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Jerome Avenue Auto Shops Feel the Economy’s Pinch

December 15, 2008

Luis Parra, 21, takes a drag off his Newport as the No. 4 train clatters overhead. He sits on a wooden bench outside Elian Auto Glass on Jerome Avenue. The yellow paint has peeled off to reveal worn splinters.  

JeromeIn the shop behind him, a silver Lincoln Town Car sits in the bay, passenger door open.  His three fellow employees have removed the panels from the door and are working on the automatic window’s motor. The job will take about 10 minutes. Parra is not needed for this job, so he sits on the bench and smokes.

“I come in a lot,” he says with a shrug.  “But…”

But business is bad.  From the Cross Bronx Expressway up to Tremont Avenue, for a solid seven blocks, Jerome could be called the Auto Shop District.  Muffler repairs, corner rim shops, parking lots, garages large and small. Detailed paint work and tinted windows installed by workers from local neighborhoods and foreign countries. Graffiti murals extolling the virtues of certain shops. Jerome has been like this for as long as most can remember, but the businesses are struggling as economic problems continue to trickle down.

Men like Parra sit, smoke, talk, watch and wait for work to drive up. At 177th Street, a man sits on a folding chair against the green support of the train tracks as cars drive past.  He holds a sign advertising window tints. There aren’t many takers. Experts have been saying that consumers are spending less and focusing on what’s most important when they do spend. The businesses along Jerome testify to this.

Elian Auto Glass is a small shop, two bays, four workers. They do tint jobs, repair broken windows and windshields, fix broken motors. The work doesn’t take long.  Most jobs are done in about half an hour. Most jobs are inexpensive, about $100. The shop makes money by doing a lot of these small jobs. Except there haven’t been that many.

“The situation is really down,” says employee Randall Martinez, who’s also 21. “We’ve got to try and get the customer in here and give them a good price.”

But he wonders if that’s enough. He sees cars with broken windshields drive by, day after day. The owners can’t afford to have them fixed, or so Martinez guesses.

Martinez’ father owns a garage in the Dominican Republic.  That’s where he learned to work on cars, mostly as a mechanic.  He’d never worked with glass before getting the job at Elian, but he likes it fine.

“I love cars,” he says, emphasizing the word ‘love.’

Down at C & S Reyna Mufflers, Emmanuel Reyna, 24, is half-watching Spanish-language music videos, half-supervising the changing of a manifold on a Nissan Quest.  The minivan is the only vehicle being worked on in the shop.  The mechanic working on the manifold is from Brooklyn, the rest of the guys are from the Dominican Republic. Spanish and English are heard, sometimes in the same sentence.  Emmanuel has been working in his father’s shop for five years.  They moved the business from a smaller location two years ago, but the extra space hasn’t been needed as much lately.  Still, Emmanuel is stoic.

Jerome Two

“Things go down, things come back up.  Just keep going,” he says.  He notes that the shop does state inspections, a service that is always needed.

Richard Cisternas is 53.  His shop, Quality Auto Body, has been open for 30 years.  Cisternas has six employees and doesn’t work on the cars himself anymore, but he says he still spends more time in the shop than the office, and his Bronx accent is thick.  Being a veteran is no guarantee of success these days, though.

“I can only fly to Boca [Boca Raton, Florida] three times a week instead of four,” he jokes.

Unlike most of the shops along Jerome, Quality has an office alongside the shop.  Unlike the other shops, there’s not a gumball dispenser or pictures of scantily clad women pinned to the walls.  The radio plays “When Doves Cry” rather than salsa.  The smell of iron and oil are still thick in the air. 

“I think every business is in a downturn,” he says, but he doesn’t think the slump will last as long for him as it will for companies selling new products.

“Leasing’s coming to an end,” he says.  “People thought, ‘It’s a disposable world.  Why fix it, just buy a new one’.” 

Now that people won’t be able to get credit for new cars, Cisternas is betting they’ll be more willing to pay when things go wrong.

Like the younger guys who work in the nearby shops, Cisternas finds his occupation worthwhile.

“It’s always nice to do something you enjoy,” he says.


Mother of Four, Strangled by Boyfriend

December 12, 2008

ColonA 32-year-old woman was killed by her boyfriend inside her apartment at 1892 Morris Avenue on the morning of Dec. 5, police say.

David Galindez, 64, grabbed Ileana Tejada-Colon around the neck and strangled her, according to the criminal complaint filed against him.

