Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maximum City Under Seige

The terrorists have struck again in Mumbai. The city has been under seige for almost twelve hours, as gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades have stormed close to a dozen targets throughout India's largest city.

Among the notable locations attacked allegedly by the Deccan Mujahideen are the monumental Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus) train station, the iconic Taj Palace hotel, and popular Leopold's Cafe. These symbolic sites were struck because they represent the centers of elite life in Mumbai, where wealthy Mumbaikars, tourists, and Western expatriates mingle. The unprecedented scope of the attacks caught the city completely off-guard, as the gunmen entered into the city from boats that docked next to the Gateway of India.

VT station is where two million commuters come and go every day of the week. This is the primary transit hub for the residents of India's financial capital. The assaults inside this station come two years after a series of six blasts in the first class compartments on trains across Mumbai killed 200 people.

But the scale of last night's attacks went far beyond the crowded railways. Attacking tourist haunts, the Cama Hospital, a movie theater, and the creme de la creme hotels make this strike the most bloody and unusual series of coordinated terrorist actions that India has ever experienced.

Mumbai awoke Thursday morning to the shocking sight of the Taj Mahal Hotel burning and army snipers waiting atop the adjacent Gateway of India for the terrorists to emerge. Commandos attempted to end hostage situations at several locales across South Mumbai. Jamshetji Tata's jewel was crackling with the flames of a war initiated by a mysterious terrorist organization. Along with the Trident Oberoi hotel, the Taj is truly a landmark of opulence. Striking at this symbol of affluence makes an enormous statement. Combating so many centers of power with this new kind of terror sets a horrific precedent for the future.

Mumbai is a powder keg, and this explosive series of actions has shocked anti-terror security forces, whose leader was actually killed in gun battles with the terrorists. The level of planning that went into this operation is astounding, and the security forces need to bone up on their intelligence gathering.

Whether the goal of this multi-faceted operation was to destabilize Indian society, kill Westerners, or free Islamic prisoners, terrorism in India has been taken to the next level. It is baffling to try piecing together images of blood splattered across the floor of VT and multiple reports of middle-class, uncharacteristic hostage-takers. Although Western expatriates are disproportionately represented among the victims of the prolonged agony, many questions have yet to be answered.

Does this operation emerge in the anti-Western ideas of Pakistani madrasas? Has it boiled over from the deep poverty of Mumbai's overcrowded slums? How wide is the terror network that carried out the attack? What is the essence of their message?

My home for nine months has been victimized by political violence. But, my hope is that fear and hatred will not prevail in the city of dreams. While train services are running, stock exchanges, schools, and offices will remain closed on Thursday. The young perpetrators of these acts have caught a city that was not well-equipped enough for attacks of this scope, but the city will quickly rebuild.

Jai Mumbai!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Veteran's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue

On November 11th, the Veteran's Day Parade marched northward on Fifth Avenue, in a patriotic display of support for the various branches of the U.S. armed forces.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Got Khat?

Americans chew tobacco. Indians chew paan. Yemenis chew khat.

Ethiopians, Somalis, and a host of other East African peoples also chew the leafy substance. But, Yemenis are the most hooked – two-thirds are said to be khat consumers.

Khat is a mild stimulant stronger than caffeine but less potent than cocaine. Users feel a buzz that decreases appetite, increases sexual stamina, and hones concentration. It was carelessly enjoyed during wedding parties and holiday celebrations among Yemeni immigrants to the U.S. - from Dearborn, Mich. to New York City.

But that all changed, when federal drug authorities began treating khat users, growers, and dealers as criminals on the opposing side of the drug war. The subculture has been under siege by zero tolerance policies, but the Yemeni community is eager to appear unbothered by changes in law enforcement.

"We don't do that around here. We have come to this country to work 12 hours a day, and there is no time for that. Only back in Yemen, it’s different there," said Mohammed Abdu, 21, who manages an East Harlem deli at East 117th Street and Madison Avenue.

"We used to chew in Michigan, but I haven't chewed khat since 2005. It's hard to get and too expensive," said Abdu. "Plus, it's not even worth chewing if it's dried. In Cali and Detroit, you can't even grow it anymore," Abdu added, mentioning a friend in Michigan jailed for growing.

“If we Yemenis didn't have khat, we'd have other drugs. Better khat than something worse," he said.

The five to six hour khat-chewing cycle is typically enjoyed in the afternoon. The drug induces a comfortable and relaxed buzz. "If you bad in the morning, then you good by the afternoon," said Abdu.

Khat is against the law in the U.S., and a crackdown by authorities makes consumption of the drug exceedingly difficult. But, the many Yemeni immigrants surveyed for this article were loath to suggest that they enjoyed consumption of the drug, for fear of legal repercussions.

Prior to the stricter enforcement, khat was sold freely, in bodegas and cafes from East Harlem to Boerum Hill. Immigrant communities continue to chew, albeit behind closed doors. And peddling the drug has been driven deep underground, conducted by dealers who risk significant jail time.

The drug has disappeared from places such as the Yemen Cafe on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, where construction workers, travel agents, and shopkeepers mingle over chicken loubia and lamb zorbian. Pictures of Yemeni villages and ceremonial daggers on the wall remind patrons of the old country. But, none of the two dozen customers were chewing khat on a recent Monday afternoon.

The manager, who would not give his real name, said that even chewers know their mild addiction is a waste of time. He added that the subject was very sensitive because neighborhood residents were afraid of being arrested.

In 2000, seizures of the product and arrests of the khat dealers in Cobble Hill began hampering consumption.

A rough year for khat importers was 2003, when U.S. drug authorities seized over 45 tons of khat in the New York metro area. According to Erin Mulvey, spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the seizures have continued, leading to Somalia Express, the biggest New York anti-khat operation in 2006, which netted 44 arrests.

"The khat crackdown has resulted in a decrease in consumption, especially in New York, which is a hub of khat distribution. Due to law enforcement efforts, a majority of users now understand the drug's illegality," Mulvey said.

Eradication efforts have driven khat prices higher, resulting in a market price that has more than doubled since 2000.

A bundle of fresh leaves includes about a dozen stems and costs about $50. But fresh leaves are hard to find in the U.S. The dried leaves, of inferior quality, are much more common.

Mahmoud, 48, is a Yemeni immigrant from the city of Ibb who works at the same East Harlem bodega as Abdu. He said that khat makes people loquacious but forgetful. Mahmoud also said that abstainers in his hometown are stigmatized as too shy or too poor to afford the daily chewing session.

“I used to chew khat to take tests better and retain information. It's like coffee but stronger," said Mahmoud. "Here in New York, people don't mind the government crackdown. Some people even move to the U.S. to get away from khat, but the last time I chewed, I was 16. When I go back, I'd rather buy toys for my kids or take trips to the mountains than buy khat."

Sitting on a 36-pack of Coors Light, Mahmoud demonstrated how Yemenis relax to the drug and discuss poetry and politics. "If I chew here, I gonna be crazy. You need time to rest afterwards. Working 12 hours a day here, you can't do that," Mahmoud said.

The drug is legal in much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, which has a vibrant khat-chewing community in London. But, it is considered a Schedule 2 controlled substance in the United States, as illegal as oxycontin and hydrocodone.

Many critics believe that khat is a waste of time and money. Khat is often associated with chronic underemployment. While it is only mildly addictive, it can cause gum disease.

The debate over khat in East Africa and the Middle East focuses on both the economic and social costs of the drug. Opponents argue that agricultural resources would be better utilized growing other plants.

Khat cultivation uses an estimated 40% of Yemen’s country’s water supply, but one can hardly blame farmers, who yield up to five times more from khat cultivation than from any other crop.

“Nowadays, khat is just something that you do while watching TV. You do it with your friends at home instead of going to a bar. It’s just like eating these chips,” said Ahmed Jahm, 37, a Yemeni immigrant who works at Wahidah restaurant in Boerum Hill, who was munching on vegetable root chips from the Trader Joe’s on the other side of Court Street.

“People just talk about their store’s problems and whose kids are going to this or that college. But, I don’t chew, ‘cause I have a 14-year-old son, and I have to be a good role model.”

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Enclave: the Hasidic Vote in Crown Heights

Audio Slideshow by Gaia Pianigiani and me.

