Inner City Press Bronx Reporter
Archive #2 2001: April 1-Sept. 10, 2001

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September 10, 2001

    Over the weekend of September 8-9, sound trucks inched through The Bronx, glaring exhortations to go out and vote for Fernando Ferrer on September 11. The looped tape spoke of a coalition of African Americans and Latinos, saying, "Now is the time." Community leaders and pundits outside The Bronx continue to parrot the line that Mr. Ferrer rebuilt the entire Bronx. Come check it out, before you parrot that...

    Back in the real world, housing court evictions between 1997 and 1999 were recently studied by the Citizens Advice Bureau. According to the CAB report, The Bronx is the only borough in which there was an increase in the number of evictions. Evictions increased by 5.8% in the Bronx but declined in other boroughs by as much as 22.4%. Though it only has 16% of the city’s total population, the Bronx has one third of all evictions in New York City.

   Comparing selected low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the study found that more than three quarters of Bronx neighborhood buildings were professionally managed, in contrast to half of the buildings in Brooklyn neighborhoods. "Landlords of professionally managed buildings are much more likely to use Housing Court than landlords of small buildings," said the study's author, David Rubel, adding that most large landlords employ lawyers to represent them, while the vast majority of low-income tenants have little or no access to legal counsel. The study concludes that the new Bronx housing court building has "not brought any relief to the tenants of the Bronx."

   Speaking of new courthouses, last week, Flour City International announced that its $ 32.3-million curtain-wall subcontract on the planned $ 324.7-million new Bronx criminal court was cancelled.

   The hexed urban renewal site at 156th Street and Third Avenue is the subject of a new plan, with a politically-connected developer. Related Companies has been designated to build a $36 million retail and office complex on the city-owned site. The deputy mayor for economic development and finance states that Kmart has expressed interest in being the anchor tenant of the retail space. Earlier, Rosenshein Associates had the site, and claimed that Bradleys was coming. We'll see... ICP's proposal? Until there's a solid plan, the lot should be opened again to the salsa festivals that used to take place there.

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August 27, 2001

    In the wake of the Rolando Paulino All Stars' third-place showing in the Little League world series, it's time to comment on some of the mail Inner City Press has been receiving about the team. Mail from The Bronx was almost uniformly supportive, and grateful that the talents of Bronx youth are being spotlighted. Some mail from beyond The Bronx, however, has questioned why the team's supporters waved Dominican and Puerto Rican, as well as American, flags, and why some of the team members do not (yet) speak English. The short answer? It's called immigration. And it's what has revitalized large sections of the South Bronx, and other similar communities in NYC and beyond. Here's a sample letter we received:

Subj:   little league world series
Date:    8/24/01 8:03:53 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: [Richard Gamble, San Diego, California]
To: BronxWatch [at]

    Just finished watching the little league baseball game between Oceanside, CA & the Bronx, NY... I was disgusted by the interview after the game, when the ESPN reporter had to translate the interview to English. I feel embarrassed to have this team representing the US when they can't even speak our language. The educational system that represents the Bronx school district should be ashamed that their team doesn't have the basic education to speak our English language. What does that say about our future?

   I feel that if a little league baseball team is going to represent the US, then they should at least know how to speak the English language.

Thank you, Richard W. Gamble, San Diego, CA

      Well, Mr. Gamble, the answer is that some of the kids have only recently immigrated to the United States. As has been true throughout this country's history, people come, seeking a better life, and it takes some time to learn the language. What's amazing to us is that the Bronx team, with fewer resources than many of the other teams (for example, the mid-Staten Island team spend $10,000 trying to prove age-irregularities among the Bronx team), made such a strong showing....

     In the political orbit, there's a bit of a split about Bronx Democrats in the race for city comptroller. On August 23, Assemblyman Jose Rivera gave his endorsement to Herbert Berman, and Congressman Jose Serrano and Assembly members Ruben Diaz and Arroyo came out for William Thompson. Mark Green, meanwhile, has endorsed Pedro G. Espada to retain his council seat, over Serrano's son...

     Earlier this year, Inner City Press reported on the inclusion of Rent-A-Center in the subsidized mall in Crotona Park East, and asked: why would a firm widely criticized for gouging low-income consumers be included in a supposed community development project? Well, last week the city's Department of Consumer Affairs accused Rent-A-Center of 310 violations of New York's consumer protection laws. Among the charges: at the Rent-A-Center store at 1638 Bruckner Blvd. in the Bronx, inspectors found a 32-inch Sony TV wound up costing the consumer $1,949.35, though the suggested retail price is $599.99. Consumers were thus charged 225% over the suggested price. So we reiterate our question: why is subsidized commercial space being provided to Rent-A-Center? And how might this effect the Community Reinvestment Act credit that the bank funding this project, including Citibank, have claimed? Developing...

    Our Bronx Report has been a bit truncated the past two week, due to a need to focus on the applications by Citizens Financial Group and its parent, the Royal Bank of Scotland, to acquire Mellon's banking business. ICP's Bank Beat has a summary of issues raised to the Federal Reserve.

August 20, 2001

     Median household income in Bronx County actually declined between 1990 and 2000, when adjusted for inflation. In 1990 median household income in The Bronx was $30,315 (in 2000 dollar-value). By 2000, it had fallen to $27,551. This data comes from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, recently released. The numbers are not surprising to those who live in the Bronx, other than perhaps in Riverdale. But they call into question not only ex-president Clinton's claim to have "raised all boats" -- they also undercut the Bronx borough president's main rationale for running for mayor: that he's helped the people of the Bronx so much. Frankly, the borough presidency has so little power now that it's difficult to ascribe most of the changes in The Bronx to that office. But it's become central to Mr. Ferrer's campaign, the main topic of his kick-off speech on Fox Street. We've yet to see this data addressed by his campaign.

