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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Every silver lining has its cloud: The new middle school

This month the city allocated the Highbridge section of the Bronx its first middle school since the last one closed 1973, but celebrations are tempered. The proposed school, residents say, falls short of what they need.

For the past two years parent leaders have met with the education department, making their case for a middle school with an up to 1,000 child capacity to be built in the neighborhood. On a map, they argued, middle schools appear nearby. But Highbridge's unique geography tells a different story, says area education organizer Chauncy Young.

Highbridge is bounded by the Cross Bronx and Major Deegan expressways and accessible mostly by "step streets", or alleys with hundreds of steep stairs. To drive home this point, Young says, The United Parents of Highbridge, a community advocacy group, toured members of the School Construction Authority, the branch of the Department of Education responsible for building new schools, through their neighborhood. The DOE seemed to have gotten the message: The 2010-2014 Capital Plan, released last month, included a "small school" for Highbridge's middle schoolers, citing the area's "geographic constraints."

Parents were thrilled with the news says Young, until they were informed last week that "small" boiled down to 389 seats, less than half of what they hoped for. The school will encompass fourth through eight grades, roughly 97 seats per grade. "When I figured this out," says Young, "I was like, 'What is this?'"

The "massive hills and step streets", says State Senator Jose M. Serrano, make it "inappropriate to expect children from Highbridge to commute." To get to middle school, says Young, area elementary school graduates -- some as young as ten -- must travel from Highbridge to schools like Intermediate School 219 on Third Avenue and Public School/Intermediate School 218, on Gerard Avenue. Some go farther, facing up to an hour's commute that requires taking up to three buses, through areas with some of the city's highest crime rates. The education department's decision, says Sen. Serrano, still "speaks to a lack of understanding about the unique geography of Highbridge."

Bakary Camera, a Highbridge resident for 20 years and father of six children under the age of 14, sent his 8- and 10-year-old sons to the private Sacred Heart School on 168th Street between Nelson and Woodycrest avenues in Highbridge to avoid this. When he could no longer afford their combined $700 per month tuition, he sent them to boarding school in his native Gambia. "I didn't want them to get caught up on the street trying to travel long distances by themselves," he says.

Jose Gonzalez a parent and documentary film maker who produced films about the situation in Highbridge to put pressure on the education department, was among the many unhappy with the news. With so few seats, he says, “The other children are left traveling outside of the community. We want a real middle school that can hold all the children."

But, the department of education does not feel Highbridge is being underserved, says their spokeswoman Margie Feinberg. "The school is just part of the plan," she says. The new capital plan will bring 1,890 seats to District 9, on top of the 1,350 the last plan created. However, these new seats are spread across elementary, middle and high school, and most are outside of Highbridge.

The education department "missed the mark," says Sen. Serrano. The need for at least a thousand middle school seats is warranted." This year, the five elementary schools in Highbridge combined will graduate 595 students to middle school level. Broken down, 265 fourth graders, 231 fifth graders and 125 graders will seek middle school spots in 2009, a number that is expected to rise in the future.

Community organizers and representatives from Highbridge's five elementary schools met at Public School 11 to discuss their plans to challenge the education department's decision. When told that the proposed school had a 395 seat capacity several people in attendance gasped. A woman, who identified herself only as a member of the Community Education Council for District 9, said that since the district permits "school choice" which allows parents to choose which school they send their kids to rather than be limited just to schools near where they live, "there will be more than 1,000 kids applying. "

"It's a great concept and it would be nice to have," says Young, "Who wouldn't want to have your kid in a 400-seat school? The only issue is that we have 2000 kids whose parents would like them to be in that 400-seat middle school."

"The community is growing," says Jesse Mojica, director of education and youth for Bronx Borough President Adolfo CarriĆ³n Jr. If a 389-seat school is too small now, "let's talk about what's going to happen in 2014." According the the US Census, the population of the Bronx is the city's youngest. Brian Levinson, an aide to Sen. Serrano, says that means the need for more school spaces will only keep growing. "We think they have not just a high number of young children right now, they have a high number of really young families," he says. "Let's invest in a school that's going to work for a community for decades."

But there may not be funds to make that kind of investment right now, given the current economic climate. "The state of the economy played a role in the decision of what gets proposed," says Feinberg. This year's capital plan, at 11.1 billion dollars, is nearly two billion less than the plan five years ago. "I rekognize that there is a limited amount of money," says Sen. Serrano, but "Poor communities suffer at a disproportionate level when the chips are down. When you're dealing with children's' futures, we should aim big."

