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“Little Albania” in the Bronx


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Mujo Rugova, owner of Rugova Trading, setting in his warehouse, off Merritt Avenue the Bronx. (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

In 1984, after decades under the iron-fisted Yugoslavia regime, Mustaf  “Mujo”  Rugova, an ethnic Albanian from a small village in Montenegro, escaped the tumult of ethnic persecution to join what became the mass Albanian exodus.

On the way to America, he was caught and detained while illegally crossing the Mexican border.  “It took me 30 days from my village of Plav to the Bronx,” said Rugova, 47, from his warehouse office on Merritt Avenue, giving his back to a huge plasma monitor capturing live surveillance images from all his stores in the Bronx.

Rugova today is one of the biggest importers of European products in New York City. His L&M European market has expanded in the last eight years into three branches on 204th street, Arthur Avenue of Little Italy, and Lydig Avenue–all in the Bronx.

His markets contribute to the thriving presence of Albanian immigrant businessmen in the Bronx.  Many have converted Lydig Avenue into what is now known as “Little Albania.”  The block is an eclectic blend of Albanian pizzerias and bakeries, kosher Russian butchers, and small European markets, providing staples for the sizable Albanian and eastern European communities in New York City.

“It took years of dedication and hard work to gradually move up from the bottom,” said Rugova, as he supervised a large cheese delivery from Bulgaria arriving at his warehouse.

Products such as Bulgarian cheese, Albanian sujuk, hot banana peppers from Macedonia, and Rugova’s brand jars can be found on his shops’ shelves. “This is the forefront of all European markets in the Bronx,” said Rugova’s wife, Linda, who manages the Lydig Avenue branch.

He began work as an assistant plumber, making just $5 a day, and faced many hardships before opening his first grocery shop on Pelham Parkway in 2003.

Rugova is part of the second wave of ethnic Albanian immigrants to the Bronx. The first wave arrived in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, filling the vacuum left by Italian families on Pelham Parkway and around Morris Park and Arthur Avenue. Those nationalities were leaving in droves to the suburbs. The area is now home to the most populous Albanian community in the country.

These immigrants started off in low skilled positions in restaurants, grocery stores and building maintenance. Using a combination of business acumen and a strong work ethic, many gradually moved on from renters to becoming owners of the building.

George Dedvukaj, 58, a Catholic Albanian immigrant from Montenegro, and the owner of Giovanni’s Pizzeria, is one example.

Dedvukaj, who immigrated in 1970, after spending 18 months in Italy, is a quirky self-made, and highly esteemed entrepreneur. He worked in Italian-owned pizzerias in the Bronx for 26 years before acquiring his own restaurant.

Since 1996, Dedvukaj and his family have run Giovanni’s Italian restaurant on Arthur Avenue, a landmark address in the Bronx.

“I bought it from its Italian owners, who had to give up their store and move upstate,” said Dedvukaj.

As the neighborhood changed from a solidly Italian enclave, to a mixture of Italians, Eastern European and Latin Americans, Dedvukaj said his clientele has changed as well.

“As we have grown roots, our clients have changed to reflect all backgrounds. They come here for the signature pizza I personally make,” Dedvukaj said, flipping pizza dough in Giovanni’s kitchen, something he said he has passionately done for the last 15 years.

Ismer Mjeku, 50, publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages, said that the tendency of Albanians to settle in Italian-domain areas was not coincidental, but rather the result of the strong historical ties between the two people. The majority of early Albanian immigrants had to seek temporary asylum in Italy before they could reach the shores of America.

“We are like brothers with Italians,” Mjeku said. “There is even a mixed-blood group called the Albanian-Italians, Arbëresh, in the south of Italy.”

Albanians running Italian restaurants in the Bronx often face scorn from clients for “imitating” the Italian recipes. Rugova, who co-owns Portofino with his brother Mario, said he regularly encounters animosity.

“You want real Italian food?” he once told an Italian-American senior citizen, “then you should call your travel agent and fly to Napoli or Sicily.”