Two days before the election, the Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is strongly leaning towards John McCain, in contrast with predominantly Democratic New York City. Many members of the Lubavitch community expressed concerns about foreign policy, school vouchers, and social conservatism. Barack Obama's perceived lack of experience and weakness in the war on terror have contributed to the community's overwhelming support for McCain. However, some voters stated ambivalence or indifference towards the presidential race.

Decision NYC link

Selling Obama: Vendors Peddle Politics on the Streets of Manhattan

Audio slideshow by Joe Jackson and me.

Street vendors in Manhattan have been cashing in on Barack Obama's iconic image for months, selling a wide variety of merchandise from t-shirts to posters. November 4 heralds the official end of the election season, but these salesmen are expecting business to continue - regardless of the outcome of the presidential race.

Decision NYC link

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Aggregatr - All The Media That's Fit To Aggregate

Knight News Challenge Project Title: Aggregatr - All The Media That's Fit To Aggregate

Click on the link above to read and rate the proposal that Stefan De Clercq and I submitted for this digital media grant.

Describe your project:

Currently in beta version, is a website that enables users simultaneously to produce and consume all the media that's fit to aggregate. With a customizable one-size-fits-all template, any citizen editor with access to the internet can arrange media topically or geographically on an interactive Drudge-type report. Select, click, drag, and publish news content on the user-friendly layout. With bookmarklets, the site also allows users to send hyperlinks conveniently to contacts on discrete buddy lists.

Aggregatr's strength is in tailor-made reports on whatever domain of news the citizen editor distributes to her readers, friends, or employees. A user's unique amalgamation of links, photos, and videos caters to any issue: African geopolitics, pharmaceutical research, or educational advocacy. One can simultaneously curate multiple reports on different subjects and then distribute the reports to targeted consumers. User-generated examples of news aggregation are the Persian Post, Joe the Plumber's Report, and The Word on Main Street, which reflect the citizen editor's worldview, preferences, and reflexivity within the Aggregatr community.

Beyond a report's URL and RSS feed, news distribution will also be achieved with the PublishNow button, which will embed the report into an convenient email newsletter format automatically sent out daily, weekly, or monthly. The scalable niche markets that are reachable with this technology are endless. Citizen editors can deliver publications in domains where no news compilation existed previously, and the portal's popular Drudge reference appeals to a broad demographic range. On the Aggregatr home page, which is still being developed, users will view stats on the most viewed, most notable, and most recent reports.

How will your project improve the way news and information are delivered to geographic communities?

Heralding the advent of the citizen editor, Web 2.0 has changed the way we communicate news. While transcending the limits of geographically-bound media businesses, Aggregatr best serves under-covered communities in places like the Middle East, India, and China. With Aggregatr, a user can distribute news links from media that are blocked or banned. This delivery package is also critical when there is a lack of news dissemination by the press in restricted areas, complementing the work of citizen journalists as part of hyperlocal news outlets. Often, grassroots media in these international areas lack the tools to be effective as news gatherers and distributors, especially of homegrown news.

How is your idea innovative? (new or different from what already exists)

Aggregatr is a fusion of Drudge Report, Publish2, Daily Beast, and Delicious, with immediately recognizable visual appeal. Today's citizen editor is tomorrow's Huffington guru. Aggregatr is not a mechanical news selection algorithm like Google News. Rather, the application's customized aggregation harnesses the value of human editorial intelligence in the construction of a democratized infrastructure for specialized news. Aggregatr tears down the wall between editor and audience, while synchronizing production and consumption. This completely free way to disseminate news via the link economy epitomizes the power-to-the-people approach. Unique user reports are the primary, distinctive focus - making Aggregatr more than a social news site.

What experience do you or your organization have to successfully develop this project?

The co-founders of Aggregatr began planning the concept as students at the University of Pennsylvania five years ago. Their goal was to produce a web application that would allow every news consumer to publish a personalized aggregation of stories that could be viewed from anywhere in the world. Hence the birth of the citizen editor.

News-junkie Stefan De Clercq is the technical brain behind Aggregatr, which he created as the optimal way for people to share news. Having lived equal parts of his life in three nations, Stefan has honed his software development skills at two start-up firms in Philadelphia. He continues to develop trailblazing interactive features on Aggregatr.

Currently a New Media student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Ben Piven was recently a Fulbright scholar in Mumbai, India. He has reported for the Baltimore Sun and Haaretz and has covered Hurricane Katrina, Hezbollah, and the caste system. Ben focuses on the business and marketing aspects of Aggregatr.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Tour de Bronx 2008

These pics by Chikodi Chima and I are from the October 19th bike ride through the BX!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burning Man Decompression 2008

The fire jockeys slap the pads of ignition systems connected to four vertical flame-throwing propane tanks. The crowd erupts in a paroxysm of pyromania.

As Promethean mavens perform the Flaming Simon, flames waltz and woo in a percussive display of upwardly explosive heat energy. The gods of Burning Man are aroused by the fire-based version of the late 1970’s electronic game “Simon.”

“Step right up. The fire demons are breathing,” says ringleader Eric Singer, who teaches pyrotechnics at Brooklyn musical robot collective LEMURplex.

But the setting is not the alkali flats of northwestern Nevada's Black Rock desert, the Burning Man locale where impervious Paiutes repelled pioneering white men seven score and eight years ago.

This is Burning Man's New York City Decompression 2008 at Aviator Sports on South Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett field. And, to mesh with the place where aviatrix Amelia Earhart broke several flight records, the theme of the costumes and art is “Flying Laboratory.”

"There was a time when Burning Man was thought of as counter-cultural," said Steven Raspa, lifetime burner and special events coordinator for Burning Man NYC Decompression. "We don't think of it as counter-cultural any more. We think of it as culture, and of New York as a hub of the community.”

The music, art, and pyrotechnic Labor Day weekend festival of Burning Man is about 20 times larger than the NYC Decompression version, but the latter strives to maintain the same emphasis radical self-expression, anti-commercialism, community, and spontaneity.

Although the ferocious rains on the eve of the October 25th Decompression rivaled some of the worst dust storms on the Burning Man playa, some participants doubted whether the annual main event at Black Rock City could be replicated by one of many satellite “decompression” gatherings across the country.

Veteran, virgin, and future Burners had mixed perspectives on their assimilation into the ethos of NYC Decompression and the broader Burning Man culture.

Some participants questioned the decision to hold the diet Burning Man at a philistine, Chelsea Piers-type recreational facility in Brooklyn.

Thirty feet from the pyrotechnic delights, six young Brooklynites raved about the displays, though they stood on the other side of the Aviator Sports fence on Flatbush Avenue.

Max Yablonovskiy, 21, is a student at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU who was passing by with fellow Brighton Beach residents, three on top and three inside his friend Ilya’s green Ford Explorer. They stopped on a whim to witness the fire games.

"There's just one lonely fire marshal,” said Yablonovskiy, eyes ablaze and entertained as if the pyromaniacs were circus clowns. “With that twirling fire, I expected to see the fire department everywhere.”

“I had never heard about Burning Man before, but the fire musical chairs is cool because non-pyros actually got to set off the fire too,” Yablonovskiy said. “I’m absolutely going to Decompression next year. I’ve been converted.”

Supervising the dance of fire was O Man, whose real name is Oscar Yong. He is a lifetime burner who raved about the "most ambitious fire project for Burning Man so far," a giant plywood rat’s nest built in 2006 by 79 Belgians called the Uchronians.

"The heat energy from the ‘Belgian Waffle’ was incredible. The fire here doesn't compare to the waffle," said O Man, as pyrotechnicians lit up the scene. "Even so," he continued, pointing towards a burly, white-bearded man in a black fleece, "He's our man at the fire department. It's his fourth year doing Decompression, but he's nervous about this one!"

Inside the Aviator Sports complex, kaleidoscopic video mash-ups generated by a NuVJ controller captivated passers-by. Two-time burners from New York Jeff Schram and Holly Danger toyed with archival Burning Man footage mixed with 1978 Sesame Street counting lessons, where pinballs blasted off from castle cannons. Until their set in the corner of the indoor soccer pitch lost power, and .5% of Decompression was temporarily out of order.

"People dig the visuals, especially when synchronized with the sonic stuff,” Schram said, reveling in his visceral connection to the video controller.

