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Nelson Castro Victorious

September 24, 2008

Nelson Nelson Castro, a candidate for Assembly in the 86th Assembly District, shook off recent revelations about his criminal record to defeat Mike Soto in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary.

If Castro wins the election in November, he will become the first Bronx Assemblymember of Dominican heritage. The seat was vacated in the summer by Luis Diaz, who has gone to work for New York Governor David Paterson. 

Castro, 40, is a former staffer of longtime Washington Heights Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat. He told the New York Times he moved to the Bronx three years ago and has been working with civic groups in University Heights. 

According to the Daily News, Castro pled guilty four years ago to accepting unemployment checks while working. In an interview with the Times, he said it’s an incident he’s put behind him, and that it shouldn’t disqualify him from taking office.

In the Nov. 4 election, Castro will face Conservative/Republican challenger Lisa Marie Campbell. It’s a race he’s is expected to win in what is a heavily Democratic district. (The district includes the west Bronx neighborhoods of Mount Hope, University Heights, and parts of Fordham and Morris Heights.)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Espada Wins Contentious Primary

September 23, 2008

In the Democratic primary on Sept. 9, Pedro Espada Jr., a Bronx businessman and a former state senator and councilman, defeated incumbent Efrain Gonzalez in the race for the 33rd State Senate District, which includes Mount Hope and most of the west Bronx.

Espada pulled in 4,615 votes to Gonzalez’s 3,128, giving him 60 percent of the vote. The result was somewhat of a shock: Gonzalez has been in office since 1989, and he was backed by the Bronx Democratic machine and its chairman, Jose Rivera.

Espada will now face Conservative challenger William Sullivan in the November election. Assuming he wins -and it would be a miracle if he doesn’t in what is a heavily Democratic district – Espada will take office in the new year.

In a telephone interview, Gonzalez, 60, refused to blame his defeat on his ongoing legal issues. (In 2006 he was charged with stealing more than $400,000 in state funds. His much delayed trial is due to begin next May.) “I came up short because of a lack of resources,” he said. “It was not about my leadership and it’s not about the indictment.”

Rivera said there were a number of reasons his man lost, including Espada’s wealth – he owns a slew of health centers in the Bronx, including Burnside Medical Center, and is said to have spent a small fortune on his campaign. “I call him the Puerto Rican Michael Bloomberg,” Rivera said.

Rivera also pointed to the bad press that’s haunted Gonzalez for the past two years. “It’s like he’s been found guilty before he’s gone to trial,” he said.

Gonzalez, it should be said, wasn’t the only candidate Rivera backed on Sept. 9 who lost. To say Rivera, whose leadership is being challenged by a group of Bronx politicians, had a bad night is an understatement.

“He has suffered the greatest loss in a primary of any [Bronx] Democratic Party leader in the last 30 years,” said Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, one of the so-called Rainbow Rebels. “There have been losses in the past, but not at this level, in one night, across the board, across the borough.”

(At a boisterous meeting at the Grand Concourse’s Utopia Paradise Theater on Sept. 28, the Bronx County Democratic Committee met to elect a new leader. Both the Rivera loyalists and the Rainbow Rebels, who are supporting Assemblyman Carl Heastie, declared victory. The decision is likely headed to court. For more on this, visit the West Bronx Blog at www.westbronxnews.blogspot.com.)

As Rivera’s power wanes, Espada’s is growing. In the run up to the primary, his campaign sent out a mountain of literature to debunk claims he’s a closet Republican. “Pedro is a great Democrat. He has never been a Republican,” said one.

Since the primary, however, he become coy, telling the New York Times that he doesn’t know what party he’ll align himself with when he takes office. If he ultimately sides with the Republicans, the Democrats may struggle to retake the Senate. The Daily News called him “The Most Popular Man in New York.”

And what of Gonzalez?

“I’m fine, I’m happy, I’m at peace,” he said. “I’ve nothing to be ashamed of, I’m proud of everything I’ve done.” Asked whether he’ll return to politics in the future, he said, “Never say never.”

