November 27, 2013

Bronxites rally to help victims of the typhoon in the Philippines

The Vishnu Mandir and the Bharati Dance Academy Donates Flip Flops for the Philippines
By Bharati Kemraj

It was a horrific vision for everyone looking at their television or seeing first hand the damages caused by Typhoon Haiyan that affected thousands of lives in the Philippines on Friday, November 8, 2013. For one Hindu Temple in the Bronx it only took a day to arrange a collection of footwear for individuals looking to rebuild and find hope. Flip Flops for the Philippines was arranged by the Vishnu Mandir and the Bharati Dane Academy where 500 pairs of flip flops and shoes were donated by families and friends.

"I heard Deputy Inspector of the 49th Precinct announced at a Community Board 11 meeting that they are asking for flip flops as a donation that will be given to people affected by the Super Typhoon and right away I started thinking and went to work on my phone,” said Bharati Kemraj from the Bharati Dance Academy. “The next day, after several texts, e-mails and calls, I reached out to the DI and told him that the Vishnu Mandir Hindu Temple in the Community Board 9 area would give about 500 pairs of footwear. He was amazed and with appreciation in his voice he said that he would arrange for pick up not knowing that he would come himself along with a Community Affairs Officer,” added Kemraj.

On Sunday, November 24, 2013 a line was formed as Devotees of the Vishnu Mandir and Students of the Bharati Dance Academy joined together to stack the boxes containing 500 pairs of flip flops and shoes into the NYPD Van. “Take a look at the line and smiles of the people as they move the boxes. These are members here in our community coming together to help those in need,” said Ganesh Basil. As a longtime member of the Temple, Basil remembers several occasions where fellow worshipers assisted in lending a helping hand to other Countries during or after certain disasters including China, India and Guyana. “This is what giving back is all about,” he shouted as he went around the line to move more boxes.

 “I read somewhere that the people in the Philippines needed footwear and after talking to my Supervisor, DI Johnson, I got approval to move forward and here we are collecting 500 pairs of footwear,” said Officer Jay Sturdivant of Community Affairs as he loaded the boxes into the vehicle.

“Typhoon Haiyan affected hundreds of families as it swept through the Philippines and this is just a small way of helping those trying to get back on their feet,” said Deputy Inspector Andy Johnson, 49th Police Precinct. “When Bharati mentioned that the people of the Temple would donate I did not expect for it to happen so quickly or that the number of flip flops and shoes would be in the hundreds,” added DI Johnson who carried the last box, placed it into the packed space and closed the doors.

As of this weekend, the death toll from Typhoon Haiyan reached 5,235 with a further 1,613 missing. For more information about Flip Flops for the Philippines or to donate, contact Community Affairs at (718) 918-2025 or the 49th Precinct at (718) 918-2000.

Organizers: Deputy Inspector Andy Johnson, 49th Police Precinct and Police Officer Jay Sturdivant of Community Affairs

Sponsors: The Vishnu Mandir & the Bharati Dance Academy

Event Coordinator: Bharati S. Kemraj

Publicist: Chandra Sukul

Photo Credit: Shanti Mangar

Special Thanks: Pandit Vishnu, Pandit Vyaas, Pandit Krishna and Chandra Sukul; Navin Singh and all Members

November 24, 2013

The Other Side of the Coin: Small Businesses Supporting Their Communities, Kingsbridge Road Merchants Association Hosts 1st Holiday Celebration

Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of supporting local merchants in the Bronx during Small Business Saturday, which occurs after most people do their holiday shopping on Black Friday. The topic did bring up some discussion on Facebook, as some people (rightfully) stated that too many businesses don't do enough to attract or keep their customers. And the wrong mix and attitudes of businesses can bring about resentment and frustration from residents, which drives away people to shop elsewhere.


Small businesses do bring a sense of vibrancy to communities and provide them with goods, services, and local jobs. And when small businesses come together, they can accomplish things that contribute to the character of a neighborhood. This requires businesses to do something that may seem counter-intuitive, and that is think outside of their business to enhance their business. 

