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Red Tape Leaves Gowanus Community Center Closed Despite Funds to Renovate

 Gowanus Houses residents, including Imani Gayle Gillison, demand the city permanently re-open their community center after it was shuttered more than a decade ago.
Gowanus Houses residents, including Imani Gayle Gillison, demand the city permanently re-open their community center after it was shuttered more than a decade ago.
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DNAinfo/Caroline Spivack

GOWANUS — The Gowanus Houses community center has nearly half a million dollars dedicated to its reopening, but it's still stalled, thanks to city rules mandating adequate funds for services before work can even begin.

In 2014, locals voted to allocate $475,000 in funds to renovate the center, which has been closed for more than a decade, through Councilman Stephen Levin's participatory budgeting process.

The projects on the participatory budgeting ballot included programs and classes for the space, but because capital funds can only be used on physical infrastructure, those dollars could not go toward funding those services, according to Levin's director of communication Edward Paulino. 

It is only until the Department of Youth and Community Development secures a sponsor organization to run and help fund the center's programs that the New York Housing Authority can move forward with construction, according to the authority's spokeswoman Jasmine Blake.

The result is a dilapidated community center tied up in red tape.

While funds to upgrade the space may be sitting idle, those advocating for the center's permanent reopening have not. In August, local groups and the Fifth Avenue Committee scrounged together enough to cover insurance and other costs to temporarily reopen the space.

But it will shutter again come December.

It is disheartening to see what could be a valuable resource in constant limbo, one tenant said. 

"We are not just here to have a song and a dance — we are here to have programming that will uplift our community," said Imani Gayle Gillison, a Gowanus Houses resident and director of Theater of the Liberated, who has been fighting for the site for years. 

Once permanently reopened, locals want the center to meet several tenant needs, including tutoring, resume workshops, summer camps, language classes and much more, Gillison said.

NYCHA used to independently operate public housing community centers, but dwindling funds led the agency to join forces with other city departments, such as the Department For The Aging, to operate the spaces. In turn, those agencies work with local organizations to manage a given center's programming, said Blake, the NYCHA spokeswoman. 

The DYCD and NYCHA say they are currently searching for a group to sponsor the Gowanus Houses center, but neither agency could give a timeline on when that may be, how long on average it takes to find a sponsor and why the search has stretched to a years long endeavor. 

“NYCHA is diligently working with the [DYCD] to find a sponsor for the community center at Gowanus Houses so that local youth can have access to programs and services that will meet their needs," Blake said.

In recent days, more than 600 people signed an online petition to reopen the center, and those who remember when it was open say the center was a fixture in the community. 

"It was a space for us," said Ijaaza El, a Gowanus Houses resident. "Basically, without the center, it's breaking our families apart."

Some, like resident Carolyn Ferguson, had to turn to other centers to help her manage her abuse of alcohol, she said.

"It was a life saver and I'd like to see that here," Ferguson said of a Bronx center where she learned to crochet. "Without it, the community is missing its nucleus." 

Reopening the center would also keep folks off the streets and provide a safe haven from crime, such as the recent shooting that occurred within eyesight of the center, said one middle schooler. 

"We should be able to have a safe space so we don't have to worry about the shootings, murder and crime," said 12-year-old Aagaylah Gadson. 

The center can also act as a resource in times of need, Gillison noted, like when it opened to help with Hurricane Sandy relief. 

"It's not always that we need something. It's that we want to be able to give back too," she said. "We want to be in a position to give back."