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Bronx Girl Has a Beautiful Future

September 21, 2008

Tenth-grader Mercedes Knibbs received an unusual gift for her fifteenth birthday – a call from the magazine Elle Girl, informing her she’d won a competition to attend an all-expenses paid summer camp in Santa Monica, California. The weeklong camp, now in its fourth year, teaches young girls self-confidence, how to set and reach goals, and how to become the next generation of successful women. 

Mercedes, who lives in Richman Plaza in Morris Heights and goes to school at the Bronx Academy of Letters, found out about the camp on ELLEgirl.com. To apply, she submitted an essay on what beauty meant to her. She wrote, “True beauty is inside. You can look great but if you have a nasty attitude or are a mean person, it takes away from your beauty.”

Before arriving at “My Beauty Camp,” Mercedes worried about whether or not she would fit in with the diverse ages and backgrounds of the campers. But she learned that age and background didn’t matter. “They were cool people,” she said.

The trip was co-sponsored by Retin-A Micro Pump, an acne medication. Campers attended workshops addressing a range of adolescent issues such as skin-care health, fitness, and self-esteem. Mercedes’ favorite activities included learning how to cook and eat healthily, how to save for college, how to be patient and positive, and how to turn old clothes into new garments.

Mercedes especially enjoyed planning and discussing future goals. Next summer, she will be taking college level courses at the University of California at Berkeley and is considering applying there for college. Eventually, she hopes to become an author, to write poetry and novels. “Writing is everything to me,” she says.  

With all that Mercedes received and learned at camp, it appears she taught a few lessons herself. Camp Director Gabrielle Thomas said of Mercedes, “She was extremely generous and selfless. She was never the first to get in line for food but would wait for the other girls to go first.” 

Mercedes returned home just before the start of the new school year, eager to put all that she learned into practice. She has since formed an after school club called FLY (Females Leading Youth), whose members help and encourage other young women to engage in community service. 

By REBECCA CHAO

Leona Clardy Honored at Block Party

September 20, 2008

A block party was held on 179th Street between Walton and Morris avenues on Aug. 30, in memory of Leona Clardy, a beloved community activist who died in 2005.

Local residents turned out for food, dancing, and games. Children were give free school supplies, just in time for the new school year. The event was organized by Jamel Allah, president of Positive Seeds in Pelan, Inc, with support from Councilmember Maria Baez, local restaurants, and Mount Hope Housing Company staff.

Positive Seeds runs an after school program dedicated to keeping kids out of gangs, and at the party Allah spoke to the crowd about the dangers of gangs and guns and the importance of getting a good education.

He described Clardy, one of the founders of the Mount Hope Organization, the Housing Company’s parent organization, as a “no-nonsense woman” who made the neighborhood a better place to live.

“She knew how to get the people in the political arena to listen to the concerns and needs of the community,” he said.  Clardy was so respected that, following her death, a street was named after her. “Leona Clardy Way” is at 177th Street and Walton Avenue.

Allah said he and Clardy, who used to organize similar end-of-summer block parties, clicked through a shared a sense of duty towards the younger generation. “We would walk through the streets, and she would point out teenagers who appeared to be cutting class or causing mischief,” Allah said. Allah – no stranger to trouble in his younger days – would reach out to them, highlight common ground, and teach them the error of their ways.

Nelson Castro, who’s running for Assembly in the 86th Assembly District, was also at the block party. Allah said the two will sit down in the near future to talk about ways to combat gun violence. 

More than 300 people – mostly kids – showed up for the party. “It was nice to see children come together without tearing everything up,” Allah said, with a smile.

By ARIEL ELGHANAYAN

Carrion Remembers Bronx 9/11 Victims

September 10, 2008

Community leaders and family members of those who died on 9/11 gathered beneath the Memorial Plaque in the Bronx County Courthouse on Tuesday to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the attacks. Originally set for the steps of the Courthouse, the memorial service was driven inside by an unexpected downpour of rain.

After an invocation and prayer from Bishop Ronald Bailey, Bronx Borough Adolfo Carrion stepped through the ranks of the New York State Courts Ceremonial Unit to the podium, welcoming those gathered, and reminding them that they were here to both remember lives lost and ”to celebrate in song and thanks for each other’s commitments.”