    Rather, the mailings are flying. We received last week, along presumably with all other Bronx voters, a "Message from Borough President Fernando Ferrer about the budget." It's unabashedly a piece of campaign literature. We have Ferrer's announcement following a slew of endorsements on August 17, that people should "remember this day... it is the day that his group of New Yorkers just made a front-runner. This is the day that this group of New Yorkers, and so many who are not here, have made a mayor." A Quinnipiac poll released last week had Ferrer sunk to fourth place, with 14%. The Post of August 15 quoted a "Ferrer insider" expressing confusion: "We haven't had a negative story in a month. We've gotten terrific press. Our ads are up. It doesn't make any sense."

   Let's say that this poll was an aberration, and let's say that Ferrer does get into a run-off. With the increased focus, will the borough president's new-found progressive politics stand up? That's a question for September.

    One (very) positive note: the Rolando Paulino All-Stars little league team, long a fan favorite here in the Bronx, is now nationwide news, particularly following Danny Almonte's perfect game on August 18. Of course, even their success is getting used politically...

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July 16, 2001

     Inner City Press last September reported on local politicians claiming credit for Internet supermarket Webvan agreeing to lease space in the South Bronx. Well, Webvan last week declared bankruptcy, before ever creating a single job in the South Bronx. Still, we've heard no retraction from those who claimed so much credit -- including by leaking news of Webvan's lease....

     A post-election report prepared for the House Government Reform Committee reveals that while nationwide, the percentage of November 2000 ballots not counted was less than two percent, in the 16th Congressional District in the South Bronx, the figure was 5.9%: 8,938 votes of the 141,800 cast were not counted...

    Another update: Police officer Mark Conway, recently convicted (but lightly-sentenced) for shooting the unarmed teenager Dantae Johnson (see below), has received a new community service assignment. The Boys & Girls Club in Co-op City didn't work out: the Club was concerned that it would be targeted by anti-police brutality demonstrations. Now Conway's new gig is to serve his 150 hours at "various Urban League sites around the city." That way, no one will know where he'll be, on any particular day...

    An update from further back: from a maximum security prison in Sullivan County, Adam Abdul Hakeem, formerly known as Larry Davis, is filing pro se appeals, seeking to have all or part of his 30-to-life sentence overturned. It was big news in The Bronx, in 1986: a shootout in the projects, when police came to arrest Davis, and allegedly fired first; a 17 day manhunt, and when Davis was finally captured, some chanted "Larry! Larry!" out the windows. He was twice acquitted: juries believed him, that the police has set him up, and tried to kill him because he has knowledge of police officers' involvement in selling confiscated drugs. But a third jury found him guilty of weapons charges, and another convicted him of murdering a sixth dealer, bringing total prison sentences of 30 years to life. He continues to appeal, from upstate, serving as his own lawyer. But Federal court Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis has deemed his petition "without merit," and has submitted that recommendation to District Judge Kimba M. Wood.

    Casa Promesa Nursing Home was cited for violations in January 2001, following an inspection, results of which were released last week...

    On the political beat, from Newsday of July 10, we have this Ferrer-ism: "My strategy depends on who is in the runoff with me. There are different strategies for different permutations of the vote... If it comes down to a Green-Ferrer race, you can bet that I'll get the endorsements of all the Democratic county organizations in an instant." Ah, the Machines -- apparently a source of pride... Ferrer added: "Organization support will give me credibilty among white voters," Ferrer told me. "I'll wind up getting Vallone voters and I'll get a good percentage of the middle-class Jewish vote in the city that went with Hevesi."

    In other ethnic news, an obituary: Danny's Pork Store, a Belmont institution for decades, closed for good at the beginning of July... R.I.P.... Meanwhile, a decidedly half-baked street fair is currently on 187th Street, sponsored by Our Lady of Mount Carmel church. The festival in June had a ferris wheel, and soon-to-die goldfish you could win by flicking a ping pong ball into a jar. This festival, if it can be called that, is little more than two stands frying sausages (at one, an elderly man chanted incessantly, "How many?" "How many?"), and one truck selling calzones and zeppoles. This minor-league festival will be superceded in mid-August, by Ferragosto...

* * *

July 9, 2001

    Politics, never pretty in The Bronx, are getting uglier, and reaching to lower levels of the bureaucracy. Most recently, the long-time chairwoman of Bronx Community Board 3 (Morrisania), Marcela Brown, came out swinging upon news that she was not being reappointed to the Community Board. Ms. Brown states that after she decided to support ex-Wendell Foster staffer Michael Benjamin over Foster's daughter Helen, for the City Council seat from which Rev. Foster is term-limited, she learned that she wouldn't be renominated. She blames Foster, Foster smugly replies that "the borough president makes appointments to the community board, not me." But the borough president's spokesman "declined to comment" on Brown's ouster from the board. Q.E.D.: the Machine is supporting Helen Foster. Meanwhile, the borough president's office blithely solicits nominations to the Community Boards -- the form doesn't mention that you have to support the Machine's candidates...

     Meanwhile, the N.Y. Post reports that the Bronx borough president has accepted over $8,000 in campaign contributions from 13 check cashiers, including $2,000 from cashier owner Leonard Socol, who was fined $500,000 by the New York Banking Department in 1999, when the NYBD found "liquidity deficiencies" and that the check-cashing businesses had kept "inaccurate and misleading entries" in its books...

     In other garbage news, tractor-trailer number 173 of the West New York, N.J.-based Gladiators continues to park nightly on Quarry Road and 182nd Street, with a full load of rancid-smelling municipal waste. This is immediately adjacent to a hospital, and to government-subsidized private home, much feted when they were built. The Machine... is otherwise occupied, apparently.

