The Uptowner News & Features in Harlem, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, & Inwood Tue, 26 Apr 2011 21:13:28 +0000 en hourly 1 Latino Political Influence Grows, Elections and Census Show Thu, 20 Jan 2011 16:28:49 +0000 Andrew Seaman

Sen. Adriano Espaillat is sworn into office by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman at Yeshiva University. (Photo by Mike Fitelson, The Manhattan Times)

Newly elected State Sen. Adriano Espaillat wore a big smile, his right arm held upright. His mother held the Bible as Eric Schneiderman, New York State’s new attorney general and Espaillat’s predecessor, swore him into office earlier this month.

Espaillat is not the typical New York state senator. He immigrated to upper Manhattan from the Dominican Republic when he was nine, and was nearly 11 before he learned fluent English. He even admits that he was, for a time, undocumented after his family’s visa expired.

Espaillat overcame those challenges, though. After working for community organizations, in 1996 he became the first Dominican-American elected to a U.S. state house, representing the 72nd Assembly District for the next 14 years, until Schneiderman announced his campaign for attorney general. Espaillat then threw his hat in the ring for Schneiderman’s seat.

“Once he decided, it was almost a no-brainer for me,” says Espaillat of his decision to run.

While Espaillat broke new ground in 1996, he now joins five other Latinos in the 62-member New York state senate, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. His election represents a net gain of one seat for Latinos, especially in upper Manhattan.

As the U.S. prepares to release the results of the 2010 Census, upper Manhattan’s growing Latino delegation in Albany reflects a national trend. An increase in eligible Latino voters is securing the group’s place as a force in national politics, according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

“In any district there are more Latinos then there were 20 years ago,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

The Latino population’s influence is most evident in the 2010 Census’ reapportionment numbers. In states gaining Congressional seats,  15.2 percent of eligible voters were Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In states losing seats, by contrast, Hispanics represented only 5.4 percent of eligible voters.

As for uptown, the five-year estimate from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, ending in 2009 shows that 296,701 people living in the 15th Congressional District identify as “Hispanic or Latino” — 44.7 percent — outnumbering those who identify as white or black. The “Hispanic or Latino” category is not race-specific.

The Pew Hispanic Center provides additional estimates. The Center estimates that of about 672,000 people living in the 15th Congressional District in 2008, 404,000 were eligible to vote, 36 percent of them Hispanic.

Five New York State assembly districts and two New York State senate districts fall mainly within the 15th Congressional District. Dominican-born officials now occupy two of those seven state seats; the other is Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, elected to Espaillat’s former seat.

Linares now represents areas from Washington Heights to the Marble Hill section of the Bronx. In his biography, Linares, like Espaillat, proudly touts an advance for Latinos as “the first Dominican born elected to public office in the United States.” Linares served as a member of New York’s city council from 1992 to 2001.

Of the city council’s four seats within upper Manhattan, two are occupied by Hispanics born outside the U.S. Dominican-born Ydanis Rodriguez represents the 10th and took office in 2010 from embattled Miguel Martinez, serving five years in prison for theft. Puerto Rican-born Melissa Mark-Viverito has represented the 8th District since 2005.

Roberto Perez, host of The Perez Notes — an Internet-based radio show from LaGuardia Community College –  applauds the growing representation of Latino officials, but points out that “we don’t have a city-wide official, and we don’t have a state-wide official.”

That’s because politicians need to establish themselves, a process that takes time, explains Julissa Gutierrez, director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ New York City office. “I would say running for office can be very challenging,” she says, adding that some people are doing it very successfully.

“One thing that’s important is building multicultural networks,” says Gutierrez.

Espaillat agrees, saying his campaign succeeded in building broad-based coalitions to win his senate district.

“I think it depends on the place and the demographics,” says the Pew Center’s Lopez about coalitions.

But Perez says a coalition is not a matter of choice for a Latino who wants to win election city-wide. “It has to be a coalition,” he adds.

Gutierrez believes one challenge is informing the public that elections will keep coming up and that they matter. “Our challenge is to have people connect the dots and realize it continues,” she says.

Perez  also believes people need to understand that their votes affects their lives. “Connect the dots of rent and politics,” he says.

Part of the burden also falls on the Board of Elections to educate the public that the election cycle is perpetual, says Gutierrez. “The message should be continuous and long term,” she says. “What does that mean? It means that the budget needs to be there.”

Perez predicts more Latinos may get involved in politics after the recent discussions, in New York and nationwide, about immigration issues — most visibly the defeat of the DREAM Act during the last session of the 111th Congress, which would have created a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants brought to this country as children.

“Of course that’s going to get you angry,” says Perez. But he adds, “I think it’s getting more people involved.”

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Campaign To Save Good Shepherd School A Success Fri, 14 Jan 2011 16:49:31 +0000 Dewi Cooke

In a decade, enrollment at Good Shepherd School in Inwood has dropped to 141 students from more than 500. (Photo by Dewi Cooke)

UPDATE: Inwood’s Good Shepherd School will remain open after the Archdiocese of New York announced the school had presented a convincing plan to ensure its long-term sustainability.

Good Shepherd was one of 32 schools named by the archdiocese as “at-risk” in November due to heavy subsidies and shrinking enrollments.  School officials, given one month to devise a plan to save it, staged a series of meetings with parents and alumni  and cast around for ideas to keep the 85-year-old school afloat and financially independent of the archdiocese.

On Jan. 11, the archdiocese announced that Good Shepherd would be one of only four schools on the list to remain open.


As the littlest members of the Good Shepherd student body take the stage, a crowd of parents, grandparents and alumni rush toward them. Digital cameras held high, they’re there to record every tentative look and shy grin the children throw out to the packed auditorium. Holiday-themed decorations line the walls and two giant snowmen frame the stage as the students sweetly make their way through verses of “The Little Drummer Boy.” It all makes for a familiar scene, with one exception: It could be this Inwood Catholic school’s last-ever Christmas concert.

Since Nov. 9, the future of the Good Shepherd School has been under a cloud. A fixture of the neighborhood for 85 years, it’s facing closure after being named by the Archdiocese of New York as “at-risk” following a decade of steady enrollment decline. Although school officials and parents knew the numbers of enrolled students had dropped – to 141 this year from 523 in 1999 – when the news came that they had a month to put a rescue plan together, it still prompted a scramble for ideas.

“For me, I don’t think I could ever walk by and know it’s not the Good Shepherd School,” says parent and alumna Regina Christoforatos. “It’s just so sad.”

On Dec. 6, one month after the archdiocese’s list came out, Father Robert Abbatiello, pastor of the adjoining Good Shepherd Church, submitted the school’s final outline for how it planned to increase student numbers. He presented it in person at the archdiocese. Thirty-one schools were on the archdiocese’s at-risk list and while a couple asked for an extension to the Dec. 6 deadline, all made a pitch for their continued existence, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling says.

For Abbatiello and school principal Mary Singer, it has been a long month of meetings, brainstorming and soul-searching. “We really need your support right now and we need your prayers,” Abbatiello tells the Christmas concert audience.

Planning to save the school eats up much of the holidays for Abbatiello and Singer. The day after Thanksgiving, they spent hours with Good Shepherd alumnus Manny Ramirez at the school, sifting through the e-mailed suggestions of parents and former students.. Abbatiello spent more time on the plan that weekend, communicating with two other alumni and redrafting until it was ready to be presented publicly.

Three days later, on Nov. 29, he outlined the plan to a meeting of parents, alumni and school supporters. Of the school and its future, he is hopeful but matter-of-fact. “We believe we’ve got something good, but we believe it could be better,” he says.

Abbatiello, Singer and Ramirez are three-fifths of Good Shepherd’s newly formed executive committee. Before Nov. 9, the committee didn’t exist. With two other alumni – John Brennan and Richard Scarlata, both members of the class of 1956 – it took them three weeks to put together a five-year proposal to save Good Shepherd.

It’s a tight timeline in which to craft such a document, but one that Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese, defends. For the 31 schools named on the list, student numbers had clearly been low and subsidies, both from local parishes and the archdiocese, had been “very large”.

“This is not just something that dropped out of the sky,” he says.

Three of the schools named on the list were in northern Manhattan, including All Saints and St Joseph’s of the Holy Family, both in Harlem.

To illustrate why Good Shepherd was included, on Nov. 22 Singer presents a meeting of about 100 parents, alumni and supporters with the enrollment figures since 1999. The school needs to demonstrate how it will attract 160 more students, more than doubling its enrollment, by next year. Quiet realization of just what the community is up against sinks in across the auditorium.

The plan Abbatiello and Singer take to the archdiocese’s Reconfiguration Committee centers on a “monumental push” to increase enrollment. The proposal includes a new organizational structure made up of subcommittees of parents and alumni dedicated to fundraising and promotions. It recognizes the school has done a poor job of promoting itself to the Inwood community and recommends numerous Open House events for 2011.

For Juan and Dalba Castrillon, the possibility that their two daughters’ school may close came as a terrible disappointment — but not necessarily a shock. They say it has been clear for some time that school numbers were on a downward slide. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“We all kind of saw something happening that wasn’t right,” Mrs. Castrillon says of the drop in enrollment. “But no one stood up to say that hey, we’ve got to do something about this.

“It’s hard, how do you explain to your kids that, as adults, we kind of dropped the ball?”

The Castrillons are among a small group of parents and alumni who have taken the fight to save the school online, establishing Yahoo! and Facebook groups as well as organizing a Web-based petition directing people to write to the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, Timothy McNiff. So far, more than 280 names have been gathered, many from former Good Shepherd students and their parents.

“The whole thing with doing it on Facebook was so we could reach out to as many alumni as possible,” says Christoforatos, who organized the Facebook group. “I’m friends with over 1,300 people on Facebook and 80 percent are friends from Good Shepherd and high school.”

Christoforatos is an Inwoodite, “born and bred,” and remembers when she first transferred to Good Shepherd from another Washington Heights elementary school. Good Shepherd was a place her Greek Orthodox family finally felt they belonged, she says. Her connection was so strong she returned as a teenager to work in its after-school program and again as a substitute teacher after college. Her daughter Zoe, 8, has been a student there since pre-K.

“It was so different, it was a family-oriented environment,” she says. “We were taken in regardless of religion and race.”

