The Uptowner News & Features in Harlem, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, & Inwood Wed, 30 Jan 2013 16:51:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 After Tragedy, Harlem Trainer Returns to Boxing with Young Talent Wed, 30 Jan 2013 15:51:36 +0000 Sune Engel Rasmussen

After tragedy, Harlem trainer returns to boxing with young talent from Sune Engel on Vimeo.

It was going to be a night to remember.

On June 26, 2001, the docked aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid hosted a night of professional boxing for the first time. With Manhattan on one side and the New Jersey skyline reflecting in the Hudson River on the other, the setting was spectacular.

But one fight cast a shadow over the event. In a light heavyweight bout, George Jones, 31, dealt crushing blows to Beethavean Scottland, 26. The younger fighter fell into a coma and, six days later, died of head injuries.

The fight traumatized the victorious boxer, whose career began to crumble, and it sent his trainer, Barry Gibson, into a personal tailspin from which he is only now resurfacing. In recovery from drug abuse, Gibson now trains young fighters in the recently opened El Barrio Boxing Gym in East Harlem and is preparing Duquan Chambers, a local prodigy at 22, for the Golden Gloves.

The tournament will mark Gibson’s public return to the boxing world. He has spent years struggling with the memory of the fight, but now seems able to recall the Intrepid incident without guilt.

Trainer Barry Gibson disappeared after the tragedy on the Intrepid. “Nobody knew where he was at,” said his friend, Clarence White. (Photo by Sune Engel Rasmussen)

“I always pray before a fight for God to protect both fighters, but let my fighter come out victorious,” says Gibson, 55, a practicing Muslim for more than 20 years. “But it wasn’t our fault, it was their fault,” he says of Scottland’s corner.

Scottland usually fought middleweight, Gibson says, but the trainer, Adrian Davis, had deliberately kept his fighter’s weight up to get him in the ring against the undefeated Jones. After a knockout a few months’ earlier, Scottland hadn’t had time to recover and train properly, Gibson says. He believes that ultimately cost him his life.

Gibson says the opposing trainer told Scottland that this would be an easy fight. “But his fighter had just been in a war three months before that,” he said of the preceding knockout. “And he was sluggish and out of shape. I really believe there was a lot of damage done before that fight with George. The kid was getting hit with too many punches.”

While press accounts at the time suggested that Scottland’s trainer should have stopped the fight, they also described a “brutal beating” with continuous “pummeling” and “vicious punches.” However, Gibson says he tried to restrain his boxer.

“I told George to leave his head alone. I told him to back up,” he says, adding that the opponent’s widow “told me afterwards that I was a good trainer for holding my fighter back.”

Adrian Davis, Scottland’s trainer, lost his license after the Intrepid fight. He acknowledges that afterward, people told him he should have stopped the fight.  But “Beet Scottland didn’t want me to. I asked him, and then he got angry. That’s what a real fighter does,” Davis, 68, says on the phone from Bladensburg, Maryland where he owns a boxing gym.

“In the last two rounds, he was actually coming back. He was winning,” Davis remembers. “But it happened all of a sudden; he looked like he collapsed from exhaustion. He got hit a whole lot. Some people blamed me,” Davis says, “but this could happen to anybody. Sometimes you give a boxer another chance.”

Scottland wanted the opportunity to fight in New York, Davis says. Having trained pros like Sugar Ray Leonard, Hasim Rahman and Maurice “The Thin Man” Blocker, Davis remembers looking at George Jones’ record and thinking that he didn’t look “too great.”

“I didn’t just tell Beet to go and fight. We talked about it,” he says. However, he doesn’t refute Gibson’s claims that on that night, Scottland fought in a weight class above his own.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” he says. “I’ve trained hundreds of fighters. I would say it definitely wasn’t Beet Scottland’s best night, but sometimes you think you can come back. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t.”

After the fight, Gibson noticed that Jones was shaken, taking punches he normally wouldn’t have. The boxer nevertheless insisted on fighting tough opponents before he was ready, so Gibson left him. They later reunited as friends, and Gibson is godfather to Jones’ child.

When El Barrio Boxing opened on East 115th Street last year, physical trainer Clarence White coaxed Gibson into the gym. With him Gibson brought Duquan Chambers, a talented lightweight he’d been training for a few years. Together, they’re preparing Chambers for the New York Golden Gloves.

“People won’t spar with him, because they think he’s a pro,” Gibson says of Chambers, whose chances of a Golden Gloves title, he predicts, are “better than good.”

The 2013 New York Golden Gloves tournament kicks off today, Jan. 30, at the B.B. King Blues Club on Times Square. Hundreds of boxers will participate in bouts across the city, until the finals at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on April 18 and 19. Duquan Chambers will fight his first match on Feb. 8 at the Mendez Boxing Club on East 26th Street in Manhattan.

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United Palace Begins New Role as Uptown Arts Center Fri, 11 Jan 2013 12:00:19 +0000 Sandra E. Garcia The gilded stage at the United Palace.

The well-preserved stage at the onetime 175th Street Theatre, now home to the United Palace Center for the Arts. (Photo by Mike Fitelson)

The 175th Street Theatre, one of a chain of deluxe Loews theaters designed for vaudeville shows, opened in Washington Heights on February 22, 1930, with “Their Own Desire”, a talkie starring MGM’s first lady of the screen, Norma Shearer. “Times Square entertainment closer to home,” was its slogan.

Eighty-two years later the renamed United Palace has become a cultural center for the community. Its first high-profile offering: on February 11, Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda will bring his Tony- and Grammy-winning musical “In The Heights” to the theatre with many of its original Broadway cast members.

With its intricate gilded interior and oriental-influenced decorations, the United Palace never lost its luster.

It remained well-preserved thanks to the years that it served as a church for Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter’s congregation. Reverend Ike, as he was more popularly known, purchased the palace in 1969 for $600,000 and held his “Prosperity Now” services there.

Since Reverend Ike’s death in 2009, the United Palace has belonged to his son, Xavier, whose dream was to create a cultural center uptown. Eikerenkoetter is  funding its first year of programs.

“Since I took over I really wanted to expand the function of the palace,” said Eikerenkoetter, a minister currently working with the Youth Rhythm Arts Alliance in *Southern California.

“This gives us another way to provide for the community, by opening the Palace up to them.”

“He gave me a mandate that he wanted the physical building for a cultural center in Washington Heights,” said Marianne Houston, executive director of the International Theatre and Literacy Project, whom Eikerenkoetter tapped to help with the search. “He wanted a place where you can say, ‘This is very high quality arts and education for young people.’”

“I want to see the palace become an uptown center for indigenous dance and arts and drum,” Eikerenkoetter added.

Houston rounded up local artists and community leaders last December to announce plans for the United Palace, and began searching for an executive director.

Through community contacts she met Mike Fitelson, who’d spent the last 10 years as editor in chief of The Manhattan Times. He came aboard as *director of programming for the United Palace Cultural Arts Center in May.

“Basically all this stuff that Xavier had been thinking about and wanted to do, was the groundwork that I’ve been laying up here for the last 10 years,” said Fitelson.

While the United Palace Cultural Arts Center has presented few programs to date, Fitelson says work continues behind the scenes.

“We’ve been incorporated in New York *State,” said Fitelson. “We’ve started opening the doors to the community to figure out how this location can benefit everyone.”

For now, the United Palace hosts The Harmony Program, which trains 25 grade-school children in classical music five days a week after school, and the WHIN Music Project, created by David Garcia to build “a new youth orchestra composed of local kids with prior musical training,” said Fitelson.

Not so long away the uptown community was organizing to purchase the Coliseum on 181st Street, another old movie theater, to restore as a cultural center.

Local resident Jeff Hoppa walked by late last year and noticed that the Coliseum had shut down. “I felt it wasn’t fair that the only movie theater within walking distance was closing,” he said.

Hoppa, a visual artist, told his six-year-old son Luke about the Coliseum. “That’s not fair, I want to see movies there,” Luke replied.

The remark led his father to launch Save the Coliseum, organizing meetings through a Facebook group. “Luke saw his very first movie at the Coliseum,” he recalled. It was an Easter movie, “Hop,” and Luke loved it.

“He lit a fire under me,” said Hoppa.

Community members began meeting at Le Cheile, a restaurant steps away from the corner where the theatre had stood since 1920. Washington Heights and Inwood residents packed the eatery, forcing many to stand.

As they discussed what might happen to the soon-to-be-empty theatre, the idea that stuck was a cultural arts center, a place uptown artists could rehearse, screen movies and stage plays and hold after-school kids’ art programs, like those of The People’s Theatre Project.

Though they were unable to acquire the Coliseum, residents were pleasantly surprised by the United Palace’s initative.

“The United Palace is an amazing and magical place, and I want to be able to take Luke there and watch his eyes get big as he sees that staircase with those elephant lamps at the end,” said Hoppa. “He’s a theatrical kid.”

Fitelson said he’s ready to awe the community.

“We are about programs and events that can pick you up by the shoulders and lift you up,” said Fitelson.

The new cultural center may also help spur other local development.