"Decompression has a lot of Burning Man elements, even if it doesn't take you out of reality. We’re still in the ‘default world,’ but it’s as close as you can get,” said Schram, referring to the contrast with non-Burning Man society.

"It's very Zen-like," said Danger, whose video toy was then generating a collage of moon and playa images. The psychedelic clips of a Black Rock City map hypnotically merged with a paraglider’s descent onto the sand. But, this contrasted with pastiche stencil prints on an adjacent wall of Marilyn Monroe, Geronimo, and Jimmy Hendrix.

Walking past a dormant LED-covered windmill, a glowing orb-bearing warrior peered at the prints as if rejecting what might now sell as Ikea artifice. He then frolicked with giant dominos on the floor, which looked like they had dropped down from the hangar ceiling above, where Tracey Real Estate and Nantucket Nectars banners were hoisted.

This was a reminder that the organizers were challenged to find an appropriate space for the 2000-plus revelers, away from the perceived commercial profligacy of the “default world.”

Another Decompression attendee was Korean-born Jiyoon Yeom, who arrived in midtown Manhattan 15 months ago seeking to study graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In August, she went under the knife to remove a stomach growth and two days later left for Burning Man 2008.

"The different energy with the desert air cured me when I was on top of a steel tower 11 stories high. We could see the whole playa,” said Yeom. “After Burning Man, I came back perfect even though the doctor said it would take two weeks to heal."

For Yeom, the NYC Decompression had a similar energy to Burning Man - just without the inspirational art cars. Next year, Yeom plans to bring friends from Korea to stay once more at Burning Man’s Geisha Camp - the community known for giving out free sake.

She has already started planning the Geisha Camp vehicle, replete with Asian-themed decor, flaming dragons, and mobile sake distribution. Yeom’s worst fear is that fellow burners will lose control and make trouble with their art car. She also hopes that the whiteouts will simmer down at Burning Man 2009.

Outside the Disorient tent where Funk and Drum ‘n’ Bass coalesce, Rachael Moore was swaying in the chilly October air. She was taking a break from the night’s most sweaty dance affair, where guests dressed as a toucan, rocket man, exterminator, and spider were among the flight-themed creatures lurking.

The 30-year-old Williamsburg resident, originally from Australia’s bush, arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 18. Having given away most of her possessions before leaving the land down under, she packed just two suitcases for her voyage to America and subsequent journey to Burning Man - one with regular clothes and the other with costumes and accessories.

“When you enter the gates of Burning Man, they say, ‘Welcome home!’ As I left Black Rock City at the end, it was like leaving home, because I literally had no other house,” said Moore, who stayed at Camp Straya with 25 people, mostly fellow Australians.

“Since there’s no money exchanged, there’s no fear that you can't afford something or have a bag stolen. Outside of Burning Man, people are afraid of the recession, afraid of Obama, McCain, of being ugly, growing old, afraid of their boyfriend or girlfriend cheating. You just forget about those things, but it's not really an escape or a tease. It would be a tease if there were no way to take Burning Man lessons back to the default world.”

“You can experience a little Burning Man here and there everywhere in New York,” said Moore, who is currently looking for an event-planning job.

“I could do 8 weeks of Burning Man a year. But I would need a good showering device. And maybe an RV next time. Our tent got destroyed in a dust storm the first night. The rest of the time, it was pretty much collapsed on our face.”

A visitor from the “default world” was gawking at the Smooch Dome’s nine enmeshed couples, one six-way caress group, and a single man licking his lips alone.

"It reminds me of the old Loft and the Garage clubs in Manhattan. You can just bring pillows and be yourself," said ice cream distributor Penny Monge, 34, who was with her son, Sonny, from Ridgewood, Queens.

"We never knew about Burning Man culture before. We came to Scary House at Aviator Sports and then sneaked into this party, which is much more exciting," said Monge.

She said she preferred the Decompression folks to the rowdy Brooklyn crowd of normal
Saturday nights.

"Too bad it ain't every weekend," Monge declared.

The 12-hour Decompression event wound down around 4 a.m. Nicole Mucciolo headed towards the Flatbush-bound shuttle buses, donning a blue wig with authority.

"I had a fabulous time, both at Decom and at the Burn. I even became more comfortable living in my East Harlem community after I got back from Nevada,” said Mucciolo, 27, who works for Phillips de Pury auction house.

“I found out about Burning Man on the Internet and then made the pilgrimage,” she said. “I flew from NYC to Denver, via Minneapolis, then drove 18 hours with my aunt in a Euro van from Denver to Burning Man.”

“On the way back, the clutch started to go. We were dirty, tired and hung over. Our car broke down on 80 then AAA came, we got towed to Reno and were stuck at a casino. Then flew to Denver, via Salt Lake City, and then flew to NYC, via Minneapolis."

Mucciolo’s journey to Decompression had a similar number of legs. “From East Harlem, I took the 6, the L to work, then the A, an MTA shuttle, a cab, the 2, and then car service to Aviator Sports.”

“The radical self-expression and explosive sense of community tickled my fancy. There is definitely a sense of escapism for anybody who goes. Anyone denying that is kidding themselves. You go to get away from whatever you're used to doing,” Mucciolo said.

“Burning Man is like picking up a musical instrument for the first time and just playing.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for Ninguno: Puerto Rican Nationalism in 2008

In the scorching August sun of his home state, John McCain stumped with Puerto Rican reggaetonero Daddy Yankee, introducing his “special friend” as the megastar famous for delivering gasolina.

The double entendre on Daddy Yankee’s hit single, whose chorus is “dame mas gasolina,” implied an endorsement of McCain’s pledge to “drill, baby, drill.”

On board the Arizona senator’s plane after their joint appearance at Phoenix’s Central High School, the top-of-the-charts musician told the media with a straight face that his hit song was about energy independence.

Ironically, Daddy Yankee (Raymond Ayala) cannot even vote in the presidential election, since he resides in Puerto Rico.

The pop icon’s endorsement, which was apparently based on McCain’s war record, anti-terror stance, and immigration plan, raised the ire of staunch Puerto Rican nationalists, including many in the five boroughs.

Puerto Rican nationalists have counted 21 presidential elections since their movement was born in 1922. Yet, this 2008 election is no different. Puerto Rico is just waiting for Ninguno.

Both candidates in this otherwise historic presidential election have supported the status quo on the unresolved political status of Puerto Rico. And that means supporting indecision - waiting for Puerto Rico to decide for herself.

The three options in this lingering Caribbean saga are full independence, maintenance or enhancement of commonwealth status, and full statehood.

“Even if a majority of Puerto Ricans are not supportive of independence, the Puerto Rican community is still sympathetic to Vieques, the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, and the prisoner issue,” said Hiram Rivera, an active member of the Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (PNPR) who lives in the Bronx.

A poll conducted in May by Kaagan Research Associates of New York found that 57 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island supported statehood, 34 percent supported the status quo, and a mere 5 percent supported full independence.

Plebiscites on the status question were held in 1967, 1993, and 1998 saw strong majorities vote against independence. In 1998, 50.3 percent voted write-in for “none of the above,” while 46.7 percent were for statehood, 2.5 percent for independence and a mere 0.1 percent for the status quo. Puerto Rico keeps waiting for Ninguno.

The day that over 120 million mainland Americans pull the lever for 44th president, Puertorriquenos vote for governor, non-voting Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Congress, and a number of local offices.

Enter Ninguno. For the gubernatorial race, political theater group Papel Machete launched a satirical write-in campaign in September called “Ninguno pa’ Gobernador” or “Nobody for Governor.” They have advocated voting for an ironic puppet named Ninguno: “Everyone makes promises, but Ninguno delivers.”

Other slogans include Ninguno favorece la libertad de los prisioneros politicos (Nobody wants freedom for the political prisoners) and Ninguno respecta a las periodistas (Nobody respects journalists). Ningunistas represent la quinta (the fifth) – in opposition to the four main Puerto Rican political parties.

In this odd political limbo, an acute case of indecision plagues the 110-year-old colony of four million people with a gross domestic product per capita of $18,400.
The populations aqui y alla are growing steadily, and the stateside population of Puerto Ricans is also nearly four million.

“For folks who are born here and have never been there, the flag, food, drink, and the music are about pride. But, the average young Puerto Rican does not learn much history about Puerto Rico,” said Rivera, a PNPR member who also works as a youth organizer for Brown University’s Urban Youth Collaborative.

