Southern Living Magazine, September 2010 Issue

While working as the web editor for Southern Living.com, I designed this page in the magazine to promote our online packages. The social media talk bubble was my idea to increase audience engagement and grow our social media following.

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The Times-Picyaune, Summer 2009

In the summer of 2009 I earned a fellowship through the Kaiser Family Foundation to report on health issues in New Orleans. I worked as a reporter for the Times-Picayune on the city desk and covered a variety topics from education to weather. My main focus was to file heath stories, but I also had several opportunities to cover a variety of beats. Below are some links to some of my favorite stories out of the 27 bylines I produced over the summer. Ignore the misprinted bylines on NOLA.com– I reported and wrote all of these stories but the T-P has an error in its website.

Hispanics in New Orleans are Hurting for Health Care

– This is the longest enterprise story that I worked on for four weeks while I was interning. I was able to do interviews in Spanish which was really fun.

Barber Promotes Healthy Living, Health Hair

LSU Researcher Strives to Aid Mental Health Patients By Studying Rats, Drugged Flies

Location to Feature Flu Shots, Not Filets

New HIV Cases Jump in NOLA

Discovery of Body in Hotel Leaves Residents Uprooted

Tulane Scientist to Study Regrowth

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Trash Talk

It is not unusual for the Rivera family to wake up to the loud clatter of trash hitting the pavement below their third floor apartment window at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. They have been disturbed by illegal dumping countless times in their Dewitt Clinton Houses apartment on 110th St. and Park Ave. and they know there are probably more nights like this still to come.

“It makes a lot of noise and I’ve got three little kids,” said Mirta Rivera, 57, whose apartment faces the garbage dumpster for the entire building. Not to mention the sour smell of rotting waste and swarms of flies that often prevents her from opening her windows during the day.

Incidences like these are just one of the trash problems within the New York City public housing authority buildings throughout East Harlem. Illegal dumping and certain tenants who do not make proper use of the garbage facilities plague the rest of the residents who live in these complexes. Although the tenant associations and management try to enforce the rules, they say there is only so much they can do to control garbage disposal in the large complexes, some of which house nearly 4,500 people.

There are 23,028 public housing apartments in this district – the highest number of units in New York City. Each has multiple places to dispose of garbage. A garbage chute on each floor leads to an incinerator or a trash compactor. Most complexes provide one outside bulk garbage dumping area to drop large items like furniture for every two buildings. For most units, the city Department of Sanitation picks up trash twice a week, but some use a system where they call in pick ups as needed.

Illegal dumping is defined by the Department of Sanitation of New York as garbage that is placed in non-designated dumping areas or when a person drops their trash at another person’s place of residence. Although the department charges fines from $1,500 up to $20,000 for illegal dumping and has two programs in which the public can collect monetary awards for reporting this crime, the issue remains a large problem at the complexes.

“This is a citywide problem,” said Nelson Diaz, 46, who has worked in public housing for more than 22 years and is currently the superintendent of East River Houses Consolidated, which oversees Metro North Plaza, Gaylord White Houses, Woodrow Wilson Houses and East River Houses. “Surrounding businesses do get away with murder because they dump on us when we aren’t open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. And of course when we’re not looking.”

Many East River Consolidated officials say nearby stores, co-ops and other businesses in the vicinity frequently drop off old mattresses, furniture, appliances and debris on their compound to save money by not having to dispose of the waste themselves. The building authorities and caretakers will get rid of the waste because once it is on their property, they are obligated to take care of it. This takes time out of their workdays that could be spent maintaining the buildings and the facilities.

“It always takes away time because now we have to handle garbage two to three times the normal amount,” said Louis Nieves, borough administrator.

But illegal dumping is not the only trash problem within public housing. Many residents do not take the time to throw their waste in the proper receptacles or down the garbage chute, leaving bags of foul smelling domestic waste such as rotten food or old diapers in the halls, dropping it in zones marked for no dumping around the buildings, or even throwing it out the windows.

