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Africans immigrants add their own flavor to the South Bronx

On a recent chilly fall day, Bourema Niambele wore a black dashiki—a thin, loose, dress-like garment worn by West African men—to work. He complemented the African attire with his regular cowboy hat and orange, pointed toe shoes.

In the past, distinctive outfits like this would have made African immigrants in the Bronx vulnerable to hate crimes. But Niambele now wears it with confidence. After two years of outreach programs, Niambele and other African community leaders have carved a place for their traditions in the Boogie Down Bronx.

For many years, Africans in the Bronx felt targeted by African-American youth because of their “otherness,” which was evident from the way they dressed. The two groups led a frosty coexistence with very little contact. But in 2009, when violence against African immigrants reached its peak, community leaders began speaking out. The Bronx police crime investigation unit looked at 21 reported incidents involving African immigrants and determined that some were hate crimes.

The number of African immigrants in the Bronx has grown substantially in recent years. The 2010 Census estimate puts African-born populations in the borough at 70,000 – a significant increase from only 12,063 sub-Saharan Africans in 1990. Community leaders believe the number could surpass 100,000 if their American-born children and those in the country illegally were counted.

The community’s campaign for recognition began with two public forums in 2009 that launched a partnership with police, the New York City Housing Authority, schools, and other service agencies in the borough.

“The forum was a historic event for the African community because, if we were not organized, all those things couldn’t have come to light,” said Niambele, who emigrated from Mali in 1998.

By the end of 2010, African immigrants reported fewer than five incidents. Niambele, a father of four who splits his time between New York and Mali, attributes most of the success to a dialogue between African and African-American youth and community leaders.

“There were a lot of misunderstandings,” he said. “The criminals attacked Africans thinking that they are weak and they carried money around because they don’t have bank accounts.”

Niambele, 48, is a community liaison for the African Advisory Council, a group that advises the Bronx borough president on issues involving Africans immigrants. In early 2010, after a series of meetings, the council was set up to address concerns raised by African community members about crimes, housing and discrimination in schools.

Since it was founded, Niambele’s advisory council, in collaboration with religious and community leaders, has been running intercultural education workshops. Members regularly meet with elected officials and attend police precinct and community board meetings to create visibility for African immigrants.

“We are no longer watching from the sidelines,” said Niambele. “We are getting involved in the conversations and educating our neighbors about African people and their culture.”

But not everyone agrees that Africans were targeted because of their race or religion. Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, founder of the K-12 Islamic Leadership School in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, doesn’t think the assaults were unique to Africans.

“There is no problem between the Africans and African-Americans – none whatsoever,” said Drammeh, who immigrated from Africa 26 years ago. “There are ample problems in the community in which both groups reside.” He argued that non-Africans have been enduring similar problems in these high-crime neighborhoods. But because Africans “are too small, too new and too unfamiliar with such crimes, anything that affects us gets magnified,” he said.

He admitted that, in a few cases, someone who speaks a different language and dresses differently could be seen as a threat. “But at the end of the day, these are criminals who have nothing to do but hurt people,” said Drammeh.

The father of three who’s labored his way to a modest life by driving a taxi, working as a security guard, doorman, real estate agent and stockbroker, acknowledges some natural tensions are unavoidable. “Tensions between the haves and the have-nots are universal,” Drammeh said.

In a neighborhood that’s already hurting from cycles of poverty and violence, success can be hard for some neighbors to swallow. “The African-American who has been living in these neighborhoods his entire life may say, wait a minute, I can’t even pay my bills – how come this immigrant is driving a fancy car,” said Drammeh.

Such misconceptions may have contributed to discrimination against immigrants from the community. Language problems also lead to suspicions on both sides. Most Africans lack the language skills to explain how they made money.

“That’s how tensions begin to emerge. You hear expressions like ‘go back to your country,’” said Drammeh. Even after having been robbed, shot at twice and beaten up by African-American youth, he insists there is no inborn hatred between the two communities.

Drammeh, who also anchors the African Union Profile at BronxNet television, understands all Africans may not share his views but advises caution about the message the community and mainstream media are sending. “We are not whiners,” he said. “We have to lead.”

