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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.

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."