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Toys and More at Holiday Parties

December 23, 2006

Mount Hope Housing Company held its sixth annual winter festival, Dec. 21, in a marquee on East 179th between Jerome and Walton Avenues. The free toys were the main draw – 2,500 were given away – but there were also long lines for the pink candy floss. Allure, the first band signed to Mariah Carey’s Crave Records, provided the entertainment, on what was, fortunately, a balmy afternoon.

“We started this with the understanding that we live in an underprivileged neighborhood,” said the event’s organizer, Estel Fonseca, Mount Hope Housing Company’s vice president of youth services. “For some of these children this might be the only gift they get this Christmas.”

Fonseca added that the party was also about bringing people together. “What’s really important is to create a sense of community,” she said. “and to keep the spirit of Christmas alive.”

Later that day, the 46th Precinct put on its own holiday party for neighborhood youngsters. Organizer Louella Hatch, the president of the precinct’s community council, was everywhere at once, making sure all had been fed.

Again, free gifts were dished out to excited children.

The event was also an opportunity for parents to have ID cards made for their kids.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, many moms and dads don’t know their child’s exact weight, height or eye color.  ID cards – which the parents hold onto – give police something to work with in the event of a child going missing.

The information – along with fingerprints and a high resolution photograph – is entered into a database which can be easily accessed by police forces across the state. To learn more about Operation SAFE CHILD click here.

Dependent Housing Projects Raise Community Board’s Hackles

December 22, 2006

Community AccessBy JAMES FERGUSSON

Community Access, a non-profit that specializes in providing affordable housing for people living with mental illness, is on the verge of opening a 73-unit-apartment building at 1750 Davidson Avenue.

Construction is nearly complete and the first residents are likely to move in in March, says Sandy Lowe, the organization’s community relations manager. Most of the apartments – 44 – will be reserved for people with psychiatric disabilities. All will be studios.

Traditionally, the 32-year-old Community Access has built in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But in the last two years their focus has shifted: The Davidson Avenue residence is just the latest in a series of projects in the west Bronx.

There’s one at 1363 Franklin Ave. and another at 772 E. 168th St., which opened last week. And the organization has plans to develop the parking lot at 299 E. Burnside Ave., which like the one on Davidson Avenue, is in Community District 5.

“We’re in the Bronx because it’s one of the last places you can find sites that are in any way affordable,” said Steve Coe, Community Access’ executive director.

Affordable, yes, and also relatively plentiful, for despite an improving economy the Bronx still has a smattering of empty, underutilized lots.

Take 1750 Davidson Ave. for example. The plot, on a steep hill adjacent to the step streets that connect Jerome Avenue with Davidson Avenue, used to be an unsightly cocktail of weeds and trash. Now a handsome red-brick building, with a roof deck and garden area, sits there instead.

But not everyone is happy. In fact, when Community Access informed Community Board 5 of their intentions for the Burnside Avenue in 2005, and later for Davidson Avenue, many on the Board recoiled.

“The Board voted it down,” recalled Beverly Smith, the Board’s chairperson, last week. “We not against this type of housing, we open our arms [to different people], but there is such a thing as saturation. This is a small Community Board.”

For Smith then, the problem is not so much with Community Access but with the sheer of number of dependent housing facilities – that is, housing that accommodates homeless people, drug addicts and other vulnerable members of society – in the neighborhood.

“We’re getting hit by both the city and the state [who fund these projects],” said Smith. “They’re making it so that CB 5 is one big dependable housing district.”

According to Smith there are 71 special services programs in the district – many of them residential – and although this number couldn’t be verified by press time, the Community District profiles on the City’s Department of Planning Web site suggest District 5 is home to an unusually high number.

“We are getting inundated,” said Xavier Rodriguez, the Board’s district manager.

Steve Coe says he can understand people’s concerns: “What happening [in the Bronx] isn’t right,” But, he argues, Community Access is different: “We’re an established, responsible organization.”

All Community Access’ buildings have a 24-hour reception and an onsite team to help to residents, Coe said. And these residents live like anyone else – all pay their own rent and utilities. Plus there’s rigorous interview and backgrounds checks.

