activist. Padilla had met Benjamin many years ago. She said he was quiet and intelligent. Now, she describes him as a hero.

“He represents the Black and brown. He represents your community. He represents conflict resolution. He represents peace,” Padilla said.

Lorine Padilla and Bonnie Massey at the community board meeting on September 28.

Padilla and Massey emphasized the importance of “community heroes” in the Bronx, an area that is, according to them, still plagued by gang violence. They stress the importance of conflict resolution, schools not becoming prison pipelines, and learning about the past.

“I just think it’s the most powerful…important message for young people, particularly young people who are street-involved… The idea that people are going to have to go past that street and wonder who is Black Benjie, who is Cornell Benjamin,” Massey said.

The street is surrounded by schools and the impact on children is important to Padilla and Massey. Not only does it function as a tool for former gang members to talk to their children about the “perils of being in a gang,” but it also teaches that peace is possible, according to Padilla.

“To teach kids, you know, conflict resolution and let them know that peace can come about. If we did it, you know, they can probably do it too,” she said.

After Benjamin’s death, the truce also led to something else: hip-hop. In his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, historian Jeff Chang, described how the gangs shifted their energy into music.

“The peace treaty had been momentous. Change was sweeping through the Bronx. Youthful energies turned from nihilistic implosion to creative explosion,” Chang wrote. 

Padilla remembered how hip hop opened up the Bronx –  people could move into other gangs ‘territories’ without fear.

“Kool Herc and the guys in the corner could play their music and we could all be there,” Padilla said.

The effort to name the street after Benjamin started five years ago. Massey, Padilla, and a group of middle schoolers presented their case at a community board meeting. They were met with resistance, according to Massey and Padilla.

To change a street name there are numerous guidelines. Community Board 2 follows the city’s guidelines, according to district manager Ralph Avacedo, which include support from local communities. Additionally, they asked Massey and Padilla to find a family member to support the name change. 

Angelique Benjamin Lenox became interested in Benjamin a decade earlier than Massey. However, she knew him as “Uncle Cornell.” She stumbled upon Massey’s petition to change the street name and signed it. And eventually, she got into contact with Massey in 2020, a decade after her search started. 

For Lenox, changing the street name is about giving pride to children in the Bronx and recognizing Black Benjie’s significance in history. 

“There was a lot of sadness that my uncle was killed, him and my dad were very close… This is just a love letter to my father,” Lenox said.

The name change passed its first hurdle at the community board economic development/municipality committee meeting earlier this month. It was Padilla’s second attempt in front of that committee and she cried as members unanimously agreed to move the name change forward.

“I know what his death did to me… To finally hear them say yes, it was like they were saying, we finally see you as you,” she said. 

Now that the initiative has received a letter of support from the community board, it will move to the NYC city council, which will decide on the name. The council’s decision will most likely happen the week before Christmas, according to the City Council District 17 office. If approved, the co-naming will take place at the earliest in February 2023.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Community Board 2 aims to bring awareness to AIDS and HIV

More than dozens of people walking in the South Bronx as part of the annual Community Board 2 AIDS walk

On Southern Boulevard and Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx, more than a dozen people in red shirts filled the intersection Saturday. For the first time in two years, Community Board 2 held its annual AIDS walk.

“Everything was focused on covid… AIDS is still an epidemic,” said Luis Marrero, a member of the board’s health committee.

Marrero has been part of the walk since the beginning, 11 years ago. The same is true for councilman Rafael Salamanca, who worked as a district manager for the board when the initiative began. Even now, he remains involved by co-sponsoring the event.

“(The walk) brings awareness to the disease HIV and AIDS,” Salamanca said. And without the events “we would see an increase in cases,” he added.

Councilman Rafael Salamanca speaking before the walk

Since the inaugural walk in 2001, the Bronx has seen a 77% decrease in new HIV cases, according to NYC health surveillance statistics. However, the participants emphasize that awareness remains essential.

“So many people don’t know their status… people are afraid to get tested,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, director of HIV and Prep services at Urban Health.

“Know your status,” people chanted at the end of the walk.

Despite the overall HIV infection rate decreasing in the Bronx, the borough remains one of the hardest hit by the disease. In 2020 the Bronx had the second-highest number of HIV/AIDS diagnoses and the highest death rate out of all boroughs, according to the NYC department of health.

“We have a high rate of drug use… (people) might not be aware they have HIV from using,” said Cesar Ernesto Garcia, a community health worker. The Bronx also had the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in 2020, according to the NYC department of health. 

The walk ended at Monsignor Del Valle Square, where the board had organized a health fair. 

“Plenty of people with HIV don’t want to be here anymore, they feel that they are cursed,” Garcia said. 

Jesus Aguirra, assistant director of community engagement and advocacy at BoomHealth – one of the groups that attended the health fair – lost his grandfather to complications of AIDS.

The walk lets people know that “HIV is okay,” Aguirra said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Noise in the park chief complaint of Longwood residents at Build the Block

Police officers and residents talking to each other next to Bill Rainey Park at the meeting

A handful of Longwood residents gathered at their latest neighborhood policing meeting Thursday, with their chief complaint being noise in Bill Rainey Park.

“The park needs to close at dusk… it’s not fair to us, every night it’s a concert… I got kids going to school,” said Lisa Thomas, who has been a Longwood resident since 1965.

Noise complaints are a common complaint at these meetings, according to Precinct (41) Sgt. Jonathan Falconi, and also make up 11% of 311 service requests in Longwood over the last ten years, according to NYC Open Data. 

The meetings, dubbed Build the Block, are held monthly. Residents can meet their local police officer, or neighborhood coordination officer (NOC), and share complaints they may have. It is part of former mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 vision of ‘neighborhood policing’. In the plan, he announced that precincts would deploy NOC’s in order to address local problems and work closely with communities. 

“[Residents] can call specific [officers]… they know our faces, sometimes we give our personal numbers,” Falconi, who is newly appointed, said.

According to Falconi, the meetings have led to positive changes, such as the “cleaning up” of Bill Rainey Park. He said drinking, public urination and noise are the main concerns about the park. “We make sure to have events at the park so people know it’s safe,” he said. This includes the Build the Block meeting, which is hosted at the park. 

Falconi said police they have helped residents start a homeowner association. “We also try to give them guidance,” he said. He adds that the main objective of the NOC’s is to build a relationship with the community. 

Clifford Muniz, a Longwood resident, did not have a complaint. “I’m here supporting the officers,” he said. Another resident, Edwin Barrieto, attended because he likes to “help the community.”

And, he added, “when I’m with cops, I’m safe.” 

Crime statistics published by the police department show that Longwood has seen a steady increase in crime over the years. Compared to twelve years ago crime has risen by 24.21%. Robbery, felony assault and grand theft of motor vehicles have increased more than 50% over the past two years. 

Posted in Crime, Police, Southern Bronx0 Comments