NY City Lens http://nycitylens.com Mon, 25 Nov 2013 18:53:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 An Irish American in Little Poland http://nycitylens.com/?p=9421 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9421#comments Thu, 17 Oct 2013 13:10:03 +0000 Aleksandra Mencel http://nycitylens.com/?p=9421 IMG_1267

Hughie Reid sitting in the front room of his funeral parlor (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens).

Hughie Reid loves money.

That’s why he went into the funeral business.

Becoming an undertaker was not exactly a life-long vocational dream. Reid, now 86, says that as a kid growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn what he really wanted was to own a German delicatessen like Fred O.’s, the store he worked at every morning before school.

Reid says his business interests changed though, once he observed the elegantly dressed funeral directors walking into St. Anthony’s Church every Sunday and driving away in flashy cars.

He told himself he would one day own a funeral parlor.

Today, he owns the Hugh A. Reid Funeral Home located at 153 Greenpoint Ave., a business he bought in 1956 when the neighborhood was predominantly Irish. Greenpoint now is home to more Poles than Irish and Reid’s business has suffered, he says, as the neighborhood’s Poles tend to go to nearby competing Polish funeral homes like Stobierski’s on Driggs Avenue. The Irishman says that when business was good he had 135 funerals per year; last year, though, he only had 49. Yet, he has no intention of living anywhere but in Greenpoint where he has lived all his life and where he says he will die.

“Greenpoint is heaven, as far as I’m concerned,” he says as he sits comfortably in a chair near a window in his funeral parlor and fiddles with his post-cataract sunglasses. The strong late September sun seeps in through the window, shining down on Reid’s bald head and his thick black-framed glasses. Hard of hearing, Reid frequently replies to comments or questions with a curt “who?” or “what?” and he is unabashedly honest. For example, he says he voted for Christine Quinn in this past mayoral primary solely because she is Irish.

Reid’s grandparents came from Cushendall, Ireland to Greenpoint in 1856 at the height of the potato famine and he is the sixth of 12 born into a big Irish Catholic family, so it’s no wonder he has such strong ties to his heritage. When Reid was nine, he started working at Fred O.’s, the kind of neighborhood deli he wanted to own when he grew up. To earn supplemental cash he also ran a paper route with his older brother, Danny, buying copies of The Greenpoint Weekly Star, now called The Greenpoint Gazette, for two cents a pop and selling it for three cents. He made a nice profit with soda too, buying three Pepsis for a dime and selling them for a nickel a piece.

“I was always doin’ somethin,” Reid says.

In 1949 he enrolled in the New York School of Embalming and Restorative Art, a one-year college program, and then bought McElroy’s Funeral Home, located just a few blocks from the home he grew up in on Leonard Street. Reid changed the name of the funeral home to his own and he and his wife, Nancy, whom he met in the neighborhood, moved in upstairs. They also bought the building next door and rented out the apartments.

Reid still lives upstairs, alone, because his wife died a few years ago of cancer.

Boxes stacked on top of one another in the dark funeral parlor show the room’s little use; when Reid slowly stands up to answer the phone it’s his one daughter, Mary, or a friend—no one calls to make arrangements during a four-hour long interview.

Regardless of Reid’s fondness for and recent issues with finance, he is generous to his tenants, who live next door, and treats them like family.

“I always believe in helping people,” Reid says.

A street view of the Hugh A. Reid Funeral Home located at 153 Greenpoint Ave. (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

A street view of the Hugh A. Reid Funeral Home located at 153 Greenpoint Ave (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens).

Artur Lapinski, 44, a burly man who works in building maintenance, emigrated from Poland and has been Reid’s tenant for over 20 years. Reid fondly remembers Lapinski’s son, now in his 20s, as a baby sleeping in his father’s arms. Lapinski calls Reid “the greatest guy in Greenpoint” and explains that after all of this time living in the same apartment, Reid only raised the rent once.

“This shows the kind of guy he is,” Lapinski says with a heavy accent. Asked if he will stay in Greenpoint, Lapinski answers yes, as long as Reid is here. After that he doesn’t know what he will do since the neighborhood has become so expensive.

Reid says he suffered from a stroke eight years ago that has slowed him down considerably.  His youth as an energetic undertaker seem so long ago to him, but he remembers them fondly.

“Years back when I was a young buck, I embalmed five bodies on one Friday night. I took no breaks, I just kept working and working,” Reid says proudly.  He never allowed himself to think of his job as a morbid occupation because if he did, he would, as he cleverly put it, “Go to the Mickey Mouse factory.”

Just as Reid jokes about his profession, he finds humor in his own mortality.

“If I’m lucky, I wake up,” he says. “One of these days I’m not gonna make it.”