Christoforatos continues to value the family-focused atmosphere the school creates, as well as the fact there are teachers and staff still working who were there when she herself was a student. The intimacy of the school is clear at the Christmas concert where staff mingle with the crowd, greeting parents by name and recognizing past students with hugs.

It’s exactly this personal, close interaction that appeals to Adrian Carel. His daughter Paige entered seventh grade at Good Shepherd this September after transferring from Texas and, he says, she’s been “instantly included” from her first day.

“I like that they have close relationships with the teachers and the teachers pretty much always know what’s going on,” he says. “It’s a one-on-one environment and they can have that individual attention that you don’t often get in other schools.”

More than that, he values the relationships the students develop with one another. He remembers meeting a little girl “as tall as my waist” on his walk to school with Paige one day. She was a younger student from a lower grade and Paige knew her name. The two walked to school together, talking all the way.

But by many accounts, Good Shepherd slipped not just in student numbers but also quality over the past decade. The Great Schools website posts mixed reviews about the school, some from the time of the former administration and others more recent. Discipline, of students and teachers, were cited as major problems while other reviewers complained that Singer, brought in as principal in 2006, was too strict and did not communicate well with parents.

Relationships with the parish had been erratic; since the Franciscan friars took over in 2006, it had not been associated with school administration, something that will change if archdiocese support is pulled next year. Neither Singer nor Abbatiello responded to requests for interviews.

But Christoforatos credits Singer with turning the school around, increasing standardized test scores and restoring discipline over what she says had become a sometimes unruly learning environment. Test results the principal presented to parents at a meeting on Nov. 22 showed dramatic improvement over the years of her tenure, particularly in religious education.

“Ms Singer came in to a hellhole, she really did,” Christoforatos says. “She brought in people who really turned the school around and other schools wish that they had teachers like that.”

Good test scores, however, are not enough to guarantee a school’s survival. Zwilling says what really counts is enrollment. Poorly-enrolled schools suck up large subsidies from the archdiocese, which currently pours $18 million into education. With revenues from tuition, fundraising and building rental of $920,000 a year but expenses of $1.275 million, Good Shepherd still comes up short. Once the archdiocese withdraws its support, if Good Shepherd is allowed to stay open, it will need to make up the $355,000 a year shortfall –  a situation that can’t be solved by bake sales and spaghetti dinners, Abbatiello said at the Nov. 22 community meeting.

One week after the at-risk schools list was released, the archdiocese also put out its annual report for fiscal 2009 showing New York’s weak economy had shaved almost $19 million off the net value of its cash and fixed assets, or 8.5 percent. Zwilling denies the loss is behind the push to close or merge the schools on the list.

“Even if it were a robust economy and we had these same numbers of enrollment in our schools, we would still take a hard look and say that we can’t keep putting in $20 million to $30 million,” he says. “The financials of the archdiocese are what they are and we have to be good stewards, but that’s not a motivating factor.

“The decision on these schools is enrollment-driven. I think there are some cases where parents just assumed that the school will always be there. They don’t realize that if you only have 120 kids in grades K to eight, that’s not a viable school.”

The existence of the at-risk schools list had been rumored for weeks and was first flagged in the October release of the archdiocese’s “Pathways to Excellence” strategy for education reform. It followed the closure of two schools by the archdiocese last year and the merging of two others over the summer.

It also comes as the Catholic system in New York has shed thousands of students across the city. Zwilling confirmed a Daily News report that enrollment had dropped to 79,000 this year, from 94,000 two years ago.

Randall Reback, a Barnard College economist, says a number of factors could affect student enrollment. The economic downturn, increased choices for parents in public and charter schools and the shift of Catholic families out of traditional inner-city neighborhoods and into the suburbs all play a role.

“Many of the families have been using them as a relatively low-cost version of the private school system,” he says. “The fancy private schools in New York aren’t hurting at all, really it’s the families who pay a few thousand dollars a year who may have to think twice.”

Reback says a major challenge for the Catholic system in the future is how to retain strong donations from parishioners when more and more students at parish schools aren’t necessarily Catholic.

“The real question is that if there continues to be large numbers of non-Catholic students using the school, does that affect their support?” he says.

For the Good Shepherd community, the school’s religious education seems to be an important element in what attracts parents. At the Nov. 22 community meeting one parent stood up and urged officials to better emphasize the school’s faith-based framework when selling it to prospective families.

Jose Agosto, whose 12-year-old son, Joseph, is a student at Good Shepherd, says that even though his family members aren’t devout Catholics, it is important for him that his son grows up in that environment.

“You can’t forget about it,” he says. “That’s a value that me and my wife really want to impart on him.”

School officials hope that the affection families and alumni have for Good Shepherd translates into something more tangible. The school must show it has a plan for raising the $1 million over three years needed to cover the subsidies that have, until now, been provided by the archdiocese. In the week leading up to the Dec. 6 deadline, $330,000 had been pledged by three donors. An additional $35,000 had been raised for school scholarships, essential for the one-quarter of the students who rely on financial aid.

A pledge link on the school’s website – which does not come up on a Google search – went live the last week of November and small donations, including $50 from a 12-year-old student and a promise of $35 a year for five years from an unemployed supporter, started trickling in.

At the Christmas concert, which is so crowded the hall’s upstairs balcony has to be opened, a parent who wins $260 in a fundraising lottery immediately hands the money back to the school. Singer is clearly touched by the gesture.

“I think we can all see why we need to keep this school open,” she says.

The Good Shepherd plan is to gradually wean the school off the archdiocese’s support. By the executive committee’s estimate, next year’s subsidy could be cut to $125,000 and four years from now it will be able to operate with no subsidy at all.

It is a strategy parents and alumni applaud, but they seem to wish the problems had been recognized years ago. At the end of the concert, the best attended in years, parents are exultant. Dalba Castrillon later says they are filled with optimism for the school’s future.

Parish priest Abbatiello sends them off with words of hope. It’s all that is left now as they wait for a meeting with the Reconfiguration Committee on Dec. 15 and the final decision, expected in mid-January.

“We believe in Good Shepherd,” he says, “and we know that you do, too.”

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Needle Exchange Programs Creating a Difference Uptown Thu, 13 Jan 2011 00:45:30 +0000 Krishn Kaushik

Used needles collected at one station in a day (Photo by Krishn Kaushik)

Harry walks the streets of Washington Heights with a swagger. This is his home. He does not tell his full name, “it’s just Harry.” His broad frame and confident stance add a dominating aspect to his personality. He has a striking face: Intense blue eyes, chiseled chin, a sharp nose, blond hair that reaches his collar, an expression that swings between courtesy and arrogance.  But when he starts speaking too quickly, he sounds like a man high on crack cocaine.

Harry is a homeless man and an intravenous drug user. Many like him live on the streets near the George Washington Bridge approach on West 178th Street. He readily admits that he is an addict. He knows it’s dangerous, and knows the threats he faces from drug abuse and the harmful practices related to it. “I used to share needles,” Harry says, but now he doesn’t.  Along with a lot of other homeless or quasi-homeless intravenous drug users, he participates in a needle exchange program at the Washington Heights CORNER Project. “I really admire what they do,” he says.

Jamie Favaro, founder and executive director of the CORNER Project, says, “We are the only organization apart from New York Harm Reduction Educators who engage in needle exchange in northern Manhattan.” Among other services, the non-profit organization provides new needles in exchange for used ones, a harm reduction technique for  drug users.

Needle exchange mitigates the spread of diseases like AIDS and hepatitis C among intravenous drug users, who tend to share their needles, putting them at a high risk of contracting disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that intravenous drug users account for a fifth of the more than one million people living with HIV in the United States and for most of the hepatitis C infections. And AIDS is the top cause of death among intravenous drug users, according to the Global Health Council.

Such programs also promote safe disposal of used needles. When discarded incautiously, used syringes can be a public health hazard, posing danger to unsuspecting people who might encounter them in such hot spots as vacant lots or even playgrounds.

Needle exchange has been under debate nationally since its inception in the late 1980s.

NYHRE sets up a mobile shop on East 109th Street once a week. (Photo by Krishn Kaushik)

Under state law, launching a needle exchange program requires community board approval. “Washington Heights has had a significant drug problem for a very long time,” Favaro says,adding that this was a reason the community board voted unanimously in 2007 to allow the organization to operate legally.

“New York City is a metropolis that is driven by facts and not fear,” Favaro says.  She has not faced opposition uptown, but believes that in some parts of Manhattan – the more affluent neighborhoods —  needle exchange still encounters criticism.

Many against needle exchange argue that it promotes drug abuse, but some organizations even question the efficacy of such programs. “We do not support the programs the way they are generally run,” says Calvina Fay, executive director at the Florida-based  Save Our Society From Drugs. “Typical needle exchange programs provide unlimited supply of needles,” she says. “There is no accountability.” Fay believes the programs don’t try to get users off drugs, so “the drug addiction continues.”  Fay says such programs are ineffective in containing  diseases, citing a study conducted in Vancouver in 1997, among others, and believes that the decline in AIDS among drug users has come from other factors.

Needle exchange also sends a flawed message to young people who might be considering drug use, Fay charges. “The message should be that drug use is not acceptable,” she says, adding that easy access to free needles actually becomes an “obstacle for people dependent on drugs” who may otherwise try to quit.

And Dianne Glymph, editor at the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice, says other studies demonstrate the ineffectiveness of needle exchange or overstate its benefits, including a paper titled The Effectiveness of Needle Exchange Programmes for HIV Prevention – A Critical Review.

But that is an increasingly minority view.

“A variety of elected officials have opposed needle exchange over the years,” says Chris Collins, director and vice president of public policy at amfAR, an international non-profit organization supporting AIDS research and advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention policies.  He notes, however, that scores of scientific studies support needle exchanges.

The organization is very active on Capitol Hill, advocating for allowing federal money to fund needle exchange. Collins says amfAR will “continue to provide background on the issue and act as a source of what scientists say for the lawmakers and media.”  As for the argument that such programs promote drug abuse among participants, Collins says simply, “It does not.”

According to the 2009 issue brief of Trust for America’s Health, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  have endorsed needle exchange programs, along with many other organizations. It also lists a number of studies  that have shown needle exchanges to be effective in mitigating the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C without increasing drug use. For example, a joint analysis of 200 studies, by WHO, UN-AIDS and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in 2004, cited a 2002 report that found that HIV rates declined by 18.6 percent annually in 36 cities with needle exchange programs, while the rates increased by 8.1 percent annually in 67 cities around the world without such programs.

