In a gleaming industrial kitchen, five teenage girls wearing white aprons are spreading white icing on bunny-shaped butter cookies to sell to nearby shops for $1 apiece. The Sweet Things Baking Company may not seem like much of a feminist enterprise, but these girls are learning to run a small business, calculate costs and roll out the product on time.
Tiffany Threatts, 17, is laying carrot-shaped pieces of dough onto trays. If she weren’t baking, Tiffany says she’d either be “at home doing nothing or running in the streets. Here, I can hang out, but stay away from people with negative attitudes.”
The Lower East Side is home to an estimated 16,000 girls. About a third of them live below the poverty line, including thousands from Avenue D’s housing projects alone. But when it comes to after-school clubs, most neighborhood girls have nowhere to go but the Lower East Side Girls Club, which runs Sweet Things from a kitchen it shares with another group. A nomadic nonprofit with eight full-time and four part-time staffers, the club has no center where girls can drop by and no place to offer sports. Instead, the Girls Club serves 150 girls out of its crammed office in the Cornelia Connelly Center on East 4th Street–the club’s fourth in its five-year existence. After years of fundraising, negotiations, architectural drawings, proposals to the city, rallies and letter-writing campaigns by the girls and hundreds of Lower East Siders, the Girls Club still hasn’t gotten what it needs to serve thousands rather than a few hundred local girls: a home.
While the club fights for a break on six city-owned Avenue D lots, book clubs run by mentors meet in Barnes & Noble and the Bluestockings Bookstore. Poetry groups sip free lattés at Starbucks. A homework help group called the Brain Trust operates out of Hamilton Fish, a city-owned recreation center. Photography classes develop in the darkrooms at Middle Collegiate Church. Girls run a juice bar out of the Institute for Collaborative Education and take drumming and theater classes at P.S. 20. A dance studio in the West 20s hosts flamenco classes. “Every class is a major negotiation with some organization,” says Executive Director Lyn Pentecost.
“It gets a little bit discouraging,” says Nancy Vega, who grew up on Avenue D and is raising her own kids in the Baruch Houses on Delancey Street. “The club does things that girls in this community don’t have opportunity to do because of lack of income.”
The problem is not that the Girls Club is undeserving or that the Lower East Side neighborhood is stingy; clearly the opposite is true for both. It’s just that in this real-estate market, nonprofits that serve the poor in newly wealthy areas are increasingly stuck for space. They have no right to claim city property, they can’t compete with market-rate developers and because they are community-based, they can’t just pick up and move out. Instead, they are cutting back on services they could easily provide, given space.
“If you serve a particular community, you can’t move,” says Stephan Russo, executive director of the Upper West Side’s Goddard-Riverside Community Center. “It certainly doesn’t allow for any expansion of services.” Goddard-Riverside was forced to build new housing for the homeless at a West Harlem site far from its other support services.
Space in Harlem is none too cheap, either. “Gentrification is a double-edged sword,” agrees Percy Greaves, director of the Harlem-based Manhattan Valley Development Corporation’s youth program. “It brings a positive element into the community but makes it hard for nonprofits serving the poor to find space.” Greaves ended up renovating his building’s basement when the search for affordable space proved fruitless.
And with more space, Chelsea’s Hudson Guild could serve more of the teens from nearby Elliot Houses on 26th Street: “As Chelsea becomes the place known for restaurants and fancy art galleries,” says assistant executive director Derrick Griffith, “there’s been almost a fencing in of public housing residents.”
In a way, the Girls Club is lucky, because while privately owned land is scarce, city-owned vacant lots are still available on the Lower East Side. Three years ago, the club opened negotiations for an unused strip of land across from the Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D. But rather than hand it over for development, the city has preferred to do nothing with the six largely empty lots but let them grow weeds.
For Maria Valeria, joining the Lower East Side Girls Club was like peering into a viewfinder and glimpsing a world outside the room she shares with two of her seven siblings in a small apartment on Avenue B. On a field trip upstate, where girls visited a farm for almost a week, Maria learned that red apples come in 50 varieties, not just the one her mother buys. And at night, Maria discovered the strangest thing of all: The farm owner didn’t lock her front door. “She said, ‘It’s not dangerous,’” Maria marvels. With the Girls Club, she’s also learned to bake, take photographs and dance.
