Thursday, September 27, 2007

This grass has cyber-roots

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

The revolution began with a click. For those who believe all those stereotypes about Internet chat rooms making the world a less personal place, an abject lesson can be learned from one group of local cyber-geeks.

That’s because Internet-savvy residents of Bay Ridge are now witnessing a new form of community activism, as a group of locals on the popular chat site site have punched through the gray world of HTML-coded anonymity and transformed themselves into real world tool of change.

It all began like it usually does in the word of bloggers — with a complaint.

In this case the post involved a suspected crackhouse, allegedly located on 93rd Street between Third and Fourth avenues.

Like most things in the blogosphere, the allegations were long on hyperbole but short on details.

“I live two blocks down from this crackhouse,” said poster Concerned Mom. “Bay Ridge is a very nice neighborhood, and I would like to see it stay that way. Does anyone have any suggestions of things we can do?”

This post quickly became a magnet for other residents — who until that time were strangers to each other — with similar concerns about the house.

Those familiar with the Internet know what happened next: complaints, complaints, and more complaints. But instead, this time something truly revolutionary happened.

Quicker than you can type “LOL,” the fantasy relationship of the online chat room mobilized into a real world plan to push the community into action.

“Both CB10 and the 68th Precinct hold monthly public meetings,” posted one regular BRT PetShopBoy. “We need to organize a group, get on the agenda, show up and get it on the record.”

This wasn’t just a case of cyber-bluster: the plan was quickly in motion. A handful of the online complainers left their keyboards behind and showed up in the flesh at the last Community Board 10 meeting. They have also been contacting local pols and have gotten on the radar of the 68th Precinct (and the press, though I suppose that’s obvious).

In other words, they have effectively made it an issue. This isn’t to mean that the group will have success or that the crackhouse (or whatever it is) will be shut down, but it is notable in another important aspect.

Of course, there is nothing new about online activism. Blogs like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn have been mobilizing residents against hot button issues since Al Gore invented the Internet.

But what is new is that this was a group of strangers who discovered a problem, discussed it in a chat room, and got it on the community agenda.

I’ll update you down the road to see if the Community Board or the local cops fix the problem at the alleged crackhouse, but as far as this reporter is concerned, the cyber-surfers have already scored their first success:

Now, has anyone seen that crazy monkey that can bake cherry pies on YouTube? It is truly amazing.

Matthew Lysiak is a writer who lives in Bay Ridge.

The Kitchen Sink
Sign of the times? Residents better hope not. A large sign on 95th Street proudly instructs drivers that they are on Fifth Avenue — the only problem, as our astute source pointed out, is that the Fifth Avenue sign was installed on Fourth Avenue! …

House Party! Snacks and drinks were in heavy supply as local supporters of Rudy Giuliani gathered around a big monitor at a 92nd Street home to speak to their presidential candidate of choice live via Web cast last Wednesday. Dung-covered Virgin Marys were not invited. …

Take that, Mahmoud! Days after Iranian President Ahmadinejad made headlines for trying to visit Ground Zero and giving a speech at Columbia University during his trip to New York for a United Nations session, Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge) announced he would introduce legislation to outlaw leaders “of any country classified by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism” from leaving participating in any event outside the United Nations. The bill, according to Fossella’s press release, “would also restrict the leader’s movement only between the airport, his county’s mission, his hotel and the UN headquarters.” Nice idea, but couldn’t the Iranian president simply have booked a room at the Millenium Hilton, across the street from Ground Zero? …

Maybe we’re idiots (please, hold your applause), but The Sink can’t figure out how the register line works at the Paneantico Bakery Café on Third Avenue near 91st Street. Last Sunday, we were waiting in what we thought was a line at the popular café when customers began ordering from our left, right and even from behind us. And all we wanted was a croissant!

Life in the tornado zone

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Seven weeks after the once-in-a-lifetime tornado touched down in Bay Ridge, life for the handful of households in the tornado’s angry path has not returned to normal.

Ida Thomas didn’t need to wait for President Bush to declare her Narrows Avenue block a disaster area — all she had to do was look at her property.

