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7th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 7, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Since the Charter revision of the late 1980s, the city’s five borough presidents have had little power and even less to do. That’s probably why they have seized on gimmicks like holding an annual “State of the Borough” address. In the Bronx, where the state of the borough has been lousy for as long as I can remember, this annual charade has descended into a theater of the absurd.

Last week, the current borough president, Adolfo Carrion Jr., delivered his speech at Morris High School.To the outside world, Morris would be an example of all the failures of urban education. In the Bronx of Mr.Carrion,it is hailed as a success merely because it is still open.
The program began with an out-oftune performance by the Morris High School Orchestra, and continued with a similarly out-oftune performance by the borough president. And the torture seems never to end. Since Mr. Carrion controls publicaccess cable television in the Bronx, the speech is rebroadcast ad infinitum.

If the Bronx, the poorest of the five boroughs — in fact the poorest of the state’s 62 counties — is ever to pull out of the cycle of depression and despair, it will have to begin with an honest assessment. This honesty is what was missing from Mr. Carrion’s speech, just as it was missing from the 15 such speeches delivered by his predecessor, Fernando Ferrer.

The two areas of greatest failure over the past generation have been in economic development and education.The Bronx was once, after all, referred to as the “Borough of Universities.” The Bronx High School of Science was long considered the nation’s premier public secondary school. From Colin Powell to Daniel Libeskind, the borough was an incubator of excellence and talent.

Today, the Bronx is known as the failing-schools capital of the nation. What does Mr. Carrion prescribe to fix the schools? More money, of course. If money really were the easy answer, then all of our schools would be great. After all, New York City is spending billions on the schools, more per capita than ever before. Luckily Mr. Carrion, like all borough presidents, has little in the way of more money or power to raise taxes. But he is rich in platitudes, which he dispensed generously in his speech:

“The most compelling challenge for our nation, our city, and our community is to educate the next generation…A year ago, I dedicated my administration to battling for a better public education system in the Bronx.”

The only children who seem to have benefited from Mr. Carrion’s intervention in the school system are his own. Magically, they were granted waivers to transfer from their own local elementary school in the Kingsbridge Heights area, where the Carrions live, to the top-performing elementary school in Riverdale. The borough president may not have any specific ideas on how to make education better for other people’s children, but he seems to have a clear picture of how to prevent his own children from being left behind.
Economic development is the key to end the spiral of helplessness and hopelessness that has afflicted the borough. Mr. Carrion devoted a great deal of time in his speech reprising the old Ferrer economic agenda.
Mr.Carrion has dusted off Mr.Ferrer’s old “Yankee Village” scheme, based on the fiction that people will spend money in the neighborhood before and after Yankees’ games. My experience is that the vast majority of fans just want a parking space. They will do their shop
ping and strolling at their favorite suburban mall or in Manhattan — not on 161 st Street in the South Bronx.

Mr. Carrion takes Mr. Ferrer’s folly one step further. He insists that a hotel be built in the stadium area, suggesting that players from the visiting teams bunk there. Right. When the millionaire athletes come into town, they want to spend their nights in the Big Apple hanging around the South Bronx.

Frankly, I’m not worried about these visiting millionaires. I’m more concerned about Fordham University’s prospective students and their families, who now have nowhere to stay in the borough.
Hotels,more specifically motels, are a sore point with Mr. Carrion. Which brings me to the dark sideof the state of the borough, the one you won’t hear about in any speeches.

In many quarters, Mr. Carrion’s name, along with that of Mr. Ferrer and the former Bronx Democratic boss, Roberto Ramirez, has become synonymous with the epidemic of “hot sheet” motels that afflict the borough’s neighborhoods.

When angry residents of the Baychester community demanded that Mayor Giuliani rid the area of the motels and the crime they breed some years ago, the former mayor proposed a radical rezoning that would prevent more motels from opening there. This was set for quick approval when a couple of major property owners hired Mr. Ramirez’s law firm to stop the plan.

Mr. Ramirez assigned his top land-use associate, Linda Baldwin, to convince the local community board to back down. With a little bit of double-talk, a dash of deception, and the connivance of Mr. Ferrer, the plan was killed. And who exactly is this Linda Baldwin that “Boss”Ramirez turned to? She’s Mrs. Adolfo Carrion.
This raw exhibition of political power against the public interest has dogged Mr. Carrion ever since.

A feisty community leader named Mary Lauro was the person who blew the whistle on this story. She was a member of the community board that was ultimately swayed by Ms. Baldwin. But Mr.Carrion,in an incident not mentioned in the list of accomplishments outlined in his speech, extracted revenge. He refused to re-appoint Ms. Lauro to Community Board 12.

Since his wife is still practicing landuse law in the Bronx, these appointments and others that Mr. Carrion makes have the potential for serious conflict. The last vestige of the powers of the borough presidents — other than giving meaningless speeches — is their participation in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process.At a number of steps along the way, many projects must get the approval of the borough president or his appointees.

So here’s the true state of the borough: Things are bad, and they will surely get worse as the web of money and influence continues to rule and as the children in the schools continue to fail and the jobs migrate elsewhere.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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