The bleak economic outlook has some advocates weighing how they want to tackle the proposed school. "If the community were to say that we did not want a school that small, we could derail the project," Young says. Others say these considerations, haven't diminished their resolve. To them, the stakes are too high. The 167th Street location, says Camera, is one of the only available large plots in the community of 40,000. "Once you build it small," he says, "there will be no way to increase the size of that school again. You'll have to look for another space." Camera, who was part of the team that scouted the current proposed location, says there aren't any others. In the end, Young does not feel settling fro the small school is a viable option for a growing community. "Once you get a school, will you ever get a bigger school?" he says. "Are they ever going to expand it, or are they going to say, 'You got your school what’s your problem?'"

Says Levinson, "Why don't we build a school that's big enough now, rather than put Band-Aids on later?"

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A food pantry faces eviction

Six-year-old Denisse Beato was among the more than 40 protesters who gathered in the Highbridge area of the Bronx yesterday to fight the impending eviction of a local food pantry.

Surrounded by chants of "Hell no, we won't go," Beato snacked on brown rice that her mother Denia Vasquez, 29, said she picks up weekly at the Community Food Pantry at Highbridge. Vasquez is among the hundreds that rely on CFPH several times a week to feed their families, said Nurah Amat'ullah, executive director of the Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development (MWIRD), the non-profit community organization that runs the pantry.

The pantry is run from a converted garage at 1362 Merriam Ave. The building also houses Highbridge Voices, a non-profit performing arts program for local youth. Its parent group, the Highbridge Community Housing Development Corporation, owns the property. The pantry, supplied by City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City, was set up there in March 2007 through an informal partnership agreement with Highbridge Voices' former executive director Cheryl Corn, who left last month.

On October 6, the founder and new executive director of Highbridge Voices, Bruno Casolari, sent Amat'ullah a letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Highbridge Lowdown, that said: "At this time it is necessary for Highbridge Voices to terminate its agreement to provide space" to the pantry, citing "insurance and safety issues." Amat'ullah says she was, "baffled and stunned" by the news.

Casolari's letter also said he would help relocate the pantry, but Amat'ullah says that the Ogden Avenue location suggested already housed the Highbridge Community Life Center's pantry and was too far for many of her disabled clients.

Casolari and Amat'ullah squared off in a shouting match amid the throng of protesters who gathered outside the 1465 Nelson Ave. offices of the Highbridge Community Housing Development Corporation. Casolari, speaking to reporters, cited "an immense rodent and roach problem" and that the MWIRD "did not have any insurance" or expired insurance, as reasons for the eviction.

Amat'ullah and volunteers working at the pantry interviewed later that day contested Casolari's claims, saying they're exterminated monthly. In the MWIRD's Ogden Avenue offices Amat'ullah gave The Highbridge Lowdown copies of the "certificate of liability insurance" showing that MWIRD has held a policy since May 23, 2008 which is effective up to May 23, 2009.

At the heated protest, Amat'ullah agreed to an impromptu closed-door discussion with Casolari. The two, along with community organizer Chauncy Young and Jeffrey Schatz from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger met for 25 minutes inside the Highbridge Community Housing Development Corporation's headquarters while police and protesters milled outside.

After, Amat'ullah said she was willing to look at an alternate space Casolari suggested. If none were found by the November 9 eviction date, however, she would "continue to operate. The community needs to eat," she said.

Despite the tension, both sides expressed admiration in the other's community work, but many assembled, like Amina Ahmed, a board member of the MWIRD, felt that Highbridge Voices' artistic mission comes second to providing the bare necessities. Ahmed said of Casolari, "He's trying to feed their souls, we're trying to feed their bodies."

After the event, many protesters walked the several hilly blocks to the battle's center, a roughly 20 by 20 foot garage where according to the MWIRD's website, 55,000 people have been fed in the 19 months that the program's been running. There, more than 50 were already assembling for staples like loaves of day-old Eli's bread, heads of cabbage and jars of baby food.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Face of More Fires NYC's Malis Reflect

Last weekend city government stopped funding fire safety initiatives implemented in response to a Bronx blaze last year that killed ten Malian immigrants. That same weekend two fires killed seven more New Yorkers. For the Malian community, it's a moment of reckoning.

The March 8th, 2007 a fire caused by a faulty space heater on Woodycrest Avenue in the Highbridge area killed members of the Magassa and Soumare families, all but one of them children. According to Lieutenant Anthony Mancuso, director of the Fire Safety Education unit of the New York City Fire Department, says the families did not survive for the same reasons that the victims of last weekend's fires in Buswick, Brooklyn and Manhattan's Chelsea perished: Their fire alarms weren't in working order.

But more than simply forgotten batteries, the tragedy showed a glaring disconnect between Mali immigrants and the city's health and safety services. Ibrahim Dawud Nure, Secretary of the Masjed Deyaue mosque, the center of religious and cultural life for many Bronx Malians, says the community "did not have the leads to go after these very important and basic things. Where to go, and all the tools to apply these tools to work for us."

