Tag Archive | "Bronx"

Police seek information on driver in hit-and-run case

After a hit-and-run in the Bronx on Monday, the police have released a surveillance video and have asked for any information on the case, NY1 News reports.

A white sedan hit a 50-year-old woman around 1 pm on Bruckner avenue, according to the New York Police Department.

The woman is in critical condition and has been admitted to Lincoln Hospital.

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Yankee Stadium installs metal detectors

The Yankee Stadium in the Bronx increased security at some of its gates on, News 12 reported on Tuesday.

According to a new initiative by the Major League Baseball (MLB), all stadiums are required to install metal detectors at their gates by 2015.

Baseball fans will now have to walk through full body metal detectors or be manually scanned by security before they head to watch the game.

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Architects to Restore a Historic Bronx Train Station

Located at the intersection of Westchester and Whitlock Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx, the Westchester Avenue train station is about to be restored by two architects based in Manhattan, the New York Daily News reports. Built in 1908, the abandoned place is now covered with ivy and graffitis.

The architects’ plan is to transform the station in two parts, making it an entrance for the Concrete Plan Park. It could also help launching a waterfront community center in the area.

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Bronx Residents Help Affected Communities in Queens After Sandy

Residents from the Edgewater Park section of the Bronx have started donating and volunteering to help highly-affected Queens communities recover from Hurricane Sandy, NY1 reports.

Firefighters and volunteers from Edgewater Park operated in the Breezy Point section of Queens, along with other neighborhoods in the Rockaways.

They bought supplies and lent material, including a generator, to residents of these devastated areas. In Breezy Point, a massive fire burnt more than 100 homes during the hurricane.

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Legal Aid Claims Police are Still Making Illegal Marijuana Arrests

Map compares arrests for criminal weapons possession, in red, to drug possession arrests, in green, that resulted from stop-and-frisk in the Bronx in 2011. Created from 2011 New York City Police Department stop-and-frisk data by Selase Kove-Seyram, Juanita Ceballos, and Annaliese Wiederspahn.

For 38-year-old Obediah Poteat, being stopped and frisked by the police is just a part of life in the East Tremont section of the Bronx where he lives with his wife and five children.

What’s worse, he said, is that officers end up arresting people for minor crimes, like disorderly conduct or having small amounts of marijuana in their pockets. “They are always trying to find a reason to put their hands on you,” said Poteat,  who has been stopped  multiple times, but never arrested. “To search you, to arrest you for whatever.”

Even though the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy is meant to only uncover guns, it has resulted in more and more arrests when officers inadvertently find marijuana in people’s pockets instead.

According to a July New York Times editorial, the number of arrests citywide for possession of small amounts of marijuana increased from less than 1,000 in 1990 to 50,000 in 2011. Almost 94 percent of the 16-to-19-year-olds arrested last year had no prior convictions and nearly half had no arrest record.

In September of last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly released a memo instructing officers not to arrest people who have small amounts of marijuana only if the drugs were in public view at the time of the initial stop. The memo cites a 1977 New York State law that changed the treatment of offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana from being grounds for arrest. Instead officers are to issue a summons ticket, similar to a speeding ticket.  The maximum penalty under New York State law for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana that is not burning or in public view is a $100 fine.

Nine months later the Legal Aid Society filed suit against the police department in New York State Supreme Court charging officers with ignoring the commissioner’s directive, continuing their “illegal marijuana arrest practices.”

Plaintiffs in the case included residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

The Legal Aid Society drew early support for its case from an unlikely source, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. The former mayor published an op-ed in the Huffington Post in June supporting Legal Aid’s efforts to stop misdemeanor possession arrests. Koch qualified his support for stop-and-frisk saying he would only continue his support for the policy so long as it is not used to falsely make criminals out of citizens.

According to analysis by the New York World, in August of last year, the New York City Police Department made 2,486 arrests after police stops. In the month following Commissioner Kelly’s order, the New York City Police Department arrested 2,661 people on misdemeanor marijuana charges. Unlike other boroughs that saw slight drops in misdemeanor marijuana arrests in November and December, arrests in the Bronx continued to rise through the end of 2011.

The first half of 2012 yielded encouraging news. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that police made 27,492 arrests for small possession of marijuana between October and May. That represented a 24.4 percent drop from the previous eight months.

The lead Legal Aid Society attorney on the marijuana arrest practices case said police need to be bound by court orders, “Our objective is to stop this business of improperly arresting people and taking them down to central booking,” said Thomas O’Brien. “It leaves a troubling stain on their record.” The case is still pending, awaiting a judge to be assigned.

