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Local Church Looks to Rebuild After Blaze

September 2, 2010

Fire

THE CHURCH SUFFERED SUBSTANTIAL DAMAGE (PHOTOS: A. WATKINS)

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Parishioners at Love Gospel Assembly say their spirits are high, despite a four-alarm fire that destroyed much of their building in July.

Bishop Ronald Bailey says the disaster, which rendered their beloved church at 2323 Grand Concourse unusable, has also had a galvanizing effect on the congregation. It’s brought the parish closer together, he says, and has strengthened them spiritually.

“The building’s burnt down, but the church is on fire,” he explained, speaking metaphorically. “It’s been like a wakeup call. Sometimes tragedies, within themselves, they get us riveted again.”

The blaze broke out at the parish around 1:30 a.m. on July 25, prompting over a hundred firefighters to the scene. No one was in the building at the time, Bailey said. Fire Department spokesman Steve Ritea said the fire was deemed an accident caused by “carelessly discarded smoking materials,” on the second floor, possibly a leftover cigarette or cigar.

Damage was extensive, wrecking everything from the church’s roof, to its balcony, to the brand new stoves in the kitchen, where the parish cooked for its food pantry program.

Since then, Bailey and his congregation have moved their services to a church on East 169th Street, and insist that the misfortune has only made them stronger. “We’ve been having some of the best services we’ve ever had,” he said.

They have also been raising money to rebuild, launching “Operation Restoration,” which hosted a fund-raiser event at Lehman College on Aug. 21.

So far, Love Gospel has raised about $150,000, Bailey said. State Senators Pedro Espada, Jr. and John Sampson gave the church a $100,000 check to help rebuild the food pantry kitchen, money that came from state capitol funds, according to an Espada spokesman.

FIRE 2

BISHOP RONALD BAILEY TALKS TO THE MEDIA THE MORNING OF THE FIRE

Due to the extent of the fire’s damage, Bailey estimates that they still have a lot more fund-raising to do. He doesn’t have a time frame for when the building will be useable again but says he doubts much progress will be made before the year’s end. “We have a ways to go,” he explained.

Workers are hoping to get the church’s food pantry program up and running again by refurbishing a smaller kitchen in a building adjacent to the church, which they also own. However, it will be while before the church’s large congregation, which workers estimate is about 800 to 1,200 people, will be back in its original building.

But Parishioner Jacqueline King said she’s certain Love Gospel will rebound from the tragedy. “I’m sad that we lost our home,” she said. “But I know we’ll have a bigger and better one.”

Editor’s Note: Donations to Love Gospel Assembly’s “Operation Restoration,” can be sent to 2435 Grand Concourse, 2nd Floor, Bronx NY 10468. Church services are currently taking place at Walker Memorial Baptist Church at 120 E. 169th St., on Fridays from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Sundays from 12:30 to 2:15 p.m. Visit www.lgabronx.com for more details.

Q & A: Cheryl Murray-Francis

September 2, 2010

CHERYL MURRAY-FRANCIS (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

Cheryl Murray-Francis is the president of the West Bronx Neighborhood Association, a new volunteer-led community organization.

What’s your day job?

I’m currently the administrative manager at Columbia University’s School of Nursing in the office of the dean. I’ve been at Columbia 24 years.

Where do you live?

At 1889 Sedgwick Ave. I’ve lived here for 14 years, and am currently the president of the tenants association. Before that I lived in River Park
Towers. I’ve been in the neighborhood for 30 years.

Why did you decide to create the West Bronx Neighborhood Association?

Part of the reason was that it would bring people together. Though we all live not that far from each other, we’re just not aware of what’s going on [in all parts of the neighborhood]. Some of us don’t even know who our next door neighbors are. We’re just trying to find a way to be more cohesive and come together. So this is the beginning. We want to have a decent community, and a good way of life, so our children can feel safe, so we can feel safe.

When was it founded?

Back in March, but we’ve been meeting [as a group] since last year. We have a board of directors, with about 13 members. Brandy Cochrane, from Friends of the Woods [an organization working to transform University Woods, a local park], is working on getting us non-profit status.

Who’s involved?

People from this building [1889 Sedgwick Ave.], and buildings on Undercliff, Cedar, elsewhere on Sedgwick, and River Park Towers. We’re trying to invite as many people as possible. We put up flyers, send out notices. Everybody’s invited to come meet their neighbors and talk about the issues.

What exactly does the organization do?

We have monthly meetings [in the community room of 1889 Sedgwick Ave.] where local residents talk about problems in the community and ways to address them. We also invite elected officials. Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson has been here, so has Aurelia Greene [the deputy borough president], the police, someone from the DA’s office, and Special Narcotics. We have a woman coming in to talk about parenting. I’m trying to find someone to come in and talk about wills. [Away from the meetings] we were part of the Harlem River Festival in July, and we want to do things for youth and seniors. We also collect cans of foods at each meeting which we donate to a local soup kitchen or church.

