Monday, November 30, 2009

City’s Schools Share Their Space, and Bitterness by Jennifer Medina -

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Public school parents protested the proposed expansion of a charter school in New York City. As charters take up more space in public school buildings, resentment is growing. Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Suzanne Tecza had spent a year redesigning the library at Middle School 126 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, including colorful new furniture and elaborate murals of leafy trees. So when her principal decided this year to give the space to the charter high schools that share the building, Ms. Tecza was furious.

“It’s not fair to our students,” she said of the decision, which gives the charter students access to the room for most of the day. “It’s depriving them of a fully functioning library, something they deserve.”

In Red Hook, Brooklyn, teachers at Public School 15 said they avoid walking their students past rooms being used by the PAVE Academy Charter School, fearing that they will envy those students for their sparkling-clean classrooms and computers. On the Lower East Side, the Girls Preparatory Charter School was forced to turn away 50 students it had hoped to accept because it was unable to find more room in the Public School 188 building.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made charter schools one of his third-term priorities, and that means that in New York, battles and resentment over space — already a way of life — will become even more common. He and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, have allowed nearly two-thirds of the city’s 99 charter schools to move into public school buildings, officials expect two dozen charter schools to open next fall, and the mayor has said he will push the Legislature to allow him to add 100 more in the next four years.

In Harlem, parents have chafed and picketed against an expanding charter school network, the Harlem Success Academy, which is housed in several public schools. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, a plan to close a failing elementary school and let a charter take over the building was shelved after a lawsuit. At P.S. 15, teachers and parents were furious about plans for PAVE to expand next year, after having been told the school would be gone by the end of this academic year. Several hundred parents filled a middle school auditorium in Marine Park, Brooklyn, in the spring to rail against a proposal to house the new Hebrew Language Academy there. The school eventually found a home in a yeshiva.

Charter schools, privately run but publicly financed, are generally nonunion, freeing them from labor restrictions. They have gained traction with their promise of innovative teaching methods and more flexible work rules for teachers. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has told states that they must remove impediments to charter schools as a condition of winning so-called Race to the Top grants.

In New York, as in most states, charter schools receive no money for construction, forcing them to raise millions on their own — or find a willing host. In other cities, where charters are only begrudgingly accepted by public school officials, tensions between public and charter schools sharing a building would be unheard of, because the charters are forced to find their own homes.

But Mr. Bloomberg has embraced them. In his speech last week on his third-term education goals, Mr. Bloomberg called on the Legislature to lift the state’s limit on charter schools. He also called on Albany to provide money for charter school facilities, even threatening to sue the state if it did not.

In the meantime, Mr. Klein has aggressively eased the way for charter schools, citing their popularity — most have far more applicants than seats. “There are so many talented people out there, and I want them to come to New York,” Mr. Klein said in an interview. “Why would we want to put up barriers to that?”

Todd Ziebarth, the vice president of policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called support like Mr. Klein’s “extremely rare.”

“In starting a new school, you are also launching a small business,” Mr. Ziebarth said. “Space is the most difficult and challenging thing to think about and figure out.”

Despite its constraints, Girls Prep is eager to expand, so city officials are proposing to move it or a small special education program into another building, possibly P.S. 20 or P.S. 184, the dual-language Shuang Wen School.

This month, more than 500 people packed into the P.S. 20 auditorium on the Lower East Side to complain about the proposals. Hundreds of parents rallied outside, shouting “Save our school!” over the buzz of traffic on Essex Street.

None of the schools, it seemed, had the more than 20 classrooms that Girls Prep needed. “Nobody wants to give up the space we have fought so hard for,” said Ann Lupardi, a Shuang Wen parent. “These are science labs and art rooms that we helped find the money to get because we think they are essential.”

Miriam Lewis Raccah, who oversees Girls Prep, said charter operators are not looking for fights but are enthusiastically trying to create successful schools in areas that have lagged for years.

“Nobody wants to give up a school that’s part of a neighborhood’s identity,” she said. “The reality is that there is still a need for better schools, and the question is: Where are we going to go? It’s not as if we’re creating new kids.”

Officials estimate that over all, the city’s schools are 80 percent full. But figures vary widely school to school, with some bursting while others have as many as a dozen classrooms not being used for teaching. Even determining how many rooms are free is contentious — most schools use open space for activities like dance, tutoring and computers — but Education Department officials often treat those rooms as “underutilized space” to allow another school to come in.

Schools that share space often have other tensions just below the surface. In some cases, as in Brownsville and Harlem, the regular public school has not performed well and has seen enrollments shrink while parents flock to the charter on the other side of the building. Charter schools that have had success raising private donations have new desks and computers to show for it. And most charter school teaching staffs are not unionized, giving them vastly different work rules and pay scales.

Sometimes life inside the schools simply resembles life in New York City, with mismatched neighbors learning to tolerate each other. In the P.S. 16 building in Williamsburg, the public elementary school uses the gym most of the day while Williamsburg Collegiate, a charter middle school in the building, waits until the late afternoon. And when the charter school expanded to ninth grade this year, there was little fuss, just a move into four more classrooms.

At M.S. 126, despite the librarian’s dismay, the principal, Rosemary Ochoa, has worked out what she considers a viable plan with the Williamsburg Charter High School and its two small spinoffs, which also occupy the building. The charters get the library for most of the day, and Ms. Tecza is expected to travel to individual classrooms to teach the public students library skills.

In Red Hook, Spencer Robertson, PAVE’s founder, said he expected to stay in P.S. 15 for two more years because his plans for a new building fell through. He said that while community meetings about the school have often erupted in shouts, “they’ve been a very good neighbor in general, and we don’t even know there’s a conflict most days.”

“But the issue of space really plays on that emotional level,” he said. “Everything is about ‘they are taking your space’ even if it’s not clear who ‘they’ are.”

Bloomberg Spent $102 Million to Win 3rd Term by Michael Barbaro - City Room Blog -

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To eke out a narrow re-election victory over the city’s understated comptroller, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg spent $102 million of his own money, or about $183 per vote, according to data released on Friday, making his bid for a third term the most expensive campaign in municipal history.

Mr. Bloomberg, the wealthiest man in New York City, shattered his own previous records: he poured $85 million into his campaign in 2005, and $74 million on his first bid for office in 2001.

And the $102 million tab is likely to rise: the mayor has not yet doled out his storied bonuses to campaign workers, which can top $100,000 a person. That spending will not be reported until after his inauguration.

He has now officially spent more of his own money in the pursuit of public office than any other individual in United States history.

His lavish campaign, which leased a 40,000-square-foot space for headquarters in Midtown and paid a D.J. to play music as volunteers called voters, was widely expected to crush his Democratic opponent, William C. Thompson Jr., the city’s chief financial officer.

But his successful drive to overturn the city’s term limits law, coupled with a sputtering economy, turned off thousands of voters, even though most gave him high marks as a manager.

On Election Day, Mr. Bloomberg won by fewer than 5 percent points, at a cost of roughly $20 million for each point.

Data released on Friday showed that, from Oct. 22 to Nov. 26, his campaign spent $18.6 million, much of it on last-minute television and radio advertising.

After the mayor’s campaign team discovered that a large block of undecided voters in the city either favored Mr. Thompson or planned to stay home on Election Day, the campaign scrambled.

