By Ezra Doueck [Read more...]
By Jason Javaherian, Emma Kazaryan, Milena Kozlowska and Rebecca Ungarino
At Kebeer Draft Bar and Grill in Brighton Beach, in the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian community, every television was tuned to the XXII Olympic Winter Games hosted in Sochi, Russia on a recent Sunday evening.
Notwithstanding that men’s cross-country skiing—not a popular spectator sport—was the focus of the evening’s telecast, enthusiasm for the games appeared scant. Patrons at Kebeer, which is at the intersection of Brighton Beach and Coney Island avenues, glanced briefly at the screens to catch results, only to quickly return to their conversations.
“Russia did not need these games,” said Sergey Zinoviev, who was standing at the bar with several friends, alluding to the estimated $51 billion cost of the Sochi games, more than seven times the cost of the winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, four years ago, and larger than the $44 billion of the 2008 Beijing summer games, the next most expensive. “I think they could have spent money on more important things, like schools.”
Zinoviev, a banker, said he is not indifferent toward his native Russia. “Every time I watch the games I feel proud for Russia, especially when our sportsmen are winning,” conceded Zinoviev with a smile.
“I don’t cheer for Russia,” said Igor Galiakhmetov, 60, an owner of a Brooklyn moving company. “I cheer for good sportsmen.”
For Galiakhmetov, who moved to New York 14 years ago with his family from Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea, 176 miles from Sochi, the distrust he feels for the regime of Valdimir Putin, who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister since 2000, colors his view of the Olympics. “Knowing the Russian government, I am pretty sure that after the Olympic games, the region as well as the newly built infrastructure, will be abandoned,” he added.
As Russian émigrés follow the Sochi games from their new homes in New York, they are experiencing divided loyalties to two countries—the Russia they left behind and their adopted U.S. For many émigrés, whether they fled the former Soviet Union or Putin’s Russia, their view of the Olympics is colored by the corruption they associate with both regimes.
“Many people come to cheer for the U.S. rather than Russia,” said Rassul Massimov, an employee at Kebeer and a student at ASA College who is from Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.
“We are American and are rooting for America!” agreed Matwiej Dommith, 85, also of Brighton Beach via the U.S.S.R, who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years and has grandchildren born and raised here.
Meanwhile, on Staten Island, at the NetCost Market, on Amboy Road in the Richmondtown neighborhood, the sentiments toward the Olympics were much the same.
“I am rooting for Russia, Estonia and America, but mostly for America because they are my home,” said Igor Shurygin, who was stocking the shelves at the store, which is part of a chain popular among the community’s Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian residents; the store carries traditional Eastern European specialties, such as pierogi (potato or cheese dumplings), plov (a hearty rice dish), and kotlety (breaded meat cutlets). Shurygin, who moved to Staten Island two years ago from his native Estonia, said that when he was not working he watched the Olympic games at home, and especially enjoyed the snowboarding competitions.
Rachel Mickley moved to New York from Ukraine nearly 38 years ago and said that she, her children and U.S.-born grandchildren were all rooting for the United States. Mickley said she watched the Olympics on Channel One whenever she gets the chance; Channel One Russia, the Russian Federation’s first television channel, is available via local cable companies.
“My husband and I, we don’t want Russia to win medals,” said Ella Pil, a 39-year-old barber in the Floral Park neighborhood.
“The Olympics are a show for Putin and his friends,” said Pil, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Uzbekistan, and reflected the animosity that many residents of former Soviet satellite countries still feel toward Russia.
By Trudy Knockless
When tourists take a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry to get a close-up look at New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, most of them turn right back around and get on the next boat to Lower Manhattan.
Staten Island officials and business owners are hoping this will change after a 60-story tall Ferris wheel and an outlet mall are opened in 2016.
“This project will contribute to Staten Island not being the forgotten borough again,” said City Councilwoman Debi Rose of Staten Island (though the borough does have a zoo, museums, parks, lovely beaches and some of the oldest homes in New York City).
