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Friday, March 28, 2008

Creston Avenue Hostage Situation Resolved


Crisis was averted today as the hostage situation on Creston Aveune ended without violence. Camilo Mejias, 27, released his infant son Matthew into the custody of the NYPD at 5 p.m. and surrendered himself shortly thereafter.

“Anytime we get someone out successfully it’s a 10, so we’re very happy about the outcome of this,” said Lt. Jack Cambria, commanding officer of the hostage negotiation team.

The happy ending brought welcome close to a nerve-racking day. All told, the hostage stand-off lasted nearly ten hours. Onlookers cheered as news that Matthew was safe spread.

Detectives Robert Yaeger and Jose Martinez led the negotiations that led to Mejias’ surrender. They explained that officers were able to observe Mejias the entire day and never feared for the childrens’ safety. “At no time did we feel the two children were in danger at all,” said Lt. Cambria. “Time was on our side. If we would have rushed in, we don’t know if he does in fact have a weapon or any mechanism to hurt that baby.”

Coincidentally, today marks the 35th anniversary of the formation of the NYPD hostage negotiation team. The forces’ negotiators were at a conference downtown celebrating the day when they received word of the events transpiring in the Bronx. Cambria explained that he immediately dispatched negotiators to the scene.

According to his family, Mejias simply wanted to see his son. His wife had obtained a protective order against him and he feared he would be unable to visit Matthew. “He cried two months straight because he couldn’t see his son,” said Jose Mejias, Camilo’s brother. “What should a man do when he is desperate?”

Jose Mejias explained that he and his brother had been drinking the night before and had discussed his plight. “ ‘Please let me see my child,’ he would say,” explained Mejias. “He got drunk and things happen.”

Police confirmed that Mejias did not appear to have sinister intentions. “He seemed to be a very caring, nurturing father,” Lt. Cambria said. “He was changing the baby’s diapers, he was feeding the baby.”

Though the day ended happily, the bigger picture paints a sad story. A loving, though troubled, father is likely headed to prison and his son deprived of his presence. “I can understand, everybody wants to see their children, that’s the most important thing in the world to you as a parent,” said Det. Yaeger.

Man Holds Two Kids Hostage in Creston Avenue Apartment


Two children were taken hostage this morning at 2015 Creston Ave., at the corner of Bush Street. Franklin Espinal, 10, and his half-brother Matthew, 11 months, were held against their will in their first-story apartment by Matthew’s father, Camilo Mejias. As of 3:30 p.m., Mejias remains in the building with Matthew. Franklin was released earlier this afternoon.

Mejias forced his way into his estranged spouse, Rosemary Espinal’s apartment sometime before 7:30 a.m. this morning, family members at the scene said. After entering, Mejias expelled Espinal, the boys’ mother, from the apartment. Rumors swirled that Mejias did not have a gun but might be using a household object as a weapon.

"He’s a crazy guy," said Milvea Espinal, Rosemary’s stepsister, adding that Mejias has a history of substance abuse and abusive behavior. Police officers at the scene confirmed this report.

Rosemary Espinal separated from Mejias four months ago and obtained a restraining order against him. Mejias was arrested in his New Jersey home a month ago for attempting to visit her at 2015 Creston Ave. He returned to the address this morning and a crisis ensued.

While Mejias has had his share of problems, this morning’s events came as a shock. “We are surprised. We never expected him to do something like this,” said Milvea Espinal. With tears streaming down his face, Leonardo Espinal, Rosemary's father, said that Mejias was drunk when he showed up this morning.

As the dramatic scene unfolded, a slew of reporters and scores of curious onlookers gathered to watch. A police helicopter hovering overhead, Television crews filmed as Creston Avenue filled with countless police cruisers and Technical Assistance Response Units (TARU). A foreboding SWAT vehicle was parked directly in front of 2015 and officers in full body armor (pictured above) could be seen surveying Espinal’s apartment.

Espinal sat in a police cruiser as negotiators attempted to reason with Mejias. At 1:15 p.m. Mejias released Franklin who was quickly escorted to his worried mother. Though Mejias is still holding Matthew hostage, Espinal remains hopeful. “She is calm. She knows the police know how to handle this,” said her stepsister.

Photos by JAMES FERGUSSON (top, officers outside 1520 Creston Ave., directly above, Franklin Espinal, 10, being comforted by his mother, following his release).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Living in Bedford Park

In today's AM New York:

The residents of Bedford Park don't necessarily want people to know about their neighborhood. It's not for lack of pride; quite the opposite. They just want to keep this quiet, working-class enclave all to themselves.

Nestled in the northwest Bronx between the New York Botanical Garden and Lehman College, Bedford Park is a diverse, family-oriented neighborhood...
Read the full article here. Bedford Park residents, anything to add? Did they get it right? Feel free to leave a comment.

Life in Prison for Murderer of Beloved Kingsbridge Doctor

Samuel Saunders, the man responsible for killing beloved Kingsbridge-area pediatrician, Leandro Lozada, was sentenced to 25 years to life yesterday by Westchester County judge.

In early January of 2007, Saunders and an accomplice (who has yet to be tried), kidnapped Lozada, tied him up and then forced him to write a $57,000 check before shooting him twice in the head, execution style.

