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Arrest in Bronx Draws Protests in Chinatown

April 8, 2009

Community activists rallied at 81 Bowery in Chinatown on Sunday, April 5, in support of Bronx resident Jian Zhong Chen, who claims he was falsely arrested and imprisoned in the Bronx on March 23. The Tenants Union and Chinatown Justice Project of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a Bronx-based community advocacy organization, planned the event. Chen has been charged with menacing and possession of a weapon and faces a court hearing in May.


Chen, 46, came to the U.S. five years ago from Fujian, China and works as a handyman and restaurant worker. He said that as he was running errands on the afternoon of March 23 near 184th and Jerome Avenue, when a man in his mid-twenties accused him of stealing money from him. Chen said the money was his; that he had withdrawn $860 from the bank a few days earlier to send to his wife and 14-year-old daughter in China.

Chen, who speaks little to no English, said that the police did not allow him to use a 911 translator to explain himself and that he told police repeatedly, “Chinese person. No English.”

The alleged weapon was a fruit knife that Chen said he had purchased at the local store near where he was arrested. According to the complaint filed with the District Attorney, the man, Aboubaca Gouem, claimed Chen used the knife in a threatening manner. The report stated that the officer who made the arrest observed that the knife was rolled up in a shirt when he arrived at the scene.

“They threw me directly into prison,” said Chen, in Mandarin, who was held overnight at a Bronx holding facility. He said he does not know what will happen and has been wracked with nerves for the last few weeks. Chen faces deportation if convicted. “This is too unfair,” said Chen. “America is supposed to be a country for human rights.”

Chen Two

Chen said he has felt unsafe and helpless since his relocation to 101 E Tremont near the Grand Concourse, where he and 30 others evicted from their apartments in Chinatown at 81 Bowery have had difficulty adjusting to their new environment. The lack of resources for Chinese speakers makes them easier targets to be conned, according to CAAAV volunteer, Shaun Lin.  “It’s been five months and still no word on when we can return,” said a bewildered Chen. “When will we be moving back?”  

In November, the Department of Buildings (DOB) evicted 50 residents from 81 Bowery due to unsafe living conditions. The landlord, Donald Lee, had constructed illegal partitions in some of the 23 rooms on the fourth floor that blocked a secondary exit, according to the DOB.

Tenants met with the DOB in February and were told they would be shown the proposed renovation plans for 81 Bowery as soon as the landlord submitted them, but they’re still waiting.


Food Pantry Lines Swell as Recession Deepens

April 2, 2009

Food pantry

On a recent Friday morning, the only sound outside the Love Gospel Assembly Church food pantry at 114 E. 188th St. was the occasional calling of a number. “Fifteen,” a man shouted as he leaned out of the church doors and glanced at a crowd of 40 or 50 who looked at their shoes, the sky, or the streets, but not at each other.

Most came alone and almost all had metal baskets on wheels, but Cecelia, 47, clutched a green backpack as she waited. It was her first visit to the pantry though she has lived in the South Fordham area for seven years with her eight-year-old son. She was there because she lost her job six months ago, and has been struggling to make ends meet.

Patricia Williams, 48, was visiting Love Gospel for the third time. She, too, recently lost her job and has found it difficult to find a new one. Though she receives $198 a month in food stamps, or $6.60 per day, it does not feed both her and her disabled husband.

Jeffrey Williams, who oversees the program at the church, said new people continue to flock to the pantry and they now feed approximately 3,000 people a month compared to 1,500 per month in past years.

Other local food pantries are also getting busier.

“There has been a tremendous increase in demand by our food pantry and pantries throughout Bronx and throughout the city,” said Ken Small, development director at the Citizens Advice Bureau, a Morris Heights-based non-profit that runs a food pantry out of Morris Senior Center on East 181st Street.

Leroy Robinson, pastor at the True Gospel Tabernacle Church at 1 W. Tremont Ave., has also noticed a sharp spike in the number of people coming to his pantry.  Every Thursday morning, with the 4-train rattling overhead, dozens of local residents line up outside the church to get their hands on free food.

A staff member said there had been a 25 percent increase since last year, adding “Everywhere, people are getting laid off.”

Citywide, the unemployment rate in February was 8.1 percent, according to New York State Department of Labor data, compared to 4.4 percent in February 2008. 

In the Bronx, it’s currently 10.8 percent. But Community District 5′s unemployment rate is typically much higher, said the Community District Manager Xavier Rodriguez. Though there is no current unemployment data for the district, the 2000 Census put it at close to 20 percent.

