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A Proud Bronx Attraction Continues to Struggle

April 5, 2008

The Hall of Fame, One of the Borough’s Best Kept Secrets, Remains Just That, a Secret

By CHRIS MATTHEWS of the Mount Hope Monitor

The greatest pantheon of the greatest Americans sits on a lonely hillside off University Avenue in University Heights, and no one seems to know it even exists.

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans is located on the campus of Bronx Community College (BCC). Designed by famed architect, Stanford White, it is the original Hall of Fame (the phrase was coined to describe it). Hall of Fame

August bronze busts of great statesmen, jurists, soldiers, teachers, scientists, and authors are housed within the 630-foot marble colonnade. Among the 98 Americans honored are Thomas Jefferson, Edgar Alan Poe and the Wright brothers. According to the Hall’s website, “It is a unique and patriotic reminder that this country’s phenomenal growth has been due to the vitality, ingenuity, and intellect of these individuals.”

A visit certainly reminds one that he is surrounded by artifacts of great intellect and ingenuity. Vitality, however, is lacking.

On a cold March day, the Hall is desolate; its only visitors, a brood of pigeons. The group seems to be regulars – their droppings visible everywhere throughout the silent gallery. The surveillance cameras seem unnecessary. Who is there to monitor?

Despite all this, the Hall has retained its nobility. It is generally well maintained, and the place’s beauty is undeniable. Sitting atop the highest point in the Bronx, the colonnade offers majestic views of the Harlem River. The busts seem to capture the essence of those they memorialize. Perhaps it’s this place’s ageless dignity in spite of its desolation that makes it so forlorn.

Later that afternoon, a solitary student walked briskly through the colonnade. As he passed, he seemed surprised to see another person there. “I use it as a shortcut to class,” he said. “You were the first person I’ve seen here in a long time.”

It Was Not Always So

Induction to the Hall of Fame was determined by an electoral process. Elections were held every five years to decide upon individuals nominated by the general public. The electors consisted of former presidents, noted scientists, and acclaimed authors, among others (some were later inducted themselves).

“In its day, the election for the Hall of Fame was second only to the presidential election,” said Nahshon Baum, a BCC graduate and Hall tour guide. Indeed, contemporary newspaper editorials were filled with vociferous pleas for both the induction and barring of certain candidates.

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans was built by New York University on their Bronx campus. It was the brainchild of Dr. Henry Mitchell McCracken, NYU’s chancellor until 1910. Originally, the colonnade was to serve as a simple retaining wall for the Gould Memorial Library (itself a treasure, also designed by White). But McCracken had grander plans.

The Hall was dedicated in 1901 and was a popular tourist destination for decades to come. Tens of thousands of Americans were drawn to America’s first pantheon to commemorate the young nation’s greatest citizens.

The Decline

As the Bronx fell into decline in the 1960s, so did the Hall of Fame.

In the late ’60s, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the Tiffany glass oculus [a circular skylight at the apex of a dome] of the Gould Library. The bust of James Kent, a former Chief Justice of the NY Supreme Court, was pushed down the hill. According to Baum, the vandals, perhaps under the influence of drugs, thought Kent was a relative of Clark Kent, and as such, was capable of flight.

NYU abandoned the Bronx, and the Hall, in 1973. The Hall of Fame’s popularity seemed to go with it. Bronx Community College inherited NYU’s campus and the Hall of Fame.

Funding for the Hall dried up. BCC, still in its nascent years, could not commit its limited funds to maintain it. The last elections were held in 1976 and the four great Americans elected, among them Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, have yet to be inducted. The oculus was never repaired and many of the busts fell into disrepair.

In the late ’70s, while the Bronx was burning, the Hall stood deserted. Tourists were wary of visiting the borough, and local residents, by now increasingly Hispanic, were perhaps unmoved by a bunch of long-dead, white men.

