It was standing room only on a Saturday afternoon in March at a South Bronx church known for its social activism streak, where residents came, hoping to hear the city's mayoral candidates explain their positions on the issues.
There was only one problem: The three candidates considered frontrunners in next November's election—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson—were nowhere to be found.
Over 100 potential voters instead heard three other candidates—City Comptroller John Liu, standup comic Randy Credico and Green Party representative Anthony Gronowicz— state their cases, at the Resurrection Church near Mott Haven on March 9.
Local grassroots groups organized the event to acquaint residents with the candidates vying to represent them in City Hall.
Many expressed anger that Quinn, de Blasio and Thompson had ignored invitations to attend, saying it was an indication of the low regard in which the city's power structure holds the South Bronx.
"I don't know about you, but right now, I'm pissed off," Pastor Kahli Mootoo of Bright Temple AME Church in Hunts Point bellowed into the mic, to sustained applause. "For them not to be here, I'm pissed off so bad, Monday morning I'm going to pick up the phone and I'm going to make some phone calls."
One resident told the crowd that although politicians have long neglected the area, the buck stops with voters.
"We allow this stuff to happen to us," said Rita Jones, of non-profit National Action Network's Bronx division. "All we do is sit around looking out the window, cussing each other out," she said, adding that advocates' battles for Bronxites' rights are "going to waste. If you're not going to fight, then stop running your mouth."
Upset over concentration of clinics
At Camaguey Restaurant on 138th St. a few days after the forum, one resident said the highest-profile candidates' failure to appear was a sad but familiar example of Manhattan power brokers trying to keep South Bronx voters in the dark.
"When the talking heads talk about the wonders Bloomberg has done for the city, they're talking about Manhattan," said Marian Rivas, 69, during lunch at the restaurant, a few blocks from her home. "We have not benefited."
Rivas is a Ph.D with a specialty in genetics, who returned 15 years ago to live in the house where she grew up, after many years working in other parts of the country. In 2011, she helped create We Are Mott Haven, a group of local homeowners and renters who oppose what they say is the city's unstated policy to place as many drug rehab and mental health programs here as it can, to avoid political blowback in wealthier parts of the city.
The group says the city's choice to cluster treatment facilities and residences for chronically jobless newcomers in Mott Haven has made the streets feel more unsafe, and that it is pushing the neighborhood back toward the lawlessness of the 1970s.
"This administration has targeted low-income, minority neighborhoods to place these shelters," said Rivas, adding, "Even our own elected officials don't know what's going on. Public policy is against us."
Waiting for word from Cuomo
The residents organized after finding that a non-profit agency, the Association for Rehabilitative Case Management and Housing, had secured state funding to build a six-story residence for people with psychiatric diagnoses, on a residential block. They say the area is already saturated with methadone clinics and similar residences.
They point out that no city official or agency advised them the building was in the works; they found out only after a construction worker on the site mentioned it to Rivas in passing.
The community district that comprises Mott Haven, services nearly as many of the borough’s mental health outpatient clients as the Bronx’s other 11 community boards combined, according to data from the City Planning Department website. In addition, the area serves more outpatients classified as chemically dependent than any of the borough's other community districts, with capacity to treat a quarter of those seeking services.
The group pressured several elected officials who represent the neighborhood to send a letter to Gov. Cuomo last summer, asking that the project be stopped, but construction is well under way and Cuomo has not responded.
The homeowners now believe that the support they received from local representatives was half-hearted, adding that the community board has been of no help.
But they insist theirs is not a NIMBY issue. They contend the neighborhood badly needs city-funded programs, but that the focus should be on services for needy children and other vulnerable residents, instead of unwanted facilities wealthier neighborhoods have successfully fought.
"Why do we have to have all those methadone centers where these kids and teachers have to pass?" said Antonia Vega, 69, whose autistic grandson travels by bus to a school several miles away. "Why can't they put a special needs school in the neighborhood?"
Vega came away from the March 9 mayoral forum with meager expectations for next November.
"Liu has good plans for housing people who live in shelters," she said, but added, "They don't do what they say."
Vega's husband, Marcelino Sanchez, is similarly unenthused about the prospects for a new crop of elected officials, and is skeptical Mott Havenites' concerns will be addressed.
"They are absolutely impotent. They can promise whatever they want, but they cannot deliver," said Sanchez. He calls the city's unwillingness to stop the new psychiatric home, despite the local outcry, "almost criminal. They did it under the radar. Nobody knew until it was done."
Politics stir pessimism
Julio Rodriguez, 64, a retired MTA worker, said that "although there's a lot of activism in the area," and "there's a group for everything," the advocacy rarely translates into policy changes.
Like his neighbors, Rodriguez says he has been discouraged about the political process since joining the fight to prevent the psychiatric residence from being built.
"They're taking us for granted. There's no real political power here," said Rodriguez, adding he was not surprised the frontrunners ducked the mayoral forum. "There were going to be hard questions."
Rodriguez added that the community board system has been of no help in the fight to keep out the project.
"We really don't rely on them anymore. The community board does not tell the people what's going on," he said. "They are part of the problem. They're selected by the borough president. If you don't go their way, you're out. Nobody's challenging it from within."
The district manager of Bronx Community Board 1, Cedric Loftin, did not return a phone message requesting a response.
For Rivas and her neighbors, one of the most important changes a new mayoral administration should bring is transparency in the decision-making process.
"People gave up when they saw all of their efforts were going for nothing," she said.
"That's what bothers me the most. We're the last ones to know."