Though Ami Diallo, Mali's premier consul to the United Nations, speaking through a translator, cited Mali's location in Africa -- bordered by many countries -- as evidence for its people's ability to integrate well with other cultures, in New York City the reality is quite different. Most Malians are Muslim and speak only native languages like Bambara or Songhai and many, such as the Magassa family, are polygamists, a practice that is legal Mali but forbidden under U.S. law. These cultural divides from the majority Catholic Hispanic population made the Bronx Mali community insular.

The fire "brought us to sit back and think what we should do in communication with our community," said Bourema Niambele , President of the New York Council of Malians, a non-profit dedicated to the community affairs of Malians living abroad. Niambele personally took the bodies of the Magassa families back to Mali for burial.

It also brought outsiders, in. The day of the fire, Highbridge's parent coordinator Chauncy Young, says he realized, "I don't know these kids, I don't know these parents." He spent the next months, "finding out what the needs of the community was. I started to connect with them for the first time. That's when things really started to open up."

In the months since, Young has collaborated with clerics like Iman Moussa Zaidy Wague of the Masjed Deyaue, to create African-centric health fairs. In January 2008, in response to the fire, FDNY established "Target Five", a fire safety education program targeting areas where criteria like language, poverty level and housing quality determined a high fire risk existed. In the Bronx, Lt. Mancuso conducted fire safety classes with separate sessions for men and women tailored to Muslim beliefs which forbid the sexes intermingling.

Mousa Magassa
With these positive steps, there are also setbacks. On September 12th, citing economic woes, the city shuttered Target Five, though fire safety education continues in the areas. Mousa Magassa, who lost five of his children in the March 8th, 2007 fire says that even without Target Five, the community remains vigilant. "The community always does the best to educate people about what we're supposed to do when something happens. I don't think that it's dropping off," he says, "We've been doing that for a long time."

Cultural hurdles might remain: During the fire, Fatouma Soumare, called her husband Mamadou before she died and exclaimed, "We're on fire!", rather than dialing 911, losing valuable minutes that could have saved her. Niambele attributed her behavior to the polygamist family dynamic that creates a deep conviction that the head of the household "must make every decision," he says.

Most surprising is the failure of both the city and community leadership on one simple step: Translating safety information. FDNY safety literature is in eight languages, but there are no African language translations and no French, the official language of Mali and 32 other nations. Four years ago, said Lt. Mancuso, "we were printing certain things in French, but there didn't seem to be much interest."

When informed of this fact, Niambele said, "I blame ourselves. It's our responsibility as leaders of the community to go to those places where services are provided to people to make them understand that those languages are very important, now that these people are here."

Even so, the impact of translated material is debatable. Many Malian languages don't have a written form, and over 50 percent of Malian women are illiterate, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.

Says Nure, "We have more important things to think about than language. We need power."

Pictures courtesy of the New York Daily News

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bronx man cop slay

The trial of the man suspected of killing an off-duty police officer in 2005 began explosively today as police railed against the defense's claims that the officer's own actions led to his death, and that officers testifying will lie on the stand.

Presided over by Judge Martin Marcus, the trial commenced today at the Bronx Criminal Court. Steven Armento, 51, faces seven separate counts ranging from second degree murder to burglary in the shooting of New York City Police Department officer David Enchautegui of the 40th Precinct, then 28. On December 10th, 2005, Enchautegui was shot trying apprehend Armento and friend, Lillo Brancato Jr., an actor in "The Sopranos", 29, after they broke into his neighbor's house.

Bronx Assistant District Attorney Terry Gottlieb, said Enchautegui, "did what we hope every police officer does: He goes out, he gets involved." She claimed that Enchautegui, who called 911 for back-up, asked the fleeing men to stop, though whether or not he identified himself as a police officer remains a key point in the defense's arguments.

For both sides, much hinges on what happened next that night: Gottlieb claimed that even after being shot, Enchautegui continued to attempt to bring down his assailants, shooting Armento six times and Lillo twice. Before the jury of two men and ten women, William Flack, the lawyer representing the accused, contested this order of events. Enchautegui, he said, "fired all his rounds first. Then and only then," did Armento fire. Flack claims this is a case of self-defense rather than willful murder.

Called to the stand were the 40th Precinct sargent who identified Enchautegui's body, 911 operator Beverly McBride, who answered Enchautegui's December 10th call and Yolanda Rosa, the deceased's sister. Rosa entered crying and clinging to Gottlieb's arm as more than 40 officers gathered outside as a show of solidarity applauded her. Speaking to the jury, Flack said, "There is a member of the New York City Police Department that will come put his hand on the bible and lie to you," provoking gasps from many of the over two dozen police officers in attendance.

Questioned later, Flack refused to identify whom he meant, but many of the officers present suspect Flack was referring to the officer who took Armento's statement the night of the shooting. The statement has been called in to question previously because it is disputed as to whether Armento -- who had been drinking and taking drugs that evening -- was fully lucid. Speaking outside the courthouse later,

Gottlieb called Flack's defense, "desperate."