“They throw cups, papers, diapers, sanitary napkins – disgusting stuff,” said Eric Ruiz, 34, a resident of the Taft Houses on 112th St. and Madison Ave. who has lived in public housing his entire life.

This kind of excess garbage attracts rodents and cockroaches, which most residents can see often. Aside from health concerns, safety is a major issue among managers, janitors and residents in public housing because tenants do things such as burn couches in the hallway or drop glass bottles from the 20th floor.

“The year before last someone threw a can of peas from a high floor and it hit a UPS man and split his scalp open,” said Teri Dawson, 46, who manages East River Consolidated. “Luckily he lived.”

Management and tenant associations in several complexes said they have tried to address the problem by posting no dumping signs, placing articles about proper ways to dispose of trash, residential newsletters, and have the police and sanitation specialists talk to residents about the consequences of dumping trash wherever they please.

Housing units try to enforce fines for residents who they catch dumping trash in non-designated areas. Managers and caretakers will dig through the trash themselves and find mail, prescriptions or anything with the residents’ name on it that tells them who left their trash there. They charge them with fines, but Dawson said that many residents never actually pay them.

Although there are those who leave sacks of decaying garbage outside their doors or drop their food wrappers wherever they please, there are some residents like Julian Febres, 77, who take pride in their home and put forth extra efforts to maintain the cleanliness of their complex. Febres is a member of the tenant association for the Dewitt Clinton Houses and has lived there for 31 years. He sweeps his hall and the areas outside his building often, but said that sometimes residents will walk by and throw out their cigarettes or trash right in front of him. Febres knows who it is but he is afraid to tell the authorities.

“I don’t want my family to get in trouble,” Febres said. “If you write them up, you’ll never know if someone will come by your house with a gun and boom!”

Although some tenants and authorities try their best to keep the units clean, there are many that remain indifferent and litter as they please. Public housing management and residents agree that stronger enforcement is necessary but the bottom line is, there are not enough tenants that care for their quality of living.

“You have some good and some bad tenants, but the bad make it worse for everyone,” says Dawson. “A house is what you make of it.”

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Some Businesses Still Fruitful In East Harlem

Licking the honeydew juice off his fingers, Choco Real explains that, “You can’t get better quality and taste than this in the whole city.”

Real is referring to the melon he just purchased from his fruit vendor Ismail Howelader on East 116th Street and Second Avenue. He is just one of the many customers who agree that, as the economy weakens, business for local produce vendors on the streets of East Harlem remains steady because they provide services that make them stand out from their competitors.

Although market prices are rising, small produce vendors known as “fruterias” manage to provide cheaper prices, convenience and perks that larger supermarkets and local bodegas can’t match. At a time when food costs are soaring and people are reducing their spending habits, the services that the fruterias provide help the vendors stay in business.

“The main reason I come here is because I can get fresh cut fruit and vegetables and I don’t have to buy the entire thing,” says Veronica Castro of her nearby produce vendor on East 117th Street and Lexington Avenue.

Fruteria owner Felix Nivar cuts a chunk of a three-pound squash for Castro, weighs it, and then wraps it in plastic before she adds it to her grocery bag. He charges just $1 compared to the $4 she would have paid for the entire thing. Plus she isn’t forced to waste or buy extra food during an economic slowdown.

“Sometimes if I buy an entire squash, it will spoil and go to waste, so I’ll come here and I can get the exact amount I need,” explains Castro.

Castro, who has been shopping at Nivar’s stand since it opened in 1985, says she and her family patronize it “every single day” because the local bodegas and Pathmark are too expensive. Where a customer would pay $2.99 per pound for California tomatoes at Pathmark, the fruit vendors provide deals like 3 tomatoes for $2.

