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Residents Embrace Refurbished Playgrounds

August 20, 2008

Following a two-year renovation, Mount Hope Playground has reopened – and it’s beautiful, everyone agrees.

“My children love it,” said Kevin Robinson, of Grand Avenue, on recent weekday afternoon. “I’m starting to come here every day with them.”

“I especially the basketball courts,” added Myron DeCosta, a local resident who helps clean the playground and who locks it at night.

MHPlayground

The playground, located at 177th Street and Walton Avenue, boasts two new two basketball courts, brightly colored play equipment, swings for kids and babies, water sprinklers, tables and chairs, and a work-out area for adults. There are also numerous trees and benches, and, while the summer lasts, sunflowers.

Mount Hope Playground’s renovation was funded with a slice of the $200 million given to Bronx parks in 2004. The money was made available because a massive water filtration plant is being built under Van Cortlandt Park, putting 28 acres of the park out of action until 2012. In all, 70 parks are benefiting.

Originally, the Mount Hope Playground was due to reopen in the summer of 2007. But construction problems held the project back, says Jesslyn Tiao, a Parks Department spokesperson.

“As we moved along the process, we encountered some unforeseen conditions which involved redesigning a retaining wall and the water service meter,” Tiao wrote in an e-mail. (The water service meter is what the Department of Environmental Protection reads in order to determine how much to charge Parks for water each month.)

Another local playground – Morris Mesa Playground – also reopened this summer after an 18-month restoration project. Like Mount Hope, Morris Mesa renovation’s also experienced delays. According to Tiao, the Parks Department was forced to change the contractor midway through.

The playground, located on north side of the Cross Bronx Expressway between the Grand Concourse and Morris Avenue, was once popular with prostitutes and drug dealers. Today, it’s been completely transformed with brightly colored yellow and blue play equipment, rubber safety matting, a spray fountain, and new trees and shrubs outlining the park’s iron fence.

One Aug. 14, the Parks Departments held an unveiling ceremony. Local residents and community leaders were in attendance.

Bronx Parks Borough Commissioner Hector Aponte, who presided over the event, thanked Councilwomen Maria Baez and Mayor Michael Bloomberg for helping fund the project. Beaz gave $500,000; Bloomberg, an additional $292,000

“We are lucky to have such great leaders in this city who see the need for parks and have invested in Morris Mesa,” Aponte said.

State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, meanwhile, pointed to local resident Sidney Flores as the person who helped get the renovation off the ground. Flores collected nearly 1,000 signatures, and lobbied Community Board 5 and elected officials.

“This park comes from the community on the part of advocacy from one individual,” Gonzalez said. “We need to have more people like Sydney who push for their neighborhood.”

Sidney Flores

Children from the New Settlement Multicultural Day Camp also attended the playground’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. And as several kids ran by playing tag, Flores reflected on the long journey it took to cleanup Morris Mesa.

“I felt like something needed to get done,” Flores said. “Now, I really feel joy seeing the kids having fun and playing around. This is a great place now, and I’m proud of it.”

Aqueduct Lands Playground, at 181st and Aqueduct Avenue East, has also reopened after a makeover. Like Mount Hope Playground, Aqueduct Land’s renovation was funded with monies from the Croton Water Filtration Plant deal.

The playground now has spray showers, new seating and fencing, a new basketball court and plays equipment. In 2009, the Parks Department will install a bathroom.

By KAREN LATORRE and ROB SGOBBO of the Mount Hope Monitor.

~Correction: Sept. 15, 2008

The original version of this story – Residents Embrace Refurbished Playgrounds – carried an incorrect quote. Jesslyn Tiao, of Parks, wrote in an email: “As we moved along the process, we encountered some unforeseen conditions.” She did not write “we encouraged some unforeseen conditions.”

