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Census Workers to Start Knocking on Doors

May 8, 2010

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GRAPHIC BY M. CORTAZAL (SOURCE: US CENSUS BUREAU)

By MANUEL CORTAZAL

Census Bureau workers will fan out across the Bronx this month, knocking on doors and asking residents for answers to ten questions. What 10 questions? The questions from the census form.

With the deadline to return census forms now past, residents who didn’t complete it should expect a visit. Anxious city officials are hoping these visits yield results.

“I cannot stress this enough, if we do not count, we will miss out,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in statement, as early reports indicated a low return rate in some parts of the borough.

The mayor’s office estimates the city loses about $3,000 for every resident not counted. That’s $30,000 per person, over the next ten years, until the 2020 Census tolls around. Each year government agencies use the results to determine where to spend $400 billion of federal funding for hospitals, job training centers, schools and senior centers.

As of April 27, 62 percent of Bronx households had returned their forms, ten percentage points below the national average of 72 percent. Still, the Bronx outperformed Brooklyn’s 55 percent return rate and the 59 percent of Queens. Manhattan claimed bragging rights with its 67 percent mail-in rate, with Staten Island on 64 percent.

But residents in some corners of the west Bronx showed their zeal for getting counted. Mount Hope households along the Grand Concourse between Tremont and 181 Street boasted a 71 percent return rate. In a section of South Fordham, the rate was 68 percent.

These good scores come despite many hurdles the city must clear. “New York City is the poster child for a hard to count population,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference earlier this spring. He noted that 40 percent of city’s residents were born in another country and that many of them are fearful of the census, especially the undocumented. Adding to the fear are language barriers and frequent address changes the mayor said.

The mayor is trumpeting “get out the count” efforts aimed at boosting the city’s census tally. And with billions of dollars in federal assistance at stake, he’s pinning his hopes on city residents’ willingness to open their doors to census workers.

Cabrera Rips the Dept. of Education Over School’s Relocation

May 8, 2010

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COUNCILMAN CABRERA (RIGHT) AND UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS SECONDARY SCHOOL STUDENTS CRITICIZED THE DOE AT A PRESS CONFERENCE (PHOTO: R. THOMAS)

By REBECCA THOMAS

Councilman Fernando Cabrera had harsh words on April 26 for the Department of Education, which continues to be unreceptive to his proposal to keep University Heights Secondary School in his district.

“The DOE has been duplicitous in their dealings with my office and our constituency,” said Cabrera in a statement released that day. “They never intended to prevent the move of University Heights and falsely gave the impression that they were willing to negotiate with CUNY and the community in order to provide the best for the kids. It is time they be held accountable.”

The school is located on the Bronx Community College campus in University Heights, but will have to leave because BCC – a CUNY college – needs the space in time for the new school year.

That afternoon, the councilman and 13 students from the school gathered at the corner of 179th Street and Jerome Avenue for a press conference. They stood outside a newly constructed four-story building that Cabrera described as “ideal” for the school but which the DOE has rejected in favor of the South Bronx High School campus in Morrisania.

Cabrera says he suggested the 179th Street site in January after the DOE had said that the lack of suitable buildings was the obstacle to keeping the school in the local area. The building is a five-minute walk from University Heights Secondary School’s current site, but Cabrera’s proposal was greeted with inaction.

“They asked me to find a building. I found a building, but now nothing!” he said at the press conference. “Don’t ask me to do something if you know at the end that there is no hope!”

Frank DeLeonardis, the owner of the 179th Street building, is willing to outfit it for the school and include this price in the monthly lease, so that it would not be a large upfront cost for the DOE, according to Cabera’s office. Retrofitting the building would take until the middle of next academic year. The school would have to remain on BCC’s campus until then – something the college has been willing to consider but which the DOE has not, Cabrera said.

Almost 80 percent of students at University Heights are from the community and walk to school. Many feel the building on 179th Street is a better option than moving the school to Morrisania, which is almost an hour away by public transport. They shared the councilman’s frustration with how the DOE has handled the move. “The students feel the DOE has not listened to anything we have had to say,” said Maria Ruiz, a student.

Cabrera scheduled Monday’s press conference following discussions last week with the DOE, during which it became clear that the Department wasn’t interested in revisiting the move, his office said. The city made its final decision almost a month ago. At the time, the DOE said it would look at alternatives if they came up.

Cabrera said he intends to keep putting pressure on the Department. “We are going to continue to negotiate… and let them know that now is the time to step in,” he said. “We are running out of time to solve this.”

The DOE did not return calls seeking comment.