A Racial Disparity

An entirely unscientific poll, taken on University Avenue, across the street from BCC, produced some interesting results. Of the 11 people questioned, only one knew what the Hall of Fame of Great Americans was. Lincoln Hall of Fame

It may be that local residents are unaware of the Hall because it does not reflect today’s Bronx. Of the 98 individuals honored in the Hall, only eleven are women, two are African-American, and two are Jewish. There are no Hispanics, Asians or Native Americans honored.

Baum (himself of Native-American descent) is quick to point out that the Hall’s election process has prevented certain, modern day, individuals from induction. One must have been dead for 25 years to be considered. As such, people like W.E.B Dubois and Rosa Parks were ineligible at the time of the last election. “Martin Luther King would have been a shoe-in,” said Baum.

However, this doesn’t explain the absence of individuals such as Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman or Scott Joplin. Art Zuckerman, who with his wife, Susan, serve as the Hall’s historians, offers this explanation: “Important African-Americans were not as prominent or accepted when the elections were going on.”

Fair enough. But perhaps if the heritage of culturally diverse Bronx residents was honored at the Hall, they might be more apt to visit. “More blacks and Hispanics [in the Hall] would be good for BCC students and the community. It would bring more focus,” concedes Baum.

A Brighter Tomorrow?

A $3 million renovation in the late 1980s restored much of the Hall’s luster. Zuckerman noted that visitors doubled to around 5,000 last year. However, there is still work to be done.

A report funded by a $23,000 grant from the Getty Foundation to assess the needs of the White complex (the Hall, Gould Library, and two other buildings), concluded that nearly $60 million in renovations were needed.

Baum explains that an organization called the “Friends of the Hall of Fame” has been formed to raise money. However, according to Mary Healey, BCC’s director of Development, the group is in its early stages. “The friends are just that, friends,” she said. “The driving force behind this is the college. ‘Friends’ is a footnote.”

The college has a tentative plan to fulfill the Getty study’s findings, but lacks funding. Most of the college’s fund-raising is focused on aiding the BCC students, explained Healey. The plan is focused primarily on restoration. Reinstatement of Hall elections seems to be unlikely, though Zuckerman hopes that one day they will resume.

Healey said that BCC would also like to reach out to the community. She urged people to call to set up tours, but admitted that there might not always be someone there to answer the phone. Admission is free and a tour includes visits to the Hall, the Gould Library and its ‘catacombs’ (where scenes from “The Good Shepherd” and “A Beautiful Mind” were filmed).

“It’s a great secret,” said Zuckerman. “If it was in Manhattan, you couldn’t get in.” He may be right, but the Hall of Fame of Great Americans is in the Bronx. As the borough pulses around it, the Hall seems destined to remain a secret; a beautiful marble and bronze memorial to times past.

Hostage Crisis Ends Peacefully

April 5, 2008

A hostage situation on Creston Avenue ended peacefully on Friday, March 28. Camilo Mejias, 27, released his infant son Matthew into the custody of the NYPD at 5 p.m. and surrendered himself shortly afterwards.

The happy ending brought welcome close to a nerve-racking day. All told, the hostage standoff lasted nearly 10 hours. Onlookers cheered as news spread that Matthew was safe.

hostage

Mejias forced his way into his estranged spouse, Rosemary Espinal’s apartment sometime before 7:30 a.m., family members at the scene said. After entering, Mejias expelled Espinal and took Matthew and 10 year old Franklin, Espinal’s child by another father, hostage.

“He’s a crazy guy,” said Milvea Espinal, Rosemary’s stepsister, adding that Mejias has a history of substance abuse and abusive behavior. But while Mejias has had his share of problems, the morning’s events came as a shock. “We are surprised. We never expected him to do something like this,” said Espinal.

Rosemary Espinal separated from Mejias four months ago and obtained a restraining order against him. Mejias was arrested in his New Jersey home a month ago for attempting to visit her at 2015 Creston Ave., near Burnside Avenue. He returned to the address Friday morning and a crisis ensued.

As the dramatic scene unfolded, a slew of reporters and scores of curious onlookers gathered to watch. Countless police cruisers lined the streets and a foreboding SWAT vehicle was parked directly in front of the building. Despite the show of force, police turned to negotiation. The strategy worked.