“I see a lot of growth in this neighborhood in the last five years,” said Community Board 12 member Michael Diaz of his ever-changing neighborhood. “It will not be overnight, but this is very promising.”

When the United Palace hits its stride, “The Heights will also be able offer many great things for people who do not live here,” said Diaz. “Everyone can head uptown.”

CORRECTION: The article originally misstated the location of the Alliance, Mr. Fitelson’s title, and where the United Palace Cultural Arts Center was incorporated.

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Searching for Home: Foster Care Graduates Ousted From Washington Heights Apartments Mon, 07 Jan 2013 14:00:10 +0000 Elizabeth Stuart

Diane Esper dances with residents of the Dorothy McGowan Project. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

For years, Michael kept a small bag packed with his important documents in the back of his closet. Passport, Social Security card, immunization record — it was all there, everything he’d need to strike out on his own. The year he turned 16, after a particularly bad fight with his stepfather, he dug it out and slung it over his shoulder, his heart pounding.

He’d said it more times than he could count: “If he hits me again, I’m gonna leave.”

This time, he would.

In the five years since, Michael, whose middle name is used here to protect his privacy, has lived in five different places as part of New York City’s foster care system. He considered none a home. “I thought of them like hotels,” he said — hotels he’d be expected to check out of as soon as he turned 21 and no longer qualified for assistance from the Administration for Children’s Services.

“I know I have to become an adult,” he said. Jamaican by heritage, with a slight build and board-straight posture, he has just a hint of facial hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses. “But it always kept me on guard.”

He was relieved to be offered a place at the Dorothy McGowan Project, a government-subsidized apartment complex in Washington Heights where a team of social workers act as surrogate parents of a sort to foster care graduates. Unlike other city programs for youth like Michael, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there was no age cap. He could set out on his own when he felt ready.

But just a year after moving in, Michael is getting kicked out.

The McGowan Project, designed to prevent youth homelessness, is largely funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, HUD reworked its official definition of homelessness in an attempt to make services easier to access. For young adults like Michael, however, the shift translated into eviction notices.

HUD delivered the bad news and withdrew federal funding in April, but so far only two of the 16 former foster care wards living at the McGowan Project have found new apartments. In the meantime, Community League of the Heights and Community Access, the two nonprofits sponsoring the apartment complex, have been losing some $30,000 a month because they refuse to put the youths on the street.

Social workers worry that these young adults, all struggling with trauma-related mental health issues, aren’t yet ready to forge their own paths.

On Thanksgiving, Diane Esper, a program director with Community Access, roasted a turkey and mashed up potatoes. She cooked up a small saucepan of homemade cranberry sauce for herself. But her “kids,” as she calls the McGowan residents, “like it out of a can, for some reason,” she said. So, with a good-natured eye roll, she got out the can opener.

Residents of the Dorothy McGowan Project pause to hug while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

Several kids hovered around her in the McGowan community room, watching her stir and baste. A tiny, blonde, ball of energy, she hugged them, then put them to work making green bean casserole and mixing apple cider.

At dinner time, Esper gathered everyone around the table. “I know you think it’s silly,” she said, “but it’s Thanksgiving and I want to talk about gratitude.” With a grumble, the residents grabbed for one another’s hands.

“Aw, come on,” Esper said, sweetly. “Humor me.”

There was a laugh, an awkward pause, and then a few tears as people shyly expressed thanks for Esper, the McGowan Project and the sense of family they’d found.

Most advocates for the homeless have heralded HUD’s re-evaluation of what it means to be homeless, calling it progress. Under the new definition — which for the first time includes those “unstably housed” who are doubling up or sofa surfing — more people qualify for assistance programs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The youth at McGowan, though, came to Esper on the premise that they were “at risk” for homelessness. Growing up in foster care and group homes, most have moved anywhere from 12 to 16 times, Esper said. When they turned 21, McGowan offered them apartments because caseworkers determined they would benefit from continued social services.

Now the program, named for a Washington Heights woman who served as a surrogate mother to more than 20 children, can’t accept anyone directly from the foster care system, Esper said. Youth must come from shelters or the street.

“This was definitely not the intention of the law,” said Amy Dworksy, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a research and policy center focused on children, youth and families. “I am trying to wrap my mind around how this happened.”

While Americans become legal adults at 18, studies have found they aren’t financially or socially independent until they are in their mid-20s, Dworksy said. Without parents to guide them as they enter adulthood, former foster kids are vulnerable. They’re less likely to be employed or go to college and more likely to commit crimes or end up on the street.

About 15 percent of the 16,000 children in New York City’s foster care system are homeless within two years of exiting at 18 or 21, according to a report from The New School’s Child Welfare Watch. By 26, Dworsky’s research in the Midwest shows, more than a third of former foster care children have experienced homelessness at least once.

Youth who age out of foster care may become homeless because of unemployment, low wages, poor credit or long waits for public housing, Dworsky said. Many struggle with mental illness. Most have been exposed to trauma.

“They are in foster care for a reason,” Dworsky said. “They were neglected and abused. One of the things we know about trauma is that it affects your ability to form social relationships and regulate your emotions, which are all important skills to have in the workplace.”

The first time Michael tried to strike out on his own, it didn’t go well. He was 18, just starting his second semester at Brooklyn Community College, when he got his first independent apartment. He’d always been a good student, but, without the structure he’d grown accustomed to in group homes, he spiraled into a manic episode that landed him in the hospital for three months.

“It was horrible,” he said.

After dinner, Esper turned the lights down. A professional DJ, who’d volunteered his time, blasted some hip-hop and tenants held nothing back, dancing bachata and showing off their break-dance moves.

Amid the fun, though, there were traces of tension. During cigarette breaks, tenants chatted about rejected apartment applications and failed credit checks. Some tried to put a positive spin on the situation.

“I was scared at first,” said one. “I didn’t want to be all out on my own. But I guess it’ll be nice to have my own place.”

After some wrangling, New York City has bumped Esper’s evicted residents to the front of the line for public housing vouchers. Esper is grateful, she said. Many of her tenants live on Social Security payments and would otherwise be unable to afford housing.

But the McGowan Project is more than just an apartment building. Esper and a staff of Community Access social workers are there when tenants need help scheduling doctor’s appointments or run into legal trouble. They provide classes on living skills like hygiene, finances and nutrition. They help kids get their GEDs, secure internships and apply for jobs.

“We’re very much like parents,” said Amelia Ortega, a senior social worker with Community Access. “We’re role models, mentors, providers.”

While “it’s not a bad idea” to give young adults public housing vouchers, Ortega said it’s “irresponsible” to do so without evaluating their individual needs. Many of the youth still struggle with basic tasks like paying bills on time, she said.

“The system has forced them closer to adulthood before they are developmentally ready,” Ortega said of the new HUD policy. “We see it as a violation of their rights.”

Diane Esper jokes with a resident of the Dorothy McGowan Project. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

In helping kids navigate the transition from foster care to adulthood, the McGowan Project’s approach of providing social support along with housing is considered ideal, said Patrick Fowler, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, who has done extensive research on the relationship between foster care and homelessness.

“Connecting early is essential,” he said. “It’s always best if we can prevent kids from falling into homelessness.”

Ortega and Esper helped Michael apply for unemployment and food assistance when he lost his job at a retail chain a few months after moving into the complex.

“Without them, it would have been really hard,” he said. “I got denied three times. But they made everything really seamless, so I didn’t stress.”

So far, the hunt for an apartment has been difficult, said Michael, now back in school studying business management. A lot of apartments don’t take government vouchers and he’s been told more than once, “It’s great that you’re in school, but you still have to make a certain amount of money to qualify.”

Still, he sounds upbeat about his newest challenge. It will be difficult to leave the McGowan Project. But, he said, “By now, I’m pretty used to having to watch out for myself.”

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Washington Heights Half-Welcomes MTV Series Mon, 07 Jan 2013 12:00:07 +0000 Sandra E. Garcia The cast of new MTV docu-drama, Washington Heights

Cast members of the new MTV reality series “Washington Heights” stand on their turf. (Photo by MTV)

Washington Heights will hit the small screen this week and the community is not keeping quiet about it.

When an MTV “docudrama” series called “Washington Heights,”  by Gigantic! productions, makes its debut Wednesday, viewers across the country and around the world will meet nine 20- to 25-year old Washington Heights residents trying to make their way in the world.

The first episode introduces the cast of friends: JP, the aspiring rapper known as Audubon; Reyna, the outspoken firecracker; Frankie, the bluntly honest poet; and Ludwin, who hopes to break into the fashion industry.

There’s the slugger Jimmy, who wants to play major league baseball, and his main squeeze Eliza, the outsider from New Jersey. And Rico the aspiring actor and his brother Frederick, who’s into designing clothes. Finally, Taylor is the “white girl” who is true to herself but very uptown.

“Our neighborhood is so reflective of our culture and what we go through,” JP said in a phone interview.

He wants to put a positive version of Washington Heights on the map. “Rappers mention Washington Heights when they go uptown for drugs, that’s what they are expecting,” he said. “What they are going to see on the show is way deeper.”

Conceived three years ago, the show was shot in northern Manhattan from December to May. MTV will air 11 episodes this season, one each week.

