digital delay

Bronx River Houses Get Long-Delayed Computer Upgrade

Tomas Ramos works with children on new computers at the Bronx River Houses community center, on Feb. 10, 2020.
Tomas Ramos works with children on new computers at the Bronx River Houses community center, on Feb. 10, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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After nearly three years, residents of the Bronx River Houses can finally take advantage of a new technology center long ago promised by the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

But two other public housing complexes — including one named for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former resident —  are still waiting for new computer equipment to be purchased with funds from the same grant.

In August, THE CITY reported that $139,000 dollars in computers, networking equipment and educational services earmarked for community centers at the Bronx River, Sonia Sotomayor and Soundview houses had yet to arrive.

In an area where nearly 38% of residents lack broadband internet at home, many young people depend on cell phones and libraries for homework assignments.

Before center workers installed the new tech over the last week, after-school programs at Bronx River had to piggyback on internet service from the building next door, according to staff.

On Monday, chattering elementary schoolers from the public housing complex excitedly piled into the computer lab. Now, where a single broken PC and dusty tables once lined the walls, about 17 elementary schoolers eagerly booted up 20 shiny iMacs.

“Cool!” exclaimed one girl with black round glasses, her braids flying as she excitedly held up a computer mouse.

“Can I touch this?” a boy from the after-school program gasped.

The students were told to open i-Ready, an education program. The kids went to work completing math and reading comprehension assignments, boasting to their neighbors about scores.

A Long Fight

“We’ve had a black cloud over Bronx River the past year,” said tenant association head Norma Saunders, citing recent violence and high levels of lead paint. “To do a ribbon-cutting and have something positive, this is great.”

Tomas Ramos, the director of programs at Bronx River’s Children’s Arts & Science Workshops, attributed his center’s success in getting the equipment to media attention from THE CITY and others — along with constant badgering of city agencies and elected officials by tenants and employees.

Kids in after-school program use new Apple computers at the Bronx River Houses, on Feb. 10, 2020.
Kids in after-school program use new Apple computers at the Bronx River Houses, on Feb. 10, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“So they didn’t want that anymore, especially the bad press that NYCHA always gets,” said Ramos, who is running for Congress. “And this is something small that they can fix, easy, by just purchasing it — which they eventually did.”

Center staffer Dennis Feliz, 18, said he’s just happy he finally has work to fit his title. “I’ve been waiting for a long time to be ‘technology coordinator’ for this place,” said Feliz, who hopes to teach coding, as well as reading and writing, on the computers.

In August 2018, a NYCHA spokesperson attributed delays to the funds pledged by Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. relying on “capital” dollars, which can be used for hardware like computers, but not for educational services.

Last March, NYCHA and Children’s Arts & Science Workshops signed an agreement setting out terms of the hardware purchase, although by August there was still no update on when the equipment would arrive.

On Jan. 14, Ramos finally received a call from NYCHA’s Family Services Department that the new tech was ready, but he had to drive his own U-Haul to pick up the equipment. He called Feliz.

“He woke me up saying, ‘The computers are here! Let’s take it out the U-Haul, let’s go, let’s go!,’” Feliz said.

They collected a total of 30 computers (including 10 for classrooms other than the main lab), some large wall monitors, networking equipment and a 3D printer.

Still Waiting

The two community centers still missing $84,000 of equipment and services — at the Sonia Sotomayor and Soundview Houses — are managed by Phipps Neighborhoods, a nonprofit.

“We were thrilled to hear that Bronx River Houses has received their computers,” said Phipps’ Chantell Brown, who directs Sotomayor Community Center.

Neither the Bronx Borough President’s office or NYCHA responded to requests for comment.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Bronx River’s technology center will have its official ribbon-cutting ceremony, which will include Diaz Jr, local educators and representatives from the city Department of Youth & Community Development, along with tenants.

“I always looked to this center as a safe haven,” Saunders said. “To have this is worth the wait and worth the fight.”

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