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Sierra Looking to End Foster Family’s Stranglehold on 16th District

September 12, 2009



If elected, Carlos Sierra says one of his goals is to be visible in the community.

“The first thing that you need to do as a city council person is to walk around the neighborhood,” he said recently, during an interview at his campaign office on Jerome Avenue. That way, the people get to know him, and him the people.

He may be pitted against an incumbent with strong family ties and years of experience, but Sierra, 32, says he’s confident, and insists he has the necessary leadership experience to ably represent the district, which covers the south west Bronx.

Sierra grew up in the Dominican Republic and came to New York with his father when he was 13. He dropped out of high school, but went on to earn his GED at a Job Corps in Kansas, following a move there. At the Job Corp, Sierra was student government vice-president, giving him his first taste of leadership. He said he got involved because he wanted to help out – the same reason he’s running now.

When Sierra returned to New York he attended Bronx Community College and Lehman College, where he studied art and political science. At Lehman he was elected chairman of CUNY’s University State Senate and became a member of the CUNY Board of Trustees.  

Later he was appointed chairman of the Bronx Department of Youth and Community Development for Neighborhood Youth Advisory Board 4. He’s also a Community Board 4 board member and the president of a tenants association.

To make ends meet, Sierra, atdifferent times, has taken jobs as a grocer and a cab driver. Currently, he works for the CUNY Citizenship and Immigration Project.

With Council member Helen Diane Foster running for a third term in office, Sierra says District 16 is in dire need of new leadership and more options on the table. He points out that it was against the will of the people for Council members – including Foster – to override term-limits, which has allowed two-term incumbents to seek reelection. He’s also criticized Foster for having a poor attendance record at Council meetings and hearings, and for not playing an active role in the community.

“Our Voices are not being heard!!” Sierra declares on his campaign Web site. “It’s time we elect a full-time Council member.”

Sierra’s quest for change is synonymous with President Obama’s campaign theme last year.

“After I saw the momentum that was being built with the race of Clinton and Obama, I got more politically involved and became more [motivated] to continue with my agenda to become the new city council member,” Sierra said. “Obama inspired me to continue on the path.”

Sierra’s platform includes education reform. He wants more resources and funds to help support students in higher education. And he plans to conduct town hall meetings to help educate and inform the community.

Last month, Sierra attended a protest near the Yankee Stadiums to demand that the Highbridge community receive the jobs, parks, and money promised to them by the city, in compensation for the new stadium being built in Macombs Dam Park.  

Being vocal and open about such demands won’t stop if he’s elected, Sierra said. ”That’s what I love to do. To be out there. Advocating on behalf of the community.”

The primary is on Sept. 15.



Foster Proud of Her ‘Independent Voice’

September 12, 2009



For the last 30 years, the 16th District City Council seat has belonged to one family: the Fosters.

Rev. Wendell Foster, now in his mid-80s, represented the district from 1978 through 2001, when he was forced to step down because of term limits. His daughter, Helen Diane Foster, a former lawyer, succeeded him. Now she’s seeking another four years in office.

Foster is up against Carlos Sierra, a 32-year-old community activist of Dominican origin, who looks to have his work cut out: Foster is being supported by the Bronx Democratic Party and most of the bigger unions.

Foster says Sierra “appears to be a nice young man” but that she remains the best person for the job, because of the funds and services she’s been able to bring into the district, and because of what she calls her “independent voice.”

Foster prides herself on standing up for what she believes – no matter who she offends. She slammed the NYPD in the wake of the Sean Bell killing in Queens in 2006; she’s been heavily critical of government agencies, including the city’s Department of Education, for being too “white”; and she was the only Bronx Council member to vote against the building of the new Yankee Stadium, because she believed the community was being sold out.

The ballpark was built regardless, but Foster feels her “no” vote helped keep the project in the public eye.

Still, many of her original fears have been realized.  The old stadium is still standing and most of the replacement parks promised to the community (the new stadium gobbled up acres and acres of parkland) have yet to be built.

