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Senator Looks to Shed Pounds, Promote Healthy Living

June 29, 2011

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO

Dressed in Rocky-esque training attire — hooded sweatshirt, jogging pants and sneakers — State Senator Gustavo Rivera walked into the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center and challenged himself to a weigh-in.

Rivera was joined by Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. (sans workout attire) and numerous organizations, to launch the Bronx CAN Health Initiative.

CAN, which stands for Change Attitudes Now, looks to promote a healthier lifestyle among Bronxites, who often rank last on health polls. To help promote the initiative, which will encourage Bronxites to set healthy goals, Rivera said his goal was to lose 20 pounds by the end of the summer without using any gimmicky diet or workout program.

“There is no magic. Eat three-fourths of a plate, less fat, less sugar, less salt, less everything,” said Rivera.

Dr. Jane Bedell, assistant commissioner for the Bronx District Public Health Office, said one-third of Bronx adults are currently obese, she said. Even more startling was the prediction that if trends don’t change as many as 50 percent of Bronx children will develop diabetes.

“We have came together before when our children were in danger and now it’s time to come together again,” said Bedell, comparing how Bronxites passed laws in the past for child hazards such as lead poisoning.

She encouraged everyone to take a brisk walk for at least 20 minutes a day and substitute unhealthy snacks for better ones such as fruits and veggies.

The event included a mini-health fair and a healthy meal of baked chicken, steamed broccoli and fresh fruits.

“I’m Puerto Rican, I love me some pork, and some fried food,” said Rivera. “There’s all this temptation, but it’s about small changes, eating in moderation,”

After jumping on the scale and tipping the scales at 299 pounds, Rivera joked that the slimmer Diaz would be what his post-weight loss shot would look like.

Rivera said he hoped to reach 250 pounds over the next 40 weeks and would have public weigh-ins showcasing his progress each month at future Bronx CAN events. He encouraged all participants to accept a health challenge.

“I want to cut smoking and go to the gym for an hour a day, if anything, I’ll at least walk,” said local resident Laquetta Holmes, who signed up for the challenge, “It’s better than nothing.”

Local Politicans All Ears at Recent Town Hall Meetings

June 22, 2011

From left, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, Councilman Fernando Cabrera, and State Senator Gustavo Rivera listen intently during a recent town hall meeting in Mt. Hope. (Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto)

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO and ALEX KRATZ

In Mt. Hope, they asked about the mounting murder count. In Kingsbridge Heights, they asked about the plan for developing the Kingsbridge Armory and alienating parkland. And in Van Cortlandt Village, they asked about the Indian Hills nuclear power plant, just a few dozen miles up the interstate.

This spring, in a departure from recent history, local elected officials are holding town hall meetings throughout the northwest Bronx and asking residents to voice their concerns, questions and conundrums. Though attendance hasn’t been overwhelming, new State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who represents a sprawling chunk of the northwest Bronx, says the forums have been helpful and will continue as long as he is in office.

“The main thing is that I want everyone in my district to have access to me and my staff and have direct interactions with me,” Rivera said.

Last month, Rivera participated in a town hall forum in Van Cortlandt Village, along with other representatives of the area.

Rivera, who just recently opened up a district office on the Grand Concourse near Fordham Road, did not organize that forum, but he did set up two recent town hall meetings — one at BronxWorks’ Morris Senior Center in Mt. Hope and another at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center.

Although there have been different concerns in the different locales, Rivera said there have been a few common themes: concerns about cuts to education, questions about the state budget and talk about the so-called millionaire’s tax, which Rivera says is necessary to save many state-sponsored programs, but was not included in the state budget.

On a late Wednesday evening, in a stuffy bright pink room in the basement of the BronxWorks Morris Senior Center, Rivera joined up with Assemblyman Nelson Castro and Councilman Fernando Cabrera.

Cabrera, who is in his second year in office and founded a church in the area more than two decades ago, called the meeting historical. “I don’t remember the last time this happened in the district,” he said.

While only a handful of residents and the staff of the elected officials attended the meeting, Rivera encouraged all those who came to bring two people with them at the next meeting.

The threesome, all relatively new to elected office (Castro was the only one who had been re-elected), shared a Rat Pack-type friendliness, exchanging banter in Spanish.

Longtime resident and community activist Louella Hatch wanted to know what was being
done to curb the recent string of shootings in the area.

Cabrera said he was working with the NYPD to install security cameras throughout
the district, but added his long-term goal is to provide activities for youth in order to keep them busy and out of trouble.

After the recent success of a program in Washington Heights, Castro said he is in talks to have the Guardian Angels patrol the area.

Rivera reiterated a plan he first mentioned at Community Board 5’s last monthly meeting.
Called Operation S.N.U.G., the program brings relatable mentors, such as a reformed gang members, to counsel troubled youth. The program has been successful in parts of Yonkers, he said.

At the end of the meeting one resident spoke up saying, “I have been living here for 20
years and this is first time I have seen anything like this, Thank you.”