This is what half a dozen neighborhood moms envisioned when they started the club: a refuge from the streets and the crowded apartments along the East River, a second home. “We all really want a place where the girls could drop their books and feel at home,” says Vega, one of the first parents to get involved.
In 1995, they wrote grants asking “every major foundation” for money to build a club, but heard the same chicken-and-egg advice: If they come–meaning the girls–we will build it. So the club began offering arts and crafts, theater classes and museum visits on weekends. In 1996, with programming in place, the Lower East Side Girls Club began its quest for a permanent home.
At first, the club bid on a parcel of city-owned land on the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C. But that land was home to La Plaza Cultural, a community garden in the shade of two giant weeping willows. The battle pitted the girls against the garden; La Plaza won.
Undaunted, Pentecost submitted a second, more ambitious proposal to build two seven-story buildings on Avenue D. Local nonprofits hoping to rent space sent letters of support to the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). In 1998, Community Board 3 recommended that the city sell the land to the Girls Club, which offered $500,000, then upped the bid to $1 million a year later.
But without the projected $15 million construction costs in hand, the club and the city are locked in a catch-22: With site control, Pentecost says she could begin her capital campaign. Already, she has $3 million pledged from foundation grants, local politicians and individual donations. Chase Community Development Corporation, EAB and the Low Income Housing Fund have tentatively agreed to finance the rest. But without assured capital, the EDC doesn’t want to sell. “We’ve given them every opportunity to give us a viable plan, but with regard to financing, it failed to meet the criteria,” says spokesperson Bruce Brodoff.
Calling the land transfer “politically a no-brainer,” City Councilmember Margarita Lopez is demanding the city sell the Avenue D properties for $1, a price the city occasionally gives nonprofits. For example, a Chelsea nonprofit, the Women’s Inter-Arts Collaborative, won a parcel of land this year for only $2 to build studio space and a theater.
Unfortunately, the city has no obligation to reward social service agencies for their work. “The trick is to make it a political issue,” says Glenn Pasanen, the associate director of budget watchdog group City Project, “where there are some political costs in going ahead with [the city’s plans].”
And that’s what the Girls Club has been trying to do. In December 1999, a 20-girl drum corps demonstrated on the steps of City Hall and presented the mayor with 3,500 signatures in support of their project and copies of 13 letters of support from local politicians, including mayoral candidates Alan Hevesi and Mark Green. Even so, EDC intends to issue a request for proposals for market-rate buyers in the next few months.
“As if!” scoffs Pentecost with a weary bravado, calling the stall “a political vendetta against Margarita Lopez” in which teenage girls pay the price. “They can RFP away, but the city council will vote it down.”
In one photograph, Tiffany’s mom has her head thrown back, face dreamy, dreadlocks in the hands of the friend who is dyeing them back to brown. In another, Maria has captured only the reflection of her mother in a windowpane. Strung like laundry between the white pillars of City Hall’s atrium, the photos were exhibited at a party that Margarita Lopez threw last March to keep the spotlight trained on the girls’ plight.
“This is your home,” Lopez announced rhetorically, hoping to infect the 75 chip-eating kids with a political bug and a sense of entitlement. Later, surveying a group of young girls performing cartwheels on the council chamber’s star-printed red rug, she jokes, “I think they took me too seriously.”
Lopez and Pentecost hope the party will send a strong message that the girls cannot be ignored. “This building is gonna be built for them no matter what,” Lopez said. “They have powerful allies, and they never should lose faith and hope.”
In May, the club released a study showing the short-term benefit to the city of helping girls finish school, go to college and find jobs as adults–and the long-term cost of letting them grow up restless. They hoped the study will prove a compelling economic reason–and shame–for EDC to approve their bid.
And if that fails? “I’m not sure what else we can do,” Pentecost says. “Besides chaining ourselves to the fence and starving.”
Nora McCarthy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.