Tag Archive | "Multimedia"

Fordham Residents Flee Raging Fire in Hazardous Apartment Building

Damage to the second-floor apartment where the blaze began at 2727 University Avenue. (YI DU / The Bronx Ink)

A fire ripped through a University Avenue apartment building on West 195th Street and Eames Place on Sept. 13, injuring 14 residents, three of whom are in critical condition.

Residents described terrifying moments trying to flee on fire escapes that were hard to find in poorly lit, smoke-filled areas. Below a shattered fifth-floor window, a trail of blood stained the building. It was from a resident who severed an artery while trying to escape.

The fire began in a second floor apartment after 11:15 p.m on Wednesday in the northwest Bronx. A 4-year old girl, 34-year old woman and 50-year old man are in critical condition at North Central Bronx Hospital and New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Thick smoke traveled quickly and filled the poorly designed apartment units, making it difficult for residents to find fire escapes. “That was the worst several minutes in my life,” said Jeimy Diaz, a resident in the fifth floor who injured herself while trying to find the fire escape atop the darkly lit roof. “We thought we were gonna die. The whole building is damaged.”

The fire department could not be reached for comment. DNAinfo.com reported 25 fire units, more than 100 firefighters, rushed to battle the blaze inside the six-story building.

According to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the building has 21 violations described as “immediately hazardous with inadequate fire exits, rodents, lead-based paint, lack of heat, hot water, electricity, or gas.”

The Brooklyn-based landlord, Residential Management Inc., has received 93 complaints this year from residents of the building, according to city records. The complaints range from broken windows, water leaks, mold and defective or missing smoke detectors.

Charred furniture, strewn belongings and broken glass replaced what were once living spaces for many residents.

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, residents such as Diaz are asking to be relocated. She worries that her children who have asthma will suffer from the lingering chemicals that now rise from the building’s physical damage.

Ryan Hernandez, 12, lives on the first floor and was able to immediately evacuate the burning building. “I didn’t know what was happening,” said Hernandez, “people were screaming and I heard the firemen say ‘get out there! Everybody get out.’”

Coleen Jose can be contacted via email at lj2207@columbia.edu or on Twitter

Yi Du can be contacted via email at yd2257@columbia.edu or on Twitter.


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Housing, Multimedia, Northwest BronxComments (0)

[Video] Hot house!  A Caribbean ecosystem in the snow-covered Bronx

[Video] Hot house! A Caribbean ecosystem in the snow-covered Bronx

By Sana Gulzar & Manuel Rueda

Posted in Multimedia, The Bronx Beat, VideoComments (0)

Breaking the Art Rules

by Matthew Huisman

Four surrealist paintings hang on Luis D. Rosado’s wall in his South Bronx apartment. The sequence of paintings by Rich Rethorn depicts a horrific version of the four seasons. Skin slowly melts off a zombie’s head, eventually revealing a skull set in front of a post apocalyptic backdrop. An eyeball dangles from the skull, still connected to the socket, and stares back at the viewer.

“I wanted to put together a show that was thought provoking imagery,” Rethorn, 45, said of the paintings. “It might be disturbing to some peopl. But usually when they’re disturbed, that’s when they’re going to start to ask questions.”

The paintings were part of the November exhibit at LDR Studio Gallery, a gallery that operates out of the 28-year-old Rosado’s apartment at 134th Street and Alexander Avenue. For Rosado, its more than just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.

“I feel like my calling was in the South Bronx and I wanted to do my own thing,” Rosado said of his gallery. “I wanted to break all the rules. Call me crazy, but I think I’m doing it.”

Rosado’s gallery, which bears his initials, is celebrating its second anniversary in December with champagne. But before he can pop the cork on the affair, Rosado has to remove the previous month’s exhibit with help from artist and curator Rethorn.

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

To maintain his artist’s lifestyle, Rosado holds down two jobs, runs his own architecture photography business and sleeps four hours a day. Rosado is emblematic of the diverse artistic community of the South Bronx that seeks independence from the restraints of large, corporate galleries while exploring alternative outlets for their creative energy. The South Bronx gives artists the canvas to develop their unique style and exhibit their work the way they see it.

Seven blocks north of Rosado’s apartment gallery is another apartment-turned-gallery, the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project, started two years ago by Blanka Amezkua. Born in Mexico and raised in California, Amezkua left the Golden State five years ago for the Bronx.

Amezkua’s idea for the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project was a creative reaction to the emotions she felt after losing her nephew in a car crash in 2006. Amezkua took the death hard since she had never before experienced losing a loved-one who was so dear to her. A year later Amezkua painted her Mott Haven bedroom robin’s-egg blue and thus was born the Blue Bedroom Project.