Living Wage Bill Gets a Hearing

June 22, 2011

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. at a rally in May to support a bill that would require developers who receive city subsidies to provide living wage jobs. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Ruben Diaz Jr.)

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

The City Council held a long-awaited hearing on a controversial living wage bill last Thursday, with both sides of the debate testifying about the potential effects of the legislation in a session that lasted over two hours.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, sponsored by Bronx Council Members Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma, would require developers of projects receiving taxpayer subsidies of more than $100,000 to pay workers $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.

The bill, which sprang from the living wage fight that derailed a plan to develop the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall, has the support of every Bronx Council member, with the exception of James Vacca, who had said he was waiting for a hearing on the issue before taking a side.

“He’s wary of any legislation that might prevent jobs, and I’m not sure he’s convinced,” said Vacca spokesman Bret Nolan Collazzi, in a phone interview after the hearing.

“We’re not planning on signing on at this time,” he said.

The legislation currently has the support of 30 Council members; 34 are needed to override a mayoral veto.

The assertion that a living wage mandate would kill jobs was put forth in a report released by the city’s Economic Development Corporation last week. The 44-page study concluded that requiring employers to pay a higher wage would ultimately stifle commercial development and job growth.

“That is a cost we cannot afford to bear,” said Tokumbo Shobowale, chief of staff for Robert Steel, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, in his testimony at last week’s hearing.

“Despite our initial recovery from the recession, unemployment remains too high and private investment remains too fragile to erect additional barriers to job creation,” Shobowale said.

Supporters of the living wage legislation debunked the EDC’s study, saying several of the economists who worked on it, from Boston-based consulting firm Charles River Associates, are known living wage critics, and that the report was “rigged” to comply with Bloomberg’s well-known opposition to a wage mandate.

“We knew the findings of this rigged study long before it was released,” reads a statement from Living Wage NYC, the coalition that’s campaigning for the bill. “That’s because the Bloomberg administration has openly opposed living wage standards. This is the same administration whose failed economic development policies have resulted in higher rates of homelessness, higher rates of hunger and higher rates of long-term unemployment.”

Two years ago, Bloomberg butted heads with Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and a coalition of other Bronx advocates over plans to fill the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory, where the mayor was pushing to build a shopping mall.

The project was eventually killed in the City Council after the developer, Related Companies, would not guarantee to pay workers there living wage, despite the fact that the group was to receive millions in taxpayer funded credits.

Diaz testified before the crowd at last week’s Council hearing, calling passage of the bill “a matter of economic justice.”

“It is the responsibility of elected officials to use taxpayer dollars in a manner that leads to the best return on investment for those same taxpayers,” he said in his speech.

“When billionaire developers beg for taxpayer handouts to make their projects work, they must do better by the people they hire.”

This article originally appeared in the Norwood News May 19-June 21, 2011.

Gustavo Rivera Moves Senate Back Into the Neighborhood

June 22, 2011

By ALEX KRATZ

Like every New York state senator, when 33rd District representative Gustavo Rivera moved into his local office, he received two flags – the stars and stripes of the United States of America and the goddesses of Liberty and Justice of New York state – as well as a copy machine and a dated set of rectangular office furniture.

“They [senate administrative staffers] told me they only had rectangular furniture,” said Rivera’s communications director Conchita Cruz, sitting in the new office on the fifth floor of the Poe Building on the Grand Concourse, across from the Loew’s Paradise Theater. “But they said they had received a lot of requests for oval tables.”

At this point, nearly four months into Rivera’s freshman senate term, Cruz and the rest of staff, including six full-timers and two part-timers, are happy to have any furniture. Since the first of the year, Rivera and his team have been essentially working out of their backpacks and briefcases as the senate negotiated a lease on the senator’s district office. (Rivera’s office identified the Poe Building space in early January and the state requires several layers of approval in order to enter into a lease agreement.)

While Cruz and Rivera sometimes worked out of their apartments, the staff mostly did business from a handful of mobile locations or the senate offices at 250 Broadway in downtown Manhattan.

There were blogosphere grumblings critical of Rivera for not securing a district office quickly enough. Although he said the process was completely out of his control, Rivera admitted he was frustrated about the delay and his office has said it’s a stark illustration of how even the basic functions of government machinery have broken down in Albany.

But in an interview, Rivera said he wasn’t interesting in dwelling on the past. (He is loath to mention his predecessor, Pedro Espada, Jr., who was indicted will serving out the final days of his term last year for embezzling funds from his nonprofit health clinic network.)

Instead, Rivera spoke about how he wanted to keep his new office open late on periodic weeknights and during some Saturdays so people who work regular hours can gain access. He said he’s been reaching out to colleagues and hoping to incorporate their best constituent service practices.

Now it’s just a matter of getting some constituents to go along with all of that rectangular furniture.

