As a result of significant cuts in the operational budget of the New York State Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Baisley Park Community Center, an institution that has been serving the community of South Jamaica for over 20 years, is closing.
At an emergency meeting called on Thursday, March 20, the community center, which is located at 116-40 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, was swamped with people and tension was steadily building.
Baron Cave, deputy director of Queens Community Operations, announced that the edict for “consolidation” of the community center would be enacted on April 20, giving residents exactly one month to either find a solution or find another place to send their children for after-school and summer programs.
Since the Federal Government has never supplied money directly for community centers, NYCHA has been allocating funds out of the operational budget to finance those centers. However, the housing authority has lost over $611 million in federal aid since 2001. And although, as Cave maintained, NYCHA is applying for every available grant to complement the operational budget and provide for the community centers, fewer and fewer grants have been available recently.
“Now the housing authority doesn’t even have enough money for the developments,” Cave said. So far, the budget deficit has resulted in 2,000 employees being laid off with 500 more people currently at risk.
Deciding to close community centers throughout New York City, NYCHA looked at whether there was another institution in the area that provides similar services to those offered in the center scheduled for consolidation.
Cave acknowledged that NYCHA did not check whether that other institution provides affordable service and high standards, but merely whether it offered the majority of services, no matter the price or quality. Since there is a Police Athletic League (PAL) just across the street from Baisley, the center was scheduled to be closed.
However, community members voiced their concerns that while PAL really does offer some of the programs, such as computer literacy and summer camp, the cost is too high, hours of operation are shorter, parents are charged extra if they need to leave their children earlier or pick them up late, and the quality of service might be considerably lower.
“My child has been in the program for three years. It’s a better program than PAL,” a member of the community said. She believes that the trips, education, and knowledgeable teachers at the center are exactly what her son needs.
“Single parents feel that the community center is like family. You know your children are safe.” The resident said that in that way one could concentrate on one’s job. Parents worry not only that PAL does not have the capacity to accommodate all their children because “there is always a long waiting list,” but also that their children are not welcome at PAL.
“It is not set up to have people of our community go there,” Robert A. U. Hogan, resident president for Baisley Park said. “It is something that was placed inside our community, not based on it.
As the debate was heating up, community members reproached NYCHA, saying that an internal document was circulating within the organization two months, announcing the intended closing of the centers; and consequently, the residents of Baisley Park were not given enough time to find possible solutions and come up with alternatives.
Cave encouraged the community to search for potential sponsors, who might finance the center. “The facility will still be available if the community finds sponsors,” he said.
He said that some potential sponsors came and looked at it already, but decided they did not want to take it. If the center is run by sponsors, there will be one or two residents on the executive board.
The community of Baisley Park is adamant that the center needs to be saved. Not only is there a petition circulating among the residents, but there are also propositions on how to salvage at least part of the programs, including volunteer workers and fundraisers. The children of the community are also taking up the initiative, asking if they can sell candy to save the center.
We’re not going to let the center close,” Hogan said. “If the community center fails, we all fail.”
Baisley Park is only one of 19 community centers that are being consolidated citywide. Other centers, closing in Queens, are Bland in Flushing and Redfern in Far Rockaway.
The three, or possibly four, centers being closed in Queens might not sound like a lot, compared to the eight in Brooklyn and five in the Bronx, but one should keep in mind that NYCHA operates only 14 centers in Queens to begin with, compared to 54 in Brooklyn and 39 in the Bronx. Manhattan has 50 community centers, operated by NYCHA; only two of them are closing. It is reasonable to assume that there are other institutions in close proximity to the remaining 48 that provide the same services. However, NYCHA will continue to finance the centers in Manhattan. Upon closing the centers, Queens will have as many community centers, operated by NYCHA, as does Staten Island, despite having six times the population. None of the nine centers, currently in operation in Staten Island is being consolidated.
Cave said that NYCHA does not want to close any of the community centers and they understand the good that such centers are doing in the communities, but there simply was not enough money in the budget to maintain them.