Mott Haven Speaks

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136th Street, Mott Haven, Bronx

At WNYC we're documenting changing neighborhoods across New York City, one by one. First up, Mott Haven in the South Bronx.

With artists moving into the area, apartments costing more, and new development projects along the waterfront, Mott Haven definitely fits that category. Producer Sophia Paliza-Carre is in residency at the Mott Haven Branch of the New York Public Library, talking to the people in the community, to hear their take on what it all means for the neighborhood.

You can find WNYC's introduction to the project and the neighborhood here: Four Signs the South Bronx is Gentrifying

Let us know what you think is changing, by tweeting with #MottHavenSpeaks. And keep up with Sophia's residency below. 

She's in-and-out of the library a few times a week, or you can contact her at:

Jan 9th, 2016 - #51 the South Bronx

Last week, the NYT published their list of 52 places to visit in 2017. #1 on the list was Canada. #51 was the South Bronx.

The list cited art gallery 9J, pizzeria La Grata, and a luxury hotel by Somerset Partners. Most of the list focused on new developments along the waterfront, and a few that haven’t even been built yet.

Ed Garcia Conde, community blogger from the South Bronx, wanted to see more attention featuring the homegrown talent of his neighborhood. He responded with his own list, which includes Longwood Gallery of Art at Hostos, Mexican restaurant Xochimilco, and street art gallery Wallworks.

He joined host Jami Floyd in the studio to discuss why a gentrifying South Bronx deserves to be highlighted beyond its new developments.


 Dec. 21st, 2016 - Waterfront Sagas

“It’s seductively beautiful, but in fact, it’s in ruins.” - Linda Cunningham, executive director of the Bronx Arts Space.

Some of New York's prized outdoor areas include gems like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Battery Park (with its sea glass carousel), and Socrates Park in Queen.

In Mott Haven and Port Morris, residents don’t yet have that green space to brag about. The waterfront is there - if you walk straight down Lincoln Avenue past 132nd street, you’ll hit water, kind-of - but it’s not very accessible.  Rather, you’ll hit a small enclosed outcrop on the river just past the Oak Point Link rail. Once there, you see a sign indicating there should be no swimming, no fishing and no boating. You’ll also smell the scent of garbage, as trucks carrying one third of New York City's trash cruise by every few minutes.

This is one of the few public access points to the South Bronx waterfront. It’s places like these that inspired artist Linda Cunningham in her work on display at the Bronx Museum, Waterfront Sagas. She’s been living 5 blocks from the waterfront for 16 years and has been photographing it ever since.

She used photographic transfers on canvas to convey different locations in Mott Haven where you can see the water.  “I have chain link fence that is drawn so that it kind of looks like it's really fence in front of this mural because I’m more than symbolizing the fact that we can’t get to it. We can’t enjoy it. We can’t use it. It’s all dedicated to some other purpose or just left to be trash.” 

She hopes her work will inspire further development and open public access to these impassable areas. Community groups including the New York Preservation Project and South Bronx Unite are working to do so. There’s quite a bit of interest in developing the waterfront. Developer Keith Rubenstein is hoping to build an esplanade next to the residential towers he’s building by the Third Avenue Bridge. Empire State Development is also now seeking proposals to develop thirteen acres of the Harlem River Yards.

Linda’s concern is that as development moves forward, the public, won’t have full access. She’s not sure what the solution is. “Maybe we need to engage, period, with everybody. There are a lot of artists that think we should have nothing to do with the developers, but I don't think we're going to win that way.”

For more on the South Bronx waterfront, listen to Sarah Barrett's full story on what developments are in progress, and upcoming: The Long-Awaited Waterfront


 Dec 16th, 2016 - It's Coquito Season

Coquito is the Puerto Rican version of the eggnog, and this time of year, it's a big hit at every family party. It's made with pitorro (moonshine) flavored with coconut, cinnamon, or a flavor of your choosing. Each person's coquito recipe has its own special taste. WNYC's The Sporkful, recently dug out a story from a few years ago about the homemade drink. 