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Education Helps Young Adults Lift Themselves out of Poverty http://nycitylens.com/?p=9405 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9405#comments Mon, 14 Oct 2013 22:20:20 +0000 Yan Cong http://nycitylens.com/?p=9405 Danielle Duval, 23, lives in a shelter and depends on food stamps and supplemental security income to get by. But she said she is trying to put her life together through education. Her first goal: to pass the General Educational Development (GED) test.

She’s getting help—at the Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency on the Lower East Side. Like Duval, many young adults at the age of 18 to 25 try to lift themselves out of poverty through education—and many non-profit groups try to help make that journey easier.

(Graph from the study "Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education")

(Graph from the study “Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education”)

At Henry Street Settlement, a program called Project Rise provides free GED class, a career development workshop and internship placement for young adults without a high school diploma. The federal government funded the program through the national Social Innovation, in the aim of reducing poverty and improving communities. About 60 percent of the students in the program are on some kind of public assistance, according to program coordinator Erica Pollock.

“We are trying to bolster them so that they can become productive members of society without having to rely on government subsidy,” said Takiyah Weekes, the employment services director of youth services at Henry Street Settlement.

According to a study on the role of education in improving social mobility conducted by the Brookings Institution this year,  almost 45 percent of those without a college degree end up in the lowest quintile of income distribution, whereas only about 16 percent of those with a college degree end up living in poverty.   “A college degree can be a ticket out of poverty,” concludes the study.

Duval is determined to get that ticket.

“Once I pass the GED [test], I’ll apply for community college to study business and writing,” Duval said. She retook the GED test last Friday, and is anxiously waiting for her scores. Last time her score was only 40 point less than the passing score of 2250.

Her teacher Josh Nagel said she is very dedicated to passing the GED test. Lillian Amoah, a friend and classmate of Duval, also said she deserves a pass this time.

“If I pass, I’ll be screaming and yelling, ‘I got my diploma!’ and buying you guys cupcakes,” she said, sitting in a swivel chair and spinning it fast, imagining her triumph during a break with her friend, Amoah, and the program’s coordinator Pollock.

Duval said she wants to be able to start her own business after college, probably a clothing store or a coffee shop. But for now, she is applying for part-time jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts and Target, in order to save money for an apartment.

Danielle Duval works on her laptop in Project Rise office. She is editing a novel she wrote several months ago. She said writing is her hobby, and that's why she wants to study writing in college.

Danielle Duval works on her laptop in Project Rise office. She is editing a novel she wrote several months ago. She said writing is her hobby, and that’s why she wants to study writing in college. (Photo: Yan Cong/NY City Lens)

She is currently living in a homeless shelter with her 10-month-old daughter and her mother. They moved into the shelter right after the child was born. With Duval taking GED classes and her mother babysitting the child, the family’s only income is around $300 to $400, which is the Supplemental Security Income Duval’s mother receives due to her disability, according to Duval.

Although they can live in the shelter as long as they want to, Duval said she hopes to find a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or Bronx for $1,200 a month by the end of this year.

About one out of five students in Project Rise has stayed or is staying in a shelter. They are facing with the same housing problem as Duval. Affordable places in New York seem hard to find.

“We’ve been thinking about moving out of New York, and go to another state,” Duval said. “It’s too expensive here.”

Duval said she didn’t care where she lives, as long as she could settle down, go to college, and provide her family.

“I want to give my daughter the best I can,” she said. “I’m doing all these for her, and for myself.”


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Apple-Picking Robbers Caught Enjoying their Fruit http://nycitylens.com/?p=9409 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9409#comments Mon, 14 Oct 2013 22:08:58 +0000 Hilary Brueck http://nycitylens.com/?p=9409  

There’s an app for that robbery: two New Yorkers who were robbed at gunpoint Monday, Oct 7 got their phones back and helped arrest the men who targeted them, police said.

(Photo: Jason DeCrow for AP, file photo)

(Photo: Jason DeCrow for AP, file photo)

The couple were on their way out of Sin City Cabaret in the South Bronx at around 3:15 a.m. when two men pulled up and got out of their car, pointing a handgun at the pair, police wrote in a statement.

“You know what this is. Give up everything,” one of the robbers said, according to police.

The couple complied, handing over 30 dollars, a belt, a wallet and both of their iPhones. The thieves sped off, firing a shot into the air as they fled the scene, police said.

But as they escaped, the thieves made one crucial error: they left the iPhone’s tracking system on.

“That wasn’t very wise,” Jessica Marrero, a daytime bartender at the gentleman’s club said.

Apple users can download an application called Find My iPhone that works when an owner logs on to another Apple device (iPhone, iPad or computer). The lost device is then remotely pinpointed with GPS. Users can perform simple tasks on the missing device: lock the phone, display an onscreen message or, in the latest version, prevent it from being used or reset without the owner’s password.

Officer Clement Krug traced one of the phones stolen earlier this month to East Harlem. When he arrived at the scene, police said, he found a vehicle parked on the side of the street. Performing a routine traffic stop, he and his team were able to find the gun, retrieve all the stolen property, and arrest the accused robbers without injury, police said. One of the men charged in the case had a previous arrest record for a Bronx robbery in 2010.

