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Put Some Cork in it!

Put Some Cork in it!

With Ken Bollella, all discussions, from the Yankees to the weather, lead back to one subject: cork.

Bollella, the owner of Globus Cork, a flooring factory in the South Bronx, is cork’s biggest booster, and quick to recite a litany of its uses, from sandals to the space shuttle – it’s used as a heat shield in the rocket boosters, according to NASA. It’s also found in gaskets, baseball cores, platform shoes, shuttlecocks and bedding for pet lizards.

Seated on a stool, with long black hair, reading glasses, and a long-sleeve T-shirt, the heavyset 58-year-old entrepreneur looks more like an aging drummer than the cork impresario who heads “the premier U.S. manufacturer of colored cork tiles,” as his website proclaims. He sells cork in 38 colors, and judging by the paint cans strewn across his desk, is concocting more.

Bollella laid out his vision while burning through cigarettes wrapped with a cork-colored filter. As Bollella sees it, cork’s time has come.

Fifteen years ago, Ken Bollella wondered, why isnt cork flooring colored? He now heads Globus Cork, a colored cork factory in the Bronx, and told the Ink, Nobodys ever done what I do..  (Sam Fellman/The Bronx Ink)

Fifteen years ago, Ken Bollella wondered, why does cork tiling only come in beige? Bollella, who now heads a cork painting factory, says, "Nobody's ever done what I do." (Sam Fellman/The Bronx Ink)

Cork, in his estimation, may be the perfect material: light, durable, quiet under foot, resistant to insects and fire, good insulation, and easy on the feet. Bollella, who suffers from severe sciatica, said he can stand on it for hours. And it’s environmentally sustainable.

Cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees grown predominantly in Spain and Portugal. Wine corks are punched out of the bark, with the excess processed into cork sheets. Bollella once made a pilgrimage to a Portuguese forest and watched lumberjacks shear off the bark with axes. Afterward, he touched one of the skinned trees.

“It feels like elephant skin – amazing,” he said with a touch of reverence in his thick Bronxese.

Everything can be corked. Take the yoga mat – wouldn’t that be better with cork? Bollella rummaged behind some boxes and pulled out a large spool, spun with thin cork, the raw material for Korq Yoga and Pilates Mats, based in Brooklyn.

Music, not cork, was Bollella’s original muse. After growing up in Washington Heights, Bollella studied liberal arts at Manhattan Community College, but his main focus was rock guitar. When a rock career didn’t pan out after the better part of a decade, he learned carpentry – “Something had to pay the bills; rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t,” he said – and eventually wound up in flooring.

His cork odyssey began in 1995, when he owned a flooring shop in Manhattan, which sold cork tiles – brown, square, straight-edged and to his mind, boring. So he started dabbling with colors and designs in his apartment. By 2001, when he closed his store, he was ready to launch a colored-cork factory.

To drum up business for his launch, he fixed up his Manhattan apartment with a cork floor of brown mahogany (“Scotchwood,” as he named it) tiles in a herringbone layout, and hosted a wine and cheese party.

“I even got dressed in a suit. I hate suits,” Bollella said. Then the guests began to arrive. Many couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

“People would stare at the floor and say, ‘That’s not cork!’” Bollella said. “Trust me, it’s cork,” he would reply.

At first, no one recognized colored cork. Especially not the competition. At that point, big manufacturers like the Portuguese company Amorim still sold cork tiles exclusively au naturel with a wax finish; in appearance, their products seemed unchanged since cork flooring was invented more than a century ago. So when Bollella’s colored tile hit the market in 2001, it baffled his competitors, who either saw him as a Young Turk or a small-time kook. They even mocked the name of his company – Globus, a combination of the words global and U.S., which Bollella dreamed up over a vodka martini.

“Nobody’s ever done what I do,” Bollella mused for a second, while recalling those heady days. “In the beginning, it’s like I’m sitting on top of a goldmine, without a pick or a shovel.”

Globus Cork opened in 2001, when he rented a large basement on East 136th Street in the Bronx, hired a salesperson, and then set to work. Bollella became a one-man cork tile assembly line, placing orders for processed cork from Portugal, then sawing, painting and shipping it to designers and home owners. He remembers working 105-hour weeks. To avoid the trek back to Manhattan on the really late nights, he’d set up an air mattress on the finishing counter – the floor was always off-limits, he explained, because of all the rats.

