On the northern side of Sara D. Roosevelt Park sits a large brick structure. Once a youth center, the Stanton Building was shut down during a time of high crime in the Lower East Side and is now used only for storage by the Parks Department. Since the late ’90s, there’s been talk of returning it to community use, but that has yet to happen. So, Wednesday afternoon, a group of local activists gathered outside of the building in what was the first of three events intended to stimulate collective planning about its future.
“We’re continually trying to reclaim this space as a park space instead of a parking lot,” said K. Webster, president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition. “Honest to God, I just want it to be what the people want it to be. The park anchors the area. It makes it safer.”
Despite $1 million allotted to new restrooms (in the design phase, as of May), no one at Wednesday’s brainstorming session seemed particularly thrilled about the building’s current state. Rather than wringing their hands about it, the Stanton Building Task Force and NYCommons had brought together other local organizations to poll local residents about their thoughts. The event was bustling: folks set up small tables with information, a small group did Zumba routines in the bright summer sun, and members of the youth program of Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens (LUNGS) wheeled around fresh soil, planting seedlings where there previously were none.
“I think it’s time the city gives it up and gives it to people who can really use it, gives something to people in their community,” said Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the NYC Community Gardening Coalition. “We would all love to have a little piece of this. It’s a great space and it should be used.”
Wendy E. Brawer, founding director of Green Map System, a nonprofit that creates maps of green living sites and natural resources, told me she was interested in using the Stanton Building space to equip the community with resiliency skills, especially because it’s one of the few public spaces located outside of the flood zones below Houston. “There aren’t places to learn these skills in the community. You can learn art, you can learn dance, [but] it’s really hard to find a place where you can even learn bike repair,” she said. “Imagine you’re a senior, you’ve got one of those little carts and it’s squeaking and breaking, you [could] get that fixed here too. It’s such a shame to make it a storehouse for decade after decade in a neighborhood where we’re losing our community spaces.”
Brawer’s husband keeps bees on the roof of the Sixth Street Community Center right next to a community garden, and brought some of his own local honey for passersby to try. Brawer said beekeeping skills could also be taught in a building like this.
Similarly to Brawer, Josh Bisker of the New York Mechanical Gardens Bike Co-op is interested in a space for resilience training. His co-op has no concrete location, and he sees the Stanton Building as a perfect spot. “A co-op makes sense as a community space not only for this neighborhood’s history of bike activism but also it’s where all these other spokes of social justice kind of come together,” he told me. “If you’re talking about community resilience from storms and disasters, economic self-sufficiency for families, access and mobility for jobs, gender and language leveling and balancing, all these come together around the hub of the co-op. Especially a neighborhood like this one that has so many different kinds of personalities and characters.”
This building isn’t the only one of its kind, and it’s not even the only one in the neighborhood. The folks at 569 Acres, an organization empowering the community to take unused public land into their own hands, told me they had mapped out eleven buildings in the vicinity that were either not being used for anything or being used for miscellaneous storage.
“We’re letting people know how they can access land, it’s available. We have a map online that shows all the boroughs, and we’ve mapped out all the open lots in the city. So it’s a way for the community to get in there and start organizing,” said Francisco, who is part of 569 Acres. He thinks a good use for the Stanton Building would be to shelter homeless people, who already have a fairly steady presence in the park.
When Community Board 3 identified the Stanton Building’s adaptation as a capital priority, it noted a “serious lack of community spaces” in the area. On Wednesday, Charles Krezell, who is involved with LUNGS, agreed that the community needed all the space it could get. “We’re being squeezed everywhere, no one can afford anything. There can be a lot of things developed out of here that aren’t. If the city opened up the spaces they already had, they could really building affordable housing just within city property. [But] it’s a moneymaking city. Who’s side are they on?”
On July 13, there will be a workshop event that will take this imagining to the next level, where people will discuss the logistics behind the city’s parks and learn how to develop skills to build a grassroots campaign. On July 27, there will be a workshop where attendees can learn more about public spaces and how to ensure they remain accessible to the community. Both events are at 6:30pm in the BRC Center at 30 Delancey Street.
Update, July 11: The original version of this post was revised to include the full names of Josh Bisker and the New York Mechancial Gardens Bike Co-op.