It was a rare and harmonious convergence of police, victims and perpetrators: the officer used the “find my iPhone” app, the victim already had the program installed, and the thieves forgot to turn the phone off.

But Marrero, a bartender at the cabaret where the robbery occurred, said most victims of theft don’t find their phones.

“iPhone theft is definitely a problem,” she said, adding that one of her co-workers also had her phone stolen Monday. “They should have it so when it’s turned off, they can still locate it.”

The latest iOS 7, released in September, has a new feature that makes it harder to turn off the tracking system by requiring a password, but it’s not mandatory.

“It’s a question of whether or not people take that extra step,” Gerry Smith, a technology reporter for the Huffington Post said.

He added that many concerned cell phone users would like Apple to create a kill switch that would render phones useless when stolen.

“If thieves think the phone can’t be re-used, it doesn’t have any value and can’t be resold,” Smith said.

Apple did not return a request for comment about a potential kill switch.

While victims in the Bronx left the scene without a scratch, according to police, many aren’t as fortunate. Museum of Modern Art employee Hwang Yang of the Bronx was shot dead last year walking home from work, his phone put up later on Craigslist for $400.

The Wall Street Journal reported that as of mid-September this year, Apple thefts were running 10 percent higher than last year: 20,000 in New York City. The New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of public information did not return a request for comment on iPhone theft in the city.


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Polish Greenpoint’s Iconic Kiszka http://nycitylens.com/?p=9385 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9385#comments Thu, 03 Oct 2013 17:27:57 +0000 Aleksandra Mencel http://nycitylens.com/?p=9385 The red awning reads “KISZKA” in big white letters; directly beneath, the words “HOME MADE COLD CUTS” flap in the breeze.  Faded images of different meats displayed in the shop’s window, each labeled by name, serve as a quick lesson in Polish protein.

A Kiszka employee takes a break from serving customers and peers out the window. (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

A Kiszka employee takes a break from serving customers and peers out the window. (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

“What kind of kielbasa do you want?” a blonde woman on a black flip phone asks the caller as she approaches the entrance to Kiszka.  This Polish deli on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint opened its doors 33 years ago and is still one of the most popular butcher shops in the neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 to 2011 survey, roughly one-third of Greenpoint’s population is Polish.   While trendy bars and cafes attract the Brooklyn hipsters, the Poles maintain a strong presence within the community, evident in the number of long-established Polish-speaking restaurants, pharmacies, and markets bustling with business. Kryspa Czerwinska, a resident of Greenpoint since 1975, says Kiszka is especially busy during the Christmas and Easter seasons, when the line commonly continues out the door and down the block.

“One time I waited in line for over an hour, but it was worth it. Easter is just not complete without Kiszka’s white kielbasa,” she said.

At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, Kiszka bustles with activity. One older woman exits the store pushing a red shopping cart full of groceries.   She stops, searches for something in her pocket, and pulls out a box of Pall Malls, delicately lighting one and taking a long drag before waddling away.   A red-faced burly man holding a black bag paces up and down the street while puffing on a cigarette, impatiently waiting for the man inside the meat market to buy his groceries. The Chopin Pharmacy next door displays a sidewalk sign advertising a seven-day natural cleanse.

The smell of cigarettes drifts into Kiszka, but is quickly eclipsed by the intense aroma of smoked meat and garlic.   The four butchers behind the counter wear red caps, white aprons, and poker faces, ready to weigh, slice, and package the various meats hanging behind their heads and those displayed in the cases in front of them.

Customers are equally serious about their meats; a male customer looks at his pile of freshly sliced ham on the scale and asks the butcher for a little bit more.   At the opposite end of the counter, another butcher places a dozen linked blood sausages in a red egg crate onto a scale and walks away to serve a new customer.

A Kiszka employee weighs some cold cuts. (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

A Kiszka employee weighs some cold cuts. (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

Patrons and employees at Kiszka converse only in Polish, and a visitor won’t find the familiar Claussen pickles or Land O’Lakes butter, but rather a jar of Krakus pickles and half pint plastic containers labeled “Pure Lard.”   Shelves to the right of the entrance carry canned sardines, marinated mushrooms, and at least ten varieties of “Adamba,” a dried soup mix with an image of a woman dressed in traditional Polish garb carrying a steaming bowl of soup.  Packages of “Big-Active Slimming Coffee,” described on the back label as an “unconventional coffee with weight loss effect”, stand next to the “Vegeta,” an all-purpose food seasoning.

A man carrying a black bag and smelling of liquor introduces himself as Josef, a painter from upstate. He declares, “Kiszka has the best fresh kielbasa in all of Greenpoint.”