Those sacrifices are paying off as his company’s sales rise year after year. Even in 2009, amid a deep downturn in new construction and remodeling, Bollella said his sales grew by 12 percent. He sells his tiles for an average of $7.25 per square foot and expects to sell more than 250,000 square feet this year. Sales are on target so far, he said.

Most of his recent business is institutional. The government of Barbados bought 18,000 square feet of mahogany tiles for a courthouse and the housing authority in Little Rock, Arkansas is remodeling the hallways of a 12-story apartment building with tile, courtesy of stimulus money. While he’s processing the Arkansas order, Bollella is trying to win a contract to floor three galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But after each sample he’s sent, the museum has replied they want something “grayer.”

Globus Cork has grown over the past three years to occupy large swaths of three buildings. A recent tour of his mostly subterranean empire began at East 136th Street and ended at the loading dock on East 137th Street, spanning an entire block. His company now has three salespeople – one based in Missouri – and a production team of seven. That frees Bollella for chain-smoking and big thinking.

Haiti is his latest idea. After the devastating earthquake in January, the country needs to rebuild everything from government palaces to countless homes, requiring acres upon acres of new flooring. Bollella is avidly following the reconstruction effort, and pointed out that termites are a huge problem in the Caribbean. Of course, he added, “They don’t eat cork.”

Part of his success comes from seeing every situation or exchange as a possibility to push cork. When firefighters, heavy boots on and all, stepped into his cork-tiled office recently on a fire inspection, he asked them how the floor felt. Good, they replied.

Before the firefighters left, Bollella asked them a question that he’d long wondered about, “What’s the worst type of floor?”

One of the firefighters replied, “‘Vinyl – that stuff is nasty,’” Bollella recalled.

Bollella is now designing a new flooring scheme – red tiles with their ladder number inset in marigold – to retile their burnt kitchen floor.

From his vantage point, Bollella sees a flooring arms race mounting around the world. The latest threat is China, namely its bamboo – another environmentally friendly flooring material. Over the last few years, the bamboo trust has spent so much on advertising that “people know more about bamboo than cork,” Bollella said.

His epiphany came a few years ago, while watching the scene from “The Godfather” when the dons of the five warring families gather to air their grievances and leave resolved to bury the hatchet. That is exactly what the corkmongers need to get past all the “my cork is better than yours” infighting, he realized.

So Bollella founded the North American Cork Association three months ago. Although no other companies have contributed to the non-profit yet, Bollella has big plans: cork kiosks in bus stops, billboards, mention in a TV show like “Flip This House,” and ads “just to get people thinking about cork,” he said.

Already, Bollella has sold cork to clients in Canada, Hong Kong, Macau, the United Kingdom, Romania and Australia, where he hopes to open a factory in a few years – to “feed the Japanese market,” he said. So even with renewed competition and a slow economy, Bollella sees cork’s future as bright.

“It’s a perfect time for me. People are a little choosy and green isn’t going to go away,” he said.

“You can’t get greener than [expletive] cork.”

Posted in Bronx Tales, Housing, Money0 Comments

Bronx Stripped of Growth Title

If the Bronx’s coronation as America’s fastest growing city seemed too good to be true, it was.

On April 2, U-Haul released its 2009 report showing that 17 percent more rental trucks had been turned in than checked out at the 20 U-Haul centers in the Bronx — far surpassing the rest of the nation’s cities.  Demographers responded with disbelief.

“It’s completely crazy,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College. “There’s no way the Bronx is going to be a high-growth area.”

 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergal, file)

U-Haul has rescinded its April 2 report that said the Bronx was America's fastest growing city. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergal, file)

After the Ink requested Bronx-specific data on Monday, U-Haul realized its official report was incorrect. The new information shows, instead, that a staggering 20.8 percent more rental trucks left the Bronx than entered it, most often bound for Brooklyn, Queens and Philadelphia, and up from 14.5 percent the year before.

This brought the U-Haul trend report more in line with the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimated that 13,596 more people moved out of the Bronx than moved in from July 2008 to July 2009.

Just like that, the Bronx unceremoniously plunged off U-Haul’s top 25 list while Manhattan—with only three U-Haul centers—leapt up to third place.

