My photo
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.

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