The second episode follows JP/Audubon as he performs at the local lounge Phuket and shows the drama that develops within such a diverse group of friends.

JP recruited the rest of the cast.  After he sent out a tweet seeking people willing to be involved in the project, no one responded, “so I just asked my friends to do it,” he said.

“We wanted to show a positive side to the neighborhood, and the people in it,” said Beck Hickey, co-creator of the show. “The neighborhood is beautiful and rich, but there are also these hardworking young adults with goals and aspirations.”

But when uptown residents voiced their opinions on social media forums, many were upset about the show’s trailer, which included a fight in front of APT.78, a bar on 191st Street.

Locals claimed the show was scripted and unreal and feared that their beloved neighborhood would not be accurately portrayed.

“I’m not too crazy about the show,” said Ramona Reyes, 25. “The Heights to me is beautiful and full of culture,” she said. “It has its bad side but I hope they portray us right.”

Hickey said that the street brawl “was a natural situation,” not a fabricated dramatic event “to keep people watching.”

“Good or bad we are going to follow these kids. It’s not all about the fight, it’s about how the fight affects their friendship,” said Hickey.

On the business side of things, community board members sound happy about the show and hope it boosts local businesses.

“People love to visit businesses that they see on TV,” said Ariel Ferreira, chair of Community Board 12′s business development committee. ”People loved going to the soup shop or diner that they saw on Seinfeld, or the little restaurant from the movie ‘Serendipity.’”

Uptown Collective Editor-In-Chief Led Black has no doubt residents will love the show and the cinematic way it depicts Washington Heights.

“The show does not push the same old stereotypes about Washington Heights,” said Black. “The show properly conveys the beauty of Washington Heights and I believe it will provide a positive vision of the neighborhood.”

He added, “Our neighborhood is finally getting its proper shine.”

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125th Street Delays, Scale-Downs and Restarts Tell Story of Harlem’s Business Recovery Sat, 05 Jan 2013 16:00:16 +0000 Anjli Parrin Victoria Theater

The Victoria Theater on 125th Street has been out of use since 1997. (Photo courtesy Empire State Development)

In 1917, Loew’s Victoria Theater opened its ornate doors as one of the grand cinema and vaudeville palaces on Harlem’s Opera Row.

With its terra-cotta façade, grand staircase, large balcony and crystal chandeliers, the lavish 2,394-seat theater once drew moviegoers to Harlem. Designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the era’s most celebrated movie theater architects, the building underwent major renovation and restoration in 1987 and became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Yet, little has been done to preserve the Victoria, and the property on 125th Street has stood vacant for 15 years.

Water leakage and neglect has significantly damaged its historic architecture, according to a July report by Empire State Development and the Harlem Community Development Corp.

In 2004, the latter began taking proposals to redevelop the property, and in 2007 awarded the project to Danforth Development Partners LLC. However, as the recession and credit crunch began to impact businesses, the firm was unable to raise funds.

That’s become a common refrain along Harlem’s main street.   The decision to rezone 125th Street in 2008 paved the way for the condominiums, office towers and cultural institutions that have begun to transform the neighborhood. But during the recession, many ambitious projects were put on hold and are only now starting up again.

Take the Victoria Theater, for example.  Danforth came to an agreement with Exact Capital last year to help finance the $142 million project, and plans to finally break ground this month.

Two 26-story towers will rise above the theater, with space for a hotel, housing, retail and cultural activities. The southern part of the theater, including the original lobby, façade, marquee and blade sign, will be restored and maintained. Aufgang & Subotovsky Architecture and Planning designed the new building.

“Capital and real-estate market conditions delayed the project’s predevelopment phase,” said Curtis L. Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corp. However, Archer anticipates completed construction by mid-2014.

The 125th Street rezoning is meant to increase Harlem’s profile as a business district with commercial, retail, cultural and hotel space. It will allow for 1.8 million square feet of additional business space  and 2,600 new housing units, according to the New York Economic Development Corp.

“The Apollo Theater is great, but we are looking for connect-the-dot-type uses in other places, too, so that you can have cultural activities across 125th Street,” said Barbara Askins of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. She believes the Victoria Theater will be among them.

The hotel within the new building will become only the second built in Upper Manhattan since 1914, according to the Empire State Development. There is, however, demand for rooms in the area. According to a March analysis by HVS Consulting and Valuation Services, the neighborhood could support 1,105 units at a 79 percent occupancy rate .

The hotel’s 210 rooms makes it larger than the Aloft Hotel, a member of the Starwood Group, which opened in 2010, a few blocks from the Victoria.

Harlem Victoria Theater

An illustration of the future Victoria Theater complex. A 2008 rezoning laws has allowed for high-rise commercial buildings on 125th Street. (Illustration courtesy Empire State Development)

A number of bed and breakfasts also operate in the area. Since the economic downturn, people have begun converting their houses and even apartments into small inns or B&Bs, according to Jeremy Archer, owner of Sugar Hill Harlem Inn, which opened in 2005.

“There are a lot of people who just need to make some extra money,” he said.

In July, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the selection of two firms to redevelop the Taystee Bakery Complex and the Corn Exchange Building, both on 125th Street.

Like the Victoria, both buildings had been vacant for many years. The firms earlier selected by the city failed to redevelop the properties, which were then returned to the city.

Taystee will get a $100 million renovation to become CREATE @ Harlem Green, a 328,000-square-foot industrial and commercial space. The project should generate about 440 permanent jobs and 510 construction jobs, according to the Economic Development Corp.

CREATE @ Harlem Green will house a variety of local businesses, including the Harlem Brewing Company; HerFlan, a flan-making shop run by costume designer Sandra Hernandez, who will expand her current La Marqueta operation with a wholesale division; and the Carver Federal Savings Bank, one of the nation’s largest African American-operated banks.

Meanwhile, 125th Street Equities LLC will develop the Corn Exchange on Park Avenue next to the Amtrak and Metro-North Railroad station, investing $16 million to restore the 1883 edifice. The building, landmarked in 1993 by the Landmarks Preservation Committee, has been derelict for over 40 years. The project, incorporating offices and retail, will create 90 new permanent jobs and 60 construction jobs.

“We rezoned 125th Street to strengthen the famed Harlem corridor and enhance its historic role as a vibrant arts, entertainment and retail center. These two developments are the latest examples of how well it’s working,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

A rezoning proposal for West Harlem was also approved in November to increase mixed-use development and inclusive housing.

“We’re pushing culture and want to create a cultural industry, so we’re bringing all the creative people up here,” said Askins.

Other projects, however, have been scaled down on 125th Street. The $700 million East Harlem Media Entertainment and Cultural Center project was awarded in 2010, after first being offered in 2008 to General Growth Properties, which filed for bankruptcy the following year. After some delays, the project’s first phase, a much smaller-than-planned 49-unit housing complex, is nearly complete. Development will continue over the next four years, but it’s unclear whether the total project will still cost $700 million.

Such continuing delays have led to speculation that some projects might never be completed. But Askins said the growth is needed.

“There is a lot of potential for business, and there is a demand that’s not being met,” she said.

“We’re noticing, particularly on the southwest corner of 125th Street and Eighth Avenue,  that we are averaging over 800,000 pedestrians a month,” she added.

But there are still concerns over safety in Harlem. While cultural establishments capitalize on the legacy of soul and jazz, Harlem’s association with crime and drugs keep many people away.

“Generally speaking, Americans are not coming to Harlem very much. I have people who come here and they tell me, ‘Oh, the immigration officer, when he saw where I was coming, said you don’t want to stay in Harlem,’” said Archer, speaking about  his inn guests. Only about 20 percent of his guests are American, he estimated; the majority are European.

Still, planners and developers seem optimistic about Harlem’s future. The city just finished taking proposals to create a new 300,000-square-foot commercial and cultural space on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, with construction scheduled to begin in July.

“The redevelopment of this site will add to the incredible momentum building along 125th Street in recent years,” said Economic Development Corporation President Seth W. Pinsky.

“It’s really exciting,” said Askins. “There’s more development starting to happen.”

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East Harlem Groans Under the Weight of Support Facilities Fri, 04 Jan 2013 16:56:14 +0000 Charles Eichacker People get off the M35 bus on Lexington Avenue. East Harlem residents are upset about the crowds who wait for the bus back out to Wards Island. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Riders leave the M35 bus on Lexington Avenue. Some East Harlem residents dislike the crowds coming and going from homeless shelters on Wards Island. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

After losing his job as a prep cook when the Primehouse steak restaurant downsized in 2009, Christopher Burrus couldn’t pay the rent on his Washington Heights apartment. By the time unemployment kicked in, he’d already moved into a homeless shelter on Wards Island.

“You go to orientation at Bellevue. After they evaluate you, they send you here if you’re able-bodied,” Burrus, a middle-aged Harlem native with a limp and few teeth, said of the shelter’s admissions process. “Able-bodied,” he clarified, means free of HIV, substance abuse or mental health issues.

But Burrus’s fitness didn’t last long. Now dealing with a hereditary bone disease affecting his knee, he can neither stand nor sit for long periods. Since physical therapists won’t trek across the Triborough Bridge to see him at the 200-bed HELP shelter and employment center, he takes the M35 bus into East Harlem, then a subway to his biweekly P.T. sessions downtown.