Rugova, a burly chain smoker with long, unkempt hair and a raspy voice, explained this phenomenon as a shift of power within the Bronx decades ago when it began to lose its luster to many of the newer generations of Jewish and Italian families.

“We used to take the working day jobs in those restaurants under its authentic Italian management, and now we own them,” Rugova said. “Now the Mexicans and the Caribbeans are doing these jobs for us, and who knows? Maybe they will become the next owners of the Italian restaurants in the Bronx.”

After escaping years of economic setbacks and ethnic persecution back home, Albanians are thriving in the Bronx. (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

Albanian affluence follows in the footsteps of other immigrant groups.

Mjeku who has been the publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages for 15 years, estimated the size of the Albanian community in New York at roughly between 175,000 and 200,000. “We have 40,000 listed phone numbers in our white pages. If we estimated five family members for each phone, that’s almost 200,000,” he said.

He estimated that two-thirds of the Albanian community in New York is located in the Bronx itself.

Mjeku’s annually updated book compiles lists of all personal contacts, businesses and real estate holdings of Albanians in the country. “I am more efficient than the government data,” he said.

Albanians have followed the real estate business model previously developed by Jewish immigrants in the borough. They have bought up property in less expensive areas en masse and now lay claim to, by some estimates, one-third of all apartment buildings in the Bronx, according to Mjeku.

Major Albanian landlords took over rental apartments during the 1973 apartment-building crisis in the Bronx, said Mjeku, who was about to publish a new book entitled “One Life Between Kosovo and United States,” a story of Harry Bajraktari, a prominent Albanian real estate mogul with hundreds of apartment units in his portfolio.

Although the majority of the Albanians in the Bronx come from the middle class, more successful families have embraced their newfound prosperity and began moving out of the Bronx for the wealthier suburbs in Westchester County. Some began assuming more institutional organization roles in their communities, even running for political office.

Albanian Americans span the political spectrum, their votes historically determined not by party but by a candidate’s foreign policy towards their homeland.

“Many Albanian Americans voted for Clinton in his first tenure,” said Mjeku. “But returned and voted overwhelmingly against him during his second tenure.”

This was due the entrance of Bob Dole, in the 1996 presidential race. He was a very close friend with the Albanian community and promised to support Kosovo independence.

Seizing on the interest, the Albanian American Civic League – an effective lobbing group in Washington for social and political interests – was founded by Joseph J. DioGuardi, a Catholic Arbëresh native, who once served as a Congressman for the 20th District of New York.

“Lobbying on homeland freedom, I contributed lots of money to the freedom of Kosovo,” Rugova said.

Mjeku, a congenial businessman who appears almost excessively well groomed, is a community leader himself who tries to bring Albanians of all faiths together.

“Motherland is what matters to Albanians, whether you are a Muslim, a Catholic, or an Orthodox Christian,” Mjeku said.

Dalip Greca, 50, the editor of the Gazeta Dielli, or in English, “The Sun” paper–the oldest Albanian newspaper in the world since 1909–mirrors Mjeku’s sentiments. “Albanian nationalism comes first to us, then religion follows,” he said, pointing to a two black and white portrays on the wall of his office on Southern Blvd.

Greca, who has a slight build and cherubic features, immigrated to America in 2000, pointed to the photos of the two founders of VATRA organization; the PanAlbanian Federation of America, which funds the Gazeta Dielli paper. In Greca’s interpretation, it represents the ultimate Albanian integration.

VATRA was founded in April 1912 by two pioneer Albanian immigrants – Fan S. Noli, a Catholic Bishop and FaikKonitza, a Muslim scholar. They both attended Harvard University before establishing VATRA to promote a unifying national spirit among their compatriots.

“We are older than the independence of Albania itself,” said Dr. GjonBucaj, director of VATRA, a respectable physician, who has been VATRA’s director since 1999.