“I’ve had to borrow money from friends and family to fix what I could,” said Thomas, whose damages have exceeded $10,000. “Life has been quite difficult and I have had to live with the workers.”

The storm damaged her garage, floors, and even the structural integrity of her home’s foundation. Most important, she only had enough money to partially fix the roof — so life has meant praying for dry weather.

“Every time it rains, my roof takes more damage,” said Thomas. “God forbid, I don’t get it fixed before it snows. I’m not sure the roof will hold.”

Thomas has been working with Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has only offered loans and not the grants for which she hoped she would be eligible.

“I could really use those grants,” added Thomas. FEMA told Thomas that she must apply for the loans first before she can look into the grants.

After the twister touched down on 72nd Street and Narrows Avenue, it bounced up and then landed again around 67th Street between Fourth and Seventh avenues.

On those blocks, buildings are still covered with big blue tarps, and bright yellow signs posted by the Department of Buildings are taped to many doors warning of the structural damage within.

That’s also where Ho Wong lives, amongst constant construction, dust, and tools at his 69th Street home. Seven weeks after the winds blew through his world, Wong still lives with constant construction on his roof and debris in his yard.

Wong said his landlord is handling the work, and the noise keeps him up at night.

“It should be like this for a few more weeks,” said Wong. “Some nights it is pretty hard to sleep.”

The doorways on the tornados path are also crammed with business cards from opportunistic construction companies looking to cash on in on the new demand for labor.

Helen McCormack, who lives at 102 72nd St., lost a tree in her backyard. An arborist estimated that it would cost more than $1,000 remove the damage and make her yard usable again.

“Now when my grandkids come over they have to stay inside,” said McCormack. “It is a real problem.”

She didn’t think the case was something that would make her eligible for aid — which is one of the problems, at least according to FEMA spokeswoman Barbara Lynch.

“If the tree poses a danger, she should definitely apply,” said Lynch.

“One of the surprising problems we are having now is that so many people who have damage aren’t applying.”

Residents vie for piece of tornado cash pie

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Tornado-ravaged residents of Brooklyn have been knocking on Uncle Sam’s door looking for some cash — and it looks like he has finally answered.

This week, $300,000 will begin trickling into the area — an amount that will grow as more people apply, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration spokeswoman Barbara Lynch.

“The money is coming real soon,” said Lynch. “The issue now is to get people who suffered damage to apply, and we will take care of the rest.”

Getting residents to come and get the cash didn’t appear to be too much of a problem.

That’s because as of Wednesday, 539 Brooklyn residents had already filed an application with FEMA and 192 residents had visited the agency’s 59th Street field office. The grant amount that has already been approved is at $291,938.

Grants provided by the federal government do not need to be paid back.

The Small Business Administration has also approved 17 applications for home loans of $537,700.

Lynch said that more loans would be issued if more people would send their paperwork back. Out of 1,555 applications that went out, fewer than 20 were returned.

Residents should apply, she said, because now that Uncle Sam’s wallet has been pried open, getting the cash is easy.

After residents fill out the paperwork, a FEMA inspector will call to arrange a good time to stop by and verify the damage — and two weeks later, a check should arrive.

“The complicated part is over,” added Lynch.

But it wasn’t always this simple.

After the Aug. 8 storm, FEMA sent inspectors to the hardest-hit areas — a concentric circle around 67th Street between Fourth and Seventh avenues. Though hundreds of cars and roofs were destroyed, President Bush initially only awarded relief funds to Queens, where more than 1,000 homes were flooded.

Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge) kept the heat on federal officials until they changed course two weeks ago and designated Bay Ridge for “federal disaster assistance.”

Though typically a conservative who favors small government, Fossella was in the uncomfortable position of thanking the feds for throwing money at the crisis.

“The large number of Brooklyn residents who have already applied for assistance demonstrates that … the federal government has an important role to play in helping our borough recover,” said Fossella.

But FEMA may still be suffering from some post-Katrina hangover, according to at least one resident.

Ida Thomas, who lives at 7209 Narrows Ave., said she applied to FEMA two weeks ago, but the agency keep sending her loan applications instead of applications for grants.

