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Morris Heights Playground Set for Major Renovation

January 27, 2007

Morris Heights’ C.E.S 204 doesn’t have a gym. During recess, students exercise on a cordoned off street, or they play on a nearby basketball court, one half of Half-Nelson Playground, a small neighborhood park between 174th Street and Featherbed Lane.

The court is cracked and warped. There are no nets, only hoops and battered backboards.

But gone are the drug dealers who made it their unofficial home for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Gone are the mounds of trash, broken glass, and drug paraphernalia that once carpeted the area.

“It’s a dream compared to what it used to be like,” said Kathryn Speller, president of Half-Nelson Park Association.

Now, with a $1.3 million renovation in the pipeline, Half-Nelson’s rejuvenation is set to continue. The basketball court will be resurfaced, the retaining wall behind the park stabilized, and the play area on the south side of the park modernized and opened to the public. (At present, the play area, with its slide and purple climbing frame, is used solely by the residents of Nelson Avenue Homeless Shelter.)

New amenities will include: drinking fountains; a spray shower; a sandbox; new play apparatus; a deck; and terracing to negate the slope.

Council member Helen Foster is providing the funds. The Parks Department, who last week presented their plans at a Community Board 5 meeting, is in charge of construction.

The playground’s revival, however, and the impetus for this ambitious project, can be laid squarely at the feet of Speller’s organization – a small band of tireless local residents who came together in the mid-1990s to rescue the park for future generations to enjoy.

“[They've] been instrumental,” said Xavier Rodriguez, district manager of CB 5.

First, Half-Nelson Park Association recruited neighborhood children and other volunteers to clean up and drag out the trash. Then they started organizing events – basketball tournaments, arts and crafts workshops, a Father’s Day, and an annual Family Affairs Day, during which free school supplies are handed out.

“As long as you keep the park busy and active, you keep the drug dealers out,” Speller said.

They also got the attention of local elected officials. Council member Wendell Foster began sponsoring events, something his daughter, Helen, continued when she came into office. Now, she’s come up with over a million dollars. Work will begin in the fall.

Speller, a neighborhood stalwart for nearly 40 years, recalls that in the 1970s the lot was home to a row of two-family houses – buildings that were later ravaged by fire and torn down by the city.

In the early 1980s, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) built an interim park here, with a handball court, and for a time it served the community’s needs.

“When it first opened you could say it was a beautiful park,” said Tyrone Brown, another long time neighborhood resident, “but there was no one to maintain it.”

When the crack epidemic hit the Bronx, the addicts and dealers moved in. “They used to stash their drugs in holes in the handball court,” Brown continued. “We couldn’t be around that stuff, it wasn’t safe. Sanitation was afraid to pick up garbage… because of the needles.”

Brown and his friends stopped playing in the park, and local families gave it a wide berth. It stayed this way until Brown, Speller, and several others decided enough was enough.

Since 1999, the playground has been in the hands of the Parks Department (after the city, Speller said, briefly flirted with selling it), and now the community awaits the results of Foster’s generosity.

Today, much of this section of Morris Heights remains blighted. Opposite Half-Nelson, for example, is an abandoned lot dotted with weeds and old tyres.

There has been rising gang activity in the area too. The popular Family Affairs Day continues to this day, but Brown cancelled the basketball tournaments in 2005, because members of the Latin Kings, the Cripps and the Bloods kept showing up.

“We had to stop,” he said, “I was worried about the safety of the kids. It was really frightening me”

But the upcoming renovation of Half Nelson Playground, in a part of the Bronx chronically short of open space, is a start, and Speller and her team have much to be proud of.

“All this hard work has paid off,” Brown said.

Discolsure of Pork Gains Momentum

January 24, 2007

Money Well Spent?

Reform is the buzz word hovering over the New York state legislature. Playing a vital role in any kind of reform movement will be how the state deals with member items – funds distributed by state senators and members of the Assembly for local projects in their districts. Through this series, the Norwood News will examine how member items are distributed by local lawmakers, how these funds assist local organizations, and what happens when they are distributed improperly.

In this first installment, we explain the recent history of member items and discuss how the system may or may not be changing in Albany.