Interview with Obediah Poteat by Wiederspahn

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Hurricane Sandy Watch

As Hurricane Sandy approaches New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuations of the city’s low-lying Zone A by 7 p.m. today, reports NY1.

Zone A includes Throggs Neck and Pelham Bay.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this morning that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway and rail service will shut down at 7 p.m. and bus service will end at 9 p.m.

Public schools in New York City will be closed on Monday.

Click here to find out if you live in an evacuation zone.




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West African Patients Lost in Translation

Less than two weeks into his first visit to the United States in August this year, Kamissoko Cheickno began having unusual chest pains. The 55-year-old initially dismissed it as jet lag from his 13-hour flight from Mali to visit his daughter and nephew in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx. But persistent night coughs left his body weak.

A private doctor in the Bronx decided Cheickno was medically fit after a brief examination, but the Mali native was not so sure. The doctor spoke only English, which Cheickno’s nephew translated for him into his native Mandingo. It was his first time he had spoken to a doctor through a translator.

“It was like a wall, I could not talk with him directly,” Cheikno said later said through a translator.

Two weeks later, Cheickno’s health had deteriorated. He was rushed to an emergency room and hospitalized for one week. “My blood pressure had gone high and the doctors found out that I had a kidney problem,” Cheickno said.

The doctors who finally got the diagnosis right were part of the recently opened Diaspora Clinic, a new idea in health care designed to break down the cultural and language barriers between doctors and immigrant patients. The health facility associated with the Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center opened in June specifically for the growing West African immigrant population in the Bronx. It is staffed with West African volunteers who speak the various dialects of the region. Known as cultural brokers, the volunteers assist patients with registration and help translate for the doctors.

“There is a limit to what the cultural brokers can do. They help patients feel at home, but patients must agree to having a third party in the doctor’s office before we use them,” said Sohaib Majeed, a medical doctor who works at the clinic. So far, the Diaspora clinic has registered 1,100 visits since it opened four months ago.

Kamissoko Cheickno (seated), with a blood pressure meter fastened to his arm, waits for a medical laboratory result on one of his followup visits at the Diaspora Clinic. (SELASE KOVE-SEYRAM/The Bronx Ink).

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that over 23 million people in America needed the services of specially trained in-person translators or telephone translation to communicate with doctors. Without translation, the consequences could be dire.

President Bill Clinton passed a regulation in 2000 mandating that federally funded agencies must provide translators for speakers of minority languages. As a result, many hospitals created telephone translation services. These services allow doctors to call toll free numbers, where a specially trained translator brokers the conversation between doctor and patient.

In spite of new telephone technology, the lack of direct human connection still often stands in the way.

“From my experience, many West African immigrants I have worked with speak their local languages,” said Dr. Aboyemi Salako, head of primary care at the Lebanon Hospital. “Doctors who do not speak those languages cannot communicate.”

Dr. Salako, a Nigerian immigrant, has realized the need for hospitals to communicate with this population for more than 30 years. Since 1985, more than 36,000 Africans have moved to the Bronx, most of whom are from the West African countries of Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Few speak international languages. More commonly they speak West African languages such as Hausa, Mandingo, Twi and Ewe.

Before the Diaspora Clinic opened, health workers at the Martin Luther King Hospital found that many patients who speak minority languages ended up in emergency rooms. They tend to avoid early treatment due to language, cultural or economic difficulties.  “We reach out to West Africans because we want to emphasize the need for primary health care,” said Lionel Stewart, executive director of the hospital.

Many patients now visit the clinic regularly for appointments with four specialist doctors who operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The clinic has a social worker, who helps those without medical insurance to sign on to what they require. For the unemployed, undocumented or temporary residents like Cheickno, the hospital provides charity care – at little or no cost. This goes beyond the language and cultural differences.

study published in a 2008 issue of Journal of the National Medical Association found most parents of pediatric patients were satisfied communicating with doctors by telephone translation services. It differs from other studies, which reported low satisfaction. Dr. Dodi Meyer, an Associate Clinical Professor in Pediatrics with the Columbia University Medical Center, said using human interpreters in a medical environment is ideal, but that is costly. Telephone translators are better than nothing.

Dr. Dodi Meyer argues that cultural brokers are very important as long as they don’t violate patient rights. (SELASE KOVE-SEYRAM/The Bronx Ink).

“Those cultural brokers are very important to bridge the trust between the patients that we serve and the medical system,” she said. “You only have to be careful it does not violate the privacy of the patient.”

