Tag Archive | "Norwood"

Bengali enclave grows in Norwood

Mohammed Hussein estimated he helped bring about 34 family members from Bangladesh to the Bronx. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)


During the recent Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, 62-year-old Mohammed Hussein sat in a loud, crowded Norwood apartment surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and several members of his extended family.

They spoke in rapid Bengali to each other, cleaning up remnants of an early day feast, and made plans to visit the homes of several other Bangladeshi families around Bainbridge Avenue and 205th Street, which sits at the end of the D-train in the northern Bronx.

“In three or four blocks, 72 of the houses are Bangladesh people,” said Hussein, who owns a bodega on nearby Perry Avenue.

Hussein, who first moved to New York City from Bangladesh in 1981, has seen firsthand the rapid growth of Bangladeshi immigrants to the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, particularly in the last few years. Walk along Bainbridge Avenue, which cuts right at the heart of this north Bronx neighborhood, and you can spot several Bangladeshi-owned bodegas that proudly tout signs in their native language, selling mustard oils and pastes, bags of lentils, halal meats and other typical staples of Bengali cuisine. Hussein himself estimated that he helped to bring about 34 members of his own extended family from Bangladesh to the Bronx, many of who now live within a few short blocks of his home in Norwood.

“There is close communication in the community,” Hussein said. “When I brought all those relatives, we want to live close to each other.”

Hussein’s story is typical among Bangladeshi and other South Asian immigrants in New York City. But while Parkchester in the Bronx and Astoria and Jackson Heights in Queens have long been known for being home to the Bangladesh diaspora, Norwood is also quietly becoming an attractive destination for these recent immigrants into the city. This growth has been spurred on by cheaper rents in the north Bronx, the prospect of a new four-story mosque in the neighborhood, and a tight-knit community that works to bring relatives from Bangladesh into the neighborhood.

A Bangladeshi-owned bodega in Norwood. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

According to data from the U.S. Census, the Bangladesh population in the Bronx has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2009, from about 3,900 residents, to 7,500 residents. The area around the Williamsbridge Oval Park near Mosholu Parkway in particular has seen a sharp rise in the number of Bangladesh-born residents, growing nearly 500 percent in the last 10 years, while the overall population in the area has remained steady.

“In the last few years, they are growing pretty quickly around the Mosholu Parkway,” said Mohammed Islam, President of the Bronx Bangladesh Society.

“The rent is expensive elsewhere, so people are coming from Parkchester and Queens over there, because of relatives and family members.”

Many of the local Bangladeshis in the neighborhood have similar stories.

Inteshar Choudhury, a 48-year-old bodega owner on 206th Street, one of about a dozen Bangladeshi-owned bodegas crowded within the same block, came to Norwood from Bangladesh a few years ago through a family connection. He said he plans to bring many more relatives to the neighborhood as soon as he can.

“After five years, when I become a citizen, I’ll apply for my relatives,” said Choudhury, adding that more than 70 percent of the Bangladeshis in the neighborhood came from a single regional district in the country, Sylhet, because of this chain of family immigration sponsorships.

“That’s the way everyone comes,” Choudhury said.

The growth has been so rapid among the predominantly Islamic Bangladeshis that construction began a few weeks ago to build a new four-story mosque to handle the neighborhood demand. The new mosque, which is being built on an empty lot on the corner of 206th Street and Rochambeau Avenue, is estimated to cost more than $2 million and is expected to be open for worship in two years. Until then, the Williamsbridge Oval Park often attracts hundreds of Muslims for outdoor prayer services on special holidays, like Eid.

“There is a big population here now, and a personal need. Where are all the Muslim people supposed to go?” said Hussein, who serves as secretary for the expanding North Bronx Islamic Center, which now occupies a small first floor apartment building on Perry Avenue. “It’s going to attract more Bangladeshi people here. People will want to be near the mosque.”

