Making kids pay for the crisis

December 19, 2008

The Wall Street traders aren't giving back their million-dollar bonuses, but New York City youth have to give up their community centers.

THE PLAN to balance New York City's budget includes closing 19 community centers from all five boroughs.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is preparing holiday cards--in the form of pink slips--for some 200 employees who work in these centers.

What great sums will the city save? Closing the Jackie Robinson Community Center in East Harlem (a stone's throw from the school where I teach) will save the city a whopping $200,000.

But it's hard to put a price tag on what this will mean to the parents, kids and young adults who live in the neighborhood. For an annual fee of $50 per family, the center's staff picks up neighborhood kids from my school and brings them to the center, where they can be safely supervised while their parents finish work. The staff help the children with their homework, allow them to use computers and give them a snack.

As I'm writing this, my eyes are drawn again and again to a phrase from a New York Times article, which describes the base salary of Wall Street traders (roughly in the $100,000 to $200,000 range) as "play money"--because their bonuses were routinely 10 times as much as the annual budget of Jackie Robinson Community Center.

I mentioned to my students the news of the closing, and their jaws dropped. "Why?" they asked me. One girl (who prides herself on her toughness) burst into inconsolable sobbing. Play money, indeed.

Everyone I spoke to is concerned about the teenagers. After 6 p.m., the teenagers have exclusive use of the place until it closes at 10 p.m. They have a dance program, access to computers, group discussions and precious time to just hang out with their peers in a safe environment. The staff even serves dinner--no small thing given that almost half of NYC's residents reported having difficulty affording food for themselves and their families in 2008.

I STOPPED by the center at about 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and the place was packed. The older kids were crowded around the computers, surfing the Web, watching videos and talking. The younger set plugged a staff member's laptop into the speaker system and were practicing their dance moves.

One of my former students was there. "Yo, they shouldn't do that," she told me when I mentioned that the center might close. "They [the teenagers] will be with the Crips [a gang] in a minute." As another resident said, "If the teenagers have no place to go, they hang out in the lobby of their building. Then someone calls the police, and they end up in trouble. Is that what we want for our young people?"

What you can do

Call the New York City Housing Authority and tell them you oppose making kids pay for the city's crisis by closing community centers. Call Hugh Spence, general manager, at 212-306-7038; and Ricardo Morales, chairman, at 212-306-3434.

The board members of the Jackie Robinson Residents Association are doing everything they can think of to save the center. They drew up a petition, and they're trying to get parents and residents (and teenagers!) who use the center to take it around and collect signatures. The association is publicizing an emergency meeting on December 22 to discuss other possible actions.

"Where will those teenagers go?" Birdie Glenn, the board's president wondered. Glenn has been to three or four meetings a week, hounding local officials to try to keep the center open. If that doesn't work, Glenn guessed that she would be seeing more of the teenagers "like this"--and she put her hands behind her back as if handcuffed.

"It's a safe place for them to go, " Loretta Sow, the board's treasurer, told me. "Some of the teens have never been outside of the community," she said. "The center organizes trips for them, so we need this."

Residents and activists are preparing to wage similar fights for other community centers. Joanne Smitherman, president of the Highbridge Gardens Residents Association in the Bronx vowed, "I'm not going to just sit by and let this happen. We have to fight for this center and for these kids that rely on it."

Smitherman knows how devastating it would be for her community center to close. "We're the only center in Highbridge," she told me, "It would be very, very bad. The meal that these kids get [in the community center] is sometimes the only meal that they get. NYCHA doesn't see that. What they're looking at is numbers."

Many residents fear that the closing of the community centers is really just part of a larger attempt to destroy public housing. "They want to raise rent to 40 percent of income," Smitherman pointed out, "It's always been 30 percent. How does that help to preserve public housing?"

The answer is obvious: it doesn't.

The Wall Street traders don't have to give back their million-dollar bonuses, but the kids have to give up their community center.

How should I answer my students' question about why the community center has to close? Maybe we should take a field trip. We could walk four blocks to the river, and stand at the base of the Triborough Bridge, which connects Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. The city just renamed it the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, and plans to spend $4 million to advertise that fact.

Try explaining that to a 12-year old.

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