The Republic of Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in Nov. 28, 1912, but native Albanians were still scattered across other neighboring countries such as Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

For generations, Albanian immigrants in the Bronx have aimed to fully assimilate their children into the cultural and social norms of American society. They all go to local public schools, though some community programs provide Albanian language lessons for them on weekends.

The “ShkollaShqipe Ne Bronx,” or in English, the Albanian-American school in the Bronx, is a nonprofit school funded by local families. “Tuition is only $120 per term, and we only operate on Saturday and Sunday for three hours,” said Dedvukaj, who besides running Giovanni’s restaurant is also the supervisor of the school.

Mjeku’s children have been attending this school in the weekend. “My two children will pursue law and medicine majors later in college,” he said with assertion.

“We are fed up with warfare business,” said Rugova, pointing towards a photo of his 90-year-old grandfather on his office wall. “My grandfather’s traditional turban was his shroud. Every man had to wear his own death cover in my village.”

Rugova had to leave school in fourth grade because he was not able to study what he wanted to under the Communist rule. He said all he wants is for his three sons and daughter – all of whom are in college or high school- to integrate and accept others.

The Catholic Albanian Church in the Bronx – “Zoja e Shkodres,” – plays a distinct community role and does not descrimante on the basis of faith. “We all attend the Catholic Church for events regardless of our faith,” said Mjeku, who is Muslim by birth, yet hangs a poster of Nene Terezes, the Albanian sister, formally known as Mother Teresa, on his modern office overlooking Arthur Avenue.

Mjeku is the director of the annual Albanian-American Festival in the Bronx, “FestivaliShaqiptar,” which is the biggest cultural Albanian event in America.

Celebrated annually in November, thousands gather for Albanian Folk music and dance. The festival recently celebrated its 21st anniversary at Lehman College.

Mjeku pointed out that among the festival’s organizing community were Albanians from all religions.

“The festival is presented by The Mother Teresa Center of Our Lady of Shkodra Roman Catholic Church, and a Fustanella performing group from Boston with a Sufi influence won the contest,” Mjeku said.

Albanians in New York City enjoy many community amenities and organizations that are lacking in other places. However, they still express their desire for an Albanian house that would unify the community under one roof.

“We lack an Albanian cultural center,” said Mjeku, suggesting that there might be an ongoing Manhattan-based plan in the pipeline.

Mjeku, who is inspired by the Jewish community in New York, in their institutional organization efforts, even saw a blue-print for his own Yellow Pages business in the old Jewish Yellow Pages years ago. The guide has since been sold to publishing conglomerate, Verizon, in a lucrative deal.

Asked whether he would sell his Albanian yellow pages if he received a similar deal?

“Of course I will do,” Mjeku promptly said. “As long as it helps to continue the thriving of the Albanian community.”

Albanian-owned businesses on Lydig Avenue: 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Culture, Featured, Money, Multimedia17 Comments

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Dyan Kerr

Dyan Kerr deals with a wall of mold in her Williamsbridge apartment. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

With a single tap of the finger, mailboxes open at 1585 East 172nd Street in Soundview. It’s a trick anyone can pull off.

“Social Security and Section 8 checks have gone missing,” said Andres Rios, the leader of the building’s tenant’s association.

Broken mailboxes are just one problem facing Rios’ building, one of six notoriously distressed buildings in Highbridge, Morris Heights and Soundview. The buildings have been in disrepair since 2006, bouncing from owner to owner, each either without a plan to fix them or the money to carry the plans out.

The buildings were sold again in September, this time to Bronx real estate agent Anthony Gazivoda, for $21.4 million. Gazivoda paid almost $7 million more than the previous owner, a surprisingly high purchase price that has tenants and housing advocates afraid that the new owner will find himself just as cash-strapped as the previous ones.

“There is no financial story that justifies that sale,” said Dina Levy, executive director of the Urban Housing Assistance Board, the advocacy group that has been following the plight of the buildings. “You can twist it but you still can’t justify it. There’s no amount of rationalization that gets you to $21 million. That’s troubling.”