Lowe believes the fears are, “more a question of perception than reality.”

Rodriguez says most of those who will move into the Davidson Avenue residence will be from Manhattan or Brooklyn, but Lowe and Coe refute the argument that the organization is changing the make-up of the neighborhood: “We don’t have to go outside the Bronx to find people [for our buildings],” Coe said.

Coe added that all their buildings are mixed, meaning that a proportion of units are put aside for those without mental health problems. (Interested parties can apply for an apartment through the city’s Affordable Housing Resource Center, which operates a lottery system.)

CB 5, in its capacity as an advisory body, has limited clout, especially when it comes to “as-of-right” buildings, and ultimately it couldn’t stop Community Access moving ahead with the Davidson Avenue building. (Coe said construction at 299 E. Burnside Ave. has yet to begin because the city and Community Access’ contractor have yet to agree on a price.)

But Smith’s opinions haven’t changed. What this growing community needs, she said, is not more dependent housing facilities, but more affordable housing for working families, who she says are getting priced out of the neighborhood.

Man Critically Injured Trying to Escape Fire

December 18, 2006

2181-2185 Grand Concourse following the fire
One man remained in a critical condition at St. Barnabas Hosptial last night after falling three stories from his Grand Concourse building, following a fire that officials say was started when a cigarette set fire to a sofa in a building hallway.

Firefighters were called at 3:30 p.m. to the 6-story building at 2181-2185 Grand Concourse.

“The fire was exploding through the windows,” recalled witness Nefretiri Polanco, 13.

At the back of the building, firefighters found a man, known to neighbors as “Rick,” a Cuban male in his 30s, who attempted to climb down a cable from his fifth-floor apartment after seeing the smoke in the hallway. The cable only reached down as far as the third floor, and the man fell.

Daysha Major, 24, a first-floor resident of the building, believes arson is responsible. “Some kids were playing with matches and set the sofa on fire,” she said.

Major and her family were fortunate; they made their exit through the fire escape. Major’s favorite feline “Bonano” also found his way to safety thanks to firefighter Dominic Dimino of Engine 42, who rescued him from the smoky building.

Five other people were treated for minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

Jan 25 – Update

The man hurt in the fall died from his injuries on Jan. 24 at St. Barnabas Hospital, police said. They identified him as Bernardino Alvarez, 35.

Filtration Plant Money Pours Life into Local Parks

December 15, 2006


State and city parks officials descended on Roberto Clemente State Park, Morris Heights’ grand but shabby 25-acre oasis, on Thursday Dec. 14, to announce a $20 million renovation.

Improvements will include: four new basketball courts, new turf for a sports field, a new roof for the activity building, four new acres of greenspace, and improvements to the baseball field, the aquatic center, and the park’s Olympic size swimming pool.

Swimming Pool

“This comprehensive rehabilitation project at Roberto Clemente State Park will provide greater access and greenspace along the [Harlem River] waterfront,” State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro said.

The money is part of the $200 million allocated to Bronx parks over the next five years in return for the water filtration plant being built in Van Cortlandt Park. The amount is triple what the borough’s parks would normally expect to receive in this timeframe.

“We are making a historic investment into Bronx parks that generations of New Yorkers will be able to enjoy,” said Adrian Benepe, the city’s Parks Commissioner.


Roberto Clemente State Park is named after the famous Puerto Rican baseball player who died in a plane crash in 1972, while on route to deliver food and supplies to earthquake-hit Nicaragua.

Fittingly, a dozen or so Roberto Clemente Little Leaguers were in attendance at the Thursday’s event.

Construction is expected to start in spring 2007.

Meanwhile, a mile east, work has already begun at Mount Hope Playground, another park to receive a slice of the filtration plant funds.

Mount Hope Playground

The playground, at the corner of Walton Avenue and East 177th Street, will get a new basketball court and play equipment, an area for adults to exercise, drinking fountains, new benches, and more trees. A man-made stream will run through the middle.

