January 28, 2014

Bronx should not be an afterthought when it comes to preparing for the next disaster

During Hurricane Sandy that occurred in late October 2012, many thought that the Bronx was fortunate that it was not as devastated as the other four boroughs were, particularly those communities along the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, when we see the devastation that occurred in Nassau and Suffolk counties, many Bronxites counted their blessings that they escaped the worst of the disaster.

However, the Bronx was affected in many ways. Residents in the southern and eastern Bronx faced their own issues with flooding, power loss, and significant damage to their homes. Many Bronxites also faced the aftermath of gasoline and food shortages, limited access to public transportation, localized delays in restoring electricity, and damage to public infrastructure. Yet the Bronx is the only county south of Westchester to not be included in funding by New York State for recovery from Hurricanes Sandy and Irene and Tropical Storm Lee as per the NYS Rising Communities website

Consider this, the Bronx houses one of the largest food distribution networks in the world, but there is no plan to protect it (there is one in progress, but has no funding attached to it, see this link for more details). The Bronx has a vast public transportation structure that also serves upstate and Connecticut  commuters, but there is no plan to protect those assets in the county. Every neighborhood east of the Bronx River, which is mostly flat and lower in elevation, dealt with significant damage and flooding which overtaxed sewer lines, devastated parkland, and damaged other public utilities, but there is not a peep about how to make any of those systems more resilient. The Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory was transformed into one of the borough’s largest donation and distribution centers, serving the entire city and beyond, but what happens when the next storm cripples that asset and basic necessities cannot reach the most vulnerable? Likewise, Lehman College is the designated evacuation center for coastal flooding in the borough, but what happens if it or the roads are inaccessible?

And while the other four boroughs and counties throughout New York State are slated to receive millions of dollars in public funding to improve their infrastructure, the Bronx is left to watch its own assets crumble and fall apart. If our roads fail, that impact will be felt far and wide, especially on major corridors such as I-95, which cuts across the entire borough. If public transportation fails, that means the millions of commuters that pass by every day will be affected, and so will the Manhattan core. If the food, water, and fuel supply lines fail in the Bronx, that not only affects Bronxites, but millions of other in the region.

For far too long, elected leaders have neglected to realize that the Bronx is also vulnerable to large-scale disasters, yet our needs and concerns are barely an afterthought in the city’s and state’s leadership.  Hoping that nothing happens and ignoring the lack of resiliency in the Bronx is not a strategy we should continue to rely on. We were lucky in 2013, but how much are we willing to push our luck in the face of climate change? A more resilient Bronx is need now, before the next disaster, not after.

January 27, 2014

Inflated NYPD Stats Also Hurt Economic Development In The Bronx

On Friday, the New York Daily News published an exclusive story on how the crime stats for the Hunts Point area or the 41st precinct have historically been merged with the crime stats from Riker's Island, affecting the auto and home insurance rates of thousands of Bronx residents. This has occurred even though the neighborhood has a much lower median income and residents' are barely able to afford the rates. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. and State Assemblyman Marcos Crespo have vowed to change state laws to address this issue, and for that I applaud them. 

Aerial map of Hunts Point and Longwood, c.2010
by NYC.gov (http://maps.nyc.gov/doitt/nycitymap/)
There is another concern affected by these stats, whether or not businesses can or decide to relocate to the South Bronx. Many businesses, particularly franchises, also refer to crime stats in making their decisions to relocate to a neighborhood, and if crime is falsely reported as higher than it actually is, it can scare off investment. Even for those who do choose to do business near Hunts Point and Longwood, they might be paying needlessly high rates of insurance because of this oversight. This could potentially be a reason why the Banknote Building, a building that has been redeveloped to serve as a business incubator in Hunts Point, has struggled for some time to attract new tenants and startups. 