     In non-Machine news, and in the spirit of evenhandedness, Espada-ally Sandra Love pled guilty last week to using false information to win a $95,000 state grant. The grant was supposed to be used to pay the Teatro Puerto Rico's $10,000-per-month rent at 490 E. 138th Street. Love admitted that she gave $80,000 of the money to Espada-run Soundview Health Center; prosecutors maintain that $6,000 of that wound up in Espada's campaign coffers. The Teatro de Puerto Rico Project closed in 1996 after it failed to pay rent. Ah, la cultura...

    We always like positive (Bronxite) news, and here's some: Bronx resident Afua Atta-Mensah, 21, has just graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. While there, Ms. Atta-Mensah began a program in which teenagers in low-income Hartford can get free assistance to prepare for the SAT tests, and other parts of the college application process. "These kids are put in a situation where they already start at a disadvantage. I just really want them to find out this is something ... they need to do. I'm from the South Bronx, and Hartford looks exactly like my community," Ms. Atta-Mensah said. Congratulations.

    Update, back in the Bronx: police officer Mark Conway, recently convicted of shooting the unarmed teenager Dantae Johnson, received a sentence that included no jail time -- only a $1,000 fine, and 150 hours of community service. Conway sought to begin this light sentence at the Boys & Girls Club in Co-op City, but was turned away. The Daily News, in a man-on-the-street reaction sidebar, reported: "'I think the cop should have done time for his offense,' said Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson. 'If that was one of us who accidentally shot a cop, we'd be looking at 25 years, not community service.'" The "one of us" phrase should have given it away -- the next day, the News apologized: "a story in yesterday's Daily News... incorrectly attributed a statement to Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson. The statement was made by Robert Johnson, 18 - no relation to the district attorney or to Dantae Johnson." Only in The Bronx...

June 18, 2001

    We must amplify our Report last week, filed just after the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Hours after the parade ended, over 400 riot-equipped police descended on Longwood. Their actions turned a boisterous situation into a near riot: officers in helmets charged into the crowd, spraying Mace at anyone there, swinging billy clubs. Police made 42 arrests; the District Attorney's office only subsequently filed charges against four of these people. Bronx Police Commander Patrick Timlin came to Community Board 2 on June 12, to defend the officers' actions. At a time when the Department says it will experiment with new, community-friendly methods in Soundview, the approach taken in Longwood on June 10-11 was counter-productive...

    Meanwhile, in Belmont, an 18-wheel tractor trailer with a load of foul-smelling municipal waste has taken to parking, on Quarry Road and 182nd Street. The stench extends for several blocks, including to St. Barbabas Hospital. Where on the police, or Departments of Health, Transportation or Sanitation, on this one? On June 14, it was Truck # 173, from "The Gladiators," West New York, N.J., Tel. # 1-800-532-9623... The Times' June 16 B1 story about Pennsylvania's crack-down on unsafe garbage-hauling trucks, and resultant back-ups in New York, appears related to this particular truck. But frankly, parking stinking garbage overnight, night after night, in a residential neighborhood -- can't be the solution...

   The first round of the NYU study of air pollution in the South Bronx has found soot levels consistently higher than in Manhattan, and particularly grievous concentrations of soot in two locations: the intersection of Westchester and Whitlock avenues in Soundview, and near PS 43 at 135th Street and Brown Place. The second round, just beginning, will check for carbon monoxide, ozone and sulfur dioxide...

    In Mott Haven, the public library has still not re-opened, after being closed three years ago for repairs...

* * *

June 11, 2001

     On June 5, Police Officer Mark Conway was found guilty of misdemeanor assault for shooting an unarmed teenager, Dantae Johnson, in the West Bronx two years ago. Other police officers present in the courtroom denounced Judge Troy Webber, and pushed journalists out of the way. One publisher report quotes two Conway supporters: "'It's a--- disgrace'... 'They should kill the ---,' a second responded." Question: when someone needs protection from the police -- who protects them? Conway will be sentenced on July 3 (he faces a maximum of one year).

     School privatization continues, under other guises: last week, Edison Schools Inc., voted down by parents earlier this year in its plan to takeover five public elementary schools, entered the Bronx through the backdoor. Edison is buying, for about $34 million, LearnNow Inc., which had previously gotten approval to open a school in the South Bronx. LearnNow's (now, Edison's) Harriet Tubman Charter School is slated to open with kindergarten through third grade, with a goal to expand to students through 12th grade. It will draw mainly from the Bronx neighborhoods of Morrisania, Melrose, Claremont and Crotona Park East -- the neighborhoods where Edison lost the vote to take over Community School 66. How about reopening LearnNow's contract, in light of the new ownership?

     In community reinvestment advocacy news that relates to The Bronx, Brooklyn, Newark, N.J. and elsewhere, ICP has just filed comments with the New York Banking Department opposing the application of New York Community Bancorp ("NYCB;" f/k/a Queens County Savings Bank) to acquire Richmond County Savings Bank ("RCSB"). ICP had requested from both NYCB and RCSB their 2000 lending data, known as Loan Application Registers ("LARs").

     NYCB reported 195 LAR items in 2000. Significantly, NYCB appears to be exporting deposits, including from low and moderate income neighborhoods, to lend in more affluent areas. Fully 70 of NYCB's 195 LAR items in 2000 are in Manhattan. While NYCB states that its business focus in multi-family housing, note that NYCB in 2000 reported only 22 LAR items in Brooklyn, and only 8 in The Bronx (compared to 70 in Manhattan). So NYCB's focus is NOT only multi-family housing: it is multifamily housing in the most affluent county in the region, a county where, it should be noted, NYCB has only one branch, the same number as it has in Bronx County. In Brooklyn, NYCB has five branches, including one in Starrett City.