While many locals acknowledge the need for the homeless shelters, methadone clinics and other social services scattered across East Harlem, businesspeople and residents have tired of the drug addicts, ex-convicts and homeless people–like Burrus–regularly getting on and off the M35 at the Lexington Avenue and 125th Street stop.

“It’s this sense of lawlessness,” said low-income housing developer Nina DeMartini-Day, describing the area around the stop. “It’s a community that gets dumped on. And maybe there was a time when residents needed those services, but now no other community will take them.”

Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response to overcrowding at existing homeless shelters this past summer – he opened 10 new ones, including a few in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, and announced plans to build five more  –  many share DeMartini-Day’s view that East Harlem has been saturated.

In reports over the last few years, Community Board 11—which includes East Harlem and Wards Island—has claimed to house more homeless people and treatment centers than any other Manhattan district, violating the 1989 city charter provision that no district house more than its “fair share” of social services facilities.

Palladia, a multi-service agency for individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems, has one location on East 128th Street and Madison Avenue. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Palladia, an agency for individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems, has one location on East 128th Street and Madison Avenue. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

In its 2013 statement of district needs, the Board said its district  housed 196 people in family shelters and 953 men and 144 women in eight homeless shelters. It counted three private methadone clinics, 37 drug and alcohol treatment facilities and 37 mental health facilities. That’s the “HIGHEST concentration of shelters and facilities of any community in the entire Borough of Manhattan and the 2nd largest in the city,” the statement said, accusing the city of violating its fair share mandate.

The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to a request for confirmation of the number of homeless people in the district.

For now, despite ambitious development goals and rezoning initiatives, East Harlem will have to keep taking in the destitute and treating the addicted, because the fair share guideline only takes effect during the land use review process before construction of a city facility, Tom Angotti, director of the Center for Community Planning & Development at Hunter College, explained via email.

Despite the charter’s fair share clause, Angotti believes zoning has favored richer areas. “City officials tend to avoid proposing these facilities in those neighborhoods that have more political power and recourse to legal challenges — wealthier neighborhoods,” Angotti said. “Thus the city’s policies are, de facto, exclusionary — and they have become so firmly rooted that they are not even questioned.”

The problem, DeMartini-Day said, isn’t that the individuals waiting for the bus are homeless but that they obstruct the chaotic retail corridor, as heavily trafficked by pedestrians on sidewalks as by vehicles on the street.

“It’s not that we don’t have a heart,” DeMartini-Day said at a Community Board meeting last month. “It’s a congestion issue.”

As a manager of commercial and residential properties at Donrell Realty on East 116th Street, David Gomez knows first-hand the effects of homeless people on the community. He has worked to attract businesses–upscale restaurants and boutiques, wireless and electronics stores–to rent commercial spaces in El Barrio. A women’s gymnasium or spa, he said, would be his ideal tenant, “creating good economic opportunities for business nearby.”

Although Gomez sees the need for shelters, he thinks their clients have repelled the higher-end businesses that would attract wealthier residents to the neighborhood.

“You need to have sufficient disposable income to support the stores, to support business beyond the average type,” he said, meaning the nail and hair salons, 99-cent stores and pharmacies that now rent most East Harlem storefronts.

But retail concerns pale in comparison to the public health problems that could result from moving the drug treatment centers, believes Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, a City University epidemiologist who studies injection drug users. He questions the idea that drug users and people with HIV somehow aren’t members of the community.

“There is an implicit idea that drug treatment centers, or even needle exchange programs,” Mateu-Gelabert said, “that those places are detrimental to the community. I think that’s completely the wrong understanding.”

From a public health perspective, Mateu-Gelabert believes methadone clinics and needle exchanges cost far less to run (“consider the cost of sterile syringes: less than a dollar”) than treating people after they contract HIV or Hepatitis C.

“My definition of community, especially as related to public health, is not this narrow six blocks around a clinic,” Mateu-Gelabert said. “I don’t know of any clinic or hospital who only treats people in its area.”

Stuck with the support facilities, DeMartini-Day takes heart that the community has started actively debating how to address traffic and quality of life issues, she said, charging that lawmakers and city agencies have put off doing so for over a decade.

Members of the community–DeMartini-Day included–and the Board have suggested moving the heavily-used bus stop around the corner onto 125th Street, where a wide stretch of sidewalk outside a Pathmark supermarket could absorb the crowds.

Some East Harlem residents feel the M35 bus stop should be moved around the corner, next to a Pathmark supermarket. (Photo by Charles Eichacker)

Other residents claim that move would only worsen traffic. At the same Community Board meeting, Vice Chair Diane Collier opposed the Pathmark proposal. Bus traffic, especially the kind generated by double-accordioned buses blindly making left turns, would only get worse, she argued, and economic development along 125th Street could be compromised.

The current M35 stop, moreover, conveniently leaves its passengers right by the subway entrance, easing the transfer for those, like Burrus, who already have to make the extra connection from their makeshift homes across the East River.

Assistant District Manager Angel Mescain-Archer, while recognizing the need of individuals getting off the M35, admitted that he’d never take his family to the IHOP behind the current stop.

Brodie Enoch, a Board member running for City Council in the 7th District who also manages campaigns at Transportation Alternatives, put forth a third option: pushing the 23rd and 25th Precincts to more vigilantly police loitering and petty crime in retail-heavy areas.

Despite the inconvenience for his own commute, Burrus also recommended moving the M35 stop to the Pathmark sidewalk, to spare pedestrians the trouble of walking around those waiting for the bus.

Still pursuing housing and employment, Burrus hasn’t caught a break. People with disabilities, he said, usually get brought to “Next Step” shelters that provide intensive job counseling. But by not recognizing his disability, Burrus said, Homeless Services denied him those benefits, among others under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987 to help sheltered homeless find employment.

For all his grievances, Burrus hid his stress as he walked from the Wards Island M35 stop back to the HELP shelter on a grey afternoon, the smell of chicken wafting from the Popeye’s bag in his hand. He talked about Community Voices Heard, a grassroots organization that advocates for job placement services and voter rights among the homeless, for which he volunteers.

While Burrus thought the Pathmark sidewalk would ease East Harlem foot traffic, he didn’t let disgruntled local businesses off the hook. “They also have to realize that 60, 70 percent of people didn’t ask to be sheltered,” he said. “I know you probably got people who drink, and kids are there, but they got to take the big picture view.”

Of course, it’s a different big picture view that has development-minded East Harlemites upset.

But on Wards, you see the big picture through Burrus’s eyes.  Men pace aimlessly around the shelters and treatment centers.

J.C., like Burrus, doesn’t have a home. When he first moved to the city from South Carolina in November, he fell prey to a Craigslist scam promising an apartment in Brooklyn. Now the handsome, self-described adventurer with a goatee—who gave only his initials—stays at HELP and appreciates how close the subway entrance is to the M35 stop. It shaves crucial seconds off his long commutes between Wards, a retail day job on 42nd Street and a night shift in a SoHo bar,

“It takes awhile to get out to Randall’s Island, but it’s nice. It gives you something to be appreciative of. You have to be appreciative,” J.C. said, praising the laundry machines in particular (and confusing Wards with Randall’s Island; both are connected by a landfill).

If East Harlem residents are worried about drug abusers and homeless people in their midst, J.C. wondered, why didn’t they step up security along retail-heavy 125th Street?

The police department did not respond to The Uptowner’s requests for comment.

Waiting for the bus into town, J.C. vaguely hinted at a family he’d moved to New York to support.

“I moved here looking for something better,” he said.

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Harlem Rapper A-Mafia Hustles to Build Following Wed, 26 Dec 2012 14:47:32 +0000 Andres David Lopez Harlem Rapper A-Mafia

A-Mafia performs for a video shoot in Queens for his song “CEO Music.” (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

A-Mafia, the Harlem rapper, took the wheel of a cherry red 1970 Chevelle SS and headed down Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The Chevy’s owner gave chase in a SUV with a sunroof, through which a music video director popped up to shoot footage of A-Mafia driving.

They pulled up to a residential block with pretty single-family houses, where Mafia began lip-synching as his song, “CEO Music” blared from the SUV. His voice was deep but smooth, his flow aggressive. “This rap game is stressful/ In the crack game we was successful…”

The muscle car’s red matched the colors of his baseball shirt and skullcap. Tattooed from neck to forearms, he is 32, but can pass for younger.

Mafia shot the video a few weeks ago to promote the release of his eighth mixtape, “Straight Savage.” A rap veteran, A-Mafia self-finances his music and videos, then uses social media to extend his reach.

“’Straight Savage’ is the mentality of a lot of people where I’m from,” he said. ”Or any ghetto all over America. We live like savages.”

He said he represents “gutter music.”

After the video shoot, Mafia was driving the SUV back to Harlem when he got a text from a young woman scheduled to be in it. She overslept, she said. “No problem. It looked better without you,” he said aloud.

Mafia hustles. His Youtube channel, MAFIATHEBOSS, is loaded with 25 videos, all featuring slick production values and drawing tens of thousands of views.

