Chinatown tenants today began a hunger strike in an ongoing fight for their homes. It’s the latest development in a two-year battle between the tenants of 85 Bowery and their landlord, Joseph Betesh.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Housing and Preservation issued a vacate order for the 75 people living at 85 Bowery. City officials deemed the building uninhabitable because of an unsafe central staircase. They required Betesh to make repairs before the tenants would be allowed back in.
Meanwhile, tenants have been living in nearby hotels and shelters because Betesh missed the city’s deadline to complete the repairs.
Tenants say that Betesh is using the lack of repairs as a tactic to force them out and raise the rent with new tenants.
E-Joo Young was at home with her grandchildren, a four-year-old and a newborn baby, when she was forced out of her apartment.
“I’ve lived in the building for twenty-some years, but they kicked us out in two hours,” she said.
Joe Betesh, the owner of 85 Bowery, said in a statement, “Our team is working diligently each day to repair and replace the severely damaged infrastructure of 85 Bowery and make the building safe for habitation.”
The strike began on the eve of the Chinese New Year, which starts on February 16.
Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, said the holiday focuses on the importance of family and people’s homes.
“The new year for the tenants is very symbolic,” she said. “It has a lot to do with home.”
Without access to their apartments, the tenants can’t use their ancestral shrines to properly celebrate the new year.
“We are supposed to be celebrating the lunar new year,” said E-Joo Young. “Instead we are out on the street.”
Six tenants say they will continue the hunger strike until the city pressures Betesh to make the required repairs and allows the tenants back in their homes.
Daniela Valdes Bennett and Ana Garcia, visiting students through the NYU Hurricane Maria Assistance Program, in Bobst Library at NYU. Photo by Claire Tighe
When Puerto Rican college students Ana Garcia and Daniela Valdes Bennett applied to transfer to NYU for their spring semester after surviving two hurricanes, they kept it a secret from each other. The friends broke the news through emojis — an airplane, followed by another airplane and an American flag.
“I texted her saying, ‘Hey, I have news,’” said Bennett. “Ana said, ‘I have news too.’ And we freaked out.”
Garcia and Bennett are two of the 57 students admitted to NYU for the Spring 2018 semester through the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program. Through the program, NYU covers full tuition, a meal plan, housing and health insurance for students whose educations were interrupted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.
“There were over 400 applications and several hundred more that were not completed,” said Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Programs at NYU. “We prioritized students with challenging living situations, no internet and who attended campuses with no electricity.”
Other major universities, including Tulane, Cornell and Brown, are offering similar programs this spring.
Bennett and Garcia decided to transfer after barely managing one semester on the recovering island. Throughout the fall semester, closed classrooms, destroyed equipment and loss of power made studying nearly impossible.
Garcia’s school was closed for weeks due to the storms.
“Water came through the roof and ruined all the computers, everything,” Garcia said. “When the school opened again, we were taking classes in different places. It was a mess. When classes resumed, the power wasn’t guaranteed.”
Today, 131 days after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans on the island continue to struggle with the lack of reliable power. According to status.pr, 69% of the island has electricity, leaving 450,000 people currently without power. Garcia’s family completely lost power for four months. For Bennett’s, it was three and a half months, but they still have intermittent outages.
“Just this morning my family lost power again,” said Bennett. “It’s coming and going. Talking to them on the phone makes me kind of sad to know that they are still there. My twin brother is still studying in Puerto Rico and he keeps calling me saying, “‘I’m so jealous of you.’ I know it’s hard for them.”
During the fall semester, both students did homework using flashlights and candles. To do research, they drained their cell phone batteries and used what little data they had. When it was time to recharge, they took their laptops and phones to local cafes and waited along with dozens of other people who shared surge protectors and outlets.
“There were so many lines,” said Garcia. “For everything.”
At the cafes, the young women submitted their applications to NYU, which felt like a much-needed relief from the stress in the aftermath of the storms.
“The situation is just so overwhelming,” said Garcia. “You can’t think of anything but getting your power back and being able to shower with hot water.”
For Garcia, the chance to attend NYU for the spring seemed like a second chance to buckle down after a semester lost to the hurricanes.
“I found out that I had gotten into the program while I was at the bakery charging my phone and my laptop,” said Garcia. “And then I started crying and the people at the bakery were like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yea, I’m just really excited. This is good news.”
On campus at NYU, the transfer students feel embraced by their peers, despite the differences in their experiences.
“As soon as I told my roommates I was from Puerto Rico, they asked me about the hurricane,” said Bennett. “They sat around the table and I told them all of my stories and they were like, ‘Oh my god, wow.’
But the visiting students feel like their peers aren’t talking about Puerto Rico as much as they should be.
“I do feel like a lot of people have forgotten about it,” said Bennett. “People think it’s over and there has been so much progress, so I don’t want to complain. But it’s not over yet.”