On Oct. 30, the City Council gave final approval to the project and its New York Wheel, which will be the largest Ferris wheel in the world. “It is a great example of smart development that helps bring in jobs,” said Rose. Union workers lined the steps of City Hall on Oct. 30, distributing flyers that read, “Staten Island wins when you vote yes on the St. George Wheel and the Empire Outlets.”
Not all Staten Island residents are so sure of the benefits, expressing doubts about increased traffic and crime and how many of the jobs created will be low-pay or part-time work.
“A lot of people are opposed because a lot of small business owners think larger businesses will take away from them,” said Jessica Hull, 29, though she said she thought small businesses would benefit from the increased number of visitors. Keisha Scott, 26, who has been living in Staten Island for 12 years, said, “I don’t think it’s going to benefit Staten Island too much; I don’t think Staten Island needs another mall. There may be a few more jobs with the mall, but I’m not sure how to feel about the wheel.”
New York Wheel, the company responsible for the development of the wheel, which is expected to cost more than $200 million to build, said 600 permanent jobs are estimated to arise out of ticket sales, maintenance and operations. Construction of the wheel – which should begin in 2014 and is expected to last until 2016 – would create an approximate 350 additional temporary jobs, according to the company’s website.
Modeled after other successful wheels, such as the London Eye, the New York Wheel anticipates that as many as 30,000 visitors a day will come for a ride, according to newyorkwheel.com. A ride will take about 38 minutes and cost between $25 and $30, the company said, and the wheel can accommodate up to 1,440 people per ride. A spokesman for the company said it expected to operate in the black from its opening and to pay off its debt within five years.
The outlet mall will offer 350,000 square feet of leasable space, with a mix of fashion, food, and entertainment, as well as a 200-room hotel, according to empireoutletsnyc.com.
Helen Settles, a retired schoolteacher and resident of Staten Island, said she had faith in Councilwoman Rose and believed the $700,000 in the budget to rebuild Cromwell Center, Staten Island’s largest community center, would be used to benefit children of the North Shore neighborhood. “I think she did well in making sure that there was going to be jobs for Staten Islanders, and particularly neighborhoods of color, in which there is great amount of unemployment, and this is good, and this is going to be sustainable in career jobs and not just something temporary,” Settles said.
Bobby Digi, president of the North Shore Business Association, said the development would be good for the Staten Island community, which he said has been the least recognized of all the New York boroughs.
It will “bring jobs to the neighborhood,” which has been “underserved for many years and has the highest rate of unemployment in the city,” he said. Digi also said the community would benefit from “real infrastructural development” — roads, lights and sewage systems. These costs have been allocated in the budget and it is “a perfect opportunity to get certain sections of the community improved,” he said.
According to Richard Marin, president and CEO of the New York Wheel, the wheel is sited where the city wanted it, and the company signed a 99-year lease with the city for the land. “We wanted to have a giant observation wheel on the harbor, they wanted us to put it in this location, they own this land, it was perfectly situated so that we can get the perfect view of the wheel from anywhere in the harbor,” he said.
Marin said the company had about a dozen investors. He compared the New York Wheel to the Eiffel Tower, noting, “You can’t think of Paris without thinking of the Eiffel Tower.” He added that it’s the same with the London Eye.
“There’s something about the circle,” he said, it has “a certain purity to it, because it’s perfection in a sort of geometrical sense.”
The New York Harbor “is the gateway to America,” said Marin. “It faces the Statue of Liberty, and we thought that framing the gateway to America with a wheel was a perfect symbol for the next 99 years of both the beauty of the location of New York Harbor, the significance of the spot …where all the cruise ships and all the immigrants sort of passed through.”
“We’ve picked a spot where the public transportation is perfect, the views are perfect, the totality of the harbor experience is perfect and quite frankly, with the kind of lighting we’re gonna do on it at night, facing the harbor, it’s gonna be a magnificent addition to the skyline of New York,” Marin said.
By Thomas Seubert
Most New Yorkers will tell you that it’s crazy to drive into Manhattan because of traffic congestion and tight parking, but in the outer boroughs, some neighborhoods’ parking situations rival Manhattan’s.
