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Relying on welfare to feed a family

Jennifer Santos considers herself determined, independent and leery of the idea of being on welfare.

“I don’t want their help for me,” said the Honduran immigrant, referring to Medicaid and the $367 she receives each month in federal food stamps. “I want it for my son.”

When she was 8 years old, Santos, now 26, immigrated to the United States. She attended P.S. 157, Alexander Berger Junior High and three high schools, all in the Bronx, before dropping out and receiving her GED. Santos started receiving government assistance more than a year ago, when she lost her job.

For the past eight months, she has worked part time serving food at a law-firm cafeteria. While Santos spoke sitting on her bed, her son, Josiah, 2, played with a cup and stood on a stool in the kitchen, one of the few pieces of furniture in the house. A half-eaten pot of Oodles of Noodles swelled on the stove.

She was recently fired (she said she doesn’t know why), but it hardly matters.

The money she made at the cafeteria was not enough to even pay her rent, let alone the numerous other expenses for both her and Josiah to live in New York City.

The Bronx resident would drop her son off with her mother and travel an hour on the 5 train to make $10 an hour. Working 20 hours a week, she made $200 before taxes. Santos often ran out of food stamps before the month was over and was frequently strapped for basic needs, such as her phone bill. She is several months past due on the $800 monthly rent for her largely empty one-bedroom Grand Concourse apartment. She’s not sure if her landlord will kick her out and she is several months pregnant. “ I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “But I’m still in my apartment.”

The number of people like Santos, or the working poor—those who work but live below the federal poverty level—is rising. According to the 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of working poor in the total workforce increased from 6.1 percent in 2006 to 7.9 percent in 2009.

Indeed, approximately 35 million Americans—a quarter of the workforce population—work full-time jobs but fail to meet their families’ needs, according to research by Beth Shulman, a fellow at Demos, a national advocacy organization headquartered in New York.

In the Bronx, 28.3 percent of people live below the poverty level, while the number of people on the welfare rolls is at the lowest point since 1963. The use of food stamps, which are federally issued, has continued to rise.

With work and food stamps, Santos made approximately $15,000—near the federal poverty level of WHATTK for a family of two. The federal poverty level, however, does not take into account where people live or even basic standards of living.  In New York City, for example, the cost of living can be several times that of rural areas.

The National Center for Children in Poverty, a public policy organization geared toward children’s issues, estimates that a family of two living in New York City would need $52,913 a year to meet its basic needs. To correct for what Santos receives in food stamps and Medicaid, she would need to make $36,749. This number makes corrections to the original number to account for child care and Medicaid, which Santos gets for free: $52,913 total basic needs – $13,555 child care – $2,609 health insurance = $36,749.

Her situation is a common one, said Marc Ramirez, a benefits adviser at the Bronx Defenders who helps legal aid clients with Medicaid and food stamp applications. “Even people who are in very low-income neighborhoods are having trouble making ends meet,” he said, referring to the fact that housing is cheaper in those neighborhoods.

Ramirez noted that prices are much higher in the city than in other areas for ordinary goods.

“It’s not like they have a lot of luxuries, but people still have lives, vehicles, gas, insurance—it takes a big bite out of what they have,” he said. “Food stamps don’t make the stuff at the grocery store any less expensive.”

Even when Santos was employed, she wasn’t making enough. “I’m looking for help at this moment,” the 26-year-old mother had said at the time, referring to cash assistance in addition to her Medicaid and food stamps, “because my job doesn’t really cover all my bills.”

The maximum allotment from the federal government’s cash assistance program is at most $600 a month for five years. If Santos applied, she would receive significantly less due to her small family size.

As a single mother, working 20 hours a week exempted Santos from having to attend classes 35 hours a week at the Highbridge Back-to-Work Program to receive government benefits. She’s still determined to work instead of attending the program.

She is currently applying to numerous jobs using Craigslist, which she sarcastically refers to as her “favorite website.”

“Whatever job is available, I’ll take,” she said.  “I’m not picky: anything that pays.”

She just hopes it will pay the rent.