His latest, an in-studio performance of his song “Story of my Life,” cuts from shots of Mafia in the vocal booth reading his lyrics from a smartphone to a studio surrounded by friends and a closeup of tattooed hands rolling marijuana into cigars.

It also shows engineer Dan “The Man” Humiston monitoring sound levels at the controls.

“Something that I love about A-Mafia is that he is always grinding,” Humiston said in a phone interview. “He is either in here recording, shooting a video or doing promotion.”

An engineer and producer who owns his own studio in Midtown, Humiston has been in the business since 1998. He’s worked with established artists like Big Pun, Lil’ Kim and Ice-T and more recently with up-and-comers like Sean Price and Uncle Murda.

“One thing that is especially important in this community is consistency,” Humiston said. “If you do a mixtape then you disappear for a year, it’s out of sight/out of mind and nobody gives a fuck.”

But Mafia has released three mixtapes in the last year, Humiston pointed out, amassing significant internet buzz and radio airplay. “I’ve been around a lot of artists and I think he’s got the work ethic and potential to make something happen,” he said.

Mafia isn’t on regular rotation, but “Story of My Life” is currently played by DJ Kay Slay on New York’s most important hip hop station, Hot 97. Kay Slay also provided the opening track introduction to Mafia’s 26-song mixtape.

Track 18 on “Straight Savage,” called “Correct Me If I’m Wrong,” is a gritty street anthem reinforced by dramatic strings and drum loops, courtesy of producer AraabMuzik. In it, Mafia rhymes Luther King with “stupid bling,” and shouts out Harlem and 140th Street, where he grew up.

“I’m just saying, in Harlem I’m the hottest,” he declared. “So correct me if I’m wrong. Who makes better music than me?”

Harlem rapper A-Mafia's neck tattoo

A-Mafia shouts out Harlem frequently in his lyrics. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)


A-Mafia, born Abdul Holmes, has been rapping since he was a teenager. “Coming up I didn’t think I had a choice, so I did the wrong things to get money,” he said. At 15, he was jailed for armed robbery and inside began writing lyrics every day. “I was really living the life I was rapping about,” he said.

Lek-Lex, 37, his cousin, remembers 15-year-old Mafia looking up rhymes in the dictionary. They call themselves “40th boys” — Lek has it tattooed on his forearm — in homage to their 140th Street and Hamilton Place neighborhood.

All told, Mafia spent almost 10 years locked up, according to his website biography. In 2007, Pennsylvania State Police found 105 grams of cocaine, with a street value of $10,000, in his car, according to media reports. He was convicted of possession with intent to sell and was released in 2009.

But while Mafia’s songs reference robbing and drug dealing, he doesn’t see himself glorifying crime “What else am I going to rap about?” he said. “I never went to college; I never rode a skateboard. I can only rap about what I went through and what I’ve seen.”

“Selling drugs is wrong,” he said. “Robbing people is wrong. I would never tell kids to rob somebody. I am just telling them what I went through.”

Two years ago, dissatisfied with the people managing his career, Mafia started his own company, Deep in the Game Entertainment. “Now I can work how I want to work, as much as I want to work, and reap the benefits of my work directly,” he said.

Co-CEO Born Dibiase, who portrayed a narcotics dealer in a video Mafia released in June, is the other main investor in Deep in the Game; he says he has also served time.

Mafia makes most of his money recording guest verses for other artists, he said, but he also sells T-shirts and books live shows.

“To rap now you have to have money, or you have to have a power player on your team,” Mafia said. “With radio and television, there is a lot of politics. But with the internet the politics are very minimal.”

It’s hard for New York rappers to break into the mainstream right now because attention is currently focused on Southern rap, Mafia said. “I’m just glad I can put my music out there.”

“Making your brand and name known on a national and international level, so people can hear your music, it’s a fight every day,” said Humiston. Now that artists can record inexpensively on laptops and use audio editing software, he said, “The most money you are going to spend is getting out there, getting seen and getting heard.”

Mafia’s operation still includes Lek-Lex, who recently accompanied his cousin to shows in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, where he sold CDs and T-shirts. “Whatever he needs me to do, I work.” he says. “I’m not ashamed to do anything.”

“Me and my cousin Lek/Run the streets, comfortably,” Mafia rapped on his cut “Ted Dibiase.”

A-Mafia’s cousin, Lek-Lex, stands outside the building on 140th Street in Hamilton Heights where Mafia grew up. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

Mafia also takes advantage of Twitter to make connections and build his audience. He lists his contact information on his bio, and is a frequent updater, retweeting his fans, including photos and hyperlinks, and mentioning his collaborators. Recently, he used the social media platform to reach out to fellow New York rapper, 50 Cent.

“Maybe he can come sign me or link up with me—for no money, I don’t want no money from him,” Mafia said.

Mafia had amassed more than 70,000 followers to his Twitter account before it was hacked a couple of months ago. He had to start again from zero. “I was upset a little bit,” he said. “But life goes on.”

“One thing about me is I specialize in building from the ground up,” he said.

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Keepers, Pillars, Poets and Baking Soda: Alleged Fraud and Unholy Restoration at a Harlem Landmark Wed, 26 Dec 2012 12:00:02 +0000 Jacob Weis Synagogue in Harlem

Mansion, turned city sanitorium, turned Black Hebrew synagogue, turned mansion. (Photo by Jacob Weis)

On an overcast late summer day, six men in white robes and hats raised rams’ horns to their lips.  It was Sept. 17, the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, and services by the East River had just begun.

“We are marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,” the small gathering sang; then the shofars trumpeted in unison over the water.

Black Hebrews have worshipped annually at Harlem’s rivers for nearly a century.  According to tradition, the running waters sweep away the previous year’s sins, cleansing the congregation.

This year, though, one of Harlem’s most resilient—and longest named—congregations, The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar & Ground of Truth, may itself drift away, weakened by a generations-old fissure and the contentious sale and resale of its landmark synagogue.

Synagogues were once commonplace in Harlem.  In the 1920s, an estimated 178,000 Jews occupied the area, more than the number of African Americans in Harlem today.   But by the 1930s, an influx of black Americans fleeing the social and economic repression of the South coincided with the migration of much of Harlem’s Jewish population to other parts of the city.

But the Commandment congregation stayed.  Rabbi Wentworth Matthew founded the sect, one of America’s oldest black Hebrew groups, in 1919, preaching that Ethiopians comprise one of the lost tribes of Israel, descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Under Matthew’s leadership the congregation swelled to a 600-member peak in 1937, attracting prominent Harlemites like Arnold Ford, a lieutenant to Marcus Garvey, said Marty Shore, who leads a Jewish Harlem tour for Manhattan Walks.

Much of the Commandment congregation’s decline since then involved its synagogue, a Mount Morris Park Historic District landmark on the corner of West 123rd Street and Mt. Morris Park West.

John Dwight, the Arm & Hammer baking soda mogul, commissioned the neo-Renaissance 10,000-square-foot mansion in 1890 as a private residence.  After the Dwight family moved out, the building became a sanatorium.  Matthew acquired the building from the City of New York for $50 in 1972 and remodeled it into a synagogue.

Now the Commandment congregation is homeless, its synagogue bought by poet James Fenton and writer Darryl Pinckney, who are renovating the building.

The transition from temple to home has been anything but smooth.

“Thinking about what happened to the congregation is like watching an explosion in slow motion,” wrote Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy on the International Israelite Board of Rabbis website, shortly after the Commandment congregation fell apart.  Levy, the son of one of Matthew’s students, is spiritual leader of Beth Elohim in St. Albans, Queens, another African American congregation.

After Matthew’s death in 1973, the Commandment congregation split between two feuding leaders, Rabbi David Doré, the 17-year-old grandson of the late rabbi, and Rabbi Willie White, a member the synagogue board elected to helm the group.

Membership declined through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as the two leaders butted heads, alternately hosting events at the synagogue, locking each other out of the building, even casting the opposing followers’ Torah scrolls into the street.

Soon only eight litigious members were left.  Lawsuits flew from 2004 through 2007 between Doré, by then an attorney, and the diminished synagogue board headed by Julian Wormley, White’s son-in-law. Both sought control over the congregation’s assets—primarily, the synagogue itself.

To Doré, Wormley was a usurper from outside the true congregation, the establisher of a “fake congregation with a fake name” (Commandment Keepers), according to court documents.  Doré alleged that Wormley and his Keepers weren’t original congregants at all, that they’d committed fraud—“identity theft”—representing themselves as congregants to steal the synagogue and sell it for a large sum.  In a 2007 summons, Doré further accused Wormley and his partners of “reckless, selfish, malicious, vicious, vindictive” acts, such as destroying religious artifacts and stained glass windows Matthew himself had created decades ago.

Despite Doré’s charges, Wormley and the board won in court.  But the board feared its victory would be short-lived.  Most members were between 70 and 80 years old; when they died, Doré might seize control.  So the board sold the synagogue to a real estate developer for $1.6 million in 2007.

The court ordered Wormley and the board to place the money from the sale in escrow, to be used only for a new synagogue.  But no new synagogue has yet been found.