By all accounts, Dr. Lozada was a great father and boss. He was a pillar in the community who believed in providing health care to the under-privileged families in the northwest Bronx. He could have started his clinic, Hispanic Pediatrics, anywhere, but he chose to put it in a storefront on Kingsbridge Road in a low-income Hispanic community. His unofficial policy was to treat anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

Despite his murderer's sentencing today, nothing will make up for the loss of Dr. Lozada.

Read our original story about the murder here.

And here's a more recent story about the aftermath of his death.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Suicide Attempt Derailed in Norwood

Police blocked off DeKalb Avenue (above) in Norwood as they worked to stop a woman from committing suicide, according to police and witnesses. Apparently, the woman was threatening to jump out of her 5th Floor apartment window. Police were trying to install netting and an inflatable landing pad below the woman's apartment window in case she actually did jump.

Congestion Pricing Deal and Gonzalez Trial Update

In his super-juicy Bronx politics column this week, Bob Kapstatter says Mayor Bloomberg is pushing his Congestion Pricing plan in the borough by dangling transit incentives in exchange for support.

Also, there's an even juicier (in our opinion) little nugget about indicted State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, who is facing federal fraud and corruption charges. Kappy says Gonzalez's lawyer, "Don't Worry" Murray Richman tells him that the embattled senator is fighting to have his trial date pushed back to September.

That would allow Gonzalez to get on the ballot for the Democratic primary.

Now, if Gonzalez is convicted things could get interesting. From what we've been told, if no other Democratic candidates get enough signatures to get on the ballot, the Bronx Democratic Party, headed by Jose Rivera, will choose a replacement candidate.

Rivera is set for a pre-trial hearing on April 7, according to Kapstatter.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A BID for Burnside Avenue

Davidson Community Center, working with Mount Hope Housing Company and others, is hoping to establish a Business Improvement District, or BID, on Burnside Avenue.

On April 2, Bronx elected officials, community organizations, and local residents, will gather for a "Taste of the BID" event to announce the beginnings of a campaign to bring on board 116 area business owners. The Atlantic Development Group will hold a steam blasting/graffiti removal/sidewalk washing exhibition - a demonstration of what local merchants could expect with a fully functioning BID. The event begins at 10 a.m. in front of Foot Locker (on Burnside between Jerome and Walton).

According to a provisional press release, the BID will revitalize the shopping district. "As with other commercial strips in the Bronx, the Target Area has too many 99 cent/discount stores, no major national chain, (only fast food national chains)," the release said. "Residents of the Target Area complain of the lack of variety in goods and services which prompts them to shop in other locations in the Bronx or other boroughs in the city." More about BIDs here and here. There are currently six BIDs in the Bronx. In the west Bronx there's Fordham Road and Jerome-Gun Hill.

Photo taken from the Burnside Avenue subway station at Jerome Avenue, looking west.

The BID aside, change is already coming to Burnside Avenue. Morris Heights Health Center is building a new center on an abandoned lot on the corner of Harrison Avenue. St. Barnabas Hospital is in the process of demolishing the former Elks Lodge at Burnside and the Grand Concourse, and building a 10-story outpatient facility. East of the Concourse, near Valentine Avenue, the Atlantic Development Group is building affordable housing. (Atlantic were/are in the running to develop the Kingsbridge Armory but have possibly/probably lost out to another developer.)

UPDATE: The event is being held April 2, NOT March 26 (as was published earlier today. Apologies for the confusion)

Bronxite to be next Knicks boss?

Donnie Walsh, chief executive of the Indiana Pacers, is being lined up as the next president of the Knicks. According to the NY Post Walsh is from Riverdale and went to Fordham Prep.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Story Updates

Kingsbridge Armory
Responding to a Daily News report saying the city had chosen a developer (the Related Companies) for the Kingsbridge Armory, a good natured, but vague and evasive spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is handling the renovation project, said "I don't respond to articles in the Daily News." He also said that the EDC has made no announcements regarding a developer decision.

However, he did not refute outright the statement that Related had won the Armory job. So, aside from infuriating local reporters, the question remains: What's taking the EDC/City so long to make this announcement?

Meanwhile local groups, specifically the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) want to know who they're going to be dealing with, so they can ramp up pressure to add schools to the project -- something the community sees as nearly compulsory, but was taken off the table by the Education Dept. last summer.

Anna Rogovin
After having her legs crushed by a semi truck (both legs were later amputated) on Gun Hill Road less than two weeks ago, Anna Rogovin, a 91-year-old fireplug of a woman, was lucid and talking a mile-a-minute to friends in her hospital room at St. Barnabas.

Cops are still looking for the truck that hit her (white with blue streaks), but say they will not be seeking criminal charges.

Disabled Veterans
We've had a few positive responses from our story about a wounded vet from Mosholu Parkway and the efforts of a Bronx-born artist to support him and other disabled soldiers coming home from the Middle East.

Some have asked if they can purchase one of the artist's military prints. The answer is yes.

To order a print and support disabled veterans, call Luis Flores at (973) 907-2163.

Norwood Murder Suspect Arrested.