AmfAR’s issue brief on harm reduction cites a New York City case study: “New York City has the nation’s largest population of injection drug users — an estimated 150,000 to 175,000 people, twice as many as the next largest urban population of IDUs. In 1992, SEPs received legal authorization and public funding from New York State to help control the HIV epidemic among IDUs and their partners and families. As a result, the incidence of new HIV infections fell from 4 percent per year in 1990-1992 to 1 percent per year in 1999-2002, and the percentage of drug injectors in the city who were infected with HIV fell from 50 percent to 15 percent.”

The CORNER Project office on 176th Street and Wadsworth Avenue has a neighborly appeal. Photography is not allowed inside the office because the organization protects the privacy of the participants and doesn’t even ask their names, only their initials.

On a sunny weekday morning several homeless people are sitting enjoying coffee, three people talking cheerfully as a fourth person walks in and becomes the focus of discussion. “So why did they take you in this time?” “When did you get out?” Worn clothes are a telltale sign that all four men may be homeless. As the newcomer answers questions about his latest time in jail, the discussion moves back to the original topic:  their frequency of drug use, without any inhibitions about who might be listening.

Just to the south of the George Washington Bridge, a small patch of grass and bush is a  hot spot for drug users, says Michael, sometimes known as Highway Mike. Mike admits he also has a drug problem, but he says he isn’t into injecting drug. Tom, a tall lean man with long wavy hair and a weary face stands with Harry on the green patch, looking restless and lost. Tom and Mike say they felt unsafe while sharing needles, “but it was tough to get a new needle every time.”  New York State Law allows purchase of up to 10 needles without a prescription under the Expanded Syringe Exchange Program, but buying needles at pharmacies was too open, Tom says. “It could easily lead to being hassled by the cops.”

Every new needle is only given in exchange for a used one. (Photo by Krishn Kaushik)

In 1988, Congress banned federal funding for programs that distributed  sterile syringes for illicit drug use.  But needle exchange was never illegal under New York State law, Favaro says. She receives all her baseline financing from New York State and New York City public health departments. Former Gov. David Paterson signed a bill in August  that integrated public health law with penal law, so that a needle exchange participant cannot be charged by the police if  he or she is found in possession of a needle with traces of illegal drugs. Before the governor’s action, it was legal to carry a syringe without a prescription, but program participants were vulnerable to police harassment.

Needle exchange goes beyond harm reduction for the participants. Favaro says that for every new needle received, a participant is required to bring at least one used needle for safe disposal. “In other programs the ratio of returned needles to new needle is generally 100 percent,” she says, adding,  “Very rarely does it fall below 80 percent.” This aims to reduce the number of used, infected needles disposed of unsafely.

Favaro refuses to provide exact statistics for CORNER Project, saying “it can be an inflammatory comment.” But she says that a minimum of 550 to 600 transactions from her organization every month mean that at least  550 to 600 used syringes are disposed of  safely. “Sometimes people bring back containers of used syringes,” which may be syringes the participant has used or has found in public places.

But safe disposal has hardly become universal. A walk over the rocks in Highbridge Park, less than three blocks away from Favaro’s office, reveals needles scattered around and easily accessible to any curious children, who can be seen playing just a few yards away.

Used needles can still be found in and around Highbridge Park (Graphic by Krishn Kaushik)

Both Tom and Harry insist that they don’t dispose of used needles unsafely. Highway Mike also guarantees that most of his drug-using friends now save the needles to exchange for new ones. But the green patch where they’re standing, smaller than half a basketball court, is full of tell-tale signs of drug use — a forgotten jacket, empty bottles of cheap whiskey, beer cans and human feces. On a weekend when none of the homeless were around, at least seven used syringes could be easily found.

Favaro says a team from her organization often goes to parks where intravenous drug users hang out to pick up used needles for safe disposal. “Prior to this agency,” she proudly says, “there was no proper disposal.” Yet she adds, “We don’t have enough staff for a large geographical area.”

Not having enough resources is one of the main challenges for needle exchange programs, she says. Government funders cut the CORNER Project’s budget by 8 percent last year. “We had to cut down a case manager” who was responsible for referrals and treatments for the participants, she says.

The CORNER Project also provides other services to the homeless like counseling, HIV tests, peer discussions and overdose prevention. “We engage the marginalized,” Favaro says.

Mike, Tom and Harry share their admiration for Favaro and her team. Mike says he is always touched by the compassion of the people at the organization’s office. “They are always so warm.”

“They are really doing great work,”  Tom agrees.

Harry, clearly touched by all the help he has received from Favaro’s team adds, “May God bless her, always.”

arry walks the streets of Washington Heights with a swagger. This is his home. He does not tell you his last name, “it’s just Harry.” His broad frame and confident stance adds a dominating aspect to his personality. He has a striking face. Intense, fresh blue eyes, chiseled chin, a sharp nose, blond hair that reaches his collar, parted at the top in the middle, dark lips and expression that swings between courtesy and arrogance. His speech is well articulated. But when he starts speaking too quickly, he sounds like a man high on crack-cocaine.

Harry is a homeless man and an intravenous drug user. There are many like him living on the streets near the George Washington Bridge on 178th Street. He readily admits that he is an addict. He knows it’s dangerous, and knows the threats he faces by drug abuse and other harmful practices related to it. “I used to share needles,” Harry says, but now he doesn’t. He, along with a lot of other homeless or quasi-homeless intravenous drug users, is a participant in a needle exchange program at the Washington Heights CORNER Project. “I really admire what they do,” he says.

Jamie Favaro, founder and executive director of the CORNER Project, says, “We are the only organization apart from New York Harm Reduction Educators who engage in needle exchange in northern Manhattan.”    Among many things, the non-profit organization provides new needles in exchange for used ones, as a harm reduction technique for homeless drug users.

Needle exchange mitigates the spread of diseases like AIDS and hepatitis C among intravenous drug users, who tend to share their needles, putting them at a high risk of contracting a disease.

The practice has been under debate nationally since its inception in the late 1980s.

Launching a needle exchange program requires approval of the community board under New York State law. “Washington Heights has had a significant drug problem for a very long time,” Favaro says, then adds that this was a reason the community board voted unanimously in 2007 to allow the organization to exist and participate legally.

People uptown understand the logic behind these programs, she says. “New York City is a metropolis that is driven by facts and not fear,” Favaro says. But she believes that there are still some parts of Manhattan – the more affluent neighborhoods — where needle exchange finds criticism.  Those who oppose needle exchange  argue that the  programs promote drug abuse. But Favaro says she has not faced any such opposition uptown.

The CORNER Project office on 176th Street and Wadsworth Avenue has got a puritan, samaritan, neighborly appeal to it. Photography is not allowed inside the office. The organization protects the privacy of the participants and does not even ask their names, only their initials.  On a sunny weekday morning three to four homeless people are sitting enjoying coffee. The discussion is unusual.

Three people are talking cheerfully as a fourth person walks in and becomes the focus of discussion. “So why did they take you in this time?” “When did you get out?” ///Clothes are a telltale sign that all four men are homeless.///[Did you actually ask them if they are homeless? If you didn’t ask them you can’t say that they are homeless no matter what their clothes looked like. Believe it or not, some people walk around looking and smelling like they are homeless, even when they have homes.] As the person finishes answering questions about his latest time in jail the discussion moves back to the original topic. They are all discussing their frequency of drug use, without any inhibitions about who might listen to it. The person at the front desk smiles at the new man, offers him a cup and asks him to drink some water.

Just to the south of the George Washington Bridge, on a small patch of grass and bush,  is a  hot spot for many drug users, says Michael or Highway Mike. Mike admits he also has a drug problem, but he says he is not into injectable drugs. Tom, a tall lean man [There seems to be no need to bring race into this story. The only time you would mention a person’s race is if it was a significant part of the story.] with long wavy hair and a weary face stands with Harry on the green patch. ///Tom looks under some influence.///[You need to “show not tell” here and describe what Tom looked like or what he was doing that made you think he was under the influence.] They tell the story as to how unsafe they would feel while sharing needles, “but it was tough to get a new needle every time.”  New York State Law allows purchase of up to 10 needles without a prescription under the Expanded Syringe Exchange Program. But it was too open, Tom says. “It could easily lead to being hassled by the cops.” Harry says it’s not uncommon even  now to get into trouble with the police, which sometimes becomes a factor in disposing offused needles unsafely.

In 1988, Congress banned programs that distributed  sterile syringes for illicit drug use from receiving federal money.  But needle exchange was never illegal under the New York State law, Favaro says. She receives all her base-line  financing from New York State and New York City public health departments. Gov.  David Paterson [Spelling the names of people wrong is a bad error. Spelling the name of someone famous, like the governor of New York, is even worse.] signed a bill in August  that integrated public health law on such programs with penal health law. This means that a participant of a needle exchange program  cannot be charged by the police if  he or she is found in possession of a needle with traces of illegal drugs. Before this bill, it was legal to carry a syringe without a prescription, but  program participants were  vulnerable to police harassment.

But needle exchange goes beyond just harm reduction for the participants. Favaro says that for every new needle received the participant is required to bring at least one used needle for safe disposal. “In other programs the ratio of returned needles to new needle is generally 100 percent,” she says, adding,  “Very rarely does it fall below 80 percent.” ///This essentially aims at reducing the number of used, infected needles disposed unsafely, and causing threat to public health.///[This idea needs to be expanded on and needs to be hinted at up higher. It needs to be explained that not only do the used needles present health hazards to drug users but used needles that are left on playgrounds or vacant lots or in street corner trash cans or wherever these needles might be left can pose a hazard to unsuspecting people who might encounter them.]

She refuses to give any figures for CORNER Project, “It can be an inflammatory comment,” she says, ///not for the health reasons, but can cause fear sometimes.///[This needs to be clarified. I don’t know what she is saying here.] All she shares is that there are minimum 550 to 600 transactions from her organization every month, which means  550 to 600 used syringes disposed of  safely. “Sometimes people bring back containers of used syringes,” which may be syringes the participant has used or has found disposed of unsafely in public places.

