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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mapping Resources

Last year, the city began an aggressive program to offer free breakfast and lunch in housing projects, libraries, day camps and church groups. Only about one-fifth of the children who get free school meals during the academic year nationwide also get access to the summer meals.

This map, created by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger allows anyone to find the closest location to them, in any of the five Boroughs.

You can read more about it here.

Changing Community Service

Last Friday was a little bit different than most Fridays on "Crew 1" - Bronx Community Solutions' own community service crew. On any typical day, we work with 10-20 clients. Our Coordinator of Community service manages multiple projects (along with two Crew Supervisors and the use of a passenger van and clean-up supplies): painting over graffiti in partnership with the NYPD, Community Boards, Business Improvement Districts, and local residents; cleaning up around the 161st Street area near the Criminal Court; sorting donated supplies at Worldvision's Bronx Storehouse; or working closely with the Department of Sanitation to address high priority conditions like step streets.

This day we would be helping out Catholic Charities with a major renovation of their Bronx Thriftstore. We were partnering with Rebuilding Together NYC to do a big volunteer day at their temporary location. Rebuilding Together is helping Catholic Charities completely renovate their permanent location in an important commercial area in the Bronx known as "The Hub." When the construction is completed, store designers from Macy's will lay out the retail space, and there will be conference and office space for community meetings, job training, and case managers. When Matt Lang, from Rebuilding Together, describes the project he says: "The new store will be really nice. Just because you don't have a lot of money, doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to shop in a nice environment."

During our intake process, we picked about 20-30 clients, after explaining what the project would be and giving them the option to sign up for a special project instead of our regular community service options. Our highly experienced intake staff made sure to pick clients with a good attitude who wanted to do something positive for their community service, and who were functional, domiciled and not facing serious health, substance abuse, mental health or anger management issues.

Even though our client's were performing mandatory community service, they were treated like regular volunteers, Bronx residents and community members. We started the day by explaining the goals of the project, signing in, and handing out tee-shirts. Once we began, everyone got involved and worked hard.

We were sorting and moving boxes, taking them out to the street and loading them into trucks. Everyone pitched in - many people helped organize and working together in groups got a lot done quickly and efficiently. I was especially happy to observe that one young man I thought might give us an attitude problem positioned himself right in the middle of the job in an organizing everything that was being loaded onto the truck. After we all shared pizza and soda for lunch, we finished up the work (and made one more visit the next day to finish up). Some of our clients requested information about other ways to get involved volunteering with Rebuilding Together or Catholic Charities.

I was happy to deliver lots of valuable labor to a community-based organization that's doing valuable work in the Bronx, and I was also happy to deliver a great, meaningful day of community service to our clients.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Working Together

From Deputy Director Maria Almonte

Yesterday I went to the NYPD Police Academy where I spent most of the day at a bi-annual taskforce on human trafficking. I attended with Angela Tolosa and Danielle Stockweather from our sister project, the Midtown Community Court.

The meeting was hosted by the bureau chief of the Vice Enforcement Division and in attendance were reps from Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx District Attorney's offices, the FBI, the New York State Attorney General and several community-based organizations like NYANA, Safe Horizon and GEMS.

There were updates on several cases, some of which were high profile cases involving under-age victims. It was also helpful to make contact with officers from the Bronx Vice squad. We've already worked closely with officers from the 41st and 48th precints, which are responsible for a large share of the prostitution arrests in the Bronx. Now, I hope we'll be able to coordinate with the Vice squad as well, who are also responsible for a large share of arrests, as we continue Bronx Community Solutions' initiative to address the issue of prostitution from all sides.


I'll always remember the first time it happened. I was interviewing a Bronx Community Solutions client, when I asked him whether he was employed, he said, "yes." "What is your job?" I asked. "Hustling," he replied. I asked him to elaborate, but he didn't want to volunteer any details. The idea has a definite air of illegality, and also implies a marginal, ad-hoc, or gray area quality.