Recently, vendors have had to raise prices to cope with increasing costs. Where Nivar paid 50 cents a nectarine last summer, he is currently paying 75 cents. However, vendors have still managed to keep their prices lower than their larger competitors. Because they trek to large fruit markets like High Point Market in the Bronx as early as 4 a.m., vendors get the freshest selection of produce at wholesale cost. For example, Nivar pays $1 for a head of iceberg lettuce, and he is able to turn around and sell it at $1.25 for a profit. This same head of lettuce runs from $1.50 at the local bodega to $1.69 at the nearby Pathmark.

Nivar and other fruteria owners like Howelader, also offer specialty items, such as Dominican eggplant, and Haitian mangos, setting themselves apart from the retailers that often don’t offer these goods.

For residents like Omar Falcon, who want to pick up produce on their way home from work, convenience is also a major factor that keeps them shopping at the fruterias.

“It’s easy to shop here,” says Falcon at Nivar’s East 117th market. “I can pull up my car right here, get what I need on my way home, and the prices are very reasonable.”

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So Many Problems, So Little Money

A loud clatter of trash hitting the pavement wakes the Rivera family in their third floor apartment at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, again. They have been disturbed by illegal dumping countless times in their Dewitt Clinton Houses apartment on 110th St. and Park Ave. and they know there are probably more nights like this still to come.

“It makes a lot of noise and I’ve got three little kids,” said Mirta Rivera, 57, whose apartment faces the garbage dumpster for the entire building. Not to mention the sour smell of rotting waste that often prevents her from opening her windows during the day.

Incidences like these are just one of the problems within the New York City public housing buildings throughout East Harlem. Problems with sanitation, elevator breakdowns and crime have plagued housing complexes throughout the city for years and lately they have only been getting worse. Illegal dumping and poor sanitation has been an ongoing issue and elevator fatalities and crime rates are increasing. On top of all of these problems, current nationwide budget cuts pose an even larger threat to these residences.

Tenant associations and management now have fewer resources such as staff and supplies to help keep these issues under control and provide proper upkeep within buildings. A slash in city funding means less supplies and staff member to help maintain the buildings and public housing property.

But despite a decrease in dollars, there are some tenants who are working hard to improve the quality of life in these houses. Even though funds are low on national and citywide levels, certain residents are keeping their hopes high and coming up with innovative ways to improve where they live without spending any money.

There are 23,028 public housing apartments in East Harlem alone– the highest number of units in New York City. Illegal dumping and misuse of the provided trash bins is a huge problem involving sanitation in city-owned housing.

At East River Houses Consolidated – which encompasses Metro North Plaza, Gaylord White Houses, Woodrow Wilson Houses and East River Houses – nearby stores, co-ops and other businesses frequently drop off old mattresses, furniture, appliances and debris illegally on their compound, officials say. This saves the dumpers money in times of a weak economy because they are avoiding the costs of a truck or the labor to haul the garbage.

“This is a citywide problem,” said Nelson Diaz, 46, who has worked in public housing for more than 22 years and is currently the superintendent of East River Consolidated. “Surrounding businesses do get away with murder because they dump on us when we aren’t open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. And of course when we’re not looking.”

The building authorities and caretakers will get rid of the waste because once it is on their property, they are obligated to take care of it. This takes time out of their workdays that could be spent maintaining the buildings and the facilities.

In addition to illegal dumping, many residents do not take the time to throw their waste in the proper bins or down the garbage chute, leaving bags of foul smelling trash such as rotten food or old diapers in the halls, dropping it in zones marked for no dumping around the buildings, or even throwing it out the windows.

“The year before last someone threw a can of peas from a high floor and it hit a UPS man and split his scalp open,” said Teri Dawson, 46, who manages East River Consolidated. “Luckily he lived.”

Trash falling from the sky is not the only hazard in public housing. Elevator breakdowns this year have caused a number of fatalities in public housing and even the death of a 5-year-old boy. Frequent breakdowns also inconvenience and endanger residents, especially the elderly, the disabled and those with health problems.