Flack's claims that Enchautegui's "reactions caused his death" provoked outrage from Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the labor union representing police officers. Lynch began the morning rallying officers, some of whom were turned away from the packed courtroom. In a raised voice after the trial, Lynch accused Flack of "pissing on the grave of a New York City hero," and said Armento, "deserves a defense, but they're not entitled to make a fiction into fact."

Flack also argued that Enchautegui may have been mistakenly shot by officers late on the scene. He pointed to the 911 tape played at the trial, where Enchautegui described his dark clothing to prevent a mix-up. Post-trial Flack referred to a January 29th, 2006 shooting in which officers at a Bronx White Castle restaurant shot one of their own.

Officers from the 40th Precinct who clustered in the hall wearing Enchautegui t-shirts referred to him as a "brother", and pledged to have members of the NYPD present at every day of the expected month-long trial.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Highbridge Lowdown in the New York Observer!

The Highbridge Lowdown gets cited in a Friday round-up in the New York Observer!

Click here to see THL in The Afternoon Wrap: Friday

Long Wait 4 Train

Late last month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in response to reports of rising subway delays, announced plans to overhaul how its trains are managed. But until the plan takes effect in 2009, commuters from the Bronx and elsewhere still suffer delays.

The re-organization would dedicated bodies -- among them the "IRT East" which will oversee the 4,5,6 and 42nd Street Shuttle S -- to govern specific routes."The goal," says James Anyansi, a spokesman for the MTA, is to "decentralize the system so that you have one general manager for each line. That person will be accountable to the customers."

The entire subway system was delayed 24 percent of the time according to the report issued by New York City Transit. The reports, released on a three month delay, studied data from May and measured the percentage of times the subway reaches its final destination on time.

The worst performer was the 4 train, which shuttles between the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It was prompt only 70.1 percent of the time, a ten percent decrease from performance results from the same month last year.

Anyansi cites multiple reasons for train delays, including passengers holding doors or getting sick on their commute and technical problems like signal trouble. The largest contributor to delays, he says, was track gangs working on construction. 

Track workers at the 170th street station near Highbridge, Bronx, confirmed statements by Anyansi that efforts are in place to prevent those types of delays.Track work is expressly forbidden between the rush hours of 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. and again between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., when customers experience the most difficulties.

Location may be the main reason for the 4 train's sluggishness. The 4 train shares the Manhattan section of the line or "corridor" which runs along Lexington Avenue with both the 5 and 6 trains. The competing lines tend to choke the path at peak hours when the NYCT runs more trains with higher frequency, says Anyansi.

On other routes, adding more trains might speed things up, but on this already overburdened track commuters know that more trains would mean more delays. "If you send out three extra trains but I'm sitting in a tunnel for ten minutes because there's so much train traffic, it doesn't make sense," says Bronx commuter Latisha Williams.

"It's just because of congestion," says Herril Mulligan, a conductor on the 5 train for the past 11 years, explaining the lag. "It's too many trains out there."

But more trains are needed, says Lauraine Patterson who takes the 4, which has a stop at Yankee Stadium, twice daily from her home on 170th street in the Bronx to downtown Brooklyn. Citywide population growth has lead to unprecedented numbers of subway riders, according to the MTA. Patterson finds she frequently must let packed trains pass because there's no room. "Especially when the Yankees are playing, it's awful," she says. "The trains are so overcrowded you can't get on." The problems are so routine that Patterson's employer even implemented a 15-minute "grace period" for workers who are delayed by morning train troubles.

The situation has stymied the MTA. Says Anyansi, "It's so saturated that even if we wanted to we couldn't add more service." They're banking on the planned re-organization to fix the problems. "The hope is it will make your service a lot better," he says, "and once service is better it will go a lot faster."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Highbridge's Heros

Chauncy Young seems almost physically unable to say the word "I" when talking about the work he's done as a community organizer for the Highbridge section of the Bronx. Colleagues and the residents whose lives he's touched however, consider him a one-man force of nature.

"I'm not very focused on taking credit," the 32-year-old says, taking a rare pause from his seemingly perpetual motion -- on his day off he is re-tiling his kitchen -- to make the point. Wiping cement from his trademark wire-rimmed Gandhi-style glasses, he continues: "It's more important as what we as a community are able to do."

"We" is Young's preferred pronoun; our common struggles the trope that runs through his entire life. He's spent it organizing community action, from student protests to union strikes. Young's been Highbridge's education organizer for five years, living there for three. He's fought for diverse issues: against razing parks, for new schools and expanding school holidays to reflect Muslim observances to name a very few.

"Wear sneakers with Chauncy," his co-workers at the Highbridge Community Life Center warn, a reference to the organizer's relentless energy for his causes.