A lot of Bronx Community Solutions clients are arrested for engaging in street-level sales and services: drugs, bootleg cigarettes and DVDs, or prostitution. All of this activity seems to fall on a spectrum. While some of it is obviously a serious crime and a serious social problem, other things seem simply scruffy, entrepenurial, and unlicensed.

As noted previously in this space, the issue presents a dilemma for government. Whenever the authorities seek to regulate and control informal urban behavior (including things like subway harassment), the risk exists that legal (even beneficial) behavior - the vending and services that are valuable part of the fabric of urban life - can also be restricted. I covered some recent developments in New York City regarding vending, greenmarkets, and other related issues here.

This article from the Norwood News, "Street Vendors Seek Legitimacy" by Stephen Baron, details the issues faced by street vendors in the Bronx, both licensed and unlicensed. And this story in the New York Times, "On Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Hustling for a Living" by James Angelos, profiles the daily lives of men on "Gasoline Alley" in words, and in photos.

THEY can be seen all along Atlantic Avenue — urban foragers of a sort, often bedraggled and always in search of a dollar. Many of them pump gas, but that is not the only hustle along the strip.

As one regular walks on sections of Atlantic, a traffic-clogged 10-mile road that runs from the Brooklyn waterfront to the Van Wyck Expressway in western Queens, he holds a bottle of glass cleaner and offers to wash car windows. Outside an auto parts store, street mechanics replace brake pads and tune transmissions, using tools hauled around in shopping carts....

Whatever the hustle, as the road travels east and the neighborhoods along it get poorer, the number of self-styled entrepreneurs only grows. At three stops along the way, they can be seen making a living, or at least a few extra dollars, off the endless rumble of cars and trucks that pummel the avenue’s rutted surface.
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The Hess Station

Beneath the peeling roof of a Hess station at Ralph Avenue in Stuyvesant Heights, framed on the north by the Brevoort housing project and on the south by Kingsborough Houses, are eight self-service pumps — and often just as many hustlers who come and go as their economic needs dictate. The competition can be fierce; one hustler, called DMX by other gas pumpers, described it as a battle between lions and tigers.

“Coming in! White truck!” DMX yelled one afternoon as he sought to claim an S.U.V. even before it turned into the station.

DMX, who was a station regular earlier this summer, is tall and wears a white headband. On his cheek is a three-inch scar, which he said was carved into his face during a fight in a prison upstate.

Like several other people interviewed for this article, many of whom lead cryptic lives, he declined to give his full name. But like nearly all the hustlers in the neighborhood, he has a nickname; he earned his because he can make his voice sound as raspy as that of the rapper of the same name.

Street etiquette dictates that once a hustler claims a car, he has exclusive rights to approach it. But sometimes this arrangement breaks down, as it did recently.

“Yo, why you step in front of me like that?” a gas pumper yelled to another as passengers in a sedan that had pulled up to a pump looked out the windows with stunned expressions.

Amid such competition, the gas pumpers sometimes turn to intimidation.

“I’m going to get every car that gets in here,” DMX announced loudly at one point. “I got to eat.

“If they get in my way, I’m going to cut somebody.”

Such hostility is in sharp contrast to the fawning attentiveness that DMX showers on customers. Smiling broadly, he refers to them as “my sister” or “my dude.” For babies in the back seats, it’s “Hey, cutie!”

“Once you get them smiling,” he said, “you don’t know what may come out of their pockets.”

When a woman in a cream-colored PT Cruiser pulled up to Pump No. 2, DMX gazed into her eyes. “You all right?” he asked. “You look good.” After pumping her gas, he received a dollar.

In this respect, the gas pumpers are not like the squeegee men, who were ubiquitous in the city during the 1980s and were notorious for intimidating drivers stopped at red lights by demanding payment for unsolicited services like wiping dirty rags across windshields. The hustlers of Atlantic Avenue approach customers with careful hesitance and usually accept rejection politely, often with a guilt-inducing “God bless you.”

