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Huge Drug Bust at River Park Towers

February 21, 2011

A grand jury indicted 22 alleged drug dealers from River Park Towers, a complex of high-rise apartment buildings at Richmond Plaza, on the Major Deegan Expressway in Morris Heights.

The defendants are charged with multiple counts of selling and possessing cocaine, heroin and marijuana, according to a press release from the Bronx District Attorney’s Office sent out Jan. 20.

The arrests were the result of an undercover investigation launched last June in response to an increase in shootings and other violent incidents at the Towers, according to the D.A.’s office.

“There have been people saying that there are a lot of drug sales,” said Leon Johnson, Tenants Association president. “We had a lot of people hanging out [outside], but that doesn’t necessarily point to the fact that they were selling drugs. I have to go by what the D.A. and Police Department say.”

Investigators said the deals primarily took place in a public courtyard shared by several of the apartment buildings, which they described as a “drug bazaar.”

The 22 people being charged, who range in age from 23 years old to 51 years old, sold drugs to undercover detectives more than 120 times, according to a statement.

Milbank Mess Inspires New Program

February 21, 2011

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Mayor Bloomberg (at lectern) at a press conference at Our Lady of Angels Church, announced the city’s new plan to identify problem housing locations. (Photo by J. Evelly)

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a new housing initiative this month, one largely inspired by the Milbank properties–the now infamous 10 neglected apartment buildings in the northwest Bronx that have been falling apart since foreclosure two years ago.

The mayor made the announcement Jan. 8 at Our Lady Of Angels Church, in Kingsbridge Heights, before a crowd of Milbank tenants and organizers from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, who have been fighting for almost a year to draw the city’s attention to the deteriorating buildings.

The new “Proactive Preservation” program will essentially allow the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to more aggressively identify and inspect distressed properties, intervening to make repairs if necessary, in the hopes of preventing another Milbank scenario from taking place.

“While the work our housing inspectors do is very good, it can sometimes be too little, too late, or both,” Bloomberg said.

HPD will glean data–like outstanding tax and water arrears, nearby foreclosures and notices from local officials and community groups–to flag trouble properties and then intervene to stabilize them. A newly formed 10-person “Proactive Enforcement Bureau” will perform “floor-to-cellar” inspections on buildings, according to a statement.

The mayor also proposed a plan for the City Council to grant the city the power to sell Emergency Repair Program liens that exist on a property to a third party collector, who would then be in charge of collecting on the debt—saving taxpayers from footing bills for emergency repairs and possibly giving landlords more incentive to make repairs themselves.

While this all sounds like good news, many Milbank tenants say they’re still frustrated by conditions in their own apartments.

“I’m very divided on what the mayor just said,” said Rev. Peter Silva, who lives in a Milbank building on Aqueduct Avenue. He called the city’s initiative “great” but said it did little to reassure him. “The building’s falling apart,” he said. “I understand they have a big job in front of them…but we’ve been in foreclosure for two years already. The tenants are the ones suffering.”

HPD said this fall that the city had already begun making emergency repairs on the most hazardous violations. The agency is still pressing LNR Property LLC, the servicer to the loan attached to the buildings, to sell them to a “responsible owner” (LNR was been looking to sell the buildings for months).

“How much longer will I have to live the way I’m living?” asked 72-year-old Gloria Thomas, who also lives in Milbank’s Aqueduct Avenue apartments, where tenants say they often go days without heat.

“I’ve been in this building for 31 years,” Thomas said. “It used to be a beautiful building.”

A Tropical Oasis Emerges In the Dead of Winter

February 21, 2011

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The New York Botanical Garden’s new Caribbean Garden exhibit runs through Feb. 27. (Photo by Haydee Camacho)

By HAYDEE CAMACHO

Weather forecasters were issuing yet another winter weather advisory on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But inside the Bronx’s New York Botanical Garden, a new Caribbean Garden exhibit provided welcome relief for winter-weary patrons.

Upon entering the main atrium of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, visitors are transported to a tropical oasis of towering palm trees and lush ferns.

“We have so many beautiful plants in our collection and so many grown in the Caribbean,” said Karen Daubman, the Garden’s director of exhibitions and seasonal Displays. “We wanted to highlight those plants. It’s so beautiful for people to stroll through and feel like they are on vacation.”