A few hours before polls closed on Nov. 3, the campaign issued a flurry of telephone calls to registered voters, with recordings in which Mr. Bloomberg requested that New Yorkers pull the lever for him.

The Safety Net - Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades - Series by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff-

Read original...A GROWING NEED FOR A PROGRAM ONCE SCORNED Greg Dawson and his wife, Sheila, of Martinsville, Ohio, help feed their family of seven with a $300 monthly food stamp benefit. Center and right, the food pantry in Lebanon, Ohio, where residents can also enroll in what is formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times. More Photos >

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps, according to an analysis of local data collected by The New York Times.

The counties are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600 residents receive food stamps.

In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. — Everytown, U.S.A. — nearly 40 percent of children receive aid.

While use is greatest where poverty runs deep, the growth has been especially swift in once-prosperous places hit by the housing bust. There are about 50 small counties and a dozen sizable ones where the rolls have doubled in the last two years. In another 205 counties, they have risen by at least two-thirds. These places with soaring rolls include populous Riverside County, Calif., most of greater Phoenix and Las Vegas, a ring of affluent Atlanta suburbs, and a 150-mile stretch of southwest Florida from Bradenton to the Everglades.

Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster.

“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.”

Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food.

“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” he said. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”

The program’s growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a sign of laziness. But unemployment has soared, and food stamp use in a six-county area outside Cincinnati has risen more than 50 percent.

With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children.

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

The outreach worker is a telltale sign. Like many states, Ohio has campaigned hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2 billion last year.

By contrast, in the federal cash welfare program, states until recently bore the entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually flat. Unemployment insurance, despite rapid growth, reaches about only half the jobless (and replaces about half their income), making food stamps the only aid many people can get — the safety net’s safety net.

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

By the time the recession began, in December 2007, “the whole message around this program had changed,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that has supported food stamp expansions. “The general pitch was, ‘This program is here to help you.’ ”

Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid — 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.

In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.

“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.

Suburbs Are Hit Hard

Across the country, the food stamp rolls can be read like a scan of a sick economy. The counties of northwest Ohio, where car parts are made, take sick when Detroit falls ill. Food stamp use is up by about 60 percent in Erie County (vibration controls), 77 percent in Wood County (floor mats) and 84 percent in hard-hit Van Wert (shifting components and cooling fans).

Just west, in Indiana, Elkhart County makes the majority of the nation’s recreational vehicles. Sales have fallen more than half during the recession, and nearly 30 percent of the county’s children are receiving food stamps.

The pox in southwest Florida is the housing bust, with foreclosure rates in Fort Myers often leading the nation in the last two years. Across six contiguous counties from Manatee to Monroe, the food stamp rolls have more than doubled.

In sheer numbers, growth has come about equally from places where food stamp use was common and places where it was rare. Since 2007, the 600 counties with the highest percentage of people on the rolls added 1.3 million new recipients. So did the 600 counties where use was lowest.

The richest counties are often where aid is growing fastest, although from a small base. In 2007, Forsyth County, outside Atlanta, had the highest household income in the South. (One author dubbed it “Whitopia.”) Food stamp use there has more than doubled.

This is the first recession in which a majority of the poor in metropolitan areas live in the suburbs, giving food stamps new prominence there. Use has grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle, including such bulwarks of modern conservatism as California’s Orange County, where the rolls are up more than 50 percent.

While food stamp use is still the exception in places like Orange County (where 4 percent of the population get food aid), the program reaches deep in places of chronic poverty. It feeds half the people in stretches of white Appalachia, in a Yupik-speaking region of Alaska and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Across the 10 core counties of the Mississippi Delta, 45 percent of black residents receive aid. In a city as big as St. Louis, the share is 60 percent.

Use among children is especially high. A third of the children in Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee receive food aid. In the Bronx, the rate is 46 percent. In East Carroll Parish, La., three-quarters of the children receive food stamps.

A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.

Need Overcomes Scorn

Across the small towns and rolling farmland outside Cincinnati, old disdain for the program has collided with new needs. Warren County, the second-richest in Ohio, is so averse to government aid that it turned down a federal stimulus grant. But the market for its high-end suburban homes has sagged, people who build them are idle and food stamp use has doubled.

Next door, in Clinton County, the blow has been worse. DHL, the international package carrier, has closed most of its giant airfield, costing the county its biggest employer and about 7,500 jobs. The county unemployment rate nearly tripled, to more than 14 percent.

“We’re seeing people getting food stamps who never thought they’d get them,” said Tina Osso, the director of the Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield, which runs an outreach program in five area counties.

While Mr. Dawson, the electrician, has kept his job, the drive to distant work sites has doubled his gas bill, food prices rose sharply last year and his health insurance premiums have soared. His monthly expenses have risen by about $400, and the elimination of overtime has cost him $200 a month. Food stamps help fill the gap.

Like many new beneficiaries here, Mr. Dawson argues that people often abuse the program and is quick to say he is different. While some people “choose not to get married, just so they can apply for benefits,” he is a married, churchgoing man who works and owns his home. While “some people put piles of steaks in their carts,” he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda. “To me, that’s just morally wrong,” he said.

He has noticed crowds of midnight shoppers once a month when benefits get renewed. While policy analysts, spotting similar crowds nationwide, have called them a sign of increased hunger, he sees idleness. “Generally, if you’re up at that hour and not working, what are you into?” he said.

Still, the program has filled the Dawsons’ home with fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and meat, and something they had not fully expected — an enormous sense of relief. “I know if I run out of milk, I could run down to the gas station,” said Mr. Dawson’s wife, Sheila.

As others here tell it, that is a benefit not to be overlooked.

Sarah and Tyrone Mangold started the year on track to make $70,000 — she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Together they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children, including one with a neurological disorder aggravated by poor nutrition.

They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat.

“We were being really snippy, having anxiety attacks,” Ms. Mangold said. “People get irritable when they’re hungry.”

Food stamps now fortify the family income by $623 a month, and Mr. Mangold, who is still patching together odd jobs, no longer objects.

“I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”

Shifting Views

So far, few elected officials have objected to the program’s growth. Almost 90 percent of beneficiaries nationwide live below the poverty line (about $22,000 a year for a family of four). But a minor tempest hit Ohio’s Warren County after a woman drove to the food stamp office in a Mercedes-Benz and word spread that she owned a $300,000 home loan-free. Since Ohio ignores the value of houses and cars, she qualified.

“I’m a hard-core conservative Republican guy — I found that appalling,” said Dave Young, a member of the county board of commissioners, which briefly threatened to withdraw from the federal program.

“As soon as people figure out they can vote representatives in to give them benefits, that’s the end of democracy,” Mr. Young said. “More and more people will be taking, and fewer will be producing.”

At the same time, the recession left Sandi Bernstein more sympathetic to the needy. After years of success in the insurance business, Ms. Bernstein, 66, had just settled into what she had expected to be a comfortable retirement when the financial crisis last year sent her brokerage accounts plummeting. Feeling newly vulnerable herself, she volunteered with an outreach program run by AARP and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks.

Having assumed that poor people clamored for aid, she was surprised to find that some needed convincing to apply.“I come here and I see people who are knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed,” she said. “These are people I could be having lunch with.”