The U.S.-based nationalist party is most closely linked to the green-hued Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), whose members - pipiolos - are the most numerous pro-independence group on the island.

Rivera, who wore a black hoodie with “Sucka Free” scrawled across the front, discussed the party’s concerns about the island being used as a springboard for U.S. military interventions in Latin America.

Since World War II, the island has had more casualties per capita than any of the 50 states, and the Puerto Rican casualty rate is also among the highest in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon statistics.

The list of complaints by nationalist groups includes concerns about the carcinogenic effects of U.S. Navy weapons testing at Vieques and a myriad of economic woes.

“While full independence for Puerto Rico is a noble ideal, integration as an equal state of the union with all the rights of U.S. citizenship is best,” said Justin O’Brien, executive director of the United States Council for Puerto Rican Statehood.

O’Brien said that support for full independence has waned, with notable public figures such as Brooklyn-born actress Rosie Perez now partial to statehood.

Divisions between the three main factions are expressed by the three versions of the Puerto Rican flag. Although the horizontal bands are always red, the triangle color varies with ideological stance.

Navy blue for statehooders. Sky blue for nationalists. And royal blue for proponents of the status quo.

Although Puerto Rico retains a significant amount of autonomy, ultimate authority is vested in the U.S. president and Congress.

While all eight million Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland are U.S. citizens, island residents cannot vote in the general election – like residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.

This year, for the June 1 Democratic primary, both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama visited the territory.

Clinton won by more than a 2-to-1 margin. According to CNN exit polls, Clinton supporters were much more likely to be pro-statehood.

President Clinton formed the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which culminated in the publication of two reports by the Bush administration in 2005 and 2007. To mixed reviews by the two main political parties in Puerto Rico, it concluded that the island remains a territory of the U.S. under the plenary powers of Congress.

On June 14, 2007, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization urged the U.S. to “expedite a process that will allow the Puerto Rican people to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

While the armed resistance peaked in a series of violent confrontations in the early 1970’s, there are still core supporters of independence both in the Puerto Rican diaspora and in the motherland.

In what critics alleged was a bid to garner Puerto Rican support for his wife’s Senate campaign in New York state, President Bill Clinton issued clemency to 11 jailed independentistas in 1999. One of the nationalists’ primary goals is liberation of the three remaining prisoners.

Nuyoricans, centered in East Harlem, constitute the most numerous of the diasporic communities. But, the swing state of Florida has attracted significant attention for its growing community of Puerto Rican origin around Orlando.

“The PNPR does not officially take a stand on elections here in the U.S.,” said 28-year-old East Harlem resident Camilo Matos, also an active member of PNPR and sales rep for the San Juan-based newspaper Claridad, formerly the mouthpiece of the pro-independence movement.

“We consider the elections a colonial game set up by the colonizers to keep Puerto Rican colonized. We call for an abstention so as not to give the election credibility,” he added.

Although PNPR officially stays out of electoral politics, dues-paying members vote for a variety of presidential candidates, including some from third parties such as the Green Party and the Socialist Workers Party.

On the one hand, the Democratic Party’s 2008 platform states: “The people of Puerto Rico have the right to the political status of their choice…to be resolved during the next four years.”

The G.O.P.’s 2008 platform is almost indistinguishable in advocating “the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine.”

However, Cynthia McKinney’s running mate on the Green Party ticket is Rosa Clemente, a South Bronx-born activist and independentista who was a founding member of La Voz Boriken, a pro-independence organization.

Regardless, both major parties and their candidates for president endorse the status quo, recommending that further popular referendums determine the island’s status.

“John McCain was among the 14 Senate co-sponsors of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, which was introduced by Sen. Salazar and Rep. Serrano,” said O’Brien, of the non-partisan U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood.

The bill would mandate the first Congress—sanctioned popular referendum on whether Puerto Rico would end up as an independent country or as a state with two senators and six members of the House.

O’Brien, whose organization arose in the wake of the last failed status vote in 1998, said that the issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

“Resident Commissioner Fortuno supports permanent union with the U.S. but ultimately believes that the decision should be in the hands of the Puerto Rican people,” said Audrey Sotolongo, spokesperson for the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to Congress.

“The best outcome is to be state,” she added.

Luis Fortuno is the Resident Commissioner as well as the New Progressive Party’s pro-statehood candidate for governor. He spoke during prime time for McCain at the Republican National Convention.

However, stateside Puerto Ricans were about 3-to-1 for John Kerry in the last election. One of poorest communities in the U.S. is likely to vote Obama by about that ratio.

Although residents of the island cannot vote for president, conventional wisdom would suggest that they are largely pro-Obama, since the Illinois senator promised to “keep the checks coming,” said Hiram Rivera, the PNPR activist, who calls for the island to wean itself off of U.S. economic assistance.

The ideal for nationalists is a fully independent and sovereign island with a spot on the U.N. General Assembly.

“If you support the nationalist cause in Puerto Rico, you get blacklisted. You can’t get a job. We’re facing the same sorts of classism and racism that are in the U.S.,” added Rivera.

He continued: “You’re constantly reminded of what you’re not. Real American - not. Other category? Latin immigrants? Caribbean? West Indian? Outside of the U.S., they sees us as American, but we have an identity crisis.”

“Puerto Rico has a Fidel scare, and the anti-left propaganda says that independence equals bread lines, totalitarianism, and the equivalent of the Dominican Republic,” said Matos, also a nationalist party member.

Matos tells a poignant story about his two six-year-old nieces in the Bronx, who asked their mother why there were U.S. flags all over their block after September 11th. They were accustomed to seeing only Puerto Rican flags and could not make sense of the 13 stars and 50 stripes.

Daddy Yankee may have surprised his fans by pumping gasolina for John McCain, but nationalists have the unlikely support of Pat Buchanan.

Yet, with a stagnant movement that refuses to budge in either the statehood or independence directions, mas gasolina for unfinished political business is not forthcoming from either presidential candidate this pivotal election year. Puerto Rico is still waiting for Ninguno.

”Even though I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico was born in me. If I was born on the moon, I’d still be Puerto Rican,” declared Rivera.

He added, “Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird. Obama is not the savior of Puerto Rico. No U.S. president could ever be our savior.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Target This: East Harlem

The avenues of El Barrio constitute a retail desert, where shops charge unwarranted prices for goods of dubious quality. But, with Target on tap, soon there may be higher caliber doormats, cutlery, and Halloween costumes galore for East Harlemites.

Sandwiched up against FDR Drive at the site of the old Washburn Wire factory, the 1.2 million square foot East River Plaza on East 116th Street is under construction at a time when the credit crunch and the equities nosedive present exceptionally unfavorable market conditions.

But, the reality of the economic downturn presents an opportunity for retailers that offer higher-quality goods at consistently low prices.

“Target is a perfect store to open up here in this type of economic situation. It’s not like they’re Neiman Marcus,” said Mark Olson, construction manager for RC Dolner, which is building the East River Plaza complex.

Olson estimated that the Target’s grand opening would take place around October 2009.
Target’s breakneck expansion across America seems undaunted by dismal economic forecasts.

From Wasilla, Alaska, to Alpharetta, Georgia, the Minneapolis-based Target chain opened 45 stores last Sunday alone, following news that September sales were up 2.5% - when the rest of the retail sector had its biggest contraction in three years.

With a total of 1,685 stores in 48 states, “Target offers a strong brand and value message, with high-quality products at affordable prices,” said spokesperson Anna Anderson.

At East River Plaza, the mega-retailer looks to transplant suburbia into the ghetto by sublimating local infrastructure into its voguish bulls-eye.

Generating new tax monies at a time when the city is becoming increasingly cash-strapped, East River Plaza promises to be a “unique shopping experience…and a catalyst for future economic development,” according to the developer, Blumenfeld Development Group, a Syosset N.Y.-based company that is partnering with Forest City Ratner on the project.

“I am always willing to reach out to make developers and those businesses coming into the area be more responsive to the community,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, councilwoman from East Harlem.

According to the developer, the project is generating 2,000 permanent retail jobs and 2,000 construction jobs.

Target promises around 200 jobs, which will be opened up first to area residents via local media, said spokesperson Anna Anderson.

Moreover, through its charitable wing, the corporation said that it gives more than $3 million per week to local communities for grants and special programs.