     Looking more closely at the data, NYCB's 22 Brooklyn LAR items in 2000 reflect no lending activity whatsoever in East New York / Starrett City, nor in Bushwick. Of NYCB's 8 Bronx LAR items in 2000, only two were in the South Bronx (the lower income, more predominantly "minority" half of the county) - and one of these was a denied $3,000 home improvement loan, in South Bronx Census Tract 231.

    ICP has also reviewed RCSB's 2000 LAR, looking at its lending in the Newark, New Jersey Metropolitan Statistical Area, Essex County, and, most importantly, the City of Newark. RCSB, which bought Ironbound Bank in Newark in 1998, reported in 2000 only two LAR items in the entire City of Newark: one resulting in a denial, and one loan originated, on the fringe of Newark in Census Tract 22, the Upper Vailsburg neighborhood, adjacent to more suburban Maplewood. NYCB's practice in New York -- exporting deposits of moderate income neighborhoods to lend in more affluent neighborhoods -- does not give any assurance that it would bring about the clearly needed improvements in RCSB's lending, particularly (but not only) in the City of Newark. Accordingly, ICP has urged the N.Y. Banking Department to deny NYCB's application. Developing...

     We'll close this week with a few snapshots of Puerto Rican Parade day in The Bronx: on 180th Street and Third Avenue, the sidewalks in front of the Black Falcons Motorcycle Club were filled, and the salsa music pumping, from midday forward. Elsewhere, families set up barbecues by the fire hydrants, and cars festooned with Puerto Rican flags raced down the avenues, honking. Much of the talk was of Vieques, and the need to end the bombing by the U.S. Navy. Some use the issue for hype, but the issue is all too real. Seems like it might be time to reopen the United Nations' Trustee Council, which has been dormant since the U.S. "normalized" relations with the Pacific island of Palau in 1994...

June 4, 2001

    Another dubious "first" for the Bronx: of the ten new electricity-generating turbines being fast-tracked by the New York State Power Authority, the first was opened on June 1: in Port Morris in the South Bronx. As previously reported, the NYPA designed the turbines just below the capacity that would trigger environmental review. Once again, sadly, the South Bronx is the place where a questionable use can most quickly be sited and built...

   Some statistics, we report with no commentary except the context of placement: a new analysis of 2000 census data reflects that 30.2% of Bronx households with children are headed by a woman. For the other boroughs, it's 22% in Brooklyn, 16% in Queens and 12.6% in Manhattan.

   Last week, the NYC Department of Health stepped forward to temporarily save 15 of the 27 health clinics that had been proposed for closure. But eight of the other twelve clinics have already been closed, and the other four, including one in The Bronx, is still slated for closure.

    In last week's testimony in the trial of police officer Mark Conway, for his shooting last year of unarmed teenager Dantae Johnson, Conway's partner Michael Fraterrigo took the stand, and recounted his concern, after the shoot, for... Conway. Fraterrigo said, of Conway: "His eyes were glassy, he was pale... At that point, I said, 'Mark, it will be all right.'" Since the most Conway faces is a year in prison, it apparently WILL be all right. Conway's account was contested by witness Thomas Streed, a California-based forensic psychologist, who wondered why Conway would have reached through his car window to Johnson, shifting his gun to his "weak" hand, if he really thought Johnson was armed. Conway will take the stand next week, and presumably address these questions...

* * *

May 29, 2001

     When 16 year old Dantae Johnson was shot by Police Officer Mark Conway in May 1999, we promised to follow the matter. Now, two years later, Officer Conway is on trial in State Supreme Court on 161st Street. Conway has chosen a bench trial, with no jury. The way the District Attorney's office has charged him, the most he could serve would be one year in prison. Dantae Johnson has filed a civil suit against the City.

   In testimony last week, Mr. Johnson stated: "I was scared. I was running to my house, but the unmarked police car came after me and the car was getting closer and closer... The police officer reached out and grabbed my elbow with his left hand... I struggled to get free. I felt the car slow down . . . I got free and fell to the ground. I got up and fell again, that's when I heard a shot. I fell and tried to get up, but my left leg got numb and I couldn't put pressure on it. I fell again." Officer Conway claims he thought Johnson had a gun -- but no gun was ever recovered. The trial resumes this week.

    Only in The Bronx: the Bronx County Democratic Organization has sent out invitations to its annual dinner, June 21, and it declined to invite Democratic council members Warden and Eisland, and, not surprisingly, State Senator Pedro Espada. Meanwhile, the Organization announced its endorsement for Councilman Carrion for borough president; Eisland announced her candidacy three days later. Jose Rivera stood down; Warden is expected to announce his candidacy (he's term-limited, and Larry Seabrook will be running for his council seat). The Organization endorsed Ruben Diaz Sr. for a council seat, and chose Michael Benjamin over term-limited councilman Wendell Foster's daughter. Organization spokesman Luis Miranda, asked about the invitations, confirmed the "small-tent" strategy, stating that "the people who are listed are the people who are the Bronx Democratic organization... The detractors, those who attack it and want to destroy it, are not part of the family." Détente has still, apparently, not reached The Bronx... It's a county often paralyzed by in-fighting, while events in the wider world, which stand to impact The Bronx, keep gliding by...

    Finally, for this week: while the local newspapers continuing mining the 2000 U.S. Census data (all four NYC dailies have noted the dramatic increase in immigration from Mexico), Citigroup, the largest U.S. bank, announced on May 17 a proposal to acquire Banamex, the largest bank in Mexico. This $12.5 billion proposal raises a slew of questions, about sovereignty, branch closings, the allocation of bail-outs, the spread of predatory lending, the (in)adequacy of global bank regulation -- as well as, of course, Citigroup's expansion into the seediest side of the subprime lending industry, with its purchase last Fall of Associates First Capital Corporation. And so, Inner City Press has today begun an ongoing Citigroup - Banamex Watch (click here to view, or to bookmark, if appropriate). We would welcome any reader's reflections on Banamex, or banking or consumer protection in Mexico more generally...