With his dirty fingernails interchangeably painted neon yellow and orange, Josef points to a box of lemon flavored herbal tea and says it’s delicious with just a little bit of milk and honey.  The cashier quietly tells Josef to not bother the customers. He ignores her and takes out a tattered address book, wildly searching for a blank spot to add the number of the new friend he just met.  A few minutes later Josef leaves, numberless, and takes his black plastic bag with him.

The Staropolski Meat Market directly across the street is closed, the windows barred.   Next door at the top of the building that houses Starbucks there stands the white eagle, Poland’s national coat of arms, watching over its people.


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Surfers Honor Their Roots at Rockaway Beach Surf Club http://nycitylens.com/?p=9353 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9353#comments Thu, 03 Oct 2013 17:23:58 +0000 Benjamin Yeager http://nycitylens.com/?p=9353 If you closed your eyes to take in the onshore salt air and the long riffs and soft ukulele of surf music, you’d think yourself in Hawaii or San Diego or Venice Beach, not a bar in New York City. That is, until the A train screeched directly above and a jet outbound from JFK, flying low, tore across the sky. No question, this is Rockaway, not Honolulu.

Screens played grainy old surf movies, a homage to the days when surfers danced with waves, not decapitated them with ripping snap-turns. Retired longboards with floral patterns hung from the ceiling. A sea of knotty hair, tattoos and tank tops, belonging to people who don’t care what you think about them, admired photos of local surf legends on the walls.

View from the patio of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, man admires surfing exhibit. (Photo: Benjamin Yeager/NY City Lens)

View from the patio of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, man admires surfing exhibit. (Photo: Benjamin Yeager/NY City Lens)

On Saturday night the Rockaway Beach Surf Club held Talk Story: the History of New York Surfing, featuring surfing legend Rusty Miller and 14 other guests of honor. It wasn’t just a bar, or a venue, or a community gathering place, it was a museum for a time-honored sport and a way of life, one with roots not only in Hawaii and Southern California, but right here in Rockaway Beach, Queens.

Eddie “Fast Eddie” McCabe looks more like your grandfather with his thinning gray hair and collared shirt than a surfing great, until you notice his carved wooden necklace and infectious tranquility. He and his wife Mary drove from Montauk for the event. McCabe, one of the guests of honor with a board bearing his nickname, stared at a picture of himself surfing a wave in Rockaway in 1962.

“It’s like a time machine,” he said. “It brings back a lot of really good times.”

McCabe was waiting to see Rusty Miller, the 1965 United States Surfing Champion whose book signing was the main event of the evening, a face he said he hadn’t seen in over half a century.

“There he is,” McCabe said. “He looks the exact same.”

Miller looked a bit sun-worn, with contoured, red skin, but his shaggy brown mop and blazing green eyes made him look younger than his 70 years. As McCabe shook hands with Miller, they both grinned deeply. McCabe’s wife, Mary, watched.

“This is an important night for Ed,” she said. “He can’t surf anymore because he just had a pacemaker put in. He lives for nights like this. I just hope he remembers we have to drive home.”

Miller was busy signing copies of his book “Turning Point: Surf Portraits and Stories from Bells to Byron,” but he made time for McCabe.

“I haven’t seen Rusty since 1967, in Florida, when I was surfing for the Hobie Team,” McCabe said. “He was doing an event at Ron Jon’s Surf Shop.”

Miller said that maybe it had been at a contest in Puerto Rico.

Other surfers of yore floated around the premises, waiting to reconnect.

“It becomes a museum when old farts like us show up,” said Don Eichin, 74, another guest of honor. “I don’t want to call us pioneers, like the red baron in a goddamned biplane, but let’s just say there weren’t nearly as many people in the water back then.”

Eichin, a career firefighter, got his nickname, “Gums,” when he lost his two front teeth in a wipeout in Hawaii during the winter of 1964. His teeth embedded in the board, and Eichin in surfing lore: The scene of the accident, a break near Pipeline, hallowed ground on Oahu’s North Shore, has forever been known as Gums.

Entire generations of waterpeople showed up with additional blown-up photos for the walls, a do-it-yourself museum in progress. Unattended children ran throughout the event, shrieking and playing and oblivious to the reverence around them.

Eric and Randy Eichin, Don’s sons, both firefighters and surfers themselves, watched their father reminiscing with McCabe and Miller.

“This is Dad’s night,” said Randy. “He hasn’t seen these guys in decades.”

“I’m having a Pulp Fiction moment,” said Eric, referring to the deep guitar riffs similar to those in the opening scene of the film.

When the sun set, Brandon D’Leo, co-owner of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, thanked the crowd of about 70 between pauses so he wouldn’t be drowned out by the airplane noise before playing “Morning of the Earth”—a classic surf film with a saturated, LSD-style aesthetic—on a projector in the outside patio. Partygoers sat on wooden pews in the large space surrounded by bamboo, yellowing boards, tiki huts with license plates dangling from them, and an airstream trailer that D’Leo calls “his toolshed.”

Inside, one man looked at a picture of himself surfing a two-story wave in Hawaii in 2005.

