Manhattan Valley in Danger of Being Split Into Three

By Tenzin Shakya for Northattan

New proposed lines split Manhattan Valley among three districts – 7, 8 and 9 – and many residents are unhappy, saying it divides their longstanding community and threatens minority representation.

“Our little piece of Manhattan, Manhattan Valley, succeeded in curtailing high-rise development,” Blanca Vasquez, a resident of Manhattan Valley for more than 30 years, said. “And now we get lines that destroy us.”

Despite the grievances, the commission will submit the proposed map to the City Council for final voting.

“There was a challenge trying to keep Manhattan Valley together into one,” said Carl Hum, the executive director of the districting commission, at the last public meeting on Nov. 15. “While we tried to put it into two districts, it really became difficult. Unfortunately, the way that the geography works, and the population concentration, won’t allow us to have Manhattan Valley in a single district.”

Representatives of other affected communities argued that the process of redistricting is actually fracturing communities and causing vote dilution, the division of racial or ethnic minorities, which reduces their chances of influencing legislation at large.

“Redistricting, and the district lines that come out of redistricting is what sets a stage for our local democracy,” James Hong, from the Asian American Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, said. “Whether democracy works for communities that are local, especially ethnic communities, and whether the democratic system works for them and can represent them, is determined by district lines.”

At a public hearing last month, some community representatives raised concerns over Manhattan Valley’s being split up into three districts. Locals reminded officials of the past challenges they’ve faced in an attempt to keep the community together.

“Manhattan Valley has struggled for many years as a primarily minority immigrant neighborhood from the time that my grandmother came in 1911 from Ireland,” Gloria Kerstein, president of the Duke Ellington Boulevard Neighborhood Association in Manhattan Valley, said. “To break the spine of Manhattan Valley does not address the struggle that we had to bring our neighborhood out of crack, make it a safe and good neighborhood.”

Some critics proposed an alternative map, the Unity Map, which they said, “reflects New York City’s changing demographics and protects the voting rights of Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.”

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, representing District 8, advocated for the Unity Map. She said, “I urge the Commission to use the Unity Map as a basis for reconfiguring Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, as a way of preserving communities of interest, and minimizing the splitting up of our city’s neighborhoods.”

East Harlem resident Elsie Encarnacion said, “Looking at the map I see broken-up community after broken-up community with High Bridge being cut into three council districts, East Harlem divided by two, Manhattan Valley split into three and no one kept whole.” She said, “As commission members, you all have a responsibility to provide voters with fair and effective representation.”

The commission did adopt some of the proposed district lines from the Unity Map in what they said was an attempt to keep communities together. Inwood, for example, is now in a single district.


Dickens Plan Is a Partial Success for District 9

By Xiaoran Liu and Stuart Sia for Northattan

District 9 could be in for a drastic change. New proposed maps result in the district’s losing Morningside Heights and gaining parts of Manhattan Valley and Manhattanville. For Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who currently represents District 9 and who proposed the Upper Manhattan Empowerment District Plan (the UMED Plan), this is a half-success.

“We know that districting will affect the future of our communities for the next decade,” Dickens said at the second public hearing on Oct. 4. She called the UMED plan “simple, balanced and fair,” because it excluded Morningside Heights from District 9 and included parts of Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights, in contrast to the preliminary map.

“I agree Amsterdam Avenue above 125th Street to be the important boundary between District 7 and 9, as it sort of separates neighborhoods,” Mary Goldstein, who has lived between Amsterdam Avenue and Convent Avenue for about 30 years, said. “I preferred to be with the district of Central Harlem, rather than the west side of Amsterdam, as I feel close.”The revised plan adopted part of the UMED plan. One example is Amsterdam Avenue between 130th and 141th streets, which would become the boundary of District 7 and 9.

Both the revised plan and the UMED plan include the area where Goldstein lives in District 9 with Central Harlem, which is a change from the current district map.

“The UMED plan is to preserve the historical Central Harlem, the traditional district of African-Americans,” said Lermond Mayes, the chief staff of District 9 legislative office, who worked with Dickens on the UMED plan. “Our goal is to keep those lines as they were.”

