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Editorial: Swimming Pool Blues

July 2, 2010

Because of ongoing renovations, Roberto Clemente State Park’s swimming pools will likely be closed for the entire summer for the second year in a row – something Leon Johnson, the president of River Park Towers Tenants Association, calls a “disgrace.”

He has a point.

Sure, the pools needed a makeover, and it’s great that they’re getting one, but the State Parks Department’s timing is appalling. Work began last summer, meaning that season was a write-off, and now this one is too.

Why didn’t construction start last fall? If it had, only one summer – this one – would have been lost. Clearly the people making these decisions don’t have local children’s best interests at heart. No wonder Johnson and others are angry.

Jury Still Out on Cabrera

October 1, 2009

On Sept. 15, Fernando Cabrera achieved something few would have thought possible a few months ago: he defeated Councilwoman Maria Baez in the Democratic primary in the 14th Council District.

“You did it and God did it,” a jubilant Cabrera told his supporters that night.

Perhaps. But Cabrera wouldn’t have come close to an upset without the support of the Bronx Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, and several powerful unions. 

That’s what gave him the edge over Baez and Yudelka Tapia.

Fact is, few people – even now – know who Cabrera is. And of those who do, many were (and are) uneasy about his candidacy: until recently he was a registered Republican (a dirty word in most of the Bronx) and a Westchester resident.

This skepticism was reflected in the primary result. In winning, Cabrera received just 39 percent of the vote: hardly an overwhelming endorsement from the community.

In this heavily Democratic district, Cabrera will likely win the Nov. 3 election by a considerable margin. But in meantime, we urge him to introduce himself to local residents, and lay out what he intends to do.

We need a visible, proactive leader – something Baez never was – and it starts now.

Pedro Espada’s Gambit

July 2, 2009

It would be nice if we had a powerful and principled state senator representing all of our communities. But it seems we only have the former.

Pedro Espada, Jr., who has been in office representing the 33rd Senate District in the west Bronx for only six months, has already managed to catapult himself to leadership positions on both sides of the aisle of the state Senate by capitalizing on the razor-thin majority Democrats gained for the first time in 40 years.

In June, he abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans, and in so doing, shook up city and state politics in a way that makes Eliot Spitzer’s resignation look like a minor gossip-page item in comparison.

Now that Espada has essentially thrown power in the Senate to the GOP, thus bringing New Yorkers divided government once again, every single issue the state legislature was moving toward resolving this session is in jeopardy – gay marriage, mayoral control of the city’s school system, rent laws, etc. 

Aside from the chaos, putting Espada in the driver’s seat of state government (and next in line to succeed Governor Paterson should he be incapacitated) is sending shudders through the body politic. Espada has never been convicted of a crime, but a litany of ethical transgressions defines his life in public service.

He has refused to register his campaign committee from the last election, so there has not been a full reporting of his campaign contributions.

Three of the executives at his health center pleaded guilty to diverting $30,000 from family care and AIDS treatment programs to Espada’s 2001 bid for Bronx borough president.

His healthcare network, which includes Burnside Medical Center at E. 165 Burnside Ave., owes nearly $350,000 in back taxes, according to news reports.

He lives in Mamaroneck. He bought a co-op in Bedford Park last summer but few of his neighbors have ever seen him there.

He doesn’t have a district office, or even a local phone number, despite the listing of a Fordham Road address on his Web site.

You’d think the media glare on Espada’s power plays and his ethical lapses would have him lying low and putting his best – or least worst – foot forward.

Instead, Espada set up shell nonprofits with no discernable public purpose to receive member item money, according to The New York Times. Thankfully, State Senate officials refused to OK the allocation, which is said to be one of the reasons Espada defected.

In a district with over 101,000 registered Democratic voters, Espada won the Democratic primary last September (tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic borough) with only 4,988 votes. That kind of turnout is a recipe for a lack of accountability. Of course, local voters had the unenviable choice of voting for Espada, or the incumbent, Efrain Gonzalez, who was under indictment at the time.

Now we have another 14 months or so before the next Senate election. We can only hope that there are some good people in the 33rd District who are already plotting their candidacies.