May 14, 2001

    We take a break  this week  and shift to vignettes:

    Felix "Tito" Trinidad's boxing victory on May 12 was followed by Puerto Rican flag-waving motorcades all over The Bronx (and on La Isla del Encanto as well, for sure). It was nice to see pride like that...

     As May 12 moved, past midnight, into May 13, six police cars converged at the corner of Quarry Road and 181st Street, just north of the Jet Set Café, on which we've frequently reported. The incident began with one cop car pointing its headlights at a car parked next to St. Barnabas Hospital. Sirens were turned on, then honking -- all apparently directed at getting the stationary car, whose driver was resting his head on the steering wheel, to move. He did not; the officers got out, and pounded on his window. The car then lurched backwards, and the situation heated up. Five more cars came, including an unmarked black car, whose occupants jumped out to join the melee. An observer was asked, "What's going on?" "Un borracho," he said -- a drunk. Well, it sure got a reaction, from the 48th Precinct...

    On the BX 15 bus last week, a man seat in the back row, cutting tags off two dozen shirts, and offering them for sale. An older man was considering buying, two for ten dollars, but then hesitated, saying he didn't want to have to carry his purchase around with him all day. "Come on, Pops -- treat yourself, don't cheat yourself," the salesman said, and threatened to "tell him grandma" about the old man, and his attempt to lower the price from ten to eight dollars. The salesman got out on Third Avenue between 170th Street and St. Paul's Place, and set out a display of shirts on the benches in the housing projects' playground...

   Further south, on 148th Street and Willis Avenue, the second-story space once occupied by a lending office of Marine Midland Bank (now HSBC) now houses a satellite office of a plaintiffs' slip-and-fall law firm, whose phone number spells out I-CAN-SUE. So whereas people used to be able to apply for loans, now they can get service only if they're injured...

    Nice birthday parties, two days last week, on the stoop of the building on the northwest corner of Willis and 138th Street... Up on the fourth floor, there's a carved head, that's been looking down at that intersection for decades... Regarding the Catholic Church's proposal to demolish St. Jerome's Church on 138th Street and replace it: we're against this plan. Fix it, don't nix it. And that's it, for this week...

May 7, 2001

       This week: predatory lending, redlining -- and a book review.

     In previous weeks, we've analyzed the Bronx lending of Associates First Capital Corp., the high interest rate, subprime lender that Citigroup acquired last year. We've found that Associates', now Citigroup's, high cost loans are disproportionately directed at people of color; this has become known as predatory lending, and there's a groundswell of legislation against such practices, at the federal, state and local level. There are a lot of politicians suddenly interested in the issues as well. The most recent example is Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who hyped to the media his May 2 visit to a seniors' center in Queens, to warn area homeowners to stay away from predatory lenders. But if Mr. Hevesi is truly concerned about predatory lending, he might want to talk to Citigroup, whose Political Action Committee (PAC) has given Mr. Hevesi three contributions for his already-begun mayoral campaign, including a $3,000 contribution on January 11, 2001 -- after Citigroup had acquired The Associates. The Federal Trade Commission sued Citigroup for predatory lending on March 6, 2001. So which will it be, Mr. Hevesi? A principled stand against predatory lending, including the return of contributions to companies sued by federal authorities for predatory lending (or, at a bare minimum, the use of access and leverage to combat Citi's predatory practices)? Or, a "two-pronged" strategy, of press releases and media availabilities, while accepting predators' funding? Citigroup has also contributed (so far) to mayoral candidate Peter Vallone, though not as recently (the last was $3,500 on December 14, 1999). J.P. Morgan Chase, which bought the problematic subprime lender Advanta earlier this year, has to date focused its funding on the selection of... the next Bronx Borough President. And we're aware of a current Councilman, running for Comptroller, whose about to hold a press conference about predatory lending, despite similar financial connections to predators charged as such by governmental regulators... Let the campaign (and hypocrisy) season begin!

        Predatory lending, Part Two: the New York Times ran an interesting story on April 23 about loan sharks in Washington Heights and The Bronx. Most quotes were "not for attribution," for understandable reasons. On May 2, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced indictments against a loan sharking ring run out of New Jersey, with the involvement of residents of (and loans in) The Bronx. Strangely, only Newsday (and not the Times) covered the indictments. Less strangely, in light of banks' involvement in politics, Queens D.A. Brown provided this explanation of the phenomenon: "Your victims are people who can't go to banks or other lending institutions because they don't have credit or are fearful of going to a bank because of their immigration status." According to Brown, it's the small business people themselves who are to blame: either they "don't have credit" (presumably meaning, "credit history"), or they are undocumented. Not mentioned by Brown (nor, sufficiently, by the Times' April 23 story) was the continued existence of redlining by banks of communities of color.

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April 23, 2001

      Some stories cannot be forgotten. Last week, the four police officers who shot Amadou Diallo in Soundview on February 4, 1999, were finally interrogated by Internal Affairs. Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy have all been getting paid since the shooting, assigned to desk duty (Boss at the ESU, Carroll at the aviation unit, and McMellon and Murphy at the harbor unit). Meanwhile, Bronx Assistant District Attorney Eric Warner, who lost the Diallo trial up in Albany, has decamped, moving to his brother's Manhattan-based law firm, Coblence & Warner. Ed McMellon has attempted to decamp, as well, applying for a job with the Fire Department, which was on the precipice of hiring him -- but then decided to await the outcome of the IAB investigation. Good move.

