Tag Archives: New York City

View with a Room

For Will New York City

Published: October 7, 2012

Crumble in the Bronx

Threats to New York City’s Affordable Housing ♦

Note: This reported, unpublished story was written as part of a master’s program at the Columbia School of Journalism.

With her peppery grey hair cut efficiently short, but dyed a youthful honey blonde, Martha Castro is a modern matriarch. At sixty-six, this mother of five children and grandmother of ten balances a mix of contradictions. She is a former mental health worker who only recently gave up her post-retirement bartending job; a cruise enthusiast with a fear of water; and, somewhat reluctantly, the president of her building’s tenant association.


Soundview in the Bronx

Her apartment, a two-bedroom ground floor in the Soundview area of the Bronx, reflects the pride Castro takes in her family. Two-decades’ worth of accumulated objects crowd the living-dining room and a small hallway. Goblets, souvenir shot glasses and tumblers glint from every exposed surface. Framed family photos and certificates that Castro received for community service tile the walls.

A closer look, however, reveals that these walls hold more than accolades and memorabilia. Great patches of discolored paint point to massive seepage and structural problems. This Christmas, Castro hung her decorations strategically over waterlogged patches. For the past several years, she and her fellow tenants at 1585 East 172nd Street have been waging guerilla warfare against mold, vermin and cracks – trying to keep their homes from falling apart.

[more-button link=”http://www.sonalshah.in/crumble-in-the-bronx#anchor1″]READ MORE[/more-button]

Published: April 8, 2010

Uptown Takedown

Wrestling takes hold in Harlem ♦


Kappa IV students warm up before their first match. (Photo by Nate Rawlings)

In Harlem, basketball and football are the most popular sports. But at Kappa IV, a public middle school at St. Nicholas and 135th Street, wrestling is gaining traction. The afterschool classes started a month ago, when an organization called Beat the Streets teamed up with Jets of Harlem, the youth football league. Sonal Shah reports from Kappa IV. (Click play below to hear more.)




Originally published in The Uptowner, November 24, 2009.

Published: November 24, 2009

The Lady and the Landmark

Ethel Bates wants a cooking school in the historic Corn Exchange. The city just tore part of it down ♦


An architect’s 1833 drawing of the Corn Exchange. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

Until she starts talking, Ethel Bates looks like anyone’s grandmother with her maroon windbreaker, a dun scarf wrapped turbanlike around her head. Short, forceful and sharp as a whip, this energetic 77-year-old community activist has spent much of the last decade in court – mostly pitted against various city departments. “She’s a little dynamo,” says Garry Johnson, Community Board 11’s treasurer and Economic Development Committee chair.

Johnson’s architecture consultancy on 125th Street looks right over the Corn Exchange, a landmark building that is the locus of Ethel Bates’ legal struggles. From the street, the 126-year-old red brick building decorated with ornate white masonry looks to be in good shape, though cosseted with scaffolding. From Johnson’s window, though, the building’s dilapidated innards present quite a contrast to the ordered lines of the adjacent Metro North station.


The building after demolition began in September. (Photo by Tim Kiladze)

The city is in the midst of carrying out an “emergency demolition” of the five-story building’s top three floors. Since 2003, Bates has officially been in charge of renovating this building, one of 125th Street’s scattered 19th-century landmarks. Bates, who harbors an above-average suspicion of government, claims that the disrepair is due not so much to neglect on her part as to obfuscation by the city and to the Department of Buildings’s “secret agenda.”

The Corn Exchange was built, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque-style, as the Mount Morris Bank by architects Lamb & Lamb. With well-appointed apartments on its upper levels (it earlier had seven stories, with gables at the top), the building later became the Corn Exchange, a bank that eventually merged with JP Morgan. Used briefly as a church, the building was abandoned in the 1970s and lay empty for almost 30 years. A fire destroyed the decaying upper levels before Bates decided to adopt the Corn Exchange as the site for a pioneer culinary school in upper Manhattan.

The Economic Development Corp. had doubts when Bates first approached the city with her proposal in 1999. “I wasn’t anybody as far as they were concerned,” Bates said. Bates said she got a boost from developer Lew Rudin, who put in a cameo appearance for her at an EDC meeting – “you would have thought a saint had walked in, or God himself.” Bates eventually landed an appointment with then-deputy mayor Rudy Washington.

Washington had “heard on the one hand that here was this elderly woman that had a good heart but who didn’t know squat and it would be a disaster to let her have this building,” Bates recalled. “On the other hand she was a person who had these certain merits.” Impressed by Bates’s personality and business acumen (she had studied business at New York University and City College), Washington told Bates that he was on her side.

