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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.

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.