The Bronx’s Many Illegal Immigrants Fear Deportation

August 17, 2008

Growing African Population Struggles to Get Ahead

 

In 1989, New York Mayor Ed Koch signed an executive order prohibiting the police and city agencies from asking residents about their immigration status. Since then, successive mayors have continued this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Many large metropolitan areas have similar arrangements. Critics call them sanctuary cities. But New York stands out – and is often in the firing line – because of the sheer number of immigrants who call this city home. In all, three million New Yorkers are foreign-born. Of these, some 535,000 are here illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center and Urban Institute.

Last summer, then presidential candidate Mitt Romney, accused former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani of mollycoddling illegal immigrants; of giving them a safe haven to live and work. “New York City was the poster child for sanctuary cities in the country,” Romney said.

But how immigrant friendly is New York?

Here in the Bronx, Wendoly Marte, an immigrant rights organizer for the North West Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, says that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids common in other parts of the country haven’t materialized. Sergeant Mark Turner of the 46th Precinct’s Community Affairs hasn’t heard of businesses and homes being raided either. Turner says local police officers would never ask a crime victim, or someone reporting a crime, to prove their immigration status. 

Yet illegal immigrants in the Bronx face incredible hardships, say community leaders. They struggle to find jobs, access healthcare, acquire driver’s licenses, go to college, learn a new language, and settle in a new country. And they face less tangible barriers, too – namely the ever present fear of deportation.

It’s a fear that causes great stress on an individual, and one that stunts a community’s ability to grow and get ahead. Illegal immigrants, these leaders say, are afraid to ask for help, afraid to attend community events, afraid to organize, and afraid to speak out.

Clearly some immigrants haven’t been told that New York’s a sanctuary city; or if they have, they don’t believe it.

A Growing African Population

In the west central Bronx, the Puerto Rican and African-American populations are on the decline, according to figures published by the Bronx Data Center, which is run out of Lehman College. Meanwhile, the Dominican population is soaring. In 2000, 30,000 Dominicans were living in what the Census Bureau calls PUMA 3707 (which has similar borders to Community Board 5). In 2006, this number was closer to 45,000.

Other ethic groups have made gains too: notably Mexicans (now 4,000) and foreign-born blacks (now 12,000), mostly West Africans from Ghana, Gambia, Togo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and beyond.

Many of these Africans have settled in Mount Hope, statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest.

When Djounedou Titikpina, the president of the African People Alliance, moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, there were only one or two mosques. Today, there are six or seven in a ten-block radius, he says, and all have predominantly African congregations.

Mount Hope

Landlords have also noticed this rising population. Shaun Belle, president of Mount Hope Housing Company, which owns 31 area apartment buildings, says a growing number of their tenants hail from Africa. Belle is looking at having the organization’s fliers and literature translated into French (which is widely spoken across West Africa).  

This language barrier, however, isn’t the only obstacle facing Africans in the Bronx. Just as a significant number of Dominicans are undocumented (two in five), many West Africans are also here illegally – perhaps three in every 10, says Titikpina.

Tough Times

Ibrahim Gonja, the Iman at Masjid Annasr, a mosque on East Tremont Avenue, has seen his congregation surge in recent years. On a recent Friday, for Jum’ah (Friday Prayer), the mosque was packed with more than 60 worshippers – some in traditional African robes, others in jeans and T-shirts.

Gonja says times are hard for the Bronx’s African community. “Back in the day, they [Africans without papers] could go into any 99-cent store and get job,” he said.

Titikpina, a regular at the mosque, agrees that cash-under-the-table work is increasingly hard to find. Business owners, he said, are reluctant to hire illegal immigrants because they know the federal government has been cracking down. And many are still wary of employing Muslims, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Titikpina says some Muslims tried to counter this perception by changing their names: “Someone who was called Mohammed, might now call himself Mike.”)

African girls

Because of this, and the stagnant economy, desperate immigrants are easily exploited. Earlier this year, a Soho-based clothing store, Yellow Rat Bastard, was found guilty of violating labor laws by failing to pay staff minimum wage and overtime pay. Many of the employees were Africans from the Bronx, who worked 70-hour weeks in rat-infested warehouses for just $5 an hour. Immigrant rights groups welcomed the verdict, but warned that Yellow Rat Bastard’s wrongdoings were just the tip of the iceberg.