Doré did not respond to requests for comment from The Uptowner.  White and Wormley could not be reached.

To Levy, the transfer of the original synagogue brought “a degree of sadness that is worse than had the building burned down.”  The board preferred that the synagogue no longer exist than be owned by Doré, indicative of the “spite and hate” between members that “really destroy a congregation,” Levy wrote.

Even after the sale to the developer, Doré persisted.  He and his followers maintained that the greater—“true”—congregation never approved the sale, and sought to overturn the deal in New York State Supreme Court in 2008.  A judge ruled again in the board’s favor.

Doré appealed that second ruling in 2010, submitting oral arguments in New York State Appellate Court.  But it was too late: Pinckney and Fenton had closed on the building a week before, paying the developer $1.85 million.

Now Doré and his followers—self-dubbed the Commandment Pillars—are contesting the Fenton-Pinckney sale.

“It’s long from over,” said a lifelong congregant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the controversy.  She and another Pillar routinely pass by the old synagogue and “check up on it.”

“They’ve done a wicked and ungodly thing,” said the second woman about the new owners.  “They picked a modest people to attack; they didn’t think we’d fight like this.”   She, too, asked that her name be withheld because she lacked authority to discuss the issue.

The two Commandment Pillars said they and other congregants sporadically picket and pray on the sidewalk outside Pinckney and Fenton’s home.  Such protests will continue, the congregants added, until the new owners stop employing “delay tactics” and meet the Pillars in court.

But Fenton has no idea what the Commandment Pillars are talking about.  “There is no court case,” he said. “We did our research before buying the house from the developer.”

Pierre Debbas, Fenton’s attorney through the 2010 deal, confirmed that Mount Morris Park, LLC served as a legitimate—“bona fide”—seller with “free and clear titles” to the property, that Fenton was delivered those titles, and that neither Debbas nor Fenton have ever been summoned to court to defend the purchase.

And according to court documents, Doré and his followers have taken no action against Fenton and Pinckney.   So far, Doré’s sparring partner in court has been 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC, a company named for the synagogue’s alternate address and formed by Colleen Taylor, a title insurance notary, to facilitate Wormley’s initial sale of the property in 2007.

Over the last five years, Doré has filed 14 motions in State Supreme Court, including injunctions to cease construction, against Taylor’s 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC and Julian Wormley.   All motions have been dismissed.   The case remains still active, though; Doré is next scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 10.

Synagogue entranceway Harlem

Fenton and Pinckney’s entranceway, post-synagogue. (Photo by Jacob Weis)

Fenton said the building was empty and in disrepair when he and Pinckney first saw it.  Only after the purchase did the couple realize that they had “inherited the irritating situation” of the Commandment Pillars.

“The house was sold fair and square to us,” Fenton added.  “We did not go in a predatory fashion and nick anyone’s synagogue.”

Fenton and Pinckney want the controversy to end so they can explore their architectural prize in peace.   They uncover new features of the old mansion regularly, like an observatory on the roof installed by John Dwight over a century ago and forgotten for generations.

“Nowhere in Harlem is there such a fully documented house,” said Fenton.

Fenton and Pinckney have also recovered original blueprints and photos of the mansion from visiting descendants of the Dwight family. The couple looks forward to restoring the home to its pre-synagogue grandeur, a costly undertaking—and an uncomfortable one with the Commandment Pillars fuming outside.

Without a home base, the nearly century-old Commandment congregants—Pillars and Keepers included—are adrift, praying at various congregants’ homes, at the East River in Astoria with Levy’s Beth Elohim, or on the sidewalk in front of their old synagogue.

Others worship at the Old Broadway Synagogue, Harlem’s last active temple.  Paul Radensky, president of Old Broadway, called the Commandment congregation spillover “a blessing” and “a tremendous asset to our community.”

Back at 1 W. 123rd St., construction continues, audible through a door rarely answered.  On its right post, the faint outline of a mezuzah, a small scroll Jews affix to ward off unwanted spirits, guards what used to be a synagogue.  To the left, a tiny security camera watches, too.

Shore shows his tour groups photographs of the synagogue’s original façade, taken before its present owners replaced the building’s marble entranceway and Star of David with a steel door.

“It was very pretty,” said Shore, “but it’s gone now.”

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Harlem Friary Provides Introduction to Monastic Life Thu, 20 Dec 2012 20:02:24 +0000 Trevor Bach  

Postulant Kristone Capistrano, by window, prays at midday. Before entering religious life, Capistrano was a successful portrait artist in Australia. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

On a grey December afternoon inside the spartan St. Joseph Friary in West Harlem, Ryan Best sat silently at the end of a long wooden dining table, a simple wooden cross dangling from his neck. Looking concerned, he leaned in close to listen to a man named Lito.

Weathered and wheelchair-bound, Lito has had a rough life, at one point attempting suicide after being released from a mental hospital. Now, he comes to the friary most Thursdays for a hot meal and warm conversation. Other neighbors come as well — 20 or so today — many carrying their own stories of suffering.

“A lot of times they’ll tell you they have cancer or they have AIDS,” Best said afterwards. “I feel like they just need to talk to somebody. That’s really why we’re here.”

A few years ago, as a part-time criminal justice student at Florida Atlantic University, Best had an enjoyable life. He took two or three classes a semester and frequently went out drinking with his buddies. He traveled. He had girlfriends, one of whom he considered marrying.

And he was earning a handsome living — as much as or more than a middle-aged businessman — playing poker on sites like Bodog or PokerStars. “I felt like it was free money,” he said. “I felt like I was going to be doing it my whole life.”

In September, the former poker ace, now 30, moved into the friary, a handsome red-brick building tucked into a row of brownstones on West 142nd Street off Broadway, around the corner from a Kennedy Fried Chicken and La Nacional money wiring store.

In his new life Best sleeps in a sleeping bag on a mat on the floor, prays five times a day, and isn’t allowed to have a cell phone, use the Internet, or deviate from a strictly regimented daily schedule without permission. And he’s happier than ever. “I feel like it’s a privilege, this type of life,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Best is one of the current class of men — this year there are four — who‘ve been accepted to spend 10 and a half months as postulants of the order of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

On the first rung of a five-year ladder to becoming friars, they are freshmen in the school of religious life: Living in a spiritual fraternity with the other eight or so members of the house — two superiors and about a half dozen others in various stages of formation — they dedicate themselves wholly to serving God and the community, following strict guidelines and proscriptions for daily activity set by the order. Wednesdays, for example, are dedicated to physical work; Fridays are devoted entirely to silent prayer until dinner.

“The postulants — they’re new,” explained Father Luke, the house superior and postulant director. “They’re taking classes. They don’t really have a lot of responsibilities. They’re more just kind of helping out, dipping their feet in the water, so to speak.”

If they choose to continue and Father Luke approves, the postulants take the title of brother and may adopt new religious names. They also trade their current uniform of slacks and white dress shirts for the St. Francis habit, a full-length grey robe.

The second year of formation, the novitiate, is a period of even more intense prayer and religious study at another friary in Paterson, New Jersey.  Three consecutive one-year periods of service follow, during which the men take temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Then a brother takes permanent, lifelong vows — the final step in becoming a friar.

So will Best, soft-spoken and contemplative with thin-framed glasses and a full-flowing brown beard, continue all the way to final vows?

“I think so,” he said. “But I’m so new.”

Throughout the postulant year, he explained, he and the others must constantly ask themselves three tough questions: “Does God want me here? Does the community want me here? And do I want to be here?”

“If those three things are all yes, then you stay.”

The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal was established in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars “desiring to work more definitively for personal and communal reform within the Catholic Church.” Founded in the Bronx, the order has grown to include nine friaries in the United States (seven in the New York City metro area); four in Europe; and two in Central America.

The houses, said Father John Paul, vocational director of the St. Joseph Friary, are established in impoverished areas where the brothers can provide friendship and assistance; the Harlem friary was established in 1996.

“They’re just sweet people,” gushed Maria Armistead, a neighbor who stopped outside the building for a chat with the brothers — her friends, she said — which she does often. “They help the community. You could ring their bell, get a cup of coffee and a sandwich.”

Following the example of poverty set by St. Francis, the postulants sleep in sleeping bags on the floor in threadbare rooms. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

Since its founding 25 years ago, the order has grown to a healthy 120 members in total, along the way gaining a respected reputation among Catholics in and around New York: The first Saturday of every month draws roughly 1000 people to the stunning Our Lady of Good Counsel cathedral on the Upper East Side for a night of prayer and performances, an event organized by the friars and known as the Catholic Underground.

“The friars — I love them,” said 14-year-old Gabriela Romero, who came to the December version with her New Jersey youth group. “I feel like they’re all my brothers.”

Still, as they enter religious life, Harlem’s new postulants are joining a diminishing breed. In 1965, the United States was home to over 12,000 Catholic brothers, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; this year, the number has dropped below 4500. (During the same period, the number of religious sisters fell from 180,000 to 54,000.)

For the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, this year’s class of four postulants —drawn from seven or eight applicants, many of whom will likely join next year — is typical of the past few years, Father Luke said. But that’s down significantly from the mid-1990s, when class sizes reached the teens.