Once, she remembers, a newborn baby with hip dislocation at birth had to be rushed to an emergency room because the non-English speaking parents could not read the instructions telling them to see a pediatrician regularly. “It almost got out of hand when the parents finally showed up,” she said. “That was a 100 percent case of language barrier.”

One Thursday evening in October at the Diaspora Clinic, Cheickno was waiting with more than 12 patients for a follow up visit. Many of them had heard about the clinic in their churches or mosques. They knew either of two cultural brokers who were present.

Cheickno was speaking in his native Mandingo with one cultural broker, Bourema Niambele, a Malian immigrant who has lived in the Bronx for 16 years. A former AmeriCorps worker, Niambele now owns a car-rental service in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. He was present on the day Cheickno got rushed to the emergency room.

His health has improved since he came here, Niambele said. He gestured to Cheickno, who had a blood pressure meter fastened to his arm. “My blood pressure usually goes high and I’m glad I found this place,” Niambele translated from Mandingo to English.


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Lack of Cheap Housing Boosts Illegal SROs in the Bronx

The Brook, an affordable housing complex located at 455 East 148th St., offers 190 units to people with mental health problems and low-income residents. (MARIANA IONOVA / The Bronx Ink)

Edgar Gamble has everything he needs packed into 250 square feet of living space. His compact home includes a bed, a small bathroom and a partial kitchen. His window looks onto a leafy, tidy courtyard.  A miniature walk-in closet tucked in the corner of the bedroom would be the envy of most New Yorkers. All of it costs him $600 per month and it certainly beats his last address: a shelter for homeless veterans.

The 49-year-old ex-Marine lived on the street for nearly five months before residence management approved him for a unit at The Brook, a nonprofit supportive housing development providing single-room homes in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The 190-unit nonprofit complex was built just three years ago. It has a shiny, pale grey exterior, which stands out next to the neighboring crumbling brownstones with facades slashed by strings of colorful laundry hung onto fire escapes.

The luxury of the Brook is an anomaly in the world of single-tenant homes, which often offer cramped quarters the size of a parking space. Gamble, who recently got hired as a blood laboratory specialist at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, has lived in about a half dozen single-unit homes in specialized Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences since he left the Marines. Most lacked cooking facilities and extra space was unthinkable. “If you were lucky, you got a room with a bathroom,” he said. “If you got it, it was smaller than a jail cell.”

About 30,000 of these legal SRO units exist in New York City today and they account for only about 8 percent of the housing market. The city defines them as one-bedroom dwellings that usually share bathroom or kitchen facilities with other units. Rooms must be at least 150 square feet and each one has to have a window, city regulations say. All rooms must have access to a fire exit and only tenants over 16 are allowed to occupy them. Owners usually collect the rent each week, charging each tenant somewhere between $100 and $200.

While today single room units are a sliver of the city’s real estate, this wasn’t always the case.  Researchers estimate that, in the 1950s, approximately 200,000 units existed in New York City. But in 1955, the city, motivated by a deep belief that cramped single rooms offered substandard conditions, banned further construction of new SRO residences. The idea was to phase out poor housing and replace it with better-quality dwellings, said Brian Sullivan, an attorney with the SRO Project at MFY Legal Services, a nonprofit firm that represents low-income tenants in housing claims.

“The problem is that the people of the ’50s imagined everyone would prosper and be able to afford good housing,” he said. “So the number of legal SROs plummeted catastrophically over the last 50 years, without any real sense of alternatives.”

The response has been a boom in illegal single room units, which have been springing up outside the city’s regulatory reach with unprecedented speed. City officials say that owners of one- and two-family houses are illegally chopping up their homes to convert them into multiple-unit dwellings that can be rented out to desperate tenants looking for low-cost housing. These homes are often crowded to the point of exceeding city regulations and rooms lack access to proper fire exits, posing a serious risk to tenants.

Francisco Gonzalez, manager of Community District 9, said illegal single units in the Bronx in particular have been on the rise in the last two years, as more new immigrants looking for cheap housing have moved into the borough. The increase in his district has been mostly around Boynton and Ward Avenues, where most newcomers have settled in recent years, according to Gonzalez.

“Many immigrants, they can’t pay $1,000, $1,200 for an apartment,” he said. “These places, some of them cost $150 or $200 a week. That’s much more doable for them.”

But illegal single room occupancies remain a highly contested issue. The city came under fire last year  when three Mexican immigrants died in an early-morning fire that engulfed an illegally converted brownstone in the Belmont section of the Bronx. The tenants, a couple and their 12-year-old son, were living on the second floor of the home and could not reach the fire exit.