The influx of African immigrants is changing the borough in many ways even though they only make up about 6.9 percent of Bronx’s total population. Colorfully dressed Muslim African women and men wearing traditional African clothing are common sights on the streets of Morrisania and Highbridge, two neighborhoods where the group is heavily concentrated. Businesses are booming with strings of African-owned garages, restaurants, hair salons, churches and mosques.

A 2010 study conducted by Fordham University’s African and African-American Studies department found at least 19 mosques, 15 churches, 19 markets, nine restaurants, 19 movie rental stores, six hair-braiding salons, six newspapers and two law firms, all owned and operated by Africans in the Bronx. To accommodate this growing community, Fordham University started offering a course in a Ghanaian language, Asante-Twi. According to the study, Bronx is home to the largest community of Ghanaians anywhere outside Ghana.

It’s hard to ignore the presence of these diverse communities, hailing from more than 20 African nations. In Morrisania alone, between 163rd and 171st Streets, there are two African restaurants, a chicken slaughter market, half a dozen car repair shops, a mosque, and a shipping agency that transports cars and other items to West Africa and raw materials from Africa to the Bronx.

Tribal, ethnic and national distinctions run deep. In some cases, the political wrangling in their home countries play out intensely in the Bronx. For example, for Guineans of Fulani ethnicity, their country’s president, Alpha Conde, is a despised tyrant. But Mandingo owned stores near 167th Street and Sheridan Avenue proudly display a big picture of the president on their storefront welcoming him to the recent UN General Assembly. The Mandingos, also known as Mandinka, are Conde’s ethnic group and West Africa’s largest.

Tension between the two groups has escalated in recent years. After Conde’s controversial election a year ago, friends in the Bronx have cut ties and don’t speak to one another. Amara Kourouma, 43, who owns a specialty store in Highbridge, joked, “Don’t take a photo and send the Fulanis to beat me up.” It is hardly a joke. When Conde spoke at the World Leaders Forum in September, dueling protests erupted outside Columbia University and their confrontation led to arrests.

Drammeh, the Islamic leader and community activist, has grappled with how to address this problem for years. He’s now seeing hope in initiatives like the African Advisory Council. “We come from a continent that is chopped off to the point where we can no longer work together because of our differences,” he said. “The council helps eliminate these kinds of self-destroying backgrounds that we have by bringing people together.”

Their involvement in the council and events in the borough has brought other successes to this thriving immigrant community. There are at least 10 Africans serving on community boards throughout the borough.

A handful of Africans from the Bronx work in city and state governments. “A lot of us are doing well but no one knows us,” Drammeh said sipping tea, his favorite drink, at his Islamic school on a recent Thursday. “Now we have the African Advisory Council that brings our voice to the table –magnifies our strength and lessens our weaknesses.”

Drammeh is active in everything concerning African and Muslim community in the Bronx. He is the CEO of, a website that allows users to buy and sell products online; a school principal; an imam; a TV host; a publisher; a community board member, and a member of the Bronx Clergy Task force. But none of those titles can define the six-footer who refuses to identify his country of origin and simply chooses Africa. To him, the boundaries that separate African nations don’t exist. “We are all from Africa,” he said.

Drammeh has bigger dreams for Africans in New York, especially the Bronx. He is training what he calls “the future generation of African leaders” who he hopes will redefine what it is to be an African and also fight the “self-inflicted segregation” among Africans. His students, most of them high-school aged girls, publish the Muslim Community Report, an online and print newspaper he founded earlier this year to cover Muslims and Africans in New York City.

“There are almost one million Africans in New York City. We should not allow anybody to define us,” he said. “We may start small but in the next 10 years, we’re going to build a giant media house that speaks for us, by us and for ourselves.”

Most Africans in the Bronx are faith-based entrepreneurs who are also family oriented. Concerned about the quality and safety of public schools, many send their children back to Africa for schooling. Others are working to instill their Islamic faith in the youth at an early age.

Abraham Jones, an African-American community leader, director of Claremont Neighborhood Inc. and a board member at Community District 3, values the contribution of Africans to the neighborhood. “This is a country where people work hard and get rewarded for it,” said Jones who’s been active in efforts to bridge the gap of understanding between the two communities.

“I’d like to see African-Americans opening businesses like the Africans but because of reasons including the way we’ve been indoctrinated, we don’t work together or work as hard. So we can’t really complain.”