Families gathered on Saturday at W. Kingsbridge Road for the
1st Holiday Celebration Event, sponsored by the
Kingsbridge Road Merchants Association

On Saturday the 23rd, the members of the Kingsbridge Road Merchants Association, representing over 35+ businesses on the strip and now going on its third year, gave back to their community and hosted its first ever holiday celebration and tree lighting ceremony. Under the leadership of its president and vice-president, Nancy Fernandez and Christian Ramos, the association put together this family-friendly, free event for residents in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx. Produced by Marketing & Advertising Solutions (MAS) and hosted by comedian Roman Suarez, over 100 children were treated to a very early Christmas when they received a visit and a gift from Santa in front of the Mirador Restaurant on the corner of Grand Ave. and West Kingsbridge Road. They were even treated to a brief dusting of holiday snow to set the holiday mood for everyone.

Mirador Restaurant, one of the newest members of the
association, played host to Santa and his helpers to bring an
early Christmas to Kingsbridge Heights in the Bronx.
Mirador Restaurant, owned by Mr. Jose Estevez, provided the space for Santa and the kids, as well as many of the decorations. Having opened less than a year a go, Mr. Estevez just recently joined the association and said he is used to giving back to the community as much as he works at his business. And he doesn't mind. "Some people have a bad perception of the Bronx, but that's completely not true" he stated. He has managed other restaurants in Manhattan and the Bronx, and he hasn't had any problems with his business in Kingsbridge Heights. "I would be paying more than double the rent for the same space in Manhattan, and I have half the problems here than over there," referring to vandalism that has occurred to decorations and his businesses in Manhattan. "We have ups and downs in this business like everyone else, but I believe the people love that we're here," which makes his decision to support the association even more rewarding.

L to R: Marlene Cintron, BOEDC President, Christian Ramos
Vice-President of KRMA, Ruben Diaz, Jr., Bronx BP,
Santa (looks familiar), and Nancy Fernandez, President, KRMA
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Assemblyman-elect for the 86th district Victor Pichardo both made an appearance at the event, wishing everyone a happy holidays and their support to the association for its contribution to the community. BP Diaz also plugged how important the proposed Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC) development, located across the street at the Kingsbridge Armory, will be for both the community and the association.

MAS, lead by Jacqueline Acevedo, has helped market the association for the last three years and seen the association continue to grow in many ways. Since the early days of sidewalk sales, MAS has helped them in putting together several events and promotions that have brought the community and businesses together. She reached out to both KNIC and Green Mountain Energy, who sponsored the event, and was able to promote it successfully for the association.

And this is what is meant by the other side of the coin regarding small businesses. No one doubts how hard it is and the courage to go out there everyday to make a living, and that customer loyalty is important. But like everything else, businesses have to invest in their customers and community in they want their business to be successful. And if it means a few decorations or having a large-scale festival, find out what your customers want beyond the transaction or two and be a part of what they need for the community to succeed.

For more photos, check out our Facebook Page. We look forward to hearing from you and wish everyone an early happy holidays.

November 18, 2013

Shopping locally matters, and not just for the holidays

If you have watched television anytime after November 1st, you have already started seeing ads or hearing jingles for the holiday season from numerous companies. Everyone is vying for your attention to get you to purchase the next big thing. Interestingly, companies such as American Express and Optimum have begun once again to push the marketing of Small Business Saturday, the event after Black Friday where we are encouraged to shop locally. There are definite benefits to shopping locally, and not just for the holidays. But here in the Bronx, as in other poorer areas, the impact of shopping locally is greater for the community.

Shopping locally provides an increase in the local tax base and keeps spending within a community. Additionally, it brings about neighborhood stability by creating jobs for local people, who then reinvest in their community. It is only recently (20-30 years) that some big box stores have made their way into the Bronx and have had a growing impact on jobs and growth. But according to some sources and previous discussions with Prof. Bill Bosworth of the Bronx Data Center at Lehman College, more money leaves the Bronx then comes into it, and this is a contributing factor to the high unemployment and poverty rates.

Think about it, when people are commuting away from their homes and spending money outside of their community, you are helping to build some other community's economy. And there is no incentive for the business that you just spent your hard-earned money on to reinvest in your community, they don't even know where you live. So what happens to the Bronx in this scenario? The divestment leads to empty storefronts, or worse, being inundated with a bunch of "99 Cents Stores" on a block, or a dozen storefront churches, who are the only groups left that can afford the rent, barely open during the week or employing anyone locally. Many other businesses that do survive only do so by a thread, living off of a subsistence business model.

