The Young and the Helpless

New York City evicts a social service center, and leaves a hole in the heart of the South Bronx

The brown walls, metal grating covering windows, bricks layered one atop the other, the glossy flooring and fluorescent lighting don't add up to much except for a building, but when people are added—the constant flow of community members sweeping in and out of the entranceway, up and down the stairs, back and forth through the halls—that building takes on life. The building beats, beats with blood, the blood of the people who come to the Morrisania Multi-Service Center for help or to help. The people fill the chambers, bustling with work and picking up phone calls. A hum ensues. The place pumps steadily like a heart, bringing people in with troubles and sending them out with answers, creating a strong social fabric from which can grow a healthy South Bronx neighborhood. If the building stopped beating the way it has for the past 24 years—as might be the case within several months—it'd be like taking one of the poorest communities in all of New York off life support.

Through the windowpanes, the concerned parents can see that the day is gray and windy. The windis obvious by watching a flag flutter. The flagpole stands in the middle of the back lot, a place that up until a year and a half ago was empty—used only for the six small yellow buses to safely drop off toddlers. Now a new mini–high school, Metropolitan, constructed by pulling together 10 mobile units, has replaced the buses. The units all face each other. The only characteristic evoking the slightest bit of permanence is a little patch of grass poking up—a mini-garden for a mini-school—from the tarmac. The high school is compiled in a makeshift fashion, because the government's plan is to move the school into the building itself as soon as the six social service agencies—BOLD, Easter Seals Child Development Center, the 167th Street HDFC, the Great Joi Bronx Community Services, Tremont-Crotona Family Day Care Network, and the 163rd Street Improvement Council—that make up the Morrisania Multi-Service Center are successfully evicted. The New York City Department of Education has been trying to out them since January 2005. It will be a forced transfusion of sorts. The center feels it is being unfairly pushed out, while the Department of Education is doing what it has been doing resolutely throughout the Bloomberg years: adding another mini–high school. There are too many good intentions to fit into one building—the throbbing heart is on the verge of bursting. There are no alternative locations for the organizations to go, but we'll get to that later. For right now, back to the building's beating chambers . . .

Below the meeting of parents, on the first floor, Lorena Caballero is sitting with Negda Rivera, a housing specialist at the 163rd Street Improvement Council. They met a year ago, when Caballero's family of four was facing the streets. Caballero's petite. A white baseball cap covers her dark-brown, wavy hair. Her freckles get caught in the creases around her lips when she smiles. She rests her hands at her sides, sandwiching her seven-month pregnancy. "This one is much more difficult than the other two," says Caballero, confiding in Rivera, who, over the past year, has become not only a caseworker, but also a friend.

Rivera knows Caballero's whole history: Her daughter, Yesenia, suffered from liver disease, so Lorena donated a piece of her own. Complications from the operation caused impossible bills; soon the Caballero family was facing eviction from its $913-a-month two-bedroom apartment. Rivera found her low-income housing, $619 for a three-bedroom—affordable for Caballero's husband, who works as a handyman. Rivera is perplexed, chuckling almost deliriously at the ironic nature of the center's situation. "My job is to help people with eviction," she says. "Now we are facing eviction. We're in our clients' boots."

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photo: David Yellen

Caballero squints her eyes and rests her arm across her belly; she's tired and hasn't been able to hold down food for months. The thought of the center closing down is almost too much to process. The building is essential to her quality of life, as well as to the other 1,300 Bronx families it serves. She depends on the pulses of two agencies within the same place. Besides liver problems, Yesenia also has learning difficulties. She attends Easter Seals, which offers early intervention for children three to five years old, on the third floor of the building. This program and BOLD, which provide the only preschool special-education services for the South Bronx's 400,000 residents, give Caballero hope that her daughter will have the chance to one day become an honors student, just like Diego, her 14-year-old son.


Upstairs Yesenia follows her teachers' lead, wiggling her body to music in a small circle made up of peers. Meanwhile, parents in the literacy program are placing their book orders, and a little boy who has trouble concentrating learns how to draw a square with the one-on-one help of Yvette Adam, an occupational therapist. "1, 2, 3, 4," they count off together as the boy completes each side, until the lines are connected. "These preschoolers are the future," says Adam, who has been working as an OT for more than four decades, and with BOLD for 12. She says it doesn't make sense to uproot one group of students for another; she argues that the community deserves to have both a multi-service center and a new high school. She can only think of one reason the displacement might be happening. "Bronx is the ugly stepchild," she says. "I live on the Upper East Side. This would never be tolerated there."


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