“In retrospect, that was part of my healing,” Amezkua said. “It was an opening up of the most intimate space in my apartment.” Amezkua now lives with her husband in Queens and makes the daily commute to her studio where she once lived.

Amezkua has invited Bronx artists like Laura Napier and Matthew Burkaw, whom she met through Artists in the Marketplace, a program run by the Bronx Museum of the Arts that provides artists with practical knowledge, to be part of her project. December’s artist is Napier and she is planning a bit of trickery for gallery-goers.

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Two floors above Amezkua’s blue bedroom, Napier is running a cable from her fifth floor bedroom window down the front of the building to Amezkua’s gallery. The wire carries a live feed of Napier’s bedroom – identical in size, shape and painted to match the original blue bedroom – to be transmitted on a television inside Amezkua’s gallery. The bedroom door in the gallery will be closed with a sign posted that asks guests to keep the door closed. Patrons will be able to watch what’s happening on the other side of the bedroom door on the television, or so they think.

“The idea is if people go in there and people are expecting to see themselves on the screen, they won’t,” Napier said of the exhibit. “I’m really interested to see how people behave.”

Napier is using her lunch break from her job at the Bronx Council for the Arts to set up her upcoming December exhibit in the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. The blue bedroom serves as a place where artists and the community interact and share art.

The South Bronx has a long artistic history dating back to the 70’s when Stefan Eins founded Fashion Moda, a storefront art studio and melting pot where artists and the neighborhood mingled.

“There was hip hop, there was break-dancing, there was dj-ing and there was graffiti,” said Lisa Kahane, a photographer who documented the Bronx during the 70’s. “What happened at Moda was these people met with artists from downtown, so there was definitely a cross pollination of different art forms.”

While The Bronx was experimenting with Fashion Moda, SoHo was becoming a booming art scene where galleries lined the blocks south of Houston Street. The same happened in Chelsea, as philanthropists poured more money into the Manhattan art scene.

“So you walk around and there are all these galleries all in one place,” Kahane said. “That was the accepted art neighborhood.”

When rent in Manhattan increased, artists sought out cheaper living accommodations and more space in the outer boroughs. Places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn have seen an influx in artists who are gentrifying the communities they occupy. However, the art scene in the South Bronx, though, has never been able to grow quite as fast.

“It’s up and coming but it’s taking its time,” Rosado said of the South Bronx art scene. Along with the tight-knit artistic community comes freedom from the corporate strings–a big selling point for Rosado.

“I just never really liked the fact that you had to pretty much be a prostitute to galleries about your art and yourself,” Rosado said. “I’m not dogging Chelsea. It’s just that I don’t like the attitude within that art world. I know that eventually I would like to show in Chelsea, but I don’t like the fact that it’s become so corporate. They start forgetting about the art itself and it’s all about business.”

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

For Amezkua the stigma that surrounds The Bronx started in the 70’s with the housing crisis and more recently the violence that plagued the borough in the 90’s. This has left the South Bronx with a reputation as an uncultured void in the city.

“It’s a very different thing when you say Bronx or when you say Williamsburg or Chelsea,” Amezkua said. “The Bronx is viewed as the ugly duckling of New York.” She did, however, praise the borough’s diversity. “When you come from a place that is not as diverse, and you land in The Bronx, you see the richness of the culture. It’s mindboggling.”

The downside to keeping corporate money at bay, is that the South Bronx art movement has never gained enough momentum to pull in outside investors.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Barry Kostrinsky, a 25-year veteran of the South Bronx art scene. “There are a lot of artists who do their own thing. Everyone has so many things going on in their life.”

Since the 80’s Kostrinsky has been creating art, everything from oil landscapes to acrylic on found objects. He said that art is about self expression and being socially aware at the same time.

“Art is about blasting parameters,” Kostrinsky said. “If you draw on garbage, you put it in perspective. It’s not the Mona-fucking-Lisa, it’s very real.”

It’s opening night for Rosado’s gallery and he is popping another bottle of champagne for his guests. He smiles as he refills empty glasses and begins to take another stroll through the exhibit.

“I like the fact that I am an underground gallery,” Rosado said. “I wake up in the morning and I eat art. I breathe art. I see art. It’s just all over.”

Rosado and Amzekua have maintained their independence from corporate art galleries, deciding instead to go it alone financially. Their reward is the ability to showcase local art that is free and open to the community while exploring the limits of their own creativity.

“Everybody leaves and I just sit down on the floor, pop a bottle of champagne,” Rosado said, “and just look at the artwork one by one.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (4)

Lost Jobs Mean Lost Family

By Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

The main strip of Broadway running through the neighborhood of Kingsbridge in the Northwest Bronx looks the same since the Stella D’Oro cookie factory closed its doors for good in October.

