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West Bronx community rallies to rise again

Cathy Stroud speaks to the crowd at her first rally in September. (DIANE JEANTET / The Bronx Ink)

Along the steep landscape of the west Bronx where the roads run parallel to the Harlem River, a series of step-streets cuts almost vertically across the avenues. Lined by fences, trees, and fresh graffiti – red, black, green and white, sprayed in specific patterns on cold concrete – the step-streets act to connect Morris Heights residents on different avenues and altitudes.

But longtime residents like Cathy Stroud have gradually watched as pockets within Morris Heights have become riddled with separation and tension, delineated by housing complex and street, and marked with stories of shootings, candlelight memorials and weeping mothers.

“I don’t know if it’s so much gangs as it is rivals,” Stroud said slowly, as if choosing her words carefully. She’s lived at Riverview Apartments for 39 years and is the executive director of River Watch, a community outreach nonprofit based in a small office on the first floor of her building. “I don’t like you because of where you live, or that look you just gave me or because you’re talking to my girl. This has been going on for years and it’s steadily been escalating.”

There have been 19 murders so far this year in the 46th Precinct, which includes Morris Heights, according to the latest statistics from the NYPD. In all of 2010, there were 12.

But murder statistics don’t accurately reflect the number of shootings that didn’t result in a death, or incidents in the nearby 44th Precinct involving Morris Heights residents, like the shooting at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in mid-November. The frequency has been increasing over the last few years, but after 20-year-old John Vasquez, Stroud’s neighbor, was shot and killed in September, she decided to do what she’s done before: fight back.

Twenty years ago, the step-streets were a repository for used needles, garbage and other forms of refuse. Drugs were a pervasive problem in the neighborhood, as in many areas of the Bronx, and fed violence. Hy Frankel, chief of staff to then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, was quoted in the New York Times describing the neighborhood as “bombed-out rubble, abandoned cars, really bad.”

In 1997, Stroud banded with a group of 15 or 20 neighbors who’d decided to clean up the mess, dubbing themselves the Undercliff-Sedgwick Neighborhood Safety Service Council.

“We were on top of the situation, cleaning the neighborhood physically,” the 70-year-old said. “We saw results pretty fast, over a couple of years. They noticed we were watching.”

Stroud’s weathered eyes perk up when she gets to the next phase in her story of triumph. In 1998, the nonprofit National Civic League recognized the Bronx as an “All-America City,” an award for towns or regional areas that have seen significant revitalization due to grassroots efforts. When the Bronx won, the organization specifically acknowledged the safety council for their work in cleaning up the drugs and violence in the west Bronx.

She doesn’t have the same committed neighborhood contingent this time around; the core members of the ‘90s safety council have moved away, are too elderly to participate or have simply died.

“I think … I think I’m the only one left,” Stroud said, nodding slowly and giving a slight, pursed-lip smile. “This time I’m relying on politicians. It’s their areas, so they should be involved and held accountable.”

In late September, she gathered elected officials like Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson and community board chairman Dr. Bola Omotosho for a rally in the run-down playground adjacent to her building on Sedgwick Avenue. Emphatic speeches were given, the audience chanted, and a candlelight vigil was held for Vasquez as his mother and grandmother, both 20-year residents of Morris Heights, told friends that they were starting to look for apartments in other neighborhoods.

Then, in early November, they organized a march starting at River Park Towers on the corner of Cedar Avenue. Another event will be planned before Christmas, though Stroud isn’t sure when.

Each event has gathered about 100 people, though not usually at one time; residents filter in, stay for a while, and leave, chanting, “Stop the violence, increase the peace.” Young children carry signs decorated in bright colors.

“People have to be made aware,” Stroud said. Children and adults alike know her affectionately as Miss Cathy, and she makes an effort to get to know many of the young people in her building. “We don’t like it and it’s not good for our young people, these shootings. It doesn’t make sense how they’re valuing lives.”

Though she hasn’t been a part of Stroud’s rallies yet, Dayanna Torres, 27, was named the youth committee chairperson for Community Board 5 this year, one of the few leaders on the board who can relate to the young people in the district, not only because of her age, but because she grew up in the neighborhood.

Torres was 13 in 1997 when her family left an East Tremont apartment building that had become a crack house and moved into a building in Morris Heights, but the new location was the same: drug deals on corners, shootings and robbery. In 1998, there were 21 murders in the 46th precinct, not far off the current statistic. There were 43 in 1995.

“It was a normal part of our life,” Torres said. “That’s how I remember it.”

