A Skating Rink Seeks a Home in the South Bronx

On thin ice in Yankee Land

Cary Goodman stood on East 161st Street last week, pointing toward the lovely Lorelei Fountain that sits on a small ridge across from the Bronx County Courthouse. From the fountain you can look directly down the street at the two Yankee Stadiums: the one that is fast disappearing under the wreckers' cranes, and the gleaming new granite colossus on the north side of 161st Street.

Sports is, naturally, a big topic in this neck of the woods, and Goodman had the notion to place a children's skating rink at or near the fountain that sits at the entrance to Joyce Kilmer Park. This might inspire local residents as they were watching the Winter Olympics in faraway Vancouver on television. He envisioned tots gliding and wobbling around the fountain or some other prominent nearby spot, accompanied by the kind of music that makes ice skating the most graceful and seductive of sports.

This seemed like an excellent idea since the Bronx is the only borough without a public ice skating rink. In fact, it doesn't have any ice skating rinks. The plan to remedy this came to Goodman last year, shortly after he was named director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District. Goodman, 59, has a long history of involving everyday people in sports. He even holds a doctorate in this field and wrote a book about playgrounds and street life.

This is the South Bronx, however, where the only sure bet is that this district will be found at the bottom of the nation's poverty rankings. Everything else—especially the deal making necessary to make any good wish come true—is up for grabs.

The city's Parks Department ruled that the Lorelei Fountain idea was out of the question: The little rink might interfere with pedestrian traffic. "It's not a place to set up a recreation activity," said a spokeswoman. You can stand at the fountain all day in the winter and count on two hands and feet the number of people who walk across this plaza, but never mind.

Ditto, the city's Transportation Department, which knocked out an alternative plan to place the rink on Lou Gehrig Plaza, the new solid-stone mall in the center of 161st Street in front of the courthouse. This largely unused space was also ruled not a proper fit. The kids and the rink—made of flat panels of reprocessed plastic soda bottles—were too heavy, the agency said.

The most suitable spot, officials insisted, was a couple of blocks north at the far end of Joyce Kilmer Park. Yes, this would be well out of view for the thousands of passers-by who trudge up the hill from the busy subway stop down by the stadiums. And, yes, this would double the already modest $7,500 budget since it would require a platform to be built atop the park grass. But there it is, take it or leave it.

Upon consideration, Goodman and his board of directors opted to leave it. A gracious last-minute offer was made by a social service center that operates in the grand old Concourse Plaza Hotel across from the park. The rink, bordered by hay bales, was set up in the hotel's interior courtyard. There, over the past few weeks, some 1,500 youngsters who had never put on ice skates before have been learning the thrill of gliding on ice.

"The kids are thrilled. So are parents and teachers," said Goodman last week as he stood alongside his white plastic rink, now heavily crisscrossed with skate marks. "What I'd like is that this become permanent somewhere, but I can't seem to get anyone's attention."

It is always hard to get noticed in the South Bronx. The last time this neighborhood had the full and undivided attention of the city's most powerful players was in 2006. That was when the Bloomberg administration and Yankee owners were eagerly courting local officials to allow them to build their new stadium on public parkland. To help win the hearts and minds of Bronx politicians, the Yankees hired the legal counsel for the Bronx Democratic party. This is the indispensable man who puts loyal candidates on the ballot, and knocks challengers off.

Lawyer Stanley Schlein went back and forth between his two sets of clients, eventually producing a document that was signed in April 2006. The agreement called for local residents and vendors to be employed in the construction of the new stadium. This was great, but the legal language necessary to compel a detailed accounting of this pledge was somehow absent. Also, the administrator named to handle the hiring happened to be a political operative whose chief job is working campaigns with Schlein and other pols.

The money side of the deal was even hazier. The Yankees agreed to pay $800,000 a year—over 30 years—into a fund serving the general public good. The hope was that the money would assist local efforts like Goodman's skating rink. But here, too, the specific clauses that would let anyone outside a small circle of insiders find out how this honey pot was being handled were missing.

"It was such a poorly written document that it's almost malpractice," said Ramon Jimenez, a Bronx lawyer who often jousts with the local establishment.

For starters, it took the panel more than 18 months to convene, so the Yankees' initial donation was considerably delayed. When the money finally came in, the chairman of the fund—a banking executive named Serafin Mariél—deposited it into a no-interest account in his own bank. The money stayed in the National Bank of New York for all of 2008 and much of last year.

This self-serving arrangement continued until Michael Drezin, a veteran Bronx attorney who had been named the fund's administrator, blew the whistle. Drezin filed suit last spring, asserting that Mariél was mismanaging the fund. Mariél has denied it, but refuses to answer questions. Last week, he ducked phone and e-mail messages. He hung up on The New York Times' Fernanda Santos when she reached him last April.

Like Schlein, Mariél is another Bronx fixture. Back in the late '80s, the banker's name surfaced during what was then the borough's worst scandal: A local military supply company named Wedtech was found to have bribed its way to success. Two congressmen and a borough president went down in the ensuing investigation. Although never charged, testimony at trial revealed that Mariél had handed the debt-ridden Wedtech owners a briefcase stuffed with $500,000 in cash, money supplied by a local mob-tied businessman—at 100 percent interest. It was an interesting performance for a banker, and not exactly a résumé-builder for someone heading a fund slated to receive $24 million.

The Yankees insist that all of this has nothing to do with them. They have made two years of payments into the fund and are readying a check for the third round. The team still retains Schlein as its consultant, despite his own problems. Two years ago, he was found to have used a city commission as his private office. He's also barred from serving as a court-appointed guardian due to another series of abuses. But this is the Bronx, where scoundrels prosper, while those laboring to do even small good deeds push against the tide. Cary Goodman says he has one more idea for a place to house his little skating rink. "I think there's room right there on the plaza by the new stadium," he said last week, pointing downhill. He is waiting for the team's response to this idea.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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