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Remembering the Platt Family

January 5, 2008

Platt Memorial


Morris Heights residents are accustomed to shootings and stabbings on their doorstep, to lives being needlessly cut short. The neighborhood, it could be said, is hardened to violent crime.

But every so often a murder so ghoulish, so wicked, literally stops the community in its tracks. Take the sad deaths, in November, of Marlene Platt and her son, Nashan, who were shot and killed by their own flesh and blood.

When news of the crime began to filter through the hair salons, bodegas, and apartment buildings up and down University Avenue, local residents united in a shared grief, a grief that culminated in an emotional memorial service at Featherbed Lane Presbyterian Church, on Dec. 14. Battling snow and ice, more than 200 people turned out to show their respect.

By all accounts, Marlene, 45 and Nashan, 22, were well liked.

“He [Nashan] was good-hearted, wouldn’t hurt anyone, carefree,” said Miriam DeJesus, a colleague of Nashan’s who attended the service. The two worked together at Bainbridge Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Norwood, where Nashan held a part-time job as a dietary aid.

“If you had a sad face… he’d [Nashan] make you feel better,” said Antonio Melendez, another colleague. “He never missed a day of work, he was hardworking, great with the residents, he cared about the residents.”

Nashan was in his final year at Lehman College, where he was studying Health Services Administration, according to the college’s newspaper.

“He was a very smart guy,” said Michael Burke, Nashan’s uncle, in a speech at the service. “He was studying hard. He was almost done. We won’t let his memory fade.”

Burke described how he and his sister Marlene grew up in Jamaica. Burke ended up in Washington D.C., where he still lives; Marlene found the Bronx, and Morris Heights.

Burke said Marlene was “very opinionated” which elicited soft chuckles from the crowd. “She experienced life, she lived it,” he said. “… she was a whole person.”

Marlene and Nashan lived at 1610 University Ave., in an apartment they shared with Marlene’s older son, Lamar, 24. It’s Lamar who’s been charged with their murder.

According to police, he confessed to shooting and killing them inside the apartment on Nov. 18, before chopping up their bodies, and dumping the remains in the Harlem River.

“This family has lost three family members,” Burke said. “… we pray for Lamar.”

His trial starts on Feb. 6. Despite his alleged confession, he’s pleading not guilty.

Marlene and Nashan’s gruesome demise only came to light on Nov. 25, when Marlene’s Washington D.C. based mother called the cops. She had become concerned after not hearing from her daughter for a week. On breaking into their apartment, cops found blood strains. Lamar was taken to the 46th Precinct for questioning.

An acquaintance of the family said that Lamar used drugs, and that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Recently, she said, his behavior had taken a turn for the worse, to such an extent that his mother, feeling threatened, was trying to get an order of protection against him. “That’s why he did what he did,” said the acquaintance.

On Dec. 5, police divers found two bodies in the river. The remains have yet to be formally identified but a high-ranking officer at the 46th Precinct said, “I can say with quite certainty [that they've been found].”

At the memorial service, church staff remembered happier times, when Marlene used to bring her two children to Sunday school. “As far as I know, a very good mother, bought them to Sunday School here, very nice children,” Deacon Sadie Jennings said.

Burke hoped some good could come of the murders. “There’s a lot of lessons to be learned here,” he said. “… sometimes we just need to be noisy. Everyone needs people who are concerned about you.”

2007 – The Year in Review

January 5, 2008

Help for Area Parks 

In Van Cortlandt Park, in the north Bronx, work is underway to build an 11-acre water filtration plant. As might be expected, local residents are distraught about the loss of parkland. There are concerns, too, about the spiraling construction costs, the ear-splitting construction noise, and the health implications for the neighborhood – some say that the increased truck traffic may increase asthma rates.

Still, in this instance, one neighborhood’s loss is the rest of the borough’s gain. In return for housing the plant, the city has allocated more than $200 million to 70 Bronx parks and playgrounds over the next five year – an unprecedented sum.

In the central west Bronx, or Community District 5, the following are set to profit:                    

Roberto Clemente State Park (West Tremont Avenue and Matthewson Road)

Mount Hope Playground (Walton Avenue and East 177th Street)

Sedgwick Playground (Cross Bronx Expressway and Undercliff Avenue)

Washington Bridge Park (a new park adjacent to the Alexander Hamilton Bridge)

Regatta Park (just south of Washington Bridge Park)

Aqueduct Lands/Aqueduct Walks (a slither of parkland that runs from Kingsbridge Road to Tremont Avenue)

Several other playgrounds are currently getting makeovers, using funding sources separate from the $200 million slush fund. These include Half Nelson Playground (174th Street and Featherbed Lane) and Morris Mesa Playground (the north side of the Cross Bronx Expressway at Morris Avenue). Morris Mesa, formerly an empty lot, was once a sanctuary for drug addicts and prostitutes. Soon it will entertain a different type of clientele.