Young isn't the "we" of the community he serves. He's white; Highbridge is black and Hispanic. Though he learned Spanish when at the University of Massachusetts and from his Puerto Rican wife Annalisa whom he met in college, he's from Rochester, NY.

"You'd think that he would stand out visually," says his coworker Dora Morillo, "But once he commits to something, people look past the outer exterior. Because he's true to what he says."

Despite differences, Young finds himself at home. Bounded by wide thoroughfares, he says, Highbridge's remoteness keeps the neighborhood tightly knit -- much like his childhood small town.

But the distinction is clear: At the first of the four shootings the Young's daughter, Isobel, 6, has witnessed, she asked, "Where's Superman?" With one of the nation's highest crime rates, Highbridge is no small town idyll.

Young's sister Melissa committed suicide at age 29 in 2001, just before Isobel's birth. He'd been Melissa's rock in hard times before, but fatherhood took his focus. He still struggles with guilt.

Unable to change the past, he rights present wrongs. Helping African immigrant Bandiougou Magassa, a 22-year veteran custodian of NYC schools who was fired though he worked while receiving chemotherapy, was a highpoint.

More than the fact that Young helped raise $26,000 when Magassa's extended family perished in a 2007 fire, Magassa was moved that Young attended mosque mourning services. Magassa approached him with his story, which Young took to the Department of Education and the governor. Magassa was reinstated.

"A white man like him, when you see him around us, you don’t think he is a white man," says Magassa, who calls Young a "hero". "There is not color difference, you don’t recognize it."

Young acknowledges victories like Magassa's are few and far between in his line of work. "You always loose," he says, tamping down a final tile on his kitchen wall. "But it's the struggle; you make small victories out of it."

1) Chauncy Young, courtesy The Highbridge Community Life Center
2) Funeral services for the victims of the March 7th fire, courtesy The New York Sun

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

NY Times' CITY ROOM lists The Highbridge Lowdown

The staff at the New York Times' City Room Blog have given The Highbridge Lowdown the courtesy of listing it among their "Blog Roll".

Click here to see The Highbridge Lowdown among other worthy NYC blogs.

The Blog Roll is on the right hand side of the screen, The Highbridge Lowdown is under the heading "People and Neighborhoods".

Thanks City Room for making sure that even the smallest New York voices get heard.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Bronx is Booming

The sun's barely up and the 2 train is already packed with construction workers hurtling to building sites dotted across the Bronx. A new study confirms what these subway riders know: the borough's jobs are booming. But who's getting them and the boom's longevity remain in question.

The study by The Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, assessed job growth over the past decade in each zip code in the five boroughs. In the Bronx, the Highbridge/Morrissania zip 10456 showed the largest percentage of job growth, a 58 percent increase since 1997, making it the 13th highest ranking zip code in New York City with 580 new jobs created since 1997. CUF's director, Jonathan Bowles, says the new jobs are predominantly in health care and education, as well as retail, warehousing and -- as the hardhat-glutted 2 train indicates -- construction.

"We used to be the rough, now we're the diamond in the rough," says Len Caro, CEO of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. Companies saw the Bronx as blighted, he says, now they're building there. One factor is cheap and readily available real estate. "Frankly," says Bowles, "Manhattan is running out of space to develop." Nearly a thousand companies purchased land in the Bronx this year alone, says Caro. Bowles and Caro also note the Bronx's under-served retail market. Despite the economic downturn, they say, retailers believe the Bronx has a wealth of untapped and eager potential customers.

Giant-sized projects like Yankee Stadium and city's largest mall, the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, are responsible for a large chunk of the boom; each requires hundreds of builders. But when the last construction worker packs up his tools, those jobs disappear. "There's a surge because of local construction jobs," says Kate Shackford, executive vice president for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, "But then each of these projects will create jobs as well." Says Bowles: "The jobs being created at gateway are [not] a panacea for the Bronx," but the retail jobs created "will be be an important entry way [for new workers] into the labor market."

With retail and warehousing wages hovering around the minimum, some, like food warehouse worker Gary Wilson, 36, say the community needs better jobs, not just more. Wilson works seven days a week. To make ends meet, "I need at least two or three more jobs," he says. Poorly paid jobs may proliferate, he says, but in better jobs like restaurant work, "They're not looking for anyone to work behind the counter."

Whether or not even the new low-paying jobs go to Bronx residents is another story. Some, like Bowles, are hopeful. Here "jobs tend to be filled locally. For the most part people don't drive from Queens to the Bronx for jobs." The BOEDC encourages companies to hire from the neighborhood. Yet while its initiative, "Buy Bronx", mandates a portion of materials and services be locally sourced, the corporation's goal for companies to have a 25 - 35 percent Bronx workforce is not compulsory.