“I got every set wave that day,” he said, cracking a smile. “That was Jacko’s in Oahu. See that guy duckdiving? He barely made it.”


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Blacks on Staten Island Celebrate their Roots http://nycitylens.com/?p=9361 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9361#comments Thu, 03 Oct 2013 17:20:59 +0000 Akinoluwa Oyedele http://nycitylens.com/?p=9361 A woman near the stage gyrates her hips, punching both fists forward alternately to the beat with three children watching and copying. The Jam Syndicate band and Billy Grant, its lead vocalist, have just started their two-hour performance of funk and rhythm and blues songs.

“Shake what yo’ mama gave ya,” Grant raps, as the woman puts both hands down on a wheelchair in front of her, arches her lower back and wiggles her buttocks. The older woman in the wheelchair sips a Pepsi, rocking her upper body back and forth.

Over 1,000 people, according to organizers and vendors, gathered on Saturday to celebrate the annual Staten Island Black Heritage Family Day. It started at the corner of Richmond Road and Vanderbilt Avenue with a parade through Stapleton’s streets.

According to museum records, the first community of freed black slaves in North America was formed in the 19th century in Sandy Ground, near the borough’s South Shore.

Saturday, as the day draws to a close, the boom of a drumbeat and accompanying instruments — keyboard, bass guitar and electronic guitar — are audible from the outdoor staircase of Stapleton’s subway stop. One block away in Tappen Park, three officers stand chatting at its entrance next to a tree with the sign “No Parking Saturday.” Two of them face each other, one glancing occasionally into the park.

Most of the crowd has gone home. Several dozen empty pizza boxes litter the foot of the bin next to the entrance, forming a three-foot-high pile. Next to it, empty Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, Subway plastic bags and several plastic foam platters have been stuffed into clear rubbish bags.

Seven boys stand in a circle with an eighth in the middle. An older man wearing a football jersey and a face cap worn the other way watches them. The children take turns bouncing a basketball before passing it to someone else. But one child throws too hard, hurling it away from the circle. He springs in its direction, over a park bench and into the grass patch near the bin, where the ball is rolling to a stop. He catches it and sprints further away from his peers, sending one of them running after him halfway across the park towards the stage, before relinquishing it so the game can continue.

Some of the necklaces and DVDs that Jackson sold to festival goers at the heritage day. (Photo: Akinoluwa Oyedele/NY City Lens)

Some of the necklaces and DVDs that Jackson sold to festival goers at the heritage day. (Photo: Akinoluwa Oyedele/NY City Lens)

Around the park’s center, Hector Jackson, 42, folds shirts and places them inside a traveling bag next to his tent, one of a few that were part of the festivities. A picture of Bob Marley’s face overlaid with green, yellow and red spray paint is printed on a shirt he lays on one of the neat piles in the bag. As he stoops and stands while packing, he is careful not to hit the dangling necklaces above. They all have pendants with an array of prints including Marley’s face, the Jamaican flag and a marijuana leaf. Less than one foot away, DVDs are arrayed in rows on a table, with titles including Third World Cop, a 1999 hit Jamaican action-crime film, and Dancehall Porn.

About eight feet from Jackson, Nubin Braithwaite, 55, folds flags horizontally before tucking them into clear plastic wrappers. The flags belong to several countries in the Caribbean where Braithwaite’s family has roots. She dons an orange scarf with brown embroidery, a matching skirt and earrings made of red, yellow and green beads. On both wrists, three bands bear the same colors.

Two policemen approach Braithwaite, and she speaks to them briefly before they leave.

“They asked me to back down,” she said. “They saw me talking to you and they did not think I was backing down.”

By 6:50 p.m., the sun is setting quickly, its light gradually being replaced by tungsten lamps around the park. Near the stage, the soundman wraps cables around his elbow as the few remaining audience members chant “one more song.”

By nightfall, there is no boom of the drum kick or accompanying rhythm section. Organizing committee members hug each other and make arrangements for getting home.

One of them is Jennifer Watkins, who sits on a bench, saying goodbye to her friends as they saunter out of the park. The $35,000 they needed to put the event together was not easy to raise, she said.

“Have we paid the DJ already?” another member of the committee wearing their red branded t-shirt asks. “Is everybody paid?”

“Everybody’s paid, God is good.”

As early as next month, they will hold a dinner to start the fundraising for next year’s event.




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Change for the Greener for a Few Bronx Sixth-Graders http://nycitylens.com/?p=9351 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9351#comments Tue, 01 Oct 2013 03:12:23 +0000 Hilary Brueck http://nycitylens.com/?p=9351

The Highbridge Green School in the neighborhood north of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. (Photo: Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

At Jose Gonzalez’s house, an early riser is antsy to go to school.

“I’ve never seen my child waking up so early,” Gonzalez said. “At 6:20, he’s sitting on the chair, waiting for me to take him to school.”