University Woods

Another park making headlines is University Woods, a three-acre plus forest in Morris Heights. It, too, has had problems with drug activity. Conditions got so bad that it has routinely been voted the city’s “worst park” by New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group. Some – notably Community Board 5 – are in favor of developing the land (condos is the latest idea). But there’s also a movement, led by Friends of the Woods (www.uniwoods.20m.com), to preserve it as parkland.

“University Woods has a lot of potential,” says Brandy Cochrane of Friends of the Woods. “It’s just not had an honest chance to blossom. For us to lose a piece of land that’s our natural backyard… that would kind of suck.”

In May, when the weather’s warmer, Friends of the Woods will resume their monthly cleanups. Also in May, on Partnership for Parks’ “It’s My Park! Day,” Cochrane hopes to put on a play, in both Spanish and English. At the moment, she’s thinking “Little Red Riding Hood.” The little girl would symbolize those who treat the park well, said Cochrane, who runs a theatre company. And the big bad wolf? He’d represent those who treat it mean.



Crime Falls, But Old Problems Die Hard

The 46th Precinct is one of the most crime-ridden precincts in the city. In 2007, for the second year in a row, officers made more than 10,000 arrests. That makes it one of the busiest, if not the busiest, precincts in the city.

But crime continues to plummet in the west central Bronx. In 2007, it was down 6.2 percent from the previous year (current figures don’t take into account the last day of the year). With the exception of the 42nd Precinct, crime dropped off more in the 46 than any other precinct in the borough. 

The biggest reductions were seen in burglary, down 12.3 percent, and Grand Larceny Auto, or motor vehicle theft, down 17.7 percent. Overall, in the 46, crime is down close to 25 percent since 2001, and an incredibly 80 percent since 1990.

None of this, of course, is any consolation to those who lost loved ones during the past 12 months. In 2007, there were 18 murders, the same as in 2006. Among those killed were at least five teenagers, a stark reminder that there’s still a long way to go.

To help counter violent crime, Operation Impact, which floods troubled neighborhoods with uniformed cops, will return to the 46 in 2008.



Need leadership at Community Board 5

In June, Community Board 5 elected a new chair, Bola Omotosho, a Nigerian-born doctor and businessman, who defeated the existing chair, Beverly Smith, by 16 votes to 4. He officially took over in September. Bola

“I love challenges,” said Omotosho, on taking the voluntary position. “It’s not that I’m particularly interested in politics. But when it comes to the welfare of fellow human beings, I feel I can make a difference.”

Omotosho has a number of goals. First and foremost, he said, speaking back in the summer, he wants to ensure the Board’s monthly meetings start and finish on time (going on the last few meetings, there’s still work to be done here).

Longer-term goals include revitalizing the shopping district along Burnside Avenue, and putting a stop to the slew of supportive housing facilities, such as homeless shelters, being built in the district. “The city uses us as a dumping ground [for these types of projects],” he said.

Note: According to the NYC Community Assistance Unit Web site, community boards have three formal roles: improving the delivery of city services, planning and reviewing land use in the area; and making recommendations on the city budget. To inquire about becoming a board member of CB5 call (718) 364-2030 or e-mail brxcb5@optonline.net.



Carrión Drops Mayoral Bid

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión spent 2007 positioning himself for a 2009 mayoral run, but the former teacher sent shock waves through the city’s political establishment when he announced in mid-December that he would instead be running for comptroller. Carrion

Politicos say Carrión’s decision most directly benefits current comptroller Bill Thompson, the only other minority candidate. It was widely believed Thompson, who’s black, and Carrión, who’s Puerto Rican, would have fractured the kind of minority coalition that either would have needed to win.

Carrion immediately becomes a formidable force in the comptroller’s race, with a $1.4 million war chest and the highest profile of any of the other candidates. Joining Thompson in the mayoral race will most likely be Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Those likely to be in the running to replace Carrión as borough president (Carrión will step aside at the end of the year, because of term limits) include City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera and Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, whose close friendship will be tested if neither backs down. Other possibilities include Council Member Helen Foster and State Senator José M. Serrano.



Foreclosure Crisis

This fall, when west Bronx homeowners began losing their homes at an increasingly high rate to foreclosure, housing advocates pointed to a half decade of subprime lending practices, which left borrowers with high monthly payments they simply couldn’t keep up with.

The entire nation began feeling the pinch as housing groups scrambled to cobble together resources to reverse the foreclosure trend. Advocates blamed mortgage companies and big investment banks, saying the two worked in tandem to push subprime loans on borrowers, many of whom could have qualified for prime loans with lower interest rates.