Partly responsible for the smaller numbers, Father Luke explained, is that the order itself has become more selective. “In the earlier days, maybe… anybody who kind of wanted to join, we’d give them a try,” he said. “Over the years maybe we’ve developed our own discernment a little more.”

Not that he was much concerned.

For a newer, smaller community like the Friars of the Renewal, four postulants is actually quite a few, Father Luke said, and besides, swelling the order’s numbers was never really an objective. “If the Lord would send 16, we’ll take 16,” he said. “It’s kind of up to Him, that’s how we see it.”

Besides Best, originally from Bucks County, Pa., the other members of the current class include a former assistant wedding photographer and avid surfer from Freehold, N.J.; a successful portrait artist from Sydney; and a young man from Scotland who previously worked as a gamekeeper.

Such circuitous routes to monasticism are emblematic of a trend the past several decades of a different route into religious life, explained Courtney Bender, a Columbia University scholar of contemporary religion. Instead of following the traditional institutional mode — Catholic school, Catholic college, recommendation towards a specific order — now it’s much more common, she said, for young people to discover the path to monastic life on their own.

“These younger friaries seem to be to be drawing people who have done something else,” Bender said. “So they come into it with a different kind of understanding about what monastic life could be.”

Take Andrew Poster, the New Jerseyan. Now 26, he’d been raised Catholic but, along with his family, mostly dropped away from the faith during adolescence. “If someone were to ask me I would say ‘I was raised Catholic but I don’t really go now,’” he said. And as a public health student at Stockton College in his home state, he lived a very worldly life — “definitely partying, drinking, girls, marijuana.”

After graduating in 2008, Poster took a five-week surfing trip to Central America, following the new, born-again Christian girlfriend responsible for first setting him back on a religious path. On the water in Costa Rica one day, he grew angry at a lack of waves and began talking to God, asking for just one good wave to surf. Instead he wiped out and broke his hand.

Unable to surf—the one thing, he said, that gave him peace — Poster dived into the Bible and other religious books he’d brought along, and things began to click. Soon after, in Panama, he was struck by the crushing poverty of a little girl walking down a dirt road lined with shacks.

“It just hit me really hard,” Poster said. “This question kind of formed in my heart: ‘Why would God give me this comfortable, easy life, loving parents, nice roof over my head…and this girl’s born into this life?”

Finally Poster had a realization. “God,” he said, kneeling to the ground. “I want to change my life. And I want to give it to you.”

Though they’re still getting used to the lifestyle — waking up every morning at 5:30, eating cold leftovers so as not to waste food, writing letters to parents instead of emailing — the postulants sound adamant about their commitment to their new life.

“I didn’t come here just to play,” said Kristone Capistrano, the Australian. “There’s a lot of things I could be doing right now.”

But not everyone continuesWhile emphasizing that the order doesn’t actually keep statistics, Father Luke estimated only half the postulants who’ve begun in the past 15 years, the time he’s been postulant director, have eventually become friars. Sometimes, he said, the young men decide they’re not called to life in the community; sometimes they want to continue but Father Luke and the elder brothers determine that they’re not a great fit.

This year, he thought, the newcomers were doing well. But so early in the year, he was also wary about making predictions. “We’re not really hasty because everybody goes through their struggles,” he said. But sometimes “you can just tell somebody’s not happy, that being here is not like a life-giving experience for them.”

Ryan Best talks with a guest at a Thursday soup kitchen. A few years ago, Best was a part time college student making a good living playing poker online. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

Keith Dolon, a postulant from last year’s class, opted not to move on to the novitiate after deciding he was more suited to life as a fireman, the job he’d held for years before joining the order. But Dolon, at 38 older than most of the postulants, nonetheless deeply values his experience at the friary.

He credits the year he spent in the order with helping him understand his own purpose in the eyes of God, with teaching him patience and providing him confidence in interacting with community members. And as a symbol of his attachment to the religious life he left behind, Dolon still wears the long beard he grew in the friary.

“This is going to be good for me,” he said of his imminent return to the same Pa. firehouse he’d left last year. “It’s a good chance to put what I’ve just learned to use.”

During Thursday’s lunch, when they weren’t mingling with neighbors, the postulants trekked back and forth dutifully between the kitchen and the dining room, bringing out plates of soup, offering cookies, re-stocking silverware.

Once the day’s guests had gone, they went promptly back to work cleaning: There would be a small Bible study immediately following lunch, then a trip to the Bronx to visit a homeless shelter.

Even as they worked — hand-washing and drying dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor — Harlem’s newest monastics seemed genuinely happy, accepting of their new lives as religious servants.

“I think it’s freeing,” Capistrano said. “When you’re at that point in your life when you realize what you need to do, who you want to be, what you’re called for, it’s a very liberating feeling.”



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What Happened to Alianza Dominicana? The Mysterious Fall of an Iconic Dominican Institution Wed, 19 Dec 2012 19:58:06 +0000 Alvaro Guzmán Bastida  

Alianza Dominicana’s $30 million building sits empty two years after its construction. (Photo by Álvaro Guzmán Bastida)

The six-story building, on 166th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, is one of the fanciest in the neighborhood.  Its glass exterior reflects the sun; inside, the walls smell new. Yet, it’s empty, desolate.

At the entrance, a security guard sits behind the counter, armed with a doughnut.

“Is this Alianza Dominicana?”

In Spanish: “They are not here.”

“Who isn’t?”

“Alianza. The people… They are gone. I can’t tell you.”

“I’m looking for Moisés Pérez. When are they coming back? Is Alianza closed?”

“It is… It isn’t! They will come back when they solve their problems.”

“What problems do they have?”

“I am sorry, sir. I can’t help you. You have to go.”

Alianza Domincana, it turns out, is in tatters, the subject of an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office.  Its former leaders, including co-founder and CEO Moisés Pérez, allegedly mismanaged the organization’s funds, practiced self-dealing and failed to remit workers’ contributions to their pension funds, among other charges in two reports by the city’s Department of Investigation.

Alianza, founded in 1985, was a leading Dominican organization, locally and nationally.  In 2010, with a $15 million budget, it says it served 22,000 families in Washington Heights, providing alcoholism and drug treatment programs, supporting victims of domestic violence and helping elderly residents and schoolchildren with special needs.  It employed more than 350 people and was planning the construction of this building, which cost $30 million.

Two years later, Alianza has collapsed as city and state investigations, and a series of New York Post stories, led to government grants being withheld, intensifying the organization’s financial crises.  Though in recent months, public officials and local leaders and charities have discussed trying to revive it, and debated whether that’s possible, for now Allianza remains moribund.


When a New York non-profit receives a public contract entailing a considerable sum, the City’s Department of Investigation produces a report on the organization’s finances and management and passes it to the Mayor’s Office of Contracts.

In February 2010, Alianza sought more than $40,000 from the city, so the DOI produced two reports, in August that year and the following July. It considered its findings serious enough to submit to the state Attorney General.

The first report detailed what the Department of Investigations called “self-dealing.”

In January 2007, it found, Pérez and two other members of Alianza’s executive board, Walid Michelen and Nasry Michelen, “invested personal funds in a ‘loan fund’ investment created and promoted by Moorland.” Alianza had outsourced its financial operations to Moorland LLC, a company with no previous experience in running nonprofit financial operations. Alianza Board member Leving Soriano owned and operated Moorland.

The fund was created to make short-term loans to non-profits, including Alianza. According to the DOI, all three investors “understood that Alianza would be one of the entities to whom the fund would make loans.” They acknowledged, the report continues, “that this was self-dealing and/or a conflict.” The interest they made on their personal investments “was ultimately paid for with City funds to Alianza.” Pérez invested $150,000 and earned $5,878.40  from Moorland.

“DOI’s investigation has determined that prior to the return of Pérez’s $150,000 from Moorland, Alianza secured from Chase Bank a $225,000 line of credit,” for which Pérez signed all the paperwork, the report continued. “On April 19, 2007, and also with Pérez’s knowledge, Alianza transferred $222,364.81” to Moorland in repayment of the loans Moorland had made to Alianza, including the interest and fees.

That is, just a day after receiving the wire transfer from Alianza, Moorland returned Pérez the interest on his investment.

In an interview in Spanish at the Washington Heights restaurant El Presidente in mid-December, Pérez denounced these accusations as “pendejadas” (bullshit) and said he would have “made more profit putting that money in any bank” than the 3.91 percent  he earned from Moorland.

Rafael Lantigua, one of Alianza’s co-founders, was the only board member who felt lending money to Moorland and making interest was unethical, and perhaps illegal, the report states.

“The deal,” Lantigua told the Uptowner in a phone interview conducted in Spanish, “was you lend money to Moorland, Moorland lends to Alianza, and then we make interest that Alianza should make.” Alianza was experiencing major financial problems and “couldn’t pay its workers” at the time, Lantigua said, so he refused to take part and tried to convince other board members to at least consult a lawyer before proceeding with the investment scheme.

“They took me for a fool,” he said. “They said that’s how things are done in New York.”

Hearing Lantigua’s remarks made Pérez laugh. “Amnesia,” he said. “He must have amnesia.” But he did not deny that Lantigua tried to stop the Moorland investments.