The station’s employees work in a little white hut equipped with bulletproof windows. They have become accustomed to the gas pumpers, and have even developed a rapport with the regulars. The station manager, who said his name was Tony, said that he had called 311 a few times to shoo the hustlers away, but that he no longer bothered.

Police officers come and hand out tickets. But once they leave, the hustlers return. “It’s unstoppable,” Tony said.

An eight-hour workday can land a gas pumper about $50, and for the more energetic ones, maybe more. DMX, who lives nearby, said he spent his earnings on food and clothing. Other gas pumpers, some of whom have sketchier housing situations, say that they spend much of their earnings on crack cocaine. Flip, a stocky 43-year-old who habitually toots a silver harmonica, says he sometimes sleeps on the A train, keeping company with a four-inch glass pipe.

As Flip talked about his past one recent morning over a cheeseburger at a McDonald’s next to the gas station, his eyes watered as he described what he called “all the positive things I was supposed to be.” As a child, he enjoyed acting, and he said he was an extra on “The Magnificent Major,” a 1977 children’s special on NBC about a little girl who didn’t like to read.

Mr. B, a skinny, 29-year-old regular at the station, also has a crack habit, though he says he is not addicted. “Psychology of the mind,” he says, keeps him from being dependent on the drug. His glassy eyes roll slightly upward, and he often looks as if he is trying to suppress a grin. He likes to mention his grandmother. “Today is my grandmother’s 90th birthday,” he told two customers, each on a different day. “I’m going to see her later.”

Both Flip and Mr. B take 30-minute breaks, drifting away from the station and returning dazed and sometimes a little paranoid. When Flip returned from one such break, he said, “I went to go see Oz.” In fact, he had made his way to Kingsborough Houses, where, he said, he took the elevator to the fifth floor of a building, puffed on his glass pipe and then rode back down.

The same afternoon, Mr. B left the station and began walking along Atlantic Avenue toward the sunset, passing the weeds that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. “He won’t be back for a long time,” Flip said with a laugh.

But Mr. B returned about an hour later. He stood silently next to Pump No. 8, looking lost in a tangle of dismal thoughts. Asked where he had gone, Mr. B flashed his famous grin and replied, “Eat, eat, eat, eat.”


While the gas pumpers rely on a mixture of intimidation, charm and charity to make a living, other Atlantic Avenue hustlers sell their automotive skills.

Outside an AutoZone store near Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, several street mechanics work under cars parked on the side of the road, installing parts purchased by the store’s customers.

On a hot spring day, a 36-year-old street mechanic named Matthew Joseph lay precariously on the baking asphalt of Atlantic Avenue, near three lanes of westbound traffic that whizzed by as he jacked up the left front side of a Hyundai sedan. Mr. Joseph wore a black do-rag and a white tank top that exposed his muscular arms. After a few years of working on the side of the road, he is used to the traffic being only a few feet away.

Pulling off the tire, Mr. Joseph released a cloud of dust that looked orange in the sunlight, and began replacing the car’s brake pads. Doing this sort of work, he usually earns about $150 a day, which helps him pay the $950 monthly rent for his one-bedroom apartment nearby. For this job, he charged the car’s owner $40, about half what a garage would charge, he said.

Mr. Joseph is enthusiastic about fixing cars, and he likes to explain automotive problems to his customers, though his explanations are sometimes dizzying in their complexity.

“You have to see if your injector has an injector control module,” he told a driver in a red minivan that afternoon. “If your injector has an injector control module, then you check to see if the control module for the injector maybe isn’t firing.”
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The Gasoline HustleSlide Show
The Gasoline Hustle

“I feel you,” the driver replied, though he looked confused.

Later that day, Mr. Joseph sat in the passenger seat of a blue Jeep, the brakes of which he had just replaced. The driver sped up and down Atlantic Avenue, testing the work.