PART 1: Show us the Money

Disclosure of Pork Gains Momentum

By ALEX KRATZ and JAMES FERGUSSON

For the first time in eight years, the New York state legislature – by all accounts one of the most dysfunctional lawmaking bodies in the country – has made public how it spends $200 million dollars in funds distributed by lawmakers for local projects, otherwise known as pork-barrel projects or member items.

Lawmakers use member items to fund vital local projects such as little leagues, senior services, graffiti removal, cultural parades, even dances at your local community center.

But those member items have also infamously funded obscure projects like fixing the roof of a hunting club near Albany and building a cheese museum in upstate Rome. In other instances, member items have snaked their way back into the pockets of the very representative that gave them out.

Since 1998, that $200 million was distributed by lawmakers without oversight from the public, media or any kind of budget review process, making it a system ripe for abuse. Where hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars was spent remained Albany’s little secret.

But in late October, a judge ordered both houses of the state legislature to disclose its member items immediately, following a lawsuit filed by the Albany Times-Union.

The decision, coupled with an outcry over corruption scandals involving member items (including the indictment of Bronx State Senator Efrain Gonzalez) and the arrival of a new Democratic governor, appears to have spurred a reform movement in Albany. How far the reforms will go remains to be seen.

The Darkest Corner

Up until 1998, member items were listed in the state budget, but without individual lawmakers’ names attached to them. Though the public and media didn’t know who sponsored the allocations, at least they knew where the money was going.

That changed for the worse in 1998 when Republican Gov. George Pataki vetoed all of Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver’s member items. Furious, Silver eventually pounded out a back room deal with Pataki and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

According to the terms outlined in the deal, which was put into practice without debate in the legislature, a $200 million lump sum would be placed into the budget for member items. Each majority leader would receive $85 million and the governor would get $30 million to divvy up as they desired. The member items would not be listed to protect them from the governor’s veto and, at the same time, public scrutiny.

In a larger sense, $200 million is peanuts when you consider that the state budget runs into the tens of billions. But over the past year, the secrecy surrounding member item allocations had become a symbol of legislative problems.

“It’s become a symptom of what’s wrong with Albany in a broader way,” said Bob Port, senior political editor of the Times-Union. “It’s a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking, but it’s a very important drop because it is money that’s being spent without any accountability and the potential for abuse is so much greater.”

Liam Arbetman, a research associate for Common Cause, a public interest group that advocates for better government in New York and nationally, echoed Port’s assessment.

“It was clear these funds weren’t going to projects of merit or to the community,” Arbetman said, adding later, “It was the darkest corner of state spending.”

Abusing the System

State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, who has represented the northwest Bronx for the past 16 years (after taking over for his boss and mentor, Israel Ruiz, who went to prison for lying on a bank loan), became the local symbol of member item abuse in October when he was indicted on federal mail fraud charges.

In December, those charges expanded and the senator now faces allegations that he pocketed for personal use half a million dollars in member item money. According to the indictment, Gonzalez began funneling member items to himself through a variety of non-profits in 1999, soon after member items were hidden from the public eye.

During an interview over the summer, Gonzalez refused to divulge how he spent his member items. A Democrat with close ties to Republicans, Gonzalez received more member item money – some $250,000 a year – than most Senate Democrats.

Port says equal distribution of member item funds is another flaw in the system. The minority parties in both houses receive less than 20 percent of the total pot, he said. After a preliminary analysis of the member items listed for the 2006-2007 budget, the Times-Union found no “formula” to how they are distributed. But it appears, Port said, that “the more powerful the person, the more money they get.”

The Senate majority leader himself is currently under federal investigation for allegedly funneling member item funds to a for-profit company run by a friend.

Signs of Reform

Few lawmakers have been willing to speak out against the system – probably for fear of being penalized when the member item pie is divvied up. But that may be changing.

State Senator José M. Serrano (D-Manhattan/Bronx), for one, has been candid about his own beneficiaries, even publishing an itemized list on his blog.

The young senator has also been a vocal supporter of making every lawmaker’s items public. “To use a well-known phrase, ‘Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant,’” Serrano said in a telephone interview last week, “and if we can shine some light on member items then elected officials will be a little more careful about who they give money to.”

