Volume 20, Number 49 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | APRIL 19 - 26, 2008

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Thousands came to the block party celebration for the coming community center on Warren St.

Thousands flock for a taste of the soon-to-open rec center

By Julie Shapiro

When Bob Townley decides to do something, he makes it happen.

That was the message from the politicians, community leaders and crowds of residents who flocked to last Thursday’s grand opening of Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Community Center.

They credit Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, with cooking up the idea for the brand-new 28,000-square-foot center at 120 Warren St. He signed up supporters, pushed through delays after 9/11 and kept the construction moving.

Downtown advocates were also thrilled to see the turnout at the free carnival Townley threw with Thursday’s ribbon cutting on the $11 million center. The rides, music and free hot dogs drew thousands of people to Warren St. between Greenwich and West Sts., on what turned out to be the warmest day of the year so far.

“He’s even got the weather figured out,” said Dennis Gault, president of the P.T.A. at P.S. 89. “Bob never ceases to amaze me…. Hats off to Bob — he’s the man.”

When Townley took the stage before a boisterously applauding crowd, he said he’d waited 14 years for the center to open.

“We now have a beautiful building, but it’s just a blank canvas,” Townley boomed into the mic. “We still have to build a community center.”

Townley meant that the people, not the wood and bricks, create a community center — but the center also needs some concrete work before it is operational.

Thursday marked the center’s opening celebration, complete with a party inside for 500 donors catered by Tribeca’s celebrity chef, David Bouley, but the programs for kids, teenagers and seniors won’t be up and running until the end of May or the beginning of June, Townley said later. In addition to a myriad of details — phone lines, heating for the pool, lockers for the locker room — the center also needs occupancy permits from the Department of Health and the Department of Buildings. The special one-day permit for the grand opening required fire marshals to be posted throughout the building.

But Thursday was a day for celebration, not for details.

Townley’s height usually puts him a head above the crowd, and at the opening, he was even easier to spot than usual. A bright yellow construction helmet sat atop his gray curls, emblazoned in black letters with “BOB THE BUILDER.”

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, bought the hat for Townley. Her 4-year-old son nicknamed Townley “Bob the Builder,” after a children’s television character who works with his animated machine friends to do construction projects.

Wearing the yellow helmet, Townley told the crowd that he would lead them in a chant that he usually does with the kids at Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Day Camp.

“Who are you?” he called out from the podium.

“Downtown,” came the half-hearted response, which Townley deemed too sedate for the occasion — not even worthy of Kindergarteners, he said. He gave it another shot.

“Who are you?” he called.

“Downtown!” the crowd shouted.

“Who?”

“Downtown!”

Townley, grinning and in his element, was satisfied.

Before they cut the bright green ribbon in front of the center’s door, a host of Downtown’s politicians took the mic. Borough President Scott Stringer, State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, State Sen. Martin Connor and Avi Schick, chairperson of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, all spoke.

“Bob, you throw a great party,” Schick said. The L.M.D.C.’s board that morning approved another $1.5 million for Manhattan Youth’s operating costs, in addition to the $400,000 the agency previously gave for the ventilation system. It’s the people who will revitalize Lower Manhattan, not the new buildings or the agencies, Schick said.

Glick called Townley not just the anchor of the community but the glue — he’s the one who keeps people active and focused on the goals for Lower Manhattan. “I knew it was going to happen,” she said of the community center, “because Bob is that kind of guy.”

Manhattan Youth has raised $11.2 million for the center so far, and Townley estimates that he needs another $400,000 to $600,000 to finish the job. The concrete floors need a finishing coat; the dance studio needs mats and mirrors; the recording studio needs soundproofing and recording equipment; the classrooms need cabinets and tables; and the 50-seat theater needs seats.

But the long list belies the project’s progress. The lighting is in and the walls are painted bright shades of lime green, aqua blue and sunflower yellow, disguising the fact that the four-level center’s lower two floors are belowground. Shining wood floors are in place in the “Great Hall” by the entrance and the dance studio below it. The pool is filled with water and the steam room is ready to go.

Alex Roche, who will run the community center, hopes to move his office to the center as soon as the phone lines are in.

Before the speeches on Thursday, thousands of people crowded onto Warren St. between Greenwich and West Sts. for the fair. Mothers pushed strollers and reasoned with children who wanted to do five things at once. Lines stretched before the free hot dog grill, the cotton candy and popcorn stands and the pint-sized Ferris wheel. The hungry crowd went through 2,000 hot dogs in an hour and gallons of lemonade. The rides spun shrieking kids through the air and child after child tried their hand at swinging a sledgehammer hard enough to ring the bell.

The Balloon Saloon gave out bright yellow balloons, which parents tied to strollers and backpacks and their children’s wrists. Some inevitably floated away, snagging in nearby trees or floating up into the clear sky, where they caught the sunlight.

The fair’s sights and sounds transported Aniko Delaney, 40, out of New York City entirely.

“It feels like a small-town event,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the country somewhere, at a local carnival.”

