A heated group of about 20 St. Nicholas Houses residents and other concerned locals attended a meeting Wednesday night to oppose the Harlem Children’s Zone’s plan to build a school on a large chunk of the housing complex. The group discussed their concerns at length, and then distributed tasks amongst themselves to build a grassroots effort against the school.
Before the two-hour hour meeting ended, the group selected a name for itself, dubbing itself the St. Nicholas Housing Preservation Society. Yet, even before crafting its official identity, the group took one of its first actions: expelling from the meeting room a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) representative. The unidentified man was sitting down and taking notes, when another man in the audience pointed him out.
“Before we proceed any further, I just think you should all know that NYCHA’s in the corner over there,” said Citywide Resident Advisory Board member Erik Crawford, in an early stage of the meeting.
“We need an honest conversation in here without people being afraid or intimidated of those that might be against us,” resident Sandra Thomas said to the representative just before his departure from the meeting.
Minutes later, another NYCHA representative, Communications Officer Sheila Stainback, quietly exited the room too, though she had not been personally ordered to leave, since, it appeared, no one detected her.
Stainback declined to comment on NYCHA’s departure from the meeting, but later sent an email to City Limits saying that the meeting has to be put into a broader perspective.
“With a headcount of about 20 people at [Wednesday] night’s meeting, keep in mind that St. Nicholas is home to 3,000 plus people and that the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)provides services to more than 17,000 children and adults in Harlem,” Stainback wrote. She also stressed that NYCHA found that the project had garnered general support from the St. Nicholas community, and that NYCHA is working hard to address the concerns of residents and other community members.
HCZ Communications Director Marty Lipp declined to comment on the situation, saying they had no representatives at the meeting and that they will have to see how things progress in the near future.
The $100 million school building would be owned by the city and leased to HCZ, which would use it for the charter school as well as after-school and weekend programs. The city plans to pay $60 million of the cost, while HCZ raises the rest. According to a NYCHA spokesperson, negotiations are ongoing to determine how much money NYCHA will receive for the land it transfers to the school project.
One potential obstacle for the new Preservation Society is that the St. Nicholas Houses Tenants’ Association supports the new school and had signed off on it. Someone in the audience cast the association’s support as out of touch with the community. “I hate to say it, [but they get] caught in awe [and] they go astray,” said John Derek Novell of the Concerned Citizens of Greater Harlem. “And this isn’t just going astray, this is going off the Earth, to the moon even.”
During much of the first half of the meeting, the group’s facilitators – two St. Nicholas Houses residents who’ve been fighting the school, Alexandra Blair and Tyrone Ball – recounted the history of the conflict and proposed resolutions to it. Several others chimed in, demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of the backstory, as well as a determination to preserve their vision of St. Nicholas Houses.
Ball said Harlem Children’s Zone is asking for too much space and control. “Harlem Children’s Zone had proposed a takeover right over there,” Ball said, pointing toward an open area within the housing complex. “And it was going to be for Kindergarten, and everybody was fine with that. But then it became about charter schools, and it was like, ‘Well, hold up,’” he said, before launching into his imitation of HCZ’s allegedly increasing demands. “Then it became, ‘Well, we’re gonna put in a charter school; We’re gonna put it right here; We’re gonna tear up the street and we’re gonna take out the parking lot, the park, that whole grass area right there and part of the area right next to it and next to that.’”
Some attendees said they would welcome the school if it were proposed for a different site. Some said they worried that the construction would diminish their air quality and bring rodents to the buildings.
Ernestine Augustus, a public school special education teacher and part of the Coalition for Public Education, opposes the school because it’s a charter school, saying it will undermine parental authority. Her two kids have both attended HCZ schools and she was not impressed. “It doesn’t look like a miracle to me,” she said.
Those schools have garnered national acclaim and are the model for President Obama's national anti-poverty program, called Promise Neighborhoods.
During the second half of the meeting, attendees signed up to perform tasks such as contacting politicians, canvassing St. Nicholas Houses to collect signatures and coordinating a tabling schedule for Family Day, an upcoming residents’ event.
The key to defeating HCZ at St. Nicholas Houses is to stay focused, Ball said after the meeting. “People actually knew [about the plans for the school], but the prevailing feeling was, it was a done deal, ‘Oh, we can’t stop it,’” Ball said. “So a lot of people just gave up. But there’s a bunch of us who never did give up.”
An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that NYCHA would receive $100 million for this project. A NYCHA spokesperson has now clarified that NYCHA's fee for transferring land to the project has not been determined. The school will cost $100 million to construct.