So what are the main issues in the community?

Car crime, shootings, drugs. When you don’t have jobs available, or job training programs, what’s the biggest income in the neighborhood – it is the drugs. Until those kinds of things change and people start to look at us – community people who are interested in preserving the community and going to work every day – as someone to emulate, how can things change? Also, there was a time when a lot of activities happened in the Roberto Clemente State Park. But funds were taken away, and a lot of the activities [basketball, pool, chess, ping-pong, fitness classes, art classes] that bought a lot of us together were discontinued. The fact that there is a pool is a good thing, but it’s been closed for the past two years [because of renovations].

Did you know that there used to be another West Bronx Neighborhood Association? It was founded by former State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, who used it to funnel state money back into his own pockets. [Gonzalez is now in jail].

You’re kidding! I didn’t know that. We’re just trying to make some positive changes. It’s not easy because people are used to business as usual. When they hear about a new organization and people coming together, they think it’s going to be the same kind of thing. We really want to be proactive.

The West Bronx Neighborhood Association meets once a month, usually in the community room of 1889 Sedgwick Ave. on the fourth Thursday of the month. The next meeting is on Sept. 23. It starts at 7 p.m. For information, e-mail cmurrayfrancis@yahoo.com.

Interview by JAMES FERGUSSON

Tenants in Rundown Creston Ave. Building Demand Repairs

September 2, 2010

 

VIDEO: STANDING IN HER LIVING ROOM, VANESSA SANTIAGO DESCRIBES CONDITIONS INSIDE HER APARTMENT

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Creston Avenue resident Vanessa Santiago fought back tears as she spoke to reporters and local politicians on about the litany of problems inside her basement apartment.

When it rains, she said, water seeps under her front door and into the living room, meaning she can’t have furniture. There are holes in the walls and ceilings, she continued, and mice, cockroaches and other bugs are a common sight for her, her husband, and her five kids. Her toilet doesn’t work properly, neither do the faucets in the bathroom sink, and most of the electrical sockets in the two-bedroom apartment are broken. The list goes on.

“My kids cannot keep living like this,” Santiago sobbed.

Making matters worse, her apartment – and the 32 other units in the building – have been without cooking gas since June.

Tenants recently began meeting with organizers from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Last night, tenants and organizers hung banners (“SAVE OUR HOMES” “OUR CHILDREN ARE SICK” “HPD WHERE R U?) from the fire escapes, and held a press conference to on Aug. 18 to bring attention to their plight.

The building, at 2229 Creston Ave. in South Fordham, has 293 housing violations, and is among the most dilapidated properties in the city, according to a new website (www.advocate.nyc.gov/landlord-watchlist) launched by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

Tenants say the landlord, Treetop Management, a real estate company in New Jersey which uses the name 2229 Creston Partners LLC for the Creston building, has consistently failed to maintain the apartments, and that HPD is also at fault. HPD has made $35,000 worth of emergency repairs over the past few years, but the building remains in terrible shape.

Maria Ramos, a first floor tenant, has a huge hole in her kitchen ceiling, after workmen visited in June to inspect the apartment’s gas fixtures. Problem is, they never returned to repair it, and now rats are sneaking in. In her living room a plastic tub collects murky water dripping from another hole in the ceiling, where a lightbulb would normally be. In her bathroom the toilet no longer flushes.

“We’re human beings, not animals,” Ramos said.

After touring several apartments, Assemblyman Nelson Castro described the conditions as “really horrible.” The building “needs to be repaired ASAP,” he said.

Castro said his office has reached out to HPD and has tried, without success, to contact the landlord. (The Monitor, also, was unable to immediately reach the landlord.)

As they continue to wait for repairs, tenants are considering their next steps. If help doesn’t come soon, Santiago said, she and her family are heading to a homeless shelter.

Other tenants are considering a rent strike, a tenant organizer said.

Speaking on Sept. 1, HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said the landlord had recently hired a contractor to replace the gas pipes. “Every indication is that the landlord is taking steps to fix the gas situation,” he said.

VIDEO: JOSE SANTIAGO, VANESSA’S HUSBAND, IN THE FAMILY’S BATHROOM

Local Credit Union Receives Award

September 2, 2010

Bethex Federal Credit Union, a non-profit financial intuition which provides low-interest loans and other financial services to thousands of local residents, has been honored with a Louise Herring Award by the Credit Union Association of New York.

The state-wide competition recognized credits unions which successfully adhere to the “people helping people” philosophy, the hallmark of the credit union movement. Bethex won second place in the under $50 million in assets category.

Bethex was founded in 1970 by Joy Cousminer, who saw that low-income women often relied on pawn shops and loan-sharks. Cousminer continues to serve as the president and CEO.

The organization is located at 20 E. 179th St. For more information, visit www.bethexfcu.org or call (718) 299-9100.