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DOE Close to Finalizing Plans for New Building

December 8, 2009

NEXT SEPTEMBER, PS 204, AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ON WEST 174TH STREET, WILL LIKELY TAKE OVER THIS NEW BUILDING ON UNIVERSITY AVENUE AT WEST TREMONT AVENUE (Photo: J. Fergusson)

NEXT SEPTEMBER, PS 204, AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ON WEST 174TH STREET, WILL LIKELY TAKE OVER THIS NEW BUILDING ON UNIVERSITY AVENUE AT WEST TREMONT AVENUE (Photo: J. Fergusson)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Two hundred people attended a raucous public meeting on Nov. 12, to discuss the future of PS/IS 338, a new school building going up at 1780 University Ave.

Perhaps 90 percent of those present were teachers, parents, and students from PS 204. Their current building, a former synagogue at 108 W. 174th St. not far from the Harlem River, lacks many of the amenities some schools take for granted. There’s no gym, no playground, and no library, and teachers complain of plumbing problems.

“We find this [our current situation] unacceptable, we hope you find this unacceptable,” science teacher Bill Geelan, told the panel, which included Department of Education officials, State Sen. Jose M. Serrano, Assemblymember Vanessa Gibson, and Deputy Bronx Borough President Aurelia Greene. “We are here tonight to say please consider us for the new building.”

The message seems to have gotten through.

“It is our intent to propose moving PS 204 into that building,” said Will Havemann, a DOE spokesman, in a telephone interview last week. A hearing will be held in January, Havemann added, after which the proposal will be voted on by the DOE’s Panel for Educational Policy.

In a follow-up e-mail, Havemann said the planned move was “in response to feedback from the community.”  He added: “PS 204 is an excellent elementary school, and we expect it to continue to thrive as it moves into a brand new facility.”

Initially, teachers at the school had worried that students’ academic success would hinder their chances of relocating to the new building. “My fear as an educator is that the Department of Education is saying, ‘Their test scores are fine, they are not a priority.’ We feel we’re ignored because we do well,” Geelan previously told the Mount Hope Monitor.

If the move does go through, PS 204′s student body will almost double in size. The new school can accommodate 642 students, which includes a 60-seat District 75 program for special needs students. At present, PS 204 has 326 students.

According to Havemann, PS 204′s current building – the former synagogue – will remain in DOE hands. “We will continue to use PS 204′s current facility once the school moves out, and we are currently in the process of drafting our proposal for how best to do so,” Havemann said.

He said the proposal would include plans to address some of the issues parents and teachers have raised about the building.

University Ave. Residents Demand Building Repairs; Tenants Say New Landlord is Indifferent to Their Suffering

December 4, 2009

ON NOV. 19 TENANTS HELD A PROTEST OUTSIDE DIME SAVINGS BANK IN SOUNDVIEW, WHERE THE BUILDINGS’ MORTGAGE IS HELD (Photo: A. Chan)

ON NOV. 19 TENANTS HELD A PROTEST OUTSIDE DIME SAVINGS BANK IN SOUNDVIEW, WHERE THE BUILDINGS’ MORTGAGE IS HELD (Photo: A. Chan)

By DELLA HASSELLE

In the room where Luis Correa’s six children sleep, black mold creeps along the walls, and frigid air blows in through broken windows. Throughout the house, the linoleum floors buckle under the weight of footsteps. Exposed electrical wires in the living room spark if the air gets too damp. The stove doesn’t work. Neither does the heat, hot water, or bathtub drain. Last winter, Correa, 33, slept in his coat for two weeks when his apartment got so cold that the ceilings cracked and icicles hung over his bed.

“It’s horrible. I had to come back to this,” Correa said, about being raised in the building and returning to it after being laid off in Florida last year. “Before my children had freedom, grass, now this… it’s not fair to them.”

Correa’s building at 1640 University Ave., and the adjoining one, 1636 University Ave., were put in the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program in November, which pressures landlords of the city’s 200 worst buildings to address housing code violations. They are among the six Bronx buildings Hunter Property Management real estate investor Sam Suzuki purchased in May for $13 million.

In a desperate attempt to draw attention to the buildings’ 3,000 violations, members of Urban Homestead Association Board (UHAB), a not-for-profit organizing group, met with angry tenants on Nov. 19 to protest outside Dime Savings Bank on Turnbull Avenue in Soundview, where the buildings’ mortgage is held. The protesters carried signs that showed some of worst violations, including collapsing ceilings, busted windows, and front doors with no locks.

“We are all fighting for security. There’s no lock in here at all. Anyone can walk in,” said tenant Alfredo Gonzalez, who lives at 1585 E. 172nd Street, another Hunter Property Management building. “We’re humans and we pay rent and we have a right to services.”

Many of the protestors claim the landlord is attempting to force them out in order to bring in new tenants and charge higher rates. Some tenants have received eviction notices after withholding rent in an attempt to force Suzuki to do repairs.

The six buildings have had a history of ownership problems – the previous landlord, Ocelot Capital Group, a private equity company notorious for mismanagement, abandoned them last year.