Posted in The 12 Percent1 Comment

Working hard for less than a living

For many New Yorkers, including Cecilia Cudjoe, working full time doesn't pay enough. (Rani Molla/BRONX INK)

Cecilia Cudjoe, or Cici, has traveled more than 10,000 miles in search of a brighter future for herself—and now also for her 6-year-old daughter. In the span of eight years, Cudjoe, 30, has moved from the tropical savanna of her native city of Accra, Ghana, to the colder climate of Stuttgart, Germany, to the the desert in White Sands, N.M., and finally to the Bronx. But while her life has improved, it’s still not as good as she’d want it to be.

“You really need a lot if you want to live comfortably,” she said sitting on a small brown couch amid boxes of possessions in her cramped basement apartment. “It’s not a comfortable life for me.”

Wearing a short-sleeved black blouse that droops at the neck, bright blue pants and crisp tennis sneakers, Cudjoe looks years younger than she does at work, where a bulky white chef’s coat and a black newsboy hat hide her petite figure and soft skin. Her youthful face hides the miles she’s traveled and the challenges she faces every day.

After dropping off her daughter at P.S. 226 in her University Heights neighborhood, the divorced single mother takes a bus and two trains for 45 minutes to reach her job at an upscale Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. At Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, she makes $10.50 an hour and works just under 40 hours per week slicing specialty Italian meats that go for $20 a pound. After taxes each week, she brings home approximately $370.

While her wages put her above the federal poverty level for a family of two ($14,710 a year), she makes only half of what the National Center For Children in Poverty, a Columbia University-based policy group geared toward children, considers a living wage for her and her daughter.

Cudjoe is one of 35 million Americans—a quarter of the adult workforce—who work full time but do not make enough money to meet their families’ basic needs, according to Beth Shulman, a fellow at Demos, a public policy organization based in New York City. Situations like Cudjoe’s highlight the difficulties of the working poor in America. They also show the need to change  the way poverty is measured.

This month, the Census Bureau announced the creation of a supplemental poverty measure that accounts for the costs of housing, clothes and utilities—a step Mayor Michael Michael Bloomberg’s administration took citywide in 2008.

The supplemental poverty measure raised last year’s national poverty level from 15.2 percent to 16 percent. When the Bloomberg administration switched its method of calculation in 2008, poverty rates in New York went from 19 to 23 percent.

However, these measurements are merely academic: to gauge the effectiveness of anti-poverty efforts. Neither affects the way the federal government disperses money. Washington still disperses aid based on a 1960s calculation in which groceries account for one-third of a family’s income. Monthly grocery costs are then multiplied by three with corrections made for inflation. But food costs are much lower today than they were in the ’60s, while other living costs have skyrocketed.

Nor are the new measurements accurate enough to alleviate the problems of poverty, according to the National Center For Children in Poverty.  Jennifer Shaffer, a research analyst at the center, said that both the Census and Bloomberg’s figures “set a much more minimal threshold of poverty-level expenses while NCCP’s Basic Budget sets a higher standard of what a family would need to spend to have a basic and modest standard of living.”

Calculating poverty based on that “basic subsistence level,” Shaffer said, leads to other problems. “The questions we must ask then is what do people sacrifice to make a poverty wage cover the bills? Do they go without health insurance? Live in doubled-up housing? Skimp on meals? Use less or lower-quality child care than they would like to?”

The center estimates that Cudjoe would need to make $46,433 a year to meet her family’s basic needs in the city; Cudjoe’s yearly earnings (before taxes) and child support add up to $31,760.

Cudjoe’s low income has affected every aspect of her and her daughter’s lives, from where they sleep to what they eat. Fortunately Cudjoe is good at getting by on very little.

Cudjoe emigrated from Ghana in 2003, where she left behind a large, tight-knit family.

“When you’re in Africa, you want a better life,” Cudjoe said, in her heavily accented but grammatically perfect English. She’s also fluent in Ga, Akan and Fanti, languages of her homeland. To leave Ghana, she applied for visas in several countries. Only Germany granted her one.

