Recently we sat down to talk with Joanna Samuels, the executive director of the Manny Cantor Center, a multi-purpose community facility opening at the Educational Alliance later this year.
For many months, the historic settlement house’s flagship building at 197 East Broadway has been covered in black netting and scaffolding. The 125-year-old structure is undergoing a $59 million gut-renovation that, when finished, will provide more space for early childhood education, a versatile community gathering space, new art studios, refurbished teen and senior centers and a new wellness center, including a state-of-the-art fitness facility.
Samuels, who joined the Educational Alliance nearly a year ago, has been preparing for the grand opening (expected in December) and leading efforts to expand and, in some cases, re-invent many of the educational, cultural and social service programs to be offered at the Manny Cantor Center. She came to the the Lower East Side non-profit agency from an organization called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community and also served as rabbi at Congregation Habonim on the Upper West Side.
The Lower East Side’s settlement houses, created to serve the large immigrant populations that poured into New York at the turn of the last century, have all been grappling with the effects of gentrification in recent years. While they continue to provide a wide range of services to low income residents throughout the city, the organizations have also been trying to figure out how to serve new, more affluent community members with different needs.
In our conversation, Samuels noted that the Educational Alliance’s headquarters “literally sits on the crossroads” between the rapidly gentrifying Grand Street Cooperatives and the public housing and subsidized housing developments that line the East River. “The Educational Alliance’s mission is really to serve the neighborhood and the neighborhood has changed,” she said. So while there’s a strong commitment to maintaining “poverty-serving programs,” she explained, the new center will also cater to the higher-income residents have settled on the LES in the past decade or so.
“It’s a huge leap,” Samuels said. “It’s a unique and ambitious project to bring together people across class lines, across all kinds of different racial lines in the neighborhood. The vision that we’re building out is that our preschool classrooms are right alongside our Head Start classrooms; our teachers are doing training together; our kids are playing together; there’s lots of integration; that we are keeping our classes at a pretty low price-point (and creating)… ambitious business models to enable the broadest spectrum of people to have access (to the center).”
Samuels, who grew up in the Bronx, said she is personally very concerned about economic class as “a final divide” in New York City. The chance to help create community in a neighborhood that’s still diverse was a key reason she came to the Educational Alliance. While it’s a big undertaking, Samuels said she’s confident the institution can serve both constituencies effectively. “We’ve been running Head Start, we’ve been running a senior center, we’ve been running a preschool, a fee-for-service art school for a long time and I think we are just looking for wonderful ways to bring people together around excellent high quality programming,” Samuels said.
In the past few months, Samuels has been conducting focus groups in the neighborhood to find out what kind of cultural programs residents would like to see at the Manny Cantor Center. It quickly became clear that most people were not interested in a version of the 92nd Street Y, with its marquee names and high profile and high-priced public events. Instead, the research found, “they want things that are home-grown and that feel accessible and are at the right price point and reflect to them the very rich and vibrant diversity that they live in.” So the programming in the new glass-enclosed rooftop community space will reflect these priorities. This summer, the Manny Cantor is giving local residents a taste of what’s envisioned via a series of events in Seward Park. This morning, there was a “pop-up” library and games for kids. Tomorrow at 7 p.m., there’s an outdoor concert and “neighborhood jazz jam” with Paul Shapiro and Friends. You can see the full schedule here.
Next week, the Educational Alliance will begin pre-sales for its fitness center. The facility includes 50 pieces of strength training and cardio equipment, group exercise classes and a 5,000 square foot gym with volleyball and basketball courts. The rates have not yet been released, but if you’re interested in learning more, you can stop by the organization’s temporary headquarters at 232 East Broadway, beginning next Friday, August 2. You can also call 646-395-4280 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be a range of membership options for seniors, families, individuals, groups and youth. Rates will be lowest during the pre-sale period.