That could describe Franny and Shawn Wardlow, whose house in nearby Oregonia conjures middle-American stability rather than the struggle to meet basic needs. Their three daughters have heads of neat blond hair, pink bedroom curtains and a turtle bought in better times on vacation in Daytona Beach, Fla. One wrote a fourth-grade story about her parents that concluded “They lived happily ever after.”

Ms. Wardlow, who worked at a nursing home, lost her job first. Soon after, Mr. Wardlow was laid off from the construction job he had held for nearly nine years. As Ms. Wardlow tells the story of the subsequent fall — cutoff threats from the power company, the dinners of egg noodles, the soap from the Salvation Army — she dwells on one unlikely symbol of the security she lost.

Pot roast.

“I was raised on eating pot roast,” she said. “Just a nice decent meal.”

Mr. Wardlow, 32, is a strapping man with a friendly air. He talked his way into a job at an envelope factory although his boss said he was overqualified. But it pays less than what he made muscling a jackhammer, and with Ms. Wardlow still jobless, they are two months behind on the rent. A monthly food stamp benefit of $429 fills the shelves and puts an occasional roast on the Sunday table.

It reminds Ms. Wardlow of what she has lost, and what she hopes to regain.

“I would consider us middle class at one time,” she said. “I like to have a nice decent meal for dinner.”

Matthew Ericson and Janet Roberts contributed reporting.

Rep. Weiner and 27 Members of Congress Call on Agriculture Secretary to End Fingerprinting for Food Stamps Applicants...

Practice is Unnecessary, Discourages Program Participation and Wastes Money

Following reports that more New Yorkers went hungry in 2008 than the year before, Representative Anthony Weiner (D – Brooklyn and Queens), a member of the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee and 27 Members of Congress called on Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to end the practice of fingerprinting food stamp applicants.

New York, Texas, California and Arizona require fingerprinting for all new food stamp applicants. Despite claims that this protects against fraud and duplicative benefits, according to the most recent USDA data, payment errors were actually higher in the 4 states that fingerprint. Meanwhile, participation rates for all eligible people in those states that fingerprint were lower. In addition, fingerprinting deters many people in need from applying. According to a March 2007 report by the Urban Institute, fingerprinting led to a 4.3% reduction in food stamp applicants because of the stigma associated with such a practice.

In a letter to Secretary Vilsack, Representatives Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Jose Serrano (D-NY), Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Bob Filner (D-CA), Ed Pastor (D-AZ), Diane Watson (D-CA), Al Green (D-TX), Pete Stark (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX), Sam Farr (D-TX), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Charles Gonzalez (D-TX), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), George Miller (D-CA), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Michael Honda (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Gene Green (D-TX), Howard Berman (D-CA) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) wrote: “Eliminating finger imaging would remove significant barriers for residents of these states who need help feeding themselves and their families, which is particularly important during these economic times.”

Rep. Ed Towns Statement Honoring Shirley Chisholm’s Birthday...

U.S. Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns (NY-10) issued the following statement today in honor of Honorable Shirley Chisholm’s 85th birthday:

“Today, we celebrate the life of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, who also became one of New York’s most revered public servants. In honor of Congresswoman Chisholm’s 85th birthday, I recently introduced H. Res. 926 to recognize her groundbreaking accomplishments, rare strength of character and belief in the potential of a new America. Congresswoman Chisholm’s ‘Unbought and Unbossed’ political style allowed her to break through many back doors and glass ceilings, blazing a pathway for generations of women and people of color.

“Born and raised in Brooklyn, Congresswoman Chisholm came to Washington where she served seven consecutive terms representing Brooklyn. She was a champion for increasing federal support for education, health care for seniors and children, and other social services for all Americans.

In 1976, Congresswoman Chisholm was one of the original founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. The CBC now proudly represents more than 40 members of congress and aims to help improve the socioeconomic circumstances of African Americans and other under-served communities.

“As one of her closest friends and former colleagues, I am honored to serve areas of Brooklyn that were once part of Congresswoman Chisholm’s district. Let us remember Congresswoman Chisholm today in all her greatness, not just because she was the first African American woman in Congress, but because she was daring to be herself, while making history.”

Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley at the Peter Cardella Senior Center on Thanksgiving...

Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley and her two sons, Dennis and Owen, serve food to senior citizens on Thanksgiving, November 26, 2009 at the Peter Cardella Senior Center.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rego Center Debut Delayed Until February by Anna Gustafson -

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Rego Center is slated to open in February after being in the works for years, but some Community Board 6 members are worried the mall that will house such anchor stores as Costco, T.J. Maxx and Kohl’s will create heavy traffic congestion in the area, CB 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio and CB 6 President Joseph Hennessy said this week.

“The opening has been pushed back after the holidays to February,” Gulluscio said. “People are still concerned about the traffic patterns.”

Vornado Realty Trust in 2005 announced plans to develop a 6.6-acre site located directly behind the Rego Park Mall, which includes an Old Navy, a Sears and a Bed Bath & Beyond. The site is managed by Vornado but owned by Alexander’s Inc.

Rego Center comprises the entire block bounded by the Horace Harding service road, 97th Street, 62nd Drive and Junction Boulevard.

Initial groundbreaking on the site began in October 2006 and actual construction began in May 2007.

According to a Nov. 2 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the development will be a 600,000-square-foot shopping center on four levels and will include a parking deck with about 1,400 spaces. As of October, there had been 138,000 square feet leased to Costco, 134,000 square feet leased to Century 21 and 132,000 square feet leased to Kohl’s.

Gulluscio and Hennessy said Vornado officials told them T.J. Maxx had also signed a lease.

“We’re very concerned about the traffic situation,” Hennessy said. “We don’t feel it’s been addressed properly. There’s no entrance to the center at the 62nd Drive subway stop and the traffic is going to be emptying into 62nd Drive.”

Hennessy said board leaders are hoping to meet with Vornado officials as well as the city Department of Transportation to discuss ideas to mitigate the impact of traffic on the neighborhood.

The CB 6 chairman added that while board members believe Century 21, Kohl’s and Costco will be good stores, he is concerned Costco will “bring a different type of shopper than Home Depot would’ve brought.”

Vornado had originally planned for The Home Depot to occupy the area now leased by Costco, but the construction supply store pulled out of the development earlier this year, Hennessy said.

“With Costco, you’ll get more traffic,” Hennessy said. “Home Depot gets traffic early in the morning with the construction people and lighter traffic in the afternoon. I’ve seen the Costco in Long Island City and it gets crowded and people are inside longer because they’re buying things in bulk. They’re not in and out in 15 minutes.”

'Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong' by Terry Teachout --

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Louis Armstrong goes for a stroll with a pet schnauzer and neighborhood kids in Queens in 1970. Among other things, the performer left a wealth of recordings photographs of his life. (Associated Press/Wide World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Reporting from New York - In 1947, jazz great Louis Armstrong got himself a new gadget -- a tape recorder, fresh out on the consumer market. It was a big, boxy machine that he set up in concert halls and jazz joints to record his six-piece All Stars so he could listen to each show in his hotel room and thin out the weak spots for the next gig.

Before long, however, this work tool became a plaything -- and, a couple of generations later, a treasure trove for Terry Teachout, author of the new and compelling biography "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 476 pp., $30).