Nevertheless, some companies are courting Bronx's potential employees. Best Buy, the discount electronics giant which will be setting up shop when the Gateway Center opens next year, took the bait offered by the BOEDC to set up a recruiting office in BOEDC's "Workforce 1" center, a career center on 149th street in the Bronx. In the basement recruiting offices, applicants watched videos where black and Latino Best Buy employees touted the company's commitment to a culturally diverse workforce, a message Best Buy hoped would resonate with the Bronx applicants.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Everybody loves The Highbridge Lowdown!

The Highbridge Lowdown has many reasons to love the excellent Bronx cultural blog The Boogiedowner.

1) Their motto:

"Yes, the Bronx IS burning... Burning hot with cultural events, amazing architecture, tight knit residential communities, and acres and acres of wide open green space."

2) They love The Highbridge Lowdown!

Check out The Boogiedowner's mention of The Highbridge Lowdown!

Keep reading both blogs for the latest news and views on this under-reported borough.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Days old, and The Highbridge Lowdown is already making waves! Check out the Highbridge Lowdown in the Huffington Post.

The Highbridge Lowdown in The Huffington Post

The Highbridge Lowdown is grateful for the news savvy and open ear of business and green editor Dave Burdick.

IN THEIR OWN VOICE 1: no middle school

IN THEIR OWN VOICE is a segment of The Highbridge Lowdown that presents local Highbridge news created by the community not the author of this blog.

For the first installment of IN THEIR OWN VOICE, take a look at this interesting video made by the United Parents of Highbridge, detailing their concerns over the fact that Highbridge has no middle school.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

NYC leads national trend: green housing projects


A vacant lot in the Highbridge area of the Bronx heralds the latest installment of what some say is the future of low-income housing. XX Avenue* is to be the neighborhood's first affordable rental project built to conform to environmental and sustainable specifications, according to the site's developers, a trend already well under way.

The Bronx is going green from the bottom up, as low-income housing gets an environmental makeover
. New Destiny Housing Corporation, a non-profit providing housing assistance to victims of domestic abuse, will be building XX Anderson green. It bought the property in April for $1.3 million, and will spend $14 million more over two years creating the 41 unit multiple income housing project. Though Highbridge's first building of this type, the larger surrounding area already hosts dozens of environmentally friendly housing projects.

"Green is not just cool."
Brian Levinson
State Senator Jose M. Serrano

They've cropped up over the past few years, says Luke Falk, a project manager for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), because their construction reduces utility bills. NYSERDA is the publicly funded body charged with reducing the state's energy consumption that financially supports and awards "Energy Star" ratings to buildings saving 20 percent more energy than is standard.

Near "
XX Avenue" is the city's first certified "green", or environmentally-sound, affordable housing, Morissania Homes. It's officially designated "green" by NYSERDA's more stringent counterpart, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED only certifies buildings if they fulfill a host of environmentally sound criteria; to meet its tough standards often incurs extra cost.

New Destiny's director of housing development, Joan Beck, says that LEED certification might be prohibitively expensive. 20 percent of XX Avenue will shelter domestic abuse survivors, the rest is allocated to the public. These are apportioned in graduated tiers based on residents' ability to afford their apartment's fair market rate as set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). LEED certification measures, such as using post-consumer materials and employing LEED-licensed monitors could cost $300 to $325 per square foot, says Beck. To meet NYSERDA standards would cost $230 per square foot, slightly more than standard building.

From eco-friendly cars to sustainable chocolate, green labels are a branding strategy in many areas. "Green and LEED certification has been a really great marketing advantage," says Julia Siegel, project manager for sustainability at Full Spectrum of NYC, a sustainable real estate development company responsible for Manhattan's first green mixed-income housing, 1400 Fifth Avenue in Harlem.

XX Avenue, says Beck, isn't trying to be trendy. Her chief consideration is of a different sort of green: residents' saved dollars. "Green is not just cool," says Brian Levinson, a representative for the area's state senator, Jose M. Serano, who has made "greening" the Bronx a top priory, "It's also sustainable, it keeps people living in their communities." People whom, Levinson says, might otherwise be priced-out by sky-high utility bills from gas price increases. "Bringing down energy costs is going to be attractive," says Siegel.

Project manager Anjali Doli of the architecture firm Magnusson Architecture and Planning, PC, which designed XX Avenue says meeting NYSERDA specifications will cost residents less. These include installing water saving fixtures and Energy Star elevators, heat-saving insulation and rain-water irrigation, all of which Falk says reduces energy consumption and consequent bills. Data on the exact amount of money saved is not yet available because NYSERDA's initiative, the Multifamily Building Performance Program, was launched just last year.

Savings, says Levinson, explain the burst of green building in this economically depressed borough, more than green's fashionability. Several residents of the housing projects flanking the weed and cat-infested lot where XX Avenue is to be erected echoed this. Environmental issues are not a concern for many, cheap rent is.