Carl Hum, executive director of the commission, said at the second round of public hearings that the UMED plan “would, essentially, extend the western boundaries of District 9 to Amsterdam Avenue. Of course, this creates a larger district with regard to District 9, but all in the name of trying to create a coalition district of multiple ethnic groups within District 7.”

With demographics of the city ever evolving, the redrawing of lines to reflect population changes can intentionally or unintentionally bring up the uncomfortable discussion of racial and ethnic demarcation.

“It’s about ethnic groups, about the representations,” Mayes said. “Under UMED plan, District 7 accommodates Dominican voters; District 8 accommodates Puerto Rican voters and we accommodate African Americans.”

Now, under the revised plan, black voters will have the ability to elect candidates of their choice in District 9, according to a press release by the New York City Districting Commission.

The chairman of the districting commission, Benito Romano, said they heard residents’ concerns and believed the revised plan reflected much of what was shared with the commission.

For the UMED plan, another big success is that the ceding of Morningside Heights to District 7. Mayes said he has heard from residents by phone and email that “they want to be in District 7. It’s all about who represents them.”

Some residents in Morningside Heights said they want a united area. Kevin Abrams, who lives near Columbia University, said: “We are now split into three districts – 7, 8 and 9. By the preliminary draft map, we are still split in two districts.” He said he has been watching the redistricting process since August. “We want to have one representative for this area after all these years’ separation.”

Abrams said he was so happy that the revised plan finally heard residents’ voices and gave them a united Morningside Heights in District 7.

The ceding of Morningside Heights to District 7 simultaneously makes District 9 more black and District 7 more white. According to 2010 Census data, Morningside had  6,200 blacks and 36,000 whites.

Subway Employee is Victim of Armed Robberies Plaguing Brooklyn Businesses

By Reena Diamante for NY City Lens

The Subway restaurant on 216 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is among several businesses a recurring robber has hit. The suspect is wanted in connected with 12 armed robberies, mostly in the northwest Brooklyn area.

Sazzi Islam, 24, is one Subway restaurant employee in Brooklyn who seems to take the wrong shifts at the wrong time. Within the two and a half years he has been working at one outpost in the Cobble Hill neighborhood, he has been the victim of three armed robberies, two of which took place in the same week, just before and after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City.

On the Sunday before the hurricane, Islam said he was standing behind the sandwich counter with a fellow employee, when the suspect walked into the restaurant at about 3 p.m. Islam said he was wearing a black leather jacket and jeans.

“He said, ‘Can you do me a little favor and stand over there?’” Islam said. “He took out the gun and pointed the gun. We let him take all the money.”

On the following Friday at 8 p.m., Islam said the same suspect returned, but this time, wore a New York Yankees fitted cap while he robbed the restaurant. This time, he didn’t have to say anything. On both occasions, there were no customers in the restaurant, he said.

Police said the suspect is a black male, approximately 40 to 50 years old, between 5-feet-10 to 6-feet tall and weighs about 180 pounds with black hair and browns eyes.
Though the New York Police Department reported that one week after Hurricane Sandy overall crime went down 31 percent from the same week the year before, the Subway restaurant on 216 Atlantic Avenue is not the only place the suspect has hit.

The man is wanted in connection with 12 robberies between October 17 and November 5, police said. All but one robbery in the Upper East Side took place at businesses in northwest Brooklyn. There were no reported injuries at all of them, and the suspect has yet to be apprehended.

Among the other places was an ice cream parlor called the Blue Marble Ice Cream Restaurant around the corner from the Subway on Court Street and a frozen yogurt parlor called Tasti-D-Lite Restaurant on 7 Avenue, police said. The suspect also robbed Tasti-D-Lite twice and other sandwich shops in the area, which might have some employees of these businesses feeling worried.

“I don’t feel that comfortable now here,” Islam said.

The Subway restaurant is part of the 84th police precinct, and according to its crime statistics there were 145 robberies in 2011. By November 4, the reported number has already increased to 152. Still, it remains a fraction of total citywide robberies.