"He started leaving it on and making audio vérité tapes of chunks of his life -- dinner parties, getting high in the dressing room after a gig, trying to get his wife into bed," says Teachout, national drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. "He saved all these tapes. There are 650-odd of them."

While the tapes have been available to scholars since 2002, Teachout is the first biographer to make full use of them, says Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. And although Teachout says the tapes don't contain any major revelations, they infuse "Pops" with the insights of an eavesdropper.

"Armstrong, although he was very self-aware, was also a very unself-conscious man," Teachout says in his art-filled apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "He knew what he was. He knew he was a very important figure in the history of American art. And so he saved everything that he could. But in making these tapes, he's entirely unself-conscious. He just records parts of his life. . . . He is the only major jazz musician who has left behind a very large volume of documents of this kind."

He also left behind a wealth of photographs. One uncredited shot in the book captures the portly Armstrong in a messy hotel room, wearing nothing but white briefs, his trumpet lying in an open case in the foreground and the tape recorder perched on a table in the back.

Teachout himself is a heavyset man with a wide, expressive smile and glasses that make him look owlish. He speaks in long, discursive paragraphs, his diction precise, his tone a bit arch and bearing no hint of Missouri, where he grew up in a small town.

Sitting on a couch, a leg tucked underneath him while traffic whooshes by a couple of floors below, Teachout explains that it took five years to research and write "Pops," about half the time he invested in his first biography, "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken," which came out in 2002. He is also the author of 2004's "All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine."

The Mencken book, he says, taught him how to write a biography. The Balanchine was more of a life in brief, spun out quickly to take advantage of the strong critical reaction to the Mencken book. "Pops" is a return to full-form biography, and Teachout hopes it will reawaken our sense of Armstrong's creative genius. (Jazz's cultural standing is a recurring theme for Teachout, who ignited an online jazz-world brawl in August over a column in which he asked whether the music form could be "saved," implying that it was imperiled.)

The book has revelations for those unfamiliar with Armstrong's life and career. Teachout believes that few outside the jazz-studies world recognize Armstrong's talent as a writer -- he was the author of two memoirs. Nor do people know that he was "threatened with murder" by the Chicago mob, that lip damage led him to add more of what became his signature gravelly vocals to his performances or that "it really wasn't so much his musicmaking but his film career that made him a real star."

Then there was Armstrong's womanizing -- four marriages and "numerous dalliances in between and during" -- and his daily joint, a habit that in 1931 led to a nine-day jail stint in Los Angeles after he got caught lighting up between sets outside Frank Sebastian's Culver City Cotton Club.

"Most people, I suspect, don't know that he smoked marijuana every day," Teachout says, although he acknowledges that a jazz musician using drugs wouldn't really astonish anyone. "But people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they're going to be surprised."

At its heart, "Pops" is about one of the 20th century's most interest- ing and enduring popular per- formers, with a compelling life story to match.

"He was born in New Orleans in 1901, on the toughest block in town, his mother was a whore, and at the end of his life, everybody in the world knew who he was," Teachout says. "He was the first great influence in jazz. . . . Remember that 'Hello, Dolly!' knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard charts [in 1964]. It was the last jazz single ever to be a No. 1 record in the United States."

Armstrong's rise was not easy. He performed about 300 nights a year and lived out of a suitcase. In the early days, he bounced back and forth between Chicago and New York, endured Jim Crow humiliations during tours of the South and struggled to pursue music without getting overwhelmed by the details of running a jazz orchestra. (Eventually, he turned the business side over to white managers.)

Still, after revolutionizing jazz in the 1920s, Armstrong was in the vanguard of black entertainers who crossed over to white mass culture, leading an integrated band, appearing in movies and becoming a regular first on radio and then on television.

"He was even more effective on television than he was in the films. In the films, he played these stereotypical Uncle Tom-like roles, because that was what you got to play if you were black in the 1930s and 1940s," Teachout says. "On television, he played himself performing as a musician, and he was one of the most frequently seen people on TV throughout the 1950s and 1960s. . . . He had the personality, and he was able to make use of media that brought that personality into the homes of ordinary people."

Yet Armstrong's mugging -- he saw himself as an entertainer as much as a musician -- irked critics and some fellow black jazz performers, such as beboppers Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who thought his shtick was too close to minstrelsy.

"The implication was clear," Teachout writes, summing up dismissive comments by Gillespie. "Armstrong may have been an artist, but he was also an old-time accommodationist who went along to get along."

Still, even the new beboppers had to join the old guard in recognizing Armstrong's role as a musical trailblazer. Teachout cites a Time magazine profile of Armstrong from 1949, as bebop was beginning to replace big band jazz. In it, there's a quote from legendary drummer Gene Krupa: "No band musician today on any instrument, jazz, sweet or bebop, can get through 32 bars without musically admitting his debt to Armstrong. Louis did it all, and he did it first."

Martelle is an Irvine-based journalist and critic.

Near-tragedy Hits AirTrain by Philip Messing and Tom Namako -

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A JFK shuttle train that had just undergone preventive maintenance lost two doors just before picking up its first passengers yesterday, sources said.

As the AirTrain pulled into the Lefferts Boulevard stop at 3:30 a.m., the two doors swung off their hinges. One careened onto the tracks and the other jammed into the platform.

"This is very troubling," said an airport source. "[Had] it happened when the train was crowded, people would have fallen out -- and they'd now be dead."

No one was aboard the computerized two-car shuttle -- which carries no conductor or motorman.

EXHIBIT 'D': The door that fell off an AirTrain yesterday is carted off for investigation. No one was hurt. Ellis Kaplan

One of the broken doors, affixed to the outside of the cars, became "embedded into the concrete platform like a knife into a birthday cake," said a source.

An alarm sounded, but the train -- minus the two doors -- barreled on to the Howard Beach station, sources said.

Once there, it was taken out of service -- but staff didn't notify Port Authority officials until 6 a.m., sources said.

The potential tragedy -- and what caused it -- was under investigation last night, prompting one source to say, "They're reviewing it to see why it occurred, but all indications are that there was a problem in the maintenance yard."

A person familiar with the AirTrain's operations said that when trains are put back into service, they typically go through a computerized safety-system checklist.

"The doors may not have been attached properly," that source said. "The question is: Why wasn't it detected ahead of time?"

A PA spokeswoman confirmed that an investigation was under way.

In September 2002, Kelvin DeBourgh, a 23-year-old electrician testing the AirTrain prior to its debut, was killed when one of the cars derailed -- pinning him beneath 16,000 pounds of concrete.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beach Development Offers New Hope for Rockaway by Natasha Lennard - Queens Rules

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For 40 years the 300 acres on the Atlantic Ocean was a desolate eyesore. The razed ground, cordoned off by six-foot-high wire fences, was a favored dumping ground for slabs of concrete, disused car parts and piles of dirt from construction sites in Rockaway.

But now at night, lights go on in 134 three-story, pistachio and blue homes, with oceanfront views and neat lawns. A short walk away, the foundations of a giant supermarket and YMCA are being built.

After a decade of planning, Arverne by the Sea is becoming a reality. The $800 million development is changing the face of this remote peninsula on the southern tip of Queens that had fallen into decline since the middle of the last century.

The development ought to bring in more middle-class families without the displacement of normal gentrification, as urban planners are building on empty land. This promises to improve quality of life for newcomers and old-timers alike.

