By Theresa Schliep
The Fordham Ram sat down with John Sanchez, district manager of Bronx Community Board 6, and talked about involvement in the borough, and some of the problems facing it.
TFR: Can you describe the function of a community board?
JS: Yes, the community board is the most local form of government and primarily has two responsibilities. One is to ensure city service delivery, whether that is ensuring there is a stop sign on the corner, that trash is being picked up, whether there is lighting and community safety. The second thing community boards do is submit budget requests to the city agencies — whether that is funding for a park, funding for a school or funding for a nonprofit. The third role is doing community events. Whether that be park clean ups, an art gallery, and open mic night — just being out in the community and letting people know what community boards actually do.
TFR: What have you done lately?
JS: This was a great year, I started here a year ago. The big highlight was that we advocated for a youth court in the Bronx. The Bronx was the only borough without a youth court which would handle cases of young people charged with low level offenses such as hopping the turnstyle or loitering. Instead of going through the system they would be judged by their peers and given sanctions such as community service, writing an essay, etc. The mayor announced two weeks ago that he funded $300,000 for the first youth court in the Bronx. The goal is to have it in the community board six area. That was the crowning achievement. There were also two other announcements that the mayor had that were exciting. These were two budget priorities for the board. One is to renovate Quarry Ballfield which is on 181st and Arthur Ave. The city is investing 5.4 million to redo the field completely. The city is also investing 10 million dollars to renovate Mapes Ball Field. These are two fields that haven’t been invested in over 20 years.
TFR: Who does the Bronx community board represent specifically?
JS: We represent the people that live in West Farms, Belmont, East Tremont and Bathgate. It is about 87,000 residents.
TFR: What problems do you think they face on a day to day basis?
JS: Community board six is probably most underserved area of the city. Twenty percent unemployment, 44 percent of the people live under the federal poverty line, 18 percent of people have a college degree, less than 20 percent of kids are reading at grade level. The problems are plenty, and I would say that the biggest problem right now would be lack of employment: finding jobs that are sustainable. The second big problem would be a lack of quality schools. Long term, people do better when they go to high school, graduate and go on to graduate college. If people aren’t graduating from college in our neighborhood then they are perpetually going to be stuck in stagnate wage jobs. So we need better jobs but we also need better schools. Those are the big two.
TFR: What does your community board do to address those problems?
JS: So we are good with unemployment in the sense that we have two workforce one centers which are city agency hosted. So if people are looking for a job, they can get an interview, they can get help with their resume or cover letter within a day. We have at one in Fordham Plaza and we also have one in the West Farms Work Force One center. So when people come looking for jobs, that is an easy problem for us. A harder problem for us is when people come in saying they are about to be evicted. Or when someone can no longer afford their rent. Those present harder problems. But if someone is just looking for work, we can usually handle that problem.
TFR: Do you see those harder problems often?
JS: Not always, for some smaller things like quality of life issues, people go to the community board. Today, someone called about people playing in a park too early on a Sunday morning and making too much noise. Another time we got a call about needles in Tremont Park. We deal with a lot of issues on the city level. Quality of life issues sometimes go overlooked. But people do care about them. When someone walks down a dark block every night, it gets to them. And if we can elevate that in any way, we have done our job.
TFR: Have you encountered the opioid problem in your work?
JS: Well my office is next to a methadone clinic and I see it everyday. And the park that the The New York Times reported on, is across the street from me. I see the problem everyday. People call to complain about clients roaming the park or in the nearby McDonalds. We see it everyday, but there are resources there. If we see people in the park, we can refer city agencies to them but the person has to want to be helped. We cannot force someone into treatment, making it an uphill battle. We need to destigmatize addiction because right now people always ask when the methadone clinic leaving. ‘Why can’t we get rid of these clients?’ They do not know that this can be a family member or a member of their community. Just because someone is going through addiction, it does not mean they should be cast aside or thrown in jail.
TFR: How do you do this work in the face of such overwhelming and institutional problems?
JS: Well if you look at the community board six area, by design, it has been isolated. The 3rd Ave. L train used to run through the community. Tremont used to be the site of Borough Hall, so it was a vibrant neighborhood. The Cross Bronx Expressway was built and it split the neighborhood in half. Then you remove the elevated train line, if you go to my office you are a 20 minute walk from the train in either direction. So unlike places like the South Bronx where you are close to the train, most people do not even know where East Tremont is. I speak to students every week, and I always ask them ‘who plans on going to school and graduating?’ They all raise their hands. Then I ask them ‘who plans to come back to this neighborhood when they graduate?’ Very few, if any, go up. My job is to make the community a place where people want to return and raise a family.
TFR: How do you reconcile these improvements with trying to make sure you are servicing the people that have lived here and still live here?
JS: I would say that the fears of gentrification are not felt in our neighborhood because our neighborhood is so far from the train. I think the more important part is, what kind of housing is coming into our neighborhood? What types of levels of affordability are coming into the neighborhood? But also, we do not want all low income housing to come into the neighborhood. We do not want the neighborhood to be perpetually a low income neighborhood. It needs to be a mix of incomes. Community board six is going to have more than 3,000 units of housing in the next five years. So I think we need to invest in the infrastructure to make it an environment people want to live in. So if we are going to have 3,000 more people, then we need to have more schools. We need to have quality schools.
Part of my job is to bring private entities to the district. So often I am emailing developers that there is space on East Tremont. Today I spoke to a charter school and told them about a vacant piece of land. Part of the job is being a promoter of your neighborhood, because government alone cannot solve all of these problems.
TFR: How have Fordham students involved themselves in the community board?
JS: The biggest ways that Fordham students have been involved thus far would be by joining our office through our internship program. Since we started about a year ago we have had about a dozen Fordham students intern. They have done great work for us in serving the neighborhood. Fordham students have been very valuable, I would hope that the administration would promote this opportunity for students to get involved in local government. Our internship program is paid in the summer and is unpaid during the year, but we offer academic credit.
TFR: How do you think Fordham students can be better community members?
JS: There are very small things that students can do that would go a very long way. We have three libraries in our district. I spoke to all three branch managers and they all said that we do not have a set group of volunteers to help tutor our stundets after school. When you are talking about an area where less than 20 percent of students are reading at grade level, that is a quick way to help.
The second thing you could do is community service, whether that is a park clean up or a graffiti clean up.
The third thing students could do is come to community board meetings to learn what is going on. I think Fordham students could join us in advocacy. You may only live here for four years, but this is also your community. It impacts you as well. You should know what is going on in your immediate area. Students should further explore their neighborhood. They should explore Tremont, they should explore West Farms, it will make them more well rounded people. We continue and gladly to offer tours of the neighborhood.