The Young and the Helpless

New York City evicts a social service center, and leaves a hole in the heart of the South Bronx

Brand-new buildings now surround the center. The grumble of cement mixers and the crash of hammers can be heard from the sidewalk, promising more development and higher property prices. The center, like a fresh source of water, has caused a once dried-up community to blossom. Perfect time to start up a school again? Maybe not. Though the area now appears healthy, Basilio Vega, program director of the 163rd Street Improvement Council, warns that the development hides a fragile structure underneath. "Knocking down one block," he says, "it's like a domino effect. Everything else will fall down."

In recent months, some organizations within the MMSC have closed their doors. Burke, the president of the Improvement Council, isn't sure why. He can only hypothesize that agencies must carefully weigh the pros and cons of fighting with the city, especially when contracts keeping the agencies' hearts thumping come from the very bureaucracy trying to kick them out. "Our fight comes at a heavy cost, but we have a commitment to help this community," Burke says. "If we don't fight, we wouldn't be fulfilling our obligations."

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photo: David Yellen

New York City is taking the MMSC organizations to court to officially evict them. Although all the organizations are following the case, only BOLD and the 163rd Street Improvement Council have come up with the funds necessary to continue fighting the city. A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Marge Feinberg, declines to comment, but says she hopes the premises can be prepared for use as a school as soon as possible. The agency has helped the organizations find new homes by offering the phone number of Cushman & Wakefield, a large real estate company. Burke isn't impressed. He says the company couldn't find a new building suitable to accommodate all the agencies within the same area. Mostly though, Burke feels let down by the HRA, who gave them up without explanation and without concern for the continuation of services. The HRA declined to comment. A spokesperson for the HRA, Barbara Brancaccio, answered many unsettled questions with a simple phrase: The HRA no longer manages that location.

The last court date, two weeks ago, ended before the lawyers even made it into the courtroom. It ended in the hallway, squabbling with calendars open. They go to court again tomorrow.

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