“The development will bring in families, working people – people who will lobby for better services in the area,” said Jonathan Gaska, the district manager of Community Board 14, which encompasses Rockaway.

Arverne, which stretches along Rockaway’s southeastern shore for 20 blocks, was an empty lot for nearly four decades. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the land hosted row upon row of tiny beach bungalows – seaside havens for middle-class New Yorkers looking to escape the thick air of Manhattan in the summer.

However, as international travel became popular, the vacationing masses abandoned the Rockaway outposts. The area fell into disrepair in the early 1960s and was designated an urban renewal area by the end of that decade. By 1973 the entire locale was demolished.

“There were a number of attempts to develop the land,” said Gaska. “There were plans for a casino at some point. Then in the eighties there were plans for high-rise buildings.” But it was only in the late 1990s that the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) came up with a viable idea, he added.

In 2001, property developer Benjamin-Beechwood LLC, in association with HPD, proposed the Arverne by the Sea development. It included 4,100 units of housing, half of which would be for middle-income buyers, a YMCA and a large Stop and Shop. The City quickly approved the plan.

“It will revitalize the whole peninsula,” said the Arverne project manager, Nick Masem. From his office in a container next to the construction site, Masem explained that the property sales in the development, which began in 2006, have defied the housing turndown seen elsewhere in the City. Only three of the 137 family houses are still unsold.

The popularity of the new homes should comes as no surprise – the area offers prime oceanfront real estate. Yet developers left eastern Rockaway well alone for much of last century. Arverne went into decline, owing largely to city government action in the 1950s and 1960s. They demolished vacant bungalows and in their place built grey pre-fab concrete high-rises in which to house the destitute and displaced poor. According to 2000 census records, nearly one-quarter of households on the east of the peninsula were below the poverty level.

Crime-rates soared as well; police department records show Rockaway’s easterly reaches had the highest increase in crime in the city in 2007. The area became attractive mainly to intrepid surfers and drifters with nowhere else to go. Now there will be more people like Adiel Campos, a 38-year-old police officer who moved to Arverne with his wife and three children last year.

“It’s just so nice and quiet here,” he enthused. Campos added that he looked forward to the YMCA opening up, even if it meant more traffic in the area. It will be the Y’s largest aquatics facility in the city, including two indoor swimming pools.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg broke ground on the YMCA site in 2006, work only began on it two weeks ago. YMCA representative, Kevin Shermach explained that there were “issues,” including permit delays and an unsuccessful request by the community to enlarge one pool.

The facility that is now going ahead is expected to serve 10,000 youths and 5,000 adults from the surrounding area each year. “We currently don’t have an indoor pool or recreation center of that size and scope,” said Gaska. “It will be great for the kids and a place for people of all ages to enjoy,”

Construction on the $22.3 million Stop and Shop supermarket, which is being built on the 55,620 square feet between Beach 69th and Beach 73rd Streets, began last week, according to the developers.

Meanwhile, the new residents of the Arverne neighborhood eagerly await the local amenities. Abe Mossallam, an airline pilot who moved to Arverne with his pregnant wife and 18-month-old baby in July, admitted that living without a supermarket nearby had been irritating. “It’s getting annoying, especially now my wife is seven months pregnant. She has to drive for 20 minutes to get the groceries.”

Mossallam stressed, however, that he was delighted with the move to Arverne from Brooklyn. “My neighbors are outstanding, the development is beautiful, and I can’t wait for the YMCA to open up so I can back into a gym routine,” he said.

Arverne by the Sea sales manager, Laura Sporney, said that 40 per cent of her business came from the referrals of residents. “To have that high a level of referrals, well it means you’re doing something right,” she said cheerfully.

According to developers, the YMCA and the Stop and Shop should be completed within 18 months. Nick Masem predicts that once these amenities are in place, another 20 to 30 homes will automatically be sold in the development.

“Property values will go up and jobs will be created. Everybody wants to see this succeed,” he said.

And indeed expectations for the project are high. As Rohan Sinha, a banker who moved to Arverne with his wife in August, put it, “What could be better than waking up every morning with a view of the ocean?”

Charles Park: Is Help on its Way? by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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Will Shafroth, left, deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior, toured Charles Park Monday with Friends of Charles Park founder Dorothy McCloskey and Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica).

For most Howard Beach residents, it may be too soon to hope for the unimaginable: a neighborhood park that’s litter-free, verdant and in tip-top shape so tennis players, baseball dynamos of all ages, runners, walkers and children will have a space they’re proud to call their own.

What may be in the near forseeable future, however, is a promise that Charles Park is on its way to gaining the attention it deserves. On his first trip ever to Queens on Monday, Will Shafroth, deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks for the U.S. Department of the Interior, made a beeline for Charles Park at the request of both Friends of Charles Park founder Dorothy McCloskey and Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica).

Shafroth spent the afternoon surveying the park’s neglected baseball fields, tennis courts, benches and myriad destroyed trees, stopping residents to quiz them on their ongoing concerns. He was accompanied by McCloskey, Meeks and Maria Burks from the National Parks Service, which owns Charles Park.

“It was an eye opener for a lot of reasons,” Shafroth said. “The tennis courts clearly need to be resurfaced, the baseball fields need work and landscaping needs to be addressed.”

The two main obstacles in the way of refurbishment, he said, are a lack of funding — a challenge for parks across the country — and the fact that, although owned by NPS, Charles Park has unique elements more consistent with a city park.

“There are challenges like how to cut the grass on the baseball fields and what’s the mixture between clay and sand needed on the baseball diamond,” he said. “These aren’t day to day things NPS officers are trained to do.”

But McCloskey, who said she is very appreciative of Shaforth and Meeks’ efforts, said NPS has been in charge of the park for 30 years and excuses won’t cut it. “The idea that kids who play baseball and live within a mile of the park have to travel to play is absurd,” she said, referring to the local baseball teams that no longer practice in Charles Park because of its state.

Tony Modafferi, who has lived across the street from Charles Park for 25 years, says he has seen improvements made to the park maybe two times during this time span. The baseball fields, which he calls the worst in the city, are made up of weeds, rocks and ditches, now that their original clay has been washed away and not replaced. “It pains me to drive through other neighborhoods and see how beautiful their parks are, only to wake up every morning and look at the sorry state of our park,” Modafferi said.

Both Modafferi and McCloskey are hopeful, however, that Shafroth’s attention is the start of a new era for Charles Park. In addition to analyzing the area, Shafroth says he is working with Meeks and NPS to determine what happened to the $1 million appropriation the congressman earmarked for the park two years ago. “We need to give it some focus and we can figure it out,” Shafroth said of the missing money.

NPS did not return phone calls.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Pushing To Be Free In School From PCBs by Hashim Rahman - City Limits

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Parents and pols seek state-of-the-art evaluations of school toxicity, and ways to address a potentially huge health threat.

PCBs are resilient; their legacy is permanency. Thirty years after their ban, these hardy chemical compounds persist in our lakes, our rivers, our bodies, and a broad diversity of animals and plants. In New York City, a growing number of parents and political leaders are trying to rid school buildings of the long-standing presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

Mounting concerns were set off last year by the Daily News, which publicized state-certified lab tests that showed high levels of PCBs in building caulking for six city public schools. Since this report, one parent has decided to sue the school system to compel PCB remediation, and several elected officials have advocated new legislation.