Listen to the story to ready your taste buds, and then head over to Port Morris Distillery for the Coquito Master's coquito finals this year.  They take place on Saturday, Dec. 17th, 6-9 pm. 

 Dec. 15th, 2016 - Enterprise Community Partners hosts WNYC and South Bronx Unite

Earlier this week, Enterprise Community Partners invited me to speak about my reporting for WNYC on the topic of affordability in the South Bronx. Enterprise is a national organization that advocates for affordable housing for lower and middle income communities.

Over 130 people gathered at the Lower East Side Mutual Housing Association for the panel discussion which included community activist Mychal Johnson of South Bronx Unite and Elizabeth Strojan, the program director of public policy at Enterprise Community Partners.  It was moderated by Jillian McLaughlin of NYC Economic Development Corporation.

The conversation covered a lot of ground: What are the feelings people have about change and affordability in Mott Haven? What do groups like South Bronx Unite hope to accomplish? How might things change in the incoming Trump administration? Most notably, people wanted to know, what are the tools and solutions to keep NYC affordable? As WNYC continues to report the affordability series, this is a question that we too, always have in mind.

The conversation was not recorded, but it went so well, we’re looking to set up something again. Keep a look out for further events. 

Dec. 12, 2016 - The Lit Bar

This week on the Brian Lehrer Show, Noelle Santos discussed her new project, an independent bookstore she’s calling “The Lit Bar.”

A Bronx resident all her life, she was dismayed two years ago to hear that the Barnes & Noble in Co-op City in the Bronx was going to close, after the landlord raised the rent. After much public outcry, elected officials helped negotiate a lower rent to keep the store open another two years. But now, in a few months, the Bronx will be left without a single bookstore. 

“I just took it for granted,” she told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “I didn't understand the value of independent bookstores, because I’ve never had them. Barnes & Noble was all I knew.” 

Noelle hopes to help fill that void through a bookstore-meets-wine bar. She hopes to bring in new shoppers by using tactics like creating unusual book sections like “50 Books Every African-American Should Read” or  “25 Families Crazier Than Yours.” She also wants to feature literature written by and about her community and host social gatherings at her store that include book clubs. 

She’s been looking for locations in the South Bronx and in particular, in Mott Haven, an area where there are increasing concerns about gentrification. She addressed those worries when a caller asked if her bookstore would be catering to newcomers rather than long-term residents. 

“My hope is that we can create that third space where existing residents of the Bronx and people migrating to the Bronx have a space to discuss these issues and become real neighbors.” 

Dec. 1st, 2016 - The last party store?

Alvaro discusses which color ribbons he wants to buy for the pins he makes, as he leans on his counter. He’s been in the party decorations business for something close to 20 years, ever since he came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico. His storefront is one of the few left in Mott Haven that sells mostly hand-made party favors. It’s crowded with ribbon-covered arches for weddings, valentine’s day cards, cake toppers of baby cradles, and piñatas of minions.

 “We are the ones that spend the most on parties.”  He tells me in Spanish. Even though the area is 72% Latino, only about 13% are Mexican. Yet Alvaro says, his customers who are celebrating weddings, quinceañeras, baby showers, baptisms - are almost all Mexican, sometimes Guatemalan.

He says he’s seen others pop up and then close after a year or so. There was another store just down 138th street, but their rent went up almost double and they couldn’t afford it anymore. In general, business for Alvaro, is no longer as brisk. “People can’t spend as much anymore,” he says and cites apartment rent as the biggest burden. Also families prioritize paying for food and the venue first for a party - and so don’t spend as much on decorations. Especially when they’re saving up money for the winter holidays.  

He hopes to hold on for a while yet, and he claims his willingness to negotiate and work with a customer keeps him in business. For now, you can still get a wide variety of trinkets for every occasion in his store. 


 Nov. 28th, 2016 -  For One Student, the Neighborhood isn’t Changing Fast Enough 

Eduardo Garcia and his mom Yocasta Garcia live in Mott Haven. He’s a senior this year, and in the midst of the college application process. He hopes to become a doctor. In his college essay he wrote about helping translate medical terminology from English to Spanish for his Dominican-born mom. 

