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Health Center and Housing for Seniors to be Built on Burnside

August 24, 2007

By CINDY LAU

Two local non-profits, Morris Heights Health Center (MHHC) and Mount Hope Housing Company, will break ground this fall on a $43 million project that will house a healthcare center, large retail space, and 70 apartments for low-income seniors.

The six-story building, christened the Harrison Circle Project, will be built on the northeast corner of Burnside and Harrison Avenues, in the heart of Morris Heights’ commercial district.

Shaun Belle, president and chief executive officer of Mount Hope Housing Company, said that the building “will be critical to the enhancement of services that both organizations will provide, as well as physically enhancing and stimulating the growth and value of businesses along the Burnside Avenue corridor.”

The retail space will most likely be turned into a pharmacy to complement the new healthcare services, said Verona Greenland, president and chief executive officer of MHHC.

Construction is expected to begin in October of this year and finish in December 2009. Greenland said the health center alone will create 75 to 100 new jobs, and pump close to $15 million into the local economy.

The new center will enable MHHC to provide healthcare to an additional 30,000 people, in what the government has designated a “medically underserved” neighborhood. It will offer a mix of primary and specialty healthcare services, including digital mammography.

Mount Hope Housing Company, MHHC’s partner in the project, owns and manages more than 30 Bronx apartment buildings, but this is the first time they’ve built or managed housing specifically for seniors. According to Gunnar Fridriksson, the organization’s Senior Vice President of Real Estate, affordable senior housing is sorely needed in the neighborhood because of rising rents and a growing elderly population.

“This is not just about health care,” said Greenland, speaking at an Aug. 16 press conference to mark the demolition-job of an existing tumble-down building on the site. “It’s about taking care of the whole human being,”

The project has received financial support from Congressman Jose Serrano, the City Council and State Senate and the Bronx Borough President. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has also contributed through its tax-credit program. Funding for the 70 apartments has been secured from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to Greenland, however, the project’s estimated construction costs have recently skyrocketed and they’re now hunting for an additional $9 million. On Oct. 11, MCCH is holding a fundraiser in Throgs Neck.

Still, both Greenland and Belle say the project will go ahead as planned. And they remain excited about its potential to help those in need and to breathe new life into the neighborhood.

“The Harrison Circle Project will transform West Burnside Avenue by bringing back a sense of vitality that the Morris Heights community has not been seen in a long time,” Greenland said.

Blossoming African Community Seeks Greater Unity

August 5, 2007

As the number of Africans immigrating to the Bronx steadily increases, others who have been here for years are looking to forge a more unified expatriate political presence to help their fellow Africans in New York City and in Africa.

One major step in the process of enhancing unity among Bronx Africans took place in July, when the first African United Day Festival was held. The festival’s organizers, who hail from a variety of African countries, hope to promote African culture for the uninitiated, as well as instilling cultural pride and a sense of belonging in their own ranks.

“We don’t have only diamonds and gold,” said Djounedou Titikipina, one of the festival’s organizers, “when people know about our food, our arts, painting, dress, music, they’re gonna love it.”

Titikipina arrived in the South Bronx from the West African country of Togo via Toronto in 1999, and still lives in the same apartment he moved into back then. He now leads the African Committee for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. He has also run his own business as a designer of African apparel in the Bronx.

Titkipina says the African community has grown enormously since his arrival eight years ago, and offered an informal estimate of 60,000 Africans presently residing in the Bronx. Titikipina remembered there being one or two mosques in the Mount Hope vicinity when he arrived. “Now there are seven,” he said, seeming amazed at the number himself. In all, he estimates that 80 percent of the mosques’ congregants are African immigrants.

“It’s the right time to do business, because the African community is growing,” he said.

Another of the festival’s organizers, Bourema Niambele of Mali, agrees that the influx of Africans has increased their visibility in the city, and that this is a good time to increase Americans’ awareness of the richness of African culture.