Last Thursday, Target awarded $14.9 million to schools nationwide, a small chunk of which was reaped by dozens of East Harlem schools who are participating in the Take Charge of Education program, according to spokesperson Harold Reid.

The company also has honed its community relations with the October 4th dedication of the Target East Harlem Community Garden, in conjunction with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.

Giant red metal umbrellas covered with solar panels greet green-seekers who enter the East 117th Street garden. In addition to the solar energy, giraffe-like steel masts can be cranked out to harness wind power. The electricity then powers the light bulbs of a community gardening shed, as well as the irrigation system that uses harvested rainwater.

While the goal was to open the space to anyone, head gardener Callie Yarbrough stated the need to keep out riff-raff from the unspoiled, corporate-financed plot.
On Sunday, the Diaz family elected to continue their weekly domino game in the non-Target park down the street. The son littered his Lays bag, and the grandfather stumbled to and fro with a Bud Light, both of which would not mesh well with the Target garden or its stewardess.

“The New York Restoration Project’s vision is to create a more aesthetic and neutral place. They argue that this is more appealing to a wider audience but I have spoken to them and told them that I disagree with this perspective,” said Councilwoman Mark-Viverito.

“I want to ensure that the organization is respectful of the existing residents and making the place a welcoming environment for them and that the garden is not seen as one that is only for the new residents arriving into the community,” she added.

The cushy Target garden space will be used to display Target lawn furniture starting in December, according to Yarbough.

The success of the Target garden has inspired Yarbough and her gardening friends to work with Home Depot on another garden on the same block.

“I’m looking forward to Costco, because then we won’t have to go all the way to Jersey or the Bronx,” said Yarbrough, who lives next to the Target garden.

Originally, Target was expected to fill the second story of the East River Plaza building anchored by Home Depot. However, there is rampant speculation in the neighborhood that the home improvement giant is seeking to exit its 30-year lease, leaving the project with a gaping 110,000 square foot hole.

While Best Buy and Marshalls are expected to round out the project, rumors abound that Costco will fill the Home Depot slot. Sources that wished not to be revealed also mentioned the possibility of Home Depot subletting their space to another tenant, such as Loews. Blumenfeld Development Group principal David Blumenfeld would not comment on the issue.

The nearest existing Marshalls is nine blocks north from East River Plaza on East 125th Street, and the nearest Best Buy is 30 blocks south on East 86th Street.

Although Target already operates stores in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the East River Plaza store will be the first in Manhattan – albeit in an area in dire need of decent retail.

With 485,000 square feet of prime retail space and a 1,248-space parking garage, the project will contribute traffic to a community with already congested and polluted arterial roadways and one of the highest asthma rates in the country.

Until the 2nd Avenue subway line opens around 2020, automobiles will be the main way to access East River Plaza.

“The more people they bring in, the better for us. Traffic is what we need,” said Gordon Telford, an employee at Benjamin Moore paints on First Avenue.

“It behooves Target to have easy and convenient access to the site. We are committed to where we build and take pride in the location that we select,” said Target spokeswoman Anna Anderson. She added, “Redevelopment in this community is drawing eyes and ears to the area, making it a great opportunity for a longstanding partnership.”

With a lack of sympathy for retailers that over-charge for clothes, chips, and cigarettes, Target is sprucing up retail options where worthy shops are few and far between.

With the sluggish tide of the area’s transformation, Target represents a thrifty and Bohemian turn for El Barrio.

Although some residents bemoan the tide of gentrification, many wonder if this will slow due to Wall Street woes. Less upward pressure on housing costs might please an area that remains skeptical of bourgeois delights and urbane big box retail, even if offered up at low prices.

“It used to be such a quiet neighborhood,” said Columbia Altieri, a retired teacher at P.S. 112.

“But who knows when they'll be finished Target. I probably will be gone by then.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Al Jazeera Election Coverage

Here's a news report by Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman, who traveled to eastern Ohio for a Palin rally. The attendees reveal startling opinions about Barack Obama and the election. Excellent report by the burgeoning station. This sort of material is scarcely found in American media.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Reincarnation of Exodus House: East Harlem School

On a formerly downtrodden stretch of East 103rd Street next to 2nd Avenue, the Arcs construction crew hastily finished sidewalk digging for fiber optic cables and hauling off chunks of concrete. An irate blond driver of a shiny Lexus SUV several vehicles into the queue yelled, “Come on, man. Let us through.”

The motorist’s view was blocked by another SUV in front of her, so she could not see the futuristic phoenix that has risen from the site of the erstwhile Exodus House drug rehab clinic.

The current avatar, East Harlem School at Exodus House, will provide similarly beneficent services to the blighted neighborhood, upon relocation in under a month.

These are the last days that the 106-pupil school will spend at St. Lucy’s Church, one block from its nearly complete new digs at East 103rd Street.

Co-founder and Principal Ivan Hageman’s family history will have come full circle when his school moves back to the Exodus House site. He was born and raised in the rehab clinic, which his parents Lynn and Leola Hageman founded in 1963.

The Exodus House became an after-school program in 1984 and subsequently a school in 1993.

While his upbringing and professional success may not be typical for a neighborhood of ubiquitous public housing and fast-food eateries, Hageman was always exposed to the substance abuse and indigence that plague East Harlem.

“It’s been a pleasure to build for Ivan and his group of kids, who will truly appreciate this,” said Marc Gee, the construction manager for Arcs. The company did a design-build with architect Peter Gluck, who has done non-profits such as Harlem RBI and Bronx Charter Prep, in addition to projects in Westchester County and Aspen, Colo.

“Most of these nonprofits are just getting by. They still think they’ll just be bringing the old building’s furniture over,” said Gee. “So this project hits home.”

While the East Harlem School’s new building was expected to open at the start of this school year, administrators had to settle for a November grand opening, the exact date of which has not yet been announced.

Gee said that the city was dragging its feet in issuing permits, due to backlog in the aftermath of several crane accidents.

In the meantime, the school is readying for an October 28th benefit at Chelsea Piers, which will attempt to generate the final $700,000 of the $12 million capital campaign that began over 10 years ago to raise funds for the school’s new home.

Around the corner in the well-worn stairwell of the school’s temporary home, a stern Grace Eagar said, “You all are never going to do that again,” as she scolds her humanities class for having broken a cardinal class rule.

Eagar, like most of the über-attentive staff, has multiple roles in ensuring that the strict academic and disciplinary policies are enforced. As the development director and a teacher, she said that the last days at the St. Lucy’s building have been hectic.

“Yet, I’m not shocked that people say this is a great school. Students are always our top priority, and the average class size is just 15 students,” she said.

In a city where 84% of minority high-school students attend dropout factories, Exodus House has a stellar record of graduates matriculating in some of the city’s best private high schools.

“The East Harlem School’s new building is beautiful for the area,” said 61-year-old Esther Rodriguez Hill, who lives in the St. Lucy’s Apartments next door. Hill’s mother was a community organizer who worked with Principal Hageman’s father.

“I have four cousins who went to the old Exodus House. Although the center really helped them, two died from heroin overdose and the other two from AIDS,” she added.

“You see those Exodus House kids walking in straight lines? That shows the progress of our neighborhood,” said Hill, after she scolded one-year-old Skyla Boldon, for whom she babysits.

“I’ve seen the Exodus House built, knocked down, and rebuilt. Ivan better send me an invitation for the grand opening!” she declared.

The new four-story avant-garde structure with Ikea-inspired 1960’s minimalism contrasts with the tenements nearby. With black, white, and grey rectangular trespa panels, the façade looks more Malmö tech park than East Harlem middle school.

Locals stroll by toting their laundry in handcarts and clutching 32 oz. Styrofoam cups of watered-down Mug root beer from the JFK Fried Chicken restaurant on the corner. Though incredulous about the new structure, they seem to betray a sense of delight in its visual novelty.

“The new facility is pretty much like a regular school, except for the front,” said 8th grader Daniel Lucero, who recounts the full-sized gym, science labs, smart boards, and spaciousness.

The building is consistent with the educational philosophy that some parents described as “New Age,” including vegetarian food and an annual spring poetry slam. Yet, passing the high-demand school’s entrance test places applicants, who must live nearby, into a competitive lottery system.