There is only one difference: the unmistakable scent of baked goods in the oven.

“I used to get that aroma here,” said Eddie Marrero, a 30-year veteran of the plant, who lives blocks away in an apartment on Bailey Avenue. “When I’d go out on my terrace, I could tell what they were baking.”

On October 8, 2009, the employees of Stella D’Oro went to work for the last time. About 140 employees, including Marrero, lost their jobs when the 78-year-old plant closed down for good. The closing came in the wake of a protracted dispute between the unionized workers and the current ownership that led to a lengthy labor strike. It left many workers–who felt like Stella D’Oro was family–unmoored in the weeks before the holiday season.

Marrero, 50, said he started with Stella as a production packer in 1979. By the time the factory closed, he was a foreman baker who oversaw the ovens, the production lines and checked for quality control.

“It’s not like a chocolate chip cookie,” Marrero said of the challenge of baking quality Stella D’Oro treats. “One day the breakfast treats can come out looking like crap.”

Marrero’s live-in girlfriend Evelyn Rivera, got a job as a table packer two years ago, after she was laid off from her position as a clerk on Wall Street.

Rivera began by working the overnight shift, packing snacks into trays alongside five to 10 other women from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“I was used to paper work,” she said of the aches that came with manual labor. She pulled her finger back as if squeezing a gun to demonstrate how the muscles in her hand would freeze up from the “trigger finger” she developed packing up to 10,000 cookies a day.

“It’s an art,” she said, “It’s not like “I Love Lucy” when they got jobs at the candy factory.”

Marrero said that a Stella D’Oro job was one of the best jobs to be had in the Bronx.

“Nobody is going to find a job like Stella D’Oro,” he said. “It was the only job in the Bronx that started you off at $14 an hour.”

Marrero said he was making $21 and hour when the factory closed, coming out around $65,000 a year. Rivera, who began at $14 an hour, was on her second raise, making $16 an hour.

About 75 former employees, community members and labor activists protested outside the factory on October 9, 2009 after the factory was closed the day before. Video by Connor Boals

Now, Marrero is “semi-retired,” still waiting for $7,000 owed to him from a National Labor Relations Board ruling against Brynwood Partners, the company that purchased Stella D’Oro two-and-a-half years ago. His son, Eddie is 23 and attends John Jay College where he studies criminal justice. Marrero covered his tuition until this year, now his son is taking care of his education through loans.

Rivera’s daughter, Rosa, is 19 and a senior at John F. Kennedy High School. Come January, both mother and daughter will be students when Rivera goes back to school to get study medical coding in pursuit of a job in a medical billing department.

For nearly 80 years the Stella D’Oro Cookie factory churned out its trademark cookies, breadsticks and pastries that are distributed nationwide.

The bakery’s iconic treats trace their heritage to Joseph Kresevich, who emigrated to the United States from Trieste, Italy in 1922. Ten years later, he and his wife Angela established Stella D’Oro, Italian for “gold star,” in a small shop on Bailey Avenue in Kingsbridge.

Although Stella D’Oro’s cookies were based on the Italian pastries that Kresevich remembered from his homeland, they quickly became cross-cultural snacks.

The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The factory’s neighborhood was largely filled with Jewish families, and the fact that the pastries were often made without eggs or butter meant that they were suitable for kosher customers. A particular favorite was the company’s Swiss Fudge cookies, which many Jewish consumers dubbed “shtreimels,” after the round fur hats that are traditionally worn on the Sabbath by Hasidic Jews.

In 1992, Stella D’Oro was purchased by Nabisco, which subsequently became part of Kraft foods. In 2003, Kraft began experimenting with cheaper ingredients, ultimately dropping the “pareve” kosher designation from its label. This led to an immediate uproar among the Jewish consumers who formed the bulk of the company’s customer base. Kraft quickly changed back to the original recipe and re-instituted its kosher certification.

In 2006, Kraft sold Stella D’Oro to a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners for $17.5 million, a significant reduction compared to the $100 million price tag Kraft paid for the brand. Soon thereafter, Brynwood attempted to cut employee health and retirement benefits and proposed ending pensions in exchange for establishing 401(k)s.

“A 401(k) can go in a blast,” Marrero said. “That ain’t no pension. If I live up to 100, I’m going to be getting that.”

Marrero said that the pension plan he is on was a “golden eighties” plan which a worker qualified for after 15 or twenty years of service and then it paid out double the amount for every year worked.
On August 13, 2008, 135 employees, all members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50 went on strike because of the demands the new owners had brought to the table. The Local 50 is a small union, with membership around 1,000 workers, so the a support group, the Stella D’Oro Solidarity Committee, consisting of community members, labor activists and union members

According to the committee, Brynwood’s wanted to slash wages as much as 25 percent, impose “crushing” premiums to the health insurance plan, eliminate holidays, vacation and sick pay and do away with extra pay for working Saturdays.