Unfortunately, the first post of the week is not a happy one.

Last night, just after midnight, two men were shot inside a Norwood sports bar and restaurant on Jerome Avenue called the Oasis Cafe. One of the men, Manuel Saico, 25, died after being shot in the chest. The other victim was shot in the torso and is considered to be in "serious" condition.

This afternoon, according to reports, police arrested a suspect, Luis Paulino, a Bronxite, and charged him with murder.

Police say the shooting happened after an argument, but that the two victims were not involved in that argument.

After a relatively slow start to the year, violent crime in the northwest Bronx appears to be on the rise in recent weeks.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Report: Related Wins Armory Contract

An article in the Daily News says the Related Companies, one of two possible developers (the other being Atlantic Development Group), has won the contract to renovate the Kingsbridge Armory.

This doesn't come as a surprise. The Norwood News has heard this rumor for some time now, but has yet to confirm it with more than one source. The Daily News article cites anonymous "sources" from Community Board 7.

Related was long thought to have an advantage because its CEO has a close relationship with former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. Both developers contribute heavily to Bronx politicians.

The Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is handling the project, maintains that they have not reached a decision on a developer. Many local community leaders and residents wonder what the hold-up is in making an announcement.

As we've been doing for nearly 15 years, the Norwood News will continue to follow this story as it develops.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New in the Norwood News

The newest edition of the Norwood News is online and the streets now. Here's a quick preview of the stories we're covering.

Coinciding the with the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, we have two in-depth stories about veterans.

Our lead story is about a local Bronx boy who was severely wounded while on tour in Iraq. As he struggles through the painstakingly slow healing process, a couple of unlikely collaborators are working to support him and other disabled veterans through art.

Another war-related story discusses how Bronx veterans are struggling to find affordable housing and receive health care.

Congratulations to the Monroe College Lady Mustangs for winning the women's junior college basketball championship!

Police are searching for a green-eyed suspect in the 52nd Precinct's first murder of the year.

Plus: more in the Police Report...local schools coverage...a near-fatal pedestrian accident on Gun Hill Road...and more!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Years in Iraq

Today, March 19, marks the Five-year anniversary of the day the United States invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in the hopes of bringing democracy to a brutal dictatorship. It's been a bumpy ride to say the least.

Today, President Bush gave a rather cheery assessment of the situation there.

Here's a great timeline of the conflict, provided by the Times, from when Bush first mentioned Iraq as being part of the "Axis of Evil" to now.

Here's more assessments from the Times' Baghdad Bureau.

I don't mean to keep pushing Times stories, but they've done the best coverage of any international news outlet.

And here's the statement of local Congressman Jose E. Serrano, an outspoken critic on the war since it's inception:

Five years ago, this President launched a misguided war based on falsehoods. It is a war that has now cost us almost 4,000 lives and $600 billion- and these numbers continue to rise. It is a war that was started with a stunning lack of preparation for the occupation that would follow. It is a war that has hindered our efforts in Afghanistan, and made our allies in the region less safe. It is a war that has lowered our standing in the world and has damaged our historic alliances with nations who were once stalwart friends. And finally, it is a war that has produced no compelling evidence of making our homeland safer from those who wish us harm. For all these reasons, it is a war that should never have been started, and should immediately be ended.

“Our troops have done an admirable job given the lack of planning from the leadership in Washington. My heart also goes out to all those who have been killed or wounded in this conflict, and to their families and friends who have been impacted. We will continue to work to provide our veterans and their loved ones with the support they need.

“By now we all know of the surge that has reduced some of the violence in Iraq. But no increase in the number of troops, however great, can bring about the national reconciliation in Iraq that is needed to address the decades of grievances that are today piled up on the streets of Baghdad and throughout that nation.

“Five years ago we invaded Iraq under false pretenses and without a plan for what came next. Today, we must realize that the next step should be to bring our troops home."

Check back here and at the Norwood News Web site for more coverage on how veterans of the Iraq war are faring here in the Bronx.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Homeless in the Bronx

This week's New York Magazine takes an intimate look at the faces behind the the Department of Homeless Services recent homeless count.

Particularly good (and sad) is the story of Nancy Quinn, a drug addict and prostitute, who for the past year has lived beneath an underpass in the South Bronx, next to the Bronx River.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

While many of our Irish brothers and sisters are at either the Manhattan or Bronx St. Patrick's Day parades, here's our story from last year about the history of Irish immigrants here in the northwest Bronx.

[Pictured above is Mickey Burke, former owner of an Irish gift shop called Keltic Connection, holding up a shirt he used to sell that denotes all 18 Irish pubs located on the Bainbridge/204th Street corridor, formerly known as Little Belfast.]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Struck by Truck, 91-year-old Norwood Woman Fights for Her Life

Long-time Norwood resident Anna Rogovin, 91, was struck by a large truck yesterday at about 10:30 a.m. as she crossed Gun Hill Road on her way to the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, where she had been an active participant in senior activities for more than 20 years.

As of this afternoon, Rogovin is still fighting for her life. Yesterday Rogovin made it through emergency surgery and is now breathing on her own after doctors removed a machine that was helping her breathe.