Hiding in the Shadows

In recent years, ICE has coordinated several high profile raids on illegal immigrants in Long Island. These raids, and rumors of others raids, have seeped into the consciousness of illegal immigrants across the city, say community leaders.  

“They’re afraid to come out and advocate for their own rights, and let us know the hardships they’re going through,” said Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5′s district manager.

“They are hiding in the shodows afraid to lift their heads,” said State Senator Jose M. Serrano (D-Manhattan/Bronx). “And now they’re even further pushed underground because of the stories we’re hearing.”

Gonja, the Iman, says that his congregation would be even larger if people weren’t frightened to come out. “People say, ‘We heard that the American government will soon send cops out onto the street and deport everyone that doesn’t have papers,’” he said. “Because of that kind of fear, people are worried to come out, and to come here and do their prayers. We try and reassure them that something like that will not happen. Some people listen, others don’t.”

Titikpina says this fear stops many Africans from reaching out to city agencies for help and advice, and from getting involved in community events. Earlier this year, Titikpina organized a pro-Barack Obama rally at the Gambian Society on Jerome Avenue. Fewer than 10 people showed up.

“Even with English as a Second Language classes, people are afraid to go,” Titikpina said.

Of course, there are other factors at play here, Titikpina admits. Africans immigrants, legal and illegal, typically work incredibly hard – if they manage to land a job. “How can you convince them to come to a community meeting if someone works 70 hours a week?” asked Titikpina. 

And then there are the cultural differences that make assimilation hard. Back in Togo, Titikpina’s father was a tribal king with 16 wives, and 57 sons and daughters. Titikpina, a prince, has a chosen a different life – one that involves a fiancée (just one) and an apartment on the Grand Concourse. But some Africans have bought plural marriage with them to the Bronx.

“It’s not unusual for our staff to run into polygamy,” said Scott Auwarter, an assistant executive director at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).

Polygamy – which is illegal in America – along with immigration status, may explain why some Africans choose to remain in the shadows, away from prying eyes, says Auwarter.  

Who Can Help

In Mount Hope, CAB is one of the only groups to offer immigration-related services.

There’s also the Alliance for Community Services, at 110 E. Burnside Ave., but the group has funding issues, according to Rodriguez of CB 5. Leo Martinez, the Alliance’s executive director, still has an office in the storefront, but a new organization, Neighborhood Health Providers, recently moved in. Martinez didn’t return a message seeking clarifitication on what’s become of the Alliance.

In the south Bronx as a whole, immigration service providers “are doing a great job,” said State Senator Jose M. Serrano. But at the same time, they are “stretched so thin.”

“I’d like to see more [in the district],” Rodriguez said.

Groups like CAB offer local residents immigration advice, but without immigration reform at a federal level, there’s often only so much they can do. “Everyone thinks that once they are here [in America], there’s an angle they can play, but that’s not always true,” Auwarter said.

Immigration Reform

Both Barack Obama and John McCain, one of whom will be president come January, believe America’s immigration system is broken. Both say they’re committed to comprehensive immigration reform, to securing the country’s porous borders while introducing guest-worker programs.

But this may take years – if it happens at all.

In the meantime, one local politician has been searching for ways to make immigrants’ lives a little easier. Serrano, whose father is the congressman of the same name, has sponsored several immigrant-friendly bills in the State Senate.

Bill S6738 would essentially turn New York State into a sanctuary state by expanding “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Other bills include one (Bill S8147) that would increase the pay of police officers who speak more than one language. Another (Bill 3131) would ensure parents of public school children receive school documentation – report cards, disiplinary notices, etc. – in a language they understand.

These bills are currently pending in committee and are unlikely to advance as long as the Republicans maintain their slender majority in the Senate. Still, Serrano is hopeful. He says it’s grossly unfair that this country is criminalizing individuals and families who come here in search of the American dream.  