Serrano, a former Council member whose father is Bronx Congressman José Serrano, said it was common practice for City Council members to publicize grants they distributed to local organizations. “It was something I was proud of and something the community should know,” he said.

So when he was elected to the Senate in 2004, Serrano was surprised to find this wasn’t routine procedure. “I couldn’t understand why elected officials didn’t want to disclose their items,” he said. “[Disclosure] is a way to show your constituents you’re at the wheel. You’re showing you’re providing economic support to organizations that need it.”

These choices, Serrano said, are often good indications of a politician’s priorities. Serrano, for example, is a strong believer in the arts as an economic engine and as a vehicle for change, something reflected in the groups he has chosen to support.

Last October, when a judge forced Senate and Assembly leaders to reveal each legislator’s items, many good government advocates applauded the decision. Unfortunately, the information “was disclosed in such a fashion that it was impossible for the average person to decipher,” Serrano said.

The search process has been made easier – users can now search an on-line database using “key words” such as a senator’s name (see sidebar).

According to Democrats, however, the Republican majority is still dragging its feet, and in a bitterly fought battle on the Senate floor early last week, they dismissed the Democrats 8-point reform package. The package included measures to make the full disclosure of member items standard practice.

“They [the Republicans] pulled every trick in the book to defeat our rules agenda,” Serrano said.

Still, there are signs of progress. Investigating the abuse of member items is on the top of new Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s 2007 agenda. He says he will review all suspicious allocations from the 2006-2007 budget, but not delve into previous years.

On Jan. 16, behind closed doors, Spitzer, Bruno, and Silver hashed out an agreement to publish member items in this year’s state budget. This is a step forward, but really just puts the state legislature back to where it was before 1998. The names of sponsoring lawmakers will still not be attached to member items and it remains unclear how much advanced notice the public will have to review them before items are approved for the budget.

Nevertheless, Serrano says, those resisting reform are becoming more marginalized, and with a sympathetic governor, he’s hopeful that Albany and its murky, dysfunctional legislature will continue to change.

In a recent entry on his blog, Serrano wrote, “Transparency works for just about everything but business envelopes and bedroom curtains.”


SIDEBAR: Mapping the Moolah

Want to see how your local senator chose to distribute their member item money? It’s not exactly easy. Just follow these instructions. Go online to http://www.senate.state.ny.us, then click “Senate Reports” in the left hand column. Several reports will come up. Member items are listed in the “Community Projects Fund” links going back to the 2003-2004 fiscal year. The only report that is both comprehensive and searchable is the most recent report from 2006-2007. If you click on that, you should be able to type in your Senator’s last name after clicking on the binoculars icon (the search button) in the overhead tool bar.

For the Assembly members, go to http://assembly.state.ny.us/ and then click on “Legislative Reports” in the left hand column. From there, click on “2006 Ways and Means Committee Reports.” Several reports will come up. You can click on any of the “Legislative Initiatives” from the past four years, including two separate reports 2006-2007. Once you’ve clicked on a year of reports, you can search the documents using the last binocular button we talked about in the last paragraph.

Exhausted? The Albany Times-Union is hoping to make things easier come spring. The Hearst publication is planning to create Web site where visitors can simply type in their zip code or a lawmakers name and find out how member items were distributing in your area.

Story first appeared in the Norwood News.

Young Mother Stabbed to Death; Neighbor Arrested

January 16, 2007

By DAVID GREENE

A young mother who befriended a homosexual couple was stabbed to death after she may have got in the middle of a lover’s spat, during a card game in her building.

According to police, the victim, Carolyn Vargas (pictured in an updated family photo), was stabbed several times in the torso, early Sunday, Jan. 14, in the kitchen of a fifth-floor apartment at 306 E. 180 St. When officers from the 46th Precinct arrived they discovered Vargas, 28, unconscious. She was rushed to St. Barnabas Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.

Carolyn Vargas Police were looking to question Benjamin Walters, 33, who was described as a black, six-feet tall and 165 pounds. Walters was reportedly seen running from the building covered in blood, and on Tuesday the police picked him up in Manhattan. He has been charged with murder and criminal possession of a weapon.

Kevin Harrington, the commanding officer of the 46th Precinct, called the murder “particularly vicious.”