Kerri White, senior organizer at the UHAB, said that her organization is working with these tenants to force bank intervention to protect them from a negligent landlord. White says that these buildings are in danger of going into foreclosure.

“When you look at the conditions in the buildings, you can’t help but be moved by it because it’s criminal,” White said. “It’s absolutely criminal.”

Predatory management practices have been increasing in New York since the 1990s, said Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, an affordable housing advocacy group.

“Even though the building may be in bad condition, there are landlords who are willing to speculate,” Dulchin said. “They buy the building, bring the rent up.”

The rents cannot support the buildings’ mortgage because the amount Suzuki paid was too high, according to Urban Homestead.

Suzuki says he bought the properties at market value. The tenants who received eviction notices haven’t paid rent in years, he said, and the protests will not stop them from being evicted.

Suzuki acknowledged that he has not fixed all of the violations that incurred under previous management. “You can’t fix 3,000 violations in one day,” he said.

Dina Levy, UHAB’s policy director, said that Suzuki’s response to the tenants organizing and withholding rent is unusually aggressive, and they have encouraged renters to take him to court.

“We advise them to put rent into an escrow account,” Levy said. “Honestly, they shouldn’t have to pay because they’re not getting any services.”

Suzuki disagrees.

“I think UHAB is a bunch of communists,” he said. “They have a huge lawsuit coming their way.”

Additional reporting by Amanda Chan and Kim Velsey.

Doctors Calm Swine Flu Vaccine Fears

December 4, 2009

MORRIS HEIGHTS HEALTH CENTER DOCTORS HOSTED A COMMUNITY MEETING IN NOVEMBER TO EDUCATE LOCAL RESIDENTS ABOUT THE SWINE FLU VACCINE (Photo: R. Thomas)

MORRIS HEIGHTS HEALTH CENTER DOCTORS HOSTED A COMMUNITY MEETING IN NOVEMBER TO EDUCATE LOCAL RESIDENTS ABOUT THE SWINE FLU VACCINE (Photo: R. Thomas)

By REBECCA THOMAS

Will the swine flu vaccination paralyze me? Will it give me seizures? Isn’t it dangerous to have it in the same arm as the seasonal flu shot? These were among the myths about the H1N1 vaccine that doctors from Morris Heights Health Center tried to dispel at an information meeting about the virus at Davidson Community Center on Nov. 20.

Health advocates at the meeting worried that misinformation about the vaccine would deter people from getting it, undermining the city’s drive to get susceptible populations vaccinated before the new year.

“There is a lot of skepticism about how safe [the vaccination] is, but it is the safest option we have,” said Dr. Akinolo Fisher, MHHC’s deputy chief medical director.

H1N1 is a lung infection, like the seasonal flu. Its symptoms are similar – headaches, coughs, runny noses, chills and fatigue – but can include vomiting and diarrhea. Unlike the seasonal flu, which typically affects those over 65 most severely, H1N1 primarily affects younger people.

Current New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene policy advises vaccinations for anyone under 24 and those with underlying health problems such as asthma, diabetes, high-blood pressure, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS. These groups are either particularly prone to infection with the H1N1 virus, or at risk of developing serious complications if they contract it.

Many local residents fall into the city’s high- risk categories. Eleven percent of the Central Bronx’s population has diabetes, 10 percent has asthma and 3 percent has HIV/AIDS, according to a 2006 health department report on the Central Bronx, an area that includes Morris Heights and Mount Hope. Forty-six percent of the area’s population is under 24, according to the same report.

Many at the meeting were unaware that chronic conditions made individuals a high priority for the vaccine. Instead some feared the vaccine would exacerbate existing health problems of those with pre-existing illnesses.

“I was worried. I didn’t want it,” Cindy Valentine, a Davidson Avenue resident who was at the Nov. 20 meeting said. She was afraid the vaccination would complicate the eye-sight and respiratory problems that are the result of her diabetes. “Now I have more information, it’s safe. I am going to get [the vaccination].”

The vaccine is safe – except for those with severe egg allergies, doctors reassured the audience. “The most common side-effect [for most people] is soreness in the arm,” Fisher pointed out.

At least a third of the Central Bronx’s residents use emergency departments as their primary health care providers because they have no health insurance, so the health department is especially keen to vaccinate the local population to prevent a rush on these services if there is an outbreak of the epidemic.

“Inoculating the community, specially those individuals at risk, protects the community and city at large,” said Jean Paul Roggiero, a Program Manager at the Primary Care Development Corporation, which coordinates the delivery of the vaccine through local health clinics, in a phone interview.

The 20 Nov. meeting was organized by MHHC in advance of a vaccination clinic that Saturday at their health center on Burnside Avenue. Supplies lasted and the vaccination went smoothly, officials said. More than 500 vaccinations were given, according to Maria Costino, the chief nursing officer.