Like Fordham Road in the Bronx and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the Austin Street area of Forest Hills, a shopping district, also has a shortage of parking. An abundance of cars traveling on the commercial stretch coupled with city-regulated parking makes the area a particularly difficult place to find parking.
To the south of Austin Street, roads become private, and while nonresidents can drive through, only members of a Forest Hills gated community can park there. To the north, the multi-lane Queens Boulevard distances Austin Street’s patrons, commuters and business owners from any additional parking spaces. And most streets in the area are posted with alternate-side parking signs.
The scarcity of parking on Austin Street causes some people to just double-park their cars and trucks, causing traffic back-ups.
“One day a truck needed to unload and had nowhere to pull in,” said Eric Isaac, who works in the area. “Cars in that lane didn’t move for seven light changes. Surprisingly, people only started beeping after the third light change.”
According to Isaac, who lives in Forest Hills, the few who do find parking spaces on or around Austin Street aren’t finished fighting the parking battle.
“People are always out running to refill meters or switch their cars to the other side of the street on alternate-side parking days,” he said. “That’s just how it works here.”
Will Niklaus, a commuter, drives into Forest Hills to park and then continue on to Manhattan by mass transit. Like most commuters, Niklaus cannot park at meters with one- or two-hour limits and is forced to search alternate-side parking streets for spaces.
“I have to leave earlier when it’s an alternate-side parking day,” Niklaus said. “I spend more time searching for a spot, and I end up three blocks further from where I want to be.”
He said he understood the logic of alternate-side parking—no parking on one said allows the streets to be cleaned—but thought the city should amend when these regulations are put into affect. “The city should change the times of alternate-side parking to nights or early evenings so it won’t affect commuters trying to get to school or work,” he said.
The city’s Department of Transportation doesn’t view alternate-side parking as a hindrance. A 2008 study conducted by the DOT in Park Slope, Brooklyn, determined that “parking saturation” is the same no matter the status of alternate-side parking, and that almost 50 percent of New Yorkers feel parking is equally difficult whether alternate-side rules are suspended or implemented.
In Forest Hills, where many factors affect parking, local government bodies are guarded when it comes to discussing the parking situation faced by commuters, residents and visitors. Frank Galluscio, the district manager of Queens Community Board 6, meets with the local police and fire captains every month to discuss various issues in the community.
“Parking is always on our agenda,” Galluscio said. “We monitor ticket statistics compiled by the police department.” Though crime and moving-violation statistics are available on the 112th precinct’s website, parking summonses are not currently public record. “We take this issue very seriously,” Galluscio added.
The community board tries to work with business owners when parking interferes with their daily operations.
“The Chamber of Commerce offers merchants deals when it comes to parking, sometimes in the form of parking permits,” said Galluscio. “Our goal is to keep things running smoothly…We just look to realistically communicate that parking is tight here.”
In addition to parking permits, private lots work out deals with business owners who need to come and go as they please. The district manager cites a concert held last summer as an example of exemplary communication with local businesses and the public.
Mumford & Sons, a British rock/folk band, performed at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, a few blocks from Austin Street, drawing an estimated 16,000 people to the area. Streets were closed to traffic, and a lot of parking was reserved for concert personnel.
“People were told parking would be a premium and wouldn’t be available that night,” Galluscio said. “Concert tickets were labeled ‘Green Event’ and encouraged people to take the MTA or LIRR trains to the show,” referring to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Rail Road.
Local businesses welcomed the influx of people coming into Forest Hills even though it meant less parking was available. One Forest Hills business owner said: “Businesses just need accessibility. As long as people can get here…that’s most important.”
On the day of the concert, Station House, a bar that sits between the tennis stadium and Austin Street, was packed. Paolo Chioni, a server at the restaurant was working the night of the concert and recalled, “We definitely were not affected negatively by the concert. A lot of people came into the bar after the show ended,” adding, “Even regularly, it seems a lack of parking doesn’t really hurt us. People either walk here or just look for parking…a little further away.”
Patrons of the local businesses—who have to drive to get to the area—feel they are the ones left out of the situation. In addition to commuting into Forest Hills, Niklaus enjoys going to restaurants and shops in the area but often opts not to visit his favorite hangouts.