Protestors marched outside of City Hall in Lower Manhattan to voice their opinion against the Bedford-Union Armory development plan. Photo by Claire Tighe
On Thursday morning, Vaughn Armour, 67, stood outside City Hall wearing a shirt that read, “Bad For Crown Heights,” with bold emphasis on the B, F, and C.
“I made up this up myself,” he said.
Armour and fellow New Yorkers were continuing a months-long protest against the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory. The project, led by private developer BFC Partners, would convert the former National Guard building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, into a mixed-use neighborhood complex, featuring rental apartments, condominiums and a public recreation center. The city gained ownership of the building in 2013. It has remained mostly vacant ever since.
Armour, a Crown Heights resident of 17 years, worries that developing the armory will further gentrify his neighborhood.
“That armory is one of the biggest gentrification projects in Brooklyn,” he said. “So it’s going to have a big effect. (Developers and new tenants) come in and the longtime residents like me and my neighbors will be pushed out.”
Earlier this week, the City Planning Commission approved the plan to redevelop the armory. The City Council will review the plan before the end of the year. It currently has Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support.
Protesters chanted, “kill the deal,” a refrain of encouragement geared toward Laurie Cumbo, City Council Member of the 35th District, where the armory is located. Cumbo’s office said in an email statement that the Council Member’s position on the deal has not changed. She voiced her opposition in May 2017 and still plans to vote no.
Protesters say that the city council is likely to follow Cumbo’s lead about whether to approve the project.
“That’s not by statute, but it’s local tradition,” said Esteban Giron, 39, a Crown Heights tenant. “The city council follows whatever vote the local council person has.”
BFC Partners’ current plan offers the neighborhood 330 rental apartments units and 60 condominiums. Half of all the units will be considered affordable by city standards.
In statements to Commercial Observer and Patch, BFC Partners spokesman Sam Spokony said, “We’re committed to providing a new affordable recreation center, affordable office space for nonprofits and affordable housing for the Crown Heights community. As the Bedford-Union Armory continues to sit vacant, this is an opportunity to make it a place that truly serves local families.”
A war of words has erupted between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The Koreatown shopping district bustled with life on a recent Friday as people in Flushing, Queens, eased their way into the weekend. Shoppers glanced into store windows while passersby ran to catch buses with bags of groceries purchased at J-Mart inside New World Mall.
Daniel Cho, 52, hung clothing in his store on Roosevelt Avenue while pop music bumped from the speakers. An immigrant from South Korea, Cho spoke nonchalantly about the ongoing conflict between the United States and North Korea, which has become part of the normal backdrop in the lives of many Korean New Yorkers.
“Two crazy guys,” he said, dismissing the recent spats between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Last week, President Trump tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” a nickname he gave Kim Jong-un. In response, the North Korean leader threatened the United States, calling President Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
With the unpredictable nature of both leaders, many Korean Americans have been left to speculate about possible outcomes.
“I’m afraid of a war with North Korea and South Korea,” Cho said. “Kim Jong-un will never attack the United States. It’s too far and he is afraid. But with North Korea and South Korea, it’s a problem.”
Cho has a cousin in South Korea who he talks to sometimes, but doesn’t believe many people there are worried about a war.
“People are afraid a little bit,” he said, suggesting that probably only 20 percent of South Koreans fear that war is imminent.
Pyong Gap Min, Director of the Research Center for Korean Community at Queens College, said that he and his wife have extended family in South Korea, but do not worry too much about them. As for other Koreans in New York, Pyong does not think the possibility of war is constantly top of mind.
“I don’t think they worry as much as you think, in South Korea, too,” Pyong said. “Maybe North Korea will force the dialogue. There is no alternative. Trump is very dangerous. Kim Jong-un is more dangerous.”
Perhaps some Korean Americans take this stance because South Koreans have been living with the threat of war for decades. The first Korean War is technically still not resolved.
Recent reporting from South Korea suggests that South Koreans do fear a war, but their feelings have slowly simmered for many years and concerns may now seem commonplace.
While experts argue that a U.S. war with North Korea is unlikely, Jessica Lee, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Council of Korean Americans, thinks that many Americans feel less certain.
“Mainstream media and public debate on North Korea is really dominated by folks in the military and security experts,” Lee said. “They tend to get lost in the technical aspects of North Korea as a threat. They talk about nuclear weapons capability and sanctions. Meanwhile, for most Americans, it’s really hard to grasp what this all means.”
Lee suggested that many Korean Americans feel uncertain about a nonviolent resolution, or any one solution at all.
“The rhetoric in recent months has been very troubling,” said Lee. “In response, the Korean American community is very concerned. There could be miscalculations or an accidental stumbling toward war. It’s not clear to us whether there is an off ramp for things to calm down.”