Anthony Gazivoda did not respond to numerous interview requests.

From the outside, Gazivoda appears to have very few options for turning a profit on the buildings, which house low-income families who cannot afford to pay high rents. Gazivoda is also limited by city regulations, which prevent him from raising many of his tenants’ rents above a small percentage every year.

With no clear profit prospects, tenants and housing advocates are worried that Gazivoda will not have the financial means to make the repairs that are desperately needed. Even worse, they fear that he will stop maintaining the buildings altogether, just like the previous owners.

“I cannot believe we’re here again,” said Levy. “Except this time it’s more money, more money than has ever been put on these buildings.”

The buildings, which sold for $13.5 million in 2010 to previous owner BXP 1 LLC, had 379 violations of the city’s housing code on Dec. 6. The violations range from broken windows and leaky ceilings to padlocked fire exits, entrances that do not lock, and exposed electrical wiring. Four of the buildings have lead-based paint violations.

History of Neglect
Anthony Gazivoda is the fourth landlord in the past five years for the six Bronx buildings. The previous three have not been able to improve the dilapidated conditions in the buildings.

The problems are nothing new in the buildings, which have been poorly maintained since the now-defunct Ocelot group purchased them in 2006. After a bitter power struggle left Ocelot without the money to carry out repairs, the group became an absentee landlord, neglecting maintenance until things were so bad that the city took the group to court and ordered them to repair nearly 3,000 violations and pay a $60,000 fine. They were then sold in 2009 to Queens realtor Sam Suzuki of BXP 1 LLC.

Suzuki ended up being no better than Ocelot; under his ownership the buildings racked up over 2,500 housing code violations and two of the Morris Heights buildings made the city’s most distressed list. Angered, the tenants of the Soundview buildings took Suzuki to court where a judge ordered that he make emergency repairs and sentenced him to jail when he failed to do so.

The Manhattan-based Bluestone Group took control of the buildings in June of 2010, promising to make repairs and take a long-term interest in the buildings. Yet Bluestone orchestrated BXP 1’s sale of the buildings to Gazivoda a little over a year later, and angry tenants accused the company of doing just enough to sell the buildings for a profit.

Tenants were initially weary when Gazivoda took over and reported that, like Bluestone before him, Gazivoda asked for a month to begin carrying out repairs. But since then, tenants in the Highbridge and Morris Heights buildings say that security has improved.

“Most of these owners, when they first come here they promise one thing, but then it changes,” tenant Wilfreda Gonzalez said back in September. Gonzalez had high hopes when Gazivoda purchased her building at 1640 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. “This owner, at least I can say that he put in the cameras and intercoms.”

Anthony Gazivoda

Anthony Gazivoda

But more than a month later, the 11-year resident felt differently about ownership. A leak from the apartment above damaged her bathroom walls last summer, and the tiles have yet to be replaced.
“They’re giving me the runaround,” said Gonzalez, who has called the landlord repeatedly. “He bought the apartment and he has to fix it.”

Gazivoda is both an important and mysterious figure in the Bronx real estate market. The 51-year-old Albanian realtor, who sits on the business development board at Hudson Valley Bank, has been in the real estate business since 1978. Since then, city records show that over 40 real estate companies tied to the Gazivoda family have come share the same 3200 Cruger Ave. address. Altogether, Gazivoda and his family own almost 40 buildings in the Bronx.

Bronx Albanians move into real estate

Albanians first migrated to America in 1876, according to Constantine Demo, author of The Albanians in America. But they began to move to New York City in big numbers in the 1960s, settling in the Bronx around Morris Park, Arthur Avenue and Pelham Parkway, said Ismer Mjeku, the publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages, an annual guide for Albanian personal and commercial contacts all across the countryAs Albanian immigrants were settling in these Italian enclaves of the Bronx, they concentrated in the food and restaurant industry, which until then had been mainly run by Italian families. Gradually Albanians took over the business and, in the 1980s, displaced many Italian owners from those restaurants.In their pursuit of business diversification, Albanians got into real estate and started amassing properties. According to Mjeku, today the Albanian community owns almost a third of all the apartment buildings in the Bronx, although he said there is no official data to support his claim.The 2011 edition of the Albanian Yellow Pages shows at least 26 Albanian-owned real estate companies operating in the Bronx and Mt. Vernon.