Rogovin is a “wonderful, positive person,” said Bayla Lovens, the Community Center’s Senior Center Director. She added that, “she is one of the kindest people I know.” Lovens said that Rogovin is a “very active” member of the Center’s Senior Advisory Board.

A Norwood resident, Rogovin is a veteran of Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), having served in Washington D.C. during World War II as a chemist. Rogovin also worked for Sloan Kettering, Colgate Palmolive and the American Petroleum Institute. This photo, by Norwood News editor Jordan Moss on Memorial Day, was taken at a Memorial Day ceremony in 2006 in front of the Museum of Bronx History, an annual event organized by Post 69 of the Jewish War Veterans. The paper ran a short article about that event.

Rogovin lives just a block from the Community Center on Rochambeau Avenue.

Police are still looking for the driver of the truck, a large white 18-wheeler with blue stripes.

If anyone has information, please call the 52nd Police Precinct at (718) 220-5811.

-By Graham Kates

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mount Hope Playground's Sluggish Transformation

Mount Hope Playground, at Walton Avenue and East 177th Street, is being renovated - slowly.

It was supposed to re-open last summer, but as the above shot (taken today) shows, there's still much work to be done. Granted, a delay of nine months or a year isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and the playground is likely to be fantastic when it's finished (there's going to be a basketball court, trees, benches, and a play equipment). But the delay's disappointing, for local kids especially, in a part of the Bronx bereft of open space.

The playground's restoration is possible thanks to a $200 million package allocated to Bronx parks a couple of years back, in compensation for Van Cortlandt Park housing the massive and deeply unpopular Croton Water Filtration Plant.

The filtration plant's myriad problems and construction delays have been well documented. I wonder how many of the promised park and playground renovations (70 are planned in all) are also falling behind schedule?

Two Big Events Tonight

There are two big events tonight that you should attend if you a) have time, b) want to save your home and need help with your mortgage, c) care about Bronx parks.

And fortunately, both events are at the same place: the "Concourse House," on the corner of 196th St. and the Grand Concourse. They both also start at the same time, 6 p.m., so you might have to pick your poison.

-Learn how to fight the rising cost of owning a home and learn how to prevent foreclosure at The Northwest Bronx Homeowner Resources Fair.

-Discuss Bronx parks issues and strategize for the future at the New Yorkers for Parks meeting.

First Impressions of Governor-in-Waiting Paterson

Just watched David Paterson's first press conference following Spitzer's resignation. My first impression is that he's much funnier than I imagined. Toward the end, he made a lobbyist joke that cracked up the crowd so hard, I felt like I was watching a comedy show at the Apollo.

But in all seriousness (a line Paterson employed a couple of times after jokes), Paterson looked very composed and confident. He talked about the need to pass the budget in a timely and effective manner, especially in the face of an economic downturn. And he didn't shy away from talking about taxes, which is sure to be a contentious, partisan issue in the coming weeks.

New York lawmakers must pass a budget by April 1.

On Monday at noon, Spitzer will hand over control of the state to Paterson, who will become the 55th governor of New York and the state's first African American chief executive.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Serrano on Spitzer Resignation

Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano weighs in on the Spitzer resignation in a press release, highlighting his accomplishments and support for immigrant rights. Here's the full text of the release:

“In stepping down, Governor Spitzer made a difficult decision for the good of New York State and his family,” Serrano said. "Today is a sad day, because Governor Spitzer had great potential to change the way business is done in Albany.

“Governor Spitzer worked very diligently and tenaciously on the problems faced by New Yorkers both in his role as Governor and as Attorney General. We are all deeply grateful for that service. I hope that he can be remembered for all he did in those years—especially his staunch support of the rights of immigrants.

“My thoughts are with Governor Spitzer and his family as he deals with this difficult time. I commend him for putting the good of his family and the state ahead of any personal ambitions. I wish him all the best and thank him for his service.”

Bronx Baller Thriving in Kansas

For all the hoops junkies out there, here's a story about Russell Robinson, a Bronxite excelling as a guard for the Kansas Jayhawks, one of the best college basketball teams in the country.

Though the story does not get specific, it sounds like Robinson grew up around Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse.

Spitzer Resigns

Well, Gov. Eliot Spitzer finally emerged from his Upper East Side apartment today and resigned as governor of New York, completing one of the most epic falls from grace in New York political history. Here's the text of his resignation speech as transcribed by the NY Times.

"In the past few days I have begun to atone for my private failings with my wife, Silda, my children, and my entire family. The remorse I feel will always be with me. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for the love and compassion they have shown me. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. I have been given much: the love of my family, the faith and trust of the people of New York, and the chance to lead this state. I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. To every New Yorker, and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize.

I look at my time as governor with a sense of what I might have been, but I also know that as a public servant I, and the remarkable people with whom I worked, have accomplished a great deal. There is much more to be done, and I cannot allow my private failings to disrupt the people’s work. Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor. At Lt. Gov. Paterson’s request, the resignation will be effective Monday, March 17, a date that he believes will permit an orderly transition.