“Whichever visa you get, you go, and you see what happens,” Cudjoe, who completed secondary school in Ghana, said. In Stuttgart, Germany, she worked with her aunt, a tailor at the U.S. Army base there. At the base, Cudjoe met Sara’s father, an American citizen originally from Ghana. Soon after, Cudjoe became pregnant and gave birth to Sara, who was born at the Army hospital and is thus a U.S. citizen. When the U.S. Army relocated Sara’s father to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 2005, he married Cudjoe and applied for a Green Card for her.

Not long after the move, their relationship dissolved and the two separated. Cudjoe found the pace of life too slow and distant in New Mexico, so in 2006 she decided to move to New York where she had a friend. Cudjoe sent Sara to live with her family in Africa for three years to learn about her roots, while she and the friend rented a place together.

For a while, Cudjoe worked in home care but she wanted a job with a more regular schedule when Sara returned to her mother in 2008. The same year, Cudjoe and her husband officially divorced. Last year, Cudjoe found an evening job at Salumeria Rosi. While she didn’t mind the job—Cudjoe said she had never before thought about whether she liked her job, but said, “It’s OK. I like what I do”—she frequently didn’t return home until after Sara was asleep, meaning she couldn’t help Sara with her homework. Cudjoe relies on babysitters and Sara’s aunt to care for her when Cudjoe works.

Since the job was relatively new, Cudjoe was terrified of asking for daytime hours instead of her night shift.

“I prayed that they wouldn’t fire me,” she said. They didn’t, and in fact Cudjoe said her job now gives her preferential hours because she has a daughter.

To get by on what she makes, Cudjoe buys mainly inexpensive staples like rice and beans in bulk quantities. Cudjoe would like to buy more PediaSure for Sara, but says it’s too expensive.

A garden, which she splits with her upstairs neighbor, provides extra produce in the summer. Last season’s tomato and pepper plants stand in place of a front lawn.

The last time Cudjoe went grocery shopping, she spent $400 and estimates that will last them the whole month.

Cudjoe rents her tiny one-bedroom apartment from a family friend for $650 a month, including utilities. She wishes she could give Sara her own room. This winter, she hopes to rent a two-bedroom, $1,200 apartment in Woodlawn with her sister, a home health aide who spends most of her time at the home of her client, a cancer patient. In that way, Cudjoe and her daughter would frequently have their own rooms.

Cudjoe pays $20 a day for an after-school baby-sitter, but the service ends at  6 p.m.; she gets out of work in Manhattan at the same time, so frequently has to pay overtime. She says that sometimes it’s not worth it for her to work full-time because of the high cost of child care. Each month, Cudjoe pays $60 for her phone, $104 for a metro card, $150 for cable and internet, and only $18 for health care through WellCare, a health care plan that provides managed care through Medicaid.

To stretch her budget, Cudjoe must be careful with everything she buys, often forgoing basic items for herself, such as clothing or a separate bed.

“I’m the kind of person that I like everything I have,” Cudjoe said. “I don’t care if If I don’t have something unless I really need it.”

She’s less austere with her daughter. For Christmas, Cudjoe already purchased a large kitchen set that Sara really wanted. She hopes she can buy a LeapPad, a children’s learning tablet, when they go on sale this week. “I don’t mind giving her something I don’t get,” Cudjoe said. “If your child is happy, you’re happy.”

Because of Sara, Cudjoe could work less—20 hours a week—and receive welfare instead of darting back and forth from work to the baby-sitter’s. She would also be eligible for food stamps and daycare through the Human Resources Administration.

But Cudjoe says public assistance would jeopardize her application to become a U.S. citizen, a process she began in October. “People say if you have welfare, they give you a tough time,” Cudjoe said.

While the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services  prohibits those seeking a Green Card from receiving cash assistance, there are no such constraints on those looking to become naturalized citizens, according to Debora Gilmore, director of nonprofit Immigration Advocacy Services in New York. Short-term Medicaid and food stamps, she said, are acceptable in all stages of immigration.

“Naturalization is all based on good moral character,” Gilmore said.  “If you’re on public benefits as long as you received them legally and truthfully, you can become a U.S. citizen,” she said, adding that people new to this country can be overly cautious in such matters.