Never mind that the 11-year-old doesn’t have to leave the house for another hour and a half.  Jose’s son, Allan, is one of 145 sixth-grade students enrolled at Highbridge Green School, the neighborhood’s only public middle school, which opened in September. And he can’t wait to start another 10-hour school day.

For years, the southwest Bronx neighborhood has outsourced its middle schoolers to classrooms outside the hilly enclave rising up to the west of the Grand Concourse. After eight years of petitions to the Department of Education for a school of their own, this year a few local parents got the chance to send their kids to nearby Highbridge, the city’s first LEED-certified green school.

But the sixth-graders chosen for the school are just a fraction of the over 700 neighborhood kids who signed up to enroll in the school. One in seven odds. Highbridge students won the lottery, quite literally.

Landing a seat in Highbridge means brand new tech-friendly classrooms, three meals a day and an extended-day program that all the students joined. Soon they’ll plant a rooftop vegetable garden.

“They’re always talking about the garden,”Allan Gonzalez said of his classmates. “They want to see how it looks.”

But the eager planters are a minority of the neighborhood’s middle schoolers. For the hundreds of children that didn’t get in and are left commuting to other areas of the borough for middle school, each day involves some combination of buses, trains and ups and downs on steep grade hills. The journey can take over an hour one way.

Gonzales told the story of one mother whose child didn’t get into the green school. She rides with her daughter every day on the bus to and from school to make sure she arrives safely.

Stacy, another sixth-grader at the new Highbridge Green School said her favorite subjects are reading and writing. (Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

Stacy, another sixth-grader at the new Highbridge Green School said her favorite subjects are reading and writing. (Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

“It’s changing her whole life,” Gonzales said. “I feel really, really sad for those parents who didn’t make it.”

The green school will sprout a grade each year their classes advance; next year filling the seventh-grade hallway, and eighth in 2015. At capacity, the middle school will house 389 of the neighborhood kids. But to many in the community, it still feels like it can only accommodate a fraction of the students that want to enroll.

“We were expecting to get a smaller school than we asked for,” Chauncy Young, a community organizer at Highbridge Community Life Center said, explaining that the group originally asked for a school that would house a few thousand kids. “We didn’t expect it to be quite so small.”

On a recent afternoon, a sixth-grade class lined up for dinner and passed the front office. Tennis shoes scuffing on the linoleum, the students shuffled by wordlessly in matching green polos and black pants. Some grinned, others hunched forward clutching their backpack straps tightly. All obeying orders to be at a “level zero,” meaning: no talking.

Principal Kyle Brilliante takes a personal approach to these students peering into his office, handing a cookie to a new student at school for the first time, calling a kid wandering into the office by name.

How well the school performs will depend, of course, on more than free cookies. Just three of the 21 other middle schools in the 9th district where the green school is located received “A” grades for the 2011-12 school year.

As for Allan, he was looking forward to last Friday, when the winners of the September “house games” were announced: that was when the best-behaving classes played games and enjoyed free time. Jose’s “talkative” class didn’t make the cut that round though. For him, that would be the real lottery win.


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Red Hook Grain Silos Play Host to a Music Festival http://nycitylens.com/?p=9367 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9367#comments Mon, 30 Sep 2013 20:27:57 +0000 Hilary George-Parkin http://nycitylens.com/?p=9367 The hulking Red Hook Grain Terminal has loomed over the mouth of the Gowanus Canal since 1922. Following the decline of the industry it was built to support, its concrete silos have been abandoned for nearly half a century, a relic of Brooklyn’s industrial past.

The Red Hook Grain Terminal, as seen from the nearby ball fields. (Photo: Hilary George-Parkin/NY City Lens)

The Red Hook Grain Terminal, as seen from the nearby ball fields. (Photo: Hilary George-Parkin/NY City Lens)

One Saturday in late September, however, music throbbed from within its walls and the grounds, usually dark and rubble-gray, were bathed in pulsing neon light. The event was called Elements, an eight-hour art and music festival on the eve of the fall equinox. Organized by BangOn! NYC, an event production company that specializes in what it calls “one-of-a-kind themed nightlife spectacles,” the bacchanal opened up a space that is otherwise strictly off-limits.

The repurposing of derelict buildings for hedonistic ends is a neighborhood tradition of sorts. Farther up the canal, an old power station that has come to be known as the Gowanus Batcave was a hub for squatters in the 2000s, and even in the years since the owners caught wind and evicted the unwanted tenants, a smattering of punk bands have taken up their mantle and thrown thrashing parties in the graffitied space.

The Grain Terminal grounds, however, were packed with thousands over the course of the night, and unlike at the Batcave, the party was sanctioned by the property owner and staffed by security.

At the gates on Columbia Street, a line of shuttle buses discharged their passengers and then pulled away to pick up the next load from the subway station. Groups of colorfully attired 20-somethings paraded towards the entrance, snapping photos of the venue on their iPhones and taking furtive swigs from flasks until they were corralled into lines by uniformed staff holding bushels of electric blue wristbands.