Related articles:

City Approves School’s Move to the South Bronx High School campus
Protests Continue Over H.S.’s Relocation; School’s Fate May Be Decided at March Meeting
Local High School Could Move to the South Bronx
Opinion: BCC Must Rethink Decision to Evict High School

School Community and Local Politicians Criticize Plans to Relocate High School
BCC to Expel University Heights Secondary School

Bronx Pols Slam Arizona Immigration Law

May 8, 2010

By ALEX KRATZ

In recent weeks, a slew of Bronx politicians have come out forcefully against a new immigration law in Arizona, saying the legislation is “anti-immigrant” and unconstitutional. Many are calling on the federal government to enact broad immigration reform to prevent such laws from popping up in other states.

Congressman Jose E. Serrano and his son, State Senator Jose M. Serrano, have been two of the Bronx’s most vocal opponents of the Arizona law, which would essentially allow local law enforcement officials to ask anyone, with any reasonable cause, for proof of legal residency. If a person can’t produce the proper documentation, they can be jailed and possibly deported.

While conservatives continue to stand by the law, opposition to it appears to be growing.

Days after the law was passed, Congressman Serrano sent out a statement condemning the bill. He called on Major League Baseball to move the 2011 All-Star game, scheduled to be held in Phoenix, “due to the extremist anti-immigrant law enacted last week in Arizona.”

Serrano said there’s precedent for this type of stance. The NFL rescinded its offer to hold the Super Bowl in Arizona in 1993 after the players union warned that it would not play in a state that didn’t honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., which it didn’t at the time.

Serrano said, “This anti-immigrant law is unjust, wrong-headed, mean-spirited, and unconstitutional. It is important that everyone who believes in justice and our national spirit of decency speak out against this measure. MLB has a very loud megaphone and their rejection of Arizona’s action would be an important demonstration to the state that we do not tolerate such displays of intolerance in our nation.”

Soon after Serrano’s declaration, the Major League players union strongly criticized the Arizona law. Several individual players, including San Diego Padres All-Star Adrian Gonzalez (a Mexican immigrant), said they would consider boycotting the All-Star game in Arizona if the law is still in place next summer.

In a statement, Sen. Serrano said: “It is a sad day when any state makes racial profiling and discrimination the law. This is a deeply flawed measure that singles out a specific group for harassment.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Norwood News.

Banks Get a Bronx Cheer at Wall Street Rally

May 8, 2010

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YERENNY CALVO (CENTER) AND ELIZABETH ESPINAL (RIGHT) PROTEST OUTSIDE A SKYSCRAPER ON PARK AVENUE THAT’S HOME TO WELLS FARGO (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Several thousand people, including a hefty contingent of Bronx activists, descended on Wall Street on April 29 to denounce the nation’s leading banks, who they believe played a leading role in the nation’s recent economic crisis, and demand financial reform.

“Because we are one country, when greed runs amok on Wall Street, it means lost jobs and shuttered stores on Main Street,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions and one of the event’s organizers.

Trumpka demanded that “Wall Street, fix the mess” it made and “stop fighting” efforts in Washington to make the banking and financial systems more transparent and accountable.

Dozens of Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) members, young and old, were in attendance. Some held “Reclaim America” and “Hold Banks Accountable” signs. Others carried a giant, homemade squid, in homage to a Rolling Stone writer’s famous claim that Goldman Sachs is a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Adolfo Abreu, a 17-year-old youth leader with Sistas and Brothas United, the youth arm of the NWBCCC, was among those to speak. “With all these [school] budgets cuts, how I am going to succeed in life and obtain the pursuit of happiness?” he asked, in reference to school overcrowding and impending teacher layoffs.

Earlier that afternoon, as part of the same event, some 200 people squeezed into the lobby of 270 Park Ave. in Midtown, where JP Morgan Chase is headquartered. With sheepish security guards and curious employees looking on, the protestors began chanting “Bust up big banks” and “Enough is enough.”

JP Morgan Chase was targeted because they charge low-income people fees to use Electronic Benefits Transfer Cards (EBT) and refuse to reduce the amount of money struggling homeowners’ owe them in mortgage payments, according to National People’s Action, the organizer of the rally.

Next up, the protestors, among them NWBCCC members and other community activists, walked a few blocks north where they took over the lobby of a building in which Wells Fargo has offices.

“This isn’t fair. If you want to do this properly go outside like ladies and gentlemen,” shouted a police officer who entered the lobby behind them – a plea that went unheeded for at least 20 minutes.

Wells Fargo controls the trust which holds the mortgage on a number of Bronx apartment buildings which are in foreclosure because Milbank Real Estate, the private equity firm that owns them, defaulted on its loan. Last month, Legal Services NYC’s Bronx unit filed a lawsuit against the bank and another company in an effort to force them to maintain the buildings. The lawsuit, if successful, could have nationwide implications for tenants and landlords.