Cudjoe is also hesitant to demand more in child support. She contends she is eligible to receive more than the $500 a month that Sara’s father, who is currently serving the Army in Afghanistan, voluntarily gives her.  But she doesn’t want to “put herself through that”—nor does she have the time.

Time, in fact, monopolizes much of Cudjoe’s troubles. “It doesn’t matter the amount of money you have if you’re a single mother,” she said, “You don’t want to miss a young life.”

Because of her job, it’s difficult for Cudjoe to attend parent-teacher conferences and she rarely is able to supervise school trips—a big disappointment to Sara. Sara gets upset that her mother can’t be more a part of her school life. But to support them both, Cudjoe must work full-time. “Sometimes she gets it,” Cudjoe says. “Sometimes she doesn’t. But she’s just a kid.”

Cudjoe describes the instances she had to work but was unable to find a babysitter as the “worst feeling,” recalling a time when this happened to her recently and she was forced to go cry in the bathroom, located through the kitchen.

“I don’t want to lose eight hours and stay home with her,” she said, visibly upset by the prospect. Cudjoe now keeps two babysitters to prevent such a predicament. Regardless, Cudjoe doesn’t feel her current situation is tenable.

Cudjoe has plans to become a registered nurse, but must first take some preliminary courses this spring. She would like to take them at Bronx Community College, but she’d have to bring Sara, so Cudjoe is also weighing the possibility of online classes.

Sara does her part as well.

“It’s not perfect, but she dresses herself,”  Cudjoe said, laughing about her daughter’s sartorial choices. “When it’s cold, she wants to wear a skirt,” Cudjoe said. “And she mixes up all the colors.”

But Cudjoe is thankful for her daughter’s help.

Indeed, Cudjoe said her daughter rarely asks for anything, aside from books. Sara is an avid reader and frequently receives perfect scores on her spelling tests. When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher.

“I want her to do better than me,” Cudjoe said. “I don’t want her to be my age working a job like this.”

Posted in The 12 Percent0 Comments

Taking Advil to schools

Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner reads to kids at the re-opening of P.S. 130's library, funded by the Advil Congestion Relief Project. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Advil Congestion Relief)

These days, a village isn’t enough to raise a child. Multinational corporations have had to step in.

For six years, students at Longwood’s Abram Stevens Hewitt School didn’t have a functioning library. With the help of Advil, a Pfizer product, P.S. 130’s pre-K through fifth graders now have a newly renovated space, complete with new books, computers and iPads—as well as a new plaque that reads: “This Library Was Proudly Revitalized By: The Advil ® Congestion Relief Project.”

After the opening festivities, this plaque and Advil Congestion Relief notebooks are all that's left of the company's logo at P.S. 130. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As schools nationwide watch budgets dwindle, for-profit companies have offered a hand. However, critics see gifts from these companies not as goodwill, but as a way of marketing to children.

School officials at P.S. 130 competed for and won the Advil grant, which was facilitated through The Fund For Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with the New York City Department of Education to find private funding for schools. It is part of a growing public school/private partnership initiative championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It also highlights the need for schools to branch out into the private sector as government funding decreases.

No study tracks the amount for-profit companies invest in public schools because schools don’t necessarily have to go through a governing organization to receive these funds. But anecdotally, the practice is becoming more common, according to Faith Boninger, a research associate at the National Education Policy Center, a unit based in the University of Colorado at Boulder that examines research on public schools.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 22 that included giant Advil Congestion Relief scissors and a reading of a Hank Aaron biography by Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner, students viewed their newly renovated library for the first time.

What did they think?

“It’s good!” 5-year-old Angel shouted the following week, holding an Advil notebook and ducking behind his mother, Mayra Ocasio, outside the school.

Before the Advil grant,  the library consisted of a large room with only four computers. The checkout system involved writing students’ names and books on an index card, then crossing them off upon return. Many of the books were outdated, with non-fiction more than 10 years old. Science books still included the now-discredited planet Pluto and sports books heralded bygone heroes such as Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.