-Mahmoud Sabbagh

Despite owning so much land, very little is known about Gazivoda himself, and the lack of information is worrying to housing advocates. “Who these people are is not clear to us,” said Levy, who has worked at the Urban Housing Assistance Board for seven years. Levy added that Gazivoda “has a very insular network.”

Gazivoda has a mixed record as a landlord. Some of his buildings have no violations, others have as many as 98. And though none of the buildings are as bad as his latest purchases, tenants in his more troubled buildings paint a negative picture of the landlord.

Dyan Kerr lives in one of Gazivoda’s older properties with her family at 678 East 225th St. in Williamsbridge, where violations decreased from 58 to 26 from October to December. Despite the drop in violations, Kerr said she has been dealing with mice and mold for over a year.

“I’m tired of this place,” said Kerr, who has inch-long mold dots clearly visible in her bathroom. Kerr said that management has cleaned the mold in the past, but it kept growing back. In addition, Kerr revealed brown filth in her kitchen cabinet that she said were mice droppings.
“This is how we’re living now because people don’t want to fix nothing,” Kerr said.

Bathroom mold is also a problem a few miles away in Belmont, where Shantelle Guzman lives in another of Gazivoda’s older properties.

“They paint over the mold and the super doesn’t fix anything, he doesn’t live here,” said Guzman, who lives at 611 East 182nd St.

Guzman’s apartment also has holes in the walls, where she said mice enter her one-bedroom apartment. She is also upset about shoddy heating that forces her and other residents to use their ovens for heat and an irregular flow of hot water in the building and would like to leave.

Back in Soundview, moving has never been an option for Rios, who has led his tenant’s association through five different landlords in 14 years. If necessary, Rios is gearing up for the next battle.

“I like to bark and bite,” said Rios, who showed Gazivoda the faulty mailboxes in front of a group of tenants at a meeting on Nov. 9. Before exiting, Gazivoda assured his tenants that the mailbox problem, as well as the dysfunctional fire alarms, would be addressed.

“He said it would be taken care of but that it’s not going to be done quick,” he added, discouraged. “I guess to them it wasn’t a priority.”

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Albanians celebrate together in the Bronx

Dr. Gjon Bucaj, director of VATRA, gives a speech during the event. (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

About 480 members of the Albanian-American community in New York and New Jersey joined together in the Bronx Sunday for the annual gala dinner sponsored by VATRA, the PanAlbanian Federation of America, to celebrate Albanian independence day.

The ballroom at Maestro’s Caterers in Bronxdale was awash in the red and black of Albanian flag, and the attendees included Albania’s ambassador to America, members of the Albanian mission to the U.N., and leaders of Albanian religious groups in New York and New Jersey.

“Today we celebrate our national pride, with great joy,” said Dr. Gjon Bucaj, director of VATRA. “It is our independence day after nearly 500 years of struggle under the Ottoman occupation.”

The Republic of Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in Nov. 28, 1912, but native Albanians were still scattered across other neighboring countries such as Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

Bucaj, a physician, who has been VATRA’s director since 1999, added: “In 1912 we were half liberated as a nation, but today we think of Albanians as a one unity.”

“It is the greater Albanian nationality that we are celebrating today,” said Agron Gashi, an American-Albanian originally from Kosovo. “History broke our nation with imaginary borders, but we as native Albanians celebrate today all together.”

Gashi, 49, a manager at Red Bull, the energy drinks company, came from New Jersey with his family and four children. “I used to contribute to the community by participating in rallies and demonstrations during the Kosovan issue,” he said. “Today I contribute by attending these events and by teaching my children the language, the culture, and the faith.”