Derek Hall, who has lived in the George Washington Houses for more than 30 years and currently lives on the fourth floor, says the elevators in his building break down almost every other day. The short walk up the stairs to his apartment doesn’t bother him, but he is more concerned for his neighbors who use wheelchairs and cannot leave their homes if the elevators are broken.

“It’s always a problem,” says Hall. “The elevators stay broken. They fix them today and they’ll be broken tomorrow.”

The danger doesn’t stop at the elevators.

Crime rates have gone up this year according to a Compstat report. Crime in public housing in the 23rd precinct of East Harlem has increased by 14.2 percent overall from 2007 to 2008. When based on a 28-day, year-to date comparison, crime in housing has gone up by 34.7 percent.

Some police officers, who requested to remain anonymous, speculate that there is more crime in recent months because of the poor economy. They say that the majority of the crime in public housing is theft and drug-related and they figure people are resorting to stealing more because they are in greater need now.

Yet the only way to fight these crimes is to hire more public housing police. The same goes for higher quality of maintenance and upkeep for elevators and sanitation. And all three of these problems will not be addressed any time soon if the money continues to dwindle.

Public housing throughout the Unites States is underfunded by nearly $500 million this year and currently has a national deficit of $32 billion according to Todd Thomas, a spokesman for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. The capital fund for housing, which covers all maintenance and construction nationwide was $3 billion in 2001 and this year the fund is down to $2.43 billion.  Thomas says, that this decrease in dollars is directly links to the managements’ ability to sufficiently maintain problems in housing such as sanitation and elevators.

“When there’s underfunding, housing authorities are often forced to make cuts,” said Thomas.

Teri Dawson, manager of East River Consolidated, knows exactly what Thomas is talking about. Her budget to maintain the four complexes within East River Consolidated has dropped from $151,758 in 2007 to $142,704 in 2008 along with her staff.

On November 14, the complex had to let go of all of its paint inspectors who were not civil servants – a position that requires an individual to pass a test in order to be considered a full-time employee and not just provisional. Now that the paint inspectors are gone, the rest of the maintenance staff has to take over their tasks. Under civil service laws of New York State, public authorities will have to let go of anyone who is not test certified to work for housing by 2013 due to budget cuts.

“So that’s more staff that we’ll be losing and more work that will be imposed on existing staff,” said Dawson. “How are we supposed to service those people with less staff and no money?”

Less money for public housing means fewer materials for maintenance on elevators and less money for resources to help clean buildings and control crime. For example, since management has less money, they have to hire cheaper contractors to fix broken elevators and also purchase cheaper parts, which can often be lower in quality and result in more malfunctions.

However, there are some tenants who are working hard to push for improvements in housing despite a weak economy and decreasing budget.

Take Patricia Moore, president of the Woodrow Wilson Houses tenant association, who has lived there for 19 years. Since December 2007, she has been working with members of the community to provide residents with financial services like having bankers come to educate tenants about savings plans. She has also organized services for counseling, spiritual gatherings and youth and crime programs to improve the lifestyle in public housing.

For instance, Moore works with the 23rd Police Precinct to help educate youth about drugs and crime in housing and build a better rapport between the police and the tenants of housing. She organizes information sessions where officers come and talk to residents about safety and what to do if confronted with drugs of violence.

Moore has also helped increase tenant involvement throughout her complex raising tenant membership from seven people in November 2007 to nearly 40 members this November. Three weeks ago she began meeting with the elevator supervisors regarding breakdowns and there has not been a malfunction in two weeks. When residents say they have become accustomed to at least one breakdown a week, this change is a great improvement.

Although Moore has been working for over a year to improve her development, her work with financial groups and efforts to build stronger relationships with the maintenance staff is directly linked to her concerns with the budget cuts. Moore is aware of the problems that the budget cuts present, but her dedication and work within the community has already seen more resident involvement.