After the renovation, the library boasts iPads, computers, a flat-screen TV for computer instruction, a high-tech image projector, new furniture, a computerized catalog system and illustrations inspired by famous kids’ books such as Where the Wild Things Are. Many more pictures illustrate the $20,000 worth of new books, from Dr. Seuss titles like Oh, The Places You’ll Go! for younger readers to the more adult Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Principal Lourdes Velasquez had long wanted to fix the library, which had been without a regular library teacher since the last one retired six years ago.

“Literacy was something we needed to focus on wholeheartedly,” Velasquez said from the school’s bustling office. “The library was the central hub to spearheading that.”

P.S. 130's new library features new technology, artwork and $20,000 worth of new books. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Last year Velasquez hired David Levin, a longtime teacher at the school, as the library teacher. At the time, the library was used mostly as a teacher center.

Velasquez and Levin believed an updated library would help meet the many challenges—from high-needs students to low test performance—of the South Bronx school, which is located in the poorest congressional district in America. They turned to the Department of Education, which connected them to nonprofit The Fund for Public Schools and in turn the Advil grant program.

Jennifer Kokell, a spokesperson for Pfizer, which manufactures Advil, said P.S. 130 was one of two initial projects for the Advil Congestion Relief Project, which is now accepting applications for another round of donations. The other recipient was the Chicago Department of Transportation, which received bike-lane-sized snow plows to alleviate traffic caused by winter snowstorms.

The Fund for Public Schools does not track partnerships between businesses and schools because many of those partnerships happen independent of the fund. Public Outreach Coordinator Kate Wagoner said corporations frequently partner with the city’s schools, citing Bank of America’s literacy initiative as an example.

But critics say corporate gifts are simply a way to market to kids who have no choice.

“We don’t market drugs to kids for good reason,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. The packaging for Advil Congestion Relief says it’s not suitable for children under 12—every student at P.S. 130 is below that age. Golin’s organization blames childhood marketing for a slew of lifelong problems, from consumerism and conformity to eating disorders and sexualization to violence and moral debasement.

“We have a responsibility in society that these kids in the South Bronx have a library without being exposed to commercial messages,” Golin said.

Pfizer’s Kokell said the South Bronx and Chicago were picked for the project “because literal congestion is an obstacle both of these communities face.” Kokell did not multiple questions on whether the initiative in the Bronx is in any way a form of marketing.

At the opening ceremony, the Yankees’ Gardner stood in front of giant posters with a repeating Advil Congestion Relief logo. Students received yellow Advil notebooks and pencils to take home. Advil employees wearing bright yellow Advil Congestion Relief shirts stocked new books on shelves.

After the ceremony, all that remained of Advil was the plaque. But Boninger, whose research says marketing to children undermines their critical-thinking abilities, said even mentioning the brand is “still a form of marketing.”

Boninger said commercial messages are frequently directed at schools because the children are a “captive audience” in an environment they trust, meaning they are highly susceptible to marketing there.

P.S. 130 officials said the gift is worth it.

“Coming in for one day, to me, I think it’s reasonable,” Levin, the library teacher said, amid the shelves of new books and tables of new technology. “Considering the spirit of the donation—it’s tremendous, I can’t find any fault in it.”

The updated library, he said, is necessary to develop a more “organic” way to learn reading, in which kids see it as fun instead of a job.

“My goal is to turn books into candy,” Levin said. “It’s not a book, it’s candy.”

Principal Velasquez doesn’t think marketing was on Advil’s agenda either. “Their agenda was to support a school and bring it resources,” she said.

Parents also seemed happy with the arrangement.

Angel, 5, walks home from P.S. 130 with his mother Mayra Ocasio and his Advil Congestion Relief notebook. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Daisy Campbell, mother of Davonte, a 4-year-old pre-K student, said the good outweighed the bad.

“They really don’t know what Advil is yet,” she said, pushing a stroller away from the P.S. 130 after school. “They just see that someone helped them out to get a better education.”

Raquel Chaparro conceded that her 7- and 8-year-old sons, both named Angel, would be “more likely to recognize Advil.” But for now, neither of them knew what Advil was.

All of the children interviewed had their Advil notebooks with them, nearly a week after they received them.

According to Boninger, the message such gifts give is obvious.