Although there were tensions in the form of racial epithets yelled by strangers on the street immediately after 9/11, many of the practicing Muslims in the Bangladeshi community said the community has for the large part been accepting of their plans for the mosque, and their growth in the community.

“It’s actually a very nice neighborhood,” explained Syed Jamin Ali, president of the North Bronx Islamic Center. “Right now we have no discrimination on our mosque. We feel free.”

For long-time residents of Norwood, the growth of Bangladeshis in what used to be a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhood doesn’t faze them – it’s simply just the latest ethnic group to call this small pocket of the Bronx home.

“There have always been a lot of immigrants here. It’s nothing new,” said Ralph Martell, a resident of the neighborhood for nearly 40 years. “The Bangladeshis are very nice people.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, North Central BronxComments (0)

Landlord ordered to pay tenant $33,000

A Bronx single mother could soon be collecting a fat check from her landlord, paying her back for charging her too much rent on her one-bedroom apartment.

On Sept. 1, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal found that Iris Vega-Ortiz, 41, was charged an excess of $400 every month for her Perry Avenue apartment in Norwood, and is now due to collect more than $33,000 from her landlord.

“I’m excited, I wasn’t really looking for money,” said Vega-Ortiz, who had originally filed a complaint with the state back in March 2009.

The New Jersey-based landlord company that owns Vega-Ortiz’s building, Urban American Management, denied any wrongdoing and said it will appeal. Meanwhile, local housing advocates said it’s the largest ruling they’ve seen by the state for an individual tenant in the neighborhood ever.

“In the years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen a settlement, a ruling this high,” said Sally Dunford of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a non-profit organization that helps Norwood residents with housing issues. “It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It was just really good to see the system work the way it’s supposed to work.”

Vega-Ortiz first moved into the ground floor unit of the six-story apartment building on 3210 Perry Avenue in December 2008, where she still lives today with her aunt and two young daughters.

“I started getting leaks, mold, and I couldn’t take a bath because the pipes were clogged,” recalled Vega-Ortiz, who is currently unemployed after losing her job at a pharmaceutical company more than a year ago. “There were just a lot of problems with the apartment they didn’t disclose. I felt like I was paying too much.”

As a result, Vega-Ortiz decided to file a rent overcharge complaint to the state a few months after moving in. Although Vega-Ortiz said she wanted to leave the apartment, a multi-year lease and losing her job compelled her to stay, despite the headaches she experienced.

Then a fire broke out in the upper floors of the building in late June of this year, damaging Vega-Ortiz’s apartment, and the now two-year-old complaint came back to the table. Her landlord offered her another apartment on the condition that she drop her rent complaint to the state.

“I told them I’m not going to do that, that’s not guaranteeing me anything,” Vega-Ortiz said, adding that the landlord had even drafted a complaint withdrawal letter in her name.

That’s when the state finally responded to Vega-Ortiz, saying that the rent for her apartment was only supposed to be $554.75 a month, not $975. According to the state, Vega-Ortiz is owed more than $33,000, including more than $10,000 in overpaid rent and nearly $22,000 in punitive charges for intentionally jacking up the rent.

In an email statement, Urban American Management said they have filed to appeal the state’s decision, adding that Vega-Ortiz was “fully aware” of the rent when she moved in.

According to a database run by New York City’s housing department, there are currently 31 open violations for 3210 Perry Avenue, where Vega-Ortiz lives, including six severe hazards. Urban American owns numerous properties across the city. A blog, nyctenantadvocate.wordpress.com, has been dedicated to tracking Urban American’s disputes with its tenants.

Currently, Vega-Ortiz and her family all live and sleep in the living room because the bedroom remains unusable.  Vega-Ortiz said she planned to move out of the apartment in December when her current lease is up.

“My next step is to see how they are going to pay me,” said Vega-Ortiz, adding that she would not rule out the possibility of taking her landlord to court for the money.

Dunford, her housing advocate, said it’s not unusual for landlords to overcharge tenants.