Like Drammeh, Jones is hesitant to categorize the tension between the two groups as race bias. “It may look like prejudice but I think it’s an issue of acclimation,” he said. “If someone is engaged on telephone conversations while walking down the street – not aware of their neighborhood – the criminal elements are going to take advantage of that.”

It is a reason why his center started an outreach program with the aim of teaching African immigrants to be self-aware and understand the social fabric of their neighborhoods. The center offers daycare services and cross-cultural educational opportunities where community members bring food, share and talk about their respective cultures.

Niambele, who’s worked closely with Jones on those community outreach programs, agreed. A lot of the alleged tensions could be attributed to poor adjustment. “We grew up in an environment where in your neighborhoods no one will attack you,” said Niambele. “That is not the case here.”

His advisory council has teamed up with Jones’s center to teach Africans how to avoid those preventable crimes by paying close attention to their surroundings at all times.

As more Africans come to the Bronx, establish themselves and get involved in various organizations, they hope that their community will accept them. “We want to be recognized for our positive contributions to this community,” said Niambele, who works as site supervisor at an afterschool program in Manhattan.

“No one should be targeted for his or her outfit.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Crime, Culture, Politics, Southern Bronx0 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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The ecstasy and the agony of Ethiopian marathoners

Kingsbridge resident, Lemma, poses outside Central Park as his friend, Alem Ashebir looks on. (Mohammed Ademo/THE BRONX INK)

Fikadu Lemma braved the early November frost in Van Cortlandt Park on Saturday morning, pumping his legs, stretching his triceps, in a final half-hour push before his run in the world-class New York Marathon on Sunday.

“I am not nervous,” said the soft-spoken Ethiopian runner who has lived nearby in a Kingsbridge apartment for more than three years. Indeed, Lemma along with his two Ethiopian roommates, quietly trained for months, out of the media spotlight.

More attention has been paid to Ethiopia’s defending running champion, Gebre Gebremariam, and two Kenyans, Emmanuel and Geoffrey Mutai, who share a common name.

The Kenyans, who have increasingly dominated long distance races, vowed to not only win, but also to beat the record time. On Sunday, they did just that when Geoffrey crossed the finish line at 2:05:05, a New York Marathon record. Emmanuel followed 01:23 later, setting his own course record. The defending champ, Gebremariam, came in fourth.

Ethiopia’s Firehiwot Dado, 27, won the women’s title in 02:23:15 finishing four seconds ahead of Buzunesh Deba, the local favorite from the Bronx. Mary Keitany of Kenya, who was leading for much of the race, came in third. Other Ethiopian athletes didn’t fare quite as well.

Lemma, 28, who came in 18th in New York Marathon last year, finished a disappointing 19th this year. He had hoped that additional training and praying would help push him closer to number one this year.  “At the tenth mile mark, I felt pain in my leg. I pushed myself, but it was not good,” said Lemma.

Half a dozen Ethiopians, wearing scarves decorated with their country’s flag, gathered outside Central Park on West 69th Street to greet and to hug the runners. Lemma’s mood was not celebratory. “It’s okay,” one man shouted as Lemma walked away from the cameras.

Two things set Lemma apart from his fellow Ethiopian long-distance runners. He is tall, and he hails from West Shawa, which is in the Oromia region of the country. The majority of Ethiopian athletes come from the south-central highlands of Arsi.

A pioneer athlete from his local village in Ambo zone, Lemma had worked as a runner for 16 years, a career tainted by injuries that has taken him to Japan and around the world. He ran for a Japanese club before coming to the U.S., and prefers the shorter, and fast-paced cross-country run. But he has taken part in almost all types of races including the demanding Steeplechase.

Lemma has been running on and off in spite of a left leg injury. He usually runs 10K and half-marathon. As his injury steadily improved this year, Lemma started trying his luck with longer races. Since his return to the field four months ago, he’s won a number of smaller races including the Coney Island 5K race, the18th annual Pit Run 10K Race in Oneonta, New York, and the 11th annual Mayor’s Trophy 5K Run in New Jersey. Today, he clocked 02:20:41, five minutes and 29 seconds short of his personal best of 2:15:12 in the Marathon.

Many in Lemma’s rural village have barely heard of the Bronx. But the Bronx is home to 14 Ethiopian athletes, in total. Lemma shares a room in a West 195th Street apartment with two friends, Ketema Nigusse and Alem Ashebir, who also trained for Sunday’s race.

