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State of the Borough: Diaz Highlights Successes of ‘One Bronx’

March 21, 2011

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Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. gives his second State of the Borough speech at DeWitt Clinton High School. (Photo courtesy Borough President Diaz’s Office)

By ALEX KRATZ

In response to recent derogatory portrayals of the borough by “American Idol” and Glenn Beck, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. went on the offensive last week, highlighting the positives and success stories of the Bronx during his second state of borough speech.

While continuing to press his mantra of borough residents and workers coming together to form “One Bronx,” or “Un Solo Bronx,” Diaz spent a great deal of his nearly 90-minute speech at DeWitt Clinton High School hyping his accomplishments and all of the great things the borough has to offer.

“It is time to let the world know once again that the Bronx is a place of success,” Diaz said.

Toward the beginning of the speech, Diaz unveiled a new hip hop video, produced by Derek Woods for Bronxnet and featuring musicians Opera Steve, Silkedeezy and Steve Kane, that extolled the virtues of the borough through rap lyrics and snippets of interviews with famous Bronxites, including author Mary Higgins Clark and seminal Bronx rapper Grandmaster Mele Mel.

Aside from highlighting Bronx success stories, Diaz spent much of his speech talking about the state of the borough’s economy and what his office was doing to improve it. Despite investment and other efforts, by his office and others, to bring in new developments and cultivate “green jobs,” Diaz acknowledged that the Bronx still has the highest poverty rate of any urban county in the United States.

To combat that poverty rate, Diaz said he supported a new City Council bill that would require developers to guarantee living wages ($10 an hour, plus benefits, or $11.50 an hour without) if they receive significant city subsidies. The “Fair Wages for New Yorkers” legislation currently has 29 supporters in the City Council, but needs five more to overturn a sure veto by Mayor Bloomberg, who says the bill will discourage city development.

“Not only is this the right thing to to lift our people out of poverty,” Diaz said, “it is sound economic policy.”

The living wage bill was born out of the 2009 fight over the development of the Kingsbridge Armory. The Council killed a Bloomberg-backed plan to turn the Armory into a shopping mall when an agreement couldn’t be worked out over wage guarantees.

Last year, Diaz created a task force full of big names to figure out a new plan for the Armory. And last week, he revealed a few of the groups — theYMCA, two production studios and New York Arena Management, a sports arena developer — that the task force has spoken to about using the monstrous and vacant 575,000 square-foot building.

Like borough presidents in the past, Diaz vowed to bolster the Bronx’s tourism industry by bringing a world-class hotel to the area near Yankee Stadium. He talked about transforming one of the struggling parking garages into deluxe accommodations for visitors.

Diaz touched on other issues — improving schools, getting guns off the street, standing up against hate crimes, saving Bronx trees — and made several pop culture references (Snooki, from “Jersey Shore,” made an appearance on the video screen backdrop) during his speech, which ended where it started.

“We will not listen to those who say that poverty is an inevitable part of life in the Bronx,” he said. “We will show them that those chains can be broken.”

A Street Named Inspiration: Mt. Hope Resident Honored

March 21, 2011

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The corner of Kingsbridge Road and Davidson Avenue in front of the Kingsbridge Armory is now ‘Phyllis Ivonne Reed Plaza.’ (Photo courtesy Fernando Cabrera’s office)

By ALEX KRATZ

The more Allison Richardson sees and hears about her mother Phyllis Reed’s impact — on the lives she touched and the community she loved — the more she feels guilty.

In the years leading up to Reed’s death in the fall of 2009, Richardson, an only child, tried in vain to keep her mother close and safe during her battle with cancer. Mostly, she just wanted to spend time with her mom. But Reed was often too busy empowering young people to chase their dreams, fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged or tending to her beloved public garden in the shadow of the Kingsbridge Armory.

Richardson resented this until recently, when she realized, her mother “fed and thrived on other people’s dreams,” she said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of Councilman Fernando Cabrera, the city officially recognized Reed’s indelible impact by renaming the corner of Davidson Avenue and Kingsbridge Road “Phyllis Ivonne Reed Plaza.” The signage hovers over Reed’s Armory plot like a guardian angel.

PhotobucketWhen Richardson spoke at the ceremony on a sunny Friday afternoon, she talked about how she felt guilty for trying to keep her mother away from the community work she did. But, “Now, I get it,” she said. She added later, “You guys are what made her get up every day.”

Reed, a resident of Mt. Hope during the last several years of her life, believed the Kingsbridge Armory, a long-vacant and enormous brick structure, could be a transformative resource for the area. Several speakers at the event touched on her affection for the Armory and how it was incumbent upon them to make smart use of it.

“We all stand on her back right now,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, who worked alongside Reed for years as part of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, an activist group that has long fought for the responsible redevelopment of the Armory. “She has given us work to do.”

Assemblyman Jose Rivera said whatever happens to the Armory, it should be called the “Phyllis Reed Center.”

