El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 Provides Affordable Housing for Artists But Does Not Solve Affordable Housing Issue

Originally published October 9, 2014

Gothic gargoyles perch over decorative terra cotta. Copper-clad cupolas rest atop a steeply pitched roof. A delicately outlined central stoop rises from the middle of the H-shaped building. These are just a few of the unique, exterior details exhibited on the abandoned East Harlem PS 109 schoolhouse. Amidst these artifacts, a large blue plastic sign on a fence surrounding the building reads, “Affordable Housing For New Yorkers: For more information, visit http://www.nyc.gov/hpd or Dial 311.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson

Photo // Charlotte Gibson

With the help of Artspace, a Minnesota-based non-profit real estate developer dedicated to “artist-led community transformation,” in collaboration with El Barrio Operation Fightback, a local non-profit organization dedicated to the housing, economic, and social service needs of East Harlem, PS 109 transformed from an abandoned Gothic revival schoolhouse to an affordable housing unit for artists and their families in the matter of two years.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109’s mission is to serve the East Harlem community by creating permanently affordable housing for people and families committed to the arts in a neighborhood constantly threatened by gentrified real-estate developers. The project aims to preserve the essence of El Barrio by reserving at least 50% of the units for current residents of East Harlem.

“East Harlem is not like other communities. We are going through our own transition and PS 109 highlights the needs of the community. This is another piece of the puzzle. Another piece for making East Harlem a destination location for the Latino community. An opportunity to experience the flavor of El Barrio,” says El Barrio Operation Fightback Executive Director Gustavo Rosado.

The $52 million dollar conversion project broke ground two years ago on October 2, 2012 with the help of funding from Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, and other city, state and federal sources. According to Artspace Asset Manager Jennifer Marmol, over 15 New York City organizations and agencies help fund this project, including NYC HPD, NYC DCA, and NYC Council.

Currently, Artspace and El Barrio Operation Fightback are in the process of reviewing 52, 352 applications for the 90 unit apartment building, with the hopes of moving in residence by the end of November.

“Many of our applicants grew up here in East Harlem and we are trying to make our best effort for the people in the community,” says Marmol. “We will start with preference-based applicants, i.e. mobile, hearing, visual impaired, and then move on to community members and municipal employees. We have reserved 57 spots for these preferences.”

Dedicated to serving the needs of the community, El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 offers apartment units affordable to low and middle income community members based off of East Harlem’s total median income of $30,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rents will range from around $500 to $1,000 a mont depending on unit and family size and total income. From studio apartments to two bedrooms, each unit intends to be a “live/work” environment equipped with high ceilings, large windows, durable surfaces and wide doorways to accommodate and foster the creative process of its residents.

Since the project broke ground two years ago, Artspace and El Barrio Operation Fightback have received support from Community Board 11 and political advocates within the community.

“Artspace has to be commended because their vision isn’t just a gimmick, but they are committed to artists and their families,” says Community Board 11 District Manager Angel Mescain-Archer. “It’s the challenge that our community faces. We have a large population of folks whose median income is around $30,000 and they need somewhere to live, but they can’t afford their options.”

However, many local residents remain skeptical over the development of another affordable housing option.
For East Harlem native Brendan Marmolejos, applying to another affordable housing development wasn’t even an option because he knew he’d ultimately get rejected like the rest of the people.

Marmolejos says he doesn’t necessarily identify as an artist but he would have liked to be given the chance to apply and live in a place that’s affordable and not “the projects.”

“I am skeptical because with all of these affordable housing developments, there are always pitfalls and stupid reasons why you don’t get in, like if you don’t have gray hair or aren’t seriously living on the streets. I feel like Artspace is a small step in the right direction but right now with gentrification happening, all of the original culture and people are being pushed out of El Barrio,” says Marmolejos.

Only 0.2% of the applicants will receive housing in El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109. For many East Harlem residents, they will receive denial letters within the next few weeks from Artspace and will have to prepare for the next application process.

Those rejected from PS 109 will have the opportunity to be put on the apartment building’s wait list, in the hopes of receiving an opportunity in the future to live in the artist community.

Rosado says his organization is dedicated to the people of the community and they will continue to fight for affordable housing.