“We see it quite frequently. It is unusual for tenants to fight and win,” said Dunford. “Tenants don’t understand that the law is really on their side. But they’re so intimidated, it’s scary when your home is involved.”

A version of this article also appeared in the New York Daily News.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Featured, Housing, North Central BronxComments (0)

Back in baked goods

On a crisp mid-October morning in the northwest Bronx, a weary middle-aged woman lifted one tray after another filled with colorful cupcakes, creamy cheesecakes and pieces of baklava, a honey-soaked Mediterranean delicacy, inside their glass display racks. Flags flanked the “Grand Opening” sign outside the shop on 204th Street and Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood. Curious customers offered congratulations to Ana Mirdita on her bakery’s opening day, again.“Welcome back. We missed you,” said one elderly woman tenderly to Mirdita, after ordering a fresh loaf of Italian bread.

Two mysterious fires within a seven-month period had destroyed the family-owned Bainbridge Bakery in 2009, an iconic part of Norwood’s business section since 1981.

For the owners, husband and wife team Ana and Tony Mirdita, the bakery’s reopening ended their arduous struggle to keep doing what they’ve done since moving to New York from Montenegro more than 30 years before: provide Bronx residents with freshly-baked breads and sweet pastries.

“It’s so far so good,” said Mirdita, softly. “I think we will do well again. If God’s willing, everything is going to be all right.”

It was no wonder why Mirdita was saying her prayers. Luck was against the couple two years earlier, when a five-alarm fire destroyed 10 businesses along Bainbridge Avenue, gutting their bakery. She and her husband Tony, 62, a baker trained in Montenegro, were days away from reopening.

“We lost $1 million in the second fire. We lost everything,” said Mirdita, who looked stressed even on this more festive day.  “It was a big mess.”

Police eventually arrested a nearby diner owner, charging him with insurance fraud and hiring an arsonist. But it wasn’t enough to help the Mirditas. They didn’t yet have fire insurance. Having already taken out an additional mortgage on their home to invest in the bakery, the couple was left with nothing, and were forced to shut it down.

Losing their livelihood was agonizing, Mirdita said, adding that  the small business bureau and a local bank refused to help them rebuild.

“It was especially hard for my husband,” said Mirdita, adding that Tony, who is an ethnic Albanian, was hospitalized several times due to stress-related health problems.

Other businesses along Bainbridge Avenue had received a token of $1,000 from the city’s Department of Small Business Services after the mysterious first fire, but nothing after the second fire, said a local official.

“They didn’t receive any direct financial support,” said Fernando Tirado, district manager for Community Board 7. “I think maybe they had false expectations about what small business services would provide in the long-term.”

Instead, the couple turned to family and friends, who loaned them $350,000 to open up a new shop, Ana’s Bakery, last year in Williamsbridge on the Pelham Parkway.

But the troubles didn’t stop there. The Mirditas soon found out that the loyal customers of Norwood did not follow them to the new location.

“I come here, biggest mistake of my life,” said Tony, from the Williamsbridge bakery a couple of weeks ahead of his Norwood reopening. “There’s no business. There’s no customers. The rent is high over here.”

When a shop beside the still vacant lot that once held their Bainbridge Avenue bakery became available earlier this year, the couple jumped at the chance to move back. The Mirditas borrowed another $80,000, hoping that this third return would be their last.

The diner owner was charged with arson in the second fire. Mohammed Quadir, 51, is expected in court on November 22 of this year. The Mirditas said they were not following his case and barely knew Quadir before the fires.

Meanwhile, residents said they are ecstatic that the bakery has returned to its roots in Norwood, especially since many of the stores destroyed in the 2009 fires were never rebuilt.

“I’m pretty excited to have the bakery back,” said Greg Jost, 35, deputy director of a housing advocacy group and resident on nearby Rochambeau Avenue. “It’s still a pretty big drag to have a big vacant lot here, but I’m happy they are coming back.”