Once through security, they diverged, some towards the behemoth grain terminal, its soot-dappled walls lit up with a swirling yellow projection several stories high, and others towards the pier, where a dance floor was germinating beside a mammoth docked ship.

A few guests dressed with a maritime theme, roving the grounds in life vests or sailor caps. Bikinis were de rigueur for the female performance artists, who danced on stage or drew crowds who watched as they swirled flaming spheres around in choreographed arcs.

Stalls set up next to crumbling brick walls and blown-out windows advertised shaved ice and face painting, and women walked away with Technicolor swirls on their temples. Against a grimy backdrop, a photographer snapped photos as a mustachioed man struck a pose with someone dressed in a fuzzy black cat costume.

Partygoers in headphones dance at the silent disco inside the abandoned Red Hook Grain Terminal. (Photo: Hilary George-Parkin/NY City Lens)

Partygoers in headphones dance at the silent disco inside the abandoned grain elevator. (Photo: Hilary George-Parkin/NY City Lens)

On the ground floor below the terminal’s 54 silos, a crowd of 30 or so donned identical headphones and danced between rows of graffitied stone columns. It was the silent disco, an event organizer explained, and if you wanted to hear what everybody was listening to, you’d have to get in line for a pair of headphones.

No accessories were necessary, however, at the water stage, as the dance floor on the pier was called. There, thumping electronic music boomed out over the water, and the hull of the ship became a screen for kaleidoscopic projections. A disco ball was suspended from a crane that jutted out from one of the upper decks, secured with the kind of curved metal hook that Red Hook has adopted as a neighborhood symbol of sorts.

At 9 p.m., the crowds’ eyes seemed to collectively raise skyward. High above the festival, near the top of the 12-story building, an aerial performer dangled against the convex wall of a grain silo. Music played as the orb of light around her rippled like a tidepool. Crowds perched on crumbling logs and colossal dump truck tires to watch the spectacle, erupting in a round of applause when she bounded down to the ledge below.


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New Animal Hospital Opens on Lower East Side, Dog Owners React With Mixed Feelings http://nycitylens.com/?p=9357 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9357#comments Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:23:58 +0000 Yan Cong http://nycitylens.com/?p=9357 Many Lower East Side dog owners seem to be happy about a new animal hospital’s recent opening in the neighborhood, but some of them expressed concerns about the price.

The new facility, the Lower East Side Animal Hospital at 241 Eldridge St., filled a two-year vacuum of veterinary services in the neighborhood, as the old veterinarian C W Schaubhut, who occupied the same location for more than a decade, left in November 2011, due to finance and lease issues, according to dog owners and a local news website. The space was vacant until the new hospital opened on Aug. 26.

Veterinary visits for dogs went up in the United States about 10 percent from 2006 to 2011, with an average of 1.6 visits per year in 2011, according to a nationwide study conducted by American Veterinary Medical Association. With more and more demands in veterinary services, it seemed the new hospital arrived in the neighborhood right on time.

Some residents had started to tire of having to commute more than 10 blocks to the nearest animal hospital on St. Mark’s Place.

“Now I can walk up two blocks and take Roo to the vet. I’m happy to see the new hospital,” said Joe Hubbard, 73, the owner of a 12-year-old dog named Roo and a former customer of veterinarian Schaubhut.

“I have bad shoulders. I can’t lift heavy weight. And I had to get a car. It would cost me $9 for the trip by taxi, and $5 for the carrier for Roo, and that’s only one way.” Hubbard said, explaining how much money the new hospital could save him.

Christina Berry took her dog to the new hospital last week, and she said she was very satisfied with the experience. “I have to say they are fantastic. [The vet] called me today just to check on the dog, which I never had my vet do that before,” Berry said.

“It’s more high-tech, much in line with what it should be nowadays.” Berry added, comparing the new hospital to the old veterinarian in the neighborhood, whom she described as “old-school.”

However, some pet owners in the neighborhood worried about their wallets as the new hospital comes with a higher price tag.

Cheryl Freeman, a dog owner on the Lower East Side, said she didn’t think every pet owner in the neighborhood could afford to go to the new animal hospital.

“The demographics of the neighborhood is complicated,” said Freeman, standing in front of the hospital on Eldridge Street. “We have housing projects a block down the street,” she explained, pointing to the nearby intersection of Stanton Street and Eldridge Street, where a group of Housing Authority buildings are located. “But we have Whole Foods on the other side.”

Freeman said she took her dog to the veterinarians at the Humane Society of New York in midtown, where the prices were lower than the ones at the Lower East Side Animal Hospital.

Lex Rizzo, a Lower East Side dog owner, sits with her dog, Leo, at Sara D. Roosevelt Park on Chrystie Street and Rivington Street, which is a popular area for dog owners to walk their dogs in the neighborhood. (Photo: Yan Cong/ NY City Lens)

According to the price sheets acquired from the two institutions, an office visit for examination on weekends costs $45 at Humane Society of New York, and $99 at Lower East Side Animal Hospital.