       Speaking of the Fire Department, "Report from Engine Company 82," Dennis Smith's 1972 account of life inside the firehouse on 167th Street and Intervale Avenue, is back in print. It's certainly a time capsule, with the fire trucks shrieking out a dozen times a day to response to call box alarms, most of them false alarms. It's from the era before political correctness, to put it lightly. From page 66: "The man leads us to a bedroom on the fourth floor. A woman, I guess his wife, is lying under a sheet on the bed. She is sweating, and breathing irregularly... The lieutenant says, 'It looks like she may have asthma, or it could be an emotional attack.' There's true, I think. I have seen many Spanish women gasping for air, only to be quickly revived when an ambulance attendant put smelling salts under their nose." Ouch! On page 11, Smith asserts that "nobody you've ever heard of comes from the South Bronx." Who does he think he's writing for? The filming of "Fort Apache, The Bronx" was protested, but this book escape scrutiny, for some reason. It does have a few good zingers -- like, at page 53, "New York's leaders are aristocrats who have never labored, or political hacks who have conned and schemed their way up."

        An update on our Rent-A-Center story of last week: the response of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, through its program officer Rhonda Lewis, regarding the inclusion of this high cost rent-to-own business in their subsidized mall in the South Bronx is as follows: "Our main criterion is that they're capable of paying the rent." This doesn't sound like commercial "community development," much less community empowerment, to us... Here's some quotes from LISC's February 13, 2001, press release, announcing its "banner year" in 2000: "LISC, the nation's largest community development support organization, provided $605 million in grants, loans and equity to neighborhood revitalization efforts in 2000. 'These investments help transform low-income communities into thriving neighborhoods,' said Michael Rubinger, President and CEO of LISC. 'Community-based nonprofit groups are using this money to build safe, affordable housing, commercial and retail centers, and high-quality child care and youth facilities. Their work -- and the contributions and investments of foundations, corporations and individuals -- is having a remarkable impact on the quality of life in America's urban and rural areas... Our loan activity for economic development projects, such as shopping centers and retail establishments, was particularly strong. That has resulted in greater access to goods and services for neighborhood residents, plus new opportunities for jobs, day care and employment training.'"

     Lauding Rent-A-Center for providing "greater access to good" is like congratulating a pay-day lender for providing greater access to cash -- access at what cost? Now we find, courtesy of City Limit's story following up on last week's Report, that LISC's main -- and apparently only -- criterion, in choosing tenants for these "economic development projects," is that the tenant-business can pay the rent. What's next: the type of storefronts where people sell their blood and plasma for money?

    And who's the chairman of LISC's board of directors, you ask? It's Robert Rubin, chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup. "Rubin Brings a Rent-A-Center to the South Bronx" -- this is our amendment to last week's headline...

April 16, 2001

    Question: When is an expensive rent-to-own furniture and appliance store a community development project?

    Answer: When politicians declare it so, and the media fails to ask questions.

    Background: Earlier this month, politicians and bankers converged at Vyse Avenue and 174th Street in the South Bronx, to celebrate, and congratulate each other about, the construction of a mall on land previously condemned for an industrial park, which was never built. The now-defunct purpose for which all of the buildings on the site were demolished was not mentioned. The focus was on the mall and its sponsors and lenders: MBD, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and its affiliate, The Retail Initiative (together, "LISC"), EAB, and the Bank of New York. MBD and LISC bought the land, at a subsidized price, from the City of New York, and have already leased out 80% of the mall, to tenants including Pathmark, Rockaway Bedding -- and Rent-A-Center, analyzed below.

    State Comptroller H. Carl McCall has lauded the mall project, in a press release earlier this year announcing a state deposit into EAB, which Citigroup is now seeking to acquire. Articles about this mall have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, Crain's New York Business, and other publications. None, however, have questioned the propriety of the inclusion of Rent-A-Center, a controversial and high-priced rent-to-own chain, in the project. These reporters -- and, more importantly, MBD, LISC and the other sponsors -- could easily have recognized that Rent-A-Center and its business practices are inconsistent with government-subsidized community development. We'll quote from a recent Bronx Supreme Court case:

Defendant Rent-A-Center (RAC) is in the business of renting merchandise to consumers via "rent to own" transactions. These transactions involve a consumer leasing merchandise such as furniture, an appliance or a consumer electronics product for a brief period of time such as a week or a month. The consumer will make an advance rental payment for that period. It is also possible for the consumer to renew the rental agreement for successive periods under the same terms by making the required payments in advance of each term... It is claimed that RAC engages in fraudulent business practices which coerce consumers into entering into contracts of adhesion that do not adequately disclose the actual economic costs of the transaction. Some of the allegations include claims that: defendant conceals or misrepresents information regarding the true cost of the merchandise, customers who choose the "early purchase option" for goods they rent may pay more than the total cost of the particular merchandise, that defendant does not disclose the "effective interest rate" applicable to the transaction, that defendant utilizes a high pressure sales scheme to coerce consumers into entering into "rent to own" transactions and RAC offers goods for purchase at a "cash price" higher than the price charged by other merchants for similar goods.

     Rent-A-Center's own officials brag about their ability to overcharge their customers. In a presentation to investors earlier this month in Atlanta, Rent-A-Center's executives stated plainly that for "items" for which they pay $400, they aim to make back $1,600: a profit rate of 400 percent. These practices have been in the public record for some time: the Wall Street Journal, hardly a consumers-rights publication, has reported that "Rent-A-Center customers pay a total of $1,003.56 over 18 months for a new Sanyo VCR with a suggested retail price of $289.98 -- for an effective annual interest rate of a breathtaking 231 percent... employees are expected to hang fliers on hundreds of housing-project doors each week, in a drill known as blanket brochuring." The Wall Street Journal also reported that "another tactic in Rent-A-Center's repo repertoire is the 'couch payment' -- sexual favors extracted by employees in lieu of cash. Of 28 former store managers interviewed, six said the practice had occurred in their areas. Some store employees have boasted that they 'have gone out to the customers' home, had sex with them, and then repossessed the merchandise anyway,' says Ken Dube, who spent time at a number of outlets as a field auditor."