It wasn’t until she left for college a few years later – she now has a bachelor’s degree in communications and information management and two master’s degrees, in international relations and public relations, from Syracuse University – that Torres said she realized the violence and drugs shouldn’t have been so commonplace. After working for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Brooklyn and Queens, Torres is now employed at the New York City Housing Authority, recruiting candidates to enroll in job training.

“Growing up here, a gun shot means nothing,” Torres said. “We can’t accept that and raise our children like that, thinking that it’s normal.”

Still, Torres said she’s torn over whether the rallies will address the problem, preferring direct contact and counseling with young people to find the source of each person’s struggles.

Stroud is confident that the rallies and speeches will reduce the violence and garner attention from powers-that-be as it has in the past. But although other community leaders agree that something must be done, many aren’t so sure the speeches will be enough.

In fact, 46th precinct community affairs officer Luis Melendez, who remembers the rallies in the late ‘90s, said he wasn’t entirely sure the group’s effort back then had a direct impact on the overarching drug use and violence, or that it would now.

“I think those kind of things make people aware and it educates people about what’s going on,” said Melendez, who has been serving the precinct for 26 years. “I mean, we had a peace rally a couple weeks ago and then had a shootout.”

Melendez said he thought the biggest hurdle for Stroud and her new band of neighbors would be getting enough people involved because so many are afraid to go outside after dark.

“I think they feel like if they don’t face the problem, it won’t affect them, that it’ll just go away,” Melendez said. “It’s tough to force someone to come out of their house and march down a street where they know there may have been some violence. At what point do you stop caring and bar yourself up in your house, or get involved?”

Stroud agreed that participation was her most daunting challenge, especially as the shootings continue. Planning a gathering on the heels of any recent hostility won’t work, she said just a few days after a mid-November streak of shootings Bronx-wide, including an errant bullet that hit a 4-year-old in the midst of an evening robbery near the Fordham Road shopping district.

“If we had a rally today, this week, we’d have very few people show up now, when it’s all still fresh,” she said.

Stroud isn’t the only one attempting to make a difference in community quality of life. Sidney Flores has been taking matters into his own hands for the past few years as a self-appointed peacekeeper and community activist in Mount Eden, the neighborhood next to Morris Heights.

But rallies and marches aren’t enough for the 52-year-old handyman. He works largely out of his Toyota Highlander, making the rounds with stacks of fliers for Crimestoppers, a New York City Police Foundation organization that provides rewards for information about violent crimes, strewn across the SUV’s dashboard. A police radio sits in the center console so he knows when and where to turn up with hot cocoa for officers or a helpful pair of binoculars.

Sidney Flores, 52, patrols community districts 4 and 5 from his Toyota Highlander. (C.J. SINNER / The Bronx Ink)

He keeps a roll of yellow caution tape handy for when he stumbles upon open potholes and other pedestrian hazards, and has called 311 so many times that the operators know him by name.

“What we really need is to patrol our neighborhoods – that’s the bottom line,” Flores said. “Rallies are fine to get out your feelings, but people need to do what I do. When they talk about taking back their neighborhoods, they’re not doing it. They do it for the day, for the rally.”

Rolling past a corner bodega in late November, he spotted a new set of candles, signed posters and Yankees caps that had been placed strategically in a cluster – the clear sign of a violent death in the area.

“This one happened on Friday, I think,” Flores said, lowering his voice. He pointed to the top of an iron gate next to the memorial where a navy blue and white bandana hung precariously between the spikes. “See that? That usually means it was gang related.”

Leaving the scene, Flores, dressed in a blue tracksuit and sneakers, paused and shook his head, concerned about the cruelty of the recent shootings. He said he views the violence as a community tragedy and suggested the National Guard be brought in.

“It’s scary because a lot of the victims are getting shot in the head, instead of a few shots in the body like it used to be,” he said. “These gangs really get angry at each other. There’s no love.”

Both Flores and community board chairman Omotosho have been supporting Stroud’s mobilization effort by attending the rallies, but agree the solution to the problem is clear: more police personnel. Inspector Timothy Bugge, commanding officer at the 46th Precinct, said the number of officers on his force has been 275, the same as last year, but Omotosho has lobbying the City Council for more.

“The same way the city advertises the effects of smoking, they should display the effects of guns,” Omotosho said. “The violence needs to be treated as terrorism. The entire city is under siege.”

Omotosho’s main fear, however, is that pockets within the community district and the city at large aren’t putting forth a united front when it comes to rallying efforts like Stroud’s. He said he still believes she’ll be successful in raising awareness in the immediate neighborhood, but he’s worried her efforts could simply push the hostility to other areas of the Bronx.