“I’ve got more residents coming out to meetings,” say Moore. “Even though we are going through cutbacks this year, we are still trying.”

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Making The Cut

Stephanie Ortiz has always struggled with reading and writing, but for the past two years, the 8-year-old has been working with tutors for two and a half hours daily after school from the youth development specialists at the East Harlem Tutorial Program. Within months of joining the program, her mother and teachers noticed Ortiz’s performance has improved

“She loves it here,” Ortiz’s mother, Santa Avilas, 31 said. “There’s never a day if she can’t make it here that she won’t ask me ‘why not’?”

Now that the economy is in a downward spiral and so many non-profit organizations are getting their funding cut, Avilas is afraid her daughter may not be able to attend the program as often.

So far, Ortiz continues to receive her daily tutoring, but officials at the East Harlem Tutorial Program, located at 105thSt. and 2nd Ave., have reduced their budget by 11 percent for the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year and have already cut down on staff and programs in order to cope with shrinking funds.

In the midst of their 50-year anniversary and a capital campaign to build a new facility with $4 million in commitments so far, a crisis in the economy could not have come at a worse time. Since the downturn on Wall Street, the agencyis concerned with a significant drop in funds from corporate donors. As they wait to see how tightly contributors will clench their pocketbooks this year, the project is doing everything possible to avoid their greatest fear: cutting students from their program.

In the early 1990’s the program increased its membership from 50 people to over 800 participants. Over the past 20 years, it raised its annual budget from $100,000 to $3.5 million. Yet from 2007 to 2008 the program’s funding has dropped to $3.3 million and they project a drop below $3 million by 2009. The administration worries that the number of students served will have to decrease as contributors scale back their donations in the face of a possible recession.

“Our goal was to be able to serve as many families as we have in the past,” said Jeff Ginsburg, Executive Director of East Harlem Tutorial Program, about the group’s reaction the recent budget cuts over the summer.

East Harlem Tutorial Program has served youth from grades K through 12 by providing after school academic tutorials, art and athletic programs. Since 1958, more than eight students and 270 volunteers participate in this program each year but their numbers have not always been so large. In the past they were only serving up to 200 students a week and now the numbers can vary anywhere from 200 to 500 students who get help weekly.

But some of their programs that rely on individual donations are beginning to feel repercussions. So far, they have lost over $300,000. This year the agency had to cut their summer camp for 6 to 12-year-olds from 175 participants down to 100 participants. Next year they may have to cut the program down to 75 participants. Steve Yonkin, a music teacher, now covers every level of music instruction instead of the higher grades he was teaching before the group reduced their music and arts staff.

“Our biggest concern is the corporate donor base, which I’m sure all small non-profits are feeling about now,” said Jim McCauley, Director of Finance for the program.

In the 2007 to 2008 fiscal year, corporate contributions dropped by 40 percent and the group has estimated that it will decrease by another 45 percent this year. Although financing from the government has increased by 15 percent this year, this accounts for the smallest portion of the group’s funding. Donations from private individuals make up 40 percent of East Harlem Tutorial’s revenue followed by money from private foundations. Administrators project a 15 percent decrease in individual giving this year. And with struggling companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG having donated in the past, the staff thinks that they will see the greatest losses from corporations combined with individuals who work on Wall Street.

The project has already restructured administrative positions and eliminated some part-time employees and a receptionist, giving full-time staff a larger workload in the face of these losses. Although they have purchased another lot on the corner of Second Avenue and 105th Street where a larger facility is planned, directors have pushed back plans of breaking ground this month and are waiting to see how funding pans out before going forward.

The program is putting their creativity to the test by leaning more on volunteers this year than in the past and looking for alternative resources like retired teachers and graduate students that will work for less money instead of hiring high-paid guest speakers or specialists. Administrators have also talked about doing fairs and activities with other non-profits where they can share food and facilities to lower costs.