Children and students from the Albanian School in the Bronx recite the national anthems of both Albania and America. (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

Both the Albanian and American anthems were recited by a group of students from the Albanian School in the Bronx, while Albanian traditional lamb and spirits were served at tables.

Earlier at the day, both the American and the Albanian flags were hanging all across the Bronxdale Avenue and parts of Morris Park Avenue.

ALBA, an Albanian traditional band led by musician Edmond Xhanit, performed at the event on red and black theme stage as the crowd danced in groups and celebrated until midnight.

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Superheroes from the Bronx

They do it for the love of comic art, to help change lives of the children in their community, and to rejuvenate comic art in the Bronx. Ed Mouzon and his partners are some of the key players in the independent comic art movement, started in the ’90s, that is responsible for reviving the deep-rooted comic art heritage in the Bronx.

The Bronx is his inspiration, Mouzon said. “I only need a pencil to doodle what I visualize in the streets of the Bronx.”

Mouzon’s draftsmanship is rich in details and colors, and his characterizations are filled with nuance. The 47-year-old said he has drawn 9,000 comic characters just by observing the streets. “The Bronx is a fertile soil for me,” he said.”These characters are us.”

In the early ’90s when the indie comic came into its own, a team of local comic artists, including Mouzon and his longtime friend Gary Camp, founded  Creative One Comics, an independent comic publishing group based in the Bronx. “We just sat at a round table, and said there will be no hierarchy among us, thus we shall call it ‘One’,” Mouzon said.

Their mission was to focus on intelligent storytelling and promote positive messages — and to stay “independent”.

They maintained a roving office with no permanent space for a studio. “Our studio is where ever we are,” Mouzon said. “We meet at our own areas. We connect with young artists at open door spaces. We do it at a dining table, or while watching a horror movie, I even do the planning during the train trips.”

Creative One Comics publishes many books about Bronx politics and society: The BlakelyverseAn Industrial Strength taste-testLa Mala NocheLittle Miss Strange, and Pozitron. But the remarkable breakthrough was Bronx Heroes — a three-part mini series and a political statement in the guise of a comic book.

Bronx Heroes was first issued in 2007. “It moved us the most, it brought us an audience,” said Mouzon. “It got us in conventions, but it was only a bridge to what’s next for us.”

The sweeping story-telling enthusiasm has brought Mouzon and his partners a ringside view of the United States and Bronx history. “History was the glue for all our Bronx heroes,” said Mouzon.

Camp, 42, said, “We take history events like the Great Depression, and the 70s when the Bronx was burning, and spin it in a way, on superheroes.”

Mouzon, a Bronxite by birth and upbringing, studied zoology in college in Massachusetts but is a self-taught artist. He attended St. Raymond High School for Boys at a time when budget cuts meant no art classes.

“I started drawing when I was 4,” he said. “I was a good visualizer.”

Comic art became for him an act of redemption and a sacred calling especially after he  had  tumor in his right eye when he was 14 that almost cost him his sight.

Mouzon eventually returned to St. Raymond to teach art.  “I teach visual art, filmmaking, and storytelling, but above all I give the kids the spirit on how to become successful,” he said.

“Mouzon is very attached to his students,” Camp said. “I appreciate him for keeping it to the kids.”

Mouzon said he wants his students to surpass him. One example is a former student he urged to study art at the University of Southern California. “This kid is an intern now at Disney,” Mouzon said.

Mouzon also works with community centers in the Bronx to promote art within the borough.

At the moment, he is working with The Bronx River Art Center and students from the Junior High School at Morrison Avenue on an environmental awareness comic book. “It’s called Bronx Go Green,” said Mouzon, who meets once a week with 15 kids to work on the environmentally themed heroes drawings. “It’s the kids’ initiative and effort,” Mouzon said. “I am only putting it together, playing the role of a publisher.”