'Yes the Bronx' honors Ethiopian-born Kingsbridge resident with a billboard displayed at Willis Avenue Bridge post.(Mohammed Ademo/THE BRONX INK)

At Willis Avenue bridge post, activists from Yes the Bronx, a non-profit organization that seeks to challenge negative stereotypes about the borough, and Assemblyman, Marcos Crespo of District 85, shouted, “welcome to the Bronx,” standing under a billboard, “Energize Buzunesh Deba, Bronx’s Own”, as runners flew by.

New York offers many opportunities and challenges for the Bronx-based Ethiopian athletes. The city is a perfect gateway to races in the States as well as around the world. In Ethiopia, travel abroad can be daunting and disruptive to training schedules. From the Bronx, domestic travel is one short train ride to an airport in Manhattan with a possibility of a return flight home.

But the challenges are many. Lemma and most of his friends do not have a coach. He trains himself, often alone, when his friends are away competing in races around the country. He also has no health insurance, which could leave him financially strapped when he has a major injury. Lemma’s lower ankle injury, a likely culprit in today’s dismal performance, has gone untreated by a specialist as a result.

The professional athlete visa that grants them entry into the U.S does not allow them to hold regular jobs. So they have to make a living solely by running.

“This is our job and if you try hard, you can make a decent living out of it,” said Lemma, with a winning grin on a recent Thursday. He acknowledges that it can be tough when there are not enough races to go around. “Bills don’t give us a break when the sport does,” he said speaking in his native Oromo language.

In addition, his training grounds at Van Cortlandt Park and Central Park are not located at the high altitudes that are preferred by long distance runners.

To work around it, Lemma goes for longer distances at an increased pace. Some of his friends temporarily move to higher altitude locations in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. A handful visit and spend months in Ethiopia when training for highly selective races.

Sitting on the bench overlooking an empty Van Cortlandt football field three days before the Marathon, Nigusse and Lemma discussed the challenges of their chosen profession and a friendship that has survived their intense competition on the track.

Nigusse, for example, spent two months in Ethiopia training near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, this summer. That training paid off for the 30-year old father. Since returning from Ethiopia, he won Philadelphia’s 10-mile race, Brooklyn’s rock ‘n’ roll 10K, the Japan Day 4 Miler, and second place in the Pittsburg Marathon and the Straton Faxon Fairfield Half Marathon.

Nigusse, who along with his wife is a permanent resident of the United States, first came to participate in Nashville’s Marathon in 2008. He has gone back and forth to Ethiopia numerous times since both to visit his son, Fraol, and to train. His son lives in Addis Ababa with his grandparents. Nigusse is already thinking ahead. That’s why he opened a sports clothing store in Addis Ababa.

“A rat with two holes can’t be trapped,” said Nigusse repeating a recognizable Oromo proverb. He insists he is not ready to quit. “I am just getting started and I’ve big hopes in the future.” Nigusse who decided against running in this year’s marathon, only hours prior to the race, gave no reasons.

Despite today’s performance, Lemma’s passion for the sport lives on. At the conclusion of the race, Lemma, who was limping, managed a wry smile and said, “I’ll go back to Ethiopia and train better for next year.”

“Sometimes that’s all you can do, try your best.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Featured, Front Page, Northwest Bronx, Sports, The Bronx Beat0 Comments

Evacuation expert fights to rescue Morrisania

Two days before Hurricane Irene slammed into New York City, evacuation expert Maria Forbes was told by city’s emergency coordinators to prepare for a possible disaster.

The next day, the Bronx mother of three raced around her neighborhood of Morrisania in the Bronx recruiting last-minute volunteers and making sure the emergency shelter at Toscanini Junior High School on Teller Street was stocked with nonperishable foods, flashlights, and batteries.

It was the emergency work that Forbes, 48, trained herself for after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans. But evacuation training is only part of Forbes’ long list of volunteer duties. She’s a natural rescuer. She’s been sticking her neck out to rescue others since she was a young child, even when she was in need of help herself.

In 2002, a power outage left an entire block near 169th Street in Morrisania, where Forbes lives, without lights. The community’s lack of preparedness during the blackout became a catalyst for her to seek solutions. “I became real, real hungry and real, real thirsty to find something that could address the need for emergency disaster,” said Forbes, jumping from phone call to phone call days after Irene pummeled the East Coast. Her black curls bounced as she hollered to a reluctant vendor over the phone from her tenant organizer office on 168th Street.