The way the city currently deals with illegal units like that one is through inspections and fines, which are usually triggered by complaints from neighbors. Between January 2010 and March of this year, the city received 5,587 complaints about illegally converted homes in the Bronx, according to city records of 311 service requests.

The borough also has the highest rate of serious housing code violations, says a report by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, which found them in 9.4 percent of all rental units. By comparison, similar violations exist in six percent of rental units in Brooklyn, four percent of those in Manhattan and just two percent of those in Queens. The overall city average hovers around 5.4 percent.

Citywide, the Department of Buildings receives approximately 20,000 complaints about illegal conversions each year, according to spokesperson Tony Sclafani. Inspectors investigate all complaints and, if the residence houses more people than legally permitted by the city’s zoning codes, the Environmental Control Board issues the landlord a fine. They are typically asked to pay around $2,400 but the fine can go up to $25,000 for repeat offenders.

If inspectors find pressing hazardous conditions, they can also issue an order for tenants to leave the building on the spot. Last year, city inspectors issued more than 1,200 vacate orders for converted residences that posed an “immediate threat,” lacked fire exits and were not safe for occupancy, said Sclafani.

But the inspection process is far from seamless. Many inspectors face owners who refuse to open the door and, in such cases, they have no other legal way of gaining access to the inside of the building. They can visit the residence again but, after the second time, they have to post a form requesting access on the door and mail it to the owner. If they still receive no response, the department’s policy says the case must be dropped. This year, inspectors were able to gain access to just 46 percent of properties that received illegal conversion complaints, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Inspectors can only request an access warrant when there are visible signs hinting the building is an SRO, like multiple mailboxes or doorbells.

Since 2009, the city has tried to crack down on illegal conversions in a more concerted way. Sclafani said his department has orchestrated undercover operations into illegal dwellings, distributed 160,000 fliers as part of an education campaign and formed a task force to target high-risk conversions. The task force — a joint effort between Sclafani’s team, Housing Preservation and Development and the fire department — is aimed at focusing resources on buildings with structural problems and histories of fire incidents.

But the crackdown on illegal conversions will not curb their popularity because there is a large pool of renters looking for cheap housing, said Harold Shultz, a senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit research group that aims to improve housing conditions in the city.

“It’s an issue of a demand that is being unmet by the housing market,” said Shultz, who spent 30 years in the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department, working in the areas of housing preservation and code enforcement. “There’s a lot of single people looking to rent and they don’t have a lot of money.”

This is especially true in the Bronx, where 80 percent of people rent and tenants spend 34 percent of their income on housing, the highest percentage citywide. Although the borough still offers the cheapest rents in New York City, with prices 25 percent lower than those in Manhattan and 22 percent lower than in Queens, upward rental trends have not spared tenants. In 2011, prices averaged $1,008 per month, nine percent higher than what rents were two years ago.

“Illegal units are going to occur as long as there’s a lack of cheap alternatives,” said Sullivan. “There’s just a need for that level of cheap housing.”

The city has attempted to address the shortage of affordable, smaller housing in New York City by toying with the idea of loosening the rules and legalizing technically illegal single room occupancies that pose no real risk to tenants. The city has received recommendations by research organizations like the Pratt Center for Community Development that point to legalization of those SROs as the best way to cope with the demand for affordable housing. Erik Martin Dilan, chair of the city’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, has publicly said that he’s begun to look into the suggestion but no concrete plans have been made yet.

Jill Hamberg, a long-time urban planner and housing expert, worked on drafting legislation that would legalize safe single room occupancies back in the mid-1990s, when the issue first caught the attention of the City Council. The draft legislation was eventually tossed aside but, in the course of the year and a half she spent on the project, she began to understand just how difficult it would be to implement.

“The zoning and building codes are just too complicated to allow for that,” said Hamberg, who now teaches urban planning at Empire State College. She said building owners looking to bring their converted homes up to par with legal SROs will often find it impossible to meet regulatory standards. Most brownstones, for example, would never meet the size requirements of legal SROs because the rooms are often less than the mandated 150 square feet. Technicalities like that, she says, pose barriers to legalization of single room occupancies.

But, Shultz argues that preserving this type of housing is crucial to the city’s low-income population because, without it, homelessness would reach new, unprecedented levels.

“Imagine if you could effectively enforce the rules on all the illegal SROs in New York City,” he said. “Suddenly, you might have another 100,000 homeless people. What would you do with them? Would you rather have them sleeping on the street?”

Mariana Ionova can be contacted via email at mi2300@columbia.edu or on Twitter.

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