Ed Mouzon and Gary Camp showing some comic sketches (MAHMOUD SABBAGH/The Bronx Ink)

Mouzon and his partners think of themselves as community activists.

“We are not making money,” said Camp. “We don’t work for DC Comics or Marvel. I appreciate Spiderman, but if we work there, we won’t be able to be as active in the Bronx community.”

“Here we can help the kids, do conventions, write for the kids, and be able to immerse ourselves in the community to personify street characters from the Bronx,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We keep our day jobs to pay the bills, then we do it for the love.”

The group’s future plans includes re-launching the Creative One Comics website, and creating a studio to branch out into visual art, urban street art, video games art, to get a wider appeal and to expand the niche, as they continue publishing.

They also plan to publish a new series called Old City — a series of multicultural heroes who build collective power to fight crime, injustice, racism and social prejudice during the the Great Depression. Taking some of the characters from their old series,  Bronx Heroes, the new series aims to focus on the Bronx’s multicultural mix.

Many of the greatest comic artists of the past century — Stan Lee, Will Eisner, John Collins, Bob Kane — lived in the Bronx.

“It’s a legacy that we have give to the next generation, or it will die,” said Mouzon.

He added: “We just want to make books in a collective effort. That’s our model.”

For now, Mouzon and his partners enjoy their vision of success. They make no secret of their credo. It’s on the cover page of the last issue of Bronx Heroes: they “will not yield to evil.”

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Yemenis in South Bronx can’t forget the turmoil they left behind

“Papa, take me with you,” Abu Hamad recalled his five-year-old son pleading with him on the phone from Sana’a last Oct. 10. The Hunts Point shopkeeper’s half smile could not hide the worry in his dark round eyes. His three young children and wife are still living in the capital of Yemen, he said. And not even his American citizenship could help them out of the mountain city that is reeling from an increasingly violent civil uprising.

On Sept. 24, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 33 years, returned to his homeland after a brief medical exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. He was forced out of the country after an assassination attempt. The departure raised hopes for reform in the Arabian Peninsula nation of 24 million people. But his abrupt return has sparked fresh violence, which has already claimed close to 2,500 causalities since February. On Oct. 16, 18 more people were killed and 30 others were wounded in clashes between Saleh’s troops and his rivals, according to news reports from the region.

It was mid-afternoon Monday in South Bronx. Save for the periodic chugging overhead of the No. 2 train and the occasional ringing of the cash register, it was quiet inside the 37-year-old cellphone dealer’s shop. But Abu Hamad’s restrained outrage was bubbling up time and time again. Two hours earlier, he was on the phone with his family and he learned that the neighborhood where they live is only getting an hour of electricity every day. It was especially upsetting because they live less than five minutes away from Saleh’s presidential palace, Abu Hamad said.

“What kind of life is that?” said Abu Hamad. “It’s a shame. We need to change the President.”

For now, Abu Hamad remains helpless. It has been four years since his last visit to Sana’a. Months ago, he had to meet secretly with his family in Egypt. But with their immigration documents pending and the U.S. embassy in Yemen shuttered, he could not fly them back to America.

Abdul Karim, former president of the Yemeni Immigrant Association in New York, warned that the situation in Yemen could get worse. The 52-year-old South Bronx businessman said Saleh cannot be trusted despite his pledge to resign before the next presidential election in 2013.

“President Saleh has been known to be a big liar,” said Karim, a Columbia University graduate and member of a lobby group asking for the U.S. government to pressure Saleh to resign. “That’s his tactics for the past 33 years. He’s been governing on such a premise. That’s basically his foundation for ruling the country.”

Karim, who has an international affairs degree from Columbia, said Saleh’s cooperation in hunting down top Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and other suspected terrorists within Yemen, has complicated the U.S. government’s effort to force him out of office. The U.S.-born Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed on Sept. 30, just six days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was also killed Oct. 14.