New Name, New Headquarters for CAB

December 4, 2009

BRONXWORKS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR CAROLYN MCLAUGHLIN ANNOUCES THE NEW NAME (Photo: J. Fergusson)

BRONXWORKS' EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR CAROLYN MCLAUGHLIN ANNOUCES THE NEW NAME (Photo: J. Fergusson)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

The Citizens Advice Bureau has a new name: BronxWorks. The name was announced at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 13 for the organization’s brand new administrative headquarters at 64 East Tremont Ave.

According to staff, “BronxWorks” better reflects what they now do. Citizens aren’t the only people they help, said Executive Director Carolyn McLaughlin, and they don’t just offer advice.

Plus, the old name had a habit of perplexing the general public. On more than one occasion, people have confused the acronym CAB with a livery service, said Ken Small, CAB’s development director.

The new name also gets across that fact that they’re Bronx-based, and serve Bronx residents.

CAB opened its first office in 1972. Today, they have more than 25 locations in the borough, and provide services to nearly 40,000 people a year, among them immigrants, seniors, the homeless, and people with HIV/AIDS.

‘Day of Outrage’ Shines a Light on Gun Violence

December 4, 2009

BRONX BOROUGH PRESIDENT RUBEN DIAZ, JR. HOSTED A CANDLELIT VIGIL AT THE BRONX COUNTY COURTHOUSE LAST MONTH, TO REMEMBER VICTIMS OF GUN VILOLENCE, AND TO DEMAND AN END TO THE KILLING (Photo: A. Watkins)

RUBEN DIAZ, JR. HOSTED A CANDLELIT VIGIL AT THE BRONX COUNTY COURTHOUSE LAST MONTH, TO REMEMBER VICTIMS OF GUN VILOLENCE, AND TO DEMAND AN END TO THE KILLING (Photo: A. Watkins)

By CALVIN SNYDER

One by one, six tearful mothers and fathers stepped up to a podium on Nov. 23 in a candlelit room at the Bronx County Courthouse. With trembling voices, they told the crowd about their murdered children.

The vigil, hosted by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., was part of the National Day of Outrage, a campaign against gun violence organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Similar events were held in more than 20 cities across the country, including an afternoon rally in Times Square.

In the Bronx, in an elegant room with marble floors, the dead children’s parents stood together, surrounded by teenagers holding placards inscribed with the names of murder victims. Nearly everyone in the crowd of hundreds held a small white candle.

David Pacheco Sr. recalled the Easter Sunday in 2006 when a stray bullet killed his 2-year-old son, David Pacheco Jr., as he sat in the backseat of his family’s minivan. The vehicle was passing through Morris Heights when it was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight on West Tremont Avenue at Harrison Avenue.

Bernard Smith spoke of the August night in 2000 when he lost his 19-year-old son. He was at home in Morrisania when he heard five gunshots and went to check the beds of his children. One was empty. Then the phone started ringing and there was a banging at the front door.

Yvette Montanez mourned her 25-year-old daughter, Aisha Santiago, who was killed in Mott Haven by a stray bullet in September. “I struggle to get up in the morning to go to work,” she said. “I have problems sleeping because I still see her body laying there, covered with the white sheet and the blood and her hand with the black nail polish.”

At the vigil, members of the clergy, teenagers, activists, artists and politicians railed against numerous factors they say contribute to the killings – a culture of violence, lax gun control laws, poor parenting, video games, a lack of male role models. They called for stricter gun regulation, more community involvement and better communication between parents and children.

“It is a complicated issue,” Diaz Jr. said.

Murders in the Bronx are down from last year, and have fallen drastically over the past two decades. As of Nov. 29, there had been 98 murders in the Bronx this year. At the same time last year, there had been 121 murders, according to police statistics.

But for those concerned about gun violence, the drop, though welcome, is not enough to allay their concerns. In the Bronx, stray bullets have killed or seriously injured at least three people in the past three months. Aisha Santiago, 25, was killed in front of her 9-year-old son in September. In October, Sadie Mitchell, 92, was watching television at home when she was struck and killed by a bullet that came through her window. And 15-year-old Vada Vasquez is recovering after she was shot in the head on Nov. 16.

When Diaz Jr. asked how many people had lost relatives to gun violence, more than 20 people rose from their seats.

“We need to support each other,” said Diana Rodriguez, sobbing as she stood at the podium. Her daughter, Samantha Guzman, was killed on Mother’s Day three years ago. “We need to support these events the way we support the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the Yankee Parade,” she said, as people in the crowd voiced their agreement. “We need to support this because our children are dying.”

Despite the somber occasion, several speakers – including teens from local youth organizations – emphasized that good things were also happening, that every kid was not in a gang, that there were reasons to have hope for a safer place to live.

Diaz Jr., standing with dozens of teenagers, announced the creation of a youth council. “Many young folks don’t realize the wealth of knowledge that they have,” he said. “We’re going to get them together. They’re going to give me instructions. They’re going to give me ideas.”

He praised the many young people in the Bronx doing positive things.

“They could be anywhere today but they’re with us here,” he said, gesturing around him. “They are not gang banging, they are not out there committing murder. They are our future.”