When Alan van Capelle and his partner, Matt Morningstar, brought their second child, Patrick, home from the hospital this past spring, the news had already traveled fast. On his short walk to their Grand Street apartment from the Educational Alliance, where van Capelle had just become president and CEO, three friends stopped to offer congratulations.
“It’s like a small town,” van Capelle observed of the Lower East Side. “I don’t think you find that in most neighborhoods in New York. There’s something totally special about our little corner of the city.”
Over coffee one morning last month at Cafe Petisco, located next door to the Educational Alliance’s newly renovated flagship building, van Capelle went well beyond extolling the virtues of the community in which he’s chosen to raise a family. He vowed to raise the public profile of the 125-year-old institution on the Lower East Side and to engage the community in a robust conversation about key issues facing the rapidly changing neighborhood.
The energetic activist made a national name for himself as head of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a prominent gay rights organization, before going on to work in the New York Comptroller’s office and to lead Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization dedicated to social justice. He grew up in Commack, Long Island, the son of a Dutch-Indonesian father and a Jewish mother. Van Capelle’s grandmother lived on Rivington Street. He’s lived in the Hillman Co-op for three years.
Van Capelle arrived at the Educational Alliance just as it was concluding a $55 million renovation of its headquarters on East Broadway, a high-stakes investment meant to sustain the historic institution for decades to come.
“In some ways, the easy part is building the building, although it was by no means an easy renovation,” he said. The more difficult task, van Capelle added, is fulfilling the lofty mission of the Manny Cantor Center, the new community facility housed in the building: creating a local hub for all of the diverse groups that make up the Lower East Side. “This is an experiment,” he asserted, “and so far it’s working.”
About three mornings a week, the organization’s new leader stands outside the building entrance and greets each person who comes inside. That’s everyone from a senior arriving for breakfast, members of the new state-of-the-art fitness center and parents dropping their kids off for Head Start or for the preschool program.
“It is an extraordinary thing,” he said, “like being in an airport, because there are lots of people from all corners of the world who are coming for something at the Manny Cantor Center.”
Van Capelle’s priority now is making sure everyone knows what’s happening inside those four walls.
“I think we have done a less than adequate job of explaining to folks what the role of the Educational Alliance has been in Lower Manhattan for the last 125 years,” he said. “We have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people who walk into our three community centers [the Manny Cantor Center, the 14th Street Y and the Sirovich Senior Center] every day.”
Asked about a perception that the Educational Alliance has steered clear of political activism, van Capelle replied, “I don’t think it’s a perception… I think it’s a fact.” Making clear that advocacy will be a new priority, van Capelle said, “I think there is room for the Educational Alliance to insert ourselves in some important conversations taking place in the city, particularly given the fact that the look and the feel of our neighborhood is not pre-determined.”
As someone who lives in the neighborhood, van Capelle said, it’s important for him to recognize that “upwards of 50 percent of people who shop at my Fine Fare are on SNAP [food stamps], that only 37 percent of the kids who go to high school in our neighborhood graduate and that 40 percent of the seniors in our neighborhood live below the poverty line.” He believes a robust conversation should be taking place to find solutions to these vexing problems, and that the Educational Alliance should be playing an active role in facilitating this kind of community-wide discussion. The Manny Cantor Center, he said, is “prepared to play the role of convener” without dictating the agenda.
“Sometimes I think there is an elegance to just being the convener without predetermining what actually is said in the conversation,” van Capelle said.
On another topic, a previously announced plan to create a dual-generation school within the big Essex Crossing development project set to break ground next year, van Capelle signaled a change in direction.
“We have, I think, about 36,000 to 40,000 square feet of space that we can use for anything,” he said, “and I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, is my honest answer.” He continued, “my hope is that the Educational Alliance works with the Grand Street Settlement [the lead community partner in Essex Crossing] and hopefully some of our other settlement houses to find a joint project that we can do together in that space.” He was not specific about what that project might be, but emphasized that a collaboration is the way to make sure the space offers “a true community benefit.”
Van Capelle said he’s committed to working with his counterparts at other organizations, as well as local elected officials and city agencies to ensure that the neighborhood receives the resources that it needs.
“If we are doing our work well,” he argued, “we are both providing services and advocating for our community at the exact same time.”