After the protest, Graciela Gomez, a Milbank tenant, described conditions inside her crumbling building near the Bronx Zoo. She said the building’s front doors have no locks, the elevators and security cameras are broken, and tenants are often without heat and hot water. The 52-apartment building has 405 housing violations.

“[We're here] to make the demand that banks like Wells Fargo stop lending money to bad landlords like Milbank because they don’t take care of the tenants in the buildings.” said Gomez.

James Mumm, the former executive director of the NWBCCC, who now works for National People’s Action, said the surprise visits were part of a “continuing campaign to get the CEOs of the biggest banks in America to meet with the communities they hurt.”

At both banks, protesters left letters requesting a meeting with the CEO and laying out a list of demands, including more protection for families in danger of losing their homes, and investment in local development projects that create jobs.

Speaking the following week, J CoCo Chang, a spokesperson for National People’s Action, said neither bank had yet responded to the requests.

Editor’s note: For more photos and video see here.

Cuomo Says Espada Stole $14 Million; FBI and IRS Raid His Soundview HealthCare Network

May 8, 2010

PhotobucketSTATE SENATORS PEDRO ESPADA (AT MIC) AND RUBEN DIAZ, SR. (RIGHT) AT A RALLY IN ALBANY LAST MONTH (PHOTO: A. WATKINS)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

In a civil lawsuit filed in April, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said his office is suing State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. for allegedly stealing $14 million from the Comprehensive Community Development Corporation, a network of non-profit health centers Espada founded and heads up.

“Taxpayer money was given to this not-for-profit to provide healthcare services to underprivileged patients, but our investigation has found the funds flowed into the pockets of Senator Espada and his supporters,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Espada dismissed the allegations.

The charges were “political payback for what the establishment like to call the senate coup,” he said in a statement, referencing the time last summer when he switched party allegiances and stalled senate business for more than a month. He eventually came back to the Democrats in exchange for the role as majority leader.

The lawsuit says Espada lavished the money on himself and his political operations, and on his family, friends and aides. For example, the non-profit (also known as Soundview) allegedly covered the cost of vacations Espada took with his family. And it paid for $100,000 worth of campaign literature and $80,000 in restaurant bills, including $20,000 in take-out sushi delivered to Espada’s Westchester home.

While the lawsuit is a civil case intended to oust Espada from Soundview, and make him pay restitution and damages, criminal charges could follow. Nineteen current or former Soundview officers and directors are also named in the suit, news of which was quickly seized upon by Eric Koch, a spokesman for Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a likely opponent of Espada’s in this fall’s Democratic primary.

“The Attorney General’s complaint details a shameful story of an elected official taking resources from the community he represents — instead of bringing resources to the community,” Koch said in a statement.

Worse was to come for Espada. The following day, the FBI and IRS raided his Soundview offices, collecting and taking away dozens of boxes full of files and paperwork. (As part of the same network, Espada heads up several other health centers including Burnside Medical Center at 165 E. Burnside Ave.)

Then, on April 28, Cuomo’s office filed another civil suit against Espada and one of his sons. It alleges that they set up a sham training program in order to pay janitors as little as $1.70 an hour, the office alleges. Espada responded by saying that Cuomo was bullying him.

Earlier in the month, news outlets also reported that two consulting firms with links to Espada, his son, and a staffer, are the subject of a federal probe into alleged tax fraud and money laundering. He denied having ties to the two firms and called the allegations 100 percent false.

Espada has also made headlines recently as the chair of the Senate’s housing committee. On April 19, more than 150 Bronx residents, community leaders, and clergy travelled up to Albany on buses chartered by his office to support a bill he’s sponsoring. If passed, it would freeze the rent of New York City families for five years, provided they earn $45,000 or less a year and pay more than a third of their income as rent.

But tenant advocates are weary of Espada’s motives. They say a clause in the bill would allow landlords who have illegally deregulated apartments (while receiving special tax breaks) to keep the units at market rate, providing they pay back the breaks — saving them millions of dollars.

It’s a pro-landlord bill disguised as a pro-tenant one, these advocates say.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Norwood News.

Spring on the Bronx River

May 8, 2010

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PHOTO BY A. TALWAR

Bronx River lovers travelled down the borough’s rapidly improving central waterway on May 1 for the 11th Annual Bronx River Flotilla. At the event, the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance unveiled its Bronx River Blueway Map & Guide, a map and written tour of the river to help the public navigate the river. For more information on the Map & Guide or the Bronx River in general, visit bronxriver.org or a call (718) 430-4665.

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