“If I’m looking for something quick, easy or convenient, I won’t go over to Austin Street. Parking is too tough,” Niklaus said.
For Galluscio and Community Board 6, protecting the parking spots on Austin Street and open, realistic communication with the public are the keys to the situation.
“Right now we don’t want to lose any more parking spots than we already have…People understand parking is something they have to contend with,” Galluscio said. “They don’t love it, but they understand it.”
By Crystal Simbudyal
Shanel Mendonca, a mother from Queens Village who works full time, sometimes until late in the evening, often arrives home to find a neon orange cone blocking the pavement in front of her neighbor’s home. Sometimes, it’s a garbage can that blocks her way. But the purpose is always the same: to reserve a parking space. Her neighbors’ driveways remains empty most of the time.
“It is ridiculous that people hold parking spaces,” said Mendonca. “To avoid conflicts with my neighbors, I just park a few blocks up and take a walk several minutes to and from my car.”
Street parking, a first-come, first-serve aspect of life in New York City, has become a source of strife in Queens Village. Block after block, orange traffic cones and garbage cans stand in the street, rankling relationships among neighbors who jockey over scarce parking spaces.
Mendonca, a Queens Village resident of 17 years, faces this problem everyday, as her next door neighbors hold a parking space every time they leave their home. Mendonca’s family often needs to park more than one car, so if her driveway is full, she has to park on the street. The situation, she said, “has become frustrating.”
Among the 7,588 households in Queens Village, 46 percent own at least two cars and another 38 percent own one car, according to the 2013, Queens Village Census Data & Community Profile.
Police officers say it is often difficult to determine whether a cone has been legally placed or not. Cones can indicate a range of issues “from temporary construction or a dumpster drop across the street from a house that is going under construction,” said a local police officer who asked not to be identified.
While reserving a private spot on a public street is illegal, the Police Department seems to have little appetite for enforcement, judging by the widespread use of cones and garbage cans to save spots.
Mendonca said she had called 311 on several occasions to report her concern about parking spots being held but has never gotten a positive response. “Cops do not do anything about this,” she said. “They hardly ever pass through this block anyway, and a few blocks over orange cones take over the road.” She notes that people prefer to park curbside instead of in their driveways because it is often harder to navigate in and out of a driveway.
Mendonca recalled an instance when her sister moved a garbage can out of the street so that she could park. Her neighbor waited patiently for her to get out of her car. He then told her that she was in his spot.
Kamey Tywarie, a Queens Village resident of 13 years, said the problem began about four years ago when more businesses opened in the neighborhood.
“There is a home health agency building up the road from me and employees and visitors come in the morning and take up parking,” said Tywarie.
Another problem, said Tywarie, are the commuters who take mass transit and park their vehicles near the subways when they go to work or school.
Once, Tywarie says, her car was scratched with a nail along the sides after she parked in front of a Queens Village home. It wasn’t until a year later that one of her neighbors warned her against parking in the area. “I never reported it because I didn’t have enough proof,” Tywarie said.
Article and Photo by Earl Mays
A “Holiday Menu” sign with bright orange letters greeted pedestrians walking by the Step Ins Restaurant and Lounge in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, announcing the diner’s annual holiday special for Thanksgiving. The menu included a choice of fried turkey or duck seared and slow roasted with orange marmalade and sides of candied yams and stuffing.
By Justin Goldberg
Story and photos by Teresa Roca
Norm Pederson arrives at his 19th century style workshop on Staten Island at dawn most mornings. Inside, wooden buckets hang from the ceiling above him; spoons, butter churns and presses and rolling pins sit on tables beside him; scraps of wood are scattered around him. As Pederson picks his way through the cluttered room, sounds of wood shavings crackle beneath his work boots. He gathers his tools and prepares to split and shave wood for his next creation.
Pederson isn’t a professional carpenter. He is a volunteer at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.
“I portray the farmer who would be working in a shop like this in the 1850s,” said the 17-year volunteer. “I make things the way they were made at this time. That means style, materials and methods.”