As to why the stalwart couple has never considered finding other ways to make a living, Ana Mirdita made it clear that the bakery business is in the family blood. One of her three children can often be found baking through the night, she said. He is expected to take over the business at some point. However, it’s Tony’s  devotion to the delicate art of creating tarts, pastries and cakes that has kept the family going.

“He’s a baker all his life,” said Mirdita lovingly of her husband. “It’s his baby.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Money, North Central BronxComments (0)

Who has the oldest store in Norwood?

Allan Freilich, owner of Freilich Jewelers, outside the family shop in Norwood (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

Eamonn McDwyer has operated McDwyer's pub since 1966 (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink

Two Norwood shop owners are locked in a feud over whose business is the oldest.

In one corner is Eamonn McDwyer, 74, owner of McDwyer’s Pub. In the other, Allan Freilich, 59, who runs Freilich Jewelers. Both businesses are on 204th Street; both men are longtime residents of the area.

McDwyer claims he alone has continuously run the pub since 1966, Freilich argues that when he took over the jewelry store in 1970, he was continuing his father’s business, which had opened shop in 1939.

Listen to their debate below:

Who do you think is right?

Which Norwood business do you believe is older? (See both sides of the debate here)

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Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, North Central BronxComments (0)

Sally Dunford: a passionate advocate for Norwood

Sally Dunford: a passionate advocate for Norwood

Sally Dunford works to help Norwood residents with rent and landlord issues. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

In a tiny, first-floor office at the northern tip of the Bronx, Sally Dunford sat among two cluttered desks squeezed in by several more filing cabinets, fielding phone calls that came in every few minutes or so.
“Can I talk to you in five?” she said to one caller.

“I’m not sure if you’re in my district, but come in and let’s see if I can help you out,” she said to another.

Dunford is the executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a small operation that she’s been running for 17 years on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood. The job is a tough one, often putting the 60-year-old mother of four face to face with the dark and ugly world of housing in her struggling neighborhood. However for Dunford, who has lived in this pocket of the Bronx for the better part of 30 years alongside the very people she helps through her office, dedication to the same community where her mother grew up helps her get through what can be a frustrating job.

“Love is a part of this,” said Dunford, in between the many phone calls that kept coming in. “You can’t do this work for money. If you don’t really care about the people, you’re not going to be able to do this kind of job.”

Community District 7, which encompasses Norwood, Bedford Park and Kingsbridge, has one of the highest rates of housing code violations in the Bronx. People in this area are rent-burdened as well, where the average person pays more than a third of their income on rent, according to New York University’s Furnam Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Dunford’s organization alone handles about 1,250 cases a year among a staff of just three, who deal in everything from saving Bronx residents from living in the streets, managing the bureaucracy around city and state housing subsidies, and playing referee in landlord-tenant clashes.

But for Dunford, a heavy set woman with shoulder-length grey hair and a rapid fire tongue, it’s the Bronx’s gritty reality and loyal residents that prompted her to write in a recent open letter in the Norwood community newspaper, “Dear Bronx: I can’t remember when I didn’t love you.”

After growing up upstate in Yonkers, Dunford first came to Norwood with her husband Michael, a Vietnam War veteran and conscientious objector to the war, right out of Fordham University in the early 1970s. They met in a local bar while Dunford was involved in radical anti-war protests on campus, often getting arrested by campus police for civil disobedience.

Together, they moved out into an apartment on 208th Street, just a few blocks down from where Dunford’s mother had grown up. With the birth of their four kids – all boys ­– family and friends pressured the couple to move out of the Bronx.

“We made a very conscious decision for the children to not be raised in a suburban atmosphere,” Dunford said.  “I wanted them in the city and for them to get to know all sorts of different people. In retrospect, it was possibly the best decision we ever made.”

Soon after moving, troubles in the South Bronx pulled her out of domestic serenity, and back into the confrontation-style activism of her university days.

