Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Voices of Melrose

In 2015, Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) will open a new development in Melrose called the Bronx Commons.  Melrose, which is located in the nation’s poorest congressional district, has a high poverty rate and a young population. More than 1 out of 3 Melrose residents are under 19 years old and according to the NYC Department of City Planning, almost 2 out of 3 receive some income support.  Additionally, there are high crime rates and very few recreation centers and places that sell healthy food.

According to WHEDco’s website, the Bronx Commons will be a “361,600 square foot mixed-use development which includes affordable housing; the Bronx Music Heritage Center, a community performance and event space; a rooftop urban farm including a hydroponic greenhouse; a grocer offering healthy food options; and green recreational space.”  

The Bronx Commons will be a welcome site for the community. However, WHEDco wants to do more than just create a building; they want to enhance the entire community.  Modeled after their community development work around Intervale Green (2544 Valentine Ave, Bronx, NY 10458), another affordable housing development in the South Bronx, WHEDco is working with Bronx Health REACH to do a comprehensive needs assessment of Melrose to identify other resources that the community needs.  A needs assessment is a way of asking residents what types of services and programs their community needs with the goal of incorporating them into community improvement plans. This needs assessment includes: meetings with organizations and residents, developing and distributing a survey, analyzing and sharing the findings with the community, and working with community residents and organizations to develop and implement projects that improve the health and wellness of the community. 

We met with 10 organizations this summer, including FEGs, the Bronx Defenders, Montefiore, and Bronx Community 3.  In late September/early October, we organized community meetings at three locations: the Classic Center at the Melrose Houses, DreamYard Project, and SoBRO.  The meetings focused on 8 different themes, including: crime and safety, youth programs, adult education, jobs, and re-entry programs, health (food access and green space), culture and business.  The meetings provided a space for community members to talk about what they felt were the major issues in their community and share ideas about how to fix them.   Below is a summary of the some of what we heard.

Crime and Safety: There is a spiraling effect around crime and safety.  There are not enough activities for youth, so they turn to crime as an alternative.  When there is violence, people begin closing facilities to make the community safer.  However, these areas could be used to run programs or simply offer a safe space for adolescents to congregate.  When these spaces close, more teens are unable to access these resources and end up following their peers “down the rabbit hole”. 

The stories told by the attendees were tough to hear.  Children as young as 12 are wielding guns, shootings happening just as schools are letting out, abandoned basket ball courts because shootouts are expected there; and the reports of police responsiveness were just as bad.  The lack of care many people perceived by the investigating officers was depressing. It makes one feel as though the police have given up on the neighborhood.  

Youth Programs: After school programs are great, but what happens when kids age-out?   Youth aging out of programs at 16 means that they have more free time to engage in “bad” activities.  Creating new opportunities to engage teens is important in ensuring that they stay out of trouble and encourages healthy development.  For example, setting up an apprenticeship program where adults with marketable skills and professional experience can mentor and train youth would be ideal for skills development, providing teens with hands-on training in areas in which they are interested.  Additionally, providing programs for teens to learn more about safe sex, preventing abuse, and leadership skills will foster a generation of healthy, motivated and responsible youth with the ability to change their own lives as well as their community.

However, there is a lot that stands in the ways of these programs.  Lack of funding means there is no way to buy equipment and the lack of space means there is nowhere to house the programs.  Many spaces that could be utilized are closed due to criminal activity, a consequence of unengaged youth. Remember that spiral I mentioned earlier?!

Adult Education, Jobs and Re-Entry Programs: Adult education is vital to employment, but with a busy schedule and ever changing financial and social landscapes, many people cannot dedicate themselves to fulltime classes.  Thus, it is important that these opportunities are flexible enough to accommodate the ever-changing needs of the students. Job trainings should be offered for individuals to acquire new skills that will open doors to higher paying, living wage jobs. Job recruitment centers, like Workforce 1, should open up a new location so that more people can access these resources. Along with this, job fairs should be provided for individuals seeking employment.

In addition to jobs, re-entry programs need to be updated in the Melrose area.  Helping individuals find jobs and stay clean and sober is essential to preventing recidivism.  Without these services, individuals often turn to crime as a means for survival. Having mentoring and counseling programs located in easily accessible places, such as in housing units, is essential to aiding re-entering individuals to stay out of the criminal justice system.

Health (Food access and Green Space): Fresh produce is so hard to come by that one person referred to the area as a “Health Food Desert.”  The attendees called for more locations selling fruits and vegetables such as Green Carts and restaurant offering healthier options, like Chopped, a chain restaurant in Manhattan that sells affordable salads. 

Along with fruits and vegetables being difficult to find, the prices for these items is also higher than in other areas. Grocery stores should be encouraged and incentivized to not only offer fresh produce, but to price it fairly so that it is both accessible and affordable.

Green places, not empty spaces – parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, community gardens and the like need to be established to offer residents a chance to smell the roses, literally.  Attendees also called for educational programs to be run throughout these establishments to teach youth and adults about the world around them. Most importantly, these places need to be OPEN to the public so that they  can be enjoyed by all, not just one particular group!

Culture and Business: Attendees noted that establishments dedicated to cultural expression are few and far between.  In fact, three community centers have closed in the area, reducing the availability of activities such as open mikes, poetry readings, performance spaces, etc. While residents noted that the DreamYard Project was a great asset, they spoke of the need for more of these programs.  Additionally, programming aimed at engaging adults and developmentally disabled population needs to be created.  

In respect to businesses, the Melrose area has a ‘money leakage’ problem.  With the lack of “Big Box” stores in the areas, such as the Gap, Old Navy, etc. many residents prefer to travel to Manhattan to shop.  This means that the businesses in Melrose are missing much of those consumer dollars.  One remedy is to bring higher quality, name brand shopping options to the area and update current businesses to attract shoppers.  In addition, adding entertainment venues i.e. more movie theatres, book stores, bowling alleys, and live theatre performance spaces are needed to promote safe options for recreation and to keep residents spending their hard earned money in their own community. SoBRO has been trying to do this for a long time, but hasn’t had much success.  They hope through partnering with WHEDco and other organizations in this effort, the tide will turn.

Please join the conversation!  Do you have an opinion about what the Melrose community needs? Look out for our survey or email with "Melrose Needs Assessment" as the subject title. 

This blog post was written by Caroline Dunn, a first year student at Silberman School of Social Work and intern at Bronx Health REACH.

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