A Staten Islander for all of his 66 years, Pederson dedicated his post-retirement to fulfilling two passions that began during childhood: carpentry and history. With Historic Richmond Town becoming more volunteer-dependent, Pederson helps the village stay alive and inform people of America’s history, just as he was informed as a child.
“My grandfather came to this country from Norway in the 1890s as a carpenter,” says Pederson. “My father taught me carpentry when I was a little boy with my grandfather’s tools. He taught me how carpentry was done during my grandfather’s time. I still use some of my grandfather’s tools, which is a pleasant connection with my own past.”
As a boy, Pederson frequently visited Historic Richmond Town, the only living historic village in New York City, now 25 acres with 15 restored buildings but once just a museum and the Voorlezer house, a national historic landmark.
Despite his passion for carpentry and history, Pederson didn’t pursue either as a profession. After flunking out of college (“I had a lot of fun in college”), Pederson enlisted in the army. He later worked for the city as a deck handler on the Staten Island Ferry, cleaning litter and handling lifeboats. But he never forgot the carpentry skills his father taught him and he never lost his passion for history. Pederson got involved with Civil War reenacting and returned to Historic Richmond Town for an event in 1994.
“I got talking to some of the people who work here and they were very interested in other people who were interested in history,” said Pederson. “Then an offer was made and I got involved. One day I saw the shop, which hadn’t been used in 10 years or so, and I said, ‘Can I kind of hang out in this shop?’”
When people come to Pederson’s shop, he always makes sure to follow one simple rule: grab their attention.
“Sometimes I go for a cheap thrill, such as splitting wood,” says Pederson. “Showing how it splits seems like a very simple thing, but it actually catches people’s imagination. If you can do that, then you might go a little further and talk about the technical part of it. You don’t want to start out with the technical part, because we don’t want to bore people to death. We want to entertain them.”
Felicity Biel, the director of education and programs at Historic Richmond Town, says, “Norm is a wonderful asset. He relates well to all ages of visitors and makes the story of earlier American life so accessible to people who visit his shop to see his demonstration of farmer and carpentry skills.”
Pederson’s wooden pieces aren’t just for show. His items are displayed in museums, sold to visitors, used to furnish historic houses and more. Pederson also helps Richmond Town by performing American folk music, playing the fiddle with band member Bob Conroy at Richmond Town events, helping the maintenance team pick up litter and fixing things around the village.
“Beyond what visitors can see, Norm has also helped behind the scenes,” says Biel. “He has repaired spinning wheels that are used in the school workshop programs and carved wooden yokes so young visitors can try them out.”
Despite school and camping trips that visit Richmond Town, the village still suffers because of the neighborhood’s development throughout the years. As Richmond Town continues to modernize, becoming more upper class, people are beginning to forget about this rustic village that has been at the center of Staten Island’s history for hundreds of years.
“You get a lot of people from other countries; you don’t get many Staten Islanders,” says Pederson. “Since the bicentennial it has been down. Europeans are great listeners because they are interested in our history. Americans are not interested in their own history anymore. That is partly why this place doesn’t have much money.”
Although Pederson doesn’t receive money for his long hours of work, he does get paid in other ways.
“I am a very lucky person in the sense that Historic Richmond Town needs something like this and they’re nice enough to let me do this,” he says. “When you are teaching, it’s really rewarding to have people pay attention to you. Having people ask intelligent questions and being respectful, what could be better than that?”
Listen to Teresa Roca’s audio report:
Story and media by Anastasia Medytska
These days, the East Village is filled with hipsters slinging back $2 beers at Sly Fox or satisfying a 3 a.m. craving for pierogi at Veselka without any knowledge of the rich Ukrainian history behind these neighborhood hotspots.
Behind the overcrowded bar, above shelves stocked with an array of Ukrainian vodkas, hangs a sign with the words “Lys Mykyta,” or Sly Fox, in Ukrainian. The dive bar resembles a log cabin in the famed Carpathian Mountains, which is why it also goes by a second name, known only to the Ukrainians that frequent it during off-peak hours, the Karpaty Pub.
