Area churches take to the streets

By Samali Bikangaga. Parishioners march on Courtlandt Avenue on June 26.

By Samali Bikangaga. Parishioners march on Courtlandt Avenue on June 26.

Parishioners fed up with high crime, NYCHA inaction, march for change

Some 250 parishioners from local churches marched in Melrose last Sunday, to draw attention to two lingering issues that they say continue to erode the area’s quality of life: rising crime and dangerously unhealthy conditions in public housing.

The procession, which parishioners organized to coincide with The Feast of the Mother of Perpetual Help, began at The Church of the Immaculate Conception on East 150th Street in the early afternoon. Marchers made their way up Courtlandt Avenue, stopping at The Bronx Documentary Center and the Melrose Houses complex, before turning onto Melrose Avenue and circling back to the church.

The parishioners were part of a coalition first formed in 1987, called South Bronx Churches, to combat these problems together. When they arrived at Melrose Houses, the marchers demanded NYCHA take action to combat mold and other problems they say are endemic in their homes and have sickened residents.

Melrose resident Maria Caban, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception, said added police presence in the neighborhood would be a good start.

“The fact that the number of murders this year has already exceeded last year’s number is a bit concerning,” said Caban.

When the marchers stopped in front of the Bronx Documentary Center, the new commanding officer of the 40th precinct, Deputy Inspector Brian Hennessy, took the mic.

By Samali Bikangaga. Father and Deputy Inspector Brian Hennessy of the 40th Precinct.

By Samali Bikangaga. Deputy Inspector Brian Hennessy of the 40th Precinct with Edmundo Molina, associate pastor at The Church of the Immaculate Conception.

“Though I can’t promise an end to all violence, I am committed to working with the community in order to resolve these issues,” Hennessy told the crowd.

Since 2011, there have been seven shootings and stabbings within the area where the march took place. According to the Department of Education’s website, more than 3,600 children attend school in that small area. Fanta Diop, 12, a student at De La Salle Academy in Manhattan, said she doesn’t feel safe in her community.

“It’s the police officers’ job to protect us, but they are not there,” said Diop.

According to NYPD, there have been nine murders so far this year in the area patrolled by the 40th Precinct, compared with four during the same period last year. In all, there has been a 46 percent increase so far this year in Mott Haven and Melrose, in the seven crime categories police use to measure crime, after several years of declining crime numbers.

The marchers said the crime trend prompted them to mobilize their neighbors to demand a change in leadership at the 40th Precinct. Last week, NYPD announced it was naming Hennessy to replace Deputy Inspector Carlos Valdez as head of the precinct after less than a year on the job. Sister Patrice Owens, principal of Immaculate Conception School, said she and others have spoken out for more police presence and better relations between cops and community.

“The start of this relationship, just like the change of leadership at the precinct, is an important step, but it is only a step. Much more is needed,” said Owens.

As the procession continued up Courtlandt Avenue, marchers held up candles for the Mother of Perpetual Help and sang hymns in Spanish. NYCHA residents held up banners and photos of their rundown apartments, showing mold on the ceilings, chipping paint on the walls, dirty staircases, and ovens with broken knobs.

Manuel Jamie, a retired Melrose Houses resident, said that maintenance in his 14–story building has always been woeful.

“Every single apartment in my building has a ticket of some sort,” Jamie said. “The lobby has to be painted, the stairs are filthy with mold, and when the elevators are broken for whatever reason, the stairs are in too bad of a condition for people to walk up and down.”

Maribel Baez, a home health aide, said she moved to Melrose Houses in 2005. Within a couple of years, she said, she began routinely gasping for air. She went to see a cardiologist who diagnosed her with asthma, She now uses three different inhalers every day.

“I found myself hopeless with nowhere to turn,” said Baez, adding she sought the help of Father Francis Skelly from Immaculate Conception and South Bronx Church’s lead organizer, Michael Stanley, who helped her file a lawsuit against NYCHA. Though she reached a settlement that forced the Housing Authority to make some repairs, she said, little has changed.

“After the settlement, people are still living with mold,” she said.

Stanley said the march was just the start of what will be continued pressure residents will exert to improve living conditions.

“We are not in this to get just a couple of hundred people to get their apartments fixed,” said Stanley. “There are 180,000 units and everybody deserves it.”