The Nicest Place in New York: Riverdale Neighborhood in The Bronx

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Fresh Food for All"

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From pizza to fresh vegetables, when you’re in The Bronx, you’re going to get fed.

You will not go hungry in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough and home to 1.4 million people. It’s the most racially diverse place in the country, according to the U.S. Census. But if there’s one thing that brings people together, it’s pizza.

In early March, Aliza Abrams Konig ordered 30 pizzas for a party at her synagogue, The Riverdale Minyan, to celebrate the Jewish holiday Purim. With costumes and merry-making, it’s like Halloween in the spring. They have always gotten a good turnout, and Konig expected the same this year. Then COVID-19 hit. New Rochelle, a neighboring town, saw one of the first cases reported in the city, where more than 20,000 people would die of the disease over the next few months. The father of a student at a local community school caught COVID-19. Before knowing that the disease was present in the community, another local family threw a party for their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah celebration. Later, dozens of cases would be traced back to the event. As soon as it became clear what was happening, the whole community quarantined, trying to limit spread. The Purim party was canceled.

But Konig picked up the 30 pizzas from the Cafeccino Bakery anyway, and she and seven volunteers delivered them to quarantined congregants.

“The families, especially the children, appreciated seeing our faces,” Konig told Reader’s Digest.

pizza deliver and challah deliveryCourtesy Aliza Abrams Konig (2)
Pizza deliveries grew to include healthcare workers and evolved to include delivering challah as well.

And so the Pizza Brigade was born. Volunteers kept up the pizza deliveries, at no charge to the families, once a week until their quarantine was over. In total, they fed more than 100 families. And not just pizza. The brigade, in partnership with bakery owner Lukasz Babiuch, started weekly deliveries of challah, the bread many Jews eat every week on the Sabbath.

From there, the brigade expanded operations. One day, they delivered 20 pizzas to healthcare professionals battling COVID-19 in the emergency room at Montefiore Medical Center. Then 25 pizzas to Hatzalah, a local volunteer ambulance corps. The next day, ten pizzas to Weill Cornell Hospital. From there, the idea spread. Other Jewish communities started sending pizzas to those around them who needed the morale boost that New York’s signature food always delivers, including in Stamford, Connecticut, where 40 pizzas were sent to families on the front lines.

In another part of Riverdale, Selma Raven and her partner Sara Allen noticed the same thing that Konig had: Some of their neighbors were going hungry. It was the seventh anniversary of the day Raven lost her 21-year-old son Michael; importantly to her, Michael had been an activist fighting against “food deserts,” places where it’s much easier to find unhealthy foods to buy rather than healthy ones. Inspiration struck—and it was the perfect way to honor Michael’s memory.

Following the lead of innovators she’d noticed Brooklyn, Allen found a refrigerator on Craigslist. Meanwhile, Raven asked nearby store owners whether they could plug it in out front; the plan was to fill it with free, fresh food for anyone who needed it. The Riverdale area has a dense urban feel, with a mix of those living in million-dollar homes and others renting a single room, so all types of people live there. “I kept asking until the fourth guy said, ‘Sure, no problem, I’ll do whatever I can,’” Raven told Reader’s Digest.

friendly fridge openCourtesy Sara Allen
The Friendly Fridge helps give those struggling in the community a healthy option.

A few days later, she and Allen set up what they called their “Friendly Fridge” in front of the Last Stop, an eclectic restaurant in Riverdale, down the street from their apartment.

The Friendly Fridge would operate under a simple system: Take what you need and leave what you can. Raven and Allen buy food almost every day to supplement donations.

“It has grown so much in a month, said Raven. “People take food and talk to us and the community has come together in ways that I’m just humbled.”

The couple works from home full-time. Raven is a special education teacher working with students online throughout the summer, and Allen is a programmer. At the end of the day, they sanitize and fill the refrigerator. They’re learning about what people like—okra and green beans have not been hits.

They’re also developing relationships with various nonprofit food organizations. They visited a local food share and dropped notes into packets, asking recipients to donate any extra food to the fridge. Similarly, “when we have extra, we find another location that needs it,” says Raven.

Recently, the refrigerator stopped working. Allen wrote a post on Facebook about the breakdown and within two hours, a stranger had delivered a replacement. When Raven offered to pay with the $300 in donations she had collected, the person refused.

“As someone special in my life once said‚ ‘No one should go hungry,’” says Raven. “And thanks to this amazing neighborhood, we can all help.”

The Nomination

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic I had volunteered to help organize a party at my synagogue, The Riverdale Minyan in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim which took place on March 9th and 10th. It was just a week before Purim when Covid 19 came to the NY area and in particular directly affected my synagogue as we have many families whose children attend the first day school to have gone into quarantine due to a parent having been confirmed to have the virus. The leadership at the synagogue quickly realized that we needed to cancel any Purim programming outside of our prayer services. The following week we closed down completely. I had already placed an order for 30 pies of pizza from one of our local pizza stores, Cafeccino Bakery for the party. We decided that instead of canceling the order completely, we would deliver the pies to the families in quarantine on Purim day. That’s how the Pizza Brigade was born!

Together volunteers headed out with boxes of pizza which were left at people’s front doors. Our community is located in the Bronx, with many congregants living in apartment buildings. The children had been unable to leave their apartments or run around for a few days already. Upon receiving the pizza, we received very positive feedback from everyone, especially the kids who so appreciated the “pick me up”. We immediately decided to arrange for a second pizza delivery to families in quarantine the following Sunday, March 15th. We ended up delivering pizza three weeks in a row to close to 100 families.