Just one building over, on the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street, sits Veselka Restaurant, open 24 hours to accommodate the merry revelers of Sly Fox and places like it. From movies like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” where the titular characters grab a late-night meal near the end of the movie, to “Gossip Girl,” where Blair and Dan nosh on pierogi, Veselka holds a place in pop culture.
What its multitudes of visitors don’t know is that it opened as a result of the Ukrainian diaspora, when multitudes of Ukrainians fled a Soviet-controlled nation after World War II.
The neighborhood — with its unbeatable nightlife, cheap eats and Japanese markets — has a past teeming with Ukrainian culture. From retro eateries like the Stage Restaurant to kielbasa connoisseurs’ favorite meat market, Baczynsky, first-generation Ukrainians built a neighborhood to carry on their culture. Today, that heritage is sometimes easy to miss, but pockets of the past remain.
“I’m proud that they are still keeping the culture alive,” said Olha Medytska, a first-generation immigrant and teacher at St. George Ukrainian Catholic School, a K-12 school located on Sixth Street and Taras Shevchenko Place, which was developed for Ukrainian immigrants during times of mass immigration. “Although the majority of my students are not Ukrainian, they are still required to learn the language and they do it great! It’s good that it hasn’t been closed down; I’d be sad to see that.”
As the neighborhood, known as Little Ukraine in the 1950s, has changed and gentrified, its population has changed, too.
Surma Book & Music Company, a Ukrainian shop that opened in the 1800s, has weathered the changes, including several waves of Ukrainian immigration.
“At the end of World War II,” says Natalia Yezerska, a Ukrainian immigrant and active member of the Ukrainian-American community, “thousands of Ukrainians fled a country overtaken by the Soviet Union. They knew they could never come back to their motherland and so they developed their own ‘Little Ukraine’ here in New York to hold onto their culture.”
In the following decades, places like Veselka and the Baczynsky Meat Market opened. “These immigrants worked hard to ensure that the generations to come would know what it means to be Ukrainian, without ever visiting the country,” says Ms. Yezerska. They opened restaurants, shops, bars, schools and after-school activities.
Then came another wave of Ukrainian immigration. “In the 1990s, post-Soviet collapse, Ukraine finally gained independence and with it, Ukrainians earned the freedom to emigrate to America. This caused what is known as the fourth wave of immigration,” Ms. Yezerska says. Many came to Manhattan, which had everything they needed to comfortably settle into a foreign country.
Ms. Medytska, the teacher at St. George, came with her family during the fourth wave. “I was lucky because I had family here already but this community helped me be more comfortable and I know it helped so many people who didn’t know anyone or a word of English,” she says.
And so the Ukrainian community blossomed anew.
Ukrainians are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage, all the more so that it survived Soviet domination. Even though they may no longer flock to Manhattan, as a result of rising rent prices and falling immigration, Ukrainians still make the trip for a piece of Little Ukraine on weekends.
Every Saturday morning, throngs of Ukrainian parents come to the East Village to engrain some Ukrainian culture into their American-born children. The typical day starts with Ukrainian school in the morning. There are two such schools in the area, one housed in the St. George School building and another, a block away on Second Avenue, in the Ukrainian National Home.
Children learn the Ukrainian language, as well as history and customs in classrooms adorned with Ukrainian flags and symbols. Afterward, they go to either PLAST or CYM, two international Ukrainian Youth organizations. In khaki uniforms adorned with badges and medals, the idea is similar to scouting.
However, instead of selling cookies and tying knots, the children learn Ukrainian songs and poems and do fun activities for holidays, such as Easter egg painting. The day doesn’t stop there for some. Many children also attend dance classes, either at the Roma Pryma Bohachevska School of Dance or with a small group in St. George, where they learn Ukrainian folk dances.
Meanwhile, parents shop at Baczynsky meat market, the only remaining Ukrainian meat market in the neighborhood (once, there were three), and visit the Ukrainian National Credit Union, which has branches nationwide. They might grab a meal at the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant or go to a party in the Ukrainian National Home. Then they drive back to Connecticut, Brooklyn, New Jersey and upstate New York, only to come again for church at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on Sunday mornings.