“Unfortunately, a lot of community leaders are territorial,” he said. “I talk about the city as a whole because we as a community, as a district, don’t have the resources. All we can do is see what’s out there and go to our elected officials.”

But while an increased police presence would help, Torres is worried it wouldn’t affect the source of the issue, which she said she believes starts in the home. She brings a special kind of expertise to the community leadership – not only because she grew up here, surrounded by similar temptations, but because much of her prior employment has related to working with young people in single-parent, low-income homes, where high school dropout rates are high.

“I always say, statistically, my life doesn’t fit what my surrounding was or what was expected,” she said, crediting her single, Dominican Republic-born mother for instilling a sense of drive and high self-esteem. “These kids can be deterred from thinking that being in a gang is their only option if they have a strong support system at home. We can’t depend on better lighting and more police presence because it doesn’t target the real problem.”

Torres said she thinks more direct involvement with young people is critical, both the troubled ones and the successful ones. She warns other community board members against becoming so fearful of the troublemakers that they become blind to the kids accomplishing their goals.

“Highlighting the achievement of kids in the same neighborhoods and showing that there’s no excuse, other kids will see that they can go another route,” Torres said. “The message has to meet them where they are and do it at an early age instead of when it’s too late.”

For Stroud, that’s what the rallies are all about – to educate young adults about options to be more productive members of society, and showing that the police can have a relationship with residents beyond showing up, lights flashing, in the middle of the night to arrest a perpetrator or cordon off a street.

“I see that I need to give back,” she said. “I have a passion to see that our young people can have productive lives and have the resources without the fear of walking down the street.”

Posted in Crime, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Looking to urban farming as a possible job-creator

Joseph Ferdinand, 58, stands in his west Bronx studio apartment, while friends Miguel Hamond and Juan Antigua stand in his kitchen. (C.J. SINNER/The Bronx Ink)

Twenty-five young tilapia, each about six inches in length, swam in circles, darting away from the walls of their enclosure. As Joseph Ferdinand gingerly peeled off the Styrofoam tank covers, the fish scurried up to the water’s edge, searching for tidbits of food.

It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place at a zoo or an aquarium. But Ferdinand is rearing the tilapia inside the cramped confines of his west Bronx studio apartment. Two 55-gallon tanks line the wall opposite his bed, leaving only a few feet of walking space between.

Living with fish in the Bronx requires some adjustments. Ferdinand takes great care to clean the tanks daily, filtering out a portion of the water to keep the potential stench at bay. In fact, walking into his kitchen area through the front door, the subtle hum of tank filters is the only clue that he’s got an operating fish farm just 15 feet away. In a few months, the juvenile tilapia will double in size and will be “good for your dinner,” Ferdinand said, nodding and pointing enthusiastically at his flourishing crop.

Ferdinand’s roommates are his experimental first batch of fish. The plan is that his fledgling organization, newly-dubbed Bronx Aquaponics, will grow to a 20,000 fish per year sustainable urban fish-farming venture, eventually moving from his living room to a community garden nearby. He’s certain the effort will not only create jobs in an area with unemployment exceeding 17 percent, but will also bring more fresh produce, plants and protein to the west Bronx, which fights high rates of diabetes and obesity.

“For the last five years, I felt hopeless as far as this struggle goes. I was tired of trying to talk to politicians,” the 58-year-old Trinidad native said of his neighborhood’s fight against joblessness and health ailments. He shrugged. “Then I realized I don’t need someone to do for me what I can do for myself. I have spirit in me to do what my community needs.”

Ferdinand and his team, which now includes four other volunteers, think aquaponics is part of the answer. Aquaponics is a hybrid between aquaculture, the practice of farming water-dwelling animals, and hydroponics, a method for growing plants using water instead of soil. Together, the two systems create a model where fish wastewater act as fertilizer for plants, and the plants filter the dirty water, which circulates back to the fish.

The group is still working to gather $40,000 to $50,000 in grant money or city funds and get approval to take over two neighborhood community gardens that have fallen into disrepair. Then, Bronx Aquaponics hopes to start out by building a greenhouse with a central fresh-water fish tank big enough to house 2,000 tilapia.

Piping from the tank would transport nutrient-rich water to plants. Tours and teaching workshops would educate the community about healthy eating and food production, and produce would be sold and given away to food pantries. Finally, Ferdinand hopes to hire student interns from the community to help maintain the gardens and expand to other parts of the Bronx.

“When you put a seed in the ground, it’s something that needs maintenance,” he said. “You have to have people to do that type of thing, and that’s what would create the employment.”