But initial attempts to set up a disaster response team were met with refusal from the city’s emergency management office. Forbes kept calling various organizations to ask for grants. “I called back the Office of Emergency Management again and said, ‘I really want to have this program’,” Forbes recalled. “They said no.” Eventually, the intrepid organizer won an initial $500 community grant from Citizens Committee for New York City, a non-profit organization that supports grassroots initiatives. The grant helped her assemble the first batch of 40 volunteers for the 11 weeks of training required for certification.

In the course, Forbes learned how to jump start a generator, bandage wounds, and find “go bags” with clothes, flashlights, and medicine. She learned about hygiene and mental health issues. She finally earned her certificate to become Bronx Chief for the Community Emergency Response Team in 2006.

Forbes was born on Oct. 29, 1962 in Manhattan. Her father, William Smith, had immigrated to New York from Belize 15 years earlier and worked as a merchant seaman. Her mother, Velma Thomas, was a great-granddaughter of slaves from North Carolina. The family moved to Highbridge in the Bronx before Maria was born, and she has always called the Bronx her home. She is the youngest of seven.

Forbes’ older sister, Eileen Avery, who owns a medical billing business in Queens, sees a lot of their mother in Forbes. Their mother, Thomas, was a mental health therapist and foster mother to 28 children while she organized a play street along Plimpton and 172nd Avenues, planned block parties, and managed a private housing development. Following in her mother’s footsteps, the ever-busy Forbes has done it all except she is not a foster mother.

“I’m really proud of her, she took what our mother left and ran with it,” said Avery. “She’s overcome difficult obstacles to be where she is today and she is always helping people in the community and fighting for their entitlement.”

Forbes’s schedule leaves little room for family outings. But the sisters spend Thanksgiving together every year with few visits in between. “Every time I visit, I sit her down, tell her no phone, and close the door,” said Every.

Forbes acknowledges her demanding schedule. But she’s always considered helping others — a life mission even at a young age when her life was precarious. At 13, in 1976, she gave birth to her first son, Lenny Jones, and still had the wherewithal to speak at a mayoral event about resource entitlement and the plight of young mothers. Later, Mayor Abe Beame’s aide wrote to her saying, “It was beautiful to see the poise with which you addressed the audience. We hope you will stay in touch to let us know of your future triumphs.”

The road to future triumphs was strewn with roadblocks. Forbes dropped out of 10th grade, because there was no support for mothers at the overcrowded Walton High School. She then took a paid internship at the city’s medical examiner’s office where she identified dead bodies. In 1981, after a traumatic encounter with the body of someone she knew, Forbes left her job and started going full-time to Westside High School in Manhattan. The school took her on college tours and gave her instruction on career options. Forbes, who by then was battling addiction to cocaine, couldn’t pass the GED test required to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. She beat addiction to cocaine in 1988 with the help of a support group called Narcotics Anonymous.

By 22, she was a single mother of three.

Her election as the president of Clay Avenue Tenants Association in 1990 brought some tranquility to her life until she lost her mother in 1995. Forbes’ mother was the caretaker of her kids.

The responsibility of tending to the children’s needs fell solely on Forbes’s shoulders. In 1990, her unsteady marriage to Timothy Forbes, father of two of her sons, fell apart six months after the wedding. Then her apartment caught fire and she lost almost all of her belongings. She kept cool and took a job first as a methadone addiction counselor at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital and later as intervention specialist at the Police Athletic League.

The struggles Forbes has had to overcome inform her advocacy. She now devotes much of her time to the emergency preparedness program. At her corner office, pamphlets and flyers about the program lie everywhere. Emergency tool kits, cleaning supplies, and boxes take up most of the space. Two generators can boost power up in case of a blackout. Once a year, she organizes an emergency disaster day event that brings various community service agencies to the neighborhood where residents sign up for programs and services.

On a recent Wednesday, as she walked down to her office, children and neighbors stopped to greet her. “Maria has been a passionate and strong advocate for this community,” said Laura Brown, a long-time tenant at one of the buildings that Forbes manages. “I can’t speak for everyone but most people here love her.”

Hurricane Irene was not as damaging as predicted but Forbes believes you can never over prepare. Since becoming chief of her community emergency response team, she’s seen two blackouts.