“The front brakes is good,” Mr. Joseph announced. “Beautiful. Beautiful delay. Hard and sturdy.”

Mr. Joseph offered his cellphone number to the car owner in case there were any problems. “You could call me, too, all right,” he said. “You’d be driving, even at nighttime, call me. I’m official.”

Walter Malone also works near the AutoZone. He is in the auto body repair business, which he conducts on the sidewalk outside an old muffler garage. In addition, he lives in the garage, sleeping on a makeshift bed of mats and cushions protected from leaks in the roof by tarps. Mr. Malone, who often wears a red hard hat and silver chains around his neck, is deaf and speaks only in grunts.

One afternoon, a man who identified himself as Broadway pulled up to the garage in a rusty green pickup. Mr. Malone examined the truck carefully.

He pointed to the dented hood, making a hammering motion with his large hands, indicating that he would pound the dent out. He walked around the truck, making a “bah” sound when he found a problem and pantomiming how he would fix it. After the inspection, Mr. Malone rubbed together his thumb and index finger to indicate that this job would be costly. Using pen and paper, the two men eventually agreed to a price of $300. Broadway promised to bring back the pickup the next morning.

As it turned out, Broadway did not return. But before driving off, he explained that he had bought the truck for $200, and he planned to use it for, among other things, picking up mattresses left on the street and delivering them to a refurbishing business that would pay him $15 for each one.

“Everybody’s got a hustle,” Broadway said. “You can make a dollar in this here New York City.”


The gas pumping hustle at a Mobil station at Bedford Avenue, near the Bedford-Atlantic Armory and its homeless shelter, is a lot less cutthroat than the one at the Hess station a mile and half to the east. One day not long ago, a student from the nearby Science Skills Center High School named John Greene could be seen wandering among the station’s 16 pumps after school. John, who was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, was craving a snack of nachos, but first he needed to raise the money.

“Can I pump your gas for you?” he asked over and over.

A large man who calls himself Big Earl pulled up to Pump No. 13 in a minivan that blared R & B music. “It’s cool,” Big Earl said in response to the boy’s offer. John filled the tank with regular, and Big Earl handed him a fistful of change, nearly $2.

“Children are our resources,” Big Earl said. “If we don’t take care of our resources, we don’t take care of our future.”

Once John had collected $4, enough for two servings of nachos, he headed for the nachos machine in the station’s convenience store. “It’s my favorite,” he said as he pressed the buttons that released chili and cheese from the plastic tubes of the dispenser. Two days later, he said, he would be back for more.

A more familiar face at the Mobil station belongs to a skinny and mysterious man with a graying beard who has been pumping gas and acting as the convenience store’s de facto doorman for five years. Vishal Khosla, the station’s manager, calls the man “Green” — no relation to the student John Greene — and says he likes having him around because he keeps an eye out for thieves and troublemakers.

Most days, Green arrives at the station at 7 a.m. He earns more than enough to pay his $10 daily rent for a room nearby, he said. When the weather gets too hot, he quits early, and is happy to be able to come and go as he pleases.

“I be good here,” he said one afternoon, his linen polka-dot shirt rippling in the warm breeze. “I don’t try to get over on anybody. Everybody gets to like me because I do good.”

As he spoke, he opened the door for customers, receiving a dollar from one.

“If you do good,” he said, “you shall prosper.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

Becoming a Better Dad

One man’s pledge to end the cycle of distant parenting

"How are you going to nurture your child if you're not nurturing yourself?"

From the Midtown Community Court's Dads United for Parenting (D-UP) program...

“This is really serious, what’s happening with men who are fathers is a crisis,” comments Eddy James, a recent graduate of the D-UP program. “Dads are accepting their distant behavior as normal, but it must be examined and prevented because it trickles down to create other social ills.” Throughout the six-week program, Eddy worked with other adult non-custodial fathers four days a week engaging in fatherhood oriented services including job training, financial planning, parent skills training, and planned family activities. D-UP targets key parental behaviors and beliefs, and the structure and content helps fathers progress towards the goals of financially and emotionally supporting their children.