The employees at Blue Marble Ice Cream Restaurant declined to comment on its recent incident. Tucked between a sandwich shop and a toy store, the ice cream parlor is among many small and cozy stores in the area. But, Zoey Sachs, the store manager of Cobblestone Foods across the street, said most shops visibly have multiple employees in them. In Cobblestone Foods, Sachs was with other employees who ran the register and cooked food in the kitchen.

“There’s not a lot of stores with one person in it. That might be the only place. He’s young, he’s by himself,” she said, referring to the ice cream parlor employee who was present at the time of the robbery. “It’s a small store.”

Despite the crime numbers, several families and young people walk down Court Street and other streets around the Cobble Hill neighborhood. A string of robberies almost seems surprising.

“I think that’s what makes it a good area to go [rob],” Sach said. “Everyone doesn’t expect it.”

After three robberies at gunpoint by two different men, uncertainty and heightened fear, Islam said he is considering leaving the Subway in Cobble Hill if he finds another job.

“I might quit the job after one month or two months,” he said. “Because, here it always happened, the robberies. It’s dangerous.”

Sandy Teaches Lessons to 140-Year-Old Shelter

By Caroline Chen for the bridge

One of New York’s oldest shelters, hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, found itself almost in need of rescue last week. But the shelter’s experience in the storm has prompted it to extend its reach across the city, far beyond its usual audience.

The New York Rescue Mission, a homeless men’s shelter on 90 Lafayette St. in lower Manhattan, was founded in in 1872. Last Monday, when the storm hit, it lost power for the first time in its history.

But the mission has 30 residents in its recovery program and takes in an additional 40 men overnight every day. The staff couldn’t turn everyone out.

“I said, let’s get out our generator,” said Craig Mayes, executive director, who started working with the mission four months ago.

He was told that the mission didn’t have one. “I probably should have asked that question a few days before,” said Mayes.

The urgent need to keep the shelter running broke down the barriers between the shelter’s staff and residents.

One of the shelter’s residents, T.J. Hadley, wired the car battery from the mission’s van to a headlamp, giving the staff and residents 40 minutes of light to work.

“The most important thing was to keep the mission running,” said Hadley. “We needed to create a sense of normalcy so that the guests coming in would feel secure.”

As people seeking shelter turned up at the mission’s door, the shelter’s long-term residents and staff pitched in together to cook meals. The mission’s chapel and cafeteria were turned into temporary dormitories to house the extra clients.

Over the next few days, with the help of connections made through social media, the mission received three generators from around the city. However, they were still not enough to power the shelter’s walk-in freezers or run the pumps for the sewage system, which was located in the basement of the building.

If the sewage system overflowed, the shelter would have to shut down. Staff and residents had to take turns with the unpleasant task of checking the tank to make sure there was still space. Meanwhile, more than 200 people came to the shelter’s door, looking for food and supplies.

The mission kept the cafeteria running throughout the storm, even without power. Caroline Chen | The Bridge

A week later, even though the shelter has just returned to some semblance of normalcy, it is already paying forward the help it received. Mayes brought a van full of food and two of the generators to Staten Island on Tuesday, and the shelter brought hundreds of sandwiches to areas in the Lower East Side that still do not have heat or hot water.

Offering assistance beyond its immediate neighborhood is something that the shelter has rarely done in its long history.

“I always said, we can’t reach out into the wider community so much, because we are already so busy with people right around our door,” said Joe Little, the shelter’s public relations director.

But the storm acted as a catalyst for the organization to push out further than it ever had before, and it now hopes to continue extending its service across the city, said Little.

Though the mission now has power, it continues to receive large donations of food and supplies from all around the city. So it has taken on the role of distributor, getting in touch with other shelters around the city to find out who is in need. It is also seeking out residents and homeless living in temporary shelters around the city to invite them to the mission’s annual Thanksgiving dinner.

As another storm approaches New York City on Wednesday, the mission is unfazed, even though the staff knows it will bring more people to the door.

Even if the shelter loses power again, the staff and residents are confident that they can handle it.