“Send a letter to the parents but stay away from kids,” she said. “When kids are involved, it’s clearly an attempt to influence them.”

Posted in Education, Featured, Multimedia, Southern Bronx, Video0 Comments

Lorelei Fountain survived wars and vandals


Picture 1 of 14

By 1905 vandals had already assailed the Lorelei Fountain, but nothing near the destruction it would face over the next 80 years. (Photo courtesy of Public Design Commission of the City of New York)

The Lorelei Fountain is less conspicuous these days—with all its limbs in tact and graffiti nowhere in sight.

On a recent warm November day, a smattering of jurors, government workers and locals gathered around the base of the gleaming 20-foot statue in the Joyce Kilmer Park. They sat across from the Bronx Supreme Courthouse, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes, unaware of the statue’s tumultuous history.

The shrouded siren high on a pedestal, with mermaids, dolphins, waves and a skull encircling its base is more than a century old, having survived an ocean trip, two world wars, vandalism and urban renewal. Traces of the statue’s rocky history can only be seen in its faintly mismatched stones, revealed by the maintenance workers giving it a biannual power washing.

“Everyone exposed to it is exposed to the wider art world,” said Phyllis Cohen, director of the Municipal Art Society‘s Adopt-A-Monument program responsible for restoring this and 37 other monuments around the city. “It’s really what public art should be.”
The statue depicts Lorelei, originally created by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano in his 1801 novel Godwi, but brought to international renown by famous German lyric poet Heinrich Heine, to whom the sculpture is dedicated. In his poem “Dei Lorelei,” Heine writes about the perilous rock on the Rhine as a fair-haired siren seeking revenge for her broken heart by luring sailors to their deaths.

After Heine’s death, a committee made up of prominent literary minds proposed honoring him with a monument in his hometown of Düsseldorf. They chose German sculptor Ernst Herter for the project.

But Heine was known for his vocal opposition to the rise of German nationalism, a position that lead much of his work to be banned. He was also a Jew operating in Germany amid growing antisemitism. Therefore, the committee struggled to find a place for the sculpture in Germany.

Meanwhile, in New York, German Jews were enjoying new-found prosperity. Arion, a German American singing group, decided to give the fountain a home across the Atlantic. The committee intended to place the Lorelei Fountain at the southwest entrance of Central Park, but citizens’ groups complained about the statue’s nudity and ornate, Baroque style.

Central Park didn’t find it aesthetically that pleasing,” Cohen, an art historian, said. It was quite elaborate, and Classical style was in vogue.

Yale professor Jeffrey Sammons chalked up New Yorkers’ reluactance to darker reasons in a lecture he gave last spring. “German Americans sensed nativist hostility,” he said, “and some suspected an antisemitic undertone.”

Whatever the real reason, Arion finally found a location for the statue in the soon-to-be-developed Grand Concourse―at the time a grandiose boulevard with a large population of wealthy German Jews, according to Constance Rosenblum’s book Boulevard of Dreams, about the area’s history.   

The fountain was dedicated on July 8, 1899.

The monument was unveiled yesterday amid the cheers of thousands of Germans who gladly called themselves Americans, and shouted lustily in praise of their adopted country,” wrote an unnamed author in the New York Times the following day. (The Times did not yet use bylines.)

The writer, however, was less positive regarding the piece itself, calling it “disappointing.”

The naiads at the foot are graceful and finely conceived, but the chief figure does not convey to the American mind any conception of the Lorelei,” the author wrote. “The figure is chiseled in too heroic lines, and would represent Brünhilde better than the Rhine maiden.”

Considering what came afterward for the Lorelei Fountain, the critic’s words were mild. Immediately after it was installed, vandals assailed the fountain, which required “round-the-clock” police protection, according to Rosenblum. The “drama,” Rosenblum wrote, was due in part to the mermaids at the base of the siren.

They were “lusciously naked, their cold marble breasts temptingly exposed for the delectation of every prepubescent boy in the West Bronx,” she wrote.

The statue received negative attention throughout its first century, from an axed-off arm to a head knocked off by nearby demolition.

Natural forces were no kinder, causing the marble to erode to a “sugary consistency,” said Cohen.