Though his actions tell us he’s not much interested in hearing from his constituents, we all must hold Senator Espada accountable any way we can in the meantime. The phone number for his Albany office is (518) 455-3395 and we’ll get you the address for his district office – if he ever opens one.

Ed.’s note: a version of this editorial first appeared in the Norwood News.

Mess of the Month

December 5, 2008

messFor as long as anyone can remember, a strip of land high above the Cross Bronx Expressway (between Walton and Townsend avenues) has been choked with trash and old tires. 

According to Community Board 5, neither the Department of Transportation, which owns the land, or the Parks Department, which owns nearby Walton Walk, have displayed any interest in cleaning it up. 

For passing motorists, it’s an eyesore. For residents, some of whom have complained to the community board, it’s becoming a quality of life issue that’s dragging their neighborhood down.

 

Building a Better Bronx / Construyendo un Mejor Bronx

November 3, 2008

Building a Better Bronx

Thirty years ago, the neighborhoods of Mount Hope and Morris Heights were in a sorry state.

Scores of apartment buildings lay abandoned, and roaring fires – often started intentionally – were commonplace. Meanwhile, crime was also soaring, and in an anemic economy, businesses were struggling to stay afloat.

The same devastation affected much of the South Bronx. Stable, middle-class neighborhoods had become sprawling urban slums. It’s an image that’s refused to go away – in America and across the globe. “Gun-toting teenagers are now so rampant in Manchester’s Moss Side [neighborhood], that terrified parents call it the ‘Bronx of Britain’,” wrote one British tabloid in 2006. There are dozens of similar Bronx-bashing stories floating around the Web.

But our borough did recover, or, rather, it’s in the process of recovering. Today, in Mount Hope and Morris Heights, you’d be hard pressed to find a boarded up apartment building. Crime is falling, and every which way you turn, you hear and see (for better or worse) bustling construction sites, as the city and state, along with private investors, build on formerly empty lots.

The reasons for this revival are multi-faceted, as author Jill Jonnes recounts in her book, “South Bronx Rising: The rise, fall, and resurrection of an American city.” But community groups, such the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, have been given much of the credit. Run by concerned homeowners, do-gooders, community activists, residents, and, often, clergy, these grassroots organizations fought for a better Bronx, when everyone else throw their hands up in despair.

Today, some of these individuals, like Leona Clardy, a founder of the Mount Hope Organization, the Mount Hope Housing Company’s parent company, have passed on. But the spirit of community activism remains strong, in some quarters at least.

In University Heights, for example, residents have banded together to transform University Woods, a 3-acre park, that’s notorious for being named the city’s “worst” three years in a row. As we recount in this issue (see p. 1), residents have created a “Friends of the Woods,” organized cleanups, put on a block party, and generally showed the outside world that people cared. This year, the Parks Department has began to sit up and take notice of these hardworking volunteers. The department’s repaired damaged walls, planted trees, and, most exciting of all, put aside $500,000 for renovations.

“If friends of the Woods didn’t exist, I don’t think the Woods would have got any of this attention,” says Brandy Cochrane, the group’s director.

There’s a lesson here, for all of us. Friends of the Woods’ accomplishments show what can be done with a little hard work, and a healthy dose of single-mindedness. The park’s ongoing revival can inspire others to tackle quality of life issues  – whether it’s organizing cleanups in a local playground, starting a movement to get streetlights on a dark, shadowy, street, or founding an after-school program. For while it’s true that the borough has come a long way since the 1970s, there’s still much to be done.

Construyendo un Mejor Bronx

Hace treinta años las comunidades de Mount Hope y Morris Heights se encontraban en mal estado.

Miles de edificios de apartamentos abandonados e incendios – muchos de ellos intencionales, eran cosa común. El crimen era rampante, la anímica economía y el comercio luchaban por mantenerse a flote.

