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Regis Philbin comes home to Cardinal Hayes High School

Regis Philbin speaks in the auditorium that now bears his name

Regis Philbin speaks in the auditorium that now bears his name

Regis Philbin is famous for a lot of things: hosting “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, bantering every morning on “Live with Regis and Kelly” and following the triumphs and defeats of his beloved Fighting Irish at Notre Dame. But in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Philbin, 79, has a new distinction: his high school auditorium now bears his name.

Cardinal Hayes, an all-boys Catholic high school on the Grand Concourse, has a long list of notable alumni. In addition to Philbin (class of ’49), other former students include director Martin Scorsese and the late comedian George Carlin (who didn’t graduate), as well as former NBA star Jamal Mashburn and current Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon.

Cardinal Hayes has traditionally been a way out for students growing up in Morrisania and other poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, where 38 percent of families live below the poverty level.  The long-time athletic powerhouse has a 99 percent graduation rate, school officials say.

Bringing back famous grads like Philbin is meant to inspire the current students.  At a Mass before the auditorium was dedicated this week, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the New York Diocese praised Philbin as a role model. “Scholars tell us that young people learn best by example,” Dolan said. “I say Regis is a good example of a man of faith and a man of charity. Today we are honoring him by renaming the auditorium in his name.”

Philbin may be a celebrity but the school itself is also a star, Dolan said. “I think Cardinal Hayes is second only to Yankee Stadium as the most famous place in the Bronx.”

He got no disagreement from the cheering crowd of students. “Right now, we are having Mass with the archbishop, which is something big,” said senior Raymond Garo, who hopes to attend Syracuse University next year.  Although more than 60 years have passed since Philbin was a student, Garo said some things hadn’t changed. “I’m sure back when Regis was here it was a lot stricter,” he said, “but it’s always the same traditions that follow.”

Philbin took the podium and passed on a few memories. “It was a tough town,” he said. “In the 50s, 60s, 70s, you’d be sitting there watching the Yankees game and hear [the late sportscaster] Howard Cosell saying the Bronx is burning.” An emotional Philbin then spoke directly to the current students: “You guys all look like champions to me.”

Posted in Bronx Blog1 Comment

Breaking ground for a sliver of a riverside park

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park. Photo: David Alexander

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park in the Bronx. Photo: David Alexander

Local Bronx politicians and community groups broke ground Thursday in a $17 million project to restore Starlight Park, a derelict sliver of land running between the Bronx River and the Sheridan Expressway.

The two-year restoration of the park, over a decade in the works, is expected to include the building of new playgrounds, a soccer field, a basketball court and paths for walking and cycling.

“This is election year and there are many candidates saying government doesn’t work,” said New York State Assemblyman, Michael Benjamin. “Well, tell them about this place.”

Starlight Park’s restoration was set in motion by a coalition of Bronx-based non-profit groups and local and state agencies as a part of a larger scheme to redevelop neglected land along the Bronx River.

“This is the end or maybe the beginning of a long journey to have a park that will be better used by young people,” said David Shuffler, director of the Youth Ministries for Peace Justice, a Bronx-based group that spearheaded the restoration of the park.

The park project is one of the final installments in the Greenway plan, a 20-mile long green corridor along the Bronx River that will connect the East River to Westchester County by bike paths.

Community leaders believe that the park will help to promote a more active lifestyle for Bronx residents.

“This park will encourage green forms of transportation and encourage people to walk and cycle,” said U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley.

The Bronx Greenway initiative was launched in 2006 by the New York Economic Development Corp. in collaboration with the Bronx River Alliance, a non-profit group pushing for the rejuvenation of the river.

Miles of shoreline have since been converted into parkland through the Greenway scheme, including the transformation of a nearby concrete processing plant into green space, completed in September 2009.

The Bronx’s Starlight Park has been many things over the centuries, including an amusement park, an oil gasification plant, and finally a combination of auto body shop, impound lot and dilapidated playfield.

The building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1960s sliced through the park, transforming it into a sliver of land boxed in by three major thoroughfares.

Though local community groups had been calling for the restoration of the park for years, the city only began to plan and raise money for the project in 1999.

In 2004, just after beginning the initial excavation, work crews struck rusted remnants of a Con Edison gas plant that had formerly occupied the site.

Soil testing found high levels of contaminants, including benzene and other toxins, which put the project on hold until the site could be cleaned up.

Though Con Edison has subsequently decontaminated the site, the Bronx River area still faces many challenges.

Decontamination efforts of Starlight Park found no less than 22 cars lodged in the riverbed close by.

The river itself is also contaminated by raw sewage, which overflows into it on rainy days.

Yet, despite the persistent environmental problems surrounding the river, officials in charge of the restoration of Starlight Park have worked to maintain high standards regarding environmental sustainability, even earning an Evergreen award, the highest certification under the New York Transport Department’s criteria for environmental friendliness.

The park’s new environmental credentials will include rainwater retention basins, the use of recycled materials in park construction and the planting of nearly two acres of wildflowers.

“That’s what this is all about: bringing green back to the Bronx and making the Bronx a greener place,” said Crowley.

Local officials also praised the project for creating approximately 50 new jobs during the first phase of construction.

Yet, some at the groundbreaking had more lighthearted considerations in mind when discussing the new park’s benefits to the community.

“Do you know how many first kisses will happen here?” asked State Assemblyman, Marcos Crespo.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia0 Comments

Skulls and Rosaries

Audio slideshow by Elettra Fiumi and David Patrick Alexander.

A local Soundview botanica owner counts on days like Saint Michael’s Day on September 29th to boost his flagging business.

“People aren’t going to the saints as much as before,” said John Santiago, owner of the Botanica store, which manages to maintain a steady revenue of approximately $53,000 per year. His is one of the last standing local botanicas. Three others closed down in the last year.

In a city still trying to recover from high jobless rates and a global economic collapse, this Botanica maintains a faithful clientele by offering religious tidbits of advice and a little generosity alongside wooden crucifixes, or bath soap that wards off evil. When someone in need can’t afford to buy something, he might give them a candle for free.

Santiago said sales of merchandise that includes skulls, rosaries and candles have gone down since the 1980s except for a brief surge around 9/11.

“People were getting scared and thinking they were going to die so they should clean their souls,” he said. “People only believe when something tragic happens.”

Sales increase drastically mostly around religious days like the day after Halloween, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve. Most clients don’t remember other saint days throughout the year, but when Santiago reminds them, he recalls them thanking him by giving him “muchos blessings.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia0 Comments

The story behind the sprinkles

Audio slideshow by Elettra Fiumi and David Patrick Alexander.

Christian Escobar, 32, sells ice-cream and other frozen snacks from his rented Mister Softee truck seven days a week in the Hunts Point and Longwood neighborhoods of the Bronx. The Ecuadorian has been serving this area for the past three years. On a good, hot summer day he can make $900–but on a bad, rainy day he makes as little as $50. He often works 12-hour days to make enough money to help support his 8-year old daughter, Christy, who lives in Texas, where he lives on his time off, from November through February.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Southern Bronx0 Comments

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