And the problem is not only limited to the South Bronx. These reported higher rates of crime also affect the borough-wide stats, potentially affecting everyone's rates. As importantly, these inflated rates paint a false picture of a lack of progress in reducing crime, when in fact the opposite is true. The new City Council needs to work with One Police Plaza to change their reporting mechanism so as to capture Riker’s data separately from the Bronx. This can go a long way to making it easier and more attractive to do business in the Bronx, encouraging new businesses and new jobs to come to the borough.

January 23, 2014

Local restaurant perseveres to establish a new holiday tradition and crowns its own "Coquito Kings"

On Monday the 20th, the owners of Thirty3 Sixty3 Steakhouse in Throggs Neck pulled off a long anticipated and very successful contest that brought in a dozen participants and over a 100 spectators to create a new post-holiday tradition. Billed as the "Coquito Kings" contest, the restaurant joined forces with both "TastyLadies NY" blogger Bailey Provetto and Bronx On The Go to market and judge the event. Originally meant to coincide with the Three Kings holiday, the event was pulled off despite being postponed once due to the weather and calls from an outside group that wanted to shut it down because it allegedly competed with theirs.

With twelve contestants mostly from the Bronx and one from Brooklyn, contestants brought out their best family and homemade recipes while spectators lined up to enjoy the free samples. Many of the participants had not even heard of coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican rum and coconut based drink, until the event, but that certainly didn't stop them from enjoying it. Spectators were wowed by the deceptively sweet options presented, from traditional creamy varieties to unique blends that included chocolate or cayenne pepper, along with several traditional Spanish dishes served buffet style. The event included special guest Marcos "El Flanadero" Sierra, who provided his own coquito-flavored flan (custard).

Decided by popular vote, owners Johnny and Jackie Acevedo-Villanueva, local Bronx personality Ms. Bharati Kemraj, and TastyLadies NY's Baley Provetto, crowned first place winners were Bronxites "Benito and Jayson" for their coquito. When asked about their recipe, they stated they, "have been making their grandmas and great grandmas recipe for over 10 years, and started it one Christmas when money was tight and decided to make them as gifts, thus a tradition started and we all appreciated this tradition tonight!" Crowned in second place as the Coquito Queen was another Bronxite Ms. BiGi Ramos, who has participated in other coquito contests locally for several years.

TastyLadies NY, who was a very vibrant host, has created a video montage of the event, which can be viewed here. Original photography for the event can be viewed at Miriam Quin's Facebook page. Additional pictures by a variety of other photographers, including the Bronx Chronicle's Nilka Martell, can be viewed on the Bronx On The Go Facebook Page.

January 8, 2014

Evolution of Art and Artist - The Works and Transformation of Olga Ayala

While I was celebrating Three Kings Day, or 'Dia de los Reyes' as it is known in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, I came across some remarkable artwork on George Torres' 'Sofrito for your Soul' website, as well as a call to preserve the tradition celebrated every January 6th. Impressed with the artwork displayed on the page, I used it as a cover photo on Facebook. As the law of unintended consequences would have it, the image started to spread like wildfire and soon enough, someone recognized the work as belonging to artist Olga Ayala. After a few inquiries, I was able to obtain Ms. Ayala's information and was able to speak with her and ask her what was the inspiration behind her work.

Ms. Ayala, who was born in El Barrio and currently lives in Staten Island, has displayed her work in the Bronx for the better part of the last decade. Having been an artist all her life, it wasn't until 1977 that she began her first works using clay as her medium. She has used clay to create functional art, statues, and in reworking everyday items into art. 

Originally, much of Ms. Ayala's art centered on pieces that could be sold in art and crafts fairs. As time went on, she noticed that the Puerto Rican culture was invisible in these fairs, and it started to concern her. Inspired to do something to raise awareness and beauty of Puerto Rican art, she began creating pieces based on the musical styles of 'bomba y plena', recreating the artwork of the Taino Indians and their influence on Puerto Rican culture, and at the time, the young and dynamic styles associated with Hip Hop music and its influences on NYC, particularly in the Bronx where it all began. Gradually, her work centered more and more on preserving the culture, which was both, in her words, a "growing and learning process".