At 1:15 p.m. Mejias released Franklin into police custody. At 4:30 p.m., Mejias’ sister accompanied negotiators into the apartment to talk him down. By 5 p.m. Mejias had surrendered himself and his son.

“Anytime we get someone out successfully, it’s a 10, so we’re very happy about the outcome of this,” said Lt. Jack Cambria, commanding officer of the hostage negotiation team.

Detectives Robert Yaeger and Jose Martinez led the negotiations that led to Mejias’ surrender. They explained that officers were able to observe Mejias the entire day and never feared for the children’s safety. “At no time did we feel the two children were in danger at all,” said Lt. Cambria. “Time was on our side. If we would have rushed in, we don’t know if he does in fact have a weapon or any mechanism to hurt that baby.”

According to his family, Mejias simply wanted to see his son. “He cried two months straight because he couldn’t see his son,” said Jose Mejias, Camilo’s brother. “What should a man do when he is desperate?”

Jose Mejias explained that he and his brother had been drinking the night before and had discussed his plight. “‘Please let me see my child,’ he would say,” Jose explained. “He got drunk and things happen.”

Mejias faces charges, including endangering the welfare of a child and burglary.

Though the day ended happily, the bigger picture paints a sad story. A loving, though troubled, father is likely headed to prison and his son deprived of his presence.

By CHRIS MATTHEWS of the Mount Hope Monitor

Littered Lot Draws School’s Ire

April 5, 2008

littered lot A vacant lot across the street from Webster Avenue’s M.S. 391 has some members of the school community up in arms. Students, parents and community organizers have started an effort to clean the trash-filled space.

“How can the kids focus on learning anything when they come out of school and see this?” said Sandra Thomas, President of the school’s PTA board. “It’s like the twilight zone.”

The lot, located near the corner of Tiebout Avenue and Folin Street, looks more like a dump than a vacant lot. Old mattresses, a water cooler, and a litany of common household waste are strewn over the steeply sloped piece of land. Bernice Acosta, the PTA Treasurer, explains that tenants in the surrounding buildings use it as an informal dumpster.

According to school officials, on Earth Day 2006, students held a rally in front of the lot that drew attention to its deplorable condition. Acosta and Thomas became involved shortly thereafter.

Thomas says she called the city repeatedly about the lot. “They say they will help and then nothing happens,” she said. In particular, a sign warning of a fine for littering is needed to deter tenants from dumping their trash, she said.

A fence was installed in front of the lot last November. The lot’s owner, Elza Gazivoda of A&E Tiebout Reality, financed and installed it at the request of Acosta and Thomas. Prior to its installation, students climbed the littered hill and occasionally hurt themselves. While the fence was needed, its gate still doesn’t have a lock to keep students out.

Acosta and Thomas aren’t stopping with the fence. They want to clean the lot and plant flowers in the grassy area in front of the fence. The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition has pledged its support and the women are hoping to get other groups and local politicians involved as well.

If you are interested in helping, please contact the M.S. 391 PTA board at (718) 584 0980, ext. 3551.

By CHRIS MATTHEWS of the Mount Hope Monitor

Elected Officials Neither Seen Nor Heard

April 4, 2008

Something unusual happened at last month’s Community Board 5 meeting: an elected official actually showed up.

On occasion, a local politician will send a staffer to one of these monthly public meetings – someone from State Senator Jose M. Serrano’s office, for example, is usually present. But rarely does the politician himself make an effort to attend. That’s disappointing. Board meetings provide an excellent opportunity for Council members, assembly members, and state senators, to talk about what they‘re working on; what they care about.

True, these meetings can be poorly attended and drag on (and on and on). But is it asking too much of our elected officials to attend once or twice a year?

March’s meeting, then, came as a welcome surprise. Councilman Eric Gioia was there to speak about a campaign he’s backing to eradicate hunger and make it easier for those eligible to apply for food stamps. It’s a worthy cause, especially here in the Bronx. If you want to find out more, call Gioia’s district office in Queens at (718) 383-9566. Yes, Queens. Gioia doesn’t even represent the Bronx. If he can make a CB5 meeting, so can our Bronx politicians.