The locals, many of whom are not Ukrainian, support the businesses on the days there are no Ukrainians coming in from the suburbs.
“This is a place for Lower East Side hipsters on weekends. Many of the young people here don’t even know it’s Ukrainian until they spend some time here,” said Ariel, a bartender at Sly Fox. Places like the Stage Restaurant, Veselka and Sly Fox have become culture icons for locals, a reminder of New York’s ethnic niches and of days gone by.
With the support of both visiting immigrants and local New Yorkers alike, Little Ukraine thrives on.
Story and media by Carlos Canela
Eight-year-old Kayden Montes, who lives in the West Farms section of the Bronx, has great respect for “El Cuko,” the imaginary monster he hears when night falls.
“When it’s dark outside the Cuko comes out with all his Cuko friends and I hear them from my room all the way up here yelling and screaming all the time,” Kayden says. “My mommy says that if I don’t do good in school, that’s how the Cuko gets you and makes you follow him too. That’s why she doesn’t let me play outside.
What Kayden doesn’t realize is that El Cuko and its friends are actually neighborhood delinquents, and his mother is trying to protect him from becoming just another “hood rat.”
Patricia Hernandez, 26, Kayden’s mother, keeps him close to home and school.
“This place isn’t a good environment for kids to grow up in, if it isn’t gun shots, it’s ambulances or police sirens waking you up in the middle of the night,” said Hernandez, a single mother who also has a daughter, Kailin Montes.
Parents in West Farms, in the central Bronx, north of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and south of the Bronx Zoo, look to after-school programs as a means of keeping their children on track for a better life. But plans for extensive cutbacks to those programs have left parents fearful.
Long-time West Farms resident Maria Merejido, 54, remembers what it was like raising four boys in the neighborhood, “I always had to stay on top of them and make sure they did all of their work, I let them watch TV after but there was no way I was gonna let them play outside in that mess,” she says.
The mess she referred to was a neighborhood embroiled in gang wars during the late ’80s and early ’90s. With all of her children grown, ranging now from ages 26 to 34, Merejido recalls putting them through college, “It wasn’t easy but I always on top of them about their work. Around here college is a dream, but too many of these kids give up on it. So many of these kids get stuck doing the wrong things and it’s hard once you start down that road.”
An area primarily consisting of low-income housing, West Farms is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, with 34 percent of its households making $15,000 or less, according the Census Bureau. The hundreds of families on their way to the zoo seem all but oblivious to the seedy orange five-story buildings they pass.
The neighborhood’s crime rate has dropped 65 percent since 1993, according to CompStat, the police department’s database. Yet West Farms remains one of the more violent areas in the city. With a population mostly too poor to live anywhere else, the residents consider the two fastest ways out of the neighborhood to be getting an education or getting thrown in prison.
The city’s plan to close 10 schools in the Bronx includes at least three that will affect the West Farms neighborhood, and parents and teachers are all feeling the stress. “All of my friends that still teach in the Bronx are saying similar things, they feel underappreciated and under attack when they are not to blame,” laments Annette Garb, 28, a former third-grade English teacher.
The Panel for Educational Policy, led by Chancellor Dennis Walcott, decided that these schools could not be kept open any longer: after considering test scores, graduation rates, and evaluating the leadership. (The closings are being challenged by the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.) All the schools being shut down have received a grade of D or F in the last round of evaluations.
After-school programs, on the other hand, are suffering from a tightening budget. With more than $170 million in cuts in children’s services cuts proposed in the 2013 budget, more than half of the after-school programs in the city will end. Now many children will have to go straight home and wait for their parents to arrive from a long day of work, in the hopes that they can help.
But in areas like West Farms it’s never that simple, says after-school advocate Angela Johnson. “A lot of these parents want to be more involved but either they have to work all the time or they just aren’t capable of helping, so it comes down to programs like these and people like us to give these kids a chance.”
Johnson’s analysis is hard to contest, “These kids have it hard enough living in this neighborhood,” she says. “It’s our responsibility as adults to make sure they have every chance to make it out.”