“We know what we have to do now, and we’re just going to do it that much quicker,” said Hadley.

Runners help out residents after race cancelation

By Angela Bao Beibei for The Metropolitan Monitor

For some of them, it was not how they originally pictured spending this particular Sunday morning. They shoveled muck and swept away sand. They raked garbage and debris into the path of bulldozers. They carried away saturated furniture. And they walked up and down city streets distributing bags of cleaning agents, paper towels, tools, food and hot coffee.

Hundreds of would-be marathoners descended on parts of Staten Island that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy on Sunday morning to help residents recover. With the New York City Marathon officially cancelled as of Friday afternoon, racers from around the city and the world channeled their frustration and disappointment into a relief effort quickly cobbled together through social media. Some even sported their racing tights and numbered bibs.

Samantha Weinberg, a runner from New Jersey, was on the subway on Friday evening when her mother texted the news.

“I was devastated, to be honest,” she said. She’d been hoping that New Yorkers would rally around the event. “I just think the marathon could have been an opportunity to not only bring awareness to this situation here, but also to bring supplies.”

Samantha Weinberg, a marathon runner from New Jersey, tosses a flood-damaged carriage from a Staten Island home onto a garbage heap during relief work on Sunday. (Whitney Light/Metropolitan Monitor)

The New York Road Runners, which organizes the annual marathon, asked each of the approximate 40,000 registered runners to give $26.20 to match the $1 million donation the organization pledged for hurricane relief efforts.

But the focus on Sunday was on manpower. By noon, Weinberg had run the eight miles from the Staten Island ferry terminal to Tarlton Avenue on the southeast edge of the borough to help distribute supplies and haul hundreds of pounds of trash into the path of Department of Sanitation bulldozers.

Weinberg heard about the relief effort on Facebook Friday evening. A friend had posted a link to a recently formed group called New York Runners in Support of Staten Island. She followed the directions to show up at the ferry. She was not alone.

“I give these people a lot of credit,” said John Izzo, from the stoop of his home on Fox Beach Avenue. Nearby, runners joined neighbors, church groups and other volunteers in moving home to home to clear flood debris that was dumped into yards. Floodwaters here rose to fill entire first floors of homes, lifting some off their foundations. Red and yellow signs designating homes as restricted or caution areas marked nearly every door.

If the marathon had gone on, Izzo said, it would have been a slap in the face to New Yorkers. “The hotels were booked with all these runners and our people are out here suffering. You hear people crying and screaming at night. Nobody cared.”

Except that some marathoners agreed with him.

“We couldn’t believe the mayor and the organization had decided they would go through with it,” said Eileen Vega-Lamboy, a member of New York Road Runners from West New York, N.J. “The amount of food and water they bring to the runners—it’s such a huge use of resources. And three miles away [from the start line] these families are starving!”

After her own apartment building was flooded, she and three family members decided on Thursday that they would boycott the marathon and organize a relief effort via Facebook and Twitter instead.

“We had to drive an hour and a half to find some food at an Ihop and it was a two-hour wait,” she said. “Once we regained power and saw the scene out in Staten Island we said, ‘Oh my god, we had it easy!’”

By Saturday, Vega-Lamboy said, friends and strangers had responded to the boycott and call for relief with enough clothing, food and clean-up supplies to fill a truck. She arrived early Sunday morning at a relief station on the corner of Guyon Avenue and Mill Road before taking a distribution route.

Still, for many would-be runners the palpable energy and speed of Sunday’s relief effort—volunteers on Tarlton Avenue filled a dumpster with garbage in under five minutes—couldn’t erase the sting of the marathon cancellation.

Frida Valdimarsson and Markus Foss, both from Norway, arrived in New York on Thursday to run the marathon for the Norwegian charity Aktiv Against Cancer. Their party of 32 runners plus their partners also joined the Staten Island relief effort. Yet the two were disappointed, they said, and even a little more so given it wasn’t obvious their help was needed.

“It feels like there’re enough people here already,” said Valdimarsson, walking back toward the railroad station. “We asked if we could help but many people said, ‘We’re fine.’ Maybe we could have been deployed elsewhere.”