But safe disposal seem to have leaks yet. A walk over the rock in Highbridge Park, less than three blocks away from Favaro’s office, reveals needles  thrown around. The needles are easily accessible to any curious child that can be seen playing less than two yards away.

Both Tom and Harry assure they do not dispose their used needles in public. Highway Mike also guarantees that most of his drug-using friends now save the needles to exchange for new ones. But the green patch where Harry and Tom are standing, smaller than half a basketball court, is full of tell-tale signs of drug use — an untorn jacket which seemed forgotten rather than discarded, empty bottles of cheap whiskey, beer cans and human feces. The spot is a save haven for drug use. Even though it’s right next to the highway, it’s not completely exposed. And the other three sides of the area are inaccessible to any passer-by. On a weekend when none of the homeless were around at least seven used syringes disposed without caution could be found.

“We don’t have enough staff for a large geographical area,” Favaro says.  Not having enough resources is one of the main challenges, she believes. She says a team from her organization often goes to the parks where intravenous drug users hang out to pick up the used needles for safe disposal. “Prior to this agency,” she proudly says, “there was no proper disposal.”

The government cut the CORNER Project’s budget  by 8  percent this year.  “We had to cut down a case manager,” she says, adding that  there should not be any budget cuts in needle exchange programs. The lost case manager is responsible for referrals and treatments for the participants, she says.

The CORNER Project also provides other services to the homeless like counselling, HIV tests, peer discussions and overdose prevention. “We engage the marginalized,” Favaro says. She believes that the project is very important to the individuals, the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Mike, Tom and Harry share their admiration for Favaro and her team, on different occasions. Mike says he is always touched by the compassion of the people at the organization’s office. “They are always so warm.”

“They are really doing great work,”  Tom says. “She is always there for us,” he adds about Favaro.

Harry, who clearly seems touched by all the help he has received from Favaro’s team  adds, “May God bless her, always.”

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Diabetes Rate Remains High Uptown Sat, 08 Jan 2011 04:08:29 +0000 Medina Roshan

Proportion of residents with diabetes in U.S., New York City and uptown neighborhoods. (By Medina Roshan).

Half a dozen diabetes patients gathered in a classroom uptown one recent morning to discuss why keeping blood sugar levels between 70 and 150 is so vital.

The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center offers diabetes education classes, along with nutrition counseling and other programs, for a community beset with diabetes. “We are here like a GPS,” educator Martin Ovalles told the class. “We guide you where to go.”

Some who attended were among the estimated 10.7 percent of residents in Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood with diabetes, compared to the city’s average of 9.7 percent, according to the city health department.  A health department survey released last year shows that diabetes disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods, as well as black and Hispanic populations, all characteristic of uptown neighborhoods.

Uptown residents also face several additional risk factors for the disease, which some public health experts are calling a nationwide epidemic: poor diet, obesity, heredity and sedentary lifestyles.

Vanessa Castillo, a patient at the center, was shocked when her doctor diagnosed her, at 14,  with Type 2 diabetes.  “I was like me? Diabetes?,”recalled Castillo, now 22,. “For me, it was an old people’s disease.”

Her disease was discovered when she consulted a doctor about darkened skin around her neck, a condition known as acanthosis nigricans that is an indicator of diabetes.

Education is at the core of the problem, said nurse Patricia Kringas,  also a research coordinator and certified diabetes educator at the Berrie Center.

“Diabetes is a disease of management,” she said.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces an insufficient amount of the insulin hormone, which regulates blood sugar in the body. Insulin resistance occurs with Type 2 diabetes, whereby the body is unable to process glucose to be metabolized for energy, Kringas explained.

With childhood obesity rates rising, Type 2 is no longer seen only in older adults. “Now more and more, you are finding it with younger people,” Kringas said.

Genetics also plays a role, she added. In Castillo’s family, her mother and several of her aunts have the disease, and two  grandparents died from complications of diabetes.

Poor diet choices are another major contributing factor.

About 60 percent of the patients that nutritionist Ericka Arrecis sees at the Berrie Center are uptown residents. Many are of  Dominican background and eat high-carbohydrate diets, she said, including starchy cassava, a traditional mainstay of Dominican cuisine. That makes healthy eating challenging.

But misperceptions about the disease and its management, and about which foods contain the right types of carbohydrates for diabetics, are widespread, Berrie staff members said, particularly among immigrant populations.  Some patients mistakenly believe that diabetes results from eating a lot of sugar or that being heavier means being healthy.

In fact, Ovalles said that his own mother, who lives in the Dominican Republic, complains that his sons, 9 and 11, are too thin; she asks him to send them to her for the summer so she can help them gain weight.

But even when patients understand how to manage the disease, Arrecis says, they complain about the cost of healthier foods, and about being unable to afford fresh vegetables or whole grains. “The diabetic diet is more expensive,” she acknowledged.

Castillo and her family frequently deal with this issue. “You just take whatever is cheaper,” she said of her family’s shopping habits. “Usually the cheaper stuff is the fattier food.”

Experts agree that socioeconomic factors contribute to the problem. “Diabetes to me is to me one more manifestation of social and economic inequity,” said Marilyn Aguirre-Molina, a professor of public health at the City University of New York..

Some families find it more convenient and economical to pick up dinner from the McDonald’s dollar menu rather than locate a grocery store that provides nutritious and affordable choices, she said. Uptown, “The food sources are atrocious,” Aguirre-Molina added. “They have lots of fast food, which I called fields of fat.”

According to a report from the East and Central Harlem District Public Health Office, two in three food stores in those neighborhoods are bodegas, many of which don’t offer healthy foods. For example, leafy green vegetables are available in just three percent of bodegas there, compared to 20 percent on the Upper East Side. “There has to be ways of bringing in supermarkets and other stores,” Aguirre-Molina said.

Furthermore, uptown neighborhoods are not conducive to physical activity, she added, especially when parents are concerned for their children’s safety.“Playgrounds in some of these areas are a disaster,”she said.

One uptown neighborhood responding to the growing problem is East Harlem, which Mt. Sinai School of Medicine researcher Euny Lee calls the epicenter of diabetes and obesity in the city.

Lee is the project manager of a study called the East Harlem Partnership for Diabetes Prevention, started to help pre-diabetic adults from developing full blown diabetes. Pre-diabetes occurs when people have higher than normal blood glucose levels that aren’t high enough to be classified as diabetes.

A participatory research program, the project involves several uptown community organizations in organizing workshops designed to help participants lose weight. “We’re trying to see if the workshops are a successful way of preventing diabetes,” Lee said.

While she said she can’t provide conclusive data from the study, still in progress, Lee has noticed a trend in participants’ ages. “Participants that we screen are a younger cohort,” she said.  “It’s not like they are senior citizens.”

Other city programs include the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which encourages shopkeepers to provide healthier foods like fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk in exchange for help with advertising and permits to sell on sidewalks.

Castillo, learning about her disease, still struggles to eat well and remain active, she said.

Her blood sugar is higher than it should be and she also suffers from high blood pressure. Her doctor recently prescribed insulin injections, a prospect she is nervous about because she is afraid of needles.

“I don’t like pain,” she said.

Still, Castillo said she can’t complain because she has not felt ill since being diagnosed. Her goal, she said, is to get her diabetes under control.

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While City Cycling Grows, Bike Lanes Absent Uptown Fri, 07 Jan 2011 23:04:23 +0000 Farhod Family Darting through heavy traffic alongside cars, trucks and buses while keeping an eye out for opening car doors and pedestrians is nothing new for East Harlem cyclists. Automobiles and bicyclists must mesh together and negotiate space on busy avenues, due to a lack of bike lanes.

“On First, Second or Third Avenue, I ride on the side of the street, but you gotta be aware of buses, people and a lot of cars get too close to you,” says Jose Barzan, resident and longtime cyclist in East Harlem.

Cycling in New York City has been on a constant rise over the last decade. The streets of New York see an average of 200,000 cyclists a day.

According to the 2010 Census, Manhattan has had a 92 percent increase in cycling since 1990. At the City Council hearing on bicycling in New York City, on Dec. 9, Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said, “The Department of Transportation bicycle commuter counts show a 109 percent increase from 2006 to 2010. That is by design.”

While there has been a strong surge in cycling, upper Manhattan has some of the patchiest bike lanes in the city.

In October, East Harlem resident, Marcus Ewing was killed after being hit by a car door that was being opened. Ewing was riding in the bike lane on East 120 Street near the intersection of Third Avenue.

“When you talk about bike lanes in East Harlem, you’re talking about making safety improvements for cyclists,” says Ben Fried, editor of Streetsblog, a network of blogs on sustainable transport in New York City.

In East Harlem, many are using cycling as a means to get to work. “East Harlem has some of the highest rates of bike commuting in the city,” says Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy for the group Transportation Alternatives.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 2 percent of workers commute by bicycle in East Harlem, which is the second-highest rate after lower Manhattan. “It’s progressing, a lot of people in the community are riding bikes now,” Hector Serrano, longtime resident and bicyclist in East Harlem. “I see people go all the way down to Battery Park on their bikes for work.”

Cyclists in the neighborhood have to deal with speeding cars, delivery trucks and express buses, all the while riding side by side in the street. “They need bike lanes, because it’s too crowded,” Serrano says, while waiting for his bike to get repaired at the Heavy Metal Bike Shop on Third Avenue in East Harlem. “It’s hard to get through traffic on your bike.”

A cyclist has no choice but to ride in the bus lane on Second Avenue in East Harlem. (Photo by Farhod Family)

There are three different types of bike lanes, according to the Department of Transportation: Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3. A Class 1 bike lane is physically separated from parked cars. The width ranges from eight feet on commercial cross streets, to 14 feet on wider commercial avenues. The major drawback for installing Class 1 bike lanes is the loss of five parking spaces for every two city blocks.

Class 2 and Class 3 bike lanes are a portion of the roadway that is designated, with striping, signs and pavement marking, for use by bicyclists. The Department of Transportation looks to install these lanes on residential streets where there is excess road capacity. Class 2 and Class 3 bike lanes range from five to eight feet in width. They have the disadvantage of allowing vehicles to penetrate into the bike lane.

The design of the majority of East Harlem bike lanes requires the cyclist to ride very close to the parked cars, increasing the chances of being hit by opening car doors.

“The reason we’ve been calling on the city to finish lanes on First and Second Avenues is because they are designed to be physically separated from parked cars,” Samponaro says.

