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Long-Delayed East Harlem Community Center Opens

By Jeff Mays | December 3, 2011 12:49pm
Troy White, 19, said the newly-opened Johnson Center had a lot to offer him and his friends.
Troy White, 19, said the newly-opened Johnson Center had a lot to offer him and his friends.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—Troy White's eyes lit up as he walked into the brand-new gymnasium of the Johnson Houses Community and Children's Center on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem.

Now 19-years-old, construction on the center, near 115th Street, began a decade ago when White was in elementary school.

"It's been a long time but it looks like it's worth it," said White who has lived at the James Weldon Johnson Houses for 15 years and is looking for work. "Right now, there's nothing to do but stand around in the projects."

New York City Housing Authority officials say they hope the new $21 million, 21,500-square-foot center will change that. The building includes a children's center and a community center that has a performance stage, technology center sponsored by Time Warner Cable, a weight room, senior area and a kitchen that can be used for cooking classes.

The man who the housing complex was named after, James Weldon Johnson was an author, poet and civil rights activist who wrote the Negro National Anthem.

The Children's Museum of Manhattan will partner with NYCHA to create hands on exhibits and learning projects at the center. And the Supportive Children's Advocacy Network will provide programming there ranging from an after-school program to GED and job training to Latin Dance, said Executive Director Lew Zuchman.

"There's an old saying that good things come to those that wait," NYCHA Chairman John Rhea said at a ribbon-cutting Friday. "If the length of time is any indication, then it's safe to say we got a pretty good gift for our time."

Originally conceived a decade ago, construction on the project did not begin until years later. NYCHA, which promised in January that the center would open this spring, has blamed the delays on the time it took to get rid of a non-performing contractor.

"People never thought this was going to open," said Ethel Velez, president of NYCHA's Manhattan North Council of Presidents and the Johnson Houses Resident Association, who was instrumental in pushing the project. "We had a time where we had one man working on the center by himself for a year. He was like: 'This isn't going to happen.'"

As the years dragged on and the center failed to come to fruition, it was the young people of the Johnson Houses who began clamoring for the center to open.

A fresh round of back-and-forth violence between the Johnson and neighboring Taft Houses led young public housing residents at a meeting on youth violence to complain about the amount of time it was taking to open the center.

East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito formed the El Barrio/East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force after a spike in shootings last year. One of the group's recently released recommendations was to provide more activities for young people. The delay in completing the Johnson Center was cited as an example of a failure to do so.

"Pinch me. Am I really here? Is his a dream?" said Mark-Viverito who added that she has spent most of her six years in office dealing with the construction of the center.

"These community centers are critical to improving the quality of life not only for residents but for the community at-large," she said.

State Senator Bill Perkins said the center will provide a range of recreational and vocational opportunities for young people in the community.

"I grew up in these projects when we called them projects," said Perkins. "You can be me easier than I got to be me because we have this here now."

Instead of spending billions of dollars incarcerating young people, Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez said the money should be invested in community centers

"I think this right here is the best alternative to incarceration," said Rodriguez.

Young people weren't the only ones excited about the center. Mary Crawford, a 53-year-old disabled Johnson Houses residents said she hoped to participate in adult programs at the center. She also hoped to serve as a volunteer.

"Kids get into trouble when they don't have something positive to do," she said.

That's why White said he was happy the center had something for everyone. While he was dreaming of running a full court game in the massive gymnasium, a couple of his friends were excited about the planned recording studio. Others said they hoped to take part in the vocational programs.

"We didn't have anywhere to be before," said Johnson resident Mike Pasterisa. "We can't really say that now that this is open."