Editor’s note: State Senator Gustavo Rivera will hold a grand opening of his new district office, 2342 Grand Concourse, fifth floor, on Wednesday, May 4, from 5 to 8 p.m.
CAP: Just south of Fordham Road, State Senator Gustavo Rivera’s new office overlooks the Grand Concourse and the Loew’s Paradise Theater.

Fast Drivers Soon To Be Curbed on Macombs Road

April 21, 2011

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Two recent accidents are leading to changes on Macombs Road (F.G. Pinto)

By FAUSTO GIOVANNY PINTO

The city will begin work this month on making significant changes to Macombs Road as part of a “Traffic Calming Project” designed to resolve pedestrian safety issues on the wide, snake-like street that city officials say is a haven for speeders.

The project comes in the wake of two recent pedestrian deaths nearby and a fatality on Macombs Road in 2008.
The project will run up Macombs Road from Jerome Avenue to University Avenue, targeting key intersections along the way where residents say crossing the street can be frightening.

“Although you have the light, you don’t have the right of way,” said Kay Butler as she nearly got hit by a cab crossing near one of the key intersections of Nelson Avenue, which is located near two schools and a playground. “It’s scary and there’s a school here.”

The problems stem from wide streets and low traffic levels, which lead to vehicles speeding along the winding road, according to Constance Moran, the Bronx Borough Commissioner for the Department of Transportation (DOT), who showed a presentation to Community Board 5 during a February meeting.

Crash data collected for the dangerous corridor between 2005 and 2009 shows there have been 26 pedestrian, seven bicyclist, and 69 motor vehicle injuries during that time frame, including one fatality in 2008 at Goble Place.

Under the proposed plan, the streets would be narrowed to one lane in each direction by increasing parking lane space and adding turn bays and cement islands in the center at points along the road.

The project also calls for adding pavement markings, new signage, and additioanl concrete islands, as well as other improvements.

At Featherbed Lane, a key intersection being targeted, new stop signs and crosswalks will be added to protect pedestrians from right turning vehicles.

Near Nelson Avenue and Macombs Road, the plan calls for yellow-painted stripes on the road, a safety island, and a painted neckdown — a curb extension at the intersection that will reduce the roadway width from curb to curb — to crack down on the easy turn for vehicles on the long crosswalk.

Flyers were recently distributed to the community notifying them that implementation of the project is scheduled to begin, said a DOT spokesperson.

Editor’s Note: The full presentation can be seen on the DOT’s website at www.nyc.gov/dot under Community Presentations.

April 21, 2011


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Members of the tenant rights group CASA at a Bronx rent reform rally (Jeanmarie Evelly)

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

A group of Bronx residents, tenant organizers and local elected officials are leading a campaign for stronger rent regulation, seeking the renewal and strengthening of the state’s Emergency Tenant Protection Act, a set of laws that expire this June that set guidelines for hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated apartments in the Bronx, and about a million units across the city.

“Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living in their apartments are in jeopardy because the laws that currently protect them as tenants are up for renewal and are not being seriously considered by some people,” said Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera, who spoke at a March 24 housing rally at the Bronx Library Center on Kingsbridge Road.

Rivera and nearly every other Bronx state legislator had been pushing for Governor Andrew Cuomo to include rent regulation reforms in his budget negotiations this month, which they saw as the best chance of getting stronger, pro-tenant legislation passed this year through a Republican-controlled State Senate.

Cuomo said he was open to including rent regulation in his budget, but his tentative budget deal, announced on March 27, conspicuously left out any provisions relating to the state’s rent laws.

“It is simply wrong for Governor Cuomo to wave the white flag on this critical issue and to give the first major concession of his tenure to the Senate Republicans and their deep-pocketed allies in the real estate industry,” Michael McKee, a tenant advocate with the Real Rent Reform Campaign, said in a statement.

At the Bronx housing rally, residents from across the borough shared horror stories of skyrocketing rents forcing them from their homes, or pressure from landlords who they say want them out.

Ahleezah Sims, a schoolteacher, said the owners of her Grand Concourse apartment let conditions there deteriorate to unlivable conditions — a tactic to get the rent-regulated tenants to move so they could hike up rent prices for new tenants.

“They saw our rent-stabilized apartments as opportunities,” Sims said, “and they saw us, blacks and Latinos, as tiny little pawns.”

Housing advocates and most Democratic elected officials have long been pushing for the repeal of vacancy decontrol — the rule that lets landlords raise rents at regulated apartments once the tenant there vacates — or to at least raise the minimum rent at which those apartments can be deregulated, which is currently $2,000 a month.

“Over time, $2,000 just ain’t what it used to be,” Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said. “It’s affecting every area of the city.”

Supporters of rent regulation say about 300,000 New York apartments have been taken out of rent stabilization because of vacancy decontrol.

At last week’s rally, several speakers made reference to Jimmy McMillan — the colorful, glove-wearing candidate who ran against Cuomo last fall as a member of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party.
“Maybe we should have voted for that guy,” joked Assemblyman Nelson Castro.

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