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The computer room at Bronx River Houses Community Center, once lined with PCs and children using them, is empty save for dusty tables and chairs pushed against the walls, and a pair of giant speakers.
In 2017, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. pledged $55,000 in city capital funds to the New York City Housing Authority for computer and other media equipment for young people to use at the Soundview center.
The program director for Children’s Arts & Science Workshops, which runs the community center, was so confident the new computers were coming that he donated the outdated ones to local teens heading for college.
“My vision was I was going to create a technology center,” said Tomas Ramos, who has declared he’s running for the congressional seat being vacated by South Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano.
“I want the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk to come out of the projects — and [be] able to create their own applications, their own software and build their own companies right here in the Bronx,” he added.
More than two years after receiving the borough president’s contribution, NYCHA has yet to purchase the promised hardware, which includes 30 iMac computers, six wall monitors, networking hardware and a 3D printer.
The center, which serves 1,500 households living in Bronx River Houses as well as the surrounding neighborhood and hosts a camp with 150 kids, has just one computer available for the community’s use — and it sits on an administrator’s desk.
“How is she going to let all those kids use one computer?” asked Josie Sims, a mother of an 11-year-old boy at Bronx River Houses.
Three Centers in Waiting Game
Bronx River Houses isn’t the only southeast Bronx NYCHA complex to be left stranded without promised computers in an area where many households don’t have broadband internet. The Soundview and Sonia Sotomayor community centers, both run by Phipps Neighborhoods, also obtained funding from Diaz for the fiscal year 2018 city budget.
All told, the three centers received $139,000 in capital dollars to purchase computers as well as get help teaching public housing residents computer programming.
“We have been anxiously awaiting this support for a long time and are disappointed that it hasn’t been executed,” said a Phipps Neighborhoods spokesperson. “The community was initially very excited about the possibility and could still benefit greatly from this technology. We look forward to accessing these additional resources that were already committed but have not yet been provided.”
A year ago, Diaz was among those raising a stink that the computers he’d budgeted for hadn’t materialized in the three NYCHA developments.
“I know that I allocated it,” said Diaz at a rally, standing amid a crowd of children in bright orange Bronx River Houses Community Center t-shirts. “They should put all of their budgeting and spending online so we can all take a good look.”
At the time, a NYCHA spokesperson attributed delays to the effort’s sole reliance on capital dollars, which can be used for items like computers but not other aspects of the planned program.
This March, NYCHA and Children’s Arts and Science Workshops signed an agreement setting out the terms of the hardware purchase.
“NYCHA is working to make sure residents can benefit from the Borough President’s generous investment as quickly as possible,” said NYCHA spokesperson Chester Soria in a written statement.
NYCHA’s online contract-awards list does not show any deals for the community center technology purchases.
The Bronx borough president’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“They looked us over,” said Meena Bing, another mother at the community center on Wednesday.
Iffy Internet Access
Accessing computers with high-speed internet is a big deal in much of The Bronx. According to Census estimates, 38% of residents in the neighborhoods of Castle Hill, Clason Point and Parkchester lack broadband internet. Median household income in the area is about $38,000 a year, roughly the Bronx average.
“The primary factor for most people is cost,” said Greta Byrum, co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory, a research center based at the New School. “So if you’re choosing whether to go to the grocery store, pay the electric bill, or keep your internet, many people are going to choose food and shelter.”
Byrum notes that many people rely on smartphones for internet, but risk losing access partway through the month if their data allotments run out.
A 2018 Pew Research study found that nearly a quarter of teens nationwide who come from families making under $30,000 a year say lack of dependable internet or a computer sometimes prohibits them from finishing their homework.
WhIle some activities can be done on phones in place of computers, “you need both,” says Byrum.
Young people living in Bronx River Houses agree.
“People should appreciate the fact that they have computers, technology,” said Katrina Rodriguez, 11.
Katrina has a computer in her family’s apartment at Bronx River Houses but most of her friends have to run to local libraries to find a place with an available computer — and an adult to take them there.
Dennis Feliz, the 18-year-old technology coordinator at Bronx River Community Center, says the library’s time limits are tough when kids have a project to get done.
“If you’re 18 and below, it’s 20 minutes,” he said.
Feliz had hoped to be able to teach other kids Minecraft, coding, and computer use at the center. But he hasn’t been overseeing much in the last two years.
Rafael Peña, associate director of the community center, fretted that broken promises about the computers hurt the kids that need them.
Said Peña while gesturing at teens playing basketball at the community center gym, “We’re telling that child — wait, wait, wait, we’re going to get them for you.”
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