Dog owner Carmen Rodriguez lives in one of the Housing Authority buildings at 190 Forsyth St. He said he thought $99 for a regular check-up was a little expensive. However, since the new hospital was only one block away from his home, he said, “I might go there to see if they’ll lower the price.”

Marc Siebert, the owner and veterinarian, said, however, that he didn’t plan to offer a discount for people who couldn’t afford it. He suggested they seek help from financing tools such as CareCredit.

“I’m not unaware that this is a mixed neighborhood,” said Siebert. “I don’t really have a solution.”

He continued, “We are offering a high-end veterinary experience. Is it for everybody? Nothing is for everybody. You can get a five-dollar cup of coffee, and you can get a one-dollar cup of coffee. It depends on what you’re looking for.”


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Grimy Greenpoint: The Neighborhood Calls for Another Cleanup http://nycitylens.com/?p=9337 http://nycitylens.com/?p=9337#comments Thu, 26 Sep 2013 02:11:16 +0000 Aleksandra Mencel http://nycitylens.com/?p=9337  

New cafes, boutiques, and trendy restaurants popping up in Greenpoint lure young professionals to hop on the G train and travel to this North Brooklyn neighborhood.  But while the area looks more polished than in years past, it’s far from clean; trash spills over garbage cans on to the sidewalks and graffiti decorates many of the businesses’ walls, windows, and doors.

“My office gets graffitied every couple of weeks,” said Nick Balalis, a construction worker and part-time manager at Manhattan Restaurant.

Graffiti outside the G train’s Nassau stop in Greenpoint (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

Greenpoint came in at the top of the list of the dirtiest neighborhoods in New York City in an August study by MIT that used Google Street View to compare random city streets. NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy’s 311 data shows that during the summer of 2012 Greenpointers’ most frequent complaints concerned vermin infestation.  Councilman Steven Levin recently announced a new plan to clean up the neighborhood, though only one business owner has signed on so far.  In the meantime, local leaders are concerned that a controversial proposal for 10 residential towers on Greenpoint’s waterfront, if passed, will bring in over 10,000 more residents and the trash problem will only get worse.

“There have been different groups that would come and clean up. They would work from time to time. Anything is good, but it’s not going to resolve the overall problem of cleaning up a city or a neighborhood that’s going to be inundated with the kind of changes we’re expecting,” said Christopher Olechowski, chairman of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1.

Levin’s new “Clean Greenpoint” initiative is the latest effort to solve the problem.  Sponsored by the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce, the program requires business owners to sign a pledge that they will sweep their storefronts once a day, pick up litter, report graffiti, and adopt a planter box to “beautify” the streets, said Matt Ojala, Levin’s communications director.  It also encourages owners to recycle by offering recycling bins in their stores.

Charlotte Patisserie is the first and only business so far to sign on.  Jeff Mann, owner of the Greenpoint Gazette and president of the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce, approached the bakery first because, he said, “They’re my neighbors and I like their coffee.”

Magda Lechowicz, owner of Charlotte Patisserie, said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“The whole of Greenpoint will be cleaner, nicer,” Lechowicz said.

But not everyone is enthusiastic.

“It’s clean enough. It adds to the charm—the grit. It’s good for tourism, but not good for the residents,” said Rebekah Thompson, an employee at Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.

Mann admits that “Clean Greenpoint” is to promote tourism, and he’s proud of it.

“The more people that come in, and visit our community, and spend their money the better everybody is. I’m proud that it’s a ploy to bring in tourism—please come!” Mann said.

Mann and Ojala both say the initiative will be up-and-running in the next month. By then, more businesses will know about it and sign the petition because, Ojala predicted, this is a very low hassle program—sweeping is not a big chore.

Trash left on a Manhattan Avenue sidewalk (Photo: Aleksandra Mencel/NY City Lens)

Around 20 Greenpoint business owners and employees interviewed recently said they already make sure to keep their stores clean.  Anthony Mikolajczyk, owner of Green Farms Supermarket, says he sweeps every day and it’s the vacant storefronts that produce the litter.

“Their trash blows over and I get the ticket,” said Mikolajczyk.

One owner said that every morning, when he opens his store, there are used condoms, bottles of alcohol, and food on his sidewalk.  The businesses are not the culprits, but rather the unlucky receivers of garbage left by anonymous litterers.

Steve Michael, a manager at No. 7 Sub Restaurant in Greenpoint, said he is aware of the waste problem.  In his own neighborhood, Prospect Heights, there are plenty of trashcans, he said, but not in Greenpoint.

“I notice that there’s trash all over the place. We need more trashcans. People just finish stuff and then drop it,” said Michael.

The Department of Sanitation has not yet responded to inquiries regarding trashcans in Greenpoint.



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