Speaking at Tuesday night’s community council meeting, Harrington said the suspect was known to police and had a drug record. “It was a good to see a desperate man, a dangerous man, apprehended today,” he said.

It is understood that Vargas, Walters, and another man were playing cards and drinking when the incident occurred at approximately 2 a.m. Vargas had befriended the men sometime after moving into the home five years ago.

Speaking outside his family’s home in Upper Manhattan, on the day of the murder, Juan Ramirez, Vargas’ brother-in-law, said: “The story the cops have now is the lovers got into a little quarrel and one of them left the kitchen, and when he came back Carolyn was laying dead on the floor.”

“The one guy had run out and he’s still at large, and the other they have in custody and he’s cooperating [with police],” Ramirez added. “I just want to know if the act was intended for the other guy and Carolyn just got in the way.”

Ramirez said he’d heard another story circulating that Vargas stumbled and fell on the knife. “I don’t believe that,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez has fond memories of his sister-in-law, a former security guard who recently began training for her Commercial Drivers License

“She enjoyed music and dancing and she loved to drive… she used to steal my car all the time,” Ramirez said with a smile.

Vergas had a four-month old daughter who, according to media reports, was staying with her grandmother that night. Recalling the suspect’s relationship with Vargas, Ramirez added, “If she was hungry he would cook for her, and if he was hungry she would cook for him.”

Additional reporting by James Fergusson.

Morris Avenue’s Historic District

January 16, 2007

The Bronx has nine historic districts – far fewer than Manhattan (44) and Brooklyn (15), but more than Queens (6) and Staten Island (3).

One of them, the Morris Avenue Historic District is located in Mount Hope, on Morris Avenue, between Tremont Avenue and 179th Street, a single block lined with century-old rowhouses and mature trees.

All 35 houses, and two apartment buildings, were built between 1906 and 1910. The builder, August Jacob, was probably looking to profit from the 1904 opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit subway line, connecting Manhattan to the Bronx.

With the city commutable, thousands of families were leaving their claustrophobic tenement apartments in the Lower East Side, and migrating to the outer-boroughs. These house-hunters would have been impressed by Jacob’s three-story creations – with their curved fronts (or bows), imposing entranceways, and handsome stoops flanked by wrought iron railings.

Going by the names on the block’s property records – Michael Cusack, Moses Levy – most of these first residents were Jewish. And this correlates with what history tells us: the urbanizing Bronx was becoming popular with upwardly mobile Jews.

While reasonably well-off, these immigrants didn’t have cash to burn. For many, a single-family home would have been beyond their means, according to a report published by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1986.  This was not lost on Jacob, or his architect, John Hauser. These rowhouses may look like single-family houses from the outside, but they are actually two-family dwellings with a shared front door.

Certainly, there is no doubting the rowhouses’ aesthetic appeal, from the iron galvanized cornices that snake along the top of each building, to the various shades of brick used – burnt orange, buff, red, and honey.

(Hauser, it appears, was something of an expert when it came to designing rowhouses, and he left his mark elsewhere in the city. For starters, he designed 12 four-story buildings at 453-475 W.141 St., in Harlem, a block that bears more than a passing resemblance to his later project on Morris Avenue.)

Yet the elegance and uniformity of the district belies its disjointed, and most probably chaotic, construction. For Jacob was unable acquire all the land at once, the Commission’s report explains, resulting in five separate building campaigns.

The first campaign, during which six rowhouses (numbers 1989 to 1999) were built, was especially elaborate, according to the Commission’s report. Each house is subtly different from the others, “… demonstrating that, initially, Hauser meant to avoid the monotony inevitable in long rows of repetitive facades by introducing a variety of architectural elements.”

Jacob, worried about costs and the uncertainty of being a speculative builder, the report mused, may have asked Hauser to tone down his creative flare in later campaigns.

As part of the report, a copy of which can be found at the Bronx Historical Society’s Research Library, the Commission took a series of photographs. As one would expect of a Bronx streetscape in the troubled 1980s, a number of houses are clearly abandoned. The windows and front door of 1986 Morris Ave. are bricked up, for example, and much of building’s exterior is riddled with graffiti.

At some stage, 1986 was renovated, but today the block is still home to a number of empty residences, including 1993, whose windows and doors are boarded up.