Ferdinand, a former subway electrician, has been on disability assistance for 10 years and volunteering with the Mount Hope Housing Corporation for six.

“I’m not really looking for a paycheck or a salary,” Ferdinand said. “There are people much worse off than me. I might be in want, but I’m certainly not in need. I could stay at home and drink beers all day and not care, but that’s not who I am. My role is to be decent and productive, even though I’m on disability.”

He first learned about aquaponics two years ago when he went to Washington, D.C., for the National People’s Action conference, a meeting that drew nonprofit organizations from across the country. He met a representative from the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Massachusetts Avenue Project, a successful urban farm that dabbles in aquaponics.

“Ever since aquaponics was explained to me, every living day since then, it was weighing heavy on me,” Ferdinand said. “It’s like, you’re living your life and something hits you and you say ‘Yes, this is why I’m here on this planet.’ That’s exactly what I felt. This is what I need to do.”

Finally, Ferdinand took a trip to Buffalo in March to see the fish farm in action. Jesse Meeder, Massachusetts Avenue Project’s farm director, said the organization owns three-quarters of an acre of land and two greenhouses with plans for a third. They produce 35,000 tilapia annually, selling to a variety of restaurants, delis and farmer’s markets.

After the trip, Ferdinand started contacting friends from church and other community organizations to get involved. Among them was Miguel Hamond, who, since June, has been Ferdinand’s right-hand man.

Juan Antigua, left, Miguel Hamond and Joseph Ferdinand are working together to develop a community aquaponics garden. Here, they stood outside Ferdinand's apartment discussing proposals. (C.J. SINNER/The Bronx Ink)

Hamond, 31, grew up in Washington Heights, and worked for Pastors for Peace, an interfaith missionary nonprofit, in Texas, Central America and Cuba. Later, he helped found a chapter of Food Not Bombs, a national nonprofit group that serves free vegan meals as a protest against war and poverty. Hamond returned to New York in 2004 and wound up going back to school to study nursing. After Ferdinand got back from the trip to Buffalo, he approached Hamond at church.

“Joseph came up to me so excited and said, ‘Man, you gotta get on this,’” Hamond said. “I thought about it and realized the unhealth of our community. It’s literally a food warfare out there. You don’t find accessible food. So, it was easy for me to get on board with this.”

While both men are clearly passionate about what the future may hold for the project, Hamond is the more organized of the pair, carrying around a folder full of documents, drafts of funding proposals and notes from meetings scribbled on scraps of paper.

For now, they’ve decided to operate under the umbrella of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a multifaceted community outreach nonprofit, with the intent of breaking off on their own in a few years. The coalition is well known in the community and among city agents and has the kind of cache that will help them get larger grants, said Orlando Torres, one of the Bronx Aquaponics group members.

Ferdinand said they’ve received verbal support from local officials like Assemblyman Nelson Castro and New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who confirmed his support in a statement: “If done successfully, aquaponics would give our community new sources of fresh produce which have overwhelming health benefits.”

Ferdinand, right, and Juan Antigua, right, surveyed this community garden in September. Ferdinand wants to convert it into an aquaponics center. (C.J. SINNER/The Bronx Ink)

Ferdinand’s crew is also working to get GreenThumb, a city Parks and Recreation subsidiary that runs community gardens, to turn management of two locations over to them. One is on the corner of 176th and Walton Avenue, just two blocks from Ferdinand’s apartment, and the other at Grand and West Tremont avenues.

With all that’s left to accomplish, Ferdinand and Hamond still light up when they talk about their big plans: feeding the community, educating parents about healthy food, providing jobs.

“We envision a collective,” Hamond said. “And then, you know, eat fish.”

Posted in The 12 Percent0 Comments

A new digital divide? Tech volunteers say support, not access, is the problem

Geraldine Miner watches as volunteer Cate Burlington workes on her laptop. Other volunteers sit behind them. (C.J. SINNER / The Bronx Ink)

Geraldine Miner frequently uses her laptop to navigate around Facebook, play games and keep up with her two children and three grandchildren, and always tries to keep the virus software updated. Still, the 69-year-old checked in for help at the Tech Day being held on a Saturday in mid-November in her west Bronx apartment building to find out why her laptop’s processing has slowed down so much.

The all-day Saturday Tech Day, run by iGotITtoo, a technology outreach nonprofit that volunteers in 10 underserved communities around the city, was the second such event held at River Watch, Inc., a nonprofit outreach organization housed at Riverview Apartments in Morris Heights. Neighbors came by the building and dropped off their computers of different ages and sizes, some heaving large desktop setups over their shoulders. The 11 volunteers were trained to fix many computer issues and they came armed with coffee.