   One needn't even get to the issue of "couch payments" to recognize that this high-cost, "the poor pay more" business is entirely inconsistent with the government subsidies given to the New Horizons mall. It's a free country: if Rent-A-Center contracts to rent a storefront in Crotona Park East, or a community like it, little can be done, short of picketing. But New Horizons is a government-subsidized community development project, owned by non-profit corporations, including LISC, which will be collecting rent from Rent-A-Center. MBD says that it will take profits earned from leasing mall storefront -- including to Rent-A-Center -- and invest them into other community, economic and social projects. The Times quotes MBD's director that "We were encouraged by what Frederick Douglass said, 'The struggle continues.'" Indeed...

      One update: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has made a further inquiry into Iroquois Pipeline Operating Company's plan to run a gas pipe through the Bronx: "We reviewed Con Ed's criteria for siting the proposed interconnection, and based on that criteria, it appears that other sites may also meet those criteria," FERC recently wrote to the company. FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said the agency is still accepting public comments on the proposal, which can be directed to: Office of the Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20426. Letters should include the pipeline project's docket number, cp00-232-000...

* * *

April 9, 2001

   Well, Edison's bid to take over Community School 66 went down in flames, with 77% of the parents who voted casting ballots against the plan (481-141). Meanwhile, State Supreme Court justice Lawrence Knipel dismissed the lawsuit challenging the New York Power Authority's "stealth" power plants, including those slated for Port Morris in the South Bronx.

    Speaking of Port Morris, a question left unanswered in recent articles about the demise of Banana Kelly (as a property manager, at least) is this: how goes Francesco Galesi and Harlem River Yard Ventures get to keep that land below 132nd Street, when the promised paper mill was never built, and the community sponsor, Banana Kelly, is discredited?

    Another question: while Cong. Eliot Engel emphasizes to the press that he's "on the case" regarding the water filtration plant that was slated for Van Cortlandt Park (mostly recently announcing that new EPA chief Christie Whitman has agreed to meet with him on the topic), why did Engel sign on, and then off, of legislation to modernize and expand the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to lend fairly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods like Engel's district? Dozens of other Congress members have signed on to the CRA Modernization Act introduced by Rep. Barrett (D-Wisc.) and Rep. Gutierrez (D-Ill.); Engel signed on, then withdrew his name, along with Rep. Towns of Brooklyn. Our CRA Report this week, addressing Citigroup's lobbying against anti-predatory lending legislation from Philadelphia to Chicago, may provide the answer... But given his recent re-election fight, Engel's flip-flop is surprising. Or not.

    On housing, we have these reflections: on April 6, several Bronx residents, affiliated with Inner City Press, took part in a forum on gentrification (and on Citigroup, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas) held at New York University. Preparing for the panel involved research into... gentrification and The Bronx, and NYC more broadly. Manhattan's Lower East Side, which in 1980 was a substantially Puerto Rican neighborhood, has been almost entirely gentrified now, other than public housing and subsidized apartment buildings. Rents have risen to $3,000 a month, for small apartments. The same trend is at work just across the East River in Williamsburgh, and, increasingly, further east in Bushwick.

    In the question-and-answer period, some NYU student who have moved to Bushwick (as the first wave of gentrification) stated that they were trying to be "socially responsible" -- they've even formed a group, called "Gentrifiers Against Gentrification." The problem is, their willingness to pay more money than the neighborhood's current residents, for lofts and other space, speaks for itself, and has its own implications. Why not Jamaica, Queens, they were asked? Or Ozone Park? Or -- and it was not the ICP-affiliated attendees who raised this -- The Bronx?

   Leading to a{nother) question: why haven't the gentrification pressures, already at work in Harlem, reached The Bronx? Distance (from midtown and lower Manhattan) is one explanation. "Image" is another. Clearly, there are numerous political bosses in The Bronx who would like nothing better than to see gentrification arrive in The Bronx.

    It was reported to ICP that some students, from Columbia University and other colleges, have started moving into the neighborhood around Yankee Stadium -- particular buildings on Gerard Avenue were named. Where will it lead? We'll be following these stories...

* * *

April 2, 2001

   While the issue of racial profiling by the police is the subject of hearings in Congress, and, last week, in the New Jersey legislature, at a recent Community Council meet at the Bronx's central precinct, the 48th, the issue only arose as an afterthought, and was addressed dismissively by the precinct's commanding officer. Since context is everything, here's a description of the 48th Precinct's monthly Community Council meeting, held on March 27, 2001, at the station house under the Cross Bronx Expressway:

    The meeting began with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a reading the minutes of last month's meeting (which was reported on below, Report of March 5, 2001). Captain James McNamara took to the podium, and reported that crime in the precinct in the past 28 days was down 24.44% from a year ago. While Capt. McNamara spoke, a flier was distributed, requesting information on the murder of Cristina Gamboa:

On Monday, March 5, 2001 at about 9:30 p.m. at an apartment in 611 East 182nd Street, Cristina Gamboa, a 29 year old Hispanic female was stabbed to death and two of her children (3 year old and 11 year old) were also stabbed and left for dead. A male Hispanic 25-30 years of age was seen leaving the scene. Anyone with information about this incident is asked to contact the 48th Precinct, Detective Israel Larracuente, Case #519, Complaint #1974, at 718-299-4119... Crime Stoppers offers an award of up to $2000 for information leading to the indictment of the person or persons responsible for this crime.