So she was surprised to find that the building had suddenly been auctioned off to Elie Hirschfeld (son of Abraham), who she said just wanted to sell it back to her for three times the cost. Bates sued the city. It took a year for the decision, but she won her case as well as control over the Corn Exchange. In 2003, Bates held the property deed with a promise to develop the building in three years.

It wasn’t the first time Bates had sued New York. In the 1980s, she was involved in the restoration of Marcus Garvey Park. She sued the parks department after she was handcuffed by some of their officers.


Ethel Bates speaking at a Town Hall meeting (Photo by Edmund J. Eng)

Bates’ dream of opening a culinary school stemmed from a long history with foreign travel, food and art. Bates was born in Birmingham, Ala., but moved to New York with her father, a railway employee, her mother and her six siblings when she was a child. After college, Bates traveled to Europe and lived in France, England and Italy for several years. She worked as a contract negotiator for performers and traveled to Israel, Palestine and North Africa. When she returned to New York, she did everything from being an accountant to running a bakery.

Bates wanted to open a culinary institute because she felt that “in this community you have so many people who are able to do some cooking but they can’t compete. They can’t afford the Culinary Institute of America, they can’t afford the French Culinary… you can’t go and compete with somebody who’s got a reputation behind them and all you’ve done is work in a greasy spoon place.”

She was set on this building, “a place that gives you a certain amount of cachet… That’s my idea: save the building and do a culinary institute.” Bates had already signed on Ark Restaurants and several other potential tenants for the New Corn Exchange project.

Finding a developer proved more difficult. While candidates came to her in droves, Bates felt that each was after her valuable property and had no interest in creating a community culinary institute. Her unwillingness to cede equity control kept stalling the project.

Johnson felt Bates bears some responsibility. “I believe she’s had opportunities,” he said. “The real estate boom has come and gone now.” He said he knew of a big-name developer who had offered Bates a 49 percent stake in the building and that she had refused. He also said that the Community Board approached Bates with a proposal financed by its members. If Bates could not find a developer, he said, she should have tried to open the school elsewhere first, so that it could build a track record.

Bates’ account of her dealings with developers over the years is a laundry list of shady proposals and corrupt maneuvers. About once a year, a newspaper would report that restoration was about to begin. But Bates repeatedly wound up in court, fighting with would-be developers who she claimed wanted to wrest control of the building from her. The city held off on taking any action until 2007, when it moved to rescind Bates’ ownership.

Bates said she has spent $300,000 of her own money fighting cases and paying various fines the city imposed. She also arranged for the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Corn Exchange. Eventually, Bates filed for bankruptcy in order to restrategize. “We fought it nip-and-tuck,” she said.

Bates lost her plea for bankruptcy and the matter reverted to Supreme Court, where a judge ruled in January that the city could take over the building in a non-final disposition. The city claimed that the building was a danger to pedestrians and the 125th Street station and moved to tear down its top floors. Demolition began in early September, but Bates still hasn’t given up. She says her legal status is “sensitive,” but that she hasn’t given up on regaining control.

There is a discrepancy between the Court’s ruling that the deed revert to the city and an April 20 letter asking Bates’ group to take immediate action on repair and demolition. The letter stated that if Bates failed to take action, the city would move to demolish and “recover its expenses from you.” This summer, Assemblyman Adam C. Powell wrote to the Economic Development Corporation strongly backing Bates. The advocacy group Historic Districts Council wrote to Deputy Mayor Edward Skylar in August, stating that council members had visited the building and found the proposed emergency demolition unfounded. The members asked the mayor to intercede until “a more experienced developer can be found.”


The Corn Exchange in its heyday, circa the 1920s or 1930s. Until recently, the building had five of its original seven stories. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

The demolition of the Corn Exchange’s top stories may have been drastic. Calling for an emergency demolition allowed the Building Department to bypass authorization from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the name of public safety. In an April field report, investigators cited loose bricks in various places, but maintained that the protective scaffolding around the building was sound. Johnson, for one, believes that demolishing three floors was overkill and that the fifth floor is the only one that really had to go. “As an architect, I believe those are load-bearing walls,” he said.

Bates suspects that the city will wait, then propose another demolition and eventually hand the building over to a prominent developer. Developer Vornado owns the lot across the street and the Corn Exchange is prime property, with empty lots and the train station just next door.