Tables of monitors filled the room and a bin full of mismatched and used internal parts sat on the floor. Power cords twirled on the floor and miniature tools were arranged by color and size in case an ambitious volunteer wished to take the screws off a device. Volunteers and iGotITtoo employees donned T-shirts that read “Smart is the new gangsta” on the back.

The group is responding to somewhat of a new digital divide, said iGotITtoo cofounder Santana Kenner. Low-income communities have more Internet access than ever because of lower prices for small laptops and smartphones. What they lack is affordable access to technical help and it often costs hundreds of dollars to diagnose and repair the machines.

“Normally, access is the issue people talk about, but that has changed. Now, it’s digital inequality – that’s the usage, the fluency,” Kenner said, adding that it’s common for users across the board to unwittingly trust every file download or game. Corrupted material often leads to problems. “We’re out that the underserved communities just don’t have the resources to get things fixed.”

Nationally, studies have shown that the digital divide, typically identified between ethnic groups, has been gradually narrowing since 2000, and a July report from the Pew Research Center showed that more blacks than whites owned smartphones. Morris Heights sits in Community District 5, which is almost entirely black and Hispanic, according to the city planning department’s latest data.

“People know that they should have access and they can get the access, but then sometimes they’re not sure what to do with it,” said Clare Chiesa, the other iGotITtoo cofounder.

Chiesa and Kenner started iGotITtoo in Lafayette Gardens in Brooklyn in 2007 because they were looking for a way to offer computer literacy classes to underserved communities and narrow the digital divide of access. In 2009, the group, whose name is a play on words for the abbreviation for information technology, received a $250,000 grant from Google to expand their reach. They now serve three locations in the Bronx as well as their original Brooklyn centers.

Chiesa said that at the first River Watch Tech Day in August, eight technicians fixed 25 computers in 10 hours. This time around, only 12 people brought their computers by, even though Chiesa said she expected growth.

Head volunteer Ilya Feldshteyn said he didn’t think the event was advertised well enough this time. Most of the flyers were only posted around the building or handed out around the neighborhood on the morning of the event.

Miner, who knew about the event because she sits on the board for River Watch and has taken computer education classes through iGotITtoo, has a laptop for herself and an older desktop computer that she lets her grandson use.

“He downloads all sorts of stuff, I don’t even know what’s on there,” she said. “But I don’t let anyone on my laptop, so I have no idea why it’s slow.”

Ilya Feldshteyn, left, shows what to look for on a computer. (C.J. SINNER / The Bronx Ink)

Free downloads and games are often the culprit, said Feldshteyn. Two-thirds of the issues he handles result from spyware and viruses. In fact, running a virus scan is the first step each technician takes when a computer is brought in.

“It takes a lot of time to fix, and we tell them not to do it, but it’s hard to change behavior,” Feldshteyn said. “We explain it to them, you know, please refrain from the free software and the free music, but they don’t listen very often.”

So the 28-year-old JP Morgan employee and other tech volunteers hunker down in rows of computers, running scans or digging for troublesome programs.

Afterward, Miner, who only brought in her slow personal laptop for repairs, said her laptop was working well, though she wasn’t sure what the technicians did to resolve the problem or how to prevent it from happening again.

“They just cleaned it out, I guess, and they took out whatever was making it slow,” she said. “They just told me to be careful about which websites I go to and downloading things.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Renovation program unable to finish projects as funds dwindle

River Park Towers’ south building recently got new windows, but the north unit may not be so lucky if funding doesn’t come through.(C.J. SINNER/Bronx Ink)

Artelia Powell’s brand new-windows do more than keep out a persistent draft as the chilly November air creeps in. For the first time in 10 years, the 41-year-old mother of four can actually see outside. If the River Park Towers resident looks north to the housing complex’s other building, she can also see how lucky she is. Her neighbors must contend with 30-year-old windows, many broken and held together with spidery patterns of masking tape or covered with plastic wrapping.

River Park Towers, a dual-building behemoth for nearly 5,000 west Bronx residents, is sandwiched on a sliver of land between the Major Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River. The south tower received new windows, boilers, faucets and other upgrades over the last three months thanks to subsidies from the Weatherization Assistance Program, a federally-funded nonprofit that works to increase energy efficiency in low-income households, but north tower residents may not be as fortunate.

The program was able to take on large projects like River Park Towers for the first time when stimulus funds tripled their budget in 2009. Now, the stimulus money is spent and the federal program that feeds weatherization program coffers across the country is facing additional budget cuts. As a result, construction on the north tower, and other subsequent large-scale projects, may not be possible.