“After my second son was born in 1977, the Bronx at that point had begun to burn,” recalled Dunford.

Dunford said her family considered moving out of the borough again to escape the crime and fires that were creeping northward, but ultimately decided to stay. Dunford instead got involved with several community organizations, including the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she lobbied in Washington to get the Community Reinvestment Act passed, a law ensuring banks made loans available to low-income neighborhoods.

After years of odd jobs and volunteer positions with various nonprofits throughout the city, a job opening came up via the Bronx Jewish Community Council, where Dunford had once worked part-time on housing cases. Brad Silver, the executive vice-president of the organization, was looking for someone to head up the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.

“He asked if I knew anyone, and I said, what about me?” Dunford remembered.

That was in 1994, and Dunford has been with the organization ever since.

For Silver, who supervises West Bronx Housing, Dunford’s value lies in her ability to count clients as her own neighbors.

“It’s unusual to find somebody who’s able to administer a program, and also somebody who lives in the neighborhood,” Silver said.

Sometimes, the job calls for much more than just dealing with housing issues. Silver recalled an instance when a woman walked into Dunford’s office, crying hysterically about her abusive husband’s pending release from jail.

“By the end of the day, she got the woman and her kid on a bus to Connecticut,” he said. “She cares deeply about the people and the neighborhood.”

Today, Dunford still lives on 208th Street in Norwood with her husband, Michael, who works as a nurse at nearby Montefiore Hospital. Her four sons, who Dunford believes have absorbed her social justice outlook growing up in the Bronx, now work as a teacher in the South Bronx, zoologist, health administrator, and a Target employee.

Despite the emotional issues that a job like Dunford’s inevitably brings, Dunford said her passion for the community is still her driving force.

“I have the most wonderful relationship in the community,” she said. “If I had a problem, I know people would come to my aid in a second.”

When asked if she’ll ever leave the job or retire, Dunford was quick to respond.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said vehemently. “I love this work. I love this neighborhood.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, North Central BronxComments (1)

Muggings in the Oval

Norwood residents marched through Williamsbridge Oval Park with homemade signs Tuesday evening to speak out agains the recent spate of muggings thats taken place there. (CARL V. LEWIS/The Bronx Ink)

A rowdy band of about two dozen Bronx residents marched through Williamsbridge Oval Park Tuesday evening, chanting and waving signs with hand-drawn messages saying “Hey Thugs, Stay Out!” and “Keep Our Park Safe!”

The demonstration came in response to a recent spate of muggings in the park during the last few weeks. Within the past month alone, at least five people have been assaulted at the park in broad daylight, police said.

The rash of assaults has caused longtime residents such as Dilleta Pina, 61, to become concerned about their safety. Pina lives just two blocks away on Hull Avenue, and came out to the demonstration Tuesday to voice her frustration.

“I’ve never seen anything like this here,” Pina said. “The park’s always been the place in the neighborhood that parents can send their kids without having to worry, so it’s really unsettling to have this happening.”

Columbia University graduate student Nathaniel Hertz, 24, said he was walking near the basketball courts one afternoon in early September when two men punched him, stole his phone and took $10 from his wallet.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Herz, who was unable to yell for help quickly enough to stop the thieves from getting away. “It was the middle of the day.”

Lt. Mike Donnelly with the NYPD’s 52nd Precinct said he believes the muggings are somehow related, since each of the attacks has followed a similar pattern.

“Right now we think it’s the same group of guys who are just coming up to parkgoers, knocking them over, taking their money and running,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said that while an investigation into the assaults remains ongoing, police have assigned additional officers to patrol the park. The victims have all been adults, Donnelly said.

For Annette Melindez, a mother of three who lives nearby on Bainbridge Avenue, the ramping up of police presence in the park comes as a welcome development.

