Posted on 18 October 2010.
Father Flynn led a rally in prayer at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Photo: Yardena Schwartz
On most days after school outside the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona, passersby hear the sounds of kids dancing to salsa music, practicing Jiu-Jitsu, or reciting the alphabet with one of the center’s tutors. But on the afternoon of Sept. 24, anyone within a five-block radius of Mapes Avenue and East 178th Street heard instead over one hundred people shouting, “Give it back!” over and over again.
The center was in jeopardy of closing down completely, a victim of the city’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit. Days before the rally, the Department of Education which owns the building, demanded that the center take over the $75,000 a year in maintenance costs or risk shutting the doors. For the non-profit community center that serves cash-strapped families, $75,000 represented nearly one-quarter of its budget, a cost it could not afford.
On Oct. 8, the city came back with a compromise. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott agreed to a plan whereby Mary Mitchell would pay $30,000. In exchange, the center would slash its hours, afterschool programs and community access. Lost would be its full menu of cultural activities, leadership training and opportunities for local organizations to use the space. Teens would no longer benefit from visits to colleges.
Negotiations are still ongoing. The center’s director hopes instead for complete independence from the city, in order to own the building and return to normal hours and programming, without having to answer to the Department of Education. Hence their rallying cry to “Give it back!”
The city, staff believes, is looking for money in all the wrong places. “If we’re in an economic crisis, it’s because of Wall Street, not the poor kids in the Bronx,” said the center’s fiery, 42-year-old director, Heidi Hynes. “They should really reconsider how to raise resources.”
Children gathered at the rally to reclaim the center from the Department of Education. Photo: Yardena Schwartz
The center, directed and staffed by 10 community members, serves over 400 kids and 1000 adults in an area where, according to the non-profit child advocacy group Citizen’s Committee for Children, 65 percent of families make less than $35,000 a year.
The 14-year-old center is also used by 28 community organizations that lack facilities of their own to hold meetings and events.
“It’s like a second home for the kids,” said Asia Edwards, 29, whose 11-year old daughter and 6-year old son have been coming to Mary Mitchell for four years.
Officials at the Department of Education argue that the city is not in the financial place to help the center along.
“There are real costs associated with the maintenance of any DOE building,” said spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “Given the current fiscal reality, we are asking community organizations who have not been paying for these services to begin covering the costs.”
Yet according to Hynes, the center had never wanted that agreement with the department in the first place. It had been paying the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for month-to-month leases on the building from its inception in 1997. In 2000, the center was slated to sign a long-term lease in which the Department of Education would be its anchor tenant. Instead, officials decided to transfer ownership of the building entirely over to the Education Department, in a deal that waived the center’s rent, maintenance and security costs. In exchange, the center provided free after-school and weekend programs for children and teens, GED classes for adults, English classes for immigrants, and community access for dozens of organizations.
One of the center's Jiu-Jitsu classes. Photo: Yardena Schwartz
Now, 10 years and a deep recession later, the department has backed out of that agreement.
Community members have expressed shock that the Department of Education would strip at-risk kids of such essential activities.
“We don’t want our kids out on the streets selling drugs, being persuaded by their peers to do negative things,” said Ethel Sarpon, 57, whose Ghanaian organization holds monthly meetings at the center to educate African children about their culture. Her organization may need to find a new meeting ground, now that the center has cut back its hours.
According to a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national non-profit anti-crime organization, children left unsupervised after school are four times more likely to use drugs than those who are supervised, and violent juvenile crime triples between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m.
The Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center is the only after school option for most of the community, since its programs are free or redeemable through vouchers from the Administration for Children’s Services. It is also filling a vacuum left by schools that have cut their after-school activities in the wake of city budget cuts.
“Kids with parents who work, those are the ones who end up on the street,” said 12-year old Ezekiel Farrell, who has been coming to the center for four years with his 10-year old brother, Samuel. Both of their parents work, so they said their mom would have to quit her job to stay home with them if they couldn’t go to Mary Mitchell after school.
The city warned the center of its impending doom back in July, when education officials started rejecting the center’s permits unless it paid maintenance costs.
Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Councilman Joel Rivera secured waivers for the center so its summer programs could go on. Then on Sept. 20, the Department of Education rejected the center’s permits again.
The following night, the city-funded custodian at the building closed the doors on staff members and 100 kids who had come for nighttime activities, including dance, Jiu-Jitsu and leadership classes. After two days of wrangling, the center was reopened, as Hynes worked to negotiate a deal with education officials.
To Hynes, transferring ownership of the building back to the center itself would help to lift the weight off of the city, while allowing the center to continue its important work.
“If they’re worried about costs, they should give us the building back,” she said.
The Crotona community has stamped its support all over the building. Photo: Yardena Schwartz
Hynes believes it will be easier for the center to raise money for a building it owns, as opposed to paying rent to the city. It’s a way for the people of the neighborhood to have a stake in their own development.
“Community controlled assets are a huge step towards democracy,” she said. “If the kids are not safe and healthy, we fail as a society, as a city.”
Hynes will continue to meet with city officials to work out an agreement that will allow the center to return to its full hours and programming. But if it’s up to her, there will be only one option on the table.
“At this point we don’t want their agreement, since we can’t depend on them,” she said. “We want the building for ourselves.”
At the rally, Jannie Armstrong of the First Glorious Church led the crowd in a prayer to return the center to the community, its rightful owner. Later on she said, “I feel terrible about it, but we need to keep the faith. We gonna get this building back.”