Celebrating the South Bronx’ Blossoming Arts Scene

December 8, 2006


Last Wednesday was a day for celebration – and reflection – for the South Bronx arts community, as Longwood Arts Project, part of the Bronx Council on the Arts (BSA), marked its 25th year with the opening of a stunning new exhibit, “South Bronx Contemporary.”

Meanwhile the Bronx Culture Trolley, on its fourth birthday, completed it 40th whistle-stop tour of the South Bronx’ blossoming arts scene.

“South Bronx Contemporary,” at Longwood Arts Gallery, Hostos College, featured curatorial projects by three of the Arts Project’s past directors: Betti-Sue Hertz, Fred Wilson and Eddie Torres, as well as current director, Edwin Ramoran (pictured).

Edwin Ramoran

Several hundred people showed up to admire the art, chat and mingle, and pick at the obligatory cheese and wine. In the past, these numbers would have been surprising, said organizers, but not anymore: “I expected there to be a mob scene,” said Hertz.

Ramoran’s collection, in particular, had a decidedly local feel: all 40 pieces of “Everyday is Like Sunday” were the work of Bronx residents. “I sent an open call to artists in the Bronx,” he said, adding that he specifically sought out under appreciated artists, young and old. “I was really interested in getting under the radar.”

The result is a startlingly varied display of paintings, photographs, etchings and sculptures – a fascinating peek at up-and-coming Bronx talent.

Vittorio Ottaviani, an Italian native who lives in Throgs Neck, caught Ramaron’s eye. He used oil on wood to create a finely detailed portrait of a suited black man with a defiant expression on his face, and a noose in his outstretched palms (pictured below).

“I read about Colin Powell [former Secretary of State] growing up in a South Bronx slum… and I was inspired,” said Ottaviani, 32, a graduate of Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, who paints modern subject matters in a classical style. “This piece [title: No Thanks!] is a tribute to the achievement of African Americans.”

Vittorio Ottaviani

If “South Bronx Contemporary” was the biggest show in town on Dec. 6, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Every hour, above the din of excited chatter and chinking wine glasses, a bell rang out to signal the next departure of the Bronx Cultural Trolley.

The trolley, a replica of an early 20th Century model, with old-fashioned wood-paneled seats and an elaborate paint job, buses culture fans from one attraction to another on the first Wednesday of each month.

It starts at Hostos College, and this month made stops at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Pregones Theater, and Haven’s art gallery, a two-room loft on an otherwise desolate block, before looping back round to Hostos to pick up the next group.

The trolley riders were a mixed bag: college students, tourists, and Bronxites, including local teenagers from the Law Enforcement Exploring program, on a night out with an officer from the 44th Precinct.

Melrose resident Virginia Castro is the trolley’s loyal driver; in four years she’s yet to miss a trip. “I love driving big vehicles,” Castro said. “I drive an RV in my other job.”

“I meet people from all over, people are very cordial, that’s why I love it. And I like Ellen,” Castro added, as she deftly maneuvered the trolley through the traffic.

Ellen Pollan, director of BSA’s South Bronx Cultural Corridor, is a trolley organizer. “It’s been a wild success,” she said.

The trolley is free of charge, as is every attraction on its route. But Pollan hopes people will spend money in the neighborhood. (Some riders ended up at a poetry reading, and open mic session, at the Downtown Bronx Bar and Cafe.)

“We’re a big supporter of arts as an economic engine,” Pollan said. “We’re getting people to come here and build an economy, and the arts is a great way to do that…. we’re building a creative economy.”

Of the South Bronx’ art scene, Pollan is convinced the momentum is heading in a positive direction. “Artists and galleries come and go, but is the scene growing? Definitely,” she said.

Ed. Note: There will be no Bronx Culture Trolley in January. The trolley will return on Wednesday Feb 7. For information on future rides and trolley attractions call (718) 931-9500 ex. 33 or visit www.bronxarts.org. “South Bronx Contemporary” will be on view through March 10, Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, call (718) 518-6728, or visit www.longwoodcyber.org.

A History of Mount Hope Through the Ages

December 8, 2006


The oldest known photograph of the Bronx, taken from approximately Mount Hope Place at Anthony Avenue in 1856, and looking east towards where Webster Avenue is today, captures the village of Tremont – a collection of houses, barns, stables, and taverns, surrounded by pasture and trees.

