Posted on 11 December 2009 by Alice Popovici
BRONX – Ramon Jimenez leans forward, his hands slicing the air as he describes the tactics that he will rely on for the lawsuit he is planning against the World Champion New York Yankees.
First of all, find the plaintiffs – workers who were denied jobs and vendor contracts at the new stadium, he tells fellow activists. Then, on the opening day of spring season next year, file the lawsuit against the winningest franchise in sports.
Members of the For the South Bronx Coalition, among them a teacher, a minister, a retired maintenance worker and three cemetery employees, have gathered for their regular meeting in a classroom at Hostos Community College. They came together months ago, linked by their discontent with the team they say broke promises it made to the community before construction of the stadium began.
Jimenez, local lawyer, longtime community activist and former teacher at the college, leads the group through the lawsuit’s objectives, counting off each point on his hand.
First of all, there is no proof that 25 percent of stadium jobs were given to local workers, as promised in a 2006 Community Benefits Agreement, he says. And what about the $800,000 in yearly contributions promised to local organizations?
Then there is the neighborhood park, torn down to make room for the stadium but never replaced by more than an Astroturf park that sits on top of a garage. Though not a formal provision of the benefits agreement, Jimenez says, replacement of the parkland was “implicit.”
The Yankees, however, say that 25 percent of the stadium workforce was, in fact, from the Bronx, and that $134 million in stadium contracts was awarded to Bronx businesses. As for the $800,000 in yearly contributions, spokeswoman Alice McGillion, with PR firm Rubenstein Associates, says the sum has been paid for 2008 and 2009, but that the Yankees are not in charge of distributing the money, which is allocated to the community by a separate board.
Jimenez says he has heard what the team claims to have done, but is not convinced. Hearing him build a case against New York’s favorite baseball team, it’s hard to imagine the avid fan he once was, back in the days when he covered the team as a radio talk show commentator. A 1998 New York Times article even quotes him as shouting on air, “you can’t love both God and the devil.” He was referring to the Yankees and the Mets, respectively.
Sitting at his desk in his law office on East 149th Street, Jimenez smiles at the contradiction.
“I’ve been a Yankee fan since my father brainwashed me when I was about 5 or 6 years old,” says the 61-year-old lawyer, leaning back in his chair. A print of Ivan Rodriguez as a Yankee is pinned to the wall behind him.
“I’m the guy who could tell you the batting averages of players,” he continues. “In other words, the definition of a sports nut.”
As an activist involved in South Bronx community organizing since the 1970s, he says he was always aware of the politics behind the sport, but didn’t become active in campaigns against the team until recently.
“Baseball used to be a working man’s sport,” he says, but with price hikes for tickets and food inside the stadium, average folks can’t afford to go to the game anymore.
“The new Yankee Stadium almost symbolizes the total corporate takeover of baseball,” he says. “It’s a megapalace in one of the poorest communities ever.”
In his criticism, Jimenez does make a distinction between the players and the management, though he says “it does get harder and harder. This particular battle’s left some bitterness.”
However, he is always happy to talk Yankees baseball with Michael Foresteri, a hardcore fan who does maintenance work at the bar downstairs from the office. He’s had a difficult life, and “often does not get the respect he needs,” so Jimenez says he tries to make up for that.
That’s how the 2009 World Series championship insert from the New York Post found its way onto one of the walls of his office, Jimenez says, smiling. The framed photomontage of the players superimposed onto the ballpark was a gift from Foresteri.
“If I’m not busy, I come up here to check things out,” says the slight 68-year-old Foresteri, wearing a Yankee baseball cap and white Yankee jacket on a recent afternoon. “Keep him company, talk to him.”
Sometimes Foresteri brings the mail. If Jimenez is busy with clients, he rests on a small couch beneath the Yankee memorabilia and a painting of Puerto Rican revolutionary Pedro Albizu Campos, one of many references to the lawyer’s background that are scattered throughout the packed room.
So densely decorated are the walls of Jimenez’s office – with the almost haphazard grouping of Puerto Rican flags, paintings, sketches, photographs and sports memorabilia – that his framed diploma from Harvard Law School nearly gets lost in the mix. Jimenez, who says he didn’t attend his law school graduation because he didn’t feel comfortable within the Ivy League atmosphere, doesn’t seem to mind.
But his clients, many of whom stop by for help with workers’ compensation claims, aren’t looking for slick decor or prestigious degrees.
“You identify yourself with him because you don’t feel intimidated,” says Marlenni Martinez, 53, sitting down on the worn couch as her feet rest on the cracked linoleum floor. “If you go to an office downtown, very luxurious, expensive all around,” adds the Honduras-born South Bronx resident, “most of the time they’re not accessible.”
Alex Coss, a South Bronx resident who met Jimenez as a client but now considers the lawyer a friend, said he was skeptical because Jimenez never asked for payment during their first few meetings, and kept inviting him back to talk.
“One day I decided to ask him, ‘Listen – when are you going to charge me?’” Coss, 33, asked, figuring he owed a few hundred dollars. But Jimenez’s answer was “No, no, no, I’m not charging you anything.”
Coss, his brother, Rick, and coworker Todd Brown, initially contacted Jimenez for legal advice on filing charges against Woodlawn Cemetery, where they work, alleging that the company has discriminated on the basis of race, retaliated when they spoke up, and has created a hostile work environment.
“We came to him looking for help,” says Brown, 41, “and we became a part of his cause, too.”
Jimenez says this does happen with some clients: they learn about his work and get involved.
“I’m a lawyer and I’m also an activist,” he says. “To me it’s gold when people organize.”
Jimenez does get paid by the insurance companies in workers’ comp cases, and says he has averaged between $40,000 and $50,000 in recent years. It’s not a fortune, he says, but it’s enough to get by.
“There’s been good years, there’s been lean years,” he says. “I don’t let money be the main thing that motivates me as far as my legal practice.”
Born in Brooklyn to working-class Puerto Rican parents, Jimenez says much of his life’s work as an activist, lawyer, college professor and writer (among other publications, he wrote briefly for the Village Voice in the 1980s) was influenced by his parents: his mother, Alicia, who spent a lifetime as a garment worker, first in Puerto Rico, then in New York City factories, and his father, Ramon, a World War II veteran who battled mental illness later in life.
Jimenez plans to retire from practicing law in a few years, maybe to teach again, or sit down to write the book he has been planning, but before then he wants to see a strong coalition take root in the district he describes as the poorest in the nation.
“I see hope with a lot of different young people,” he says, “and I see a lot of possibilities.”
Back at the coalition meeting about the planned lawsuit against the Yankees, he listens to members talk about possible partnerships with faith-based groups and strategies to grab media attention.
“We never want one leader, we want a lot of leaders,” Jimenez tells a member who suggests he take the initiative on a particular issue.
For now, the coalition is a work in progress, and the lawsuit against the Yankees only a part of it.
This is how “you build your little battles,” he tells the group, “so you get stronger.”