*By law the location of domestic abuse victims' housing may not be publicized for the tenants' safety

PTA: Parent-Teacher Aggravation


The "beacon on the hill", as some refer to Elementary School 11, was once Highbridge, Bronx's most desirable public school. But acrimonious clashes between a new, tough principal and her staff have parents and educators taking sides over allegations from misuse of funds to child abuse.

Public School 11's principal Elizabeth Hachar first made headlines when she fired popular parent teacher coordinator Charles Woods on the final day of term last June. Hachar is in her third year as principal and is a graduate of the New York City Leadership Academy (NYCLA). This June NYCLA was designated the city's official principal training program in NYC's efforts to implement new "Children First" school reforms. A linchpin of the initiative is "empowerment", giving principals "broader discretion over allocating resources, choosing their staffs and creating programming", according to the New York City Department of Education's website.

Problems began before Wood's dismissal, says Nelson Mar, senior staff attorney and education law specialist at Legal Services NYC-Bronx, a civil legal service for low income individuals. On May 2nd of this year, Mar's firm, along with a coalition of community activists, teachers and staff, filed a complaint with school superintendent Dolores Desposito.

Among the allegations was a claim that Hachar's mandate to lock bathrooms led some children to soil themselves. "One mother told me her daughter had to be hospitalized because of an obstruction in her bowel," said Mar.
On Sept. 10th at the first PTA meeting of the 2008 school year, the principal addressed the bathroom issue, said attendee Theodore Garcia, first vice president of the Community Education Council for the district. Hachar "stated that 'all the teachers in the building have keys to the bathrooms to let students in'", said Garcia, but did not explain why they were locked at all. Hachar did not respond to multiple attempt s to contact her, and ordered the removal of a reporter from the September 10th PTA meeting by six police officers.

Hachar is currently under investigation because of those allegations, said Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the DOE
Hachar is credited with raising test scores. English proficiency has nearly doubled according to data from New York State School Report Cards, the government's yearly schools assessment.

She's made other changes as well. According to the community organizer, over 30 teachers from the school's full-time teaching staff of 59 have left or been fired in the time she's held office. To compare, he says neighboring P.S. 126 has lost just 10 in the same period.
For five years as P.S. 11's PTC, Woods, 60, gained parents' trust and accrued accolades. "That first year, the mayor mentioned me in a speech," says Woods. "The question is, if someone is good enough to be recognized prestigiously in this way, what happened?"

"The question is, if someone is
good enough to be recognized
what happened?"
-- Charles Woods,
Former Parent Teacher Coordinator

Woods says he was fired because he clashed with Hachar about reporting suspected child abuse -- which he believes is over-reported to the detriment of families. Over 90 parents signed a petition calling Woods' dismissal "unfair". At Sept. 10th PTA the role vacated by Woods was still unfilled. "Parents don't have anybody to go to to address their concerns", said a member of the PTA who requested to remain anonymous because of the position she holds. "I think it was done wrongfully, it was done on the hush for a reason, it was done when we were away."

Some members of the community are campaigning for her dismissal and Woods' reinstatement, but others like new parent Clara Alba, 35, whose son just entered kindergarten, are conflicted. "I have mixed opinions," said Alba. "I find her so nice at the times when we needed her help." The real problem, some contend, may be that Hachar is just a new kind of principal.

The Bristol Palin effect: Is it real?


Though teen pregnancy is a fact of life in Highbridge, Bronx, where underage birth rates are the highest in the city, it's been steadily decreasing. With a spate of high-profile teen pregnancies -- pop stars and most recently Republican V.P. Nominee Sarah Palin's daughter -- will this trend falter?

According the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 131 out of 1000 babies in Highbridge were born to a teenager between 2003-2004, the last time such data was sampled. Though 75% higher than New York City's overall average of 75 in 1000 for that same year, the numbers are a 24% decrease from record highs ten years prior.

Will the pregnancies of wealthy, highly educated teenagers like Jaimie Lynn Spears, the little sister of Britney Spears, pop star Ashley Simpson and now Bristol Palin influence teens to be just like them? Despite these highprofile women's trend setting power, Highbridge's young parents and health-care practitioners were unsure of the impact the V.P. candidate's pregnancy news would have on impressionable teens, even here where it's the norm.

Theresa Landau, Senior Associate Director at the Highbridge and Morrisania Women, Infants, Children Program (WIC) a pregnancy and childhood health center, feels that Bristol Palin isn't relevant here. "In this community I don't see the impact. I would venture to guess that even with all the publicity surrounding this that people don't know who Sarah Palin is," she says. Were she to become V.P., Landau feels it might be a different story: "Then, I see kinds throwing it up to their parents, 'well the Vice President's daughter even has a baby.'"