The impending lawsuit and proposed legislation will be highlights of a press conference Tuesday, June 23 by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. at Department of Education headquarters at Tweed Courthouse. Diaz plans to reiterate his support for concerned parents like Naomi Gonzalez, the parent who has decided to sue the DOE after unsuccessfully trying to remove her children from PS 178 in the northeast Bronx, a school where the Daily News tests found PCB levels that were 2,000 times the EPA limit. Federal law proscribes substances which contain PCB concentrations that are greater than 50 parts per million, stating that anything above this limit presents an “unreasonable risk of injury to human health.”

Diaz will also announce his support for the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public Schools Facilities Act. This legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last month, contains two provisions aimed at helping schools fund PCB cleanup. The legislation proposes the use of federal low-interest loans and grants to cover a certain percentage of PCB cleanup fees, which can be expensive. The Act’s PCB-related provisions were drafted by U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, and his fellow Bronx Congressman Jose E. Serrano, both of whom represent many Bronx parents for whom PCBs in schools has become a concern.

Diaz will also express support for an amendment to state law that would mandate testing for PCBs in city schools. This amendment was introduced to the State Assembly last year by Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, and has remained stalled there ever since.

Attendees of the borough president’s conference will include other politicians who have taken an active role in this issue, parents who send their children to schools where PCBs are a concern, and members of the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, the nonprofit firm that is representing Gonzalez.

Another topic of discussion will be why neither the DOE nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency is moving to conduct a citywide remediation of PCB-laden caulk – one of the most prevalent indoor sources of the contaminant. At the end of April, the DOE announced that it would decontaminate soil around 15 schools, but it expressed no intention to remove building caulking in the absence of renovations.

The EPA and DOE may change course in the future, but as of now, many children are attending schools that may well pose risks to their health.

Not cool for school

PCBs were first commercially manufactured in 1927. Problems from human exposure were soon revealed, in the form of acne-like pustules on the skin. A decade later, many experts understood that PCBs could cause serious health effects, but lobbying, cover-ups by manufacturers, and uninformed government administrations kept production moving forward.

PCBs were used in building caulking for its tendency to make sealant more elastic. This practice continued until 1978, when Congress banned most uses of PCBs. But by then, America’s baby boom was over, and along with it the resulting school construction boom of the 50s and 60s.

Many experts note that PCB levels have not declined as quickly as public awareness of PCBs’ toxic effects has grown. One expert, physician David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at SUNY Albany, authored a 2006 report documenting many PCB heath hazards, which are better understood today than 30 years ago. Some of these risks include the ability of PCBs to suppress the immune system, alter the reproductive system, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, enhance the effects of other carcinogenic substances, and reduce IQ and alter behavior in early life.

“One of the major health effects caused by PCB exposure is that it reduces the ability to learn,” said Carpenter. While that's a problem in any setting, “This is just totally counterproductive for an academic environment such as a school," he said. "It is very well documented that PCBs can reduce IQ, shorten attention span, and alter behavior.”

Robert F. Herrick, senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that “there is barely a week that goes by when there isn’t an article somewhere in the world that suggests the developmental toxicity is a source of greater concern” than in years past.

Money matters

The 21st Century Green High-Performing Public Schools Facilities Act provides for a crucial factor in addressing the PCB problem – money. Especially amid today’s budget-cutting, schools are hard-pressed to initiate costly efforts. The New York Times reported that cleanup of contaminated soil alone at French Hill Elementary in Westchester ranged between $100,000 to $400,000 – an effort spurred by a worried parent, which has served to inspire other parents, including in the five boroughs. Removal of caulking, which trims windows, doors and expansion joints, can be even pricier, especially since PCBs can migrate from the caulking to concrete, wood and other building materials.

If passed by the U.S. Senate, the Green Schools Act will provide federal funding to schools for renovations and repairs that will improve environmental standards. Due to efforts by Crowley and Serrano, PCB remediation was incorporated into a list of activities that will earn schools this kind of funding.

Crowley spokeswoman Angela Barranco said that even though it is too early to tell exactly how much each school will obtain, the legislation will serve as an important step to encourage schools to start testing. Because schools are not testing, it is difficult to determine the scope of the problem and its associated costs, Barranco said.

Cleanup also will be expensive because of the scope indicated. Approximately 260 public schools were built in New York City during the time when PCBs were used, meaning that the six schools tested by the Daily News might represent just the tip of the iceberg.

At a recent community meeting in Co-op City aimed at providing concerned parents with a forum to share concerns, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest attorney Miranda Massie, who represents parent Naomi Gonzalez, suggested that money was a major reason for why so little is being done at present. “They are simply terrified about how much this is all going to cost,” she said to the crowd of concerned parents.

Claire Barnett, executive director of the Albany-based Healthy Schools Network, said that costs are a major problem with this issue.

Massie inferred that shortage of money, and fear of costs, has encouraged the DOE to mislead the public regarding the dangers posed by PCBs. Massie said that one of the main ways in which the DOE was misinforming the public was by the use of “bogus,” outdated tests.

After the Daily News had stirred concern via its own investigation, the DOE conducted air and wipe tests within several school buildings. Although the DOE did not test the building caulk itself, the air and wipe tests revealed little or no trace of PCBs in the air or on interior surfaces. The DOE used the results of these tests to calm parents’ fears.

Massie asserts that the DOE used air and wipe tests that were designed in 1977, well before much was known about the specific dangers of PCBs to children. She said the tests were designed for adult males, but according to what is known today, those tests should not be used for anyone.

Herrick, the Harvard expert on PCBs, said that “these tests did not accurately assess the situation.” Since PCBs do not volatilize into air from caulking at all points in time, Herrick said that the air and wipe tests, which covered limited spaces and limited durations of time, cannot represent that the children are not being exposed to PCBs.

Asked whether the DOE has a position on the validity of the Daily News’ tests, spokeswoman Marge Feinberg declined to answer, and would not comment at all on this issue. Asked the same question, EPA press officer Elias Rodriguez said “no,” without any further elaboration.

Herrick, who is familiar with the state-certified lab the Daily News used for the caulking tests, did have an opinion. He said that “there is no doubt in my mind that these tests are valid.”

Parents’ precautions

Whether the fear of expensive remediation actually caused the DOE to choose a testing method that is less likely to show the presence of PCBs is a matter of debate. But there is a growing perception that the DOE is not committed to learning the truth about PCB exposure in the schools and acting on it.

At the Co-op City meeting, parent Tyrone Jenkins summed up this perception by saying, “the Department of Education is really being calculative in misinforming people.” Other parents stepped up to the podium and expressed a similar sentiment.

Gonzalez even said that the point at which she first became truly concerned was when the DOE was not able to properly answer her questions at a parent meeting. Gonzalez is a full-time teaching assistant with two children at PS 178, in first and fifth grade. She resents that her children’s school has been neglected while a school like PS 199, located in an affluent part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was cleaned up after parents began complaining about PCBs. She says she is bringing her lawsuit as a way to get the DOE to respond to her community in a more truthful and accurate way.

Massie also said that Gonzalez’ lawsuit was announced to encourage a more active response from the EPA, which is in charge of enforcing law that regulates the use and cleanup of PCBs. Nevertheless, at the Co-op City meeting she said that, pursuant to the announcement of the suit, “the EPA has taken the position that these outcomes do not trigger anything – they don’t trigger a need to confirm or non-confirm the test results.”