Marrero said the message he was hearing from Brynwood was that they didn’t have the money to pay for these things anymore. This confused Marrero because he never saw any cutbacks on production.

“As soon as we were baking them, they were going into the trucks.” He said. “There was always work, we could work as long as we wanted.”

Marrero said he would often work 40 hours a week, plus 11-12 hours in overtime where he was paid time-and-a-half.

The union, which had represented the workers since the early 1960s, rejected the new company’s demands and began picketing. Brynwood immediately replaced them with backup workers that they had already gathered.

Every day when the replacement workers emerged from the factory for a shift change, they were met with angry heckling.

“Scabs!” the crowd roared.

“I was going to get into a fight with a few of them,” Rivera said.

This was Rivera’s first strike. Marrero had previously been through four during his tenure at Stella D’Oro.

“I learned so much from it,” she said. “I never thought I would go on strike.”

Rivera said that she is thankful to have been on strike. It was a pivotal experience, where she gained knowledge and friendship.

“When I was out there in the strike, I got to know everybody. We got to know each other much better. It was a friendly atmosphere.” She said.

“The strikers figured it would be two weeks,” said Micah Landau, a community supporter and graduate student at CUNY. “Then it started getting cold and it went from August 13 to October 13.”

Landau said that Brynwood Partners intentionally created unreasonable demands to bust the union.

“These guys, they provoke the strike, and its because they weren’t interested in negotiating,” he said. “It was like a siege. They were trying to starve people out.”

The plight of the workers attracted the attention of many in the world of New York City politics and activism. Marrero said that nearly every New York City politician came out and show support at one time or another, all except for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“You have all these politicians but you only have one emperor,” he said of Bloomberg. “He’s still ignoring us.”

The tiny factory sparked a reaction from labor groups across New York, the country and even beyond the borders of the United States. On the day the factory closed, US Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Billy Talen all marched with about 50 former employees outside the factory on the day it was finally closed

Talen, better know as “Reverend Billy” is a bouffant-adorned performance activist who runs the Church of Life after Shopping, a performance group dedicated to fighting the evils of capitalism. Reverend Billy performs “exorcisms,” preaches revival-style sermons and pops up on cable news with color commentary any time that capitalism is under examination. The Reverend, who was also the Green Party candidate for New York City mayor, dedicated his latest sermon to the plight of the Stella D’Oro workers.

“The Stella D’Oro factory bakery was the backbone of this community,” Talen said. “It’s very sad.”

Talen wasn’t the only anti-capitalist rabble-rouser to come to the aid of the workers. In September, the union workers asked Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, to purchase the factory and fund a Kingsbridge worker’s cooperative through Venezuela’s own oil and gas supplier, CITGO. Chavez took them seriously.

Chavez, who was in New York City for the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, told the UN, “One of [the workers] said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the company?’” I said, ‘I’m going to look into it.’”

“We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me,” Chavez said. “The company can be bought and handed over to the workers.”

Chavez was no stranger to the Bronx. In the winter of 2005, according to the New York Times, he provided 8 million gallons of discounted heating oil to thousands of low-income residents in the South Bronx.

Brynwood rebuffed Chavez’s offer. The company never answered any calls made on his behalf.

With only 135 union members from a small union that only had 1,000 members total, the workers needed help from outside the union to have any chance, Landau said.

Landau was working as a staff reporter for the United Federation of Teachers when he traveled to Kingsbridge to cover the strikers in December 2008.

“They’d been on strike since August,” he said. “They were like starving to death on the picket line. It was like watching people die.”

Soon he went from writer to community organizer, steering the community outreach and working to make sure the plight of the Stella D’Oro worker was getting attention from the media and the rest of the labor world.

“I had just wanted to write about this thing,” he said. “I ended up getting involved to the point where the newspapers wouldn’t let me write about it anymore.”

Landau has since moved to Chicago, passing the torch to Rene Rojas, 37, a PhD student at New York University.

“The support committee itself is no longer functioning,” Rojas said. “I don’t think there will be a set of demands for Stella D’Oro anymore. The fight has shifted to getting the right severance package.”

After the strike was ended by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, Rojas said, the court ordered a new severance package for the workers. Now, Brynwood Partners is trying to revert to an older, less generous package that existed before the ruling.

“Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emelia Dursu, 58, who worked at the factory as a table packer, placing cookies in trays for 20 years. She said she began working at the factory in 1979 after she immigrated to the New York City from Ghana. She has three children, all of them grown. “I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive until my pension is around 2012 or 13.”