So what is America’s new growth capital? Santa Monica, Calif.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money0 Comments

U-Haul Declares Bronx America’s Fastest Growing City


(Photo: mrjoro)

The Bronx—1.4 million strong, diverse, and growing. But America’s fastest growing city?

So concluded a recent report by the rental truck company U-Haul International, based on an analysis of truck turn-in at its nearly 15,000 locations in the United States. After not breaking into the top 25 growth cities for at least the last seven years, the Bronx shot to the top of the U-Haul National Migration Trend Report in 2009.

The Bronx, it would seem, is exploding.

At the 20 U-Haul locations in the Bronx, 17 percent more trucks were turned-in than checked-out in 2009, nearly doubling the rate of Houston, the next highest city, and dominating the rest of the list. “The economy is probably helping a little of that,” said Joanne Fried, a U-Haul spokesperson, “because it’s pretty affordable.”

Yet the report ran headlong into another large organization that tracks the nation’s demographic shifts: the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The Bronx was not on the top 100 fastest growing from ’08 to ’09,” said Tom Edwards, a spokesperson for the Census Bureau, referring to their annual report ranking the 100 fastest growing counties by population, which was released on Mar. 23. “Not only was it not on 2000-2009, it wasn’t on 2008-2009.”

Instead of trucks, the Census tracks people; they use birth and death certificates, Medicare enrollment (for the population over 65) and tax filings to estimate population changes annually in the 10 years between census counts. From this data, the bureau estimated that the Bronx grew last year, but migration trends are a different story.

From July 2008 to July 2009, 13,596 more people moved out than moved into the Bronx, according to the latest estimate. “That shows that the Bronx is not particularly a fast-growing place and, in addition, it’s actually losing population to other counties,” explained Katie Wingert, a Census Bureau demographer.

Over that same time, the borough landed a net gain of 8,462 immigrants, which is not reflected in the U-Haul report, according to Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College.

“The growth in the Bronx is immigrants,” Beveridge said. “They didn’t rent a truck from Mexico or Puerto Rico and drive up here,” he said.

“There’s no way the Bronx is going to be a high growth area,” he added. For that, you need new construction. “You can’t grow unless you have places to park people.”

The unusual conclusions of the U-Haul report may stem from the fact that Manhattan—population: 1.6 million—has three U-Haul locations, compared to the 20 the Bronx boasts.

“We just go by the drop off location,” Fried, the U-Haul spokesperson, acknowledged. “There’s no way for us to know what city they moved their goods to.”

But Fried added that despite the stark U-Haul imbalance between boroughs, the demographic shifts could be accurate. “Most of the time, we have enough locations that they’ll drop it off at the city they’re in,” he said, pointing out that the U-Haul Center in Chelsea is one of the nation’s busiest.

The U-Haul report, which began years ago as an internal tracker, aids the company in analyzing the movement of its fleet of 101,000 trucks. It compiles a list of every city with over 5,000 one-way truck rentals that year and then ranks them according to the ratio of trucks-in to trucks-out. The company used a similar report, in late 2005, to track the number of trucks driven out of New Orleans post-Katrina and route new vehicles to the stricken region. But as evidence of demographic changes, Beveridge said, the U-Haul claim falls short.

“It probably just reflects where people drop off the trailer or the truck,” he said.

(Homepage / Thumbnail Photo: cjc4454 @ Flickr)

Posted in Housing0 Comments

Seekers Hunt for Jobs in the Bronx

Seekers Hunt for Jobs in the Bronx

At the Morton Williams in Kingsbridge, people lined up to apply for an entry-level job. (Sam Fellman/Bronx Ink)

At the Morton Williams in Kingsbridge, people lined up to apply for an entry-level job. (Fellman/Bronx Ink)

Atavia Scott dreams of being a chef. Nicole Garcia wants to write about travel. And Sophia Pritchet wants to work at the retailer Forever 21. But each has had to put these dream jobs aside for now, and search more widely for that increasingly elusive commodity in the Bronx: the job.

Read more about umemployment in the Bronx here.

On a recent morning, they joined the line of some 40 job applicants at the Morton Williams in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, where the supermarket chain holds weekly interviews for openings at its 12 stores in the city. A manager laid out the application guidelines to the job seekers while a few shoppers strolled by.