“The U.S. has been kind of looking the other way as long as it serves the American interest in eliminating radical elements,” said Karim, noting that many innocent civilians have also been killed. The former legislative candidate in Yemen’s highland city of Ta’izz said the U.S. has “no leverage” in its diplomatic run-in with Saleh.

Still, Karim said even if Saleh stays in power, his government is already “totally crippled.” “He can’t rule. It might turn to be ugly,” he said.

At this Yemeni-owned Hunts Point deli shop, talk of President Saleh's ouster is framed on the condition that it is done in an election. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aqel Allahabi, 22, manager and part owner of the Hunts Point Deli,  said he shares the sentiments of Karim and Abu Hamad. But he is not in favor of an armed rebellion against Saleh.

“If the people don’t like him, why did they vote for him?” Allahabi said, referring to the 2006 presidential election, when Saleh received more than three quarters of the vote. He said any change of leadership should be done in a “democratic way.”

Standing outside the door of Clinton Deli along East Tremont Avenue one weekday afternoon, Antar Al-Suhaidi said he could not be bothered by the political and armed conflict in his country of birth, which he left when he was only 14.

“It’s a deadlock,” said Al-Suhaidi. “We know nothing will change, so we stick to the main reason for our immigration, doing business here.”

The 20-year-old deli cashier said he works 12 to 13 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. “I work hard now, to enjoy a better life later in my home town,” said Al-Suhaidi, a native of Ibb in southwest Yemen. At the end of the day, he was too overworked to even think about politics, he said.

Abdul Karim said it is not that New York City’s Yemeni community, many of them in the grocery and deli business, are apathetic to their home country’s situation. But many are just caught up trying to survive and deal with their lives as new American immigrants.

“Life is very consuming here in America,” Karim said. “But are they aware of what’s going on in Yemen? Yes, they are aware of what’s going on.”

Back at the cell phone shop, Abu Hamad said his primary concern is the safety of his family. Abu Hamad, who came to the United States at 17, said he wants his children to enjoy what he went through when he first arrived in New York.

“I love it here,” Abu Hamad said. “When I am here, I’m in heaven. So if there’s a way, I would like them to have a good life, have a good education and to eat healthy.”

As he talked about reuniting with his family, Abu Hamad cocked a worried smile showing his perfectly aligned teeth, his tall and lanky frame sagging as if he was carrying the weight of the world. “God knows when that’s going to happen.”

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Total 74 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested, NY Daily News

Yesterday, 74 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested throughout the day at various marches and rallies in Times Square, Washington Square Park and Citibank. Twenty-four of those arrests came when demonstrators marched to the Citibank at 555 LaGuardia in a mass attempt to close their accounts

Thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters marched their message through Manhattan Saturday – and stormed into a tense confrontation with the NYPD amid the bright lights of Times Square, the New York Daily News reports.

Police said 74 people in total were arrested by Saturday night as the throngs journeyed north from their Zuccotti Park base, stopping in Washington Square Park on their way to 42nd St.

Twenty-four of the arrests were made when demonstrators staged a sit-in at a Citibank branch in the West Village.

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Two found dead in apparent Bronx murder-suicide, NY1

Police found a man and woman dead in a Bronx apartment in an apparent murder-suicide, NY1 reports.

Investigators say they found Marie Jannette Lawrence, 30, shot to death in her apartment at 2084 Grand Avenue in Morris Heights Friday afternoon.

Batu McClary-Griggs, 37, was also found dead on the floor with a gunshot wound to the head.


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Yankee Stadium car lots said to become affordable-home sites, Bloomberg

Two Yankee Stadium parking lots are slated to become sites for affordable housing and retail, a person familiar with the plan told Bloomberg.

The Bronx Parking Development Co., which issued the bonds, approved terms to lease the sites to two development firms to build between 550 and 600 units of apartments, plus about 45,000 square feet of neighborhood retail, said the person.

Income from parking has been short of projections even though the New York Yankees were second behind the Philadelphia Phillies this year in Major League Baseball attendance, with 3.65 million fans, according to the ESPN website.


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