If the building is restored by the city or someone else rather than commercially developed, it may never be profitable. Real estate agent Eugene Giscombe, whose office overlooks the Corn Exchange, thinks the building is “economically obsolete.” He estimated that even if the Corn Exchange were raised to 10 stories, the cost of building (about $13.5 million) would be far beyond the recoverable yearly rent ($1.35 million). Giscombe believes the only commercial solution would be to combine that lot with others around it. If the building remains a low-rise, he said, the landlord might be able to get tax incentives to rent to a non-profit.

In all this controversy, the building’s historical significance has been largely overshadowed. Johnson thinks the city should have better preserved the building’s shell. He pointed to the example of a mental asylum on Roosevelt Island that has been kept intact pending future development.

“Had it been in the Upper West Side or Upper East Side there would have been meltdown,” he said. “People would have been screaming bloody murder. This wouldn’t have happened. It just shows a complete disregard for the community.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, November 17, 2009.

Published: November 17, 2009

The Saints Come Marching into Her Living Room

Behind the scenes at Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions, an uptown institution. ♦

Over the years, Count Basie, Paul Robeson and other prominent Harlem musicians and artists have lived behind the embellished iron gates of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, just beyond Sugar Hill. In apartment 3F, jazz still lingers in the air every Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions have become an institution. For 15 years, with the help of her son Rudel Drears, Eliot has been throwing open her parlor to everyone from travelers toting cameras and guidebooks to neighborhood regulars who help pass around punch and cookies during intermission. “This is the real thing,” says German tourist Dom Schick, a recent visitor. “This is the Harlem jazz scene you hear about.”

In Eliot’s apartment, photos of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane share wall space with Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. Folding chairs are crammed into rows in the small living room, kitchen and hallway. Eliot welcomes everybody with the same enthusiastic smile. She’s “somewhere over 50” and frail but wiry, elegant in her flowing Sunday best with a halo of gray hair. Her voice is measured and she speaks with effort, but projects well – a holdover, perhaps, from her days on the stage and in the choir. Eliot opens each session at the piano, softly ushering in the evening with a hymn or spiritual.

Drears, whose father is percussionist Al Drears (who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others), sings and alternates with Eliot on the ivories. An energetic musician in a crisp white shirt and black fedora, with blocks of cubic zirconia twinkling in his earlobes, he is prone to fits of post-performance chuckling.

About 50 people show up at 4pm every week. Though well-known musicians like bassist Bob Cunningham have been regular performers, the audience doesn’t come to meet the stars. “People come in for one reason, and that’s to listen to the music,” Drears says. “Some people find this to be a religious experience. Some people come here right after church, for communion – but it’s about the music.”

What Eliot calls “Studio 3F” has all the inclusivity of a house of worship, but with the secret air of a speakeasy. Saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who has played here regularly, calls Parlor Entertainment one-of-a-kind. “I like it because it’s cozy,” he says. “It’s personal. And it’s different. I’m just playing with two pieces, maybe three pieces, but it’s not a full band. I’m raw.”

Eliot grew up in a house with two pianos and began singing in church. Her family moved to New York in 1962, where she raised her five sons on music. “Her mother was her first teacher, just like she was my first teacher,” says Drears. Always active in the arts, Eliot appeared in the original production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody”, the first African-American play to win a Pulitzer Prize. She acted in Sydney Lumet’s “Serpico” (playing a rape victim) and in a Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding”. She wrote her own play, “Branches from the Same Tree,” in 1980, and won an AUDELCO award in 2003. She’s also taught theatre and music to children.

She started the parlor sessions as a way to cope with the loss of her son Phillip, an actor who died 17 years ago, at 32, of a kidney infection. The first intermittent performances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but soon musicians from Eliot’s circle of friends began playing regularly on Edgecombe Street. Drears remembers that “in the early days, it used to be maybe five people. Some days we would go the laundry room and say ‘Come upstairs, we’re doing a show.’”

As the word spread, mother and son had to set out more folding chairs each week. “We haven’t missed a single Sunday in all these years. We’re here rain, snow, blizzards…” Drears says.

Eliot pays the musicians out of pocket and with help from friends and a donation drum. “I don’t want to be funded, so nobody can tell me how to do it,” she says, adding that she has “lots of loans.”

“It’s kind of on a shoestring budget,” Drears says.

Three years ago, Eliot’s son Michael, a rock and R&B musician, died in his late 40s after an illness of several years. “It’s hard,” Drears says, “but God keeps us going. One of the things that makes this so great is the people that come through. They’re here to hear the music and they may be transformed.”

Regular visitor Bessie Mullings used to sing with Eliot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion; she comes to the parlor after church each Sunday. “After the second son died, she took it pretty rough,” she says of her friend. “But she still got to hold on to the piano. You can’t tell people how to heal. She’s been built up now, she’s coming back.”