Olga's first and wildly successful attempt at creating artwork based on 'Los Tres Reyes Magos' was back in 2005, which consisted of 11 inch tall clay figures of Melchor, Balatazar, and Gaspar, otherwise known as the Three Kings. Soon after this work, she began creating other similar works throughout New York City and particularly in the Bronx. She has displayed her work in the biannual event at Hostos College called "BomPlenazo", which is a tribute to the Afro-Puerto Rican traditional music, which will take place again this year in October. Additionally, she has participated in the annual 'Comite Noviembre', month long ceremony dedicated to Puerto Rican heritage which also takes place at Hostos College during the month of November. 

She comments that when she was young, she did not put much thought into recognizing her roots. Nowadays, she wishes that more of the youth did, and know how beautiful it truly is. Humbly she states that she tries to make herself and her art available for events and displays. But behind her genuine modesty lies an artist and an art form that is vibrant, captivating, and inspiring.

To view more of Olga Ayala's artwork, or to purchase any of her existing pieces, visit her website. To learn more about the significance of the Three Kings and other Puerto Rican traditions (because the holidays aren't over for us yet!), click here and here. Check out additional photos of her artwork in the Bronx On The Go Facebook Album. Don't forget to like and support the official Facebook Page.

January 6, 2014

Three Kings Day Celebration Comes to PS 5 in the Bronx

By Bharati Kemraj

Singing, dancing and whole lot of toy giving took place as hundreds of children gather together at Public School #5 in the Port Morris Section of the Bronx for the celebration of “Three Kings Day” sponsored by State Senator Rev. Rubén Diaz. Presents for boys and girls were hundreds in numbers and everyone got the opportunity to get a present.

For many Christians and those in the Hispanic community, the holiday season and the gift of giving and receiving presents does not officially end until the 12th day of Christmas known as the “Three Kings Day” when, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the men found the divine child by following the Star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar --representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa respectively -- traveled   to present baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts.

Elected officials including Bronx Borough President Rubén Diaz Jr., Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, The New York Hispanic Clergy Organization and community members stood on stage and gave out presents as students took turns meeting the Wise Men and collected bags, books and toys.

“Grab a backpack and get a toy,” says Assemblyman Crespo as he clapped his hands to the beat of the music and directed the children to the right place. “This is just for you,” says Borough President Diaz Jr. as he hands a little child a doll. In between the gift giving, music filled the air as Assemblyman Sepulveda twirls two basketballs for the children to enjoy and in the distance staff and family members all moved to the beats of the songs. Each child hugged or held on to their special presents as they walked away.

“This is all for the community and for the children. I do it every year because it makes them happy as we celebrate Three Kings Day,” says Senator Diaz as he speaks to the families and children.  

January 4, 2014

Bronx Small Biz Highlight: The Blow Styling Bar, A Flare without the Fare in the Bronx

By Bharati Kemraj

Relax, watch some television and even stay for a massage because Blow Styling Bar is a brand new “blow dry bar” concept created around a very simple idea of: No Cuts. No Colors. Just Blowouts. It is a hair styling salon offering customers a wash, blowout and set for less than the price of a manicure and pedicure.

Rachel Idaspe well known in the Beauty Industry as “Raven” is back home in the Morris Park area and ready to beautify the community one head at a time. With over 25 years of experience and a hair salon in Manhattan she is breaking down some language barriers with the “Look Book” and offering hands on work opportunities to “New Beauties” or those who have graduated from Beauty School and looking to advance in their careers at the styling bar located at 1741 Colden Avenue in the Bronx.