Plans were made in January by the Department of Transportation to redesign the corridor from Houston Street to 125th Street, with protective bike lanes.

But in June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a redesign that would call for protected bike lanes only between Houston and 34th streets. “Honestly, I don’t feel safe,” says Jesse Parra of Eduardo’s Bike Shop on Second Avenue in East Harlem. “Going up Second Avenue, it’s a little risky.”

The plan to extend bike lanes in East Harlem was scaled back because only so much construction could be done in a year and it would be impossible to complete the full redesign of the corridor, city officials say. Sometime this year is the target date for completion, but there are no guarantees. “There has been no official response from the Department of Transportation as to what they are or aren’t going to do,” Fried says.

The acting bicycle program coordinator for the Department of Transportation, Lord Hayes, says the original plan was overly optimistic. “We were ambitious in our proposal at first, but we will continue to monitor it,” Hayes says. “We have to feel comfortable to move forward and make this bike network possible.”

The original proposal to connect a bike lane network from Houston Street up to 125th Street on the East Side remains intact, but incomplete. ”The city never changed the plan, they just announced it was extending only from Houston to 34th Street,” Samparano says.

On Nov. 10, advocates demonstrated against the city’s delayed plan to construct the separated bike lanes extending to 125th Street.  Led by Transportation Alternatives, residents gathered on the front steps of City Hall, calling for the bike lanes to be extended into their neighborhood. “We are continuing to demonstrate, so the city will stick to its plan,” Samparano says.

Support for bike lanes on the East Side has been very strong and organic. “Every community board from the Financial District to Harlem supports the city’s plan to install protected bike lanes from under the Manhattan Bridge to 125th Street,” says Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “As City Hall slowed the pace, groups and city environmental organizations wrote to Mayor Bloomberg asking for improvements in their neighborhood.”

One of the major arguments against adding bike lanes has been street congestion. Streets in New York are already full of traffic, and adding bike lanes, especially ones with buffer zones to separate them from parked cars, could make an already gridlocked street even more problematic. Congestion, however, may be a result of motorists taking up too much space.

“Streets might feel congested because motorists get used to using all the space,” Hayes says. “When we do a bike lane with a buffer zone, traffic flows better. It could help with congestion.”

The city has to find ways to battle the current problem of congestion. Biking is not the only solution, as not everyone wants to brave the elements of the city, and ride. “Are you going to offer different options to get around besides driving?” says Fried, who argues that besides bike lanes, increasing the convenience of public transportation with separated bus lanes can go a long way in battling the problem of packed streets.

Besides a bike network connecting East Harlem and lower Manhattan, traveling crosstown in upper Manhattan is difficult. Currently, the only routes that have partial bike lanes to get across Manhattan are on East 119th and 120th streets. There have been proposals to build a lane on West 181st Street, but no substantial progress has been made.

In Inwood, to get from the Hudson River to the Harlem River, Dyckman Street offers the best option, however, cyclists don’t have designated lanes to ride in.

Proposals and petitions have been made in the past to expand the bike lane network in Washington Heights and Inwood, but community support has been lukewarm. “It’s really up to the community board. We need their support. Once we get it, we can start the implementation of a plan,” says Lord, who was present at Community Board 12’s meeting on Dec. 6, speaking to members about newly installed bike lanes and future projects and proposals.

The decision power a community board holds is crucial in getting bike lanes installed. “Every single protected bike lane that exists in New York City today was supported by the appropriate community board or boards,” Sadik-Khan says.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer echoes the importance of community involvement when discussing new bike lane proposals, but has called on the Department of Transportation to improve its efforts. “As New York’s bike lane network continues to expand, so too should its community outreach,” Stringer said at the city council hearing on bicycling in New York City. “The New York City Department of Transportation must do a better job of engaging community voices.”

Any future projects in Washington Heights and Inwood would take some time to get started, Lord says, adding,  “Those proposals involve the Department of Parks and Recreation and Port Authority, so it will require additional time.”

For now the expansion of uptown’s bike network has a long way to go. While the city has delayed construction in connecting the network on the East Side and has not issued a firm response as to when it will complete its plan, the West Side is only in the beginning phase. “Washington Heights and Inwood bike lane proposals are just in the planning stages,” Lord says.

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Weak Economy Pushing Workers Off the Books Fri, 07 Jan 2011 19:00:42 +0000 Krishn Kaushik

On 125th Street, some vendors are part of the underground labor force (Photo by Krishn Kaushik)

Tony Smith is sitting on a bench facing the basketball courts in Colonel Charles Young Playground on East 145th Street. A short, heavy man, he looks lost and gloomy as he watches teenagers enjoy a Sunday pick-up game. “It’s not fair,” says Smith, 42, eyes still on the game. “But I know it could have been worse.”

Smith has worked as a delivery van driver for a small transport company in Washington Heights for four years. For the last nine months, he has been pushed to work off the books. “I was at least lucky to not lose the job,” Smith says, mentioning that the only other driver, “a nice Latino guy,” was fired.

Smith is part of a workforce earning a living without any government documentation or workplace protections, due to the still struggling economy. “I know two more people working off the books now,” says Smith, who believes the underground economy is growing.

At Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, Tony James distributes handbills to pedestrians promoting a nearby pawn shop. James, in his late 50s, says he’s had many jobs previously, including working in garages, but has been leafleting for the past three months. “Five of my friends are into same thing,” James says. Not everyone with this job works off the books. “Some of these shops like to put in the paper, some don’t,” he says.

“The underground workforce is made up of individuals from many walks of life,” Susan Pozo, an economist at Western Michigan University, says via e-mail.

Smith says, “They can be tailors, janitors, nannies, dog walkers.”

While he thinks the undocumented workforce is on the rise, it’s tough to find data to support the claim. Pozo estimates that, based on the documented unemployment rate in upper Manhattan, off-the-books workers constitute roughly 13 percent of the labor force. She knows of no estimate of the total worth of the country’s underground economy.

Harvard economist Lawrence Katz says via e-mail, “There is no good systematic data on the size of the underground economy.”

Even government authorities can’t provide any figures. “We really don’t have data,” Martin Kohler, regional economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says in an e-mail. “And I am not sure who would.” Employment services uptown were unable to shed any light on the subject.

“I gotta do what I gotta do to not let my family starve,” says Greg Browne, selling winter hats and scarves from a small wooden table on West 125th Street. Browne says that while most 125th Street street vendors are legal and have trader’s licenses, some work without authorization. He believes the high unemployment rate might even be pushing some young people to work in “drugs and the likes.”

While undocumented immigrants always work off the books, the population of legal residents joining their ranks may be growing. “It is always on the rise,” says Richard Weiss, communications director for the Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 union,  serving New York City.

Legal citizens form a substantial part of undocumented workers, Pozo says, and “I would guess that the proportion of legal immigrants/natives in the underground workforce has risen.”

While employers might increasingly hire legal residents, she doesn’t see an appreciable rise or fall in the total numbers of such workers. “While those laid off from the above ground sector might look for jobs in the underground sector,” Pozo says, “there aren’t many jobs there either.”

Those working without any benefits, legal protections, or without paying taxes don’t prefer to work off the books, but may do so out of desperation. “I have to pay for electricity, rent, gas, phone, food and I need some work for that,” says Browne, who was laid off a year ago from the restaurant where he worked.

“Can’t survive on welfare and unemployment,” he adds.

Weiss says, “These people are exploited due to their economic situation.” He adds that many times underground workers are paid less than minimum wage while their employers also evade taxes. “They are treated as disposable commodities,” he says.

Browne won’t specify how much money he makes in a month. He says he has to move his location often to avoid being bothered by the police. James says he only makes $300 a week distributing handbills and advertising the pawn shop on a signboard he wears. Smith reports earning $750 a week as a driver, good money, but without any benefits.

“I do hope things improve soon,” Smith says. His van is parked outside the playground. He fears he might lose his apartment in Brooklyn, where he lives alone, if things don’t change soon.

“Sometimes I sleep in the van,” he says. “Just to get used to it, in case.”

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Small Harlem Churches Struggle to Maintain Congregation Numbers Wed, 05 Jan 2011 19:36:32 +0000 Paula Rogo

Rescue Baptist Church, like other small Harlem churches, is struggling with a decreasing congregation (Photo by Paula Rogo).


“All the ground is sinking sand,” Mother Francine Knight sings along with the congregation in the basement of Rescue Baptist Church. 

She’s wearing a smart black skirt and jacket, wisps of her gray hair – she’s 82 — escaping from under her wool cap. She stands at a long table with seven fellow parishioners, each with similarly gray hair and life-weathered skin. 

They usually hold services in the small red-carpeted space upstairs, with its five-row choir section and old wooden piano behind the pulpit. A large portrait of the founder, Pastor Frank Nunn, gazes over the 10 pews. But on this particular Sunday, the gas has run out in the heater, forcing the 11 a.m. service into the warmer basement. In the adjacent kitchen, pots of water boil on the stove to help heat the room. 

“All the ground is sinking sand,” Francis repeats as the hymn continues. 

This brownstone church on West 123rd Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, a modest space with a shrinking congregation, faces problems found in many small Harlem churches. In the last few years, Harlem churches have seen a steady decrease in membership, resulting in fewer houses of worship in a neighborhood once said to have “a bar on every corner and a church on every block.” 

“Honey, you ain’t seen nothing,” Knight says after the service. “When I came here in 1944, churches were in storefronts. They were next to bars. There was a church in every corner.” 

“Harlem is a melting pot socially and culturally,” says Dr. Obery Hendricks, explaining Harlem’s historically large numbers of churches. Hendricks is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research in African American Studies and the Department of Religion at Columbia University. 

“Some of these churches were ethnically oriented,” he says. “Some people were Caribbean, others were African; they were the same denomination with a different cultural setting.” The Presbyterian Church of Ghana still sits on the same block as Rescue Baptist, as do two other churches 

But others have disappeared. In the last three years, Harlem has seen the closing of Our Lady Queen of Angel Church, Greater Calvary Baptist Church and the Little Flower Baptist Church on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. On Nov. 2, 76-year-old Mount Moriah Baptist Church at 2050 Fifth Avenue was seized after a foreclosure auction last summer. “Mount Moriah Baptist Church is no longer meeting at this location,” reads a sign taped to the door. A “building available” ad covers the church’s welcome sign. 