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A More Swanky Spanish Harlem

Anselmo “Chemo” Bello saw a future for upscale dining in El Barrio when opened his Mexican-French bistro, Itzocan at 1575 Lexington four years ago. He recognized the possibility for residential change and commercial growth in the area.

“When I opened there was not a lot of restaurants in this area and I saw change here in the next three years or so,” Bello said.

And he was right. In four years, over five restaurants have opened on Lexington Avenue between 101st and 102ndStreets. The block, once barren of places to eat with only a Pizzeria across the street, now flourishes with new restaurants from Joy Burger to a coffee shop that will open next month, and also Giovanna’s Restaurant Pizzeria. A commercial real estate development that faces Itzocan, is also in the works.

Itzocan is not the only new dining establishment in El Barrio bridging the gap between old and new residents of the neighborhood by providing a higher quality of food and more attractive, well-lighted places to eat. According to residents, 10 years ago one could only spot a handful of higher-end restaurants in a sea of greasy take-out joints in East Harlem. Now dozens of restaurants that offer upscale food and a trendy environment are emerging all over the neighborhood.

Development of new condominiums and apartment buildings, such as Mirada at 161 E 110th St. where apartments start at $899,000, are bringing in people from all over Manhattan who expect the kind of service and high-end businesses they were used to in other neighborhoods around the city. As the demographics of the neighborhood continue to change, local restaurants are as well.

Divino Sena started Giovanna’s four months ago and has seen an overall 40 percent increase in profits. Sena chose this location at 1567 Lexington Ave. because he lives nearby and the rent was only $9,000 a month for 1400 square feet. This is almost half the cost of the $17,000 location of equal size he looked into on 93rd Street and Third Avenue before settling here.

“When I saw this place here I thought, that’s the place to be,” Sena said. “The rent is not crazy rent for my first restaurant.”

Brian Ghaw, 27, opened Savoy bakery, in December of 2006, and saw promise in the convenience of the space, located less than one half block from the No. 6 train and situated between the New York Public Library and the U.S. Post Office. Rent was three times less than where he looked downtown, but, he said, he had no idea Mirada would begin building apartments across the street just months after he opened his modern bakery that serves coffee, soups, sandwiches and pastries made to order.

Ghaw said he has made additions to his menu such as banana custard and cheesecake at the request of many of his Hispanic customers. And because of his low rent, he is able to charge $2.85 for a slice of cheesecake when a much older bakery just three doors down charges $3.00.

But price is still an issue for some restaurateurs trying to build business in the area. Paul Alvarado, a manager at Amor Cubano at 2018 Third Ave., says his clientele is a mix of roughly 40 percent new residents, 50 percent old residents and 10 percent from outside of the neighborhood. Like many of the other restaurants, Amor Cubano’s business and popularity continues to grow as a whole, but they do get complaints from some older residents that prices are too high.

Felipe Colon, has lived in El Barrio for over 60 years and had to close down his Puerto Rican restaurant, El Fogon, two and a half years ago due to an increase in rent. Colon, who eats at Amor Cubano at least once a week, says that although the food and entertainment here is great, there is still a large number of residents that cannot regularly afford an $18 entrée.

“In this neighborhood you can’t have high prices because this is a working man’s neighborhood,” Colon said.

But the new working men and women of El Barrio are beginning to change. Erik Selakoff, a personal trainer who just bought a $470,000 one-bedroom condo at the complex Aura at 330 E. 109th St. said he starts and ends his day at Savoy. Selakoff moved to El barrio from the Upper East Side four months ago because he was able to purchase his first home here for a reasonable price. Although there is a bakery just a block away from his condo, Selakoff travels the extra four blocks to Savoy for the sense of community that the coffee shops and bakeries in his old neighborhood did not provide.

“ On the Upper East Side there was not a neighborhood feel at these types of places. You could go into a place and it would take a number of weeks at least before the person behind the counter would remember what you order. At a place like Savoy, I went in two or three times and they remembered my order.”

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