Obviously this does not apply to places such as Fordham Road, which is the largest Business Improvement District in the Bronx, or to other major commercial areas such as Co-op City or the malls popping up along the Major Deegan Expressway. But there are many areas throughout the Bronx where even supermarkets, a staple for any community, have all but disappeared.

So before you commit all your shopping to areas outside of the borough, think about where you can get a great meal at a local restaurant, that customized item in a niche store, or even a discount at a chain store that has set up shop locally. Spend that dollar here, and watch it come back to you in ways you never imagined. Shop the Bronx.

November 12, 2013

Four Hip Hop Legends Unite in the Bronx to Talk About Music, Health, & Fashion

Sponsored by John Benizio of Metro Optics and
Melissa Libran of Windows of Hip Hop

On Monday the 11th, four pioneers of Hip Hop made their way up to Norwood to be a part of a photo shoot and public awareness campaign, while talking about music and community today. The event was coordinated by Melissa Libran, CEO of Windows of Hip Hop (WOHH), an economic development project that promotes Hip Hop, Gino Pacheco, owner of Beso Lounge and CFO at WOHH, and sponsored by John Benizio, owner of Metro Optics.

WOHH was also celebrating their first anniversary which has been spent primarily on building a reputation and a name for themselves since last November. WOHH has hosted several youth and community forums on what Hip Hop means to people today and developed "edu-tainment" as a way to connect with children in the Bronx. As a fan of Hip Hop, a Bronxite, and a businesswoman, Ms. Libran seeks support to obtain a trailer to host a mobile, interactive exhibit and educational component based on a Hip Hop curriculum to the Bronx.

In speaking with Mr. Benizio about his sponsorship, he stated that he knew Melissa for a longtime and stressed the connection of Hip Hop and Metro Optics as being "Bronx Brands". Eye-wear such as Cazal or Gucci have long been synonymous with Hip Hop artists and both companies were contacted to model their latest frames at today's event.

So who were these Hip Hop icons? None other than Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Grand Wizzard Theodore, and Grandmaster Caz! Coming together for the first time in a few decades, they showed their support for promoting men's eye health while sporting the latest frames from Cazal and Gucci. Throughout the shoot, they also got a chance to talk about music, community, activism, and the importance of understanding the importance of true Hip Hop.

Supporting an Army Reserve uniform, Melle Mel stressed about keeping his music "...at a more mature level of what Hip Hop is, it's not like we need to blend in to what's going on. These pioneers are going to make, and build, and take a seat in Hip Hop alongside of everything else in the industry." He also stressed how these legends have stood the test of time and, "...have formed a united front to save Hip Hop from itself."

Meanwhile, Afrika Bambaataa talked about his roots, including the founding of the Universal Zulu Nation, refocusing his efforts early on and doing something positive for the community, and remembering the King (not the Godfather) of Soul, James Brown. He also took a jab at the city, "Shame on New York!" for not supporting a Hip Hop museum, especially in the Bronx.

There was also a lot of press and support from various other business also at the event, including News 12, BronxNet, and Bronx personalities such as Michael Max Knobbe, Gabrielle Williams of "The Ms. Gabie Show", Ken "Mustafa" Howell of DBNEB Music. Additionally, the Bronx's own poetic prodigy NeNe Ali was present, describing herself as a product of the pioneers of Hip Hop and has strives to uplift her community through the spoken word.

For more pictures of the event, visit our official Facebook Page!

November 9, 2013

Congrats to our new mayor, now let's address the issues with Bronx parks!

First I'd like to congratulate our new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, and wish him all the best when he is officially sworn in. I don't know him personally, but I do know a few people who have worked under him and they are great, hardworking people who have always stood up for the Bronx. And while there are many pressing issues that the new mayor faces such as housing, jobs, public safety, schools, and treating our public employees fairly, one issue I believe needs to be addressed is how the Bronx has been shortchanged when it comes to our parks.