Still, President Trump and Kim Jong-un appear to be goading each other into a nuclear war, a path that feels realistic for many older Korean Americans.
John Hong, 72, a real estate broker and community leader in Flushing, Queens, immigrated from South Korea 40 years ago. In between business calls at his office on Union Street, he spoke about his experience as eyewitness of the Korean War as a child in South Korea. Hong said that he and other Koreans his age worry about another war. About the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., Hong said, “I know it so well.”
“My generation experienced the Korean War, and worries about (another one),” Hong said. “Mostly we want a peaceful solution, but that is impossible. We don’t know what the future will be.”
Demonstrators gathered in Brooklyn Plaza for the March for Racial Justice yesterday. Photo by Claire Tighe
Like many people of color in New York City, Raheem Fayson, 35, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, comes into contact with law enforcement too often.
“I get stop-and-frisked on a regular basis,” said Fayson. As “a black man from inner-city Brooklyn, I be guilty by association. I can think of a million ways that racial injustice be impacting my community, but it’s all about what the masses is gonna do about it.”
Fayson joined thousands of others in Brooklyn Plaza, just below the Manhattan Bridge, for yesterday’s March for Racial Justice NYC. It was a demonstration aimed at bringing attention to issues affecting people of color, like gentrification, broken windows policing and immigration.
Many marchers voiced concern with recent tweets from President Donald Trump about NFL protests and his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
One demonstrator in the crowd wore a Colin Kaepernick jersey. Protestors held up signs that read, “Kaepernick for President,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Respect Women of Color.”
Denisha Jingles, 29, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, said the fight for racial justice wasn’t just about her as a black woman. It was for everyone, including black people, women, LGBTQIA folks, Muslims, and “our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
“New York City is a place full of what the world sees as diversity, but people still have their individual struggles,” she said. “Children are being suspended from schools and they’re coming into contact with police officers more often.”
Jingles also raised concern at the thousands of people arrested annually for jumping the subway turnstiles. According to a report from the state of New York, 89 percent of turnstile jumping arrests in 2017 were African American and Latino men.
That’s a problem,” said Jingles. “New York is great for the different amount of people we see, but New York definitely has work to be done.”
Under the banner of “racial justice,” demonstrators drew connections between the struggles faced by people of color locally in New York City and the actions of the federal government, especially those of the last week.
Destiny Arturet, 27, a Puerto Rican woman from Crown Heights, said she was present at the march to support people of color, especially Puerto Ricans, who weren’t receiving the care they needed after Hurricane Maria.
“The way that Trump has reacted to what’s going on in Puerto Rico is heinous,” she said. “People are dying. We have people who are without homes, without water, without food. I don’t feel like our federal government is acting the way that it should. It feels a bit devastating.”
Christopher Jackson, 30, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, thought it was important to respond to the federal actions he felt were “promoting hatred.” For Jackson, racial justice was a long time coming.
“When you don’t treat a wound for a long time, it becomes infected and starts to kill the body,” he said. “I think that’s happening now.
As Kendrick Lamar’s song “We Gon’ Be Alright” started to blare from the speakers, Jerin Arifa of Elmhurst, New York, spoke about her experience as a Muslim woman who was almost run over after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I look around the march here and see people of all races,” she said. “We’re only going to get through this if we’re together and if we really understand that (we are) very, very connected.”
The demonstration ended with a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. A sister march in Washington D.C. drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol on Saturday.
Visitors at The Women’s Building Block Party yesterday wrote their visions for the new Women’s Building. Responses read, “Liberation!” “Justice!” and “Equality!” Photo by Claire Tighe
Formerly incarcerated women and their advocates filled a Chelsea street yesterday for the second annual Women’s Building Block Party.
The block party was on West 20th Street, in the shadow of Bayview Correctional Facility, a former women’s prison. In the afternoon sun, the faded brick walls of the prison cast shadows over the white vendor tents. For many attendees of the block party, Bayview symbolized sad memories of their sentences and the injustice they faced as women who were once incarcerated.
“At first it was eerie to see some place I lived and used to look out the window and wish I was home,” said Iris Bowen, 59, of Mt. Vernon, New York. She spent four years in Bayview. “I remember many times crying. It feels like you’re the walking dead. You are alive and living and seeing life happen and you’re not there. That’s what it felt like, looking at Chelsea Pier, people rollerskating and going for walks, the cars. I wished I was there with my family.”
Bayview, a medium security prison, was closed right before Superstorm Sandy struck the city in 2012. The 153 inmates were sent to other facilities.
But this block party focused on second chances, which the prison building will have.
There is a plan to transform Bayview into The Women’s Building, a global hub for organizations working to advance the rights of women and girls. It is expected to be completed by 2022.
“The Block Party is to let the neighborhood know what The Women’s Building is about,” Bowen said. “A lot of people don’t know that this was a prison, a place of injustice. And now it’s a place of justice. It’s important for people to know what it was and what it is turning into. The transformation will be phenomenal.”