The two planned to take a run through Central Park before they head back home on Wednesday.

While in their hearts volunteers may have been wishing for today’s scheduled race, there was no question among residents that the runners had made good.

“People are not even home and they’re cleaning the house for them,” said Izzo, pointing to evacuated houses across the street. “It’s nice to see.”

With Everything in Ruins, A Family in Staten Island Clings to Hope

By Reena Diamante for NY City Lens

On Topping Street in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island an uprooted tree crushes a small home, units away from Joseph Ingenito’s house during Hurricane Sandy. (Evan Burgos/NY City Lens)

For most families in New York, the living room is the heart of a home. For the Ingenitos, who have lived in their house on Topping Street, a few hundred feet from New Dorp beach on the east side of Staten Island, it certainly was. But, the Ingenitos’ living room has lost its cozy feeling. The room, along with the rest of the first floor of the house they have lived in for the past 20 years, now feels cold and hallow.

The leather couches and reclining chair that used to be here are gone.  Sand and seawater ruined the once shiny hardwood floors and the 52-inch television set that graced the living room is no longer functional. A stack of old family portraits, some broken, lay piled on a wooden chair, a bundle of soaked clothes sit in the linen closet. Not much is left.

“Everything’s ruined,” said Joseph Ingenito, who lives here with his wife, two sons in their young twenties, and his 16-year old daughter. “The water flooded my house. I had like 12 to 13 feet from the basement to the top floor.”

The Ingenitos’ residence is one of the many flood-ravaged homes in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island. Down the block, a huge, uprooted tree crushed a small home and on the corner, another house looks like it imploded, leaving only shattered remains. Across the street, the smell from the insulation piled on the curb makes it hard to breathe.

All around the neighborhood, debris and damaged belongings fill the streets, which now look like dirt roads. Trucks and bulldozers worked to remove it all on Sunday. And sanitation workers have already taken away most of the ruined items of the Ingenito’s home.

From the outside, the family’s home does not seem nearly as damaged as some of the other homes on the rest of the block. It is tucked behind a tall white fence that remains intact. An American and Italian flag still wave on the post.

The real damage is what cannot be seen from the street. Walking through the first floor, only sports pennants, photographs and concert posters remain in the boys’ bedrooms.

“My sons lost everything,” said Ingenito. “Their beds are gone, all their clothes.” He added that everything they were wearing on Sunday were clothes given to them from others. “Thank God my daughter and my wife’s rooms are on the second floor,” he said. “The upstairs, [it’s] the only thing we got left.”

Although the family was told to evacuate, Ingenito said he and one of his sons stayed. After living near the Staten Island coast for more than two decades, he said his family had experienced storms before, such as Hurricane Irene last August, but the effects of Hurricane Sandy shocked them.

“We didn’t think it was going to be anything like this,” he said. “Last time we got hit, it went up. [But] I only had basement water.”

Ingenito and his son abandoned their home when they quickly realized how fast the water was rising. He held up his hand just under his waist to show how high the water got.

“I walked out here, checked, looked down the block to see if there was water. There was no water,” he said. “Five minutes later I came back out and the water was at my gate coming up the front steps. That’s how quick it hit us.”

Ingenito said he and his son practically swam to escape in their truck, but they still managed to drive inland to stay in his sister’s house.

He pointed to a neighbor’s yellow house across the street. Blended dirt and water revealed a faint line on the perimeter of the home.

“You see the water mark on the house? It was over this fence. That’s six feet, right here,” Ingenito said. “We would have been submerged right now.”

Ingenito’s wife, Debra, wears a mask to cover her mouth and nose, because she has an autoimmune disease. She said she knows really should not be around New Dorp, but she said she grew up just five blocks away on Neptune Street.

“Never did we ever get water down there and they got water,” she said. “I’ve never ever seen anything like this, ever in my life. It’s crazy.”

The Ingenitos consider their neighbors, family. She said people in their community even called her husband, “Papa Joe.”