"Researching all of her conditions and the professions that treat them has inspired me to want to pursue a profession in the medical field and become a physician in the future," he read from his laptop.

The high school graduation rate for public schools in the South Bronx is just 56 percent; fewer than half of all graduates in 2015 went on to college. Both statistics are among the lowest in the city.

But Eduardo got a lucky break: he has help from nonprofit Breakthrough New York, which helped him transfer from a local school to St. Raymond’s High School for Boys in Parkchester. That’s made all the difference. He hopes to go to medical school, and never look back.

Listen to Beth Fertig’s full story here: One South Bronx Teen Looks to College as a Ladder Up, and Out


Nov. 23rd, 2016 - Choosing Other Needs Over Internet Access

The Bronx has the lowest levels of internet connectivity in the city. Most New Yorkers do have at least some access to internet, but it’s not always reliable, or consistent.

Reporter Sarah Gonzalez met Daisy Cassarrubias at the public library a few weeks ago. She's one of 5,000 people who recently checked out a wifi hotspot to use at home. It gives her some free data, to help her 10 year-old and 4 year-old boys to learn more about the world, which is very important for her. 

The cheapest Cassarrubias ever paid in the Mott Haven zip code for internet in the Bronx was $80 a month.

“But at the end I told them I can’t do this no more. It was too much,” she said. “I told them with that money we can buy food, we can take the boys out to either the zoo and get them something to eat with that money.”

Listen to Sarah Gonzalez's full story: The Students, Families Who Can't Afford Internet in the Bronx

 Nov. 21st, 2016 - A South Bronx Native Returns Home

Diana Hernandez, left behind poverty and her neighborhood to seek education and opportunity. 

She's now a professor at Columbia of public health and sociology.

In 2009, she moved back to her old community and picked up a new hobby: real estate. She hopes becoming a small-scale housing provider is a way for her to re-invest in her community. 

LISTEN: Returning to Mott Haven and the South Bronx 


Nov. 17th, 2016 - A Little Old Lady and a Possible Way Forward for the South Bronx

If you meet Frances Goldin on the street she’ll probably hand you a “Tax The Rich” pin. She’s 92 years old, only wears purple and has been a street activist since before the hippies of the 1960s made it cool.

In the 1950’s Robert Moses, New York City’s most famous city planner, wanted to bulldoze the Lower East Side where Frances lived.

“If we don’t clean out these slums the central areas are going to rot,” Moses said at the time. “And it’s all nonsense to say that the problem can be solved by rehabilitating and fixing up, slicking up old law tenements by repair jobs. It can’t be done. You’re simply pouring good money after bad.”

Robert Moses envisioned a new community with high-end co-ops for people working on Wall street. When the city evaluated his new plan, it found that more than 90 percent of people living there would be displaced and unable to afford the new apartments Moses wanted to build.

Moses was notoriously pro-development to the detriment of low-income communities.

“If you try to please everybody you’re not going to accomplish anything,” Moses said at a speech in 1953. “There must be people who are discommoded, inconvenienced or call it what you will...on the old theory that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”

“That’s what you think,” said Frances Goldin when she heard about the plan.

The residents of the LES got together and drew up a new plan for the neighborhood. They wanted to form a Community Land Trust in order to protect the land from development and have a say about what happened to the future of their neighborhood.

It wasn’t easy. In 2008, after 50 years, the Cooper Square CLT was created. It protected 21 buildings and 328 apartments, guaranteed to stay affordable for 99 years.

“We struggled, we picketed, we got arrested. Every step of the way, we forced them to do what they didn't want to do,” said Goldin. “Now they brag about Cooper Square!”

That’s what activists in Mott Haven want to do for one building they hope to turn into a community center. They just hope it won’t take 50 years to accomplish.

Listen to Sarah Barrett’s story of how residents and activists are turning to the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust to reinvest in the neighborhood.  They hope to turn a vacant city-owned building into a community center with space for an after-school program, a health clinic, a commercial kitchen for local businesses, a birthing center, and even room for a local youth orchestra.

