Untapped Community Asset:the 13th Regiment Armory

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Sitting in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a resource as full of possibilities as it is gargantuan in size.  With a building area of 231,834 square ft., the Armory for the 13th Regiment of the National Guard is the second-largest armory in the country, after the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory which itself is the center of a community development plan.  This armory in the middle of one of the neediest communities, is the center of an effort to restore the range of community uses such as when in 1945, Bed-Stuy resident Mary DeSaussure, now Mary Sobers, became the first African-American girl to run in a Police Athletic League track meet held regularly at the armory.   Starting on Marcus Garvey between Putnam and Jefferson, the building then proceeds about four-fifths into the block, street to street.  As large as it is, there are a couple of points to clear up about what’s inside.

Gerri Blackshear

Myths Corrected
The Working Asset report for the Department of the Homeless lists the building as 3 stories plus a basement.  It does not go four stories underground as rumor has had it, nor does it have stables or an olympic-sized swimming pool.  The military training pool it does have measures 84ft. x 40ft. x 13ft. with a 3,500- gallon capacity.  However, there is a bowling alley, a rifle range, parquet drill floors and a wealth of possibilities. 
A computer search shows that throughout the country, from Pell City, Alabama to Duluth, Minnesota, communities are wrestling with what to do with their armories and they come down hard on the side of what the community’s needs are.  Solutions have included community centers, art facilities, educational uses, a library/apartment complex, sports facilities, banquet hall, a luxury hotel, a different use for each community.   The impetus for the new use is usually an active community group much like the Bedford- Stuyvesant Association, and the reports include meetings like the one held at PS 35 last month.
Gift to Bed-Stuy
“The Sumner Armory is a gift to the Bedford-Stuyvesant community from the State of New York,” says Ms.   Gerri Blackshear, president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Association, a group formed in 1982 as the Association of Block Associations, Inc.  The original purpose was for community activism to identify and rid the area of drug houses.  Now they’ve taken as their charge to bring the armory back as a full community resource.  “The armory is an under-utilized Mecca within our community. There is plenty of space for a men’s shelter and the community at large.” 

Irma Robinson

Dire Needs
The prime example Ms. Blackshear uses is the 168th Street Armory in Washington Heights where a men’s shelter co-exists with a world-class indoor track and field facility.  “A community non-profit, the Armory Foundation, runs that facility and they have been very helpful in demonstrating how these community uses are financed.  One recommendation is that we could have a removable track and the area can be converted to other uses,” she says.  “In our community there is a dire need for youth, senior and family programs; also space for athletic, recreation, weddings, dances, concerts, etc.”
“The armory was designed to mirror the  Bastille,” said Irma Robinson, an association member and a lifelong resident of Putnam Avenue, her family having lived in the same house for 92 years.  “This is a needy community.  What we need are programs for our youth.” 
“We need the community to come out from behind closed doors and take a look at this,” said Ms. Blackshear.  “The neighborhood youth have reached a level of despair, yet still some achieve.  We want to build on that.”
Robert Torrence,  director of Community Relations for Black Veterans for Social Justice, the group running Pomoja House, the men’s shelter at the armory, spoke from the audience saying that the Black Vets is all for the community development of the armory.  “We are on the same page.  We embrace empowering the community in the armory.  We are not resisting anything you are trying to do.  What we need to do is mesh our ideas.”
Recommendations
A statement was made that in the 197a community development plan for Bedford-Stuyvesant, there was a recommendation to convert the armory into condominiums.  Checking later, we saw that the recommendation to study the conversion does appear on the 2004 zoning map prepared by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) as item 11c. “A Signature Building Conversion to condominium apartments and living-work spaces for young professionals and community artists and artisans.”  (Wilma Maynard, chair of the  Community Board 3, land-use committee, assured us that the final recommendation is for community use.) 
Bed-Stuy Association Proposal
Several days after the meeting we spoke with Daryl S. Moore, M.H.S., an association member who was born in the house he lives in on Jefferson Avenue and who wrote the association proposal submitted to the Department of Homeless Services.
Giving us the outline of what the group has in mind, Mr. Moore said, “We are proposing a community-based Cultural Revitalization Institute to bring about a  return to the village of Bedford- Stuyvesant by using our professionals, our seniors, community organizations, churches and other existing programs to bring about positive change with our youth and empower our youth and strengthen our community. 
“We want to place multifaceted educational programs, with a computer and technology center as well as GED, after-school, college readiness and advanced educational support programs.

245th Coast Artillery Armory, 357 Sumner Avenue, second largest armory in the country, was erected in 1894, and occupies about a square block. Its circular towers with narrow slit windows and castellated parapets on the top give it the appearance of a medieval fortress. The architect was R. L. Daus. The 245th was known during the war as the 59th Heavy Field Artillery and fought at St.-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, France. (1939 WPA Guide to New York City:http://www.brooklyn.net/neighborhoods/stuyvesant_heights.html.)

We want programs from day care to college and from remedial to advanced opportunities.  
There has to be retraining for kids who are “not in the here and now.”  They are dropouts with issues not addressed by the education system. 
“We want to get  them with an extensive sports program, to bring them into the medium and then guide them toward those training programs.  We want workshops from doctors and lawyers, we want our youth to see alternatives to crime and violence.  We want to make them competitive with other youth with more resources. 
“We are proposing a Living Skills Center to teach 4 levels of skills from cooking to finance & horticulture. 
All programs are interchangeable.  Our education program would engage the seniors and the teens, each teaching the other.   We want to put in a theater to encourage the arts.  
We want to use the catering hall to provide the community with an inexpensive and local alternative to the Marriott and help the Institute to be self-sustaining.  We want it to be able to advocate for our families, our seniors and our youth.  It is meant to revitalize the community.”
To the question of where does the money come from, Ms. Blackshear said to follow the model of the Armory Foundation, the organization that runs the Fort Washington facility.  The Department of Homeless Services picks up the utilities and infrastructure maintenance costs and other income is derived from their heavy track meet schedule and sponsorships.
Take the Field, a public-private partnership that is rehabilitating athletic facilities around the city, is interested in the project, but their dollars have to be matched with public funds.  Ms. Blackshear says she’s spoken with Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was very receptive to the expanded community use of the armory. “Al Vann and I have to get together to find the money for the project,” she reports him as saying.
The next public meeting will be the second Thursday of September, 7:00pm at St. Christopher Ottilie Beacon Center (P.S. 35), MacDonough Street between Lewis and Marcus Garvey. For additional information call (718) 452-1768 or (718) 574-5570.