   Capt. McNamara turned the podium over to Detective Robinson, who provided more information about the murder of Ms. Gamboa (who Robinson repeatedly referred to as "my victim"). Det. Robinson, speaking in the present tense, narrated: "She's 29... No prior criminal history... Three kids: three, seven and eleven years old... My eleven year old leaves the apartment, taking my seven year old somewhere... I have a Hispanic male, approximately five foot six, possibly Mexican, coming to the apartment, being let in voluntarily... When the eleven year old returns, he finds blood all over the apartment, his mother on the floor, with stab wounds... Very messy crime scene... He screams, and he's attacked from behind... He's stabbed -- his ear was cut off, and reattached later at the hospital... He played dead... The perp walks into the other bedroom, and stabs the three year old, straight through... This is a high profile murder... I'd expected my phone to be ringing off the hook about it... But it hasn't... My victim, she was popular in the building, with both the ladies and the men... We believe she knew the perpetrator, some prior sexual or drug relationship... We'll be requesting heightened media attention, you may be seeing his on TV...".

   Without doubting Det. Robinson's good faith, it was unclear why he posited a "sexual or drug relationship" between the perpetrator and the victim. It was also inappropriately unclear what "popular with the ladies and the men" was supposed to mean. This is a murder that should be solved.

    Det. Robinson reported also on a shooting, March 10 at 10:06 p.m., in front of 1912 Crotona Avenue: "An eighteen year old, with a prior criminal record, was shot in the calf... He said he couldn't i.d. his assailants, but that they had a silver gun."

  At the conclusion of Detective Robinson's presentation, many in the audience clapped. The next speaking was Narcotics Captain Muldary, who covers three precincts in The Bronx. He reported that in the 48th, in the last 28 days, his "team" had made 48 felony arrests, and 162 total arrests. He said his team is working on two "long term cases," that he could not further describe. He did describe executing a search warrant at 2399 Adams Place, in which three guns and two "vests" were found, and five people were arrested.

    This lead to the first question from the audience: "What can you do about people smoking drugs in their apartments?"

"What kind of drugs?" Capt. McNamara asked. "Crack? Or marijuana?"
"Either," the questioner responded.

    "Well if it's marijuana," Capt. McNamara said, "there's not much we can do. If someone is smoking a joint outside, we can arrest them. But in your apartment, you could smoke a joint as big as a refrigerator, and we couldn't do anything."

   Many in the audience groaned. There followed another question, about enforcement of the "pooper-scooper" law. Community Board 6 district manager Ivene Galarza, mother of newly elected Councilman Jose Rivera, Jr., stood up to say that she has the same "pooper" problems on her block, and inviting the complainant to the next Community Board meeting on April 4.

   Now, there was another question. A teenager stood up, and reported on a recent demonstration in Albany, against the Rockefeller drug laws. "How come people get long sentences for crack, than for powder cocaine?" he asked.

   "That's not true," the representative of the Bronx District Attorney's Office said. "In some states, that's the law. But not in New York."

    The teenage questioner seemed dubious. But, next, newly elected Councilman Jose Rivera, Jr., stood up, saying that because there were "new people" at the meeting, he wanted to give out his contact information again (including a prospective office on Fairmount Place, near Southern Boulevard). This lead to Julio Ortiz, who ran against Rivera in the special election, and plans to run again this November, standing up. And Mr. Ortiz asked: "As we get toward summer, when our young people are out on the street more, are you providing any training to your officers, on how to speak with young people, and when or if to pat them down?"

   Captain McNamara paused before answering. Finally, he said that in the 48th Precinct in the past 28 days, there have been only 28 stop and frisks, compared to 30 in the same time frame in 2000. The number seemed very low, including in light of the reported 162 narcotics arrests in the precinct in the past 28 days (per Capt. Muldary). Perhaps Capt. McNamara was only referring to pat-downs not in connection with an arrest. It's strange that this number, which the Captain clear had, was not part of his initial presentation. It's also strange, or disheartening, that this issue only came up in the context of a jockeying for position between two candidates for City Council in this November's election. Soon after this question and answer, the meeting was adjourned, and the Community Affairs van drove people back to West Farms, to begin... other 28 day period.

Now, a round-up: at our deadline, the results of the voting at C.S. 66, on the proposal to privatize the school to Edison, are not yet clear. Turn-out was still under 50%, on the morning of Friday, March 30. Since affirmative votes by 50% of the parents are needed, for Edison to "win" the school and attendant payments, it appears that Edison has lost...

   Early on March 27, fire swept through a block of two-family homes on College Avenue between E. 169th and 170th Street, leaving 18 families homeless. The fire began at 1320 College Ave., and spread in both directions. On 134th Street and Alexander Avenue, a Red Cross bus involved in the re-housing effort crashed; three people were rushed to Lincoln Hospital.

    At 10 p.m. on March 27, at the General Cinema Bay Plaza movie theater, Co-op City Boulevard and Bartow Avenue, gunfire broke out; a man (who police declined to identify) was shot four times with a nine millimeter pistol near the popcorn concession stand. The Post, not mentioned what was sold at the concession stand, quoted Alicia McCree, 17: "I heard pop, pop, pop, pop, pop... I heard someone fall, and I heard a woman scream. I saw people running, so I crawled on the floor... As soon as the gunshots stopped, I saw a guy lying on the floor, bleeding." A night out at the movies...

   Six hours later, at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of March 28, a fire at 1109 Clay Ave., between E. 166th and 167th Streets killed a woman in her thirties, who police declined to identify. They termed the fire "suspicious."

    We apologize for the "crime focus" this week, but -- these things happened. Meanwhile, one of the cultural jewels of the Bronx, the Rincon Criollo garden at 158th Street and Brook Avenue, still faces eviction pressure. The Times, in a March 29 overview article on the community gardens issue, quotes the director of Nos Quedamos that "Rincon Criollo has to move... If we don't take out the garden, we cannot take out the methadone clinic." We want to believe this is a mis-quote. The same article quotes Jose (Chema) Soto, who started the garden in 1979, saying, of Nos Quedamos' director, "We supported her, and now she's turning her back on us."

     Some weeks, we want to report "good news" -- but this is the news there is...

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