 Nov. 8th, 2016 - Election Day at Gio’s Pizza


Today, people keep coming in to ask for slices with their “I Voted” stickers proudly displayed. 27 year-old Jon Giovanni is behind the counter to serve them. This election year is actually the first presidential election that he and his father, Peter Giovanni are voting in, even though they could have voted in previous elections. “I never cared to vote before,” says Peter Giovanni.  

Gio’s Pizza is a family business, passed on to three generations. Jon is the youngest, and he’s concerned about increasing small business taxes, as he looks to inherit the business.  So he felt compelled to vote this morning, to make his voice heard, and registered his dad to vote for the first time as well.

Jon is the most recent in a line of men in the Giovanni family who has slung pizza to Mott Haven residents over the last 30 years. He was born in a pizzeria, he likes to say (because his mother’s water broke there) and he wants to die in one.

In 1984, his grandfather moved into the neighborhood from Montenegro.  “For a white guy to come into this neighborhood, he had to be ballsy,” says Jon. Since then, the family has opened pizza shops in Harlem and on Fordham road, but the Mott Haven location on 141st Street is where they spend most of their time.


They used to rent a space right across the street. In 2006, Jon’s father Peter Giovanni bought the building they’re currently in and moved the pizza shop.  Jon remembers the real estate agent told them, “if you can hold onto this place for 20 years, you’ll be in Manhattan.” Peter says the neighborhood isn’t quite there yet - but he’s grateful that they don’t pay rent anymore, especially since a few other business owners they know along Third Avenue have had to leave due to rising rents.

Gio’s Pizza regular Thomas Carswell lives upstairs. He says he has seen change in the neighborhood, but mostly for the worse. He feels gentrification is happening in Mott Haven, but “only in certain areas,” that don’t extend to places like the Patterson Houses, where he grew up. As a former substance abuse counselor, his big frustration is that youth in the neighborhood don’t have more places to safely hang out in.

Thomas also voted this morning. In regards to watching the election he says, “I would have preferred to hear more about things that would be beneficial to the country rather than people criticizing each other about their personal shortcomings.”


Nov. 4th, 2016 - Wifi in Mott Haven

Reporter Sarah Gonzalez and I visited the NYCHA Digital Vans to talk to folks about their internet and computer needs. These vans act as mobile computer labs, and visit different public housing complexes every day. We asked – where do you get your wifi? What do you need it for? Do you have a computer at home?

Just outside Nevia Cruz waits. She doesn’t have a computer or internet. For her, it’s too much to figure out. So she goes to the Dominican Sisters down the street when she needs to fill out paperwork for her social security benefits or tenant re-certification.

Today, she’s trying out the NYCHA vans which conveniently are parked this week in front of where she lives, the Mott Haven houses.

She often asks for help with computers, but she is very comfortable taking phone pictures. Here she shows me one of her best friend, her dog “Quien,” (“Who” in English). Nevia spends works almost every day in the Willis Avenue community garden nearby, and every once in a while, she’s a poolshark at a local bar.


 Oct. 28th, 2016  - Redlining in Mott Haven

This week, I met up with Designing the We, a social impact design studio, to get a little history lesson. They walked me through their exhibit: “Undesign the Red Line."

This exhibit examines the practice of redlining in NYC by the Federal Housing Administration, and how it created racial housing segregation and disinvestment. The map below was made by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in 1938, a government corporation created during the New Deal.  It created a series of maps that indicated investment risk for real estate developers,by dividing areas into zones. 

If you take a close look, you see a large swath in the center of the South Bronx shaded red, and thus deemed in the highest risk category for investments. By contrast, Riverdale in the Bronx is notably green, the classification with the least risk.

The problem was the categories were based largely on race (thus redlining). Areas with African Americans and immigrants were determined high risk. The effect of this map was these residents often had trouble getting loans and mortgages.

The timeline created by Designing the We reflects on the effects of redlining, and how they carry on today. It also highlights community movements and organizations that fought back.

See the exhibit for yourself. It's currently on display at the Andrew Freedman House.

Oct. 25th, 2016 - Audio Postcard “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

As I go along, I’ve been collecting as many words and feelings from residents of the South Bronx as I can. To get to issues of affordability, I often ask - do you see yourself living here for another 5 years? Why or why not? 