Mike Filippou, who worked as a lead mechanic at Stella for over 14 years and orchestrated much of the rally efforts is taking classes to become a certified mechanic so that he can pursue work at a Wonderbread factory in Queens which is a member of the Local 50 Union.

“I would say the majority of workers still have not been placed in jobs,” said Rojas. “It’s easier for those like Mike who have a certain skill, but the more unskilled workers will have a lot of trouble.”

While losing the security of a full-time job in an economy where opportunities for work are not bountiful is a hard blow to suffer, many of the workers mourn the loss of the family atmosphere at the plant.

“It was a job you were able to live off of,” Marrero said. “But it was also family-oriented.”

Marrero has the scar to prove it. Beneath his faded blue New York Giants t-shirt is a faint 6-inch scar running up his left side from when he donated his kidney in 2000 to Jerry Fleck, a fellow Stella worker who had worked with Marrero since 1983. Fleck is godfather to Marrero’s son.

“This is how we were at Stella D’Oro,” Marrero said.

Marrero said that losing his job didn’t affect him greatly as he had qualified for his pension and had already been planning to retire at 55. For now, he plans to get his commercial driver’s license with hopes of driving a school bus, giving him plenty of time for fishing, a favorite hobby of his.

As for the future of Stella D’Oro in their new home, Rivera is confident that Lance will get its comeuppance for moving the factory.

“It’s not going to work out for them,” she said. Stella D’Oro can only be made in New York. It can only be with New York water.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, PoliticsComments (1)

The Soundview Tenants Who Fell Through the Cracks

by Donal Griffin and Matthew Huisman with audio slideshow by Carmen Williams

Martha Castro cannot remember how many mousetraps and glueboards she has scattered around her two-bedroom apartment on East 172nd Street in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. All she knows for sure is that four are in the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps.

“We’re not really getting heat,” Castro said. “There’s something wrong with the pipeline so we don’t get no heat. The only place that gets warm in this apartment is the kitchen and the living-room.”

Her son wants her to move to Florida, away from the cold weather and her home of 21 years. But that would take Castro away from her case in Bronx Housing Court against Hunter Property Management, the company responsible for managing her building and five others throughout the borough.

Residents living in Hunter-owned buildings have problems like rat, roach and mice infestation. Photo by Connor Boals

Rat holes in an apartment in 1585 East 172nd Street. Residents accuse their landlord of not making repairs. Photo by Connor Boals

On Hunter’s watch, the buildings have racked up thousands of housing violations. Residents have accused the company of not being able to afford the repairs. “I might just say ‘to hell with it’ and leave,” said Castro, who is 65. “But I hate to have started something and leave it half undone.”

Castro’s is the latest chapter of an all-too familiar story in the Bronx after the real estate crash in 2008, one that pits low-income tenants against their debt-laden landlords struggling with bank repayments.

On the side of the residents is an aggressive non-profit, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has helped Castro and other residents organize against Hunter. Based on Wall Street and led by a spiky activist named Dina Levy, UHAB began its campaign in September of this year with flyers accusing Hunter – which is associated with the buildings’ owners, BXP 1 LLC – of not having the funds to repair or even maintain the buildings.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest meeting.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest.

The tenants and UHAB then held a protest meeting in the lobby of Martha Castro’s building in October, but a Hunter security official called the police, further antagonizing both sides. Hunter’s general counsel, Alice Belmonte, said that the tenants had every right to hold the meeting, but any UHAB activist would be considered a trespasser. “UHAB had already trespassed in the building,” Belmonte said, “by littering it with flyers.”

Conditions in the buildings continued to worsen in November as city housing inspectors noted that the property manager had failed to make even basic repairs to broken smoke detectors and bathroom faucets. UHAB and the residents then decided to march into the Bruckner Boulevard branch of the Dime Bank and Savings, the bank that has backed two sales of the buildings in less than three years. Security officers escorted the protesters off the premises and they then picketed outside, attracting some unwanted publicity for Dime.

The tenants had contacted bank officials before about the buildings’ worsening conditions, but got little in response, according to the advocacy group. “The message at the time was that it’s not our problem,” said Dina Levy. “We got a bullshit letter back (and) this blow-off phone call.” Indeed, the Dime’s chief lending officer, Dan Harris, had previously stated to Bronxink.org that the bank could do little to help the situation as it was “just the lender.”

Andreas Rios, a 13-year resident at 1585 East 172nd Street, said he wrote to Dime Bank personally when his request for repairs to his apartment went unheeded by the building’s super. “They explained that if that’s the situation, ‘We can’t get involved,'” Rios said. “That’s your problem.”