“Americans seem to have a curiosity about Africans,” said Niambele. “Africa was not known to Americans until recently – only for famine, war.”

Niambele works as Secretary of the New York branch of the High Consul of Malians, an international organization that helps Malian immigrant communities around the world. When he first came to the US, Niambele worked in a car wash, and spoke little English.

“I didn’t know what the hell was meant by Social Security,” he recalls.

Niambele said he had an American girlfriend in Mali, with whom he eventually came to the US.

“She tried to prepare me for it before I came, but I didn’t pay attention,” Niambele remembers with a self-deprecating chuckle.

Niambele sees many other Africans who are as lost in their new society as he was when he first got here ten years ago, and wants to offer services that will help them cope with their new surroundings.

To that end, the African United Day Festival, while a success in its own right, was just the starting point for organizing Africans. Niambele, Titikipina and other African expats plan to start a Bronx-based non-profit organization they want to call the African People’s Alliance, whose goal would be to provide health services, immigration assistance, job placement, and ESL classes for Africans. They say the Bronx African community is currently underserved, and needs a large catchall service center to tend to their needs.

Ramatu Ahmed, a Ghanaian woman who has lived in Highbridge for seven years, remembered how the festival organizers concluded that such an organization was needed.

“We asked ourselves, after the parade, what next,” Ahmed remembered. “That led to the idea to form an alliance. It was a collective idea.”

Ahmed adds that, along with the services the collective hopes to offer to Africans in the Bronx, there will also be some focus on rural development in Africa itself, and lending expertise garnered in the US back to the home continent.

“There is a saying in Africa,” said the multilingual Ahmed. “If the mother can’t sleep, then the child can’t sleep either. If Africa is not sleeping, how can WE sleep?”

Titikipina sees the African People’s Alliance’s ultimate goal in Africa just as ambitiously, but in a more abstract vein. In addition to the tangible assistance Titikipina agrees the Alliance should provide immigrants, the Togolese tailor wants to spearhead a movement to introduce the Hausa language as a lingua franca among Africans.

Currently, Hausa is spoken by tens of millions of Africans in Nigeria and parts of several other West African countries. Titikipina sees its dissemination among even wider swaths of Africans as a way to unite people from the continent while helping them to feel proud of their origins. He says that when he recently announced his idea to champion Hausa as an African lingua franca at a Bronx mosque, a packed house granted him a standing ovation.

“After Arabic, Hausa is the second language for translation of the Koran,” Titikipina said. “I myself speak Hausa, and I don’t even know where I learned it.”

Titikipina says that, in part, he has been alarmed at the rapid ascendance of Spanish as a dominant language in the Bronx since his arrival here eight years ago. He wants to introduce a language that could help unite Africans, in Africa and abroad, similarly to the way Spanish unites Latinos of every nationality.

Titikipina pulled out a phone card from his wallet and slammed it on the table.

“You see this phone card?” he demanded, his eyes alight with the excitement of discovery. “It should say, when you dial: ‘for English, press one. For Spanish, press two…” then he leaned forward for the grand finale, “and for Hausa….press three.”

By JOE HIRSCH of the Mount Hope Monitor

New Nightclub Coming to Tremont Avenue

August 1, 2007

By JOE HIRSCH

Dating back to the prehistoric days of disco when it was known as the Devil’s Nest, through a more modern incarnation as the Rumba Club, the building that wraps around the south west corner of East Tremont and Webster Avenues has long been a hot spot for Bronx partiers.

Now a real estate developer and a successful restaurateur want to ply their trades in the 10,000-square-foot space and bring dancing and nightlife back to the site again. Renovations are ongoing for a proposed club to be called Daddy-Os, which is expected to open by the beginning of October.

Daddy-O’s will have 8,500-square-feet in the basement, and an additional 1,500 on the first floor. It will hold a capacity crowd of 400 patrons, according to veteran restaurateur, Odell Holland, who owns the seven-year lease on the club.