“Again, you must know the name of the company and the address of the company” you use as a reference on the application form, explained Valerie Sloan, a vice president at the supermarket.

After explaining other aspects of the hiring process and twice stressing that those without proper identification should leave, Sloan, who declined any comment, returned to the small office perched in a corner above the store exit and called the first applicant.

Those near the front of the line sat down on the ledge running along the storefront window. The line snaked along the wall past the checkouts and the nine-foot-high stack of Malta India soda bottles until finally coming to an end half-way down aisle three just before the Stella D’Oro cookies. Since the supermarket chain holds their applications for six months, most of the job seekers were new.

Even as the national economy added 162,000 jobs nationally in March, according to the latest Department of Labor estimate, in the Bronx, where the unemployment rate is now at 14 percent, the employment market is becoming cutthroat, forcing experienced workers to apply for entry-level positions and others to vastly expand their job search.

Supermarket work wasn’t Atavia Scott’s first choice, but she lost her job as a health aide in January and has applied for over a dozen others without luck. In the last two weeks alone, Scott, who is 27 and lives in Soundview, has applied to more than 15 places—everything from health care to Rite Aid.

“Right now, I’ll work anywhere,” Scott said. “I’m not being a chooser.”

Scott said her interview with Sloan “went OK.” The manager told her that the supermarket was hiring five applicants to work as cashiers or in the deli, and that she’d get a call next week if they had a position for her. They were minimum wage jobs, Scott said, but at least there was a union and some benefits. Still, Scott wasn’t content to wait a week. Afterwards, she left to inquire at a home health agency in Mott Haven.

In many respects, Ben—who declined to give his last name because he feared it might hurt his prospects with the supermarket chain—has had a harder time. He said he had spent 30 years working in supermarkets, until he lost his job managing a food market in Queens in 2007. Ben, now 56, can’t find a job fitting his experience level.

“Some tell me I’m overqualified, some tell me I don’t have enough experience for the position that available,” he said. “All those fast food places—they’re all hiring. But it’s part time work at a minimum wage. They don’t require experience because they do on-the-job training.”

He’s applied to Macy’s, the Restaurant Depot, Sears. “I’ve gone so far as to apply for a job as a secretary,” he added.

Meanwhile, the pressure to stay solvent has been mounting, Ben said. Unable to afford his rent, he had to move his wife and two children to a shelter and now supports them on only $41 in food stamps and $1,720 in public assistance a month.

“It’s really hard to make ends meet when you don’t have much coming in each month,” he said. “I’m out here every day looking for a job. Even on Sundays.”

At the interview, Ben told Sloan that he was applying for a department head position at Morton Williams. Sloan said that no positions were available, but that she’d forward the application to her supervisor. Ben said the supermarket’s benefits were good—medical, dental, raises every six months—and hoped to hear back if a position opened up over the next few months.

Ana Pena, meanwhile, needed a job now. The 56-year-old Dominican immigrant has been out of work for nearly a year after she lost her job cleaning at a McDonald’s. Although she is living with a niece, she said that she wasn’t on Medicaid and needed to get a job as much for the pay as for the health insurance. She was attracted to Target for the employee benefits.

“I was trying to get a job with Target, but they never called me,” she said. “I wish I could get me a job making $8 an hour.”

Pena’s niece suggested she try Morton Williams. But Pena arrived at 9:30 am—15 minutes after they stopped accepting applications. Sloan told her to come back next week.

“It’s ok,” she said. “I’ll be here next time at 8 o’clock.”

Posted in Bronx Tales, Money0 Comments

In Bronx Blaze, Disaster Averted by Seconds

Jacob Sowell, a Pelham Parkway Houses resident, used this safety harness to aid neighbors, who were leaning out of their windows during an apartment fire.

Jacob Sowell, a resident of Pelham Parkway Houses, used this safety harness to aid neighbors, who were leaning out of their windows during an apartment fire. Photo by Sam Fellman.

Jacob Sowell’s nap was rudely interrupted on Monday afternoon by the scene outside his sixth-floor apartment window. He was shocked by what he saw — smoke and a baby dangling out of the window.

“It was almost like a dream – a bad dream,” the 66-year-old Sowell said.