EPA spokesman Rodriguez said in an e-mail that the agency suspects that many schools do have PCBs in their caulk, and the EPA is encouraging remediation by monitoring activities of the DOE and School Construction Authority. That has translated into little action, however, at the many schools that may still contain PCBs in building caulking.

Both Carpenter and Herrick suggest that modernized, standardized ways of measuring PCB exposure are needed.

Until then, activists like the Bronx parents will take inspiration from people such as Daniel Lefkowitz, the father whose difficult fight ultimately rid PCBs from his child’s elementary school in Yorktown Heights several years ago, and who started a website on the topic. The issue of PCBs in schools might not be as well known today without his efforts.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will win this fight,” Massie told the Co-op City audience. “But be prepared for a long, hard fight.”

- Hashim Rahman

Correction: Tests showed PCB levels at PS 178 in the northeast Bronx to be 2,000 times the EPA limit, not 200 times the limit. Also, according to the Daily News, in April the DOE said it would clean up 15 school sites, not 19. 6/23/09

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Assemblymember Mike Miller Opens Woodhaven Assembly District Office - Forum News

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Democratic Assemblyman Mike Miller recently announced the opening of his new district office on Woodhaven Boulevard, replacing his old temporary location on Myrtle Avenue.

The new office address is 83-91 Woodhaven Boulevard, which is located in a newly-constructed building on the northbound side near Park Lane South. Since his election in September, the assemblyman had been operating out of the same building used by his predecessor, Anthony Seminerio.

Miller took office after winning a special election to replace Seminerio, who resigned after pleading guilty to influence peddling in connection. Seminerio was accused of forming a consulting company in order to shake down area hospitals in return for political favors.

Miller’s spokeswoman, Sierra Perez-Sparks, said that the assemblyman began using Seminerio’s old Myrtle Avenue office because it allowed him to immediately begin serving constituents of the 38th District, which includes Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. Now that his operations are up and running, his staff has made the move to their new office in Woodhaven, she said, which is more central to the entire district.

The new office can be reached by phone at (718) 805-0950 or fax at (718) 805-0953. It will be open seven days a week.

Forest Park Rape Suspect in Custody by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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A man suspected of rape and sexual assault in Forest Park this year is in custody, police said.

Carl Wallace, 29, from Brooklyn, was arrested on Oct. 28 after cops suspected he is the same man responsible for at least one of the three sexual attacks that took place in or just outside the park within the past five months, the 102nd Precinct confirmed this week. Wallace was denied bail and has been charged with first-degree rape, predatory sexual assault, first-degree robbery and unlawful imprisonment in the first degree.

Wallace’s DNA was found to match that of a 29-year-old woman who was raped on Sept. 24 at around 3 a.m., according to the Queens District Attorney’s Office. The victim was reportedly dragged at knife-point to a wooded area near the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Park Lane South, where the defendant allegedly raped and threatened to stab her if she screamed. After the attack, the man stole cash, an iPod and identification from the victim’s bag before fleeing.

The victim was treated at a Queens hospital, where she immediately submitted to testing that has helped in the capture of her assailant.

It is still unknown if the man is suspected in connection with a rape and a sexual assault that occurred on one day in July in or around the park. At 6 p.m., a 60-year-old woman said a man tried to rip off her clothes while she was exercising near Myrtle Avenue. He fled after she began screaming. At 7:45 that same evening, a 47-year-old woman was reportedly raped while walking near Freedom Drive.

Wallace, whom police said has eight prior arrests, was arraigned in Queens Supreme Court on Nov. 9 and will next appear in court on Nov. 30.

Maria Thomson, president of the 102 Precinct Community Council, said she is among those Woodhaven residents relieved to hear of the arrest. Many area women reported feeling uneasy walking around the park since the incidents occurred this summer.

“They announced the arrests at the community council meeting,” Thomson said. “It was a fact, it was a great fact — we are all very pleased.”

Washed Up Body Identified as Tattooed Mom from Queens, N.Y. - The Trentonian News

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A missing Queens, N.Y., mother with a sister in Willingboro has been identified as the woman whose tattooed body was found washed up on Newbold Island in the Delaware River.

Farisha Rahamot-Ali, 38, was a native of Trinadad who was reported missing in New York City on Oct. 27. A kayaker found the body on Nov. 14 on the northwest bank of the island which is part of Mansfield Twp., Burlington County.

But nobody knew who the woman was, until recently, when her sister who lives in Willingboro “was searching the New Jersey State Police Web site when she saw the press release with a composite drawing and photos of her sister’s tattoos,” reported Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Jones.

Rahamot-Ali is decorated with a colorful phoenix tattoo on her shoulder, and flowers around an ankle. The sister, who was not identified yesterday, then contacted detectives at the NJSP’s Bordentown station “to tell them of her suspicion that the body was that of her sister.”

Jones said Rahamot-Ali was positively identified by dental records.

The death has been termed very suspicious, but an autopsy Nov. 15 by the Burlington County Medical Examiner failed to define the cause and manner of death.

School Windows Still Contain Toxic PCBs by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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By the time they’re in school, most children grow accustomed to hearing their parents echo cautionary instructions so common they’ve become part of the fabric of our society: wash your hands before eating and look both ways before crossing, to name a few.

But Naomi Gonzalez, a Bronx mother of two, has instilled in her 7-year-old daughter advice that may seem unorthodox at first.

“I don’t let her drink the water in school, and she knows to ask not to sit by the window,” Gonzalez said.

Her daughter’s school, P.S. 178, is one of 85 citywide public schools — 20 of which are in Queens — where the Department of Education found traces of toxic PCB-contaminated caulk on classroom windows last year. Gonzalez, along with parents in the Bronx and Manhattan, has filed a lawsuit against the DOE and School Construction Authority. And, with the help of attorneys from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, parents from Queens may not be far behind.

“These are really, really, really bad compounds,” said Miranda Massie, a lawyer at NYLPI. “There’s no doubt that other schools that haven’t been tested have been affected.”

Before the 1970s, PCBs, which stands for polychlorinated biphenyls, were added to the caulking material used to cushion window and door frames to make them more elastic, according to the NYLPI. Although they were banned in 1979, products that may still contain the compound include electrical equipment, oil-based paints, floor finishes and caulking — which has recently been found in abundance on many school windows.

PCBs volatize into air and don’t stay in place, Massie said, affecting the quality of air students breathe, as well as the soil around a facility.

“Even if they replace the windows, that doesn’t do it,” she said. “You need a complete clean up.”

The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes PCBs as potential cancer-causing agents in humans based on studies that found they caused cancer in animals. The toxin has also been known to negatively impact the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. According to David Carpenter, director for the Institute for Health and the Environment, PCB exposure, whether by inhalation or ingestion of PCB-contaminated foods, causes an irreversible loss of cognitive function and results in increased symptoms of hyperactivity, decreased general performance and decreased ability to deal with frustration — all of which constitute what is known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

At P.S. 65 in Ozone Park, which was built on a former industrial site where helicopter parts were made, a similar uproar was heard among parents when the toxin trichloroethylene was found beneath the building. TCE is known to cause liver, kidney and nerve damage. Many parents came forward to protest the unsafe conditions and the DOE retained external testers to test the quality of air inside the school.