“We are trying to give the people some hope. If they missed the window on Artspace, another window will open,” says Rosado. “Right now, we are helping people apply for the Yomo Toro Apartments in East Harlem.”

The Yomo Toro Apartments offer 88 newly constructed units on 222 East 104th Street in East Harlem. El Barrio Operation Fightback and Rosado are currently working with individuals and families who meet the income and household size requirement to apply to this new housing unit.

Ultimately, Rosado believes that the efforts of affordable housing developments such as Artspace and Yomo Toro cannot compete against the private developers in the community.

“We are advanced as non-profit organizations and developers but we are not going to be able to stop private developers. The major difference is that we are not for profit and they are gaining something from their developments because they have the money,” explains Rosado.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 remains vacant until the end of November of this year.

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El Barrio Youth Marqueta Provides Troubled Youth With Jobs and Hopes for a Better Future

 

Originally published on September 18, 2014

Rumbling echoes of the subway surround the air, as customers from East Harlem and the surrounding neighborhoods swarm to four, wood-paneled fruit and vegetable stands underneath the Park Avenue elevated trains.

It is a warm, Thursday afternoon in August and the outside breeze disperses an aromatic, tangy scent from the layers of oranges and baskets of berries smushed together on one of the fruit stands. A young, Hispanic male sporting a backward baseball cap and a blue tee-shirt sits behind a small fold-up table with a locked cash box, a medium-sized scale, and a bundle of plastic bags scattered around the brightly colored, plastic floral tablecloth. He watches the customers as they peruse the produce and he offers to help a man put fresh, Gala apples into a plastic bag.

For 21-year-old Brooklyn native Adrian Rosado, El Barrio Youth Marqueta of East Harlem provides an opportunity every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday for him to drastically change and improve his life by building management skills, customer service skills, and life skills.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Adrian Rosado prepares vegetables for a local customer on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Adrian Rosado prepares vegetables for a local customer on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

“It’s more than just selling produce,” says Rosado, “My work as a cashier at the market since July has proved to my kids and my kids’ mom that I am trying to be somebody in my life.”

Rosado says his connection to “Litefeet” street dance crews and local gang members on the streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens during his adolescence and early adulthood led him to three different prison sentences at Rikers Island and Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn.

Charged with two non-violent cases of reckless behavior for dancing on subway trains with his dance crew and one violent case of reckless behavior for “being in the streets,” Rosado says, “the longest sentence I did was almost a year in the federal prison and that changed my life. I had to change after that.”

In the last year, Rosado joined Union Settlement in East Harlem, an on-the ground resource and advocate center for the needs of those in underserved communities. Through the Youth Services program, Rosado earned his GED and landed a job at El Barrio Youth Marqueta for the grand opening in July 2014.

The father of two children, ages four and two months, says, “I went from negative to positive. I find this [job] positive…I didn’t have my father in my life so I didn’t want that for my kids. I really love this job.”

Under the supervision of director of 25-year-old Santos Rivera, five young adult males from East Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx work and run El Barrio Youth Marqueta every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.

“We work with the youth so that way if they are at risk, they have a brighter future, a brighter aspect and outlook on the future; instead of feeling that they are trapped in the neighborhood so they can feel like they are gaining valuable skills,” says Rivera.

Modeled after Greenmarket Farmers Markets of New York, El Barrio Youth Marqueta opened on July 15, 2014 with the mission to provide fresh, high-quality regionally grown farm products to New York City communities and to “train young people from under-served areas of the city to operate a farm stand in the neighborhood as their own small business.”

Loyal customer and East Harlem resident Thomas Hirschelmann visits the market every week and says, “the community is finally doing something to positively benefit the people and the youth.” Hirschelmann believes for young, struggling employees like Rosado, “they have a bright future that succeeds the marketplace, but they must be given opportunities and right now this is their only option.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Adrian Rosado helps local customer Thomas Hirschelmann choose ripe peaches on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Adrian Rosado helps local customer Thomas Hirschelmann choose ripe peaches on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

An Influx of Central American Migrant Youth Raises Budgetary Concerns for New York State Funded Organizations

Originally published on September 16, 2014

An increasing number of migrant youth from Central America enter the United States each year in search of their parents, relatives, and a safer living environment. Fleeing from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, many of these migrant children temporarily or permanently reside in New York State, where they receive federally funded legal aid and special service care.