“It is kind of frustrating, because I don’t know if I will even qualify for the loans,” Thomas said. “I have $10,000 worth of damage that isn’t covered by insurance and could really use the help.”

Residents must register with FEMA by Oct. 30. at The Bay Ridge center (552 59th Street, at Sixth Avenue) or by phone at (800) 621-FEMA.

©2007 The Brooklyn Paper

Local church healing after act of God

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Parishioners of the tornado-ravaged Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church didn’t let the shortage of light diminish their worship on Sunday.

Members of the congregation were just glad to get back in their pews for the first regular service since the tornado twisted through the building on Aug. 8.

“I have heard people say it was a miracle that no one was hurt,” said Rev. David Aja-Sigmon. “We all feel so fortunate.”

Of course, the church building is a different story.

In one of the tornado’s most-enduring visuals, the church’s centerpiece, a 25-foot stained-glass window installed in 1951 was found shattered into a million pieces on the Fourth Avenue sidewalk.

That wasn’t the only damage.

During the last seven weeks, the church also had its carpet replaced, the walls redone and work done on the pews while the congregants prayed on folding chairs in the basement. The final estimates for all the damage aren’t in yet, but Aja-Sigmon says that insurance will cover most of it.

The rest is a matter of faith — and ingenuity.

“We are going to have to get creative, but we will be able to handle it,” said Aja-Sigmon.

Aja-Sigmon says the repairs will take time. The boarded-up hole that once housed the stained-glass window displays a small photo of the window’s former glory. It could take as long as a year before it is restored.

The church won’t get any handouts from Uncle Sam — religious institutions are ineligible for FEMA grants — but Aja-Sigmon’s spirit is undaunted.

“Everyone is safe and this community has been great to us,” said Aja-Sigmon. “What more can we ask for?”

Capsule unearthed 46 years early

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

So this is the future? Well, not exactly.

When a group of civic-minded history buffs buried a time capsule on Dec. 11, 2003 to be opened 50 years in the future, few realized they would all live to see the day it was unearthed.

But it was. This week. Forty-six years early.

That was the unlikely scene on Monday at the Fort Hamilton Harbor Defense Museum, where the Bay Ridge Sesquicentennial Committee gathered with local pols behind a crusty tin box they buried only four years ago to commemorate its new, albeit temporary, home.

“The fact that this happened is aggravating and absurd,” said Committee Co-Chairman Ted General. “But we are really making the best out of a bad situation.”

The “situation” is this: the capsule’s original burial site, the front lawn of the Bay Ridge Funeral Home, at 7614 Fourth Ave., was disturbed last month by developers who are tearing it down to make room for condos. Fortunately, Fort Hamilton stepped to the plate and volunteered to store the capsule until it finds a long-term home.

“I know this has been a topsy-turvy experience,” said Councilman Vince Gentile (D-Bay Ridge). “But today is a reassurance that the capsule will live to see the day when a new generation can discover its past.”

The original idea was to preserve a piece of the past as a way of commemorating Bay Ridge’s 150-year anniversary. The group collected newspapers, pictures, photo books, menus, and just about everything to help future generations understand what life was like in the year 2003.

Next, the group chose a burial site. A crystal ball (or, more accurately, a real-estate insider) would have come in handy.

Committee Co-Chairman Peter Killen, who is already in the process of scouting out new spots, learned his lesson: “Next time, it won’t be buried on private property. We will find a public place where they won’t be building condos.”

Recchia seeks Fossella’s seat, but he’d have to move to get it

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Councilman Domenic Recchia, who once talked about running for borough president, will instead go after five-term Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge).

The Sheepshead Bay Democrat hasn’t made a formal announcement, but didn’t waste any time coming up with his campaign theme: linking Fossella to deeply unpopular President Bush and his ongoing troubles in Iraq.

“The Republicans gave us this war in Iraq and this is not what New Yorkers deserve,” Recchia told The Brooklyn Paper this week. “The Bush-Fossella team got us into this war and we need to get us out.”

Fossella’s team didn’t waste any time in focusing on Recchia’s Achilles heel: the fact that he lives far outside the boundaries of the 13th Congressional district, which contains all of Staten Island and a small piece of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. He does not have to live in the district to run — but does if he wins.