“I think that is says a lot about city and the current [Mayor Bloomberg} administration that they can work with the richest team in the United States… to get a stadium built in an area where the medium income is maybe $18,000 for a family of four,” said Foster recently. “And you can’t get potholes or schools repaired that quickly!  What is the message that we’re sending to our children?” 

Kathryn Speller, a longtime Morris Heights resident who has known the councilwoman for many years, said Foster’s outspokenness is what the district needs. “I admire her for that,” Speller said.

Foster sees herself as a watchdog of sorts.  ”The biggest thing that a council member can do is be present and be aware of legislation, policies and regulations, that come from an administration and agencies that are so disconnected from how the majority of my constituents live,” she said.  

But when it comes to showing up for work, how present has Foster been? From January 2006 through January 2009, she had one of the worst attendance records of any council member at Council meetings and hearings. And her critics – including Sierra – say she’s rarely seen in the community.  Moreover, over the last eight years, she’s been anything but a prolific legislator. She’s the primary sponsor of just two bills that have been passed into law.

Foster told the Gotham Gazette that she often has to choose between staying in her district to address constituent concerns, or travelling down to City Hall for meetings. Often the first choice is her priority, she says, which explains her attendance record. 

Foster attended Howard University in Washington D. C. and later CUNY Law School.  Upon graduating, she embarked on a career as an assistant district attorney for the Manhattan District Attorney.  Later she worked in legal affairs for St. Barnabas Hospital.

“I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been provided the educational background that I could do lots of things, and I’m not in the position of running for reelection because there’s nothing else I can do,” she said.

This enables her to speak up and speak out, she says, adding, “My only commitment is to the people.”

The primary is on Sept. 15.


Ten Morris Heights Buildings to be Restored

September 5, 2009

 1601 University Avenue

The boards are coming off.

Ten run-down and vacant apartment buildings in Morris Heights will receive gut renovations this fall.    

New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Developmemt (HUD) to bring in two developers, Arista and Bronx Pro Real Estate, to restore the buildings, totaling 463 apartments.

Arista will develop six buildings and Bronx Pro will develop four. All are rentals.

Bronx Pro’s signature light green fire escapes and scripture lined entranceways were inspired by their work ethic, “With God, all things are possible,” an adage that “shepherds us through projects,” said project manager Samantha Magistro, the daughter of Bronx Pro founders, Peter and Margaret Magistro. The motto comes in handy considering the decrepit condition of the buildings, which were vacated and boarded up last year. (Former tenants will be allowed to return, if they so choose.)

The apartments will be geared towards attracting families of four earning $69,100 or less and single households earning $48,300 or less, said Samantha. The units being developed by Arista will be available for individuals and families earning between $26,000-$60,000, according to Chris Cranwell of Arista.

Xavier Rodriguez, the District Manager for Community Board 5, said the project will bring a diversity of income levels to the area, which is good for the local economy.  

Added Samantha Magistro: “It brings underutilized housing back into circulation… we have such a housing shortage in the city,”

Rodriguez, who is familiar with Bronx Pro (past projects include the renovation of several buildings on University Avenue), praised them for the high caliber of their work. “The amenities, the affordable housing… Bronx Pro is giving tenants the best quality that they can receive” he said.

Arista said they too would be providing superior housing. “It’s condominium or co-op quality but at an affordable rate,” Cranwell said.



Two developers, Bronx Pro Real Estate and Arista, are about to transform these boarded up apartment buildings: 1601 University Ave., 1472 Montgomery Ave., 1665 Andrews Ave., 120 W. 176th St., 74 W. 174th St., 65 Featherbed Lane, 135 W. 175th St., 1660 Andrews Ave., 1705 Andrews Ave., and 1473-75 Popham Ave.

Local Street Now Carries Pastor’s Name

September 5, 2009

Jessie Woodhouse

A local block has been renamed Reverend Jessie Woodhouse Place in honor of Jessie L. Woodhouse, a popular Bronx pastor who died in January 2008, at age 99.