Meanwhile the wealthy Jews moved away, ceding space to poor Hispanics and blacks. Poverty and arson spread across the area. Over the next half a century, the Lorelei Fountain was moved to the northern side of the park and subsequently covered in graffiti. Vandals left not one mermaid’s head in tact.

During a particularly grave stretch, the fountain was painted completely black, then red, then ineffectually white.

It was an angry time,” Cohen said.

By the time the Municipal Art Society gathered together $1.87 million in 1998―with the help of the city and private donors, including a $310,000 gift from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation in 1997―the monument was virtually unrecognizable.

It was a mess,” Joan Berkowitz, the leading conservationist in charge of repairing the statue said.

In the course of a year, Berkowitz and crew took apart the fountain piece by piece, cleaned off the years of graffiti and natural sediment, and sent pieces of the statue to specialists in the city and in Canada. Sculptors cast new limbs, heads and other parts into marble. Conservationists replaced the fountain’s plumbing and moved the whole thing back to the park’s more visible south side. Berkowitz “stitched” the pieces back together using long stainless steal pins and filled in the cracks.

Considering the scale of the operation, the transition is impressive, even if not immediately evident to everyday parkgoers.

Waleska Jean-Louis, 38, was one of several jurors in the park when Cohen and team cleaned the monument. On lunch break, Jean-Louis sat on a bench facing both the Lorelei Fountain and the court.

I didn’t really know what it was,” Jean-Louis said as she looked up at the statue for the first length of time. “So far it looks clean. I never would have known it had graffiti.”

She said she enjoyed the presence of the Lorelei Fountain, nonetheless.

It adds to the park’s appeal,” she said. “It’s very nice to come and sit and have some sort of art to look at.”

After she glanced at her watch to see the lunch hour had passed, Jean-Louis and a fellow juror walked back to the courthouse.

Amid her hurry, she stopped at the base of the fountain for a long moment to take in a little bit of history she’d missed.



Posted in Bronx Beats, Culture0 Comments

Highbridge tackles childhood obesity

Highbridge tackles childhood obesity

Students at P.S. 73 warm up for their health lesson.

At 8:15 am Thursday, nearly 30 4th graders sent mini tremors through P.S. 73.

“Who can last longer than Mr. Rios?” said Juan Ramon Rios, director of Healthy Highbridge. He was trying to get children half his height through a warmup routine of jumping jacks.

Despite all the activity, 37 percent of the students in this class are overweight or obese, according to body mass index measurements that Rios and his team at Highbridge Community Life calculated this week. Two classes even measured in at 59 percent.

The overall rate of overweight students at the Anderson Avenue elementary school is consistent with that of the entire South Bronx, where 40 percent of students are overweight or obese. That percentage is higher than the alarming national level, which the American Heart Association estimates at 33 percent.

Healthy Highbridge meets with fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 73 once a week to combat the repercussions of obesity in an area that has a lot of obstacles to staying healthy. In the South Bronx, 38 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. Highbridge also has too few supermarkets to meet the needs of its 34,000 residents, a 2008 city study says. Rios said these factors lead to poor food choices and, by extension, poor health for area children.

“We’re losing a generation,” Rios said three days earlier from his cramped basement offices at Highbridge Community Life Center. “All of this is going to create a health cost”—that is, unless everyone gets moving.

After the exercise, Rios instructed students on how to take their pulses.

“Why did we do that?” Rios asked as 60 index and middle fingers pressed against 30 wrists.

“To lose some weight,” said Fatumata, 9.

“Because it could be fun to exercise,” said Shantel, also 9.

“Because we need to get exercise,” said 10-year-old Jonah.

These children are all participants in Healthy Highbridge’s year-long health education program, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Communities Impact Diabetes Center, which in turn receives its budget from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before they start their education curriculum, Healthy Highbridge staff must measure the students’ body mass indexes, test their prior health knowledge and survey them on exercise and eating habits as well as their attitudes and beliefs regarding working out and eating. These initial studies will be used as a baseline to track students’ progress, as Rios and team return each week to tackle a different health subject: Michelle Obama’s “My Plate” and “Let’s Move” campaigns, diabetes, nutrition, and exercise, among others.