In the neighborhood, criticism of the school was scant, but Marisa Steffers, a resident of 1199 1st Ave., said that the mandatory summer classes and over-emphasis on test preparation were not ideal for her 11-year-old son Jude, who attends P.S. 3 in the West Village.

Fausto Lopez recently moved from a building down the street from Exodus House to the Bronx because of rent increases. Yet he feels blessed that his 6th grade son Richard can still attend the East Harlem School.

“This school has the highest standard, no negatives, and is so far so good. We want to send him to a New England boarding school later,” said Lopez.

“This is a huge step up for kids who used to have torn textbooks,” said Karen Ayala, 35, whom Hageman taught at University Heights Secondary School in the early 1990’s.

“Before he was my homeroom teacher, I was a hot mess. Look where I am now,” said Ayala, a teacher at the Head Start across 2nd Avenue from Exodus House.

“The school and its new building are not the norm for this neighborhood,” said Ayala. “But they try to show the children that there is something better. An opportunity of this magnitude is a beautiful thing.”

“If Ivan’s gonna do it, then he’s gonna do it big.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

America Mountain Multimedia Slideshow

America Mountain audio slideshow by Chikodi Chima and me on Vimeo.

As part of an Obama fundraiser, kids and families frolic on a giant American flag in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

For more info on the organizers, visit

Thursday, October 09, 2008

New York Rents: Interactive Graphic

This interactive flash graphic (by Malia Politzer and me) depicts the jump in NYC rents over the past two decades. Click on the buttons above!

East Harlem Public Housing and Homicides (2008)

View Larger Map

This map shows the location of public housing projects and murders in 2008 within Manhattan Community District 11, which encompasses NYPD precincts 23 (East Harlem South) and 25 (East Harlem North).

The 23rd Precinct went from 31 murders in 1990 to 2 thus far in 2008. There are 23,028 public housing units in Community District 11, the largest number in any NYC district.

Only two of the six murders in East Harlem are marked. The locations of the other four have not yet been found...Any and all tips are welcome...

(Sources: New York City Housing Authority, Emporis, NYPD's 23rd Precinct, and Wikipedia)

Monday, October 06, 2008

One Semitistan: Mixtape 2008

This album will be released on Saturday, October 18, 2008 at the One Semitistan Uptown NYC Party.

Please contact for more information.

One Semitistan شلميستان وحاد שמיסטן אחד

1. Tamer Hosny – Arrab Habibi (Egypt) / تامر حسني - قرب حبيبي
2. Tomer Yosef – Al Tatusi (Israel) / תומר יוסף – אל תטוסי
3. Amr Diab – Mayal (Egypt) / عمرو دياب - مايال
4. Hanan - Dahilak (Israel) / חנן – דאחילק
5. Cheikha Remitti - Sidi Mansour Ya Baba (Algeria) / شيخه رميتي - سيدي منصور يا بابا
6. Zohar Argov – Perach B'Gani (Israel) / זוהר ארגוב – פרח בגני
7. Khaled - Didi (Algeria) / خالد - ديدي
8. HaDag Nachash – Shirat Ha-Sticker (Israel) / הדג נחש – שירת הסטיקר
9. Samira Said – Youm Wara Youm (Morocco) / سميره سعيد وشاب مامي - يوم ورا يوم
10. Shotei Hanvuah – Ein Ani (Israel) / שוטי הנבואה – אין אני
11. Amr Diab & Cheb Khaled – Qalbi (Egypt) / عمرو دياب وشاب خالد - قلبي
12. Samir Shukri – Rona (Israel) / סמיר שוקרי – רונה
13. Cheb Khaled & R. Taha – Abdel Kader (Algeria) / شاب خالد ورشيد طه - عبد القدر
14. Zion Golan - Yom El Ehad (Israel) / ציון גולן – יום אל אחד
15. Cheb Jalal - Sidi Habibi (Algeria) / شاب جلال - سيدي حبيبي
16. Shotei Hanvuah – Dakah B'Pardes (Israel) / שוטי הנבואה – דקה בפרדס
17. Cheb Mami - Rani Maak El Youm (Algeria) / شاب مامي - راني معاك اليوم
18. Tomer Yosef - Avarti Rak Kdai Lirot (Israel) / תומר יוסף - עברתי רק כדי לראות

This album is a compilation of songs from the Arab/Arabic and Israeli/Hebrew cultural spheres and thus constitutes an expression of the cultural, linguistic, and geographic unity of the Semitic world.

While the philosophy of this 2008 mixtape supports every step towards a viable and lasting peace in the Middle East, this album refrains from proposing any specific political solutions.

Semitic music and culture are shared by multitudes, despite the boundaries of nation-states and the ongoing ideological conflict.

One Love / One People / One Semitistan
שמיסטן אחד / עם אחד / אהבה אחת
شلميستان وحاد / أمة واحدة / حب واحد

Friday, October 03, 2008

NMN Soundslide: Meta @ Farmer's Market

This is the audio soundslide that Malia Politzer and I did for our New Media Newsroom class. The project features our profile character Meta Bodewes shopping at the Union Square Farmer's Market.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

King Towers Homicide

On day two of a likely month-long murder trial, a confident key witness testified that he saw the defendant pull the trigger just before nightfall on April 6, 2006. As part of a bargain with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Harlem resident Eric Calvin offered his account Monday in exchange for exoneration from a string of drug crimes.

The defendant, Travis “Trav-Ice” Woods, lives down the street from Calvin in the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers and faces a possible life sentence for his role in the murder of Barry “B-Low” Miller, among other charges, including attempted murder, drug conspiracy, and weapons violations.

The Woods case is one of several cases that resulted from Operation All the King’s Men, a police investigation that began in early 2005. The original watershed indictment from December 2006 charged 43 suspected drug dealers and three suspected gun dealers. The suspects were associated with two rival gangs in Central Harlem, the King Towers Gang and the Schomburg Crew, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

“The King Towers Gang’s PCP product was well-known in the area because the defendants sometimes sold the drug packaged in empty baby food jars,” according to the D.A. Moreover, the gang grossed over $1 million annually in dealing PCP and crack cocaine around 115th Street and Lenox Avenue next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers.

Manhattan assistant district attorneys Christopher Conroy and Eric Arnone are prosecuting the Woods case before Judge Bruce Allen of the New York State Supreme Court. Arnone quizzed the case’s key witness, Calvin, who appeared alternatively discombobulated and composed in articulating his account of the murder, as well as in explaining his own checkered history of drug dealing.

“After approaching B-Low from the back, Trav Ice looked straight at him, raised both hands on fired four shots,” said Calvin, who identified Woods as having worn a black thermal hoodie, black jeans, and black Nike ACG boots on the night of the murder.

Both Arnone and Williams attempted partial reenactments of the murder, using cartographic and photographic evidence, but Calvin’s responses about sequence and direction somewhat seemed to confuse the jurors. The 16-member jury also appeared perplexed by a seemingly endless array of drug dealer street names, including “Leather,” “Playboy,” “Foot,” and “Ant.”

Calvin, a 21-year-old 10th-grade dropout, said he started robbing drug dealers at gunpoint with his friends and dealing PCP, crack cocaine, and powder cocaine in his early teens.

Calvin also discussed the logistics of dealing PCP, which is also known as angel dust, embalming fluid, wet, and sherm. He stated that a $50 investment in PCP “juice” could result in a $500 profit for a street level dealer.

Woods, who wore a white dress shirt and a striped blue tie, appeared unconcerned by Calvin’s incriminating words.

According to prosecutors, Miller was the ringleader and chief drug supplier of the King Towers Gang. They said that Woods, a gang manager and enforcer, killed Miller so he could take over.

"It is easy to say he did it, but it doesn't mean he did it. We're being tried by association," said court-appointed defense attorney Norman Williams, before poking holes in Calvin’s statements during an awkward cross-examination that included questions about Calvin’s consumption of marijuana, relationship with the D.A., and geographic details of the crime scene.

“Ultimately, the success of Calvin’s testimony depends on how much the jury believes him,” said Williams. Having represented Woods for 10 years, Williams added that he hoped Calvin’s testimony was not too damaging in bringing about “the best possible result: a full acquittal.”