Speaking of poor attendance, The New York Times recently came down hard on two west Bronx Council members, Maria Baez, and Helen Foster, whom we wrote about last month as wanting to run for borough president. Foster failed to attend the City Council’s recent vote on Congestion Pricing, a vote The Times called “perhaps the most important…of the year for the City Council.” Supposedly, her flight back from Las Vegas, where she was seeing a family member, was delayed. These things happen, but it’s embarrassing if you’re the only Council member to not cast a vote, and even more embarrassing if your overall attendance record is woeful – Foster’s record is currently the fifth worst out of the City Council’s 51 members.

Sadly, you don’t have to travel far to find the Council member with the single worst record. That honor goes to Baez, who, according to The Times, has managed to miss 203 of 608 hearings and full Council meetings since 2004.

Overall, four of the bottom six spots go to legislators from the Bronx. In most jobs, being work shy gets you the boot. But if you work for the City Council, it seems, going to work is a choice – a choice many Bronx Council members choose not to make.

Crime Watch, April 2008

April 4, 2008

Man Shot Dead in Fordham

A 28-year-old man was shot several times outside 175 Field Place in Fordham, on March 25. He was taken to St. Barnabas Hospital where he later died. Police identified the man as Thomas Medina of 269 W. 118th Street. As of April 1, there have been no arrests. The investigation is ongoing.

There have been seven homicides so far this year in the confines of the 46th Precinct. This time last year, there had been just two.

Beware of Thieves, Police tell Sidekick Owners

Police at the 46th Precinct are warning T-Mobile Sidekick owners to be on guard when using their cell phone in the street, following a spate of robberies in the area. Young women are particularly vulnerable, police say.

“Be mindful of people around you,” says Inspector Kevin Harrington, the precinct’s commanding officer. “Make sure you don’t bury your head.”

According to police, the popular (and expensive) cell phones, which can also play music and send email, are often stolen straight out of people’s hands and sold on to unscrupulous phone stores.

You can safeguard your phone by registering it at the precinct, located at 2120 Ryer Ave. Ask for Officer Perez. That way, if it’s stolen and later recovered, police will be able to return it.

Community Council Elections

The 46th Precinct’s Community Council, made up of local residents who are elected by their peers, serves as a liaison between the police and the community. Elections to the Council are held every two years, and election season is nearly upon us. At the Council’s next public meeting (held April 15, at the Precinct Station House, 2120 Ryer Ave., at 7 p.m.), those interested will be putting their names forward. The election itself will likely be held at the May meeting (May 20, at the same location and time).

To apply for one of these volunteer positions, or to vote, you must have attended three or more of these meetings (held on the third Tuesday of every month) during the past year.

The Council’s current president, the long-serving Louella Hatch, has made it clear she won’t be seeking reelection. Other Council positions include Vice President and Treasurer.

For more information about the election or the Council, call Community Affairs at (718) 220-5234.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Bronx Council Members Support Congestion Pricing

April 4, 2008

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to charge motorists to enter Manhattan below 60th Street came a step closer to fruition on March 31 when the City Council voted to support it, 30 votes to 20. With the exception of Helen Foster, who was absent, all Bronx Council members gave the plan the thumbs up, despite polls suggesting the majority of Bronx residents are against it.

Those in favor argue that congestion pricing will encourage people to use public transport, thus alleviating gridlocked streets and enhancing the air quality. In theory, it will also raise millions of dollars to help improve mass transit. Opponents, on the other hand, say it will unfairly disadvantage those living in the outer boroughs who work in Manhattan and find it convenient to drive. Critics also worry that the money won’t find its way to buses and subways.

The suggested charge is $8 for cars and $21 for trucks, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Congestion pricing, which has been a huge success in London, England, could start as early as March next year if the State Senate and State Assembly choose to endorse it.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

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