|More than 100 people, mostly parents and children, attended a rally last week in the center's playground (Photos: J. Fergusson)|
"This is the only safe place for him in the neighorhood," said Walker, a Parks Department employee. She added, "The food is wonderful, he does his homework, it's not just play, play, play. There are many opportunities for my son to grow here."
These opportunities could be cut short, however; the center and its many programs face an uncertain future.
In July, the city's Department of Education, which owns the building and provides maintenance, contacted staff, demanding that they now pay to use the space.
|The Mary Mitchell Center|
Asked for comment, the DOE, which runs a GED program in the building, released a statement. It said: "There are real costs associated with the maintenance of any DOE building... Given the current fiscal reality, we are asking community organizations who have not been paying for these services to begin covering these costs."
The fees were waived during the summer months, after Councilman Joel Rivera and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. reached out to the DOE. But on Sept. 21, with no payment forthcoming, the city locked Hynes, her staff, and the children they serve (some 300 a week) out of the center. (They were allowed back in two days later, when another temporary waiver was granted.)
Last Friday, Hynes organized a rally in the center's playground. The message to the DOE: it's our building, give it back.
Father John Flynn, who recently retired as pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish, kicked off proceedings with a prayer. He called the center "one of the greatest institutions we have for young people in the community" - soliciting murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
"If they take this center away, what they're telling us is they want our kids to go back to the corner," said Evonne Capers. Her son attended the center's school program in the late 1990s; her granddaughter now takes martial arts classes there.
Walker said she was "scared, terrified" about the prospect of it closing.
Hynes said people could help by making four phone calls: one to the mayor, another to City Council speaker Christine Quinn, and to Diaz's and Rivera's offices, too.
|Heidi Hynes, the center's executive director, at the rally|
The Mary Mitchell Center opened in 1997, but the fight to see it built is decades old.
In the mid-1970s, when much of Crotona lay burned out or abandoned, an empty building on Mapes Avenue caught the eye of local resident Mary Mitchell. Determined to open a youth center, she leased it from the city, paying a token $1 a year.
Before Mitchell's dream was truly realized, however, a fire destroyed the building. She instead opened a play street and ran activities for local youth out of her home.
Mitchell died in 1983 but her legacy lived on. Three years later, the Crotona Community Coalition, an affiliate of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, founded a non-profit called Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center.
There was no building, but the organization, led by Astin Jacobo, a community activist who served as president of the board of directors until his death in 2002, campaigned to change that. Eventually, the City Council and the Borough President's office funded the project, and the city began construction on the same Mapes Avenue site Mitchell identified years earlier.
Because the property was - and is - city-owned, the Mary Mitchell Center board leased it, initially from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). But in 2000, as Hynes tells it, DCAS abruptly transferred the lease to the DOE (then called the Board of Education), claiming it was best for all concerned.
The Mary Mitchell Center was allowed to use the building on weekday afternoons and evenings, and at weekends - all at no charge. The DOE also agreed to cover other costs, such as maintenance.
But board members and staff were furious. "It was as if we were squatting, and they were being nice and letting us stay," said Ella Williams, the board's acting secretary. "But we weren't squatting, it was our building."
There were concerns, too, that the DOE would one day seek a different arrangement - as it eventually did this summer. "We had sort of a gentleman's agreement, but we lost the gentleman," Williams said.
This morning, Hynes is meeting at City Hall with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and representatives from the DOE to discuss the situation. Diaz and Rivera, or their reps, are also expected, she said.
Even if the Mary Mitchell Center coughed up the $70,000-plus, Hynes worries the DOE will eventually want the building just for themselves. To stop this from happening, she wants the DOE to step aside, and allow the center to sign a long-term lease of its own. Hynes says the center can afford to maintain the building, and would allow the DOE to continue using the space for its GED program.
As last week's rally drew to a close, 12-year-old Kiary Delrosario was standing in the playground, talking to friends. She takes salsa classes with Tanima Productions, one of twenty or organizations that uses the center. The thought that these classes might be coming to an end was too much to bear.
"I would actually cry, I would just feel so bad," Kiary said.
|Children at last week's rally|