Housing groups say government remediation efforts have fallen short and more resources are needed. Shockingly, there is only one counselor in the entire west Bronx doing foreclosure counseling. Homeowners stuck with bad loans and facing foreclosure simply don’t have anywhere to turn for help.

But in late December, Greg Jost of University Neighborhood Housing Program, reported on the West Bronx Blog, that the mayor, City Council and the nonprofit Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) had formed the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a new nonprofit that will “fund a major expansion and coordination of counseling and referral services, legal assistance, loan remediation, preventive outreach and education, training, research and advocacy around subprime lending and mortgage foreclosures.”

So, early in 2008, help should be on the way. To access assistance under the new program, just call 311.



A Tale of Two Community Centers

Mount Hope Housing Company’s new community center, at 175th Street and Townsend Avenue, is scheduled to open in the spring.

Meanwhile, plans for another community center in the abandoned Hebrew Institute Yeshiva building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulavard, continue to stutter and stall. Kips Bay

In March, we reported that it would open in the summer of 2008. That’s now been pushed back to early or mid-2009. The 30,000-square-foot building, vacant for more than 30 years, will have to sit empty and idle a little while longer.

“Things are taking longer than we expected,” said Daniel Quintero, executive director of Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, the organization behind the center. “There are many pieces to this puzzle.”

Specifically, there have been problems with fund-raising and building plans. Design plans for the first floor, for example, encroached onto a neighboring property, said Quintero, and they had to start again.

But, Quintero insists, things are moving ahead. The necessary funds – $12 million – have been raised. And Kips Bay are hoping to close with Housing Preservation & Development, the city agency that owns the building, later this month, said Quintero. Construction will start in February or March and take 12 to 14 months.

When up-and-running, the center will serve 350-450 kids a day. It’ll boast a gymnasium, and a game room with pool and ping-pong tables. Youngsters will also benefit from tutoring and college preparation resources.  



Gonzalez Trial Stalls

State Senator Efrain Gonzalez’s pending trial on fraud and corruption charges is still pending after pre-trial hearings were postponed twice in 2007.

In the fall of 2006, Gonzalez was charged with mail fraud. Three months later, federal authorities heaped on several more serious charges for allegedly bilking $423,000 in state funds and using the funds (mostly local grants, so-called member items, that were supposed to go to local organizations) to pay for his own personal expenses.

In March, Gonzalez’s lawyer, Murray Richman, said he needed more time to go through the mountains of evidence against his client and the judge postponed pretrial hearings, the precursor to a trial, until November. Then, in November, that date was pushed back again, this time until April.

Gonzalez, who represents the 33rd Senate District in the west Bronx, has indicated he intends to run for office again next fall when he’s up for re-election, but rumors are swirling about who might replace him if he resigns or is convicted. Longtime Bronx politician Pedro Espada, Jr. recently moved to Bedford Park and said he wants to run for something, possibly Gonzalez’s seat.


Controversial Housing Bill Dead

January 5, 2008

A controversial housing bill is dead, after its sponsors – Bronx Council members Maria Baez and Joel Rivera – dropped it amidst stern opposition and claims that the legislation would threaten affordable housing. The bill’s defeat, in early December, seems to have cleared the path for a different bill, the so-called Tenant Protection Act, which is supported by tenant rights groups and the majority of the City Council.

If passed, the Tenant Protection Act will allow tenants to sue landlords for harassment in Housing Court. (Anti-harassment legislation is needed, say advocates, because landlords are increasingly trying to force out long-term tenants so they can bring in new tenants with deeper pockets. Baez’s bill would have allowed tenants to sue for harassment, but, crucially, it would have empowered landlords to sue tenants for the same thing.)

The controversy surrounding Baez’s bill was covered in the December issue of the Mount Hope Monitor. There was also a story in the Village Voice, which suggested, among other things, that Rivera threw his weight behind Baez’s bill because the real estate industry is helping to fund his (expected) run for borough president. Rivera, himself, told the Voice that his opposition stemmed from concerns that the legislation would result in tenants bringing frivolous cases against their landlords.

The media attention led off from a protest outside Baez’s district office on Nov. 27, which was organized by Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA). At the time, Baez’s office issued a statement in which Baez said, “We are having a healthy discussion and debate about both bills.”

With Baez and Rivera’s retreat, the debate, it would seem, is now officially over.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Crime Watch, Jan. 2008

January 5, 2008

Teenager Stabbed to Death

On Jan. 1, some three hours into the New Year, police responded to a report of a “large dispute” at 183rd Street and Walton Avenue. There they found Kenny McClinton, 17. He had been stabbed twice in the stomach and was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Barnabas Hospital. McClinton lived at 2170 Walton Ave. There were no immediate arrests. The investigation is ongoing.