I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. As I leave public life, I will first do what I need to do to help and heal myself and my family. Then I will try once again, outside of politics, to serve the common good and to move toward the ideals and solutions which I believe can build a future of hope and opportunity for us and for our children. I hope all of New York will join my prayers for my friend, David Paterson, as he embarks on his new mission, and I thank the public once again for the privilege of service."

Northwest Bronx Homeowner Resource Fair Tomorrow

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and University Neighborhood Housing Program are sponsoring a Homeowner Resource Fair this Thursday evening. In addition to connecting homeowners in foreclosure with counseling services, the goal is to reach out to area homeowners who are just getting by and need help fighting the rising cost of owning a home in NYC.

With adjustable rate mortgages resetting, utility costs rising and wages stagnating, foreclosure rates will likely continue to climb unless homeowners can reduce their ownership costs. The Coalition's Weatherization Assistance Program will be there to discuss their application process and guidelines, and will also distribute free weatherization kits. A participating SONYMA lender (M&T Bank) will be on hand discuss the State's Keep the Dream refinance program and its requirements.

Homeowner counseling groups (the Parodneck Foundation and West Bronx Housing) and a homeowner organizing group (CHANGER) will also be on hand to talk with homeowners and offer their advice and resources.

Here are the logistics:

Thursday, March 13, 2008
6:00 - 8:00 PM
Concourse House
2751 Grand ConcourseBronx, NY 10468
(entrance on E. 196th St)

For more information or to RSVP
call 718-933-2539
Download the flyer (PDF).
Download the Homeownership Guide (PDF)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Sign of the Slump?

Opinion by Guest Blogger Gregory Lobo Jost
New York City has seemed immune to the housing downturn afflicting most of the country, but there are plenty of signs that it may just be a matter of time. Foreclosure numbers continue to rise (at least in the outer-boroughs), many of the newly constructed infill housing (multiple 2- and 3-family homes on one lot) in the West Bronx sit vacant with For Sale and For Rent signs in the windows simultaneously, and now the latest from the Daily News: New housing construction down by one-third.

According to the article:

a new report from the city's housing and buildings departments shows building permit applications plunged 33% in the Bronx in 2007. Permits were issued for 3,104 new residential units in the Bronx last year, compared with 4,658 in 2006.

The ever-optimistic Borough President's Office counters that
the numbers do not represent a leveling off of local housing development, because there were still a record number of dollars invested last year — more than $925 million, compared with $713 million in 2006 and $237 million in 2002. Carrion's office said that more "substantial structures" were built in 2007 — including multi-family apartment buildings on smaller parcels of land and more elevator buildings, which cost more to build. The investment dollars also went into significant renovations of buildings. "It was a great year for housing in the Bronx — the fourth largest year in decades," said Carrion. "That's something to take notice."

Nonetheless it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the Bronx. No matter what, there will be some winners and losers. If housing prices do decline, current homeowners -- especially those in foreclosure who need to sell -- and banks will lose out. But if prices stay at the levels they are now, our affordability crisis will get worse as operating expenses like fuel and water continue to rise.

More on Spitzer Scandal

So, as it approaches 11 a.m. on the morning after this bombshell hit New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has not tendered his resignation or said how he intends to move forward.

The Times has blanket coverage of the scandal, which you can access here. The Times broke the story on its Web site yesterday afternoon. While the Times Editorial is still holding out the thinnest thread of hope that Spitzer might rebound from this, the Daily News' Michael Goodwin says the Gov needs to step down. So does the NY Post.

[One other note in the interest of full disclosure: Before becoming attorney general in 1998, Spitzer served for a time on the board of Mosholu Preservation Corporation, the nonprofit group that publishes the Norwood News.]

Please feel free to use this platform to discuss what's going on. Regardless of the outcome, this is a major development that is certain to drastically alter New York's political landscape.

We want to hear what the Bronx has to say about it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Native Bronxite Gov. Eliot Spitzer Asked to Resign

After public apologizing this afternoon for his involvement in a Washington, DC prostitution ring (he was allegedly a client), state Republican leaders are asking for his head.

In case you were wondering why the West Bronx Blog is particularly interested in this, well, aside from all the scandalous juicy details, Spitzer is from Riverdale.

Stay tuned, there are rumors floating around that Spitzer is going to announce his resignation tonight.

Out Now: The March Edition of the Monitor

The March edition of the Mount Hope Monitor hits the street today.

Stories include:

Elks Make Way for Health Center

St. Barnabas Hospital plans to build a 10-story out-patient facility at 2050 Grand Concourse, on the corner of Burnside Avenue. The Elks Lodge currently located there will be demolished to make way for the new building.

With destruction imminent, St. Barnabas expects construction of the new facility to be completed by March of 2010. The hospital claims it will be an asset in the community, although some local residents are unconvinced.

The Elks Lodge was constructed in 1909 and occupied by the group until the early ‘80s. After their departure, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a local non-profit, moved into the building. By 1995, the building was abandoned. “Various projects were talked about for the building for years but nothing happened,” said Ken Small, CAB’s development director.

St. Barnabas currently leases 2021 Grand Concourse which houses one of its Union Community Health Centers and its Fordham Tremont Center, a mental health facility. The building was once the Royal Hospital, built around 1927. As such, its facilities are dated.