Federally-funded state agencies in New York provide migrant youths with special-care services including health, education, and legal aid. However, these organizations struggle to receive proper funding from the government to give each migrant child sufficient educational, legal, and health services.

Approximately 70,000 migrant youths will enter the U.S. during the 2014 fiscal year and 90,000 will face detainment and deportation, according to a February report conducted by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

“It is at its core a serious child protection issue,” says Meghan McKenna, Communications & Advocacy Director at KIND, “It is nearly impossible for migrant children to represent themselves in court proceedings.”

In many cases, these migrant youths facing detainment and deportation will have to endure court proceedings lasting up to four years, with the ultimate fear of returning to their home countries or living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S..

“What these children need is a lawyer. They need lawyers first because it is very hard for them to address the traumas that they have lived through,” says Eve Stotland, Director of Legal Services at The Door, “First things first, if we don’t get these children lawyers, they will be forced to their countries that they have fled and second is to go underground and live their lives in hiding.”

With the recent influx of migrant children to New York State from Central America, some organizations have to turn away children and send them to outside, private organizations, due to a lack of funds and personnel.

This year, the legal services community specializing in migrant youth cases, such as The Door and Empire Justice Center in New York City, say they are at “full-capacity.”

“We want to serve children, none of us went into this to turn them away. But we are tapped out. And we have to send these children to private services. But many of these private services are tapped out as well,” says Stotland, “The federal government has failed to provide the children with lawyers and New York State can fill that gap by providing resources for council.”

Special care organizations, such as Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New York and The Children’s Village of New York City, who provide refugee for undocumented migrant youth and advocate for their protection within the legal system, believe the issue extends beyond the legal cases of these children.

“We need to look at the gaps and here is where New York State comes into play. Nobody yet has placed sufficient emphasis on the non-legal services on kids and their family’s needs. They have potential to become our future and nobody has placed emphasis on investing their future,” says Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New York.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Monsignor Kevin Sullivan and Jeremy Kohomban testify before the New York State Assembly at a migrant youth hearing on September 16, 2014.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Monsignor Kevin Sullivan and Jeremy Kohomban testify before the New York State Assembly at a migrant youth hearing on September 16, 2014.

In order to assure protection and humanitarian aid to migrant youth, Sullivan says the New York State Assembly must allocate the proper funds and services on their agenda.

“By investing about $24 million dollars a year in these kids, we can assure their future and the future of New York State…This is a situation which cries out to us” says Sullivan.

Currently, The Children’s Village houses 57 migrant children in their 200 bed shelter. President & CEO Jeremy Kohomban explains that his organization provides shelter and services to children from over 41 countries, before they are released to their custodial families or put in federally funded, special foster care.

“This journey is not an easy journey and it is not a journey that you would want for your children. These children come here [illegally] and are put in the care of scrupulous people, gangsters oftentimes. So it is our job to help these children and provide them with a team of experts who review homes and families so that these children can live in a safe, family setting,” says Kohomban.

On Tuesday, September 16, the New York State Assembly Committee on Social Services and Standing Committee on Children and Families Task Force on New Americans held a public hearing with State agencies to address the influx of migrant youth from Central American countries and to examine the state’s role in caring for youth who enter the United States illegally through the southwestern border.

“Here in New York City, we are fully committed to supporting these children and their families,” said Nisha Argarwal, Commissioner to the Mayor’s Officer of Immigrant Affairs in New York City.

Unfortunately, all of the invited city, state, and federal agencies declines to attend the hearing, according to Assembly Member Marcus Crespo.

The New York State Assembly Says They Are Committed to Supporting Migrant Youth From Central America

Originally published on September 16, 2014

On Tuesday, September 16, the New York State Assembly Committee on Social Services and Standing Committee on Children and Families Task Force on New Americans held a public hearing with State agencies to address the influx of migrant youth from Central American countries and to examine the state’s role in caring for youth who enter the United States illegally through the southwestern border.

“Here in New York City, we are fully committed to supporting these children and their families,” said Nisha Argarwal, Commissioner to the Mayor’s Officer of Immigrant Affairs in New York City.