Kevin “JD Black“ Harris and Terry “JB“ Patterson, two additional defendants named in the original grand jury indictment, both pleaded guilty, according to Williams.
Jurors’ ears perked up when prosecutor Arnone asked Calvin how he was perceived in his community for having agreed to testify as a crucial witness in the murder trial of a fellow King Towers resident.

“I’m viewed as a snitch - a rat,” said Calvin, who could barely look at the defendant after identifying him by name.

“You know that where I’m from it don’t work like that. I grew up with these people. What happens to snitches is you get shot,” said Calvin.

“But, I have more things to live for. My five-month-old girl and other kids are why I’m cooperating,” added Calvin, who testified that he would receive $500 and reimbursement for cab fare and meals for his testimony, in addition to vindication from several drug charges.

Defense attorney Williams acknowledged safety concerns in an urban environment that often brutally enforces the “Stop Snitching” dictum. Calvin’s attorney, Gabriel Tapalaga, declined to comment.

Woods is also charged with the attempted murder of Germaine “Maine” Gordon, who Williams expects to testify against his client.

Later in the week, a doctor, chemist, and more cops will be testifying. On Monday, the medical examiner will take the stand, said Jennifer Kushner, spokesperson for the District Attorney. Kushner would not say whether the District Attorney had ironed out cooperation agreements for any other members of the King Towers Gang to testify.

عيد مبارك and שנה טובה ומתוקה

Reflections excerpted from the New Year's sagacity of Unetaneh Tokef:

When we really begin a new year it is decided,
And when we actually repent it is determined;

Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist,
Who shall be happy, and who shall be miserable;

Who shall attain fulfillment,
And who shall not attain fulfillment;

Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition,
And whose hopes shall be quenched by the waters of failure;

Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy,
And who shall be torn by the wild beasts of resentment;

Who shall hunger for companionship ,
And who shall thirst for approval;

Who shall be shattered by the earth quake of social change,
And who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;

Who shall be strangled by insecurity,
And who shall be stoned into submission;

Who shall be content,
And who shall go wandering in search of satisfaction;

Who shall be serene and who shall be distraught,
Who shall be at ease, and who shall be afflicted with anxiety;

Who shall be poor in spirit,
And who shall be rich in tranquility;

Who shall be brought low with futility,
And who shall become exalted through achievement.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Foreclosures Skyrocket in Queens and the Bronx

View Larger Map

This Google Map (by Malia Politzer and me) depicts the percentage increase between 2004 and 2008* in the number of foreclosed homes in the 12 neighborhoods of the Bronx (total 113% increase) and the 14 neighborhoods of Queens (total 225% increase).

The four colors represent the following ranges in foreclosure increase: blue (0% - 99%), green (100% - 199%), yellow (200% - 299%), and red (300% - 399%).

Foreclosure data is courtesy of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

*The figures for 2008 are projected by doubling the sum of the figures for the first two quarters.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Danish Prime Minister's Dream

The Danish Prime Minister has summoned world business and political leaders to the bargaining table. Anders Fogh Rasmussen wants the citizens of the gradually greening globe to know that something is quite right in Denmark, although certain rotten states are working against his perspicacious vision.

Employing his time-tested charisma, starry-eyed rhetoric, and free-market antics, the Liberal Danish Premier delivered a climate change address Friday at the Columbia University World Leaders Forum. Rasmussen's three-part speech presented the global energy dilemma, his multifaceted proposal, and his assessment of the prospects for striking a climate change deal when leaders converge upon Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change conference in December 2009.

“If American per capita oil consumption were the same as Denmark's, American oil imports would be reduced by 80%,” argued Rasmussen. Moreover, he stated, the U.S. would save $300 billion per year – instead of transferring this wealth to foreign lands and regimes. While this hypothetical banks upon the nullification of a key difference between the U.S. and Denmark – much larger transport distances – the argument still holds water.

With dwindling energy supplies and quickening global warming, Rasmussen said that one major goal is to keep the global temperature increase at less than 2 degrees Celsius. According to this aim, preemptive measures will ultimately reduce the cost of corrective actions later on. This entails fostering a low carbon economy defined by more stable energy prices and a reliable, secure supply regime.

“Long term costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action now,” said Rasmussen. For the ambitious Dane, a complete overhaul of the energy sector would mean massive shifts in power production, building technology, and transport – which are generally considered the three most power-greedy sectors of the economy. It would also necessitate switching over to an intelligent electricity grid that can draw from a variety of power sources.

But, many skeptics doubt the potential of Rasmussen's proposal. The ornery American energy tendencies could prove to be most insurmountable in the run-up to Copenhagen 2009, which is a key step in the evolution of a globally accepted energy regime. Denmark is expected to establish an ambitious global climate agreement to take effect in 2012, when the the Kyoto Protocol's first 15-year commitment period expires. In the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol's momentous pronouncements, the world watched as the U.S. buried itself in an energy purgatory. While Al Gore and his partisans have relentlessly been driving for key reforms to American energy policy, the nay-sayers have been all but halting America's progress on this front.

“Those who lead the way will be the industrial icons of the 21st century,” declared Rasmussen, who candidly stated his willingness to work with whoever wins the election on November 4th. He also extolled California's ability to maintain consistent energy consumption over the course of the last three decades, while the U.S.'s overall consumption jumped 60%. Rasmussen heartily encouraged the U.S. to spur on the energy revolution.

Rasmussen claims that the Danish economy has grown by 75% in the past 25 years but experienced no concurrent increase in energy consumption. If only the U.S. could reproduce this feat over the next 25 years!

The affable PM's pitch draws its vitality from the impressive Danish example. Having heavily taxed fossil fuel consumption, cut electricity usage, decreased carbon emissions, and established a carbon trading market, the country will likely remain energy self-sufficient for a generation, according to Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who introduced Prime Minister Rasmussen.

“The American government should lend a helping hand in providing subsidies for the development of wind farms,” said Rasmussen. T. Boone Pickens' American wind power plan is a way for the U.S. to regain its position of leadership in the world, suggested the PM. He said that subsidies for alternative energy development and higher taxes on fossil fuel consumption clearly provide more of an incentive for innovators in the alternative energy field. While the Liberal Rasmussen does not suppose that Smith's Invisible Hand will swat the Pickensian wind mills into action up and down America's prairie, the PM realizes the all governments need to hasten green action in a major way.

Perhaps a far cry from truly “liberal” policy, this center-right baron of Danish-inspired globalization (i.e. Carlsberg, lego, and Skype) is known for paring down the welfare state, de-funding education, and cutting back on immigration. But he sees government as integral to the establishment of a robust and secure energy future. He exhorts the U.S. to take an emboldened role in this evolution of the global energy regime.

In terms of the overall viability of Rasmussen's plan, another concern centers on the funding for decreasing carbon emissions in developing nations. Even pro-globalization development theorists (such as Jagdish Bhagwati, who conducted the Q&A after the Danish PM's speech) point to the reluctance on the part of both 1st World and 3rd World governments to pick up the tab for greening dirty developing economies. Even if developing countries contribute less to global warming, they ought not be given a free ride in the transition to a low carbon world, argued Rasmussen.

Next, questions remain about Europe's ability to consolidate its energy markets in opposition to the eagerly confrontational Russians, who seem bent on withholding gas supplies from Europe as a political weapon. Rasmussen advocates the energy diversification initiatives that would allow northern Europe's wind power and southern Europe's solar power to be exchanged in an elaborate trading system that aims to lower the costs of energy and ensure stability and security in the long-term.

Despite the cultural and social problems that have plagued Rasmussen – most notoriously the Mohammed cartoons and an anti-integrationist Islamism – the Danish premier may be able to transcend these issues in the interest of formulating a globally beneficial energy policy. (After his speech at Columbia, Rasmussen both wished Muslims a “happy Ramadan” and defended the Danish publications' right to free speech in printing the politically incorrect cartoons).

As for the his energy promises, in eight years as Bush's best buddy in Europe, Rasmussen has not managed to persuade Bush to get behind the Danish energy plan. He praised the steps that some American states have taken, including stricter emissions targets, high fuel efficiency standards, carbon trading markets - but emphasized that the U.S. needs to do much better.