“It’s mind-boggling why Recchia wants to represent our community when he chooses to live in another congressional district,” said Fossella political director Georgea Kay. “Think about the absurdity — Recchia doesn’t think we’re good enough to be his neighbor, but he thinks he deserves to be our representative in Congress.”

Kay was just warming up.

“Recchia’s going to have a tough time convincing Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst residents to support a liberal, tax-raiser who lives outside our district,” added Kay.

Recchia declined to respond to Kay’s charges. But he did say that he would file papers establishing a congressional committee early next month.

Before he can take on Fossella, Recchia will first have to dispense with Democrat Steve Harrison, who ran well against Fossella in 2006, getting 43 percent of the vote, despite spending just $109,000 to Fossella’s $1.3 million.

Recchia said he would not experience Harrison’s fundraising woes.

“My track record speaks for itself,” boasted the Councilman. “I know Steve and he did a great job last time, but I will go out and raise the money.”

For his part, Harrison believes this election will be tilted by Staten Island, which is home to the bulk of the two-borough district.

“No other candidate has the name recognition that I do, especially in Staten Island,” said Harrison. “I also learned a lot from the last election and am confident that this time around I will be in a better position to win.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Will rents make UWS a retail ghost town?

By Matthew Lysiak | Special to amNewYork

Parents looking to do any back-to-school shopping for their kids at a popular Upper West Side mainstay this week were instead greeted by the face of death.

After more than 60 years of outfitting children for summer camp and supplying their back-to-school clothes, the old Morris Brothers store at the corner of West 84th Street and Broadway reopened last Wednesday with a Grim Reaper display at the entrance in its new role as a Halloween costume store.

For many local merchants the closing of the popular clothing store and other small shops signifies a harbinger of doom in its own rite, as small business owners fight to survive as the retail face of the neighborhood changes around them.

Independent merchants are spooked because the Morris Brothers store is only the most recent casualty of the retail facelift going on in the Upper West Side. Banks spring up along with chains like Staples, Starbucks, and Barnes and Noble, and independent grocery stores, cleaners and hardware stores keep getting squeezed out.

Last month, Embassy Flowers, located on 91st Street and Broadway for 87 years, left after their rent rose from $15,000 to $60,000. They have since relocated to Clifton, N.J., according to

"The reason these stores have been closing and the ones still standing are having trouble is because rents have been going out of control," said Dorian Thornley, who owns Westsider Rare and Used Books, which three blocks down the road on Broadway near 81st Street.

"I have been here 25 years and there is a definite shift going on and it has been to the detriment of this neighborhood's character."

The rent increase has been difficult for many longtime merchants to absorb.

That's because the neighborhood was long regarded as a fiscal enclave where merchants could expect reasonable rents (at least compared to their downtown neighbors) while still maintaining their city clientele.

But today's soaring rents have signaled a shift away from the independent businesses that once anchored the area and opened the door to the well-funded chains that now line Broadway.

Residents lament this shift has taken away what once made the area unique.

"It definitely isn't a change for the better," said Mayra Llamas, who has lived in the area for more that 20 years. "The stores around here are now beginning to look like every other part of the city."

But don't write-off this neighborhood for dead just yet; after all, the Upper West Side is still home to arguably the most unique grocer in the city. Zabars has been serving cheese and bagels on 80th Street and Broadway since 1934 and is here to stay -- unlike the seasonal costume store in the former Morris Brothers retailer, which will close on Nov. 6th.

Representatives of Eagle Court LLC, which owns the property, were unavailable for comment after repeated attempts at contact.

Still, even as the Grim Reaper gets packed away, the continuing rising rents means that as far as small businesses are concerned, the specter of death will continue to lurk in the Upper West Side.

Other victims
Area merchants who have closed up shop

-Liberty House; Broadway between 91st and 92nd streets after more than 40 years. -Judaica Treasures; W. 72nd St.

-Murder Ink; between 91st and 92nd streets on Broadway

-Ivy's Books and Curiosities, located on Broadway between 92nd and 93rd streets

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