The block, on Bush Street at the Grand Concourse (just south of East Burnside Avenue), is home to The First Bible Church of the Lord’s Mission, and it was here that Woodhouse served for the last few decades of her life.

On Aug. 22, more than 100 local residents and congregants piled into the tiny church for a remembrance service, punctuated by many a Hallelujah and Praise Jesus.  Afterwards, the street sign itself was unveiled.

Woodhouse didn’t just talk love, she demonstrated love, those who knew her said. She ran a food pantry, established a bible school, visited the sick and infirm, and did missionary work in Israel, Nigeria, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. She was also an avid poet, and a lover of children and nature. 

“She was such a wonderful person to the neighborhood,” said James A. McGraw, the church’s current pastor, who worked with Woodhouse for nearly 40 years.

Council member Maria Baez, who submitted the renaming request to the City Council, said the new street name would serve as a constant reminder of Woodhouse’s contribution to her congregation and the wider community.


Editor’s Note: See here for more on Woodhouse and her long and busy life.

Bias Crimes Concern Police, Politicians

September 5, 2009

Espada and Castro

State Senator Pedro Espada, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, and others, held a press conference on Walton Avenue at East 182nd Street on Sept. 2, to bring attention to a spate of vicious assaults in the neighborhood.

Police say a group of men of Dominican origin have been deliberately targeting Mexican immigrants. On Saturday, Aug. 29, the group allegedly shouted anti-Mexican slurs at two men before attacking them. Another man was assaulted that Sunday in similar circumstances, and another on Monday. At least one of the victims was stabbed. So far, only one arrest has been made. 

“Obviously these are hate crimes we are dealing with,” said Espada, the Senate’s majority leader. “There is a tidal wave of hate crime against immigrants in the Bronx, in New York City, in New York State, and throughout this country.”

He said he’s offering a $1,000 reward – “my personal money” – to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved.  He also talked about setting up a “task force” involving clergy, community leaders, youth, and police, to help correct the perception some people have of immigrants.

“Our Mexican brothers and sisters have earned the right to be respected and to be protected in their homes and in their community,” added Rev. Katrina Foster, pastor of nearby Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church. “They have come here to contribute and not to take away.”

Angelo Cabrera of the Mexican-American Students Alliance (MASA) said people shouldn’t be afraid of reporting crimes to the police, even if those involved are undocumented.



Veteran Candidate Tapia Has Eyes on Council

September 5, 2009


It’s 7:25 a.m. on a recent Thursday, and Yudelka Tapia is standing outside the 183rd Street subway stop on the 4 train, greeting sleepy commuters with a wide smile and a ready handshake.

“Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you,” she says to one man in quick, accented English. To another: “Buenos días. ¿Cómo está, señor?”

Around her, a handful of energetic volunteers, including her 16-year-old son, hand out flyers, and scribble down the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of registered voters they’ve managed to stop.

“People are longing for change,” says Tapia, during a lull in foot traffic.  “People have been longing for change for so many years.”

Later that morning, in her campaign office on the Grand Concourse, Tapia, 44, talked of a childhood spent in the Dominican Republic and the “strong” women who raised her – her mother, a grandmother, and various aunts. “They believed you can get anything you want if you work hard for it,” she said.

Beginning her Advocacy
In Santo Domingo, Tapia served as president of an organization dedicated to women’s education, and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She moved to New York in the late 1980s, and settled in the Bronx in an apartment not far from her current home on East 180th Street.

“When I got here I found that we still have the same problems that we have in my own country… education, social justice, domestic violence,” said Tapia, a mother of four boys. “And so I continued advocating.” 

As a stay-at-home mom, she helped her immediate neighbors fill out government forms and with translation. Later she began advocating for immigration reform, stronger rent control laws, and against domestic violence, by organizing events and attending demonstrations. She also fought for better schools by joining school leadership teams at several Bronx schools. 