Shortly afterwards, he phoned police to tell them what happened, neighbors said. Colon was pronounced dead at the scene. Galindez has been charged with manslaughter. 

Colon’s four children, ages 6, 8, 11, and 15, were in school at the time of her death.

Jesus Tejada, the children’s father and Colon’s husband, is incarcerated, according to Julia Tejada-Ayoub, his older sister. Tejada-Ayoub recently moved to Florida with her family but is currently staying with her husband’s sister, Cathy Ayoub, who lives in the same Morris Avenue building.

Family members have been unable to contact Colon’s husband and do not know if he is aware of his wife’s death.  

Tejada-Ayoub was close to Colon and her kids, having known her since Colon arrived in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic 15 years ago.

But she says Colon “never gave details” about her relationship with Galindez, a retired police officer from Spring Valley, Rockland County. She only knows they began seeing each other in 2005 and that Galindez moved in with her a year ago.  He provided financially for the children, which might have been a significant reason why Colon remained in the relationship, Tejada-Ayoub said. 

Tejada-Ayoub said Galindez didn’t want her spending time with Colon’s children, at one point telling her bluntly that the kids might not want to see her. Before Galindez moved in with Colon, Tejada-Ayoub said she was free to take them out on regular outings.

Though she has several children of her own, Tejada-Ayoub was in court last Monday, fighting for the custody of Colon’s children.

Cathy Ayoub said, “That is what Ileana would have wanted.” 

Tejada-Ayoub believes Galindez wanted to marry Colon but does not know if Colon reciprocated that interest.  

Several residents speculated that Galindez killed Colon in a jealous rage and that there was an altercation between the two before Colon’s death. But first floor resident, Jose Garcia, who lives a few doors down from Colon’s apartment, reported no disturbances or noise from the residence on Thursday or Friday.   

Speaking through his home attendant (who translated his Spanish into English), Garcia said he had known Colon for six to seven years but had never met Galindez. He said that Colon was “a good girl” and “a very, very good mother, hard working lady.” Garcia added, “I don’t know what made him [Galindez] do this.” 

Colon had worked at the Key Food supermarket on Westchester Avenue for nearly 15 years, first as a cashier and then as a manager. Though she spoke limited English when she came to the U.S., she worked diligently to rise in her career and provide for her family, relatives said.

“Ileana loved that job,” said Tejada-Ayoub. After a length of silence as she clutched her face in grief, she continued, though her voice at times faltered, “She knew her kids would be proud of her because she wasn’t on welfare. She was working… it is very unfair what happened to her.”  

Colon’s mother, who has not seen her daughter since she left the Dominican Republic, is flying into the U.S. this week, said relatives, who are currently planning the funeral.

Colon’s quiet corner apartment, in which she lived and died, remains blocked off. A handwritten sign scotch-taped to the door reads, “Rest in Peace, Chiquita.” 



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.


Honoring Living Legends

December 5, 2008

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a Bronx based non-profit, held its annual “Living Legends” event on Nov. 13 to honor individuals who have devoted their lives to serving and improving the Bronx.

Among the four selected were Dart Westphal, president of Mosholu Preservation Corporation, an organization which, among many other things, publishes the Norwood News and Mount Hope Monitor; and Verona Greenland, president and CEO of Morris Heights Health Center (MHHC).

LEGENDSA 30-year veteran of the healthcare industry, Greenland founded MHHC in 1981 as a response to the critical need for health services in the underserved Morris Heights community.  Last year, MHHC, served 54,000 patients. The organization is currently building a new health center and 70 units of housing for seniors at West Burnside Avenue near Harrison Avenue.

Greenland has received multiple awards for her work, is a member of many state and national organizations, and serves on multiple healthcare boards and committees.

At the event, which was held at CAB’s community center at 1130 Grand Concourse, each honoree was given a piece of artwork by artists associated with the Artisans Initiative of the Bronx Council on the Arts.


Residents Snap Up Obama Merchandise

December 4, 2008

Obama t-shirtThese days, it seems like every store and every street vendor in the area is selling some sort of Obama merchandise. T-shirts, hats, buttons, commemorative mugs and pens bearing the president-elect’s smiling visage can all be acquired to help people remember the historic election.

Last week, vendor Ernest Akpo was displaying his Obama goods on a table on Burnside Avenue. “Obama would approve people making a profit of his electoral victory,” said Akpo, an immigrant from Togo.

He says T-shirts and baseball hats have been his best sellers. As the temperature has gotten colder, Obama winter hats have started to sell, too.