La devastación afectaba buena parte del sur del Bronx. Las comunidades clase media se habían convertido en barriadas urbanas. Era una imagen que no se iba de las mentes de los americanos y del resto del mundo. “Jóvenes armados son cosa común en la comunidad de Moss Side en Manchester, a tal grado que los padres aterrorizados le llaman el ‘Bronx de Gran Bretaña’” escribía un periódico Británico en el 2006. Historias como la anterior son comunes en el internet.

Pero nuestro municipio se recuperó o mejor dicho está en proceso de recuperación. Ahora en Mount Hope y en Morris Heights es difícil encontrar un edificio deshabitado. El nivel de crimen ha bajado y a donde quiera que se vaya se ve y se escucha (para bien o para mal) el sonido de las construcciones que la ciudad, el estado y los inversionistas privados llevan a cabo en predios baldíos.

Las razones de dicha recuperación son diversas tal como relata Jill Jonnes en su libro “El Crecimiento del Sur del Bronx: el crecimiento, la caída y la resurrección de una ciudad americana”. Pero buena parte del crédito se la llevan los grupos comunitarios como la Coalición de Clérigos y de Comunidades del Noroeste del Bronx. Lideradas por dueños de viviendas, activistas, residentes, y clérigos, muchas de estas organizaciones de base han luchado por mejorar el Bronx cuando todo el mundo no daba nada por la zona.

En la actualidad muchos de dichos individuos como Leona Clardy, fundadora de la Organización de Mount Hope, organización madre de la Compañía de Vivienda de Mount Hope, han fallecido. Pero el espíritu de activismo comunitario sigue fuerte, al menos en ciertos círculos.

En University Heights, por ejemplo, los residentes se han unido para transformar el University Woods, un parque de 3 acres que es notorio por haber sido denominado el “peor” parque de la ciudad tres años seguidos. Tal como lo relatamos en esta edición (ver página 1), los residentes han creado la organización “Friends of the Woods” y han organizado campañas de limpieza, una fiesta de bloque y en general le han demostrado a todo el mundo que a la gente importa. Este año el Departamento de Parques ha empezado a ponerles atención a estos laboriosos voluntarios. El Departamento reparó las paredes, sembró arboles y lo mejor de todo es que ha designado $500, 000 para realizar renovaciones.

“Si Friends of theWoods no existiera, no creo que Woods hubiese recibido toda esta atención” comenta Brandy Cochrane, la directora del grupo.

La lección en todo esto es que los logros de Friends of the Woods han demostrado lo mucho que se puede hacer con un poco de trabajo y con una buena dosis de enfoque. La restauración del parque puede servir de inspiración a otros para abordar temas que tienen que ver con la calidad de vida, ya sea organizando campañas de limpiezas en centros de recreo o iniciando un movimiento para instalar luces de tráfico en calles oscuras o para fundar un programa para después de la escuela. A pesar de que se ha avanzado mucho en el municipio desde los ‘70s, es también cierto que queda mucho por hacer.

Getting the Word Out

July 3, 2008

St. Barnabas Hospital is building a 10-story health center on West Burnside Avenue at the Grand Concourse. As the Monitor reported in the spring, local residents only heard about the project at the last minute. Some were furious – not so much with the hospital, but with the local community board. They felt CB 5 should have reached out to the community beforehand, to give residents a chance to ask questions and voice concerns they might have.

If these residents had come to Community Board 5’s monthly meetings, or attended one of the board’s various committee meetings, they would have been aware of St. Barnabas’ plans months before construction started. Still, the Board could (and should) have gotten this information out through their Web site – like most other Bronx community boards do. Xavier Rodriguez, CB 5’s district manager, said the Board “ran into some hard times” with no one wanting the job of secretary, meaning meeting minutes weren’t being typed up. They are currently three months behind, Rodriguez said, but that they are catching up. He says up-to-date minutes will be online by October.

The Board can also improve communication between themselves and local residents by building a new and improved Web site. Rodriguez wants to have this in place by next summer, he says. If done well, we think it will be a huge asset to the community. Something similar to Manhattan Community Board 5’s Web site would be fantastic. Check it out at www.cb5.org. Bronx CB 5’s current site can be found at www.bronxmall.com/commboards/cd5.html.

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