Armed Man Shot by Police

In the early hours of Jan. 1, police approached a man outside 1800 Davidson Ave., whom they suspected of carrying a gun. He ran into 1780 Davidson Ave. The officers followed and shots were fired. Again, the man fled. Following a canvass of the building, police found the suspect inside Apt. 6A. He had been shot in the buttocks, presumably by a bullet fired by police. (It wasn’t immediately clear if the suspect had also fired his weapon). A 9mm handgun was found in the vicinity, police said. The injured man was taken to St. Barnabas Hospital and listed in a stable condition. Charges are pending. No officers were hurt.

Bodega Robberies

Police are still looking for one of the two men suspected of robbing seven Bronx bodegas in early December. During one heist, on Dec. 10, the men shot and critically injured the owner of a store at 2129 Davidson Ave., when he failed to hand over the money.

“He fought back,” said Captain Donald McHugh of the 46th Precinct, of the owner. “This was a ballsy kid.”

The suspects were named as Rafael Vargas, 19, and Christopher Ortiz, 21. Both are of Dominican heritage. On Dec. 21, police picked up Ortiz, and charged him with robbery and criminal possession of a weapon. At present, he’s only been charged with offenses linked to a bodega robbery on St. Ann’s Avenue in the South Bronx.

Vargas is still on the run.

Kevin Harrington, the 46th Precinct’s Commanding officer, called the Davidson Avenue shooting a “heinous crime.”

“He was a hardworking man, shot down in cold blood,” added McHugh. “For me that’s the most brutal [type of crime].”

The 24-year-old bodega owner, whom police didn’t name, was shot four times, including once in the face. He was taken to St. Barnabas Hospital. WNBC said the man’s name was Jose Alberto Lora.

Speaking a week after the shooting, McHugh said he hoped local residents would tip the police off to the suspects’ whereabouts. “[There will be] no community support for them,” he said. “When you take on the business leaders – who are beloved figures in the community – you’re not going to get support.”

In the owner’s absence, his cousin has looked after the store. Speaking on Jan. 3, the cousin said the injured man was being released from hospital later that day.

“He’s doing fine,” he said. “He can’t wait to get back to work.”

One Dead, One Injured in Shooting

A man was shot dead outside 1600 Sedgwick Ave. on Dec. 24, at approximately 1 a.m. The shooting happened after an argument at a Sweet 16 party inside the building spilled out onto the street, said the New York Post. Police named the dead man as Michael Simes, 20. A 17-year-old man was shot and injured in the same altercation. He took a bullet to the stomach and was listed in a serious condition. The investigation is ongoing.

Stray Bullet Hits Toddler

A little girl was shot in the shoulder, Dec. 31, when a stray bullet flew through the car in which she was a passenger. The incident happened at East 184th Street and Tiebout Avenue. The New York Times named the girl as Leah Sesay. She was not seriously injured.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Toys and More at Christmas Party

January 5, 2008

PartyTiebout Avenue Block Association held its annual Christmas party, Dec. 14, in St.  Simon Stock School’s gymnasium on Valentine Avenue. Some 400 people  attended, said the organizer, Louella Hatch,  a long time Tiebout Avenue resident and the president of the 46th Precinct’s Community Council.

Each child received a toy, thanks to donations from local businesses. “We gave games, trucks, little cars, all very nice,” Hatch said.

There were mountains of food, too, something Hatch does well, for she ran a local food pantry for 40 years. (It shut down in 2006 after the landlord started demanding rent, she said). This year, the persuasive Hatch convinced several restaurants to chip in, including Webster Avenue’s El Rey Del Marisco and the local White Castle, which came through with 300 burgers.

Local clergy hit the mic to speak about the true meaning of Christmas, but on a more basic level, said Hatch, the party was about giving area kids somewhere to go for an hour or two. “At least we know the kids are inside and not outside,” she said.


Winter Festival Brings Holiday Cheer

January 5, 2008

Winter FestivalMount Hope Housing Company’s seventh annual Winter Festival featured performances by local schools and youth groups. A herd of reindeer even got in on the act.

The event, held Dec. 20, in a heated tent on 179th Street between Walton and Morris Avenues, drew hundreds of local residents. 

There was food – hot dogs, cotton candy, and some welcome hot chocolate. Santa Claus, taking time out of his hectic pre-Christmas schedule, was on hand to greet each of the kids. There were toys, too. In all, 1,600 were given away.

“[It was an] enormous success,” said Estel Fonseca, Mount Hope’s Vice President of Youth Services. “We had a tremendous community response. Many parents told us that because of their economic hardship this was one of the only chances for their children to get a toy for Christmas.”

Next year, said Fonseca, the festival might be held in Mount Hope’s new community center, currently rising on Townsend Avenue.