“We felt really, that it would impossible to bring the building up to a code where we could deliver services,” said Patricia Bellaire, senior vice-president of Ambulatory Care, who spoke at Community Board 5’s February public meeting.

Arlene Ortiz-Allende, senior vice-president of Community Affairs for St. Barnabas, expects the construction project and the facility itself to provide jobs for the community. Though Caldwell Wingate Company LLC., contracted for the construction, only hires union employees, Ortiz-Allende said subcontracting opportunities would be available. “We will hold a job fair in the near future,” she said.

The new site will provide all the services offered at 2021 Grand Concourse and some new ones, including radiology. “We’ve been working with the architect and our building management to design a building that will not only meet the current needs of 2021 Grand Concourse but the future needs of the community,” Bellaire explained. The estimated cost of the building is around $60 million.

Some residents don’t share Bellaire’s vision. “How can they know our needs if they’ve never asked us?” asked Cathy Coleman, a 45-year resident of the neighborhood.

Coleman and more than 30 other local residents shared their concerns at a community meeting held at First Union Baptist Church on March 4. Those in attendance see 2050 Grand Concourse as emblematic of a general lack of community involvement in neighborhood planning. Louella Hatch, the meeting’s organizer, pointed out that St. Barnabas’ intentions were only presented to local residents after an official decision had already been made. She said that, though invited, representatives from St. Barnabas and the Community Board were not present at the church meeting.

Attendees also expressed concerns about health issues that might arise from the building’s demolition and the ensuing construction project. Some claimed to have seen workmen removing asbestos from the building and feared residual dust might cause future problems. Others wondered where all the building’s employees would park and if it would house a methadone clinic. “We will fight this [facility] by any means necessary,” Hatch said.

Ken Small believes the building will be good for the neighborhood. “Anytime a major building is built, it helps to stabilize things; serves as an economic anchor,” he said. At the same time, he understands residents’ concerns. “They are upset because they don’t get to give feedback. People will always be upset about this kind of thing.”

Creston Avenue Man Charged With Murder

On Sept. 1, 2004, a fight broke out on 179th Street between Morris and Creston avenues. Francisco Garcia, a neighborhood resident, was stabbed and killed.

It was a little after 8 p.m. on what was a warm, dry, late summer’s evening. Temperatures were in the 70s. Presumably, scores of people were out on the street. Presumably, scores of people witnessed Garcia’s gruesome demise.

Yet despite a very public death, no one was ever held accountable. No one, that is, until last October, some three years later, when police picked up Adolfo Vargas of 1985 Creston Ave. and charged him with murder.

Vargas, 34, is holed up on Rikers Island. He says he’s innocent.

The Road to Rikers

Rikers Island is New York’s largest jail, with a capacity of 15,000 inmates. It’s located in the East River, on an island of the same name, southeast of the Bronx and north of Queens. Access is via a 4,000-foot bridge from Queens.

A sign close to the bridge - “The Boldest Correction Officers in the World” – both warns and reassures.

Vargas is being held in the George Motchan Detention Center, one of several “mini-jails” on the island. On an afternoon in January, a reporter sits waiting for him in the visitors room. Despite the artwork on the walls, it’s a miserable atmosphere. At a nearby table a young woman weeps silently into her hands, her shoulders shaking, as she waited to see a loved one.

When Vargas appears he’s wearing a grey prison suit bearing the letters DOC. On the outside, ironically, Vargas’ nickname was Doc or Murdoch. That was before. Now it stands for Department of Corrections.

Vargas is articulate and bright. He manages to smile and joke. But when talk turns to his case, his eyes redden and his voice quivers.

He describes the day he was arrested. It was last Oct. 6. Police told him that a witness had come forward. Inside the 46th Precinct, he’s charged with Garcia’s murder. Vargas starts crying. He asks for a polygraph test but isn’t give one. There’s no police lineup.

Later that month, Vargas was indicted. The victim’s mother was in court. Vargas says she looked his way and shouted, “I hope you die.”

A Checkered Past, a Bungled Raid

Vargas, who went to St. Margaret Mary School on Tremont Avenue, has been in trouble with the police before. He used to peddle marijuana, and has several drug-related convictions. As a teenager he was sent to a drug treatment facility, but he’s never been incarcerated before; never been convicted of a violent crime.

“He’s not a violent guy at all,” says his childhood friend, Aneudis Tejada. “I don’t remember a time he had a fight.”

Vargas says he had nothing to do with Garcia’s murder. He was out on the street that September evening. He knew Garcia. He knows how Garcia met his death. But he – Vargas – wasn’t involved.

“If I had to sign that I was guilty and then get out in a day, I wouldn’t, because I didn’t do it,” he said. “I refuse to be a statistic.”

Vargas says his arrest could be linked to an August 2005 police raid on the apartment he shares with his mother. The cops were looking for drugs. They found nothing, Vargas says, but in the course of the raid he was pistol whipped, which broke two bones in his face. The NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigated and he was awarded $75,000. Vargas believes the incident made him enemies in the police force. In short, he says he’s convinced he’s been set up.