P.S. 73 students eat a breakfast of sausage, biscuits and orange juice.

The goal is to help youngsters understand what it takes to be healthy, said Michelle Ramos, the diabetes center’s community project manager.

“As attitudes around healthy behavior improve, hopefully the behavior itself will improve,” she said from her Harlem office. Ramos said that while she doesn’t encourage children to lose weight, she believes that as they grow, they’ll maintain their weights and their body mass indexes will drop.

“Hopefully they’ll pick up healthy habits and go and share them with their families,” Ramos said.

P.S. 73’s principal, Jean Mirvil, said sharing health information with the parents is critical to solving the obesity problem. Many of the families, he said, come from different countries and have a hard time making the proper, healthful adjustments in their new homes (34 percent of people in the South Bronx are foreign-born).

“The kind of food they’re used to does not present itself in the same way as they are making the adjustment with this country,” Mirvil said.

He expects that the children will bring information about what and what not to eat home to their parents.

“At school, they are given a full picture of what a regular, healthy meal should look like,” Mervil said.

To combat the obesity problem, this September the school instituted a salad bar at lunch, so students can add a rotating variety of produce—spinach, corn, radish—to their meals. The main courses vary according to the Board of Education menu. Recently, Mervil said, students had chicken and a choice of pasta or rice. Students can choose milk—not chocolate milk—or water for a beverage.

On the day of the Healthy Highbridge visit, breakfast consisted of a sausage and biscuit sandwich, and orange juice.

During this class, students were asked to pick which food choices they would make: chicken with the skin on or off, whole wheat or sweet bread, regular peanut butter or freshly ground.

Shannon takes her pulse after a round of jumping jacks.

Shannon, 9, said she preferred popcorn without butter, low-fat milk to skim, and would eat an apple before a piece of candy most days.
“Salt? Ew,” she said, her neat cornrows jostled back as she shook her head.

Winston, the largest boy in the class and the first to cease his jumping jacks, said he was less into self denial. He puts butter on his popcorn because, otherwise, “it doesn’t taste like anything.” The nine-year-old did acknowledge that salt isn’t always necessary.
“Sometimes, if you don’t add salt, food can still taste good,” he said.

Jaheim, 10, said he couldn’t replace french fries with potatoes, nor could he exchange a burger for a salad. “French fries?” he asked rhetorically as his hands shot from his striped hoodie to the sky. “I love them.”

As for burgers? “They’re very good,” he said. “You could even put bacon on them.”

When asked if all his poor eating choices left him a healthy individual, Jaheim was confident.

“Yeah, I do weights.”


Posted in Bronx Beats, Health, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Man shot to death in 52nd precinct, NYPD

Police found a man shot in the chest near Bainbridge Avenue yesterday. Medical responders took him to St. Barnabas Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival, according to the New York Police Department. No arrests have been made at this time and the investigation is ongoing.

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Bronx residents demand more police protection following series of shootings, NY Daily News

With shootings up 8.5 percent since last year in the 47th Precinct, Williamsbridge and Wakefield residents say there is need for more police protection, according to the New York Daily News. Residents say police presence after shootings is too little, too late.

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Man wielding gun shoots two, steals McDonald’s, NYPD

Police seek help identifying a man responsible for a spate of incidents, including two shootings last week in the 44th precinct of Highbridge, according to the  New York Police Department. At 4:10 am Sunday Oct. 30, the suspect fired two rounds into the air outside 145 E. 149 St. He then walked down the street and fired one round into the Newsroom Bar; no one was hit. He walked north on Walton Avenue and shot his first victim in the leg. He then walked to the McDonald’s on Grand Concourse, threatened a worker with a gun and stole food from the counter. Afterward he went to the Nuestro Bar on Mount Eden Parkway, got into an argument with the bouncer and shot him in the arm. Both victims are in stable condition, the first at Lincoln Hospital, the second at St. Barnabas.  Police are looking for the suspect, a heavyset,  light-skinned black man in his 30s,  5’8″ to 5’10” tall, and are asking those with tips to call NYPD’s Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS.

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