Denmark is a respected leader in tech and innovation, partially because of the dismantling of the socialist regulatory framework. As a pioneer of the clean energy movement, especially in wind power generation, Denmark seeks to advertise the business opportunities that abound in the course of preserving the environment. The ultimate message is that, if the U.S. does not heed Rasmussen's advice, enormous wealth transfer out of the U.S. will continue, and unstable oil prices and supply will burden long-term economic growth.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Homicide on the West Side

Parents anxiously dropped their children off at Trinity School and Goddard-Riverside preschool early Monday morning and exchanged scant information available on the brutal killing of a Pennsylvania man in a car parked between the two schools on West 91st Street.

No trace of the carnage remained by the time the school bells chimed, after NYPD had pulled an all-nighter gathering evidence, beginning at 10:15 p.m. Sunday night when 24th Precinct officers responded to the scene.

Police found Marvin Stevens, the 38-year-old victim, being clutched by a 22-year-old female friend. Stevens was pronounced dead on arrival from one bullet wound to the face at St. Luke’s Hospital twenty-five minutes later, according to NYPD officials.

“Central Park Police stopped a suspicious vehicle traveling through the park, but it was not the suspects, who are still loose,” said John Harrison, a law enforcement official who was doing security detail for a Trinity School student on Monday.

According to Harrison, the initial police chase of the three suspects, two in a green van and one on foot, yielded no results. The female friend also did not initially provide any information, said Harrison.

He added that police might be able to identify the suspects based on fingerprints left on either the single shell casing found at the scene or on the wallet that a suspect allegedly dropped nearby.

“As I was waiting outside for my daughter to be dropped off, I heard one shot and then ran up the ramp of my building. My heart started pounding because I thought she might have been out there,” said resident Esther Gross, vice president of the Wise Towers housing board and former chair of the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance.

“The victim and his female friend were either caught in a love quarrel or a drug deal gone wrong,” said Zoraida Bonilla, 46, supervisor of the Wise Towers tenant patrol, which aids Housing Authority police in securing the Wise Towers, four public housing buildings on the south side of West 91st Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.

“The cops had been here three hours before because we had a jumper on the roof of [117 W. 91st St.], and they inflated landing pads around the whole building,” added Bonilla, about an apparently unrelated incident.

Sunday night’s killing occurred in front of the Goddard-Riverside preschool at 114 W. 91st St., which is directly across the street from where an Allied Barton security guard was sitting at Trinity School. Trinity School’s spokesman did not comment on the incident.

“Our book keeper, who opened up the facility at 8 a.m. Monday morning, was the first person here since Friday. So, thankfully none of us were affected,” said Pedro Cordero, Director of Early Childhood Services at Goddard-Riverside Children’s Center.

“The old ladies know what color drawers you’re wearing before you even put them on, but they don’t know about this one yet,” said Mookie Negron, 33, as she and other Wise Towers residents speculated whether the victim and his female friend had ties to the area.

Police spokesman Anthony Battaglia said that the ongoing police investigation has yet to yield any arrests. Authorities are trying to determine whether the incident was linked to a spate of six Harlem shootings that also occurred Sunday night, several hours after Harlem’s African American Day Parade.

The murder is the third this year in the 24th Precinct, according to NYPD CompStat data.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Evolution of East Harlem

The seeds of big box development are painstakingly being sown in East Harlem, to the chagrin of some residents present at Community Board 11’s Land Use Committee meeting last Monday night in the basement cafeteria of North General Hospital.

While the massive development promises to bring jobs and tenants to a blighted section of East Harlem, residents fear that the project could result in less green space, squeezed out local retail, less affordable housing, and a parking nightmare.

Almost two years after the city first issued a request for development proposals, the East 125th Street Development plan is slouching forward. Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber, District Eight Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Manhattan Community Board 11’s East 125th Street Taskforce are ironing out an agreement to select one out of three developers being considered for the mixed-use 1.7 million square foot project.

“Developer E, the presumed favorite in the ongoing blind selection process, is real estate mogul Joseph Sitt’s Thor Equities, which is also redeveloping Coney Island,” said Robert Rodriguez, Manhattan Community Board 11 Chair. Vornado Realty Trust and General Growth Properties are the other two developers in the bidding to build the combination of retail, office, residential, and cultural space – and even a 180-room hotel.

“Our goals and priorities focus on affordable housing, jobs, a cultural center, public space, and small businesses,” said Rodriguez, who sought to make the plan’s $100 million in expected community benefits “accountable to the people of East Harlem.”

The proposed six-acre East Harlem site contains three parcels located between Second and Third Avenues and East 125th and East 127th Streets. The Economic Development Corporation, the city’s development wing, has spearheaded the stalled East 125th Street plan as an integral part of the broader Harlem renaissance and the river-to-river rezoning effort.

The East 125th Street development, which may take over a decade to materialize, includes up to 300,000 square feet of anchor retail space for national tenants such as JC Penny, BJ’s, Lowe’s, and Regal Cinema. The plan is also slated to have up to 140,000 square feet for specialty retail such as restaurants and nightclubs.

Meanwhile, at the 485,000 square foot East River Plaza project already under construction at East 116th Street, Target, Best Buy, and Marshalls are still expected, but Costco may replace Home Depot, which is no longer interested. Community Board Chair Rodriguez said he aimed not to see a repeat of the scenario in which East River Plaza construction jobs were promised but never delivered for neighborhood residents.
In addition to concerns over gentrification, community members also expressed doubts whether the proposal was competitive enough to take advantage of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone funds.

“In this credit market, I doubt that these national tenants could work out financing for the East 125th Street project,” said Garry Johnson, president of Johnson Design Consulting Inc., an East Harlem-based company. “Look at the East River Plaza’s [Home Depot]. That will happen to these guys later too,” said Johnson. Johnson also doubted whether the 50,000 square feet of local retail would be fairly accommodated in the East 125th Street redevelopment.

“The city has promised not to use eminent domain to remove tenants, but Fancy Cleaners, Midas, and a gas station at 126th Street and Third Avenue are concerned that they might not receive market value for their properties,” said Rodriguez.

The East 125th Street plan also includes around 900 units of mixed-income housing, about half of which is slated to be owner-occupied. There would likely be one residential tower and one mixed-use tower, including over 150,000 square feet of office space. Also planned are 300,000 square feet of cultural and media space, which would include 30,000 square feet for non-profit performance space, where groups such as PR Dreams and the Caribbean Cultural Center would pay below market rent, according to the current plan.

“We don’t have to develop everything. We can leave some areas to nature,” said Francis, an East Harlem resident who doubted that the plan’s minimum requirement for open space would ultimately be fulfilled. Additionally, the plan aims to include over 600 new parking spots, and some residents worried that their neighborhood would turn into a giant parking lot.

“We cannot get [Councilmember Mark-Viverito] to back us on major land use stand up to the city and fight for this neighborhood. She always folds. Now we’re under the gun again due to her inadequacies,” said Johnson. He added, “Melissa, we got you in, and we can get you out.” The councilmember did not return phone calls for comment.

“There should be a citizen review process and [Community Benefits Agreement] equal to the ones for Columbia University’s expansion plan in Manhattanville and for Hunts Point in the Bronx,” said Lee Shan, an East Harlem resident and city employee. Board chair Rodriguez countered that a more comparable review process in terms of community feedback occurred with the 125th Street Corridor Rezoning, which has already been approved by the New York City Planning Commission.

“In this process, we should be responsive and reactive but also progressive in expressing the vision for what we want,” said Matthew Washington, co-chair of the Community Board 11 Land Use Committee and Deputy Director of Friends of Hudson River Park. “The city has not done a good job in addressing these concerns, and the people who represent us are not listening. We’re shooting full force for the community and for our families,” added Washington.

“We need to take a more active role in selecting the developer and creating a decent vision before October 7th, when the City Council votes to approve the plan,” said Rodriguez, on the East 125th Street Development’s impending Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Monday night’s meeting also addressed the snail’s pace of other construction projects in the area, as well as the planned pedestrian and bike connector from East Harlem to Randall’s Island.

“We must ensure that future developments adhere to what we want before we begin them, since our children will have to live with the results. Developers want your land, labor, and the tax benefits,” said Johnson, who urged that the incipient East Harlem Local Development Corporation take heed of these concerns.

The American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms and Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies and are two non-profit organizations listed as possible tenants for the East 125th Street development’s 30,000 square feet of cultural space.

“We would be happy to serve the East Harlem community,” said Pierre Dulaine, founder and executive director of Dancing Classrooms. “But we were not even aware that this development is still going forward.”
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