The Northside Town Hall and Community Center (NTHCCC) will, once it’s completed, function as a social, cultural and political hub for the Williamsburg-Greenpoint community. And, crucially, it will enact this role from Engine 212, a defunct firehouse on Wythe Avenue that played a central role in the neighborhood’s history.
In 1975, during the city’s cutbacks, Engine 212 was scheduled for closure. The local community formed an organization, marched to the building, and occupied it. The protest lasted two years, and in 1977 Koch reopened the firehouse, declaring the protestors victorious.
Felice Kirby, owner of local establishment Teddy’s Bar and Grill (and a community organizer by trade), credits those early protestors with Williamsburg’s current vitality. “We all owe a debt of thanks to the old residents,” she says, “and the memory of that building.”
Kirby arrived in the neighborhood in 1979 as a community organizer. She was a regular at Teddy’s, and the previous owners eventually convinced her to take over. Having enjoyed decades of success, she relishes any opportunity to give back. And serving on the board of directors for NTHCCC has been an invaluable chance to do so.
“It’s a very meaningful cause,” she says. “The firehouse”—only a block from Teddy’s—“was really the source of regeneration for the neighborhood.”
Kirby, along with her fellow board members, hopes that the finished Town Hall will be able to build a sense of community between the old and the new residents of the neighborhood, as well as presenting cutting edge culture and media to the public in a ground-floor cultural center.
It will also provide a permanent home for neighborhood non-profits, including the two organizations who spear-headed the Town Hall project: The People’s Firehouse and Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.
“All over the world, it seems like when economic prosperity comes to blue-collar neighborhoods, the old residents don’t benefit,” she says. NTHCC is a grassroots effort to appreciate the cultural traditions of the original community as well as the “wonderful, new, vibrant” individuals that are now making Williamsburg their home.
In addition to cultural exhibitions, the center will be a hub for regular mass democratic meetings. Kirby cites the 92nd Street Y as the classic model of the kind of space they hope to provide: a center for art, culture, and discussion. Basically, she says, it’s “something good to come out of gentrification.”
To keep the grassroots integrity of the project, NTHCCC has consciously tried to source funds from a variety of places—applying for both public and private grants, but also enabling people from the neighborhood to do their bit and build the center together, as a community.
The upcoming TASTE Williamsburg Greenpoint — featuring samples from The Brooklyn Star, St. Mazie, Moto, and dozens more — is one such opportunity to get involved. Showcasing the cuisine of local businesses (along with music curated by Rough Trade NYC), the event will be held on September 7, and 100% of the profits will go towards the Town Hall project.
According to Kirby, NTHCC has raised around $1.5 million since they won the development rights at the start of the recession. Their fundraising target for this year’s TASTE is $75,000, and Kirby estimates that they need another $200,000 or so before they’ll be able to break ground and start construction (ideally in 2015).
In the meantime, they’re about to start environmental remediation work on the remodeling plans (the building is to be gutted and the interiors rebuilt up to modern code).
“We’re very ready,” says Kirby, brightly. “Raising the rest of the money is really the only obstacle.”