But three days after the protest, on Nov. 23, Harris met with the residents and the non-profit. “I think we got their attention,” said Rios.

Getting the bank to the table was crucial to putting pressure on Hunter, according to UHAB, and the militant strategy appears to have worked. “We are optimistic that tenant representatives, the owners, UHAB and the bank will have a follow up meeting soon,” said Harris, “where we can air all the issues and find practical solutions which benefit all parties.”

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

But Harris has more to worry about than just negative publicity. Dime Bank had backed the $13.2 million purchase of the six buildings in May 2009 to a company called BXP 1 LLC. This is managed by the same property developer who owns Hunter: Sam Suzuki. This “over-leveraged” position is now a critical problem, according to Levy, while residents like Castro have also stopped paying rent in protest, further weakening the buildings’ financial position. “But (even) if everybody were paying their rent,” Levy said, “the buildings would still have negative cash flow.”

Dime Savings Bank backed the original $16.6 million sale of the six buildings to the Ocelot group in July 2007. Ocelot had built up a portfolio of almost 30 buildings in Bronx, all of which were backed by Fannie Mae – with the exception of the six Dime-backed buildings. Ocelot’s principals then pulled their investment in late 2008 and sought to sell the entire portfolio to Sam Suzuki. But that deal collapsed earlier this year and Fannie Mae was forced to put its buildings into foreclosure.

A portable heater in one of the Hunter buildings is a necessity. Many of the building have infrequent heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A portable heater in a Hunter-managed apartment. Many of the buildings often go with out heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

While the clamor surrounding the condition of the Ocelot buildings grew in the Bronx over the summer–even attracting the attention of U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer–Suzuki bought six of the buildings in May. The debt on the other Ocelot buildings has since been sold to another developer in a deal praised by UHAB and the city. But Suzuki’s buildings remain out of the spotlight, despite their decrepit state.

The six buildings have 2,519 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as of Dec. 6. The worst conditions are in Castro’s building on East 172nd Street, which has 528 violations. Two of the Highbridge buildings are now listed amongst the 200 most distressed buildings in the city. The violations include everything from the infestation of rats, roaches and mice to lead-based paint peeling from the walls.

“The supers used to paint before and they don’t even do that now,” Rios said. “There’s graffiti all over the place. You can even see the lead from the paint chipping out.”

The buildings have the potential for even more violations, but many go unreported. A lot of the residents receive a rent subsidy from the city, said Emmanuel Attram, a Ghanaian resident of another Hunter-managed property on nearby 1268 Stratford Avenue, and don’t protest their conditions for fear of losing it.

This isn’t the only reason. “There are a lot of illegal immigrants in this building,” said Walter H. Clark, another Stratford Avenue resident. “A lot of them won’t complain.”

Castro’s court complaint against Hunter has already resulted in a court order from the Bronx Housing Court requiring Hunter to make various repairs to her building. “Some repairs have been made and some have not,” said Steven Di Cesare, Castro’s lawyer. “We can talk to the landlord more or go back to the courts – they’re the options.”

Hunter’s Alice Belmonte did not respond to questions from Bronxink.org about the company, the court case or about Sam Suzuki, as she said the company had an exclusive deal in place with another media outlet, which she would not name.

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Suzuki’s profile on Linkedin.com describes him as the principal in Hunter, which was registered with New York State’s Division of Corporations in November 2008. The profile also states that he was a principal until last year in another company called Vintage Group LLC, which was “responsible for the acquisition and development of over $500 million in real estate developments.”

In 2008, Hudson Valley Bank foreclosed on one of his properties in Sands Point, Long Island, NY, in order to secure a $2.7 million debt. ChinaTrust Bank recently secured a $3.3 million judgment against the same property.

“The Daily News” reported last month that yet another entity linked to Suzuki called Venator Capital LLC had purchased the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens, for $20 million. Suzuki more recently told “The New York Times” that he has yet to close the deal. The New York City property registry does not list any purchases by Venator Capital, however, while the Division of Corporations has no record of the company. According to Suzuki’s profile, Venator Capital invests in distressed properties and its expertise is “the acquisition of troubled assets.”

Martha Castro said she cannot afford to make the repairs to her apartment on her own. Parts of the linoleum floor in her kitchen and bathroom caved in after a fire seven years ago damaged the structural integrity of the building. Earlier this month, Castro paid for a handyman to plaster the walls and paint, yet cracks and discoloration caused by leaky pipes still persist. “The things that have improved here,” Castro said, “they’ve come out of my pocket.” But having invested money and time in her home, she is hesitant to change. “You get settled in a place and you don’t want to move.”

