HARLEM — The cul-de-sac at the end of 129th Street in St. Nicholas Houses used to be called the "circle," said lifelong resident Juanick Nickens — and it was trouble.
"There were drugs and fights. It just wasn't safe," the 35-year-old said.
But now that 129th street has been opened up to through traffic as part of the Harlem Children Zone's new $100 million charter school at the middle of the complex, Nickens has seen some improvements.
"It's not perfect, but people have more respect when they walk by and see the school," said Nickens. On top of that, her daughter Javana, 5, will attend the school in the fall. "She's already talking about going to college," Nickens said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Harlem Children's Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada along with New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to officially open the school Thursday.
"We had this crazy idea that we could build an institution inside a housing project that would not just save the children, but transform the area," Canada said.
The building will be the home of Promise Academy I, a k-12 school that now has 900 students at three different locations. The school will eventually enroll 1,300 students, with residents of St. Nicholas Houses getting priority for admission.
"It's a school that shows what can be done," Bloomberg said.
There was celebration Thursday, but the school did not rise without opposition. Angry residents of the public housing complex were upset about the loss of open space. The building sits on top of what used to be open courtyards lined with trees and benches and parking lots.
The Urban Justice Center is pursuing an appeal of a lawsuit that sought to stop the project. They are seeking to have NYCHA restore the lost open space.
Canada has said all along that the benefits of the project outweigh any disadvantages.
"This is laying a foundation so people know there is a beacon of hope and that beacon is located in the middle of St. Nicholas Houses," he said.
The five-story, 135,000-square-foot building is equipped with 52 classrooms, which all have Smart Board technology. There are three science labs, two libraries and two outdoor play areas.
The project was a public-private partnership that relied on $60 million from the Department of Education, $20 million from Goldman Sachs Gives and $6 million from Google. Civic Builders, which developed the project, donated their $5 million in fees to the school. AT&T outfitted the building with Wi-Fi and will provide 1,500 notebooks for students.
"The standard required to be successful in the world are going up at a very rapid rate," Bloomberg said.
Approximately 54 residents from St. Nicholas Houses will have full-time employment at the school and Kenneth Langone, chairman of Promise Academy, said the school will bring development to the area, just as Harlem Children's Zone school and headquarters on 125th Street has.
"We are reaffirming that the prosperity of our city depends on investment in our children today," Rhea said.
For Nickens, living across the street from the school has other, more practical benefits
"I can see the school from my bedroom window in the morning and then roll over and get a few more minutes of sleep," said Nickens as she rushed off at her daughter's urging to prepare for her kindergarten graduation.