So while Morris Avenue Historic District’s landmark status bars aggressive developers from desecrating the block, and tax breaks offered to homeowners of historic buildings encourage renovation, it’s obvious that certain properties remain in desperate need of attention.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said he rarely hears of non-profits taking on projects in the area, the rare exception being Belmont Local Development Corporation who a few years ago restored two rowhouses.

Bankoff added that his organization is planning on doing outreach this year to engage Bronx community boards and get people interested in preserving their historic neighborhoods.

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Woman Attacked in Subway Station

January 12, 2007

A woman was attacked last Friday in the subway station at 174th Street and the Grand Concourse. She was taken to Jacobi Medical Center for treatment. As of Friday night, there was no word on her condition.

The incident happened at approximately 10:45 a.m. CBS, who broke the story, initially said the women was stabbed. The network added that police had a male suspect cornered in 1717 Walton Ave., an apartment building several blocks from the station. (By the time a Mount Hope Monitor reporter arrived at the building in the early afternoon, the street was quiet.)

“The guy ran so fast [following the assault] that one sneaker fell off,” said Flores Flores, a community activist who lives nearby. “A police dog sniffed it and followed the scent to the building.” Flores heard about the attack from neighbors.

The police didn’t return calls by press time to confirm an arrest had been made, or to confirm reports that one officer was injured.

Flores said the victim is a nurse at the nearby Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. A MTA employee working at the station that morning said the woman was “beaten and robbed” but not stabbed.

According to Flores, there is history of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital workers being mugged in the area. Flores, himself a hospital employee, said he’s already called Community Board 5 to request more lighting by the subway entrance.

Woman Attacked in Subway Station Woman Attacked in Subway Station

Crime in the 46 Down 12 Percent on Last Year

January 8, 2007

By JAMES FERGUSSON

The NYPD’s 2006 crime statistics are out, and for the second year running, crime has fallen significantly in the 46th Precinct, whose officers patrol Bronx Community District 5. Overall, crime is down 12 percent on 2005 levels, compared to a five percent reduction citywide.

Rape, robbery, and felony assault are up slightly by one or two percent. But murder, of which there were 18 in 2006, is down 18 percent, and grand larceny, of which there were 437 incidents, is down 10 percent.

The biggest reductions, however, are in burglaries and grand larceny auto – otherwise known as auto theft. In 2005 there were 444 reported burglaries; in 2006, there were 324, a 27 percent drop. And in 2005, 352 vehicles were stolen; in 2006 this number had fallen to 226, a decline of 35 percent.

According to Bill McDonald, Dean of Monroe College’s Criminal Justice department, statistics concerning robbery, grand larceny auto, and burglary are particularly valuable when gauging the overall level of crime in a neighborhood, as most victims, eager to claim on their insurance, will report the crime. (In contrast, he said, rape statistics are a poor indictor, as many go unreported because of the stigma often associated with sexual assault.)

Whatever way you slice it, however, these shrinking figures are impressive, especially when you consider the area’s burgeoning population. According to the 2000 census, 128,000 people live in District 5. Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5’s district manager, believes the true figure today could be as high as 170,000.

In a November interview, Kevin Harrington, the 46th Precinct’s commanding officer put the falling crime down to the hard work of his officers, the support of the community, and the effectiveness of Operation Impact which swamps high crime neighborhoods with uniformed cops. (Operation Impact will continue at the 46 in 2007, Harrington has confirmed.)

But problems persist, Harrington admits. The 46, the smallest precinct in the Bronx at a little over one square mile, led the city in arrests in 2006, at close to 10,000. “We have a serious problem here with narcotics and narcotics related violence,” Harrington said.

The 46 also led the city in search warrants obtained, and confiscated more than 150 firearms, far above the city average.

While murders may be down – to give a historical perspective, there were 82 in 1992, more than four times 2006’s figure – guns are still rife, and evidence of this is, sadly, rarely far away.

On Dec. 28, Jose Ibanez, 26, of 576 Southern Bvld. was shot several times in broad daylight in front of 2105 Walton Avenue, and pronounced dead on arrival at St. Barnabas Hospital. A 25-year-old man, Ricky Owens, of 2101 Creston Ave., has been arrested and charged with his murder.

It was the district’s last murder of 2006.

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