“Most of these smaller churches close because of rent and low membership,” says Deacon Albert Baldwin, 81, of Rescue Baptist. “We don’t have that problem because we own the space.” 

Rescue Baptist, which celebrated its 86th anniversary in October, bought its current building in 1967, when it moved from 119th Street and Fifth Avenue; it also bought the brownstone next door, which it rents out to help pay the bills. 

But many smaller churches rent their spaces and depend on congregants’ donations to pay the rent, Deacon Baldwin adds. This means membership directly affects their financial stability. 

“We are keeping our heads above water with offering and the rent,” Deacon Baldwin said. “But the tenant just moved out, so we’ve lost that.” 


Mary Baldwin, 78, Deacon Baldwin’s wife recalls the 80s as a great decade for the church. “We had good membership then,” she said. “Sometimes there were so many people, we had to bring chairs from the basement to seat everyone.” 

But to Sister Corine Corbett, head of church finances for years, the 60s represented the church’s peak. “With collection, we would make on average $400 and something on a Sunday,” she remembered. 

“That’s if people gave a maximum of $15,” Knight chimed in. 

“But today we get about $235,” Corbett continued. “Sometimes we do $200. There’s not that many of us.” 

With such decreased income, the church is unable to pay Pastor Anthony Harris a salary. “We don’t have funds,” he says. “We have bills.” Instead, he receives a “love offering” each Sunday, Knight explains: money from a tray passed around during the service along with the church’s collection tray. Harris has been forced to work as a sales associate at Yankee Stadium to bolster his income. In the off-season, he occasionally works as a parking attendant. 

He receives no benefits “Small churches don’t have insurance,” he says. “We can’t afford stuff like that.” 

What would happen if Rescue Baptist didn’t own its building? Deacon Baldwin looks over his eyeglasses. “You don’t need me to say it, do you?” 


After the service, Corbett hands out pieces of cake wrapped in foil to each attending member, her ritual each Sunday. Upstairs, the now-heated main room waits to be used by another church, which pays to use the space while its own undergoes renovations. 

Most of the Rescue Baptist’s members still cluster around the table in the basement, including Corbett, Knight, Deacon Baldwin and his wife. 

“They are the four pillars of Rescue [Baptist],” Harris calls them. “They were there to elect Pastor Tyne, and most of them are in their 80s.” Harry J. Tynes was the pastor before Harris; he served for 45 years. Harris was Tynes’ assistant pastor for 12 years, until Tynes’ death just over a year ago. 

On the wall, laminated photographs of church members, apparently taken in the late 70s to the 80s, show a different Rescue Baptist Church. Women are fashionably dressed in their Sunday best, big hats displayed peacock-like for all to see. Young men, women and children — age groups starkly missing at today’s service — are in evidence. The church choir, in full regalia, smiles at the camera. 

“We had 25 or 35 in the choir,” Corbett says. 

“I had to stop singing in the choir at one point because there were too many of us, “ Deacon Baldwin laughs. 

Now, looking over the photos, they point out the people they remember. “She’s gone,” Corbett says pointing at one woman. “She passed.” 

It becomes a common refrain. “He’s gone. She’s gone. She’s in a nursing home. She passed.” 

“This woman played the piano until she died,” Corbett says pointing at a woman with her hair hidden under a blue head wrap. 

“She was 92 years old,” Knight adds. 

“She used to call on me to sing louder,” Corbett remembers, laughing. 

Deacon Baldwin met his wife Mary in the church choir. Both from Georgia, married for 62 years, they are, at 78 and 81, the congregation’s oldest members. “They are the pillars that are still here,” says the Rev. Henrietta Shepard, assistant to the pastor. 


The church has always played an important role in African American history and culture. 

“Historically, churches were in many ways the only wholly-owned black institution,” Hendricks says. “It was the only place that black people could be somebody. Where you could wear a shirt and tie.” 

Today, Hendricks believes, other institutions fulfill the church’s role . “It comes from the rise of the black middle class,” he says. “It’s to do with financial mobility and economic and social empowerment.” He sees this “rising secularization of African Americans” as a mostly northern, urban phenomenon, less common in the Bible Belt. 

He also blames mega churches for crowding out more traditional congregations. “They start to attract much of the constituents of the smaller churches,” he says. “They are more of an audience than a congregation. These mega churches provide more entertainment and services.” 

Rescue Baptist’s Pastor Anthony Harris points out, however, that even larger churches are facing decline. “The problem is all over. People just don’t go to church.” 

Some have such small numbers that only the pastor, his wife, and perhaps three or four other members remain, says Harris says, who also occasionally preaches in Brooklyn. 

“The younger generation is not into church,” Shepard explained. “And the older members are dying.” 

The announcements read at the end of the service at Rescue Baptist list ailing members; there’s no mention of marriages or new births, evidence of its failure to attract younger members to replace its dying flock. 

“When kids grow up, they move on,” Knight said. “Families used to stay in one place, but it’s not like that anymore.” 

Nor do blue laws, designed to keep businesses closed on Sundays, help fill the pews as they once did, she points out. “Delicatessens were the only places allowed to be open. Now liquor stores are open, and people like to spend their Sundays at the laundromat.” 

Harris’ goal in the next few years is to attract younger and middle-aged people to the church. He believes that communicating with them about contemporary issues, without pressuring them to join, is key. “Someone has to talk to them, he says. “Young people today experience a lot of violence. I want to remove them from a worldly realm and bring them to a spiritual realm.” 



Deacon Baldwin believes that some people just don’t find what they’re looking for at Rescue Baptist. “They want a certain preacher or certain choir,” he says. 

“And mega churches do not ask much of their congregation,” Hendricks observes. “In small churches, that’s where people learned their social etiquette in bonding with those in church. You don’t get that in large churches. It’ll contribute to loosening of social fabric, and could have a harmful impact on the raising of young people.” 

Harlem’s gentrification has also had an impact, he adds. “Those moving in are not replacing those moving out.” 

Congregants at Rescue Baptist, however, refuse to believe that the future of their church is dire. 

“People just don’t’ go to church like they used to,” Corbett says. “But I know it’s going to get better.” 

The sentiment seems universal. “God can do anything but fail,” Knight says. “Do you know how many churches in Harlem have failed? But we are still here.”

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Legal Fight Brews Over Public Housing Arrests Wed, 05 Jan 2011 17:24:52 +0000 Jason Alcorn

Police sweep public housing stairwells top to bottom, like this one where Eleanor Britt's grandson was arrested in 2009. (Photo by Jason Alcorn)

Two police officers knocked on Eleanor Britt’s door in West Harlem in January 2009. Her grandson Roman was in handcuffs downstairs, arrested for criminal trespass in public housing, a class B misdemeanor.

Britt was shocked. Her grandson wasn’t the type to get into trouble. Eighteen months after graduating from Bowdoin College with a degree in government and legal studies, he was working at Harlem Children’s Zone under education reformer Geoffrey Canada.

“I told them: ‘You really don’t have to do that. He’s a good person, a decent person,’” Britt recalls. “He lives here.”

The officers had come across Britt’s grandson and a friend talking in the stairwell leading from the 17th floor to the roof, just two flights up from the apartment he had shared with his grandmother for more than 20 years.

“They frisked him head to toe,” Britt says. “Then they put handcuffs on him and arrested him.”

Three New York Police Department officers took Britt’s grandson into custody, fingerprinted him and jailed him for six hours on Jan. 31, 2009, because he did not take his ID with him into the stairwell of his own building.

Britt is still as bewildered as she was during her 10-minute argument, Roman’s driver’s license in hand, with the officers who knocked on her door two years ago.

“You’re in the hallway of your building,” she says. “Why would you have your ID?”

Last year, the police department stopped more than 59,000 people in public housing. Fewer than 9,000 of the stops resulted in arrests, according to a recent City Council briefing. Maybe Britt’s grandson was just unlucky, but he doesn’t see it that way. Neither do Britt and a handful of city politicians, including Council Member Rosie Mendez.

“It is my belief and the belief of many of the residents that reside in public housing,” Mendez said at a committee meeting in September, “that the New York City Police Department is targeting people in public housing because of where they live and because of their demographic composition.”

Britt’s grandson, like nearly half the residents of public housing, is black. More than 60 percent of those stopped for trespass in the city are black, as are more than 50 percent of those arrested, even though they make up just a quarter of the city’s population. Latino residents of public housing face much the same situation.

Now the department is coming under increasing legal and political pressure, including a class action lawsuit filed in January against the city and the New York City Housing Authority. Britt and her grandson are two of the 17 plaintiffs in the suit, which alleges that the Police Department’s policies constitute racial discrimination and lead to unlawful arrests for trespass.

“The treatment of residents of NYCHA has been a longstanding issue of debate,” explains Johnathan Smith, an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney working on the case. “I think the fact that this case is taking place so that people have the right, the ability to enjoy their residence, to have an impact on the NYPD, it’s really important.”

The plaintiffs’ stories, outlined in a complaint filed with the court in June, show daily routines interrupted by run-ins with law enforcement. Four plaintiffs in addition to Britt’s grandson were arrested in upper Manhattan:

¶Edwin Larregui, 39, was arrested after a visit to see his wife’s grandmother, who lives in the George Washington Carver Houses in East Harlem. He spent the night at Central Booking before seeing a judge who let him go the next day.

¶Three months later, Anthony Anderson had just dropped off his niece and nephew at his sister-in-law’s apartment at the Thomas Jefferson Houses when he was arrested and jailed for two weeks. All charges against him were dismissed.

¶The police arrested William Turner, 39, leaving a friend’s building in the Drew Hamilton Houses in early 2008. After six months and four court appearances, his case was dismissed.

¶David Wilson, 53, was arrested last year by two plainclothes officers on West 114th Street in Harlem. When his elderly aunt, whom he was visiting, came to the courthouse to explain, a judge dismissed the case.

Most arrests don’t result in conviction. A trespass charge is easy to disprove: a sworn statement from a building resident is usually enough. And arrests in public housing often involve rookie officers, says Christopher Fabricant, director of the criminal justice clinic at Pace Law School. “The result is sloppy paperwork and bad witnesses,” Fabricant says.