Years ago, a deal was struck to have a (money) pit dug at Van Cortlandt Park to put in the Croton Filtration Plant, an outdated and questionable project from the onset, in exchange for over $250 million in capital improvements for Bronx parks. The project itself was supposed to cost several hundred million dollars, but under the Bloomberg administration, costs overruns and mismanagement have raised the price tag to over $3.3 billion and counting.

And while there have been many great projects built throughout Bronx parks, only slightly more than half of those capital dollars have been spent to date. Additionally, some of the larger projects have been plagued with delays, contractor conflicts, and other issues. A case in point has been the Williamsbridge Oval Recreation Center in the Norwood section of the Bronx. The center, along with the surrounding park space, received a huge infusion of cash to modernize it. The center was closed to the public in early 2010 for what was supposed to be an 18-month project, but is only now opening its doors at the end of this month, more than 2 years behind schedule. Residents are grateful that it is finally open, but it has been a very long wait.

Even more disturbing is that the money from this arrangement was supposed to be in addition to the borough's annual budget, but that hasn't been the case. It appears as if the borough has been the victim of a "bait and switch", with capital projects getting all the attention and services, staffing, and maintenance have been cut over the last 5 years. No one from the city can clearly explain what happened to those dollars, but it is doubtful that it stayed in the Bronx. One only needs to look at the fiscal budget over the last several years to see that funding has remained flat all this time.

So Mr. DeBlasio, when you step up to Gracie Mansion in January, Bronxites would like to see some justice done on a variety of issues, but please, don't forget our parks and what we've had to endure these last several years.

November 1, 2013

Leveling the Tech Playing Field in the Bronx, Part 1

One of the issues that many don't see dominate the headlines in the Bronx is the need to create a local, tech-savvy workforce to compete in new jobs being created in the technology fields. All too often, we spend enormous amounts of resources just trying to get people employed so that we can reduce the double digit unemployment that has existed in parts of the borough for over forty years. Yes, I said it, for the better part of forty years, too many have been unemployed or underemployed, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty in the Bronx. So how do we change it?

Throughout New York State, school districts and communities are tripping over each other trying to bring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) centers and programs into their areas to prepare their children for the demands of a modern workforce. Where is that discussion in the Bronx? With the exception of some very close-knit circles, that discussion is non-existent or even an option for most Bronx students. The NYC Department of Education (DOE) can barely prepare Bronx middle-school children to take the specialized high school exam, let alone prepare them to compete in a 21st century workforce. Before I sound as if I am coming off too negative, let me point out that the Bronx has some extremely bright students and individuals, some that have excelled in robotics, technology, and other sciences. And as great and important these shining stars are, we as a county are woefully unprepared in training a technology-based workforce for the city. Because of the lack of direction, those future jobs will go to other places in and outside of the city, leaving Bronxites further behind their counterparts in the region.

We need to think-outside-the-educational box and help identify whatever resources are available to those who are willing to lift themselves up and cross the digital divide. There are a few people here in the Bronx who are starting to build that bridge for others, and I hope to bring you more about them soon enough. Right now, I want to talk about an organization in NYC that I came across on a news show recently (yes, I consider the 'Colbert Report' a news source, leave me alone) called the Codecademy, an organization that teaches individuals young and old alike how to write web-based programs for free. Yes, that is the business model right now, teaching people the basics of several program languages used for writing code on the internet at no cost other than that for computer access, which one can get also for free at any of our public libraries (while we still have those for free).

According to Codecademy's mission statement, "We are rethinking education from the bottom up. The web has rethought nearly everything - commerce, social networking, healthcare, and more. We are building the education the world needs - the first truly net native education. We take more cues from Facebook and Zynga in creating an engaging educational experience than we do from the classroom." That's a bold statement, is it one that we can get Bronxites motivated around, whether its this company or others like it? What will it take to show young Bronxites that they too can be a part of a modern day tech workforce, and not stay stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder? If the traditional education system is not working for so many, those in academic and political leadership need to step up harder and faster than before, or we risk losing future generations of Bronxites to cyclical poverty. While we're at it, let's make sure that whoever is the next mayor is also listening and working on a plan now, and not wait until they take their first step into Gracie Mansion to ponder a plan for the Bronx.