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Eddy was 24- years-old when he found out that he and his girlfriend were going to have a baby. Despite difficulty with family and friends, they tried to stay together for their new daughter, Faith. But eventually the strain from his girlfriend’s disciplinary parents - a term he references from D-UP’s Nurturing Fathers curriculum - became overwhelming and around the time Faith was 3-years-old her parents found themselves in a torturous relationship and living in the shelter system.

Faith and her mother secured a supportive housing unit, but because of the increasingly tumultuous relationship between Eddy and Faith’s mother, he found himself displaced from their residence and a victim of the biased shelter system whose structure places the child with their mother.

By the time Eddy entered the single men’s shelter, he wore only 130 lbs. on his 6ft. frame and came to the striking realiztion that “I wasn’t seeing myself.” Amid this discovery, Eddy chose to “black out” on Faith and her mother to get a handle on his emotions. But he was still mired in the murky depths of his anger with Faith’s mother, until another resident at the men’s shelter made him realize that his misdirected focus was prohibiting him from doing what was important – rebuilding his life for his daughter.

Equipped with a newfound self-awareness, Eddy was forced to learn about public assistance as he himself navigated the daunting system and subsequently helped others through the process. “Through doing you receive,” he recalls. Meanwhile, Eddy began writing poetry as a catharsis and sought work in social services to help others. “I felt lighter,” he says.

Restored to health – physically and emotionally – Eddy was granted joint custody in family court. Through his Saturday visitation schedule, Eddy and Faith reuinted and maximized their time together by exploring facets of New York City. Eventually Eddy escaped the shelter system and obtained his own apartment. But even with his successes, Eddy reports that the imbalance with Faith’s mother persisted: She would sabatoge his scheduled visits with Faith while Eddy struggled to maintain a relationship with his daughter. After a long battle with Faith’s mother, Eddy’s situation culminated when he found himself entangled in the family court system, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Eddy, now a 35-year-old producer and editor, was referred to D-UP by the court and naturally felt resistent to the idea of someone questioning his parenting skills. Upon being referred to the program Eddy recalls thinking, “I don’t need this, I’m a good dad.” But his resistence turned to curiosity, and Eddy’s recalcitrance eventually morphed into active participation and group leadership.

“This is how grown men get down,” Eddy says. “How are you going to nurture your child if you’re not nurturing yourself? There are so many external expectations
placed on us, but the program makes you reflect internally. And men don’t really talk in a sense of their feelings, but D-UP get’s you to be solid and to talk.” Because of the mutual trust and bond that was formed between the men during the six-weeks, Eddy felt that “It was okay to cry.”

Throughout the Nurturing Fathers curriculum, Eddy learned to reflect on his father’s parenting style, and identify similar traits in his own. “I began to recognize my distant style in my father’s, and decided that I didn’t want to be like that with my daughter,” Eddy says. “Before, maybe none of us thought we needed the program, and that being a non-emotional man is normal, but we can benefit from tweaking our fathering style and examining ourselves and the decisions we have made. And the planned family activities help dads realize other things they can do with their kids.”

In August 2008, Eddy graduated from D-UP with a proud supporter by his side – his daughter Faith. As a result of the program, Eddy admits that the communication has improved because he is listening better, explaining more and being patient with her. “I’m showing more of myself to her,” declares Eddy.

Still, Eddy wants to give back to his community and cease the cycle of distant parenting. After participating in D-UP, Eddy is more cognizant of absent young fathers in his neighborhood, and can predict the looming cycle that they are about to embark on. “It’s always the same story: new baby, mama drama and then, court case.” And Eddy knows, this will only result in more removed dads who perpetuate distant parenting. Eddy hopes to volunteer for a fathering program in his own neighborhood so he can help other dads like him, transcend the viscious cycle and become better dads.