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A Cab Tale

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Church of the Holy Rollers

By Alex Berg

One by one, seven teenage boys zipped down the hallway on skateboards. Like successive bullets fired out of a shotgun, the teens hit a waist high ramp that launched them into a tango with the air and the board beneath their feet. Fifteen year-old Jose Castillo flew off the triangular ramp, air bound for mere seconds before his feet and board separated, bringing him crashing to the ground under a nearby basketball hoop.

The hoop was tagged with yellow, orange and red graffiti — “Jesus Lives.” The skate ramp was inside a South Bronx church.

Castillo is a member of HeavenBound7, a skateboarding team started by Henry Pena, a 51-year-old computer technician by day and volunteer youth minister by night at La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Church. Pena is something of a coach to the 30 to 40 teens on the team who come to the Morrisania church on Friday nights to skate on ramps and grind rails he built himself.

During some practices, Pena instructs Castillo to bend his knees or fix his form. Other times he is a quiet onlooker. But his mission is always clear: give kids a constructive activity in an unexpected location to get them off the streets in a neighborhood taxed by drugs and crime.

When the skaters tell outsiders they skateboard inside a church, they’re often met with crooked stares. The fusion of religion and skateboarding strikes people as novel, since religion is associated with discipline and skateboarding is an unconventional sport. Then again, skateboarding is simply a rarity in the Bronx, where there are only three skate parks – Mullaly near Yankee Stadium, one on Allerton Avenue towards the northeast and Throgs Neck in the far northeast – and none in the Central or South Bronx.

“The Bronx is gritty,” said Damion Blair, a 20-year-old student at the Art Institute of New York, who was one of the first to skate in the church with a congregation of 50. “It’s real hard to raise any kids with the violence. It’s not a good environment. You never hear skaters come to the Bronx to skate. Never. You hear skaters go to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Because there’s no safe environment for people to skate.”

The church HeavenBound7 calls home, an unexceptional tan building with traditional red doors and a well-lit sign, is located in a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of families lived in poverty in 2007. It is on 169th Street two blocks away from where a 15-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy when she was caught in gang cross fire walking home from school in November. She remarkably survived.

HeavenBound7 is the first of its kind in the Bronx, though skateboarding ministries are emerging around the country as a way to draw kids to church, said Steve Rodriguez, a representative of 5boro, a New York skate gear manufacturer and skate team sponsor.

“It’s funny to me because it’s like complete irony,” said Mathew Melendez, a 19-year-old City Tech student who was also one of the first to join HeavenBound7. “Skateboarding is all like rebels climbing over fences looking for good spots. And then church people are like good fellow people. Put that all together it’s like, what, a skateboarding team by a church? Whoa.”

At the end of practice, Pena, who counts woodworking as a hobby, used a drill to remove a railing attached to the floor. The team helped with the effort, moving the wood ramps and platforms to the corners of the recreation room. When everything was cleaned up, they congregated around Pena outside before he drove a few of them home. They can’t walk home around 9 p.m. because the streets are “hot,” in Pena’s words.

“I just feel there’s a need for people to be a little bit more sympathetic about kids,” Pena said, as his normally warm voice became raspy and choked up. “Because there’s so many people out there who are willing to say ‘Hey, want to sell some drugs? Want to go beat up this kid? Or go steal this? I want to give them a safe haven to get away from that.”

The team opens its doors to kids who often come from “disadvantaged homes, very sad situations,” said Chanabelle Arriaga, a member of the church and the president of the HeavenBound7 board that advises and supports the team. “I just wish there were more people who cared who would take an interest in the underprivileged and not turn their cheek.”

Pena, who has four daughters of his own, definitely does not turn a cheek; he literally invites kids off the streets into the church to add to the cacophonous clattering and clanking that echoes throughout the building thanks to the skating.

“We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Melanie Figueroa, the mother of Shane Rivera, one of the skaters. “They needed a male role model. They started out with one little trick and they gained so much knowledge.”

Shane Rivera has also acknowledged the benefits of the team, which spurned a personal commitment to school and self-improvement. It has provided Rivera with a religious outlet, though he normally attends a Catholic church closer to his home.

“It’s kind of a weird skate spot,” said Rivera, a muscular fifteen-year-old clad in a trendy skating t-shirt. “I think we’re the only team that does this; we’ll say a prayer before we skate.”

Nevertheless, none of the teens have skateboards that say “I follow Jesus Christ Skateboarder” on the underside of the deck, the wooden board, or t-shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” across the chest. (And there is most definitely no “Jesus died so you could skate” merchandise.)

A skater goes off the up-ramp at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

A skater "soars high" at La Segunda Igelesia Cristiana Church in Morrisania. By Alex Berg

Religious participation is not mandatory. There is an occasional Bible lesson or prayer, though Pena usually teaches about “soaring high” in other areas of life, like education, personal hygiene and getting a good job.