The photo, at the Bronx County Historical Society Research Library, is grainy, but the scene is unmistakably sleepy – idyllic even. Fast-forward 150 years then, and clearly much has changed. Stand in same spot, and gaze north, south, east or west you’ll see some of the most built-up, densely populated neighborhoods in the city.

Perhaps only the immediate geography of the land has stayed the same; the ridges, the rock outcrops, and the hills that characterize the region. Oh, and the names. There’s a Tremont Avenue, a Tremont subway station, and, west of Webster, the neighborhood of Tremont.

And there’s a Mount Hope, once just the name of a hill, now a neighborhood in its own right. It sits in Community District 5, north of the Cross Bronx Expressway, south of East Burnside Avenue, west of Webster Avenue, and east of the Jerome Avenue. (Click here for a map.)

Unemployment is high in Mount Hope, as is crime – the 46th Precinct, which patrols the district, leads the city this year in arrests. The schools are overcrowded, and according to a 2006 community profile by the Department of Health, 41 percent of central Bronx residents, of which Mount Hope is a part, live below the poverty line, against a borough average of 31 percent.

This same study (available here) also paints a worrying picture of residents’ health. central Bronx residents are more likely to die before the age of 75 than in nearly every other neighborhood in the city.

Yet despite all of this this, there’s room for optimism. According to police statistics, crime has fallen in recent years: compared to 1993, it’s down 73 percent as of November this year.

Just as revealing, on any given day, the air is full with the echo of bustling construction sites. Private investment, in the form of new houses and apartment buildings, is beginning to trickle into Mount Hope. “This is a new phenomenon,” said Keith Fairey, former chief operating officer of Mount Hope Housing Company.

Non-profits, in particular, have been central to the area’s revitalization. This winter, Mount Hope Housing Company, which has bought and renovated more than two dozen apartment buildings over the last twenty years, will break ground on a $16 million community centre at East 175th Street and Townsend Avenue. As well as providing much needed services for local residents, the organization hopes the center will reinvigorate East Burnside Avenue’s shopping district.

Furthermore, city funds allocated to Bronx Parks in compensation for sitting the controversial Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cordlandt Park – are finding their way into the neighborhood. Approximately $2 million has been put aside for the renovation of Mount Hope Playground, at Walton Avenue at the corner of East 177th Street. And $10 million is being spent on Roberto Clemente State Park, in nearby Morris Heights.

In 2006 then, Mount Hope is an apt name for a neighborhood with much to be excited about. But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s and 1980s, when much of the Bronx was in turmoil, the name itself was a strange anomaly, a cruel joke.

Before we get onto this, however, lets travel back to the quiet village of Tremont in the middle of the 19th Century. It probably sprung up in the early 1840s following the opening of a railroad station nearby. (The land itself was owned by the Morris family, wealthy landowners who moved to the area in the 1600s, and whose name lives on in Morris Heights and Morrisania.)

Despite the railroad station, much of Mount Hope and beyond remained farmland until the expansion of the city’s subway system deep into the Bronx at the turn of the 20th Century. With the borough more accessible, waves of Irish, Italian and Jewish families moved into the neighborhood, and apartment buildings quickly replaced single-family wood-panel dwellings to cope with the burgeoning population.

According to Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx Borough historian, these immigrants were attracted to Mount Hope and the surrounding area by the quality of life. Parts of the Manhattan, especially the Lower East Side, were overcrowded, polluted, and ridden with slums. The Bronx, by comparison, Ultan said, was greener, cleaner, and quieter.

Much of the area became distinctly well-to-do. The Grand Concourse, completed in 1909 and soon studded with impressive art-deco apartment buildings, was “ritzy,” said Ultan. Dart Westphal, president of Mosholu Preservation Corporation, a Bronx non-profit that rehabilitates housing, said it was, “a snazzy place to live.”

In 1933, the IND Concourse underground subway line, extending from 145th Street in Harlem to 205th in Norwood, was built, further encouraging development along the Bronx’s grandest avenue.