Holland, 36, has started nightspots in the Lower East Side and in Harlem, displaying a track record for entrepreneurial ingenuity in places where no one at the time thought he could succeed. Ten years ago he opened the Sugar Shack, an upscale soul food restaurant and bar in west Harlem “That was before the Harlem renaissance,” he said. “People thought I was insane.”

Holland sees similar opportunities in Mount Hope to turn a profit while allowing locals to have a good time, as does the building’s new owner, Randolph Evans. He and Evans say they want to appeal to a more mature and sophisticated clientele than those who were drawn to the Rumba Club, which closed in 2005.

Daddy O's

This gritty intersection is surrounded by auto shops and, at first blush, exudes an air of industrial deterioration that doesn’t quickly conjure up images of bustling nightlife.

“We’d like to put in triple-A businesses to help the neighborhood, like Duane Reade, Rite-Aid, but those businesses are very choosy, so we have to take the knockoffs,” Evans said with a booming laugh.

Evans, 55, who grew up in London and came to New York in his twenties, still speaks with an unmistakable London blue-collar accent. He got into real estate nearly thirty years ago after indifferent youthful ventures with jewelry, and used and imported cars.

“You’ve either got the moxy for it or you don’t,” he said of working in real estate.

While Holland and Evans see potential, they say they recognize the importance of getting the safety component right as a key factor in opening the club.

“We’ve been trying to strategize with police on an exit strategy,” Holland said. “It’s more of a communication issue. Working with police should alleviate a lot of the problems.”

Community Affairs officer Luis Melendez from the 46th Precinct says that the police are aware of the inherent difficulties that nightclubs can bring.

“Clubs of that type are always going to have certain incidents that take place,” Melendez said, referring to the Rumba Club. “We were very conscious of it. The [former] owner tried to do as good a job as he could. It’s a difficult business; it’s a lot of stress.”

“Our concern was overcrowding…I was around when Happyland happened,” Melendez said, referring to the notorious nightclub fire in the Bronx that killed close to 100 people in 1990. “We’re all for a good influence in the community, but you have to go in with your eyes open.”

The 46th Precinct’s Community Council president Louella Hatch, who used to chaperone young people to the Rumba Club, says occasional fighting near the club caused some negative rumors to circulate, but that those were overblown and unfair.

“They used to say a lot of things that weren’t true about the Rumba Club,” Hatch said. “That was about things that happened on the outside.”

Hatch thinks clubs shouldn’t always be held responsible for altercations that happen off their premises, even when the hostilities may have originated inside the club.

“They get in fights for staring at each other,” she said, “but that happens everywhere, even at the store. When they do clubs, they have to pick the clientele,” she said. “They should be twenty-five and up.”

Odell Holland says he is considering just that, restricting male patrons to a more hormonally subdued 25-and-over crowd. Holland says he wants Daddy-Os to be a positive presence in Mount Hope.

“I want this to be very sophisticated,” he said, “it should be helpful to the community; doing different charity events, working with kids in gangs, putting together fundraisers, working with the community board.”

One sticking point, however, according to Evans, has been the presence of a few dozen homeless men and women who gather bottles and cans just around the corner from the club’s entrance on Carter Avenue every day from early afternoon to well past midnight.

Evans wants to see the city donate some nearby land to open a bottling center that would help draw the homeless people away from the building.

“I’ll even pitch in if the city’s willing to pitch in,” Evans said. “I have a good relationship with the homeless in the neighborhood. I’ve got to make a living; they’ve got to make a living.”

Evans, who says he used to lease high end restaurants in Manhattan for up to $30,000 a month, claims that renovating the the nightclub is part of his broader plan to bring vibrant new businesses to a Bronx neighborhood that has seen its share of economic turmoil.

“The stuff I bought, I’m gonna keep and stay,” he said, with the satisfaction of someone who has learned from his trials and errors. “I’m hangin’ out now, y’know?”