Visitors agree. “It’s fantastic,” said Marlene Ostertag, an avid gardener who was visiting with her daughter, Karen, a librarian. “There is a little too much snow piled up and having a place of tropical green in the middle of winter is fantastic.”
Near a fountain, Lisa Imundo watched as her 11-year-old daughter Francesca sketched.

“It’s like a little mini vacation,” she remarked. “It lifts the spirits to come in out of the ice and snow. It’s beautiful like summertime.”

The Caribbean Garden exhibition is an outgrowth of renovation work done in the conservatory from June through November. After the infrastructure work was done, the horticultural staff wanted to refresh the conservatory and brought out many of the plants in the Nolen Greenhouse, many of which were from the Caribbean, including the spectacular palm trees in the “Palm Court.”

A staff of five gardeners in the conservatory works hard to mimic the tropical atmosphere of the Caribbean by watering pathways and keeping the humidity level high, in addition to routine pruning of the plants. The plants and flowers are also labeled with their name and country of origin. Adding a unique touch to the exhibit, visitors also see many of the Caribbean’s most important food plants including banana plants, guava trees, vanilla plants, cacao trees, breadfruit, papaya, nutmeg, coffee, and mango trees.

Rachel Roat likened the exhibition to her recent Hawaiian vacation. “It feels wonderful,” she said. “I knew it would be warm in here. I feel like I am back on the islands.”

Ed. Note: The Caribbean Garden exhibition runs through Feb. 27 and admission prices through then have been slashed in half. Adults pay $10, students and seniors pay $9, children ages 2 to 12 pay $4, and children under 2 are free. Members can visit for free. Through March 4, the NYBG is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Gustavo Rivera Wants to Earn Your Trust

February 21, 2011

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State Sen. Gustavo Rivera at his swearing-in ceremony at Bronx Community College. (Photo by Jon Reznick)

By JEANMARIE EVELLY

Gustavo Rivera, a former political aide and adjunct professor from Kingsbridge Heights, was officially sworn in last month as the new senator for the 33rd State Senate District, which encompasses most of the northwest Bronx.

Rivera replaces Pedro Espada, Jr., whom he defeated in a much-publicized and widely watched primary election this fall. Espada was indicted on federal embezzlement and fraud charges last month.

“The most important thing for me is to make sure that my neighbors in the Bronx know that they have a different type of senator supporting them,” Rivera said in a recent phone interview, as he was driven back to the Bronx following his inauguration ceremony in Albany on Jan. 7.

The 34-year-old senator enters Albany amid a flurry of political activity and change. This month, fellow Bronx Senator Jeff Klein and three other Democratic senators left the party to form their own Independent caucus, largely in protest of Democratic Leader John Sampson.

Rivera said he respects Klein’s decision, but that he personally supports Sampson. “I have a good relationship with Jeff,” he explained, “[but] I was elected with a mandate of reform. The people of the Bronx want Albany to change, and I believe the best way to do that is to remain within the Democratic conference.”

The Democrats face an uphill battle this year, as they are once again the minority after this November’s general election saw the Republican Party win 32 seats, recapturing the majority they had in New York for decades.

“It’s certainly no secret that I have a lot of disagreement with them on policy issues,” Rivera, a self-described “progressive,” said of the Republicans. “We’ll work those out.”

Among his top priorities, Rivera said, is the formation of an independent panel to take on redistricting—the process of redrawing legislative district maps in the state, which takes place every 10 years based on Census figures and usually lies in the hands of the legislature in Albany. Whatever party happens to be in power can lay the groundwork for a victory in the next several elections by ensuring districts work to their party’s favor.

“We need independent redistricting,” Rivera said. “Governor Cuomo obviously believes that this is important, and I’m looking forward to getting to that.”

The freshman Senator said he’s spent the last few months assembling his staff, which will be somewhere between six and eight members. He’s also been looking to finalize a location for his district office, which he hopes to have operating by the end of the month, possibly on Fordham Road.

“I want to make sure I open up an office that makes me accessible,” Rivera said.

Rivera said he plans to work as a legislator full-time, relinquishing his gig as an adjunct college professor at Pace University, at least for now.

“I’m not teaching in the spring because I have a full plate,” he said. “I will be proactive,” he continued. “I want to visit every school in the district. I want to meet personally with as many groups and constituents as possible.”