She and her daughter Sophia, 8, live just three blocks from the new center. Sophia said she was looking forward to having a swimming pool so close to home.

A 20-piece steel pan orchestra spread a chiming Caribbean sound over the carnival. In front of the band, four middle school kids swayed and twirled.

“This is so cool,” said Talulah Gilroy, 11, when she took a break from dancing. She was surprised and happy to run into former classmates from Tribeca and Battery Park City whom she hadn’t seen since she moved up to I.S. 89. The community center will make it easier for everyone to stay in touch now that they’ve scattered to middle schools around the city, she said.

Gilroy’s friend Lee Perry, 11, stumbled upon the fair after a game of catch at the Battery Park City ballfields.

“It’s fun,” he said of the fair. “I’m seeing friends I never thought I would see again.” Perry, a student at the Manhattan Academy of Technology in Chinatown, said he would definitely participate in the community center’s sports programs.

Inside, after the ribbon cutting, the scene was quieter but no less animated. The mostly adult crowd circulated through the nearly finished community center, holding glasses of wine and plates of appetizers and desserts prepared by Bouley. The stairwells smelled of fresh paint, and some doors and hallways were blocked off with chairs or tape.

“Here’s the pool!” a group of partygoers called up from a landing of the concrete staircase, their voices echoing. Spread out in the dimly lit basement, the main attraction of the event sat quietly, its surface smooth and green. Small blue tiles marked depths from 3 feet 6 inches to 6 feet, and rows of blue and white flags hung from the ceiling to orient future swimmers.

“This was a long time coming,” said Paul Hovitz, of C.B. 1, standing at the edge of the pool. Flanked by his wife and daughter, Hovitz reflected on the years-long process of bringing the community center to life. “It was truly a joint effort,” Hovitz said. Even though he’s C.B. 1’s go-to person on youth issues, he wants to make sure senior citizens aren’t left out of the programming.

Upstairs, Nicole Bartelme, Bouley’s wife, stood watching as her husband scooped pink rose-petal ice cream onto guests’ plates. She joked that Bouley’s entire staff was at the community center, and no one knew who was running his Tribeca restaurants that night — which was alright, since the entire community was at the grand opening as well.

Before cutting the cake, Bouley stood before the crowd and promised that this would not be his last appearance at the community center. Townley might arrange for him to teach cooking classes, he said. Bartelme said earlier that Bouley is interested in creating healthier, more natural meals for children and he might use the center as a testing ground for his ideas on revamping school lunches.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a longtime supporter of Manhattan Youth, arrived late from Albany, where the Legislature had just passed the state budget. He missed the grandstand speeches outside the center, but spoke to a room full of the project’s donors inside.

“People said after Sept. 11 that Downtown would never rise again, but we’re bigger and better than ever — just look at Bob Townley!” Silver said as his audience broke into laughter. More seriously, Silver added that the center would give kids a space of their own, just like other kids around the city and state.

Manhattan Youth staff and volunteers, wearing red, white and blue football jerseys, directed attendees through the halls. Kathryn Kozma, 17, stood by a stairwell, pointing people toward the pool or the food.

Kozma started attending Downtown Day Camp, run by Manhattan Youth, when she was 4 years old. Now, she is a counselor.

“I love it,” she said of the center. “I wish they had it when I was a kid.”

Asked if the difficult-to-entice teen population will use the teen lounge, Kozma said she thinks they will. The pool and recording studio will be the biggest attractions, and teens will also want to just hang out with their friends in the lounge and play foosball, she said.

At a table just outside the entrance, checking off names and dispensing bracelets, was another Manhattan Youth veteran. Gabi Sasson, assistant director of the after-school program at P.S. 89, started working for Manhattan Youth 10 years ago, when she was 15. Before that, Sasson attended the after-school program, which was in its infancy.

“It was so small,” Sasson said. Gesturing to the crowd filling Warren St., she said, “To go from [the after-school program] to this is amazing.”

Along with the Manhattan Youth alumni, many young potential participants attended the opening. Howard Alexander, 39, brought his daughter Estelle, 19 months, to the fair in a backpack carrier. She was too young to go on rides, but swiveled her head to watch the crowd. Estelle will grow up in the community center, her father said.

“It’s a great way to get people like us to stay in the neighborhood, in the city,” Alexander said, kissing his wife on the cheek.

Janel Alexander, 34, said she and her husband have watched the neighborhood change over the past 10 years into a more kid-friendly place.

“And we’ve changed with it,” she said, gesturing to her husband and daughter. “It worked out well.”

At 10 p.m. Thursday, Warren St. was quiet but the festivities inside the center didn’t look close to winding down. Townley took a moment outside in the warm summery night to catch his breath and smoke a cigarette.

“I feel great,” he said, his shining face looking exhausted. “I have a lot of work ahead of me.”

The opening had gone off without a hitch, but Townley couldn’t even count on sleeping in the next morning. He had a 9 a.m. meeting with the people who control the building’s heat.

 

Julie@DowntownExpress.com

 






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