“Kids were coming home with headaches,” recalled David Quintana, an education advocate.

At first, the DOE tried to sweep the PCB problem under the rug, Gonzalez and Massie said. “I attended a school meeting and left fuming,” Gonzalez said of a hearing two years ago with DOE health officials where parents were told the results of caulk studies performed on schools couldn’t be provided yet.

“Our children’s safety is too important to be casually dismissed by school construction authorities or anyone else,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. “Parents in the past have tried to raise money for independent assessments of those schools where PCBs were found, but this is something the city should provide.”

After what Massie calls more than a year of “dishonest denial” on the part of the DOE, the agency is now working to rid schools of the toxins, they say.

“We are engaged in positive and productive discussions with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop an agreement on a plan to address the PCBs in NYC public schools,” the DOE said in a statement.

PCB-contaminated caulk found by DOE
  • J.H.S. 25, Flushing
  • J.H.S. 67, Little Neck
  • J.H.S. 158, Bayside
  • I.S. 210, Ozone Park
  • P.S. 13, Elmhurst
  • P.S. 22, Flushing
  • P.S. 49, Middle Village
  • P.S. 68, Ridgewood
  • P.S. 76, Long Island City
  • P.S. 84, Astoria
  • P.S. 130, Flushing
  • P.S. 159, Bayside
  • P.S. 164, Flushing
  • P.S. 169, Bayside
  • Beach Channel H.S., Rockaway
  • Cardozo H.S., Bayside
  • Cleveland H.S., Ridgewood
  • Hillcrest H.S., Jamaica
  • H.S. Teaching Professionals, Bellerose
  • John Bowne H.S., Flushing

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meet Your New Members — Jimmy Van Bramer by Chris Bragg - City Hall News

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Diehard Mets Fan and Union Child Heads to Council

On the evening of Nov. 2, Jimmy Van Bramer made one last trip to an apartment building in Sunnyside that he had canvassed frequently during his Council campaign.

In a matter of hours, polls would open in Van Bramer’s general election face-off against an unknown 24-year-old Republican in a heavily Democratic district.

But taking nothing for granted, Van Bramer went for one last round of door-knocking—and upon seeing Van Bramer, a supporter broke into laughter.

She said, ‘Dude you are hardcore! 8:30 at night, running against a Republican?’” Van Bramer recalled.

A relentless work ethic helped Van Bramer, 40, win a spirited primary over Queens County-backed Deirdre Feerick. He then coasted to a general election victory.

Van Bramer, head of outreach for the Queens Public Library, credits this work ethic to growing up in a large Irish Catholic family in Astoria: the examples set by his mother, who worked at the check-out counter of two different grocery stores, his father, a press operator for the New York Times, and his step-father, a public school custodian.

Van Bramer’s parents were also both active union members, which has given the Working Families Party-backed Van Bramer a strong appreciation for the role unions can play in working peoples’ lives.

We didn’t grow up with lots of money, but I was aware that the opportunities to pay the rent, or to have health care, were there because we were a union family,” he said.

Those who know Van Bramer say his working class sensibilities also shaped the campaign he ran.

He didn’t have big-money friends or a lot of personal resources to draw on,” said Brad Usher, a close friend who serves as chief of staff for State Sen. Liz Krueger. “He built his own success through hard work.”

Van Bramer and Danny Dromm broke new ground this year by becoming the first two openly gay Council candidates to win election in Queens. They are part of a circle of gay activists that began taking shape in 1991, when Tom Duane became the first openly gay Council member, in a campaign run by a young Christine Quinn.

In 2001, Van Bramer ran an unsuccessful Council bid against Helen Sears in the neighboring Jackson Heights district. He later moved into the district represented by Eric Gioia, whom he was elected to succeed.

This year, Dromm defeated Sears. But though they blazed a new trail together, Van Bramer and Dromm also have a longstanding political rivalry and a somewhat frosty relationship.

Since they both won election, however, the two have met up several times and have begun to iron out their differences, Van Bramer said.

What’s important is that we both made it,” Van Bramer said. “We both got to where we wanted and that’s an enormous victory.”

Now that the campaign is over, Van Bramer, a die-hard Mets fan, is also hoping to catch a few games next year after missing all of this season because he was too busy canvassing. At the least, Van Bramer says, this spared him from having to witness to the team’s dreadful season.

During an hour long interview, the normally forthright Van Bramer dodged only a single question: whom he rooted for in a World Series that featured the Yankees and Phillies, the Mets’ two biggest rivals.

I’m going to take the fifth,” Van Bramer said. “I have some supporters who are Yankees fans.”

Meet Your New Members — Mark Weprin by Selena Ross - City Hall News

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Moving to City Hall to Tackle Education, with a Lady Gaga Soundtrack

As Mark Weprin racked up endorsements from elected officials and union heads in his Council race in Eastern Queens, his opponents criticized him for getting as far as he has for one reason: his last name.

Weprin entered politics by succeeding his father, Saul, who briefly served as Assembly speaker, and when he decided to trade the Capitol for City Hall, he quickly moved to the front of the race to take over from his brother David.

I like to think that my family and the fact that I’m so deeply rooted makes me a better legislator,” he said. “I’ve become much more thick-skinned over the years. Time passes.”

In the Assembly, he boasted an almost perfect attendance record, and set out to build coalitions across the aisle and with members from upstate.

When he talks in conference, or on the floor of the Assembly, people listen, because he doesn't speak if he doesn’t have anything to say,” said senior Assembly Member John McEneny. “I think he has that institutional memory that goes beyond his own service.”'

He will be arriving in the Council, however, with the reputation of someone who brings levity to legislating.

One Assembly colleague, who wished to remain anonymous, remembered the time that he and Weprin baffled Michael Fitzpatrick, the chamber's most conservative member, by switching the two buttons on his desk: normally red for no, and green for yes. As Fitzpatrick tried to vote ‘no’ over and over again, his vote kept coming up on the screen as a ‘yes.’

During the campaign, Weprin was also criticized for wanting to trade his Assembly seat for a local one just so he could spend less time commuting. It is not a charge that he wholly denies. He and his wife have two sons, 13 and 10, and a 19-month-old daughter, and Weprin’s favorite books and music—Harry Potter, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Lady Gaga—attest to his priorities.

I used to like The Clash,” he said apologetically. “I listen to Top 40 with my sons... um, the Sesame Street soundtrack in the car?”

But as a politician, his immersion in the world of kids has also made Weprin a champion of local schools. He ran for Council partly to have a greater voice on education in his district. He is strongly opposed to the new emphasis on standardized testing and wants to give school superintendents more control over their districts.

What’s upsetting to me is that they’re not necessarily learning information, they’re learning how to give the right answers,” he said, remembering how one of his sons explained the best strategy–when in doubt, choose C. “Why are we guessing? We’re guessing to help the teachers, the principal, the chancellor and the mayor.”

Meanwhile, Weprin has still been texting back and forth eagerly with some his fellow first-termers, and is excited to talk to the rest at the upcoming meet-and-greet freshman dinner.

It’s almost like going away to college versus going to a commuter school,” Weprin joked. “It’s that first-day-of-school feeling, even though I’ve visited the school on numerous occasions. I’ve even audited some classes there.”