But after World War II the neighborhood began to change, and it is here that Mount Hope’s history becomes entangled with that of the rest of the South Bronx. First off, the Jews, Italians, and Irish left the borough, bound for the suburbs. “They had money and now cars, and wanted houses not apartments,” said Ultan.

The infrastructure was changing too. In the 1950s, the Cross Bronx Expressway was built, bisecting the borough, and displacing thousands of neighborhood residents whose apartment buildings were torn down to accommodate the six-lane highway. Meanwhile, a decline in the city manufacturing industry was hurting the economy. As factories closed, immigrants – long dependent on factory work – discovered their labor was no longer in demand. Unemployment soared, and with nowhere to go, more Bronxites – by now mostly blacks and Puerto Ricans – were forced to rely on welfare.

At least rents were regulated. But the policy of rent control left landlords with little incentive to maintain their aging properties, as profits were miniscule. Building after building fell into a state of disrepair.

Then, in the early 1970s, insurance firms and other financial institutions began “Redlining” much of the South Bronx. Convinced the risk was too high and the borough a lost cause, they refused to invest in the neighborhood.

Landlords took this as a sign of impending doom, and many burnt their buildings to claim insurance before their policies ran out. Most probably, tenants were culpable in the arson too, so as to take advantage of the city’s handouts for burnout victims. Regardless, in the 1970s, fires raged night after night in the Bronx.

“If you look at Sandstrom maps,” said Fairey. “an amazing picture is painted for you of buildings being lost year after year.” Incredibly, nearly half of the South Bronx’ housing stock was destroyed.

The Department of Housing pulled down what remained of the abandoned buildings – often nothing more than charred shells – but for the most part, the city washed its hands of the Bronx. Roger Starr, the administrator for the city’s housing department in the mid-1970s, went as far as saying the city should “accelerate the drainage” of the worst neighborhoods.

Why bother to prolong the life of a diseased and dying and neighborhood, Starr’s “Planned Shrinkage” theory went. Municipal funding was thus redirected to other parts of the city, and as a result, schools and hospitals closed.

Throughout this period, the “white flight” that had started in the 1950s had continued, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s thousands of central Bronx residents moved to Co-op City, the world’s largest cooperative housing development, that had opened in the northeast corner of the borough.

In 1970, 1,471,170 lived in the Bronx. By 1980 that number has fallen to 1,168,972.

In Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, author Jonathan Mahler puts the changing landscape like this: “[In the 1950s] the Grand Concourse had been known as New York’s Champs-Élysées (with Yankee Stadium as it’s Arc de art de Triomphe.) Now metaphorists referenced Dresden, not Paris, when describing the area.”

The 1980s, a decade of crack and crime, were equally tough, but in the 1990s, the neighborhood began to fight back.

Jill Jonnes, author of South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City, describes how community leaders and non-profits began to organize, and reclaim their lost neighborhoods.

As Jonnes says, the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition was integral in this revival. And in Mount Hope, community efforts spun into the Mount Hope Housing Company. The organization, which was formed in 1986, now owns 1,250 apartment units, roughly 10 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock.

The role of Mayor Ed Koch and his administration cannot be understated either.

“Starting in the mid-’80s, New York City started pouring some $500 million a year into affordable housing–more than the next 50 largest U.S. cities combined. Much of that money went into the South Bronx,” wrote Robert Worth, of Washington Monthly, in an article titled “Guess Who Saved the South Bronx.”

Walking around Mount Hope today, there’s little obvious reminder those dark times. Graffiti remains a huge problem, but there are few abandoned buildings, and many formerly empty lots have been put to good use, such as Townsend Community Garden at Townsend Avenue and 175th Street.

So to the future. Ultan is hopeful Mount Hope and other neighborhoods can continue their recovery. “There’s more home ownership than ever before, and a lot of new buildings going up,” he said. But he’s cautious. “Some improvement in education is needed and what really needs to happen is [more] jobs.”

Fairey agrees that challenges still lie ahead. “There’s still low income people, still people struggling,” he said. “And there’s still the challenge of poverty.”