“Just seeing the devastation when I went in the house, I mean I didn’t even cry.  I was just like dazed,” Debra Ingenito said. “Then, as I went to see my other neighbors’ places, I broke down.”

Her husband said food and clothes donations have helped the family cope with the disaster. Along a nearby Cedar Grove Avenue, members from around the community have volunteered their time providing supplies to their neighbors. The American Red Cross, other volunteer organizations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were stationed at New Dorp High School, a few blocks away.

“Everybody sticks together. Everybody was helping each other. Still are,” he said. “People from out of town are coming to help. I had people I didn’t’ even know asked me yesterday to help me bring out furniture. It was an Irish gentleman from Queens. It was beautiful they came out of nowhere. They were like sent from God.”

The basement is still flooded and inaccessible, said Ingenito, and the family’s morale is still low. They hope insurance will cover the damage.  But even with the devestation, he insists they will not leave New Dorp.

“We got hit very hard,” he said. “But I’m not moving. I am rebuilding and I’m staying. We’ll buy a rowboat and leave it in the yard. That’s the truth.”

A week after the storm, the Ingenitos feel grateful that they are still alive and safe.

“You know what the main and important thing is that my family is safe and my pets are safe and you know what you see is just material,” Debra Ingenito said. “You could just fix up. Do what you got to do and move on with your life. You can’t get yourself upset over you know material things, because your life is more important.”

But, even Hurricane Sandy could not dampen one family tradition: hanging a special Thanksgiving pennant, a photograph of one of the family’s Boxer dogs, in front of the house. Her husband hung up the flag Sunday morning.

“I still hung up my Thanksgiving flag,” said Ingenito. “No matter what, because we’ve had Thanksgiving every year at my home but this year.”

Scientists Say Sandy May Have Had Climate Change Help

By Stuart Sia for Northattan

Some scientists say that climate change may have been part of the cause of Hurricane Sandy’s strength and breadth.

Atmospheric scientist Anthony Barnston, who studies seasonal climate patterns at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said, “Climate change affects all weather and climate to a slight degree.” The change could have contributed to particular aspects of the storm, “its exact path, its strength and its huge radius of influence,” but it’s unlikely the storm is to blame for anything beyond that.

Environmental scientist Jullinar Cooper works with the NYC Department of Transportation and spent Oct. 30 volunteering at a local evacuation center in Washington Heights. Flooding in Lower Manhattan prevented her from getting to work, but she said Hurricane Sandy has been a long time coming and that environmental scientists have been preparing for it for about 20 to 30 years.

“I’ve been prepared for this for about 10 years knowing that this type of storm was going to impact New York City,“ she said.

The East River overflowed late on Monday, Oct. 29, night sending contaminated water through East Harlem and parts of the Upper East Side. One resident reportedly found fish in her car.  Yet the northwestern part of Manhattan got through the storm relatively unscathed. The high winds damaged trees, but flooding did not reach the northernmost parts of Manhattan.

Barnston said that Lower Manhattan has a much greater risk of flooding than Upper Manhattan. Bennett Park at Pinehurst Avenue and 183rd Street in Washington Heights is the highest point in Manhattan, at 265 feet above sea level. Most of Central Harlem falls between 20 and 30 feet. But parts of East Harlem drop as low as 5 feet, which is well below the 10-foot minimum elevation recommended by environmental scientists, making its flood risk far more comparable to that of lower Manhattan.

Cooper said that Washington Heights is where you most want to be in Manhattan during a storm. It lies on schist rock, which makes its foundation very stable. Most significantly, the high elevation, which falls between 100 and 200 feet above sea level, keeps Washington Heights safe from flooding. “It’s called the heights for a reason,” she said. “Environmentally, this area is extremely sound.”

Climate change is an easy scapegoat to blame for environmental disasters, but they’re not always viable claims.  For Sandy, “it contributed, but only by a few inches, while the full moon contributed by closer to a foot,” Barnston said.  “Since the storm surge was nearly 13 feet, we can say that sea level rise was only a small player.”

Barnston said, however, the impact of climate change should not be downplayed. “In 50 years, though, its cumulative effect will of course be much larger.”