One concept that is making it easy to break down any challenges between stylists and clients is a simple Look Book. It is something that any client can look at and let their hair stylist know exactly what they want done to their hair. “Many hair salons hire people from all over the world, and communication can become an issue. The Look Book comes in handy with catchy little names and speaking to each other does not have to feel uncomfortable. Stylists and clients can communicate via images,” explains Rachel, owner and colorist of the Blow Styling Bar. “Usually people who graduate from beauty schools are sweeping hair, mopping floors and doing towels, but here they get hands on experience with visuals to help. The right training can go a long way to being successful.”

Business partner and masseuse, Tina Savignano known as “Candy” for her massages offered at the Styling Bar, and Rachael have known each other since they were eight years old and remembers growing up around the block and hanging out by the Golden Diner. “This is so nice to be in our neighborhood and see friends and family. I just love it and I enjoy what I do. I have so many stories from around the area,” smiles Tina as she chuckles at childhood memories. “It gives me extreme happiness to open this place with my friend Tina and since I have trained a lot of individuals in the industry, they are stopping by to help out. I wanted to bring a little bit of the 'Manhattan flare' to the Bronx, and this is it. This area is thriving and very family-oriented. People deserve to look good and feel relaxed,” says Rachael.

Anyone who enters the Blow Styling Bar can see and feel a difference in the way it is set up compared to other salons. On the right wall there are hooks for customers to free their hands and soft white chairs with a smooth counter top for clients to take a seat. Turn to the left and a comfy seating area with pillows awaits anyone who is next on the schedule or simply waiting. A bit further there are large mirrors for the big reveal followed by the register and the massage room in the back. “This setting allows a bond between the stylist and the client and throughout the entire process, people are not ripping themselves apart while looking at the mirror in front of them,” stated Rachel. “I realize people sit and instead of relaxing or having a conversation, they look at themselves and start thinking. Here when they are completely done, they get the chair spun around to see the big reveal from shampoo to finish in the large mirrors behind them. The salon was designed for this reason, and we welcome anyone who comes through our doors.”

January 3, 2014

With a new year underway, let's work towards something else new for the Bronx

With the New Year's celebrations complete, many of us are undergoing the annual ritual of making resolutions for 2014. Sometimes we write out goals, other times we consult list with the top 5, 10, or even 30 things to change for the new year. We are even bombarded with TV commercials trying to sell us on how we can become a new person (physically fit, financially fit, spiritually fit, etc.). There is really only one thing that anyone of us can change that can help us in becoming who we want to be. Attitude.

Attitude helps us to take the goals on the paper and put them in action. It helps us to get up when we've been knocked down and roll with the punches when needed. Attitude helps us to cope with challenges big and small, taking the lemons and making lemonade.

So what does attitude have to do with the Bronx? In the past year, we've had several incidents in the press of people far and wide trying to knock us down, most recently from a mayoral candidate in Paris, France. We've been put down by the likes of tour bus operators to a momentarily relevant Bansky. But the worst of it seems to come from our own backyards. People complaining that we are not one thing or another, or that we will never change, or that things are getting worse.


People everywhere have their challenges they have to face, but we don't need to add fuel to the fire. Rather than grumble about our weaknesses, its time that we talk up our strengths as a neighborhood, a community, and a borough. If people would drop their bad attitudes for a moment and see what the Bronx really has to offer, you would see that we have a lot of potential. Many are looking at the Bronx as the newest frontier for business, investment, and growth, but too many have their heads down and not looking at what's right in front of them. 

Let's make a collective commitment to create a new Bronx attitude in 2014. Let's be a part of the change that we want to see in our communities. Let's stop blaming others for the things that are occurring around us and take responsibility not only for our own attitudes, but for also promoting a good attitude amongst our children, our friends, and our neighbors. Get involved in promoting that good attitude, whether it is at a house of worship or in your civic organization. Don't allow others to suck you into their bad attitude, but counteract it with your better attitude. Only when we start to control our reactions will we be able to make a difference in the attitudes of the ones around us.

So are you ready to promote a new Bronx attitude? Let's start together now!