“We desperately need more police here,” said Melindez, who often allows her kids to travel in groups to the park after school. “Just the other day one of my friends was taking her daughter to a girl scouts meeting when a man mugged her in the middle of the park, and there were no police around to stop it.”

But frequent parkgoer Eileen Markey said she believes there’s a better solution to the Oval’s mugging problem than bringing in more police officers.

“What we need to do is let these thugs know that we won’t tolerate this behavior by continuing to come out to the park and not letting them scare us away,” said Markey, a local resident and reporter for CityLimits Magazine. “Having lots of people in the park at all times is the only way to stop what’s been going on”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, North Central Bronx, Northwest BronxComments (0)

Bringing the farm to the Bronx

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It felt like Indian summer in the northwest Bronx on October 28th, and residents were enjoying its harvest.  Each visitor to the Norwood Food Co-op distribution event outside the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on East 206th Street picked through farm-fresh eggs, yogurts, green tomatoes and two varieties of apples, stuffing them into canvas shoulder bags.

For a moment it was possible to forget that the 205th Street D train station was a half block away.

That’s the appeal of this Community Sponsored Agriculture food co-op, which connects nearly 60 Bronx families with Norwich Meadows Farm upstate.  From June through early November, fruits and vegetables are picked at the farm and loaded onto a truck that arrives in the Bronx by 2:30 p.m. Between 4 and 7 p.m., the produce is available to co-op members in Norwood.  The harvest changes week to week, depending on the weather and the season.

The co-op’s most common share option feeds a family of two to four people.  The $315 seasonal fee comes to about $15 a week.  Last week, that money went a long way; each family received apples, potatoes, greens, radishes, green tomatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, leeks, milk, yogurt, butter, honey, granola, and eggs.  The co-op estimates that families save an average of 15 to 20 percent each season over what they’d pay for comparable organic produce at a green market.

“What’s good this week?  Brussels sprouts!” said volunteer Fred Dowd, 77, who was manning last week’s distribution event.  Co-op members must volunteer four hours each season, and all new members must attend an orientation and training session.

Dowd, who was joined at the event by his wife Cathy, has lived in Norwood for 24 years and been affiliated with the co-op for three.  He said now that he’s retired, he enjoys being out meeting people, and appreciates that the co-op makes it easier to eat healthfully.

He recommended bags of Macoun and Empire apples to co-op member Christina Mozzicato, 30.  “They look great!” exclaimed Mozzicato, as she added the apples to her bag.

Mozzicato, who lives in Woodlawn, sung the praises of the co-op.  “It’s a great way when you’re living in the Bronx to get fresh food,” she said.  “There aren’t that many options in the Bronx.”

Indeed, Norwood especially is lacking in such options as it awaits the reopening of its only supermarket, FoodTown, which was destroyed in a December 2009 fire.  It’s slated to reopen by the end of this year.

The co-op, which is affiliated with nonprofit Just Food, also aims to support the greater good.  It accepts EBT/Food Stamps, and any leftovers at the end of distribution events are driven over to the soup kitchen at Part of the Solution in Fordham.

The summer/fall season is coming to an end next week, and members are looking forward to monthly winter deliveries from December through May that may include items like fresh jam, maple syrup, and organic chicken in addition to the produce and dairy.

While new members generally join the co-op in the summer instead of winter, Dowd encouraged them to plan ahead.  “A lot of people will stop and want to buy something,” he said of passersby.  “I tell them, ‘you can sign up for next year!’”

To learn more about the Norwood Food Co-op, hungry Bronxites can visit http://www.norwoodfoodcoop.org or call 718-514-3305.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, FoodComments (0)

Norwood business owners still waiting to rebuild from the ashes of last year’s fire

A year later, the boarded up site of Norwood's Oct. 2009 fire. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A year later, the boarded up site of Norwood's October 2009 fire. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

A field of dust and debris emerged in the heart of Norwood’s shopping hub on Bainbridge Avenue last Halloween, when a five-alarm blaze destroyed 10 retail shops in one large lot and badly damaged four more.  A full year later, the rubble remains at the first lot and no redevelopment has begun.  Two local small business owners are speaking out about their anger over the lack of action.