But even those who have jobs have been hurt by rising food prices and the faltering economy. 

As a part time home care assistant, Yolanda Sierra, 58, says she feels caught in the middle. Her former 24-hour work week as a home care assistant has been cut back and she is no longer working enough hours to cover all her bills. Yet she does not qualify for welfare. 

“Little by little, it’s getting worse,” Sierra said. She began coming to the Creston Baptist Church’s food pantry at 114 E. 188th St. a few months ago.

Though pantries are free and screen only for housing status because the food distributed requires cooking, they typically limit the number of visits per household to one per month, or may cap the number of visitors they accept. So those in need often hop from one food pantry to the next, since the food, mostly perishable items like fruits, vegetables, meat, and bread, lasts only a few days.

After visiting Love Gospel, Cecelia made her way down the Grand Concourse to the Creston Baptist Church, a French baguette sticking out of her backpack. Though she arrived at noon, when doors open, the street was empty. She looked disappointingly at the “closed” sign hanging on the church’s gated entrance.

A staff member at Creston said that they had to turn people away that day and that recently there has been a decrease in the food that they receive. He said that normally two to three orders and an automatic shipment come in from the New York City Food Bank every month, but they have only been receiving one shipment since January, which only lasts two weeks at best. (The Food Bank couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.)

According to Rodriguez, there is currently a shortage of food pantries in the area. He said that community-based organizations have been looking to approach local churches about opening new sites to cope with the increased need.

Despite the closed door at Creston Baptist, Cecelia said she would return next week and continue scouting for other food pantries. She shifted the weight of her backpack as she went on her way and smiled, “It’s getting heavy. Next time I will bring a cart.”


Editor’s note: See here for details of food pantries in the west Bronx.

Webster Avenue School Wins Multimedia Award

April 2, 2009

A tech-savvy middle school in Fordham has done it again, winning the Chase “Multimedia in the Classroom” award for the fourth year in a row.

The Theater Arts Production Company School (TAPCo), at 2225 Webster Ave., was one of 10 schools in the tri-state area to win the $1,000 award, which is sponsored by JP Morgan Chase in conjunction with TV channels THIRTEEN and WLIW21. It’s given to schools that demonstrate creative use of technology in the classroom.

In a press release, president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Kimberly B. Davis, said that technologically skilled students will have the edge to be “successful in a global economy.”

This year, TAPCo won with a video about the origins of math, titled “The Base Ten Number System,” created by students Marion Osmani, Ardit Bujaj, and Andrew Sosa, under the direction of technology specialist and math teacher Steven Mudrick.

“The Chase award is an acknowledgement to the kids that what they’re doing is valuable,” Mudrick said. “[And] it gives me as a teacher something to reward the kids [with].”

He said the prize money would be spent on a portable audio system and production supplies.

At TAPCo, Mudrick added, “We’re making videos all the time.”  The school even puts on mini film festivals. “The kids are pumped and primed and they can’t wait to show you their work,” Mudrick said.

“Kids need different ways to see information,” he continued. “I think video is a very powerful medium.”


Fill in the Harlem River? No Way, Say Local Leaders

April 2, 2009

If Charles J. Urstadt has his way, Manhattan will no longer be an island.

In a New York Times op-ed on March 13, the former chairman of the Battery Park City Authority wrote that the city’s economy can be revived by reclaiming and developing new land. Fifth on his list of suggestions was the draining and filling in of the Harlem River.

The eight-mile river, which divides Manhattan and the Bronx, should be turned into 3,000 acres of land, argued Urstadt, to provide space for parks, schools, businesses, and housing.

Community leaders haven’t exactly embraced his plan.

Ludger Balan, executive director of the Harlem River Ecology Center, feels it would be “invasive and destructive.” He said the river is one of New York Harbor’s most scenic bodies of water and contains a unique ecosystem with its own tidal pattern. He calls the river’s many bridges “spectacular architectural wonders,” raising the question of what would happen to them should the river disappear.

State Senator Jose M. Serrano, who represents much of the west Bronx, also rejects Urstadt’s idea. In a statement, he said that “more pavement, more concrete and less water” would worsen the asthma epidemic in his district.

Thomas Curry, the executive director of the New York Rowers Association, said the Harlem River has a long rowing history dating back to the 1860s and is the only river in the city suitable for the sport, practiced by students in all boroughs and at the university level.