9/11

Carrion said that Bronx residents who sacrificed their lives in 2001 were just “doing their duty as citizens, showing up for work, having faith they would return home that day.” In all, 143 Bronxites died in the attacks.

Carrion also spoke of America’s unity at such tragic times, noting that presidential nominees, Senators Obama and McCain, will jointly visit Ground Zero on Thursday. He stated, “We are not democrats or republicans. We are Americans first. We are one family.”

Sally Regenhard was next to speak.  Her son, Christian Regenhard, was a probationary firefighter for the New York City Fire Department who perished at the World Trade Center. He grew up in Co-op city in the Bronx and went to Bronx High School of Science.

Regenhard stressed the importance of looking forward, ”to turn a tragedy into something positive.” She founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a non-profit organization that advocates for construction reform and federal investigations into the fall of the World Trade Center towers.

Ilia Rodriguez also lost her son, Carlos “Rey” Lillo, a New York City Fire Department paramedic, on Sept. 11. She recalls a conversation she had with him when he first began work with the NYFD.  “I told him it was a dangerous job. He replied, ‘I know it’s dangerous. But I’m going to die someday and I would rather die doing what I love – saving people’s lives.”

Theresa Noel, who lost her 22-year-old son, Curtis, is still trying to make sense of the tragedy.  She was on the phone with him during the attacks and remembers that his last words were, “I’m okay.”  His body was never recovered.

Towards the end of the service, relatives of the victims and members of the Ceremonial Unit came forward to read the names of people from the Bronx who died in the attacks. “It still feels like yesterday,” Rodriguez said quietly.

In his closing statement, Carrion said, “We will never forget. We will never forget.”

By REBECCA CHAO

Bridge May Be Built Over Burnside

September 8, 2008

Xavier Rodriquez, Community Board 5′s district manager, is pushing for a pedestrian bridge to be built over West Burnside Avenue near Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard.

To some, it may seem a wacky idea. But photos taken circa 1920 show a bridge in this very spot. If you walk past today, you’ll see the remnants: huge hunks of grey stone on either side of the street.

This bridge would have supported the Old Croton Aqueduct, an 8-foot by 7-foot water tunnel that opened in 1842. The aqueduct, which transported fresh water from a dam in Westchester all the way to Manhattan, is considered one the great engineering feats of the 19th century.

By the 1950s, however, the city was relying on alternative water supplies. The aqueduct was closed for good in 1955, and at some stage, the bridge itself was demolished.

Rodriguez’ plans to restore the bridge, it should be said, have nothing to do with water, and all to do with green space and healthy living: the proposed project would involve clearing up a sliver of overgrown land that runs close to Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard (from West Burnside Avenue to Morton Playground, near West Tremont Avenue).

If it happens, a new “greenway” will be born, on which local residents can walk, run, and cycle. Potentially, this greenway could snake over the Harlem River into Manhattan, because the High Bridge, another link in the Old Croton Aqueduct, is currently being renovated.

It would be a “special experience,” to be able to walk the full 40 miles of the aqueduct without interruption, says Robert J. Kornfeld, of Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct.

In CB 5, which is largely bereft of green space, residents would welcome the new bridge and trail, says Rodriguez. “People wouldn’t have to navigate automobiles, and they’d be in a relatively clean and safe environment,” he said. “It would be terrific for us.”

Rodriguez has had the City College Architecture Center draw up a “Burnside Avenue GreenBridge Proposal.” The proposal touches on the history of the aqueduct, along with the type of bridges that could be built. Rodriguez says he’s sent details to the Department of Parks and Recreation so that they can “look at it, decide if it’s feasible, and put a dollar amount on it.”

According to Dana Driskell, the Department of City Planning liaison for CB 5, the GreenBridge plans are at a “very preliminary stage” and that budgets will have to be looked at. But he thinks it’s a great idea. “The main thing is we want to get the community involved,” he said.

By JAMES FERGUSSON

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