The city reports also allege mismanagement.

Even the outsourcing of Alianza’s finances to Moorland appears controversial, according to the DOI. From 2001 through 2008, the years leading to Moorland’s appointment, Alianza failed several times to meet its payroll. The reports quote Pérez as saying it had “major cash flow problems.”

Looking hurt and defeated –“What else can I do to defend myself,” he wondered aloud – Pérez now attributes these problems to the City’s lack of diligence in paying Alianza’s contracts. “They owed us millions of dollars,” Perez said, though he acknowledged he has no way to document that and doesn’t remember exact amounts.

The report also quotes Pérez saying that Alianza “was disallowed certain payments and reimbursements,” which investigators described as “double billing” and attributed to incompetence.  Alianza, the DOI goes on, failed to report to the city the full scope of its problem, thus gaining lucrative contracts it didn’t deserve.

Pérez and other board members blamed those problems on the inability of Orlando Acevedo, then Alianza’s chief financial officer, to keep up with the organization’s growth and “the increased complexity of its financial operations” from 2001 on. Pérez and the rest of the board failed to take prompt action and didn’t dismiss Acevedo, long a loyal member of the organization, until 2006, the report said.

The alleged self-dealing took place a few months after Moorland succeeded Acevedo.

The DOI questioned Moorland’s suitability as a manager of Alianza’s finances. For instance, it highlights the outsourcing of some services to the Dominican Republic, including the preparation of all city invoices. Such outsourcing, done with Pérez’s approval, made it “impossible” to examine Alianza’s finances, the report said, citing “lack of records” and the difficulty of determining what was done in the Dominican Republic.

In mid-2007, when Alianza terminated its agreement with Moorland, it had spent $127,616 for its financial services. Alianza then chose to employ BTQ Financial and Fiscal Management Associates, two organizations that did have significant previous experience with non-profits. “BTQ and FMA,” the report reads, “inherited a neglected financial operation rife with problems going back many years, resulting in substantial additional costs to Alianza – and therefore the City.” In 2009 alone, for example, “BTQ’s services in connection with unraveling the financial mess cost Alianza and the City over $650,000.”

“There was a lack of managerial vision; the organization expanded too fast,” said Lantigua. Alianza’s new building, a pet project of Pérez’s, “was a great mistake and in part contributed to the abyss that the organization fell into. We went into too many fights, with the university, the city, the state,“ Lantigua said, referring to Columbia University, which previously owned the land on which Alianza’s new building stands. “It really damaged us.”

Pérez, a tall, fit man wearing a green tie with a checked shirt and a trimmed moustache, appeared personally hurt by Lantigua’s remarks. He accused him of doing “very little” for the organization during his 25 years on its executive board.

“The building was great business for Alianza,” Perez contended. “The spaces we rented out to businesses and the cultural center in it were going to pay for it.” He added that, of the building’s $30 million cost, the remaining debt is “only” about $6 million.

Pressed about the decision to employ Moorland, he said that although he “may have made some mistakes, nothing justifies the accusations made in the reports.”


As Alianza’s CEO, Pérez also had to complete the yearly so-called VENDEX Vendor Questionnaire required by the city. The DOI pointed out that Pérez lied twice on these forms: In March 2010, he said neither Alianza nor any of its members had been investigated by any federal, state or local regulatory agencies, though the city investigation was  already underway.

Moreover, the DOI stated, Pérez should have mentioned the fact that his wife was on the Columbia University payroll  –she worked as a community liaison there from 2000 through 2008 – and was also an Alianza employee while Columbia had a subcontract agreement with Alianza. Pérez signed the questionnaire, stating that none of his relatives were in such a situation.

Pérez said those reports were merely bureaucratic, and that the city already knew he and Alianza were being investigated – since it was the city itself investigating. He said he didn’t see any conflict of interest, either, since everyone — including the city and Columbia –  knew of his wife’s relationship with Alianza. “

We founded the organization together,” he said, angrily, “and she worked for it from the beginning, first as a volunteer and later on payroll.”

But other problems arose. In its second report on Alianza, in July 2011, the DOI examined a complicated pension scheme Alianza launched in 2004.  The report quotes an anonymous worker explaining that the organization offered him and other employees participation in a pension plan.

Alianza would deduct $25 from their salaries, which would go into a pension fund operated by the insurance company AXA. The contribution later rose to $50. AXA sent representatives to encourage workers to sign up, and about 113 agreed to the plan.

But, the report shows, some of that money never went into AXA’s fund. Arthur Klein, the AXA employee who managed the fund, told investigators he repeatedly approached Pérez about contributions not flowing into the fund as stipulated.

Klein said he heard all sorts of “excuses,” but that Pérez promised to personally take care of the matter as early as 2004. The problem continued, however, which made Klein believe “that it was being done on purpose.”

Pérez denied telling Klein he would personally handle the issue, and during the interview with The Uptowner, attributed the missing funds to a “mistake.”

But he did not deny that the money wasn’t remitted to the pension fund, accusing the city of causing financial difficulties that forced Alianza to divert workers’ pension contributions.  That money, he said, was used for “paying the workers” and he refused further comment. “It was very little money anyway,” he said.

As of 2010, city investigators found, the difference between the money subtracted from workers’  salaries and the amount entering their pension fund was $95,007.08.

AXA did not want to comment, but it told The Uptowner that it had “fully collaborated” with an Attorney General’s investigation on Alianza. The Attorney General’s office wouldn’t comment, but other sources, including Lantigua, AXA and Rep. Charlie Rangel  confirmed there was a state investigation.


Pérez’s line of defense is clear: “If these allegations are true, and so serious,” he said, “why hasn’t anybody brought any charges against me?”

He was “forced” to leave Alianza, because if he didn’t resign,  “the city threatened with cutting funding,” he said. “They murdered Alianza. What they’ve done is a crime.” He accused the city, the Department of Investigation and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services of “going after” him and the organization.

Although Pérez didn’t deny most of the findings in the two reports, he said they‘d been given a “twisted, intentional” misinterpretation and that Alianza sent the DOI a “correction,” which it ignored.

“They know everything about me,” he said. “My finances, my life and my family have been investigated, and they have found nothing, no corruption. I started these organization from nothing and I haven’t become richer in the three decades I ran it.”

The DOI didn’t respond to Pérez’s accusations of bias, but spokesperson Diane Struzzi said the reports “are factual and speak for themselves.”

The Attorney General’s office, which has the legal authority to charge Pérez with crimes, also refused to comment. A court order from March 2011 ruled that Pérez had to leave Alianza permanently – he had already taken a leave of absence after the 2010 report – but the state has brought no charges against him.

“You would think that if the allegations were true, there would be a series of indictments,” said Rangel. “Nobody has been charged.”

Rangel, whom Pérez once called “a father to me,” hired Pérez shortly after his resignation from Alianza to run his successful campaign against State Sen Adriano Espaillat in the July Democratic primary.

Pérez was the fifth biggest contributor to Rangel’s reelection campaign in 2011-2012, and the $34,333 he gave made him Rangel’s largest individual donor.

Rangel, in a phone interview from his Washington office, accused the New York Post, which ran a series of stories in 2010 and 2011 discussing his ties with Alianza, of “bringing down” both Pérez and Alianza for no reason.

However, told about the DOI reports that found self-dealing, mismanagement and missing pension money, Rangel paused for a moment, sounding shocked. “I have been on this for years,” he said, “and they told me there was nothing.” The city and the Attorney General’s office made it “really clear” to him, Rangel said, that there was no ongoing investigation of Alianza.

“I’ve talked with the Department of Investigation and they tell me that they referred it to the AG, and they tell me that they turned back to the city.”

To Rangel, the allegations were “very serious” and “as a result of it, the city and state ended contracts, and the organization started to fall apart.”

He asked The Uptowner to email him the DOI reports, which are public documents, and said he would call back with further responses. He has not.


The past few months have seen efforts to resuscitate Alianza . Several sources, including Rangel and Lantigua, confirmed that in October, shortly before Hurricane Sandy, city and state officials met with Dominican leaders, representatives from Catholic charities, Espaillat and Rangel to discuss reviving the organization.

The meeting went well, recalled Lantigua, who attended, but political attention soon shifted to storm recovery, and little progress has been made since.

“We agreed to meet again and revive the organization,” Lantigua said. Those present decided to present a plan to the governor and the mayor to pay Allianza’s debts – it owes former employees more than $1.5 million, Lantigua says — and renegotiate its mortgage.

“We need to bring in a new group of people who commit to working with the organization and managing its finances, a board of advisers and a new executive director,” Lantigua said. “We need people who are well known and respected at a city and state level.” Lantigua is willing to be part of that group, though he said it’s time for new people.

Rangel agrees. “What is needed is, of course, money,” he said. “But mostly leadership.”  Alianza  currently has no executive board.

“There is no infrastructure to substitute for this institution, which had very crucial programs, serving the elderly and the young,” said Lantigua. “The community can’t afford to lose it; that would be a disgrace. But I’m optimistic.  It can be saved.”

Pérez disagreed. “Alianza is dead,” he said. “They have killed it.”


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