Curry believes filling in the Harlem River and other bodies of water would be a sign of gluttony not growth.  He offered his two cents on the proposal: “Crazy. Insane.”


CAB Recognized by The New York Times

April 2, 2009

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a non-profit organization based in Morris Heights, has been selected by the New York Times Company as one of 10 semi-finalists for the 2009 Nonprofit Excellence Awards, which honors exceptional management practices.

Ken Small, CAB’s development director, said that the application process was very rigorous and that nearly 100 other organizations from across the city applied.

Six finalists will be chosen by April 28 and four winners will be picked in June. Three will receive $5,000 each while one will be given the $25,000 Overall Excellence award, which last year went to Good Shepherd Services, a youth development, education, and family service agency.

At the time of CAB’s founding in 1972, the Bronx was sliding into a downward spiral of decay, Small said. CAB became a frontline organization in helping people with their basic needs and advocating for social, economic, and educational resources for low-income individuals, families, and communities.

According to their Web site, CAB helped 35,000 Bronx residents in 2008. Services offered include placing low-income adults in jobs, assisting children and youth with college guidance services, helping families avoid entry into the shelter system, and supporting the growing immigrant population.

 ”It’s a great honor to be nominated for this award,” said Carolyn McLaughlin, CAB’s executive director, in a statement.

Small added that the nomination points to the quality of CAB’s leadership, like McLaughlin’s 30 years of direction, and to the organization’s commitment to serve the Bronx. He said that it is from CAB’s leadership “that all other aspects of our program fall into place.”


Sedgwick Avenue Tenants Battle Landlord on Several Fronts

April 2, 2009

Behind the quiet exterior of 1600 Sedgwick, a 25-story apartment building that overlooks the Harlem River, more than 100 residents are engaged in a bitter fight with their landlord, Grenadier Realty Corp., over the building’s maintenance, rent, and electricity bills.

The tenants filed a Housing Part action against Grenadier on Mar. 10, the day they held their first press conference. They complained that the frequent lack of hot water and heat, leaky faucets and ceilings, mold, and broken doors have put dozens of Section 8 tenants at risk of losing new enhanced housing vouchers.

“NYCHA does not want tenants living in apartments not maintained by landlords,” explained Urban Justice Attorney, Garrett Wright. Out of 80 units, 72 failed New York City Housing Authority inspections.

Richard Mulieri, spokesperson for the Riverview Redevelopment Company that owns the property stated in an e-mail that many of the problems identified by NYCHA have been resolved and that most are minor.

But the HP action may only be the first of several lawsuits against Grenadier.

Rents went up to market rates on Feb. 1 in at least 80 apartments after Grenadier removed the building from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Below Market Interest Rate program, where owners are charged low interest rates but must pass on savings to tenants in the form of reduced rents.

Wright argues that Sedgwick should automatically be rent stabilized because it was built before 1974 and contains more than six units. Grenadier also receives certain tax abatements that may disqualify them from raising rents to market value. However, an apartment is released from rent-stabilization when the rent reaches $2,000 after a vacancy, which could occur when large utility bills are appended to the rent.

Jacqueline Bautista, a 22-year resident, said she has received utility bills of $600 since Grenadier began submetering, or individually measuring, utilities in the summer of 2008. Before, utility usage was measured for the entire building and divided equally among residents.

Anthony Jenkins, a tenant organizer living in the building, explained that both he and his mother, Naomi, have received utility bills of $300 and $400. Naomi believes her utility bills are inaccurate and refuses to pay. “There were times we would go on vacations and still receive bills for $400,” said Jenkins. His mother is now due in court on Mar. 16 over non-payment of the utility bills along with about 30 others, according to tenant organizer and resident, Cora Bennett.

Wright believes that tenants should not be taken to Housing Court where they can be evicted over utility bills. The landlord should instead be taking tenants to a small claims or civil court. Wright also explained that Grenadier never provided “shadow billing,” a period where tenants do not pay the first several months of utility bills in order to get used to submetering.

Mulierei said in a statement that in December, Grenadier credited tenants who paid their utilities for August and September 2008.

But Wright believes the bills should have been dropped for all tenants, not just those who paid, since none of the tenants were provided shadow billing.

Jenkins believes these issues could have been prevented had the current president of the tenants association done her job and questions the integrity of her relationship with management. He hopes she will be ousted in the upcoming tenants’ association elections when he and Bennett will run for co-vice-presidency.


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