On a nearby stage, formerly incarcerated women performed for a crowd of friends, family members, and random passersby exiting the Highline. Along the sidewalk, women and gender advocacy groups distributed literature about their work.
Johanna Flores, 37, of Corona, Queens, is an employment coordinator for Hour Children, a nonprofit organization serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. She was hired there after her release from Bayview 14 years ago.
“It’s very important to continue supporting this population,” she said. “We have so many talents. There are so many leaders here that are formally incarcerated. We deserve a chance.”
Formerly incarcerated women, many of whom served sentences at Bayview and were involved with The Women’s Building process, took center stage at the block party. They gave live performances, staffed the booths, and ran the catering. For many, it was critical to draw attention to the experiences that women, specifically women of color, face with mass incarceration.
Shirelle Howard, 54, of the East Village, was incarcerated for 25 years. She felt many of the women she met were wrongly incarcerated, and that the right resources and education could have prevented them for entering the system.
“Most programs for incarcerated people are geared toward men,” Howard said. “This is for women who never had someone say, ‘Hey, come on over here. We’ve got something for you. When you get out of jail, you can still move forward.’”
Many of the Women’s Building Block Party vendors offered education and advocacy to keep women and girls out of jail.
Keila Pulinario, 43, of Long Island City, Queens, was incarcerated for two years at Bayview. During her sentence, she worked as a chef. Since her release, she started a catering company, Chi-Chi’s Kitchen, one of two food vendors at the block party. She spoke positively about the transformation of The Women’s Building.
“That’s a building that once held us in bondage,” she said. “The building itself has such significant sadness and bad memories. Now you’re looking at it in a positive aspect: geared toward helping women as opposed to oppressing us. I’m excited about that.”
Participants of the Abortion Access Hackathon, a three day, woman-dominated event hosted at Buzzfeed office in Gramercy Park. Photo by Claire Tighe
In the waning light of yesterday evening, 100 hundred participants of the Abortion Access Hackathon typed away on their laptops at Buzzfeed’s office in Gramercy Park. But this was not your typical fast-paced coding event competition, inspired by the tech bro culture of Silicon Valley.
Instead, the Abortion Access Hackathon facilitated collaboration between two groups who rarely ever meet: abortion advocates and technology experts. Together, teams did not compete for the best idea, but collaborated to build projects — like basic websites and databases — that would increase access to abortion.
The idea for the Abortion Access Hackathon originally came from Shireen Whitaker, 33, one of the event organizers from Sacramento, California. While working at an abortion provider, Whitaker’s team had decades of experience in the field but little knowledge about how technology could advance their work. She and another organizer of the hackathon, Emily Loen, 36, of Northern California, started to look for tech experts who would donate their expertise to the organization.
“Pretty much all of the people who worked (at the provider) had worked there since the ’70s when it started,” she said. We were the only ones who knew how to do anything digital or tech-related. We needed tech intervention from experts but didn’t have the resources to pay for it.”
Whitaker’s experience is a common one. Underfunded and understaffed, many abortion clinics and advocacy organizations do not have enough money or paid staff to engage software designers or engineers, whose expertise is often costly.
Dan Staples, 32, an engineer from Baltimore, Maryland, who works at National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), said the hackathon helped many groups for which basic technology, like a working website or database, is usually inaccessible.
“NNAF works with 70 local and regional abortions funds, many of whom do not have any paid staff and all have very limited budgets. Hiring tech consultants, web designers, and app developers is out of reach for them,” he said.
But the introduction of basic technology, such as a working website or searchable database, can make a crucial difference in the work of abortion providers, advocates and clients.
At this weekend’s hackathon, one of the teams improved the visuals on a website called ExposeFakeClinics.com. The website, which includes a short form that visitors can fill out detailing their experiences with crisis pregnancy clinics, was fairly basic. But it could save advocates hours of precious time in finding a provider when working with a patient for whom every minute counts. For a small nonprofit or provider’s office to code such a website without the expertise of an engineer would have been arduous and time intensive, if not nearly impossible.
“People who work in abortion care are very busy and their focus is client care,” said Wendy Robinson, 73, a board member at Abortion Conversation Projects from Western Massachusetts. “They don’t have hours to be Google searching. The small things make a big difference.”
The New York City Abortion Access Hackathon was preceded by two eponymous events earlier this year in California. For the organizers, engaging the unique creative and technology in New York City was tantamount.
“After our event in March, people kept saying, ‘When are you coming to my town?’ New York City is unique in that everyone in the abortion world (here) talks to each other, Loen said. “But I don’t know if they were talking to tech. We are here to modernize abortion access. Bringing people with an incredible amount of knowledge on the subject matter along with tech folks is the easiest way to make that happen.”