Manny DeLion, a 24-year-old father walking his step-son home from his third day of kindergarten, felt Bristol Palin's not relevant to the youth of his neighborhood. "If you are really popular with the crowd, it will have an impact," he said, "But if you're just famous and not within the teen culture, I think it will have less impact."

Rickie Solinger, author of "Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade", believes Bristol Palin's race and social demographic makes the possibility of her influencing Highbridge remote. "
If one talks about it without race, one is being completely inaccurate about how this plays out," she says.

feels the very question of celebrity influence on teen pregnancy is off-base. "It proposes that the female person having sex and getting pregnant is either venal or stupid. It's not a Paris Hilton phenomenon -- that is, do what she does," she says. It's a sentiment echoed by Sister Cecilia Barrett, an administrator at Siena House, a shelter for homeless pregnant women in Highbridge. The women she sees don't relate to people like Palin. "The family support system that [Bristol] has cannot be compared."

The chances of pregnancy becoming "trendy" aside, Bristol Palin's situation may have another kind of influence: lifting the negative stereotypes that surround poor teen parents. Highbridge resident Bethany Santana's friends have had babies at 13 and 15 years of age. At 25, she has a four-year-old, and considers her self a late starter. "Some people do look down on [teen mothers] like, 'oh she's finished her life is over'," she says. She feels Palin's pregnancy could change that. "She's a real live person," she said. "It shows people that it happens to everybody, not just us living in poverty."

It is no less than a sea-change, says Solinger. "The conservative evangelical men and women saying that [Bristol] is a good girl...recently those same people would have thrown those girls out of the house."

He's no Martin Luther King - but we like him


A day after Sen. Barack Obama accepted the nomination as the Democratic candidate for President with a speech that outlined his goals and excoriated Republicans for a host of the country's ills, African American residents of Highbridge, Bronx, among New York City's - and the nation's - most economically depressed neighborhoods, were hopeful he'd deliver on his promises.

After watching the speech, "I became positive," said Taylor Taylor, 84, a retired truck driver. "I was slightly vague before, because I'm slow to form an opinion. But now, I'm positive." Taylor's sentiments were echoed by more than a half-dozen residents of the economically blighted area. Many said that post-speech, their inclination towards Obama as their choice was now a sure thing.

For some it was personal. Angela Phoenix, 46, a worker at a Highbridge shelter for homeless women, cited Obama's history. "I have a belief in him because of his family background," she said. Victoria Beckford, 80, cited similar reasons. "He was raised poor. He wasn't raised with a silver spoon," she said. "Bush, all his life he dealt with money." Like many residents interviewed, she believes Obama will follow through on his campaign promises to aid the impoverished because he can relate from personal experience.

Highbridge residents interviewed were also won over by the content of Obama's speech. Over the past 18 months of his campaign Obama ran as "the candidate of hope". Republicans criticized him as weak on the key issues of the campaign, citing this vague motto. In his three-quarters of an hour-long speech, Obama rose to his detractors' challenge, enumerating the specific policies he would enact and problems he would address as commander in chief. His specificity and strong tone towards what he judges to be Republican failings won points with Highbridge residents like Thomas Brown, 54, a superintendent. "I liked how he handled himself when they were talking about how 'weak' he is," said Brown, "And the way how he responded to it...he never did get around to saying anything about it until last night."

Beckford was also impressed by the detail Obama went into, particularly regarding social and economic issues with which Highbridge residents grapple. "I thought he did a good job and made a good speech," said Beckford, "Especially on the schools, the people who are not working who lost their jobs. And how they're giving tax breaks to the big business people who take the jobs overseas and leave the people over here who built this country without jobs and with no medical [insurance] for their children."

Obama's strong language against his opponent, such phrases as "John McCain doesn’t get it" regarding social security for example, drew criticism from McCain's camp who issued a statement immediately following that said it was "a misleading speech." Brown and others felt it was justified: "McCain started the mudslinging," he said, "Trying to say that [Obama] was too weak a man to run this country, but it turns out it's not that way."

"I think he spoke his mind," said Beckford, "And he told the truth."

Not everyone was sold. Chitara Elzey, 16, a student who will be too young to vote in November, called it "politics as usual." "It's his job to say, 'I'm going to do this, and I'm going to do that because Bush didn't'," she said, "I think it's all just posturing."

Towards the end of his speech, which fell on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama cited King's historic address. It was one of the only references he made to race, an allusion that drew sharp responses from African American residents of Highbridge. "Martin Luther King and Obama are two different categories," said Jamal Alford, 27, a mechanic. "Martin Luther King portrayed himself to liberate blacks, Obama is just trying to make blacks further ourselves as a black race." Beckford too was quick to point out the distinction, "[MLK] went into prison; he was whipped; he was thrown in jail; he was bitten by dogs. Obama...never went through none of the hell that Martin Luther King went through, and I would never compare them."