“Right now, you’d need a crystal ball to figure out what’s going to happen to the lives of a lot of people,” said Fran Fuselli, who has been director of the weatherization program since it began in 1983.

Before 2009, the program operated on $2 million a year, Fuselli said. With stimulus funds, the program had $12 million to hire and educate new workers and provide energy efficient upgrades as many dwellings as they could in two years. Two years – that was part of the deal.

In that time, the program improved 1,800 homes, Fuselli said. The crowded program office features three whiteboards with charts and lists of addresses. Red check marks note which locations are complete.

Before their budget tripled with stimulus funds, they’d been able to do 300 apartments every year and their waiting list was three years long, partially because buildings with hundreds of units – River Park Towers has 1,600 apartments, for example – would have quickly eaten up the annual budget. Fuselli approximated the average cost of weatherizing one home or apartment at $6,500. For both buildings at River Park Towers, she estimated a total bill of around $5 million – more than one third of their entire stimulus allotment.

The proposed cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funds programs like this in nearly every state – Fuselli’s program is one of three based in the Bronx – would bring their capacity to 150 units a year.

Since 2009, the federal program has received $5.1 billion to disperse among municipal weatherization groups nationwide. The 2012 budget proposal would cut 2012 funding in half, to $2.57 billion.

Less money also means fewer workers. Fuselli hired and trained 12 additional staff members in 2009, tripling the workforce. Taleigh Smith was hired as an outreach coordinator because of her experience as a community organizer in the South Bronx. She said she’s worried about the 19- and 20-year-olds who were specifically trained for “green jobs” like inspecting homes for inefficiencies.

“They got the training, but they didn’t get a career, which is what was supposed to happen,” Smith said. She paused. “I mean, I keep saying ‘they,’ but my job is on the line, too.”

Fuselli said she already laid off one person, with several more slated to be let go by the end of the year.

As for River Park Towers, Fuselli said they went into the deal knowing they’d only be able to do one building right away, but expected to get money to renovate the second tower from the state government, which was holding a few million dollars for leftover weatherization projects. What she didn’t plan for was a stipulation in eligibility that said the work already had to be underway. By the time Fuselli and her team realized the caveat, she said, it was too late to get started with building inspections, planning and contracting.

“We still did it because we figured doing half was better than not doing any,” Fuselli said. “Those people had needs, and it’s an impetus to do the other half. Walking away from all 1,600 units would have been a disservice.”

She said they’re looking for other partnerships with Con-Ed and various green jobs initiatives to piece the funds together to finish River Park Towers. Fuselli estimated the total cost to renovate both buildings at roughly $5 million, noting that with complexes this size, the owners commit to paying at least 25 percent of that cost.

It winds up being a good deal for landlords, Fuselli said, because they get the upgrades at a fraction of the price, energy costs go down and their tenants’ rent bills don’t go up. Otherwise, landlords can’t afford important fixes without raising rent prices and losing tenants.

“In the 70s, you could walk from Southern Boulevard to Crotona and not find an occupied building, all because owners couldn’t get mortgages and they had to triage what they’d spend their money on, and it became abandonment or arson for profit,” the born-and-raised Bronxite said. “I think what people don’t understand is how close we are again to that reality.”

Leon Johnson, president of the tenant’s association at River Park Towers, said north tower residents are already upset about the imbalance of the south tower’s 43 floors of perfectly identical, geometric windows and the north tower’s drafty and leaky ones. He said some residents came home after Hurricane Irene to find flooded apartments. Still, he said he’s confident that some form of funding will come through.

“Worst case scenario? I can’t even think about it,” he said. “It would be a travesty. We have 1,600 units. It would be a shame to leave 800-plus people out in the cold.”

Posted in Featured, Housing, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Tour de Bronx 2011

Some 6,000 cyclists biked the Bronx on Oct. 23. Bike enthusiasts young and old took over the streets from Bronx County Courthouse to the Sheridan Expressway and Pelham Bay Park.


Posted in Bronx Life, Culture, Featured1 Comment

Dr. Bola has more to do

Dr. Bola Omotosho, left, attended a conference with other Nigerian immigrants in September. He donned a traditional costume, though it's not what he normally wears. (COURTNEY SINNER/The Bronx Ink)

Dr. Bola Omotosho was on the phone, gently yet sternly reminding a fellow Mount Hope Housing Company board member of her fundraising duties. He joked and giggled between serious suggestions in his usual deep, Nigerian cadence. When the call ended, it didn’t take long for his phone to ring again. And again.