“I think it’s outrageous that the property hasn’t been developed,” said Allan Freilich, whose Freilich Jewelers is just over a block from the blaze site on 204th Street. “This is a community issue.  It makes us look like what the South Bronx looked like in the early 1970s.”  Freilich remembers those days.  The 58-year-old Bronx native starting working part-time in his father’s store 40 years ago and would eventually come to take over what is now the oldest family-run jewelry business in the borough.

His friend Bill Curran, 37, who owns and directs funerals at the John F. McKeon & Son Funeral Home, added that the fire created a big burden for residents, including him; he lives in an apartment above the funeral home on Perry Avenue, around the corner from the location of the fire.  “It’s affecting people’s ability to get essential day-to-day items in their community, and many people don’t have a way to go to a neighboring community to get those items,” he said, mentioning everything from fresh fish to baked goods.

Forty-five percent of residents in the jurisdiction of Community Board 7, which includes Norwood, receive public assistance, according to the Department of City Planning.  Traveling for everyday supplies simply is not practical for most.

As the Norwood News reported on Nov. 5, 2009, it took 198 firefighters more than five hours in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 last year to extinguish the flames that enveloped two buildings.  Ten storefronts had addresses ranging from 3083 to 3105 Bainbridge Ave. in one building.  Four others, from 3109 to 3119 Bainbridge Ave., were located in a second; these stores have since re-opened.  The destroyed stores included minimarts, a Mexican restaurant, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a fish market, a barber shop, a nail salon, a record store, and a realty group.

Rumors swirled then and until recently about where the fire originated and what caused it.  According to Community Board 7 district manager Fernando Tirado, the fire department reported at last week’s general board meeting that the investigation is now complete and there was no evidence of any criminal activity.  The fire was deemed accidental.

Construction crews were frequently on the site for the month or two after the fire to demolish what little remained, Curran and Freilich said.  They returned to wrap a plywood fence around the remaining dirt pit, and have not been seen since.

There were happy endings for at least two of the stores affected; European Minimarket moved to a vacant storefront down the street.  Bainbridge Bakery made a fresh start with a new name, Ana’s Bakery, on Williamsbridge Road in Kingsbridge.

But that is not necessarily a happy ending for Norwood, Freilich said.  The neighborhood no longer has a bakery.  The other shops that have not reopened mean lost jobs, lost services, and lost foot traffic on Bainbridge Avenue.

“People want to shop where the neighborhood looks clean and the businesses are thriving,” Freilich said.  “Having a huge series of boarded up property doesn’t make for an inviting shopping area.”   He thinks the entire 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue retail corridor, which spans more than six city blocks, is hurting.

Curran worries about what the issue could mean for the community, and how that might ultimately hurt his business.  “This has not impacted my business immediately,” Curran said.  “However the continued condition as it is will force people to relocate to other neighborhoods, which will then impact me.”

Freilich says the fire has also taken an emotional toll on people here.  “It’s a psychological attitude of depression, of look what’s happening here,” said Freilich, who once headed Norwood’s now-dormant 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue Merchants’ Association.  He said that in all the years he has been in Norwood,  he has never seen the neighborhood struggle so much.

While many Norwood residents and retailers look optimistically eastward to Webster Avenue, where a proposed zoning plan promises plenty of new retail and housing space, Curran and Freilich urge Norwood officials to pay attention to the area that has long been this community’s commercial heart.

There is speculation that the affected lot will be sold.  It is run by West Bronx Stores Inc., which is owned by Evelyn Jacobsen.  Jacobsen did not return repeated requests for comment.

“If the owner doesn’t want to build, sell to somebody else who will develop the property,” Freilich said.  “All the residents and business owners are suffering over this condition.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Northwest BronxComments (0)

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