Parlor Entertainment has become “the essence of my life,” says Eliot. “Everything kind of jumps off of this, and that really speaks to the universal language of music. It nourishes the soul.” At one recent performance, she told an audience that on Sunday nights, she’s “so happy that I can’t go to sleep.”

“People power” keeps the piano tuned and the punch flowing, says Eliot. “So much love and goodwill comes through these doors every Sunday. Folks have taken what is a very sad story and they make something beautiful of it.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 27, 2009.

Published: October 27, 2009

Waiting for a Christopher Columbus

Viaduct Valley, Harlem’s “meatpacking district”, is trying hard to survive. ♦

Antonio Bruno’s Covo, huge by Manhattan standards, is ViVa’s anchor eatery. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

Antonio Bruno’s Covo, huge by Manhattan standards, is ViVa’s anchor eatery. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

Whipping up from the Hudson River, wind funnels through the cross streets between 125th and 138th Streets. Up on the Henry Hudson Parkway, traffic inches toward the George Washington Bridge. On the other side of 12th Avenue, which disappears under a stone bridge, Riverside Park rises out of a steep embankment. A handful of restaurants nestle in this unlikely spot, under the spidery arches of Riverside Bridge.ViVa, or Viaduct Valley, is the latest contender for Manhattan’s next big entertainment district. Yet, despite several successful launches, scattered news references to the “new Meatpacking District” and a few celebrity sightings, Harlem’s waterfront restaurants still face many obstacles.“It’s like a hidden valley,” said Fernando Mateo, an entrepreneur and activist whose wife, Stella, co-owns Talay, one of ViVa’s uptown upstarts. “This place is so beautiful but so uninhabited. We’re still waiting for a Christopher Columbus who can come and discover us.”ViVa’s earliest pioneer was the 35,000 square foot Fairway Market, sprawling across several blocks around 132nd Street. Fairway, which opened in 1995 in an area that some people considered unsafe, remained the sole draw for years. “You couldn’t walk down here,” Mateo said. “You would run from one block to the other.”

The area’s three most visible restaurants – Talay, Covo Trattoria and Body Bar & Grill –operate in an old meatpacking warehouse at the end of 135th Street. Building owner Peter Skyllas originally considered relocating his plumbing business there. The neighborhood “was infested with drug dealers,” Skyllas said. “You couldn’t come within 10 feet because of the stench of garbage.”

In late 2004, however, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, fired up its grills on 131st Street, just opposite Fairway. Dinosaur’s popularity made Skyllas reassess his property’s value. He knew that the Parks Department was developing the nearby Harlem Piers waterfront and that – eventually – Columbia University would expand into the area with its Manhattanville Campus.

“My whole idea was to bring the Meatpacking District to Harlem,” Skyllas said, acknowledging that urban planners have been talking about developing the 12th Avenue waterfront for at least 20 years.

Skyllas recruited Antonio Bruno, owner of the Morningside Heights restaurants Max Soha and Max Caffé, whose Italian menu he thought would make a good “anchor” for the area. Bruno needed a little more convincing. “When I first saw this place in 2004, I ran away,” he recalled at his airy, wood-oven-warmed restaurant Covo.

Skyllas found two other groups of tenants to open Talay, a Thai-Latin restaurant and lounge, and Body, a large restaurant and nightclub. As construction began on Skyllas’ warehouse, restaurateurs Hamlet Peralta and Max Piña opened Hudson River Café, just north of Fairway. Meanwhile, Skyllas successfully petitioned the city for permit parking, a sidewalk and a green island in front of his building.

In June 2008, just after Talay, Body and Covo opened, the Harlem Piers park opened. Further development seemed imminent and property prices rose. Warburg Realty, which managed Skyllas’ property in 2006, listed an asking price of about $85 per square foot per month on its web site – double what the realtor listed for the previous year. Still, ViVa rents were reasonable compared to similar locations along Broadway, which had no waterfront access.


Now shuttered and stripped of signage, Body Bar & Grill once hosted Shaquille O’Neill’s birthday party. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

As various owners, diners and critics recount, ViVa’s restaurant row enjoyed early success. Body caught on with well-heeled Harlemites and partygoers from further afield, who lined up outside on weekends. Shaquille O’Neill celebrated his birthday there and several cast members of “Harlem Heights,” Black Entertainment Television’s reality show about young, black professionals, counted Body among their favorite Harlem hangouts. Cast member Brooke Crittendon, Kanye West’s ex-girlfriend, wrote on the show’s web site that Body “could possibly be the crunkest club in the city right now.”The splash didn’t last long. Body regulars were surprised to find the club’s signage stripped in late August. Sam Benjamin, who organizes a black/Latino social networking group, arrived at the club for a September event and found it closed. Body’s owners, Rigo Herasme and Joe Robles, had given him no warning, he said.