Omotosho isn’t just the Board of Directors president for the Mount Hope Housing Company, a Bronx-based nonprofit community organization that creates affordable housing and other outreach programs. He’s also been president of the Harrison Avenue Homeowner’s Association since 1998 and was elected as Community Board 5’s chairman in 2007 after nearly a decade of holding other committee positions. Apart from his volunteer work, he’s an infectious disease researcher at Montefiore Hospital and has five children aged 12 to 19, including a set of triplets.

By all accounts, the focused 50-year-old has quickly climbed the leadership ranks in Community District 5 because, he says, he wants to improve the quality of life for his family and neighbors by making parks safer and getting parents more involved. He’s made no secret that he’s not at the top of the ladder yet as he toys with the idea of running for elected office.

“Do I want to give it a shot? Why not?” he said, flashing a grin. “Not to put another feather in my cap. It would give me an opportunity to do more. My passion is to help the community, to give back. My goal is to find the correct balance to do more for the community without sacrificing my family responsibilities.”

Though his linebacker frame can be intimidating at first, Omotosho, known in the area as simply Dr. Bola, routinely tilts his head slightly to listen during conversations, pausing before giving thoughtful responses. He prides himself on being prepared – if not over-prepared – for meetings of any kind. He reached behind the driver’s side seat in his car and produced a rainbow collection of expandable folders, with documents protruding from crevices.

“I carry a lot of flash drives in my pocket,” he said.

Born in Nigeria, Omotosho was named after his father, James Olajuyigbe Bolarinde Omotosho, a successful lawyer, who dreamed of his son following in his career footsteps. He died when Omotosho was only 6, and his mother, a nurse, began steering him in another direction. A top student at age 16, he was one of only two students admitted that year straight into a Nigerian medical school.

After finishing his studies, which included graduate degrees in both anesthesiology and computer science, Omotosho landed a prime job with the Ministry of Defense working at the Nigerian Navy hospital. Unlike many of his schoolmates who wanted to migrate to different countries in search of better-paying jobs, Omotosho had very little ambition to move.

But in 1995, after having married and starting a family, the Omotoshos placed themselves in a green card lottery since his wife, Oluremi, was traveling back and forth between Nigeria and the United States for her work in international finance. They won green cards and relocated to the Bronx. They chose to live in Community District 5 because a friend living there offered to co-sign on a small one-bedroom basement apartment nearby.

Two years later, the family was still living in the tiny basement home that was meant to be temporary. That was when Omotosho noticed new construction going up only two blocks away on Harrison Avenue. Omotosho started building a relationship with the contractor in order to move up on the waiting list for one of the houses and in 1998, the family moved in.

The city charter that regulates new dwellings mandated that the housing association elect a president. The contractor recommended Omotosho. He has been president of the group ever since, even though the position is supposed to be rotational. “They refuse to let me go,” he said.

Omotosho immediately began working to improve the quality of life on his block. The biggest problems were parking issues and stolen garbage cans, exacerbated by the growing gang and drug presence. In addition to working with the 46th police precinct and the community board, he faced the gang members himself, confronting the young men about their activities.

“The neighbors were afraid of gangs because they’d been threatened,” Omotosho said. “But I didn’t care. I was with the Navy. They didn’t scare me, and those kids weren’t used to that. They eventually left and the quality of life skyrocketed.”

Eventually, the community board suggested he join their ranks. On the education committee, he spearheaded a project to install a $100,000 green roof at the St. Simon Stock School. As chairman of the health committee, he brought in sponsorships for more green markets.  Now, as chairman, he’s in the process of creating a new business improvement district for Burnside Avenue.

Still, for Omotosho, family comes first. Four of his children graduated high school at 16 because they’d started school in Nigeria and were moved ahead of their peers once they migrated to New York. All four are well into their college careers at private universities, studying everything from finance and economics to political science. The youngest is in eighth grade at St. Simon Stock School.

“So far, I’ve been able to prove a lot of my colleagues wrong that you can’t raise a child in the Bronx. They all choose to live in Westchester,” Omotosho said. “The same way I manage my different hats, I do the same with my kids. Goals. Education.”

All five children attended private school in the Bronx, though son James spent his senior year of high school at the Eagle Academy Charter School. Even so, Omotosho is adamant that whether children attend public or private school doesn’t matter.

“The public school system curriculum is great,” he said. “At parochial school, we pay for discipline and parental involvement. But it doesn’t make any difference for the kids who can’t afford it. For my kids, their peers were still everyone – public and private.”