Federally-funded State agencies in New York try to provide these migrant youth with legal aid and special care services. However, these organizations struggle annually to receive proper funding from the government to give each migrant child sufficient educational, legal, and health services.

“By investing about $24 million dollars a year in these kids, we can assure their future and the future of New York State. They have potential to become our future and nobody has placed emphasis on investing their future,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New York, at Tuesday’s hearing.

The special service care providers and legal aid organizations present at the hearing agreed on the common notion that this issue starts with the whole young person and encouraged the assembly members to examine the funds allocated by the state in regards to helping these children.

“It is important for us to understand what is happening, to understand where to do better” said Member of NYC Assembly Marcus Crespo, “When you come down to it and when you see the faces of these innocent children…it really hits home.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson The New York State Assembly holds a hearing to discuss the recent influx of migrant youth from Central America to New York City, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
The New York State Assembly holds a hearing to discuss the recent influx of migrant youth from Central America to New York City, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014.

Q&A With Ex-Bank Robber Thomas Edwards

Originally published on September 10, 2014

On January 31, 2014, 55-year-old Thomas Edwards was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, after serving a 21 year sentence for bank robbery. From the age of 12 to 55, Edwards led a life of crime. Looking back, Edward says, “three people died, I was arrested twice, for a total of 26 years, and I robbed over 20 banks.” Not to mention, at one point, Edwards was wanted and “on the run” in four states for withholding thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and hundreds of guns in his possession. While in the “box,” otherwise known as solitary confinement, during his second sentence in prison, Edwards says his major turnaround was when he decided to not do crime anymore. It was during the 46 day stay in solitary confinement that Edwards changed is life for the better. Through the grace of the Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem and the Executive Director Julio Medina, Edwards is now seven months free of his criminal past and has started a new life as a mentor to young, criminal adults through the Exodus Common-Unity program.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Thomas Edwards sits at his desk at the Exodus Transitional Community on Wednesday, September 10, 2014.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Thomas Edwards sits at his desk at the Exodus Transitional Community on Wednesday, September 10, 2014.

Q: Where did you grow up? And how did your childhood shape the rest of your life?
A: “I was born, and for the first 8 years of my life, I spent in Alabama, so I am basically a country fella. I came to New York when I was 8 or 9, to Brooklyn, New York, and I had some problems at home with my stepfather and I kinda gravitated towards the streets and eventually was put in a juvenile detention center when I was 12 for three years.”

Q: Where did you go and what happened after your were released from the juvenile detention center?
A: “My mother had moved to the Bronx at that time, but the situation wasn’t really conducive for me living with her, so it was more or less a base, so I had kinda been drifting around. And because I had already been living in the streets, I was already familiar with the ways of the streets and I could survive there. So that’s what I did for quite some time.”

Q: Why, at such a young age, were you drawn to the streets? What did the streets provide that you did not receive inside your household or at school?
A: “Many times I went to school, 4th, 5th, 6th grade, with black eyes, bruises, and after a while, I didn’t get any help there so I just stopped going. And I got more help from people in the streets, They were just more concerned about my well-being. When a kid is out at 3 or 4 in the morning, there are no social workers or school teachers out. But you know what is there, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, con-men, stick-up men, and you know, they showed me concern and compassion.”

Q: You mentioned your stepfather earlier, was he one of the reasons you turned towards the streets to look for compassion?
A: “Well, he was very violent. And I would reciprocate most of his violent ways because I was the only male in the house other than him. And, I got most of what he could give. And he taught me a valuable lesson that violence could be used. And I used violence in my life.”

Q: Until what age were you living in the streets?
A: “Well, pretty much all my life. Because I had learned how to hustle in the streets at a young age, I was allowed to stay at different places because I could produce. I didn’t make a change in my life until I was in prison. It was my second time in prison. Both times, I went to prison for bank robbery.”

Q: When did you get caught for the second bank robbery and can you explain the incidents from that day?
A: “At that point, I am running from the law in New York and New Jersey and I am a person of interest in North Carolina and Virginia…I am pretty much wanted in a bunch of places…in 1993 January, 29th, it was a bank robbery on Broadway. And I guess, 94th street and somewhere around there, that is a shame I don’t exactly where. That was the day, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The bank rob had been planned for a couple of weeks, I had cased it out. It was a simple plan. And we had a guy that was new and his job was to count in M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-S, when you get to 90 M-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-S, it’s time to leave no matter what happens, so we figured, we have 90 seconds…but on this one, the new guy made people get on the floor and someone outside saw it and they went to a police officer at the stoplight…so everything that could go wrong, went wrong that day.”