“What I find troublesome is that while before immigrants have been welcomed with open arms, that welcome doesn’t apply any longer,” said Serrano. “I think it’s shameful that instead of rolling out the welcome mat [we're closing the door].”

 Said Titikpina: “There’s so many ways immigrants are stuck.”

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor.

Editor’s Note: This article was written as part of an immigration reporting fellowship granted by the Center on Media, Crime & Justice, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the New York Community Media Alliance.

Reclaiming a Troubled Neighborhood

August 6, 2008

On Aug. 4, an army of kids, a handful of cops, and a bouncy castle, took over a troubled Mount Hope block.

The party, on Townsend Avenue at 175th Street, was one of thousands put on around the country in honor of National Night Out, a crime prevention program whereby local residents “take back” their neighborhoods.

According to Nero Graham, the president of the 46th Precinct’s Community Council, the Townsend Avenue location was chosen because the surrounding area has witnessed a recent up-tick in gang activity. Gang members from Dominicans Don’t Play [DDP] are known to live in the neighborhood, Graham says. DDP has been tied to numerous shootings and stabbings in recent times.

We hope it will send them [criminals] a message… that we will follow them wherever they go,” said Graham, who in the 1980s used to patrol nearby Morris Avenue with a bullhorn, bringing unwanted attention to local drug dealers.

In the 46th Precinct, parties were also held in Roberto Clemente State Park and at 183rd Street and Tiebout Avenue.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor.

Brainy Students Land Prestigious Award

August 5, 2008

The Ivy League beckons for two Bronx students. What’s more, someone else is picking up the tab.

Fidel Malena and Kojo Wallace have been awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which gives financial assistance to community college students across the country, making it possible for them to transfer to top 4-year colleges.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which hosts the scholarship, recently selected students from 800 applicants. Scholars receive up to $30,000 a year to complete their education.

Malena, 24, was raised in Mount Hope, on the corner of Tremont and Burnside Avenues. Growing up in a tough neighborhood with an entrenched gang and drug culture was difficult. “You start to wonder what’s out there,” Melina said. “You see good life elsewhere, and you start to be critical of what’s around you.”

But the neighborhood also “taught me to be wise and have courage,” he says.

Malena

Malena’s academic progress was slow. He attended a host of public schools, including several which were shut down because of poor performance, before ending up at William B. Taft High School on East 172nd Street.

Still, Malena’s determination won through in the end. He finally graduated high school in 2005 at the age of 21, and then enrolled at Westchester Community College (WCC). College opened Malena’s eyes to have opened his eyes to a world he didn’t know existed. “I never thought of college. I was never told I could go,” Malena said. “There were so many trees, and so many different types of people to learn from. This wasn’t a 13th grade, you had to bury your head into it.”

Finding a passion in the social sciences, WCC nominated Malena for the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. With his award, he is off to Columbia to finish his undergraduate degree. “It is going to be a new experience,” he said. “But I’m a Bronx boy at heart, and I’m bringing that with me.” Eventually, Melena wants to pursue a Ph.D. in international relations.

For Kojo Wallace, 22, growing up in Ghana provided the inspiration he needed to succeed academically. At a prestigious boarding school in Takoradi, Ghana’s third largest city, he found his passion in the natural sciences.

Kojo

When he emigrated to New York in 2006, Wallace attended Bronx Community College (BCC) where he majored in the liberal arts and biology, and aligned himself with a biology professor who acted as a mentor. “The people that were there for me taught me a lot and gave me a drive to do better,” Wallace said.

Inspired by his studies, Wallace rose to Phi Beta Kappa President at BCC, and was nominated and won the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. When he finishes a summer internship with Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, New York, Wallace is heading to Cornell University; where he hopes to graduate with a degree in biological sciences in 2010.

“I’m excited about what I’ve accomplished,” Wallace said, who dreams of becoming a doctor. “It’s been a lot and given me the drive to do even more. I’m very grateful for this scholarship.”

By ROB SGOBBO