District Manager Xavier Rodriguez said he’s been impressed with Omotosho’s commitment and dedication to his work. During Hurricane Irene, Rodriguez said Omotosho was out knocking on doors to make sure residents knew about the storm and were prepared with supplies in the event of disaster.

“He’s willing to do the work,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s what people respect – that it’s not just something to go on a resume.”

Jose Caraballo, who has served on the community board with Omotosho for 14 years, said the chairmanship by itself is demanding without his other commitments.

“For these three years, he’s shown far and beyond that he takes on challenges good and bad,” said Caraballo, who sits on the housing and health committees. “If he’s been spread a little thin, it’s not showing. It’s never been a conversation where he’s stressed out.”

Caraballo said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Omotosho run for office, and thinks he’d do well.

“He has the energy and the drive to fulfill the promises,” Caraballo said. “That’s what he’s shown me.”

Omotosho said he knows people think he wants to run for office.

“People say, ‘Bola can’t be doing all this for nothing,’” he said. “I’ve paid my dues. I’ve shown that I’m committed, not only to my community board, but to New York. We are all human beings. You should be able to give your service.”

Rodriguez said he thinks Omotosho is part of a new crop of leaders in the district, since many are on the verge of being “aged out.”

“The Dr. Bolas of our district, the immigrants,” Rodriguez said, “they’re the future in terms of the next activists that will emerge.”


Posted in Bronx Beats, Housing, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Neighbors rally to fight increased gun violence in Morris Heights

Neighbors look on as Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson speaks about crime in Morris Heights. (DIANE JEANTET/The Bronx Ink)

Sandra Cuevas has already started looking for a new apartment — anywhere but Morris Heights, where her 20-year-old son was shot and killed 12 days ago.

The circumstances surrounding the death of her son, John Vasquez, are still unclear, but the shooting was the impetus for a “Community in Crisis” rally Wednesday night. About 100 neighbors gathered at a playground on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx for a candlelight vigil to protest the rising rate of violent crime in the area and pray for the people they have lost.

“No one should have to live like this,” said Cuevas, 47. Her eyes were red and puffy from tears as she talked about her son. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”

According to the latest crime statistics from the 46th Precinct, which encompasses Morris Heights, there have been 15 murders so far in 2011, compared to nine at this point last year – a 66 percent increase. The number is up 7.1 percent since 2001.

Many shootings go unreported, said Jackie Mercer, 57, Vasquez’s paternal grandmother. Mercer has lived here for 21 years and said she’s steadily watched the violence increase. She’s also planning to move.

Vasquez was discovered shot in the torso at the intersection of Sedgwick and Cedar avenues at 2:21 a.m. on Sept. 24. A 56-year-old man had been shot in the arm and was transferred to Lincoln Hospital. The case is still under investigation.

Cuevas and Mercer said they’ve heard multiple stories about the altercation, but are adamant that Vasquez was not involved in drugs or gangs.

“It was an act of pure stupidity,” Mercer said. “He was a good kid, but he wasn’t a punk. He’d fight you, but he’d use his hands. Not like these other people.”

Cathy Stroud, executive director for River Watch Inc., a community outreach nonprofit, organized the Wednesday night rally and said the anger over the rising violence is justified.

“It’s almost like you are being held captive in your own home,” said Stroud, who has lived on Sedgwick Avenue for 39 years and is known in the neighborhood as Miss Cathy. “The seniors especially might as well have gates on their doors because they’re afraid to come out of their houses. They’re prisoners. And yes, it hurts.”

Stroud said she was disappointed at the event’s turnout. She’d hoped for hundreds more. Still, the ones that showed up were active, chanting “stop the violence, increase the peace,” over and over with Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson, who emceed the rally from a podium at the center of a circled-up crowd.

Gibson, who lives in the area, said young people need “something better to do” than be on the streets late at night.

“There’s nothing positive in this community at 2 or3 a.m.,” she said. “Give them the education, give them the resources and tools they need to make better decisions.”

Posted in Crime, Featured, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

Bronx man arrested after rookie NYPD cops catch him with 29 kilos of coke, NY Daily News

Two rookie cops arrested Jose Milan, 29, of the Bronx on Saturday after spotting him with more than half a million dollars worth of cocaine — 29 kilos to be exact, reports the New York Daily News. Milan has been charged with drug possession.

The arrest was made at about 4 p.m. at the corner of West 190th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Fort George, according to the Daily News. As cops got closer to Milan on the corner, he got nervous, dropped two duffel bags and walked away. Bricks of cocaine worth $667,000 were found inside.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

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