The owners did not respond to calls, but earlier this year, Body’s chief financial officer, Felix Parache, said he departed after a “falling out” with the owners. “I’m guessing these people invested $1.5 million or more to fix the place and believe in my dream,” Skyllas said. “Running a restaurant is a difficult job. I personally wouldn’t get into it.”

The current economic climate makes running a new venue difficult. The trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News runs an online Restaurant Index; it plummeted between September 2008 and March 2009 and remains 30 percent below mid-2008 levels. Skyllas estimated that restaurant earnings, including tips, have fallen by as much as 60 percent. Bruno confirmed that the area had faced difficulties, though Covo makes more money than his Morningside Heights eateries.

Mateo acknowledged that ViVa is “definitely not coming up roses. Anyone who tells you that they’re making so much profit – it’s just not true. We’re barely breaking even.” Still, he remains optimistic.

Getting foot traffic is still the area’s biggest challenge. The restaurateurs want to dedicate the traffic island to Muhammad Ali, to include “a big statue – then it becomes a tourist attraction to bring people down,” Mateo said.

Though Harlem’s facelift continues, catering to the community’s changing clientele has proved a tricky business. In early September, Talay shut down briefly to turn its downstairs section into Pancho Gringo, a Mexican restaurant with a more “familiar” menu. But Body remains closed.

Visitors may be reluctant to walk from the 135th Street Subway station through Riverside Park. “There’s still that myth about Harlem – that it’s dangerous and people are scared to come down,” Mateo said.

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 20, 2009.

Published: October 20, 2009

Community, DNA Crucial in Serial Rapist Arrest

By Rachael Horowitz and Sonal Shah ♦


Posters, like this one outside City College, offered a reward for information about the serial rapist. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

After an intense two-month search, police have arrested the man they believe is responsible for raping and robbing four women in Hamilton Heights during August and September.

DNA from the suspect, 21-year-old Vincent Heyward, matches DNA samples from all the rapes, and a 5th attempted attack, according to officers from the 33rd Precinct.

At his September 21 arraignment, Heyward tried to escape the courtroom but was easily restrained. He will next appear in New York Supreme Court on October 22. “It’s too bad he got lawyered up,” said NYPD Deputy Inspector Scott Shanley. “I want to know what drives this guy.” Heyward had been in a Virginia jail for car theft and had been released in June.

Police involved the community in the investigation, widely publicizing a sketch of the suspect based on surveillance footage and victims’ descriptions. They also circulated still photos from the surveillance.

At a community meeting, Sgt. Richard Crespo from Manhattan Special Victims assured residents that the police were following all leads from the four attacks and encouraged local residents to provide information. He even urged people to “ask your kids to snoop around.”

“If this guy’s in jail, it’s because of the community and the police,” said Officer Alan Asusta of the NYPD Crime Prevention Section at a City College meeting after Heyward was arrested on September 21.

The rapist first attacked on August 1, assaulting a 59-year-old woman at knifepoint in the courtyard of 565 W. 148th Street at 2:45 a.m.. After the second attack on August 10 – on a 23-year-old woman at 144th and Convent Avenue – police began looking for a single perpetrator.

The rapist struck again at 4 a.m. on August 18 when he followed a 69-year-old woman into the lobby of an apartment building at 765 Riverside Drive as she returned from work. She was raped and robbed inside the building elevator.

In the last attack on September 7, a 28-year-old woman was raped in her apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue. The attacker jumped to her apartment’s fire escape from the roof of a neighboring building and entered through a bathroom window.

Details of the attacks led some residents to speculate early on that the rapist might be local. “I get the feeling he might be from the neighborhood,” Raquel Monserrate, who lives at 788 Riverside Drive, said in August. Police said that Heyward lived on Edgecombe Avenue, close to where the four attacks occurred, and they later confirmed that he probably picked out victims and followed them from the subway. Monserrate was avoiding going outside to walk her dog during those quiet hours. “Since that happened, we bought wee-wee pads,” she said.

Deputy Inspector Shanley hopes that the community involvement will remain even though this particular crisis has ended. “People have to realize he’s not the only rapist in the world,” he said.

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 13, 2009.

Published: October 13, 2009