(The NYPD was asked to corroborate Vargas’ account of the raid, but didn’t do so by press time. Kevin Harrington, the commanding officer of the 46th Precinct, said he wouldn’t comment on the murder charges facing Vargas, because it’s still an open case.)

Life on Rikers

Vargas has been incarcerated for more than five months. As the days tick by, he’s both bored and terrified at the same time. Around 70 percent of inmates are gang affiliated, says Vargas, and they’re always on the lookout for new recruits both willing and unwilling.

“I’m scared for my life right now,” he said. “I’m crying every day.”

In January, when he was on the phone, he watched as an inmate slashed another in the face with a makeshift knife fashioned out of a piece of Plexiglas.

Vargas says he spends his days avoiding trouble, going to church, reading the bible, and researching his case. Sometimes he wakes up in the morning, thinking he’s back at home in his apartment. Then the cold reality sets in.

No trial date has been set. Vargas and his lawyer are hoping it won’t get that far. They’re trying to get a Grand Jury reinstated, which they hope will throw the case out. (According to Vargas, his first lawyer falsely told the judge that Vargas had waived his right to a Grand Jury, whose job it is to determine whether there’s enough evidence for trial.)

A Recent Day in Court

On Feb. 25, Vargas was driven to the Bronx’s sparkling new courthouse – the Bronx County Hall of Justice on 161st Street – for his latest hearing. His mother, sister, brother-in-law, two friends, and one of their mothers were in attendance.
Vargas comes out, holding a bible behind his handcuffed hands. He smiles at his supporters and stands next to his lawyer.

“What we have is a tremendous travesty of justice,” says his lawyer, William T. Martin, to the judge.

Martin says that one witness, “meandering to the police” three years after the murder, shouldn’t be enough evidence to keep his client locked up. He says that if Vargas was the killer he would have left the neighborhood instead of sticking around. He says that local residents know Vargas isn’t guilty because several saw with their own eyes exactly who plunged a knife into Garcia’s chest and back.

A lawyer for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, who is prosecuting the case, tells the judge that nothing has changed; that Martin’s saying nothing new.

(When asked for comment, Steven Reed, a spokesperson for the Bronx DA, wrote in an e-mail, “It is not our practice to try cases in the press. The sufficiency of the evidence against Mr. Vargas will be reviewed by the trial judge and evaluated by a jury of his peers.”)

Martin asks the judge for bail. It’s refused, as is his request for the reinstatement of the Grand Jury.

The whole thing is over in five minutes. Vargas nods at his friends and family, and is taken away. His next court date is May 12. Another 70 plus days in Rikers to mull over his predicament.

Outside the courtroom, Vargas’ sister starts crying. Martin tells the family that progress is being made and at the next court date he hopes to get both bail and the Grand Jury.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Martin says of the case against Vargas. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”

Vargas’ 80-year-old mother has difficulty understanding what Martin or anyone is saying as her English is poor. Later, through a translator, she talks of the pain and anguish that have filled her life since her son’s been taken away. “I cry at night,” she said, “because I’m used to being with him every day.

Her health is bad, and so her doctor told her to avoid stressful situations, which includes visiting her son in prison. “It hurts to see him locked up,” she said.

A Tragedy

“Adolfo had nothing to do with this,” said Tejada, Vargas’s childhood friend, whose words were echoed by number of local residents this reporter spoke to. “Every single person in the neighborhood knows he didn’t do it. Everyone knows who did do it. The police know who did it. My theory is that they [the police] did something dirty here.”

In Tejada’s opinion, Vargas’ incarceration is a tragedy. Perhaps it is, but the deeper tragedy here – of course - remains the death of Francisco Garcia on that warm September evening in 2004.

Garcia, 29 at the time of his death, lived at 124 E. 177th St. According to Vargas, the two knew each other because Garcia used to sell him the occasional inhaler to ease his asthma.

Vargas says he was with Garcia that fateful night. He says Garcia and another man got in a fight over a pizza; that Garcia was stabbed; that Garcia ran up Morris Avenue before collapsing on Tremont Avenue. Vargas says he didn’t go the police because he doesn’t snitch; but that, when arrested, he gave them the name of the guilty man.
Friends, family, and family friends, believe Vargas’ story.

Still, only one thing is crystal clear: the reverberations of Francisco Garcia’s murder are still being felt in the neighborhood some three-and-half years after his life was cut short.

Ed. Note: At present, the Monitor doesn't have a Web site. If you'd like a hard copy of the paper, please e-mail mounthopenews[at]gmail.com and we'll send you a copy for free while supplies last.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Memorial Friday for Soumare, Magassa families

Tomorrow, Friday March 7, marks the one-year anniversary of the fire on Woodycrest Avenue in Highbridge, which claimed ten lives between the Soumare and Magassa families--including nine children.

Highbridge residents will gather Friday at noon on Woodycrest Avenue between W. 164th and W. 165th streets to honor the memory of the victims.

Check out this video posted on You Tube by Jose Gonzalez, who is also working on a documentary about the history of Highbridge.

Latest Norwood News, now on Bronx streets, online

Check out the latest edition of the Norwood News online now.

Here's just a few highlights:

Leaders at a local mosque file harassment charges against their landlord.