Over the course of ordering and delivering the pizzas I came to know the owner of the pizza store quite well, Lukasz. He shared with me that as more guidelines went into place about social distancing and staying home to flatten the curve, his business came to a screeching halt. He asked me about organizing large Challah bread deliveries to apartment buildings around our neighborhood to help him boost business. With a minimum order of 15 loaves of Challah, he would do a drop off at a building. In the first week of orders we sold 145 loaves of Challah! The week after we did a second order and even more people ordered. We ordered for a third successful week and then had to stop for the holiday of Passover during which it is forbidden to eat bread. We plan to continue these orders after Passover ends.

the pizza brigadeCourtesy Aliza Abrams Konig
The Pizza Brigade made sure Purim wasn’t cancelled and found their mission to serve the community.

As we were figuring out doing a fourth pizza delivery, I had the idea that we should send the pizza to the medical professionals on the front lines, the doctors, nurses, medics etc who are working around the clock to save people’s lives from Covid 19. On Monday, March 30th, we delivered 20 pies of pizza to the Emergency Room and Pediatric Emergency Room at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx.

Our Pizza deliveries inspired another Jewish community in Stamford Connecticut to also order 40 pies to give out to families and front liners on April 2nd.

On Sunday, April 5th, we gave out 25 pies to the families of one of our local volunteer Ambulance Corps, Hatzalah. We know how hard their family members are working on the front lines as volunteer EMTs.

On Monday, April 6th, we sent another 10 pies to Weill Cornell Hospital in New York City where I received a kidney transplant two years ago. I knew how hard the staff worked then, I could only imagine how much harder they were working now.

Everyone involved, the volunteers, the donors and the recipients, were so moved by the gesture. It was an honor to have been a part of orchestrating the donations, from signing families up to placing the orders and arranging the deliveries. In addition to providing the Riverdale families and medical staff with a virtual hug in the form of pizza, we have been able to support our local pizza store. The owner shared with me that every order that came in kept him in business and his staff employed. We all hope the pandemic ends, while simultaneously hoping that the communal feel of helping one another remains.

It’s been incredible to see how my community has rallied together and are helping each other out, running errands, pick ups, drop offs for those like myself who can not risk going out. I am a member of a few WhatsApp groups dedicated to fulfilling shopping list requests for those in quarantine and self quarantine. The groups never stop, there is always someone offering to help out, it’s really amazing.

Our community is highly committed to doing volunteer work, giving charity and helping those in need. However we are seeing a real increased level of volunteerism and care at this time.

People are running errands and dropping off packages for complete strangers with the hopes that when this is all over they will finally be able to meet and form real friendships.

Through this experience I learned about a food pantry in my neighborhood I never knew about and have since donated food to the pantry.

I’m also finding that every night at 7pm our whole neighborhood is coming to their windows, porches and front doors to cheer for the front liners. It’s so moving to see and be a part of. — Aliza Abrams Konig

Neighbors and businesses in this Bronx community are beyond amazing. On Thursday 5/21 we (my partner and myself) plugged in a “friendly refrigerator” on 242nd street in the Bronx. The sign says “this is your fridge, take what you need leave what you can”

The wonderful kind man in the restaurant called “the last stop” did not even flinch when I asked if we could try this idea here. The friendly fridge started in Brooklyn but we needed one in the Bronx desperately. Sara and I found a fridge in Craig’s list on 5/19 and today 5/23 it’s being filled and emptied with donations. Every single step of the way we have been met with amazing kindness and generosity. Working less with the pandemic, loss of income and anxiety made us want to be careful with filling up the fridge. We had nothin to worry about as the universe and this wonderful Bronx community all shared in this adventure. Even as we plugged it in on the side walk , the owners of “the last stop” just as most small businesses who are struggling : offered to help us fill it. We talked about how much hunger and need there is even in this neighborhood.

3 days with the fridge on 24/7 , the Riverdale community and beyond has offered donations of food and money and the Fridge is filled daily. Families have picked up potatoes and fruits , deli owners on the block have donated sandwiches and fruit and every single item is so appreciated. Yesterday a woman asked if she could take a little more. Some people are making less then $16,000 taking care of residents in group homes and still need to feed their families. The woman helped herself to cauliflower and peppers.

food in/on top of the friendly fridgeCourtesy Sara Allen (2)
Thanks to donations, the Friendly Fridge offers a variety of ever changing food options.

Today another woman took carrots and spinach and remarked “she wants to get healthy” and thanked us. I reminded her “this fridge belongs to all” and she said “today is my birthday. I am 64”

Last night two men helped themselves. One man lives in the Jerome men’s shelter but was visiting his mother in riverdale. He was so excited to see yogurt and cheese. We have a great amount of need and we have a community here in the Bronx and beyond who has filled this Fridge daily. We are so grateful. People have contacted my partner on Facebook and offered donations. Members of local running clubs have donated and friends and family and Total strangers on the next door app have dropped off food and offered money to buy food. Small struggling deli on Broadway offered buttered rolls. The fruit vendor at the corner of 231 and broadway said he would drop off extra fruit when we told him about “the friendly fridge “. A friend drove in the rain and dropped off potatoes, apples and cucumbers. Today when we came by to clean it and refill we saw two Riverdale residents dropping more things off.

As someone special in my life once said said “no one should go hungry” and thanks to this amazing neighborhood… we can all help… one Fridge at a time.

Solidarity not charity. Thanks to this wonderful community in the Bronx who made this happen.

This is a mixed community. With great wealth and great poverty. Million dollar homes as well as many group homes, single room occupancies and respite center for people with mental illness. Wealth and poverty side by side. I watch the bx9 emptier than usual but filled with caregivers … home attendants, clerks and so many … working while many can work from home. — Selma Sequeira Raven

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