Q: How is it possible that you only faced 21 years for the robbery, when you were wanted in numerous states and the robbery case was connected to a murder that day?
A: “I didn’t think it was possible. I got the sentence and my lawyer who worked with me for over two years on the case, asked me how I felt..And I said, ‘I don’t want to die in prison. You don’t know how long I am going to be in there, you can’t tell me that I am going home today. This is it for me. And that’s how I kinda felt. I didn’t have any other options, so what could I do. When they talked about a plea, I said yes, everything but the murder. I don’t kill innocent people. I am aware of the fact that I caused this, that I was a factor in this but I was too far removed to take the blame for this. I felt like if you were going to charge me with her murder, charge the gun makers because they make far too many guns for law enforcement, charge my stepfather and many other people in my life, make them all my co-defendants. And that’s what I felt. But I never felt that I was a victim. I put myself there.”

*Edited and Condensed

East Harlem Locals and Activists Protest Luxury Tower Development Plan

Originally published on August 28, 2014

On Thursday evening, August 28th, approximately 80 East Harlem community members and activists gathered on the sidewalk of E. 118th Street and Pleasant Avenue to protest the recent plans of Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner Companies to develop luxury towers atop the East River Plaza Mall.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson East Harlem locals gather on 118th Street and Pleasant Avenue to protest the recent development plans to build luxury towers atop East River Plaza.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
East Harlem locals gather on 118th Street and Pleasant Avenue to protest the recent development plans to build luxury towers atop East River Plaza.

The assembly of locals and activists raised concerns that the development will drive out most of “El Barrio” friends and neighbors, displacing poor people and exclusively attracting the upper-middle class to the Pleasant Avenue neighborhood. The demonstrators, who led the protest with the slogan, “El Barrio Unite,” believe the luxury towers will interrupt the community’s class-structure, economic development, quality of life, and preservation of East Harlem. 

Demonstrators lined up along the sidewalk on Pleasant Avenue to stop Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner Companies from continuing their plan to “segregate the neighborhood for economic growth,” says Roger Hernandez, a member of the East Harlem N.E.R.V.E. community housing group, “This is exclusionary displacement because it has to do with money.”

Hernandez, a native of East Harlem, believes the evening’s protests illustrate how the 50 story luxury towers are not an “anti-development piece based on race, the color of your skin,” but rather, “economic development.”

Blumenfeld Development Group and Forest City Ratner Companies first announced their proposal to build the 1,000 unit residential towers atop the East River Plaza mall in East Harlem to local community members at a East Harlem community meeting on Wednesday, July 9. At this initial meeting, the developers proposed a 75-25 percent split of market rate and affordable apartments for East Harlem residents who earn 30-60% of the area median income, more than the standard 80-20 housing market ratio.

However, East Harlem locals demand a 50-50 percent split of market rate and affordable apartments in order to accommodate the pre-dominantly low-income residents. Lorraine Knox from Community Voices Heard says, “We want 50-50 or nothing. It’s not right, unless it’s 50-50.”

In a joint statement released by BDG and Forest City Ratner on Thursday evening, the developers stated that a significant number of affordable housing units in East Harlem will expire in the next fives years and this proposal, “which includes 275 affordable units,” will create more affordable housing options in the community.

There is “an acute need for more diverse housing options to fill that looming void. We are addressing this need by making a huge investment in East Harlem that will use the retail center to create new housing where it otherwise would not exist,” according to the developers’ statement. There were no BDG or Forest City Ratner representatives in attendance at the Thursday evening “El Barrio Unite” protest.

Although the luxury tower development plan is still in the preliminary stages, N.E.R.V.E., Inc. General Manager and community protest leader, Robert Anazagasti, cried out, “We are going to win this fight…It’s up to us to say no más, no más, no más!”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Robert Anazagasti calls on the community of East Harlem to fight back against developers.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Robert Anazagasti calls on the community of East Harlem to fight back against developers.