What he saw was Vanessa Scott, 18, holding her 7-month-old cousin, Zaniwah Alexander, out of the window of her fifth-floor apartment that was engulfed in smoke. She was trying to keep the baby from suffocating, she later told the Daily News.

Sowell heard Scott scream, “the fire’s up on me.” Meanwhile, voices from the crowd below cried, “don’t drop the baby!”

From Sowell’s window, he could see that she was loosing her grip.

Just after 2 p.m. at 795 Pelham Parkway North, a fire broke out in a fifth-floor apartment. Ignited in a closet by the front door, the flames soon spread through the crowded apartment, sealing people in a thick curtain of flame and smoke. Tenants raced to the windows for air.

In the apartment directly above, Sowell called 911 and then, with his 20-year-old son Jacob, rushed to the window in his son’s bedroom. Below them, a man and a woman were leaning out the window, gasping for air. “How can I help?” Sowell wondered.

Sowell, a construction worker, seized his safety harness and then broke the bedroom window. He clipped the harness to a pipe nearby and handed the makeshift tether to the man below, who grabbed it and was able to lean farther out.

Within minutes, fire trucks arrived. The firefighters extended a portable ladder and set it against the seven-story building. One climbed up and carried the baby down to safety, then began to evacuate the other people.

The rescue did not come in time for Michel Alexandra to avoid injury. He had been hanging from a rope out of the apartment when the firefighters arrived. Then he lost his grip, falling four stories and striking the building’s awning before hitting the ground. He was evacuated to Jacobi Medical Center, where he is in fair condition, hospital officials said.

Firefighters rescued eight tenants, who were also brought to Jacobi with minor injuries. They have since been released. In addition, three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

A day later, many residents of Pelham Parkway Houses were still shaken up.

Betty Diaz, 51, whose apartment is on the same floor as the fire, fled the building when she heard the screaming of her neighbors. By the time she snatched Kiuruba, her Yorkshire terrier, and left her apartment, the choking, black smoke filled the hallway.

“I can’t see, I can’t even breathe,” Diaz recalled.

Diaz, who has lived in the building for 36 years, said this was the first fire.

The cause of the fire was children playing with matches, Fire Department officials said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Despite Rising Demand, Budget Cuts Loom for Bronx Libraries

Facing huge budget cuts, Bronx library officials pleaded today for money as their branches prepare to reduce hours. Starting on Feb. 16, most of the borough’s 34 libraries will be open about six hours less, dropping from an average of 51 hours a week to 45. Only the Bronx Library Center on East Kingsbridge Road will remain open on Sundays.  And this may only be the beginning, officials say.


Jean Stewart, who visits the Melrose Library four times a week, is concerned about how the library's cutbacks will affect her reading routine. Photo by Sam Fellman

“The unfortunate reality is that more cuts loom on the horizon,” Michael Alvarez, a library manager at the Bronx Library Center, said at a Bronx Borough Board hearing on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposed budget.

Behind the turmoil is a midyear cut of $5.9 million of city funding for the New York City libraries, coming atop a $900,000 decrease in state aid. And larger cuts loom.  The mayor’s budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year, which would go into effect in July, reduces the library budget by an additional $33 million when compared to this year.

The reductions come amid increasing demand by Bronx residents for services from resume training and job search assistance to English classes.  A total of 4.9 million books and other items were checked out last year, a rise of seven percent, with library visits also up,  Alvarez said.

“Families who are now unable to buy books or go to the movies are using our book and DVD collections in record numbers,”  Alvarez said in a statement.

For many Bronx residents, the Sunday closures will mean lifestyle changes for some and increased inconvenience for many.

“These are the resources that people depend on,” said Aurelia Greene, the Bronx deputy borough president. “For someone who’s working all week, when can they go to the library? If I’m working a six-day job, Sunday is my only day.”

Rafael Mora, a student at Lehman College, agreed. He said he used Bronx libraries on the weekend, like a lot of other high school and college students, to catch up on his homework.

Other residents who depend on the library for job search assistance or just a place to read are upset at the changes. One of them is Jean Stewart, a former library assistant, who visits the Melrose library, on Morris Avenue, at least four times a week to read.

“I don’t think they need to cut back on the hours now at all,” Stewart said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments