The Young and the Helpless
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 addedthe constant flow of community members sweeping in and out of the entranceway, up and down the stairs, back and forth through the hallsthat 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 yearsas might be the case within several monthsit'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 emptyused only for the six small yellow buses to safely drop off toddlers. Now a new minihigh 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 upa mini-garden for a mini-schoolfrom 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 agenciesBOLD, 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 Councilthat 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 minihigh school. There are too many good intentions to fit into one buildingthe 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-bedroomaffordable 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."
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."
Altogether eight multi-service centers serve New York City, falling under the auspices of the Human Resources Administration. They exist to support New York's poorest communities, but after more than two decades of dedicated service to the Hunts Point and Morrisania regions of the Bronxwhich have the lowest income in all the five boroughs, and one of the most affected with domestic violence, AIDS, unemployment, and substance abusethe Morrisania center is the only one being forced to close its doors by the city agency, which did not extend their contract in 2005. The city instead chose to return the building to the Department of Education, which operated it more than two decades ago. The school system previously owned and used three other buildings now serving as multi-service centers, two in Harlem and one in Brooklyn, but at this time has not chosen to replace them with schools.
Biarani Burke is the former manager of the Morrisania building and president of 163rd. He doesn't like to speak much about himself. "No fluff," he says. He wants to stick to the court case, to each organization's potential loss of place. But he arouses many questions, especially with his daily dressalways a black suit, a little black rose made of ribbon pinned to his lapel, and the kufi hat gifted to him by his honorary adoptive father, a Nigerian tribal chieftain. He's been volunteering for 163rd since the '70s, before the organization even had a permanent home, and has been an official employee for four. He doesn't want to talk about where he's from or how he got interested in finding housing for the poor; every verbalization he utters he wants used to meet his goal: to stay at 1180 Rev. James A. Polite Avenue. He feels unjustly targeted. He believes the handover was sparked by complaints made by the organizations about two large rent increases within two years. "It was vindictive," he says. "These are organizations with fixed budgets. If rent increases that means there will be no pay raises for that year." Left abandoned by their protector, the HRA, and facing eviction by the city, the organizations are refusing to leave and are trying to go with the flow, as usual.
But the flow isn't normal. Carol McLoughlin, the principal of BOLD preschool, tries to relate what has happened during the past 22-month struggle to remain in the building, but keeps being interrupted. The nonprofit organization has enough staff to keep running, but only if everyone is constantly busy. Details like talking to a plumber about a leaky sink, handing out a MetroCard so a poor parent can return home, making sure an aunt has permission to pick up her niece, continue to get in McLoughlin's way.
Finally a break of silence occurs and she divulges one of the more disturbing moments of the past months. She remembers going to work on February 13 of this year and seeing something unfamiliar. "There were six white men in suits with a bunch of cops," she says, screwing up her face. "What did they think, we'd beat them up?" She saw the men break the locks on the building and replace them with new ones. The keys went to a new custodial staff hired by the school system; the center was forced to fire its own staff of five janitors. Now all six organizations housed in the building must depend on the school staff to open the doors each morning. The community no longer can use the building as a meeting place or have evening classes or weekend recreation because they have to adhere to designated hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. The brown doors have even been painted over; now they're electric blue, the color found on recycling bins throughout the city. One caseworker who works in the building has a theory about the reason. "They're laying their scent," he says . . . like a dog marking its territory?
Little by little, the organizations are being supplanted by the minihigh school in their backyard. As nap time approaches for the preschoolers upstairs, dozens of teen agers burst through the doors, their voices echoing throughout the halls. They use the basement cafeteria for lunch and the top-floor gym for physical education. The situation is uncomfortable for the slumbering toddlers, but also for the high school students, who can't call the space their own. One boy, as he exited into the backyard, where his mobile classroom sits, tried to turn his and his classmates' feelings into words. "It's weird," he says, tilting his head. "Yeah, weird."
Out into the cold goes the teenager and in stream the AllensWarren and Karen. Wrinkles are etched into their dark faces, probably more aged by their former style of living than from the actual weathering of years.
Warren wears rosy wire-rimmed glasses. The lenses are foggy, as his mind was for the three years he and his wife lived as vagrants, moving from hotel to hotel, doing anything and everything just to maintain a heroin high. Warren picked up HIV along the way, and soon after, they both picked up the desire to become sober. The Scattered Sites program at the center has helped them. The Allens are in a methadone program. They also get counseling and an apartment with the program's help. But their favorite part about the organization is recreation day. "We've got to stay busy so we don't relapse," says Warren. Karen nods her head, agreeing with no doubt.
Deborah West runs the recreation department for the Scattered Sites program. In the time it takes to walk up the building's three flights of stairs and back down, Deborah can walk to her home from the front door. She's lived in the neighborhood all her life51 yearsnear Prospect Avenue. She has volunteered at the center since it began, almost a quarter-century ago, and says that many of her family members have been placed in housing through programs there. The building used to be a school, P.S. 99, but after the Bronx burned in the '70s, not enough children were left living in the area to fill all the seats. The building remained empty until 1982, when the Morrisania Multi-Service Center moved in. "There was nothing around," recalls West. "There was garbage everywhere, abandoned buildings and empty lots."
Brand-new buildings now surround the center. The grumble of cement mixers and the crash of hammers can be heard from the sidewalk, promising more development and higher property prices. The center, like a fresh source of water, has caused a once dried-up community to blossom. Perfect time to start up a school again? Maybe not. Though the area now appears healthy, Basilio Vega, program director of the 163rd Street Improvement Council, warns that the development hides a fragile structure underneath. "Knocking down one block," he says, "it's like a domino effect. Everything else will fall down."
In recent months, some organizations within the MMSC have closed their doors. Burke, the president of the Improvement Council, isn't sure why. He can only hypothesize that agencies must carefully weigh the pros and cons of fighting with the city, especially when contracts keeping the agencies' hearts thumping come from the very bureaucracy trying to kick them out. "Our fight comes at a heavy cost, but we have a commitment to help this community," Burke says. "If we don't fight, we wouldn't be fulfilling our obligations."
photo: David Yellen
New York City is taking the MMSC organizations to court to officially evict them. Although all the organizations are following the case, only BOLD and the 163rd Street Improvement Council have come up with the funds necessary to continue fighting the city. A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Marge Feinberg, declines to comment, but says she hopes the premises can be prepared for use as a school as soon as possible. The agency has helped the organizations find new homes by offering the phone number of Cushman & Wakefield, a large real estate company. Burke isn't impressed. He says the company couldn't find a new building suitable to accommodate all the agencies within the same area. Mostly though, Burke feels let down by the HRA, who gave them up without explanation and without concern for the continuation of services. The HRA declined to comment. A spokesperson for the HRA, Barbara Brancaccio, answered many unsettled questions with a simple phrase: The HRA no longer manages that location.
The last court date, two weeks ago, ended before the lawyers even made it into the courtroom. It ended in the hallway, squabbling with calendars open. They go to court again tomorrow.
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