From 2005 to 2008, the city declined to prosecute over 11 percent of trespass arrests, according to a study published this fall in the Columbia Law Review, nearly twice the rate for drug sales or resisting arrest. The Bronx Defenders, which provides attorneys to indigent defendants in court, won nearly 90 percent of its trespass cases last year; two years ago, 54 percent of the cases that went to trial boroughwide ended in acquittal or a hung jury, Fabricant says.

But he is quick to point out that often there are still serious repercussions. At the very least, an arrest usually means a night in jail, and if it’s not dismissed the average misdemeanor case takes more than a year to go to trial.

The consequences, William Gibney, a Legal Aid Society attorney, testified in September, include “missing work or medical appointments, being unable to satisfy family obligations, and navigating the criminal justice system over several months and with multiple court appearances.”

As a result, innocent people plead guilty, sometimes to a lesser charge, a trespass violation, which carries a $120 fine. They return to work and their families more quickly. But as public housing residents, criminal conviction can be a reason for eviction. A conviction can also affect future employment, since it will show up on background checks.

Britt went to the precinct building that night two years ago to learn what was going to happen to her grandson.

“When your child’s arrested, you don’t know what to expect,” she says. “They didn’t allow me to see him or to speak with him.” So she left and came back with Roman’s uncle. Still, they told her: “You just need to leave. We’ll release him when we’re ready.”

Around 1 a.m. Sunday morning, her grandson’s fingerprints came back clean and he was allowed to leave. Within a few days, the public defender assigned to the case called and a court date was set for March.

Despite advocates’ concerns, the increase in trespass arrests over the last decade and a half corresponds to safer public housing: Between 1998 and 2003, crime fell 34 percent, according to a report by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

A causal link is doubtful, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. The perception is that the current approach to policing is effective, so some residents want aggressive stop-and-question policies, no matter the tradeoff.

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” Bishop Mitchell Taylor of the Civilian Complaint Review Board said in September, “because residents want safe neighborhoods, but residents also want the balance of not being harassed in their own neighborhoods.

“I think that’s the dance that’s being done now.”

City Council Member Derek Halloran addressed the question at a committee meeting in September. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was an explosion of trespassing that led to crimes in public housing facilities,” he said, defending the Police Department’s record.

The increase began with two changes in city policy. In 1992, nonresidents for the first time needed an invitation to enter public housing. Prior to that, the lobbies and hallways of buildings were as open to the public as sidewalks. Three years later, the city Police Department absorbed the housing police and became the security force for the Housing Authority.

“The controversy back then,” Tosano Simonetti of the complaint review board said at his group’s October meeting, “was a lot of people in public housing said: ‘Don’t take our housing cops away from us.’ They wanted them to remain because they felt they had a better – or they had a good understanding with them.”

The demographics of public housing don’t match the rest of the city. The Housing Authority operates 53 buildings in upper Manhattan, among 334 developments and 2,600 buildings across the city, making it the largest such agency in North America.

Its more than 400,000 residents skew young and old; over 35 percent are 62 or older and nearly 37 percent are under 21, compared with 15 percent and 26.5 percent citywide, according to agency data and the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey.

Britt remembers when the relationship between building residents and the police started to sour: It was when the two police departments merged. “We used to have one officer assigned to the building,” she says.

Now she rarely recognizes the officers. “Don’t get me wrong, we need police presence in the community,” she says, “but they need to know how to interact.”

Sitting on the building’s tenant board, she hears the same stories again and again. Her neighbor’s sons have been wrongfully arrested. And each month new complaints are raised about police conduct.

“The answer to a crime problem cannot be the arbitrary arrest of everybody in the building because you don’t like the way they look,” says Fabricant, the Pace legal clinic director.

Halloran also acknowledged the lawsuit’s importance. “I think that one of the things that you’re pointing out, egregiously, unfortunately, is that the Constitution sort of takes a second seat towards the goal of safety,” he says.

“We are very much engaged in the litigation,” says Smith, the Legal Defense and Education Fund lawyer. “Our goal is for residents to be treated with dignity and respect. To the extent there are other avenues, we are taking advantage of them.”

One of those options is bringing about the kind of political pressure via the City Council that forced changes in the Police Department’s stop, question and frisk policy last year.

The September committee meeting where Council Member Mendez condemned the Police Department’s targeting of public housing residents focused exclusively on trespass arrests. Twenty of the 51 council members attended, including two uptown representatives, Robert Jackson and Melissa Mark-Viverito. No one from the Housing Authority or the Police Department testified, despite invitations. Instead the committee heard testimony from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, counsel in the class action case, tenant advocates and public housing residents who all testified against current police policy.

“We understand the need for police officers in NYCHA developments,” said Council Member Debbi Rose.

“Cameras might be a help but they’re not addressing the core issue about the relationship,” Gibney of the Legal Aid Society said in response to a question from Jackson.

Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem district has more than 18,000 units of public housing, the highest in the city, said her constituents regularly raise issues of police harassment.

“This somehow has become a rite of passage that they’re going to have these kinds of experiences of being stopped and frisked,” she said. “So this is obviously a very serious issue that we have to be aggressive about and we have to be more vocal in denouncing it.”

It fell to council members to question whether the Police Department could take credit for reducing crime, as the discussion moved from acknowledging a problem to looking at fixes.

Gibney responded: “I think there’s a considerable debate. I don’t think there’s a clear answer as to what the relationship is.”

Jin Hee Lee, Gibney’s co-counsel from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund,* added: “It’s not a matter of security or no security. The real issue is how that security is being provided and whether residents’ constitutional rights are being respected.”

The Police Department has already taken several steps this year to improve the relationship between officers and public housing residents. In June, the department announced a revision to the Patrol Guide, literally underlining the need for reasonable suspicion to stop a suspected trespasser. The guide also instructs officers on what to do if they suspect someone is not authorized to be in the building: First, “take reasonable measures to verify such authority (e.g., asking for identification, a key to the building entrance doors, etc.).” Then, ask them to leave. Only then can the officer make a trespass arrest, if “the person refuses to exit the building and does not promptly establish a right to be in the building.”

In November, the 2,000 officers in the Police Department’s housing bureau received training on the new guidelines. Fabricant is skeptical: “The patrol guide simply states what the law already was. That the NYPD felt the need to revise it seems to me absurd.”

He has seen fewer public housing trespass arrests in the Bronx courts in the last two months, though he cautions that he hasn’t done a rigorous count to know for sure.

A spokesperson for the Housing Authority, which helped the Police Department create the new guidelines, said via e-mail only that the agency is “pursuing and rolling out new policies and procedures that will improve the long-term safety and well-being of public housing residents in New York City.” The Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Soon after his arrest, Britt’s grandson received three letters in the mail. Because he worked with schoolchildren at Harlem Children’s Zone, his arrest triggered warnings to his employer, even before his first appearance in court.

“Thank God he worked for good people who understood,” Britt says. Roman was able to explain what happened and avoided getting suspended.

Others find themselves in worse circumstances. Among the plaintiffs arrested in Harlem: David Wilson missed a job interview, Edwin Larregui was suspended for two weeks for missing work while in custody, Anthony Anderson lost his job as a private security guard and the Department of Education suspended William Turner for eight months without pay.

Britt and her grandson arrived for his desk appearance on March 2 to see their lawyer coming out of a meeting with the district attorney’s office.

“The D.A. said this was nonsense,” says Britt, “and it didn’t even merit making a desk appearance.”

Roman’s record, including his fingerprints, has been sealed, as if the arrest simply never happened. But for him it’s not so easy to erase the past, even though he now lives in Los Angeles. When he was home visiting, he ran into the police officer who had arrested him.

“Do you remember me?” the officer asked.

Roman replied, “Yes, you’re the idiot who arrested me for trespassing in the building where I live.”

It wasn’t a joke. The officer laughed anyway.

* The article originally described Jin Hee Lee as counsel at the Legal Aid Society. The Uptowner regrets the error.

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Former Inwood Resident to Head Public Library System Wed, 29 Dec 2010 01:00:11 +0000 Medina Roshan

Incoming New York Public Library president Anthony Marx. (Photo by Samuel Masinter/Amherst College Public Affairs)

On a recent visit to the Inwood branch library, Anthony Marx was blown away by the 2001 renovations.

It wasn’t just the increased space or modern finishes that impressed him, but what he called “the aliveness of the place” and “the most amazing mix of New Yorkers” he found there.

“It was just inspiring and remarkable,” he said — and something he said hasn’t changed since his childhood, when he frequently visited the Inwood branch.

Marx will be the next president and chief executive of the New York Public Library system, the library announced in October.

Growing up in Inwood in the mid-1960s and 1970s, Marx attended P.S. 98 on West 212th Street and found the library a quiet refuge with a variety of books to explore. “It’s something we did pretty regularly,” he said of his library visits. His most vivid memories are of reading circles, when a librarian would read aloud to a group of children.

On his recent visit to the Inwood branch, he noticed immigrants looking at paintings, a school teacher looking for books for her students and patrons who came because the library was the only place they could use a computer.

In his new role as president, Marx hopes to make the city’s libraries places for a variety of people to access the information they need, just as they do in Inwood. “The library should be the place that brings together New Yorkers who need help finding information and using information to advance their lives,” he said.

But he’ll have to contend with less money.  “Despite significant funding cuts, library circulation and attendance have reached record highs as New Yorkers and others rely on NYPL in hard economic times,” a press release from the library stated.

This can’t deter the library system from being helpful for residents, Marx said.

“We need programs to bring the resources from our libraries to bear, whether it’s access to computers, whether it’s information, looking for jobs or immigrants looking for jobs,” Marx said. “Even when resources are less available, it needs to continue to be that place for New Yorkers.”

Marx will begin his tenure in July. He is currently president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he has served since 2003.

His colleagues there will miss his leadership and compassion, said Gregory S. Call, dean of the faculty. “I will miss dearly his warmth and keen wit which have made our daily partnership a pleasure,” Call said via e-mail.

Before his tenure at Amherst, Marx was a professor of political science and director of undergraduate programs for the department at Columbia University.

His wife, Karen Barkey, a professor of history and sociology at Columbia, said that moving back to New York will be a family homecoming.

“Both our mothers live in New York,” she said. “We have a community here, so it makes a difference for us.”

The library, she said, has always been an important part of life for her family, including their children, Joshua, 16, and Anna-Claire, 12. And it’s a place, she added, where communities form.