Here are two people who have shared their feelings with me:

Eileen Walsh is an artist and curator. She’s a relative newcomer and has been in the South Bronx for 5 years. She moved to Port Morris because she could afford to open the small community gallery she wants to there. 

Robert Maseda grew up in front of his dad’s pet shop in Mott Haven. He’s lived here for years in public housing and is currently unemployed. He currently sells snacks $1 a time to businesses along the waterfront to make ends meet. 

These are two residents who enjoy the South Bronx, but feel pretty differently about what they see coming.

You can hear Maseda and Walsh's here.

Of course - these are just two voices experiencing change in their own way. Want to add your input? Please share with us! #MottHavenSpeaks or write a comment below.



 Oct 15th, 2016 - "Party People"

It's Saturday night at the BronxArtsSpace and there's a party going on, though not the one you might expect. Members of ensemble UNIVERSES were there to give Mott Haven residents a sneak peek of their upcoming Public Theater show "Party People." It's a musical experience based on dozens of interviews with members of the Blank Panther Party and the Young Lords, who were active in the South Bronx in the '60s and '70s. The room was full of feeling and sound.

"I used to walk around here in the '60s ... and I never realized just how beautiful the buildings were. " - Gabriel Torres, member of the Young Lords said as he addressed the crowd.  

One of those now abandoned buildings is 349 E. 140th St, where the audience gathered after the show. It's the focus of a campaign by activist group South Bronx Unite to turn it into a community center and resource for various nonprofits that need space in the area.

Those gathered placed their hands on the building, in a symbol of hope that it will become the community center the neighborhood wants and needs. They still have a long way to go. 

Oct 12th, 2016 - Brian Lehrer Show

This morning reporter Jessica Gould and I joined the show to chat about affordability in the South Bronx and take phone calls from listeners.

You can hear the full conversation here: The Affordability Crisis Reaches Mott Haven


Oct 11th, 2016 - Bronx Museum of the Arts

My editor Charlie and I met with the Community Advisory Council last night of the Bronx Museum. They're a volunteer group of local residents that work with the museum to determine programming and act as cultural ambassadors.  And we gave them a little homework:

We asked them - what does "affordability" mean to you? That's the focus of our radio stories - but it's such a large, vague term. What is an affordable neighborhood? 

The council kindly indulged in our exercise and they had lots of thoughts:

Right away we heard:

“I feel tense and anxious when I hear the word affordability." "NYC is becoming unaffordable for many." And then the conversation drifted to gentrification, of course.

“Gentrification is when a neighborhood becomes only places to eat out.” It creates “alienation” in the community, and it can happen even if rent is still less than a 1/3 of your income, as the rule of thumb goes about how much you should spent on rent. The Bronx is struggling to be a "land of opportunity" for it's local residents. 

Thank you to Lauren Click a the Bronx Museum and the CAC for your thoughts. You made us think more deeply.

Any more thoughts? Send them our way. #MottHavenSpeaks

 Oct 5th, 2016 - Mott Haven Public Library

And so it begins! Our first office hours at the historic Mott Haven library brought a mix of folks out. We asked - what's changing in your neighborhood?

It was an interesting few hours for me - I gave an impromptu presentation to a group of people visiting the South Bronx from the International Rescue Committee. A little bit later, I was awkwardly questioned about my dating life (FYI — I'm here and happy to listen to your thoughts, as long as they're about the neighborhood, not dating!)

It's incredible how many people use the library for its resources. I met a young couple sitting at a nearby table who were busy tutoring each other. Ramon was helping Diana read her radiology textbook and Diana was teaching Ramon words in Spanish. Diana just moved to the neighborhood from the Dominican Republic two years ago and now is studying at Hostos Community College on 149th Street.  

If you're in the area - have you seen this photo project at the library? It's brilliant and pictures are all taken by kids in the area. 

"Mott Haven Is...pigeons walking together in in the street. I see them around the neighborhood." - Wascar S.  

"Mott Haven Is...lots of churches where people come to pray. If something happens, church helps them feel better." - Lissette M.