Tapia believes her experiences living in, and fighting for the community give her an edge over her opponents, Fernando Cabrera and the incumbent, Councilwoman Maria Baez. “I can tell you how it is to go to Housing Court,” she said. “I can tell you what is to fight for a school, for your children, because I have. I can tell you what it is to live in one of the poorest districts and counties in the nation.”

Dipping Toes in Politics
In the mid-’90s, she began to dip her toes in the chaotic world of Bronx politics. She founded the Great Alliance Democratic Club which, by her own account, played an instrumental role in the election of several politicians, including Adolfo Carrion, who in 1997 became District 14′s Council member.

Tapia ran for School Board in 1999; Carrion’s old seat in 2001 (an election Baez won; Tapia didn’t even get on the ballot), and State Assembly in 2002 – all unsuccessfully. She was, however, elected as the State Committee Member for the 86th Assembly District, a position she held until last year, when she was voted out.

Tapia, who’s on unpaid leave from her current job as a senior auditor for the city, doesn’t hold back from criticizing her rivals. If Baez was too sick to attend mandatory Council meetings and hearings (Baez claims illness is the reason for her woeful attendance record) she should have stepped down, Tapia believes.

“I think that has prevented her from actually bringing more resources to the district,” said Tapia of Baez’s absenteeism. “If you’re not there for the discussion… how can you advocate for the people of your district?” 

But Tapia reserves most of her scorn for Cabrera, a pastor and college professor who is being supported by the Bronx Democratic Party, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and a plethora of powerful unions.

Vying With Cabrera
Cabrera is a Democrat who says he lives on Sedgwick Avenue with his wife and son. But until last summer he was a registered Republican living in Pelham, a leafy Westchester town devoid of many of the problems that plague the west Bronx. Tapia doesn’t want voters to forget that.

“You’re telling me you’ve been a Republican for 19 years, and you actually have a connection with the people of this district?” she said, incredulous. 

Cabrera’s supporters point out that Tapia supported Nelson Castro, himself a one-time Republican, for Assembly last fall. But Tapia says she stepped away from Castro when she found out about his past. 

Tapia’s campaign has experienced one or two hiccups of late.  

Last month, she had to be told by a reporter that her campaign manager, Onix Sosa, had taken a job as State Senator Pedro Espada’s deputy chief-of-staff. “I haven’t heard that from him,” she said, after a brief silence. She now has a new campaign manager.

Tapia has also had problems getting her hands on matching public funds from the city Campaign Finance Board. She says some documentation wasn’t submitted to the Board – hence the delay.  The much-needed money finally came through on Sept. 2. 

Haile Rivera, a community activist from University Heights (and one-time candidate in this race), said Tapia should be applauded for getting this far. “For me, anyone who makes the ballot, without the support of the Democratic establishment, you’ve got to commend that,” Rivera said.

He called Tapia a “trailblazer” in the Dominican-American community. If she wins, she’ll be the first Bronx Council member of Dominican origin.

Tapia insists her campaign is healthy: she has 200 to 300 volunteers working for her, and will be able to call on more come primary day. James Duarte, a recent graduate from TAPCo High School on Webster Avenue and a Tapia volunteer, said working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign last year inspired him to get involved politically on a local level. He said he looked at the three candidates and settled on Tapia. “I felt that Yudelka was more in touch with the needs of this community,” he said. “She’s one of us, I felt I could identify with her. She has a similar [life] story to a lot of people in this neighborhood.” 

Duarte said Cabrera, whom he’s met, offers few specifics – either in person or on his Web site – as to what he would do if elected.

Tapia, on the other hand, Duarte says, has come out with a detailed plan for preserving affordable housing; for ensuring the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment project benefits the community; and for improving the environment, among other things. 

Tapia says she’s serious about winning, and isn’t just making up the numbers.  And despite the relentless campaigning – the flyering, the phone calls, the door knocking – she looks like she’s enjoying herself.

“Everyone in this city is watching this race,” she said. 


Article first appeared in the Norwood News

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