The results of Pena’s efforts are palpable. The team, which runs on a $500 stipend from the church and is mostly paid for out of Pena’s pocket, will be giving $2,000 towards two college scholarships in the spring, one for a HeavenBound7 skater and the other for a local high school student from fundraising and money donated by church outsiders and companies like Plaza Construction, where board president Arriaga works.

Some of the costs are due to Pena’s inclination to give out skateboards on the street, as he did before he started the team. After taking a class at the church that encouraged participants to delve into a hobby, Pena tried to construct a skateboard using his woodworking knowhow. He couldn’t build a functional skateboard, but his interest grew and he opened a skate shop with a friend, then one on his own in Mott Haven last year. He left both behind because they were too expensive and too much work to maintain.

Without the stores to worry about, the bills still add up. The team travels to New Jersey and Connecticut to go to skate parks and amateur competitions, where a few of the skaters have placed. Pena spent roughly $3,000 of his own money on raw materials to build the ramps and equipment for the team this year. The church should also purchase special insurance in the event of an injury that would cost $150 per month on top of its current insurance, but cannot afford it.

Fortunately, the skaters mostly throw 360 flips and ollies instead of, say, a “Christ air,” a trick where a skater lets go of their board entirely as he or she is launched off a ramp and holds his or her arms out to look like the image of crucified Christ.

“They want to complete a trick. So I think what’s appealing about it is a sense of accomplishment,” Pena, who became the youth minister nine years ago, said. “Then they transfer that sense of accomplishment to school. That’s one of my regulations. You do good in school you can come here and skate. You don’t do good in school, I’m sorry.”

Since Jose Castillo began participating in the team, he has improved in school because Pena asks to see report cards and he has begun helping neighborhood kids with their skating.

“I used to be the type of kid who used to be in the streets. And like, do nothing else,” said Castillo, who has lose, lanky limbs that matched his relaxed manner. “But after I got involved in skateboarding, met Henry and came over here, it’s like everything just changed. Became a new kid, actually.”

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail.  By Alex Berg

Jose Castillo waits for his turn to take on the grind rail. By Alex Berg

For Castillo, skating has become an all-consuming way of life. He has to make a concerted effort to skate less. During one practice, he cut his foot from a fall. Pena bandaged it up in a bathroom the teens skate out of to propel themselves down a hallway and into the recreation room because they have limited space.

The skaters occasionally skate outside to escape the tight space, a relief from crashing into a wall at the end of the up-ramp. That has allowed some of the participants to go places they normally would not go.

“It opens up your mind to different things. It doesn’t make you secluded. You meet a lot of new people that you never thought you’d meet or talk to. If we never had a skateboard we’d never know half of the places in Manhattan,” Blair, who calls Pena a “second pops,” said.

While the skaters have found a venue for athleticism and personal growth in the team, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Many of the parishioners have voiced their differences with skating in the church, said William Garcia, the president of the church board and Pena’s brother in law.

Skateboarding leaves black marks on the church’s floors, which angers parishioners who want to preserve the condition of the recreation room. There have been scheduling conflicts to use the space and the skating is very loud. (The parishioners who are most vocal against the skateboarding did not return any calls or emails.)

Not to mention, since the days Pena was a teenager himself at the church after he was invited in by a youth minister, different administrations have been more or less welcoming of youth activities. Some have felt it is a nuisance and the church is not a place for teenagers while others have been open to youth activities.

“I feel like he’s the one actually bringing the kids in that church,” Nicole Ortiz, Pena’s 24-year-old daughter, said. “He’s the only one making an effort to reach out into the community. The church is being very rigid and conventional. They don’t want to try new things.”

The skaters are cognizant of the disagreements over the space. Melendez and Blair both said they understood why the congregation would want to preserve the space, since it is used for other activities.

Positive feedback from parents has temporarily assuaged the churchgoers’ gripes. However, there is no answer for the growing team’s need for a larger space. Pena’s next mission is to campaign for a skate park in the Central or South Bronx.

The skaters want one too. Yet Castillo is concerned that if there’s a skate park nearby, the skaters will have to deal with threats other than their safety. He frets that once other kids start skateboarding, they’ll fall in love with the sport and take each other’s boards.

“Around here you got all these projects and stuff,” Castillo said. “You put a skate park in the projects, some kid could come out of nowhere and say ‘hey, give me your skateboard.’ And then they’re going to get so addicted to it they’re going to come every day and take every single kid that comes to the park they’re skateboard.”

Still, more holy rollers would be welcomed, maybe even praised.

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Bronx Residents Protest Poor Living Conditions

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