Cabrera said people will see Reed’s name above her garden and ask about her and hopefully find inspiration. “She didn’t just plant a garden,” he said. “She planted seeds in all of us.”

Dangerous Concourse Intersection Claims Another Child’s Life

March 21, 2011

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A street memorial set up by local residents. (Photo by F.G. Pinto)

By GIOVANNY FAUSTO PINTO

When 11-year-old Russell Smith, a fifth-grader at PS 9, was fatally struck by a car as he crossed 183rd Street and the Grand Concourse on the morning of Feb. 16. It was not the first time this dangerous intersection cost a child his life. On Sept. 23, 2005, 12-year-old Virginia Verdee was hit and killed by an off-duty cop as she walked home from church.

Neighborhood residents have had enough and are speaking out about the dangerous intersection.

“It’s terrible here. I’ve seen like 15 to 20 accidents over the years involving both little kids and adults,” said 70-year-old Shirley Jackson, a resident of the area for the past 28 years, as she crossed the street. “The cars come from every direction, I even tell my 21-year-old son to be careful crossing here.”

The owner of Susie’s Pies Pizzeria, who was profiled in a 2007 Mount Hope Monitor article, recalled a worker from the nearby Kennedy Fried Chicken who also died while crossing the intersection about seven years ago.
He urged people to beware of the street. “People don’t respect the street. You got to use caution crossing here.”
He also agreed with area residents about how dangerous the intersection is. “It’s always been bad, this is one of the worst streets in the Bronx.”

That sentiment holds a lot of weight. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit organization that looks to reduce car dependency in the New York metro area, cited the Grand Concourse as one of New York City’s most dangerous roads for 2011.

During Community Board 5’s recent monthly general board meeting, two residents spoke up asking that something be done to increase safety on this dangerous stretch.

Sally A. Smith, 74, crosses the intersection to get from her house to a nearby senior center nearly every day.
“Over the years, they have retimed the light at the intersection, but it still needs more time,” Smith said at the meeting. “I often have to wait in the middle.”

Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5’s district manager, said his office was coordinating a meeting in the near future with the Department of Transportation, the NYPD and local elected officials.

Some ideas already circulating include implementing speed bumps, installing cameras along the Concourse and starting a jaywalking initiative to deter people from crossing hazardously.

“We will discuss with the various departments the best course of action,” Rodriguez said.

During a recent school day, a crossing guard was stationed at the intersection. While the guard didn’t want to speak to the media for fear of reprisal, they did say the intersection needs two crossing guards, not just one. Even considering the presence of crossing guards, some parents say they will remain vigilant.

“I wouldn’t let my kids cross that street alone even with the crossing guard,” said Julio Quintanal, after crossing the intersection with his young children, who he picked up from nearby PS 9, the school Smith attended. “They drive erratically there.”

Middle School Fights ‘Low-Achieving’ Label

March 21, 2011

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Parents and staff at a local middle school are asking the city to keep their school open, despite being on a state watch list for low test scores and poor academic performance.

MS 391, or the The Angelo Patri Middle School on Webster Avenue, was put on the State Education Department’s list of “persistently low achieving schools,” in December as part of a federally funded program to reform some of the state’s worst schools.

But teachers and staff at MS 391 say the poor ranking is unfair, as they’ve spent the last several years changing the school from a place plagued by drugs and gang violence to one that gives back to the community and boasts an 88 percent attendance rate.

At last month’s Community Education Council meeting for District 10, supporters of the school appealed to the DOE to keep MS 391 open and asked for more resources to improve.

“To be labeled as a failing school when we really have succeeded on so many levels was kind of daunting for us, and surprising,” said technology teacher Eric Collins, who said the school has changed completely since 2007, when now-principal Graciela Abadia and former principal Pedro Santana joined its administrative team.

The DOE did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

“This school that was considered to be kind of a tough place became a model of progress,” he said, adding that MS 391 won a “Blackboard Award” last year for being an “Outstanding Turnaround School.”

“The environment has changed quite dramatically,” said Marvin Shelton, president of District 10’s Community Education Council. Shelton said the school has cleaned up its image but still suffers academically.

“They’re on the right track and hopefully they’ll be able to turn it around and get those scores up,” he said.

State law requires that school districts perform one of four actions at low-achieving schools—they can be “transformed,” converted to a charter school, phased out entirely or “turned around,” meaning the principal and at least half the staff is removed and replaced.

A school chosen for transformation, however, will get extra funding in the form of a $2 million improvement grant to recruit better-compensated teachers and implement a new evaluation system for school staff.

PTA President Sandra Thomas, whose two granddaughters attend MS 391, says the school community won’t accept any decision other than transformation.

“The school is a lovely, caring school,” she said. “We already transformed with all the hard work that the teachers and parents have done.”

Thomas said Abadia opens up the school early every day, and for four hours on Saturdays, to provide students with extra tutoring sessions with teachers who volunteer their time on their off-hours.

“This has nothing to do with extra money—these are teachers that are concerned about the kids’ education,” she said. “All we really need is that grant to keep us afloat.”