Federal authorities take down a long-running drug organization in Norwood.

How the mayor's mid-year budget cuts will affect our schools.

Plus much, much more.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Breaking News: Hunts Point Jail Nixed

South Bronx community activists have won a round against the city: The New York Times has reported that the Bloomberg administration has scrapped plans to build a jail in Hunts Point. However, the city said it is still attempting to build a jail -- albeit a smaller one -- in the South Bronx.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Another Landlord/Tenant Dispute in the West Bronx

The so-called "home of hip-hop" isn't the only Sedgwick Avenue apartment building in the news this week. According to AM New York, tenants living in 1849 Sedgwick Ave. have bought a class action suit against their landlord who's allegedly failed to correct hundreds of housing code violations, leaving them without heat and forcing them to share their apartments with rats and roaches.

If you missed it, HPD recently decided to close the door on the proposed sale of 1520 Sedgwick Ave. The building, once home to hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc, is part of the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. (1849 Sedgwick Ave. also used to be enrolled.) Tenants and housing advocates were worried the sale to a wealthy real estate developer - and the building's removal from the program - would result in soaring rents. According to The Times, the sale was scuppered "because the financing of the sale was not viable under current rent restrictions." More here.

In January, tenants announced their intention to buy the building themselves and convert it into affordable co-operatives. Thanks to HPD's decision, that now looks more likely.

Fixing NYC's Water Problems Goes Way Beyond "Deadbeats"

Guest Opinion by Gregory Lobo Jost
A few good things came out of the New York City Water Board meeting this past Friday morning. At the most basic level, we learned that the entity that sets water rates for the City has finally developed a website, so now you can now figure out who actually is on the Board, read their mission statement, look at past meeting minutes and resolutions, and (most fun of all) find out just how much water rates have gone up since 1980.

(To spare you the time and fun, the cost has gone up 209% -- after adjusting for inflation and corresponding sewer costs -- meaning you’re paying more than triple for the same amount of water than you did 28 years ago. Good thing we’ve all got low-flow toilets now, right? Just by way of comparison, a gallon of gasoline costs about the same as it did back in 1980, also after adjusting for inflation – maybe that’s why we’ve become much more efficient with water than we have at the pump.)

More importantly, the Water Board announced that they are extending the deadline for delinquent single family homeowners to sign up for the Payment Incentive Program until April 21. (Councilman Rivera is hosting a PIP event today from 3-8pm at his office on Southern Blvd. and Fairmount Pl.) While this is welcome news for the thousands of families that missed the original deadline (February 21), it still is not going to stop the shutoffs from taking place. In fact, even though the deadline has been extended, shutoffs will likely begin before the PIP deadline rolls around. (Owners of multiple unit dwelling won’t be facing shutoffs but will be subject to lien sales, and their deadline is also April 21.)

The press has been quick to jump on these homeowners, labeling them as “deadbeats” without ever interviewing anyone who is delinquent on their water bill. The public has a right to be angry at someone after the recent huge rate increases -- and since DEP and the Water Board continue to blame everything on uncollected bills, homeowners are an easy target.

But looking at this issue through the larger lens of affordability in New York City reveals a mixed landscape. Sure, there are a bunch of folks out there trying to get away with not paying the one bill that, until recently, had no enforcement mechanism. But consider that in many parts of the City, homeowners typically pay more than 50 or 60% of their incomes on their housing costs. Factor in the recent spike in subprime lending and ARM resets and it’s no wonder certain bills are going unpaid.

Our own analysis of the shutoff list from DEP showed that more than 15% of the 600 Bronx homeowners who remained in danger of shutoff 3 weeks ago were actually already in foreclosure. Obviously, they are not going to pay their water bill! The numbers are even more striking for the 2,200 2-4 family homeowners in the Bronx who were on the 90-day lien sale list solely for water bills – nearly 20% of them are in foreclosure!

With foreclosure rates still going up, these numbers may likely rise; in fact, the threat of shutoff may force some homeowners to choose to pay their water bill over their mortgage. While that’s good news for DEP, higher foreclosure rates aren’t helping the City out overall. The Water Board is claiming that families in foreclosure won’t have their water shut-off or their liens sold. Let’s hope they make many fewer mistakes on their enforcement policies than they do on their billing.

Meanwhile, it’s time to stop solely blaming so-called deadbeats for excessive water rate increases and really analyze DEP’s spending, the rental payment they make to the City coffers, and how we can really reform the way we pay for water in New York City. University Neighborhood Housing Program plans to do just that at our upcoming 25th anniversary forum on Water & Sewer Reform on April 10.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Engineer Facing Charges in Bronx Fire

The big New York story in the Times today is about an 82-year-old engineer who is being charged with perjury for making false statements to officials who were investigating a deadly fire in the Mt. Eden section of the west Bronx.

In 2001, according to an investigative report on the fire, Jose D. Vargas approved renovations at the Walton Avenue building and then failed to inspect them after they were completed.

During the blaze, two Bronx firefighters were killed "when rotting support columns gave way, the floor collapsed and they were trapped," according to a fire department report.

Vargas' lawyer says he's being used as a scapegoat.