Bronx’s Crotona neighborhood fights to save its community center

The smell of an outdoor grill filled the air at the Bronx’s Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center Sept. 24 as dozens of children chased one another through the colorful backyard playground. Despite the festive atmosphere, however, parents and members of the Crotona neighborhood community gathered for a serious matter: to save the Mary Mitchell Center.

The Center held the Friday afternoon rally, which was attended by over 100 people, in response to the New York City Department of Education’s requirement that it begin paying $75,000 per year in fees to continue to use its DOE-owned building. Between 1997, when the Center officially opened, and 2000, the Center leased the building from the city. An agreement in 2000 transferred the lease to the DOE, which waived all fees until July 2010.

“They’re reneging on their contract,” said Mary Mitchell Director Heidi Hynes.

Though the DOE told the Center in July that it would have to begin paying the fees immediately, Hynes said DOE officials agreed to allow the Mary Mitchell summer programs to take place as planned at the urging of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera.

Now that summer has ended, however, the Center must pay up or it will not be allowed to use the building for its many programs. Mary Mitchell offers a variety of activities for local children, including a free daily after school program, teen empowerment and social justice clubs, a youth leadership program, and a bilingual GED program.

Mary Mitchell Center

For parents present at the rally, many of whom consider the Center to be a daily lifesaver, the news of its possible closure was devastating.

“The kids do so much here that I’ve been looking forward to,” said Laquandia Walker, whose eight-year-old son attends the Center’s after school program. She explained that the Center is the only thing keeping many of the neighborhood children from spending their afternoons watching television or hanging out on street corners. “If this place goes,” she said, “half of these kids will go down.”

The energy the community is prepared to devote to keeping the Center open was palpable throughout the rally. Children waved handwritten signs reading, “Save the Mary Mitchell Center,” and between speakers, who ranged from the Center’s executive board and local clergy to representatives from Bronx Community Board 6 and the New York City Council, supporters enthusiastically chanted, “Give it back!”

The community displayed noticeable anger and mistrust towards the New York City government, but DOE officials are stressing that the decision to require payment from the Center is not personal. In fact, the DOE is now requiring all community organizations using its buildings throughout the city to pay custodial and security fees if they aren’t already, according to Deputy Press Secretary Barbara Morgan. The city continues to have a very tight budget due to the recession, she explained, and the DOE’s number one priority is ensuring it can afford to hire the best teachers.

“We understand why they’re upset but perspective is important,” said Morgan. She added that the DOE is willing to create a payment plan for the Center, “so they don’t have to write one check at the beginning of the year.”

Both Hynes and Morgan said Mary Mitchell board members will meet with city officials at the end of this week to discuss the Center’s budget, possible payment plans, and any other concerns.

In the meantime, Hynes and other members of the community are ready to fight in any way they can to keep the Center running.

“We need a safe haven for our children,” Albert Alvarez, chief of staff to Bronx Borough President Joel Rivera, said to the crowd. After referencing several shootings that occurred close to the center at the end of 2009, Alvarez declared: “We will not bend. We want this center open.”

Though the Center’s future remains uncertain, the rally was, at the very least, a testament to its legacy as a source of comfort to Bronx youth.

“Mary Mitchell is my home—what I feel here is not the same as anywhere else,” said 15-year-old Jessica Lizardo, who attended the Center’s after school program as a child.

Lizardo dreams of becoming a lawyer and said the Center had a strong impact on her plans for the future.

“I feel proud of myself, I feel like I can make a change,” she said. “Mary Mitchell gives me hope that I can do something good.”