“He really wants to continue that and push for that more powerfully,” she said of her husband’s goals.

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Team Taino: “The growth that I see now is amazing” Mon, 27 Dec 2010 16:00:27 +0000 Jason Tomassini

With their coaches watching, Team Taino players practice a proper defensive stance. After three months of basketball practice in the gym at Taino Towers, organizers plan to expand the program. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

Conclusion of a four-part series. For previous installments, visit here.

Ikay Henry is sitting on a stage at the north end of the Taino Towers gym, leafing through a manila folder and smiling. He’s perusing 13-year-old Daquan Clarke’s math homework, several worksheets of word problems and complex fractions, adorned by near-perfect scores.

Henry has known Clarke most of his life. He coaches Clarke in Taino Towers’ embryonic youth basketball team; in the past, he’s worked at Clarke’s junior high school and at a YMCA where Clarke took acting classes. Both grew up at Taino Towers.

Henry is smiling because Clarke never used to earn grades like this; in fact, he never seemed to care about school at all.

“Just the growth that I see now is amazing,” says Henry, 28, a tall, broad man with a thin mustache.

Clarke acknowledges the transformation, too. “Before my grades were terrible,” he says at the end of practice. “Now it’s a B and up.” Clarke shrugs off the improvement, noting that he brought his homework to practice because he wants to show it to his parents later, in hopes of landing an improved Christmas bounty.

To Henry, though, that a kid would even think to show his coaches his homework means that, at least in one case, the basketball program—after a rocky start—is paying off.

It began in September after a particularly violent year at Taino Towers, a federally-subsidized apartment complex in East Harlem that houses about 3,000 residents and became the site of frequent fights between rival youth gangs over the spring and summer. Basketball, every Tuesday and Thursday in the gym beneath the complex, marks the start of a larger effort at Taino, to offer classes, leadership training and other sports like football, baseball and skiing. Some of the educational programs were supposed to begin by now in a new learning center that has been delayed, but is slated to open by the new year.

Team Taino also serves as a case study in the complexities of starting a program that targets at-risk kids in urban neighborhoods. As a holiday break approaches, its organizers are simultaneously reflecting on the impact they’ve already made and considering how to expand into the future.

“So far it has been able to maintain itself on the strength of the participants,” says William Thomas, a technology entrepreneur from Vermont who helped organize the team. “The long-term planning and financing will be a challenge.”

Aris Martin, a volunteer basketball coach, runs a drill during Team Taino’s recent practice. With more funding, Martin hopes the team can soon enter more tournaments around the city. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

Its ambitious future plans will require money, but so far Team Taino hasn’t needed much. The gym is rent-free, reopened after being empty for years due to vandalism and misuse. Thomas and the team’s five volunteer coaches are unpaid. Basketball is a sport that requires only a hoop and a ball.

Still, for the team to survive, it needs to expand beyond Taino, the coaches say. That means tournaments, jerseys and transportation for a consistent roster of players.

“It’s about looking presentable and putting the resources together,” says Sherrod Kersey, 25, a coach from the Bronx who, like all the coaches, was a classmate of either Henry or his childhood friend Aris Martin, another team coach. “We need to look official. We go to tournaments and it’s embarrassing sometimes.”

White and gold jerseys are on the way, thanks to donations from Midtown Elevator Company and the Magic Johnson Foundation, housed in Taino Towers. Arco Management, the complex’s property manager, kicks in some money and several of Arco and Thomas’ corporate connections—the publisher of a high-end golf magazine plans to run a golf clinic; a scout from the New York Yankees has promised baseball training—have offered time and equipment.  But there’s no actual budget yet, says Thomas who, along with Taino Towers property manager Maria Cruz, handles most of the program’s financial and organizational responsibilities.

In all, the program so far has amassed “a couple thousand dollars” for an expanding roster of 40 kids aged 6 to 18 years, Thomas says, and organizers are actively looking for more money.

At a similar neighborhood program, the Children’s Aid Society’s East Harlem Center, the annual budget is about $90,000, about 80 percent of which comes from government grants, says the center’s director, David Giordano. Children’s Aid Society is larger than Taino, serving about 120 kids, but they are of comparable age and organized similarly, with younger kids there from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and the older kids from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Like Taino, it has a basketball gym—but kids have to enroll in educational and “personal development” programs before they can play. One difference, to date, is that $90,000 gives Giordano’s kids opportunities, from traveling the country for youth conferences to participating in UPS-sponsored driving safety initiatives.

Money helps. As a boy, Henry was selected for Merrill Lynch’s Scholarship Builders, which guaranteed full tuition to any child in his first-grade class later accepted by a college. Along the way, Henry met with personal mentors, visited far-flung locales on college tours and interned on Wall Street before studying business management at Hampton University in Virginia. About 15 of the 25 students in the program attended college and 20 graduated high school, according to a 1999 report by The New York Times. In his own work—at Taino, the YMCA or his own nonprofit, Harlem Mentors—Henry knows he will never have such substantial resources.

Some funding comes with a catch, Giordano says; most grants must be used in very specific ways, often restricting his autonomy. But without resources, there’s scant incentive for volunteers and participants to stay with the program through the inevitable tribulations. “It becomes a little limited, what you can ask of people and what you can’t,” says Giordano, who has worked with teens since 1980. “When you’re paying people, that adds another level.”

But Henry insists money isn’t everything. Merrill Lynch paid Henry’s college bills but, more importantly, his mentors taught “manners and how to act,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to do here.”

His childhood friend, Aris Martin, wasn’t involved with Scholarship Builders but did attend prestigious Rice High School along with Henry. Martin didn’t enjoy the same perks and didn’t go on to a university. However, he says what he’s learned from his mistakes—he’s now working for Arco Management and, after some initial doubts, is perhaps the most omnipresent and enthusiastic of the team’s coaches—is just as valuable to teens.

“I see them doing better than me,” he says.

There is no magic formula for starting a youth program—at a basic level, the youth workers must relate to the kids. It’s unclear whether Team Taino will do enough to have a long-term effect on children, but perhaps its most valuable capital is the goodwill building between its coaches and players.

“I see them on a daily basis so they get more out of it,” says Martin, who lives at Taino. “When they see me in the streets they pick their head up.”

And that’s what Team Taino is banking on, Thomas says. “You can have all the money in the world; if you don’t have the right people, the money won’t be utilized in the right way.” Though even with the right people, the children of East Harlem face many pitfalls.

Both Giordano and Taino Towers’ basketball coaches have found the distractions of the digital age a barrier in reaching teens. “The attention span is very small,” says Norman Anderson, a 28-year-old coach from Brooklyn. “You have to keep on reminding them and reminding them until it eventually sticks.”

On cue, Anderson stops to yell at Clarke, who tried unsuccessfully to outmaneuver an opponent in a drill, took a bad shot and missed. “If you had used the move we just taught you, you would’ve scored!” Anderson reminds him loudly. Clarke nods sheepishly.

Giordano blames the recession, which shuttered or cut back many local youth programs, for an increase in teen crime at housing projects like Taino Towers. As of mid-December, the 25th police precinct, which includes Taino Towers, has seen an increase from last year in murders and assaults and is on pace for an increase in robberies.

In school District 4, which includes East Harlem and parts of the Upper East Side, 67 percent of students graduate, compared to 74 percent statewide and 59 percent citywide.  In 2008, 35.6 percent of local families with children under 18 were living below the poverty line. It’s under those conditions when gangs become most attractive, Giordano says.

“That coach in the street they grew up with can give them something, but not everything,” Giordano says. From the child’s perspective, “if I’m not finding the security in a space or program that’s open, I find it in a crew,” Giordano continues. “There’s hierarchy and structure.”

At Taino Towers, structure developed slowly for the basketball team. Early practices suffered because its coaches didn’t show up consistently, because drills were less organized, and because misbehaving kids were allowed to disrupt practices. At one point, a tiff between a player and a coach escalated to a fight involving the player and a relative. That incident served as a wake-up call for the coaches.

Since then, the coaches have “weeded out the bad seeds,” as Kersey puts it, and focused on organizing a team, rather than wrangling disorganized loiterers looking for a pick-up game.

“You got to crawl before you can walk,” says Devin Johnson, an 18-year-old who had the potential to be one of Kersey’s “bad seeds,” but now attends every practice and helps coach the younger players. Johnson scored a team-high 18 points in Team Taino’s first game at a midtown YMCA recreation league. “At first it wasn’t really organized, but now everyone knows how to play with each other.”

Sherrod Kersey, a volunteer basketball coach, watches as a teen lays the ball in during a drill. “We need to look official,” Kersey says of the team as it looks to expand beyond twice-weekly basketball practices. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

By the new year, Thomas vows,  a learning center and lounge will open above the Taino Towers gym, a place for team members to hang out after practice and a site for educational programs and video game tournaments. A teen theater production, run out of Taino Towers’ Red Carpet Theater, is slated to start by the end of January. In February, the teens will go on a ski trip and, in the spring, have a choice of baseball, golf and football clinics. A potential partnership with the Ron Brown Scholar Program would provide various classes, including leadership training that features Skype conferences with business leaders. These, however, still remain plans. And Cruz, the property manager, has even more planned. During a recent trip to her native Puerto Rico, she discussed bringing Team Taino down to play in a tournament there.

Meanwhile, architects have completed blueprints for a new $3 million fitness center at Taino, another space for youth programs, built around the complex’s pool. Eventually, Cruz hopes Taino Towers can be become a hub for teens in East Harlem.

Henry and his fellow basketball coaches are thinking more short-term. They want to enter Team Taino in upcoming basketball tournaments in the city. Their model is the Amateur Athletic Union, the top level of non-scholastic basketball; New York City boasts some of the best AAU teams in the nation. Besides basketball, Henry would like every Taino teen to have a mentor, just as he did. Martin wants to start a financial literacy course.

Whatever the future holds for Team Taino, its players don’t seem to think much beyond each Tuesday or Thursday, when they can play basketball with their friends and the worst consequences for a bad decision are running extra laps around the gym or watching an opponent put the ball through the net.

After all, it’s simple, Daquan Clarke says: “Everybody in this neighborhood likes basketball.”

For more information on Team Taino, visit or e-mail For more information on Harlem Mentors, contact Ikay Henry at 347-756-0742 or visit

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