“It pays to be prepared,” she said. And that’s what she’s been teaching her tenants and neighbors – how to prepare for an unforeseen disaster.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Featured, Southern Bronx1 Comment

Occupy Bronx day two: Yankee Stadium just another bailout

The New York Yankees are now squarely in the sights of the Occupy Bronx protesters, who consider themselves the real “99 percent” of the non-wealthy Americans.

“It doesn’t make sense to have the poorest district in the financial capital of the world right next to one of the most successful sports franchises in history,” said Maribel Vasquez, 24, of Hunts Point.

Shouting slogans like, “They got bailed out, the Bronx got sold out,” Vasquez and around 50 other anti-corporate protesters gathered in Fordham Plaza on Saturday, October 22 to plan their future actions.

The new Yankee stadium was built in 2009 with a price tag of over $1 billion. Its underused parking garages have been the subject of controversy ever since. The borough president’s office is looking into proposals to demolish and replace the garages with a hotel.

Protesters are angry that the new stadium was partially financed by public funds, when most Bronx residents cannot afford the $70 average ticket price to attend the games. “We are tired of bailing out the rich,” said Vasquez.

Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera, 75, addressed the meeting, drawing on lessons from the civil rights era to inspire the protesters. He likened the young protesters to Rosa Parks, who stood up for her right more than 50 years ago to keep her seat in the Birmingham, Alabama bus. “It was people like you who made the civil rights movement possible,” he said.

Dr. Mark Naison, a history professor at the nearby Fordham University related the protests to his experiences from the Vietnam War era. “I teach history and also like to make history – that’s why I am here,” Naison said.

The group has also found local allies. Less than a mile west of Fordham Plaza, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition rallied about 400 more residents. Among that group’s concerns were a lack of quality education, a pending living-wage bill in City Council and laws that protect tenants from landlord abuse.

Last Saturday, New York police officers escorted about 30 Occupy Bronx protesters from their general assembly meeting down Fordham Road and University Avenue where they united with those gathered at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church.

Together, the group of 450 or so marched in front of Chase Bank and across from the Bank of America near Valentine Avenue. The group chanted “Bank of America, bad for America” and “Chase move, get out of the way.”

Another Bronx mother of four, who attended the first Occupy Bronx protest, focuses her protests around education reform. “I’m here representing Latinos, the women, my children, and the children of the Bronx,” said Eliada Helsado, 35, a poet. “The schools are disappointing because they are teaching only for the tests, not for creativity.”

Veronica Feliciano,29, of Throgs Neck was concerned about public health. “Diabetes is very rampant which is not taken care of, there is high obesity here,” said Feliciano, who is due to give birth next month. “We need initiatives for supermarkets and bodegas to carry fresh food, as opposed to sugar and high fructose injected foods.”

At the end of the march, a handful of protesters boarded the Number 4 Subway to join the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement downtown in Zuccotti Park. Many believed the Wall Street protesters needed to hear from Bronx residents.

“The Bronx is a microcosm of what’s happening around the country, the poor stays poor while the rich keeps on getting richer,” said Frederick Fret, a union organizer with District Council 37. “That needs to change.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Northwest Bronx, Politics, The Bronx Beat1 Comment

Bronx parents say new law won’t ease overcrowding issue in schools, NY Daily News

Bronx parents are skeptical that the City Council’s new legislation requiring the Department of Education to report annually on size, capacity and utilization of schools will help address rampant overcrowding, NY Daily News reported.

Parent Eddie Valley said he’s concerned about how much attention his third-grade daughter is receiving.

“You could only have so many students in one class,” said Valley, 43. “Thirteen hundred kids have to use the gym within three hours – that’s really difficult to do, and my daughter got hurt twice already this year because they could only keep an eye on so many kids.”

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Bronx family sues cop for smacking dog out a third-story window, NY Daily News

A Bronx family is suing police for pushing their tiny dog out of a third-story window – but cops say the officer was just trying to quiet the yapping menace during a chaotic raid, the NY Daily News reported.

Iris Ramos says in her suit that cops burst into her Castle Hill apartment last October and threatened her family with guns. When Chuwie, her miniature doberman-pomeranian mix, started barking at the cops, one of them smacked it out of the window, according to the suit, filed in Bronx Supreme Court.

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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

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