Lately, however, sales have started to slow. “Right after the election it was crazy, but now not so much,” Akpo said. “But I don’t mind, I still sell some stuff.” He hopes sales will go back up when Obama is inaugurated in January and that he might increase his stock of Obama goods as the date approaches.

Gladys Bema, who works in an African market on Tremont Avenue, says she started selling Obama shirts shortly after he won the Democratic nomination in the summer.

“A lot of people buy them and send them home because they can’t get them over there,” said Bema, who’s originally from Ghana and has been in America for 17 years. “Germany, London, Ghana, wherever.”

Bema, who that day was sporting an Obama shirt with the president-elect’s name outlined in golden glitter, says she almost views selling the shirts as a duty. “When I got here, Reagan was president and I didn’t think a black man would ever be elected,” she said. “Anything can happen now, and I want people to remember this.”


Following Election, Cautious Optimism Among Bronx Africans

December 3, 2008

At 1:30 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, the Islamic Cultural Center on the corner of Walton and Tremont avenues teemed with activity as the faithful arrived to pray.

Most of the 200 plus men in attendance were African immigrants from Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and elsewhere. While they may have come from different countries, they all seem to agree that Barack Obama is one of them.

“It doesn’t matter that his father was Kenyan, he is African,” says Ahalaru Osman, who’s Ghanaian.

There are roughly 1.2 million African immigrants in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Insititute. Tens of thousands live in the densely populated west Bronx.

Osman, who has been in the U.S. for 18 years, says that Africans generally support Democrats, but that their support for Obama was overwhelming because of his African roots.

Across the street, at an African restaurant where she works, Fatima Musah echoes this sentiment. “He’s not just an ordinary black man, his father was from Kenya, he’s a real African-American,” says Musah, who emigrated from Ghana six years ago. “It’s a big deal for us, who come all the way over here to take advantage of America’s opportunities, to see him do this.”

While the African community is proud of Obama’s achievement, it’s hard to imagine that their vote had a huge impact on the election because their population is still small compared to other groups. Many at the Islamic Center seem to be aware of this.

“It wasn’t whites or blacks who voted him in, but Americans,” says Hassan Mohamed, who is also from Ghana. 

Mohamed called Obama’s victory “good for the people of the world.” But he’s unsure what change Obama’s presidency will bring to the continent of Africa.  “He cannot change it. I wish he could,” says Mohamed. “Africa will not be improved with politics.”

Mohamed believes that deeply rooted interests will prevent Obama from affecting actual change. “The IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank, they determine the world’s policy towards Africa and they don’t favor the continent,” he says.

Dr. Raji Ayinala, who’s originally from Nigeria, and was also at the mosque that day, is more optimistic. “I think his policies towards Africa will be better but he needs to focus on specific issues,” he says.

Ayinala, who emigrated 17 years ago, says that the problems facing Africa are enormous and abundant. He says that in order to help, Obama must fight poverty across the continent, eliminate African nations’ massive debts, and improve African economies in general. No small task.

Though most of the men at the Islamic Cultural Center were encouraged by Obama’s victory, they felt that the election showed an ugly side of America, too.

Throughout the campaign, false rumors were spread that Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, was a Muslim. While Obama, who is a Christian, seemed to successfully refute these rumors, their very existence angered many in Africans of Muslim faith.

“I think it’s a cheap shot. And it doesn’t speak well of America’s own policies,” says Ayinala. “America preaches equality. Colin Powell said it best when he said it shouldn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or not.”

Osman found himself questioning the American dream which he left Africa to attain. “I asked myself, would my son be disqualified for president because he is a Muslim?” he said.

Deputy Imam Hussein Amadu Ibrahim said the rumors were indicative of the prejudice Muslims face in the U.S. Ibrahim, who came to the U.S. from Ghana 15 years ago, cited examples of racial profiling members of his congregation have faced at the hands of immigration officers.

“We believe Muslims are being treated unfairly,” he says.

Musah, who works in the African restaurant, says she thinks Americans believe all Muslims are terrorists. “The moment they see you’re named Mohamed, then you must be a terrorist and have [a] time bomb you might explode,” she says.

Ayinala emphasizes that Islam is a religion of peace. He says that the vast majority of Muslims condemn terrorism. He hopes that Obama can promote tolerance by meeting with Muslim leaders and opening an interfaith dialogue.

“The reason most immigrants came to America is for freedom; one of those freedoms is freedom of religion,” says Ayinala. “This is what the founding fathers would have wanted.”


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