The City Pitted Kids Against Artists in the East Village


The most remarkable recent one-act involving the artists of Performance Space 122 was the picket against them by neighborhood parents at the arts center’s May 15 Spring Gala. Steps away from the red-carpet entrance at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, where celebs Steve Buscemi and Rosie O’Donnell were expected to stroll, stood the parents and children of the Children’s Liberation Day Care Center (CLDCC), chanting and carrying signs.

After almost three decades in a 100-year-old school building at First Avenue and 9th Street, the venerable day-care center was mounting a last-ditch effort to save itself. The parents and the center’s staff say they were galled that P.S.122 apparently wanted to convert their space into a lobby, sculpture garden, and more theaters.

That last-ditch protest failed, and now the main drama is nearly over. Everybody says they’re upset by this, and some of them really are. “The only thing I can compare this to is The Wizard of Oz,” says Barbara Ingram, founding director of the day-care center. “Everyone from Kansas has descended on the Lower East Side, and they want to be creative. They are pushing out the immigrants and hard-working people.”

It was a creative maneuver in the first place by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of Cultural Affairs that pitted the artists against kids in a battle that’s dragged on for several years. It paid off: The building on First Avenue now known as Performance Space 122 will be virtually immigrant-free.

The artsy crowd is upset about being cast as the bad guys in this drama.

“I hate to see nonprofits being pitted against each other,” says longtime P.S.122 contributor and performance artist Lucy Sexton. “I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old. I know how hard it is to find day care, and I also know how hard it is to make art.”

P.S.122 executive director Anne Dennin admits that the organization has had a lot of explaining to do when it comes to the closing of the CLDCC. “We’ve spent a lot of time explaining the situation to neighbors,” she says. “We are not evil people. We like small children—we have them ourselves.”

The die was cast when the Department of Cultural Affairs decided to renovate the building. The day-care center had been a fixture in the East Village since it first moved into the community center known as P.S.122. The former schoolhouse was converted from an artists’ squat into a city-owned space for nonprofits encouraging the arts. As the lone child-care facility in the building, the CLDCC always stood out.

When the Department of Cultural Affairs (which holds the lease for the building) began planning renovations, the big issue was naturally what would happen to the children. DCA spokespeople say the building itself is in need of such drastic repairs to bring it to code—including the removal of lead paint and asbestos—that there was no safe way for the children of the day-care center to remain. The center’s staff and parents say that was nothing more than a ploy to seize complete control over a chunk of prime real estate and devote it entirely to the arts.

The day-care center couldn’t find another space in the rapidly redeveloping (and increasingly more expensive) East Village. One of the final blows came when another city agency waded into the fray: Citing the clouded status of the day-care center’s future location, the Administration for Children’s Services canceled its contract. Without the $919,450-a-year funding from the ACS, the day-care center couldn’t survive—and will now shut down on June 30.

The day-care center blames P.S.122, seeing its clout as the reason for the city’s decision to end the CLDCC’s contract and kick it out. The theater denies any involvement: “We don’t have any control over who the members of the community center are,” says Dennin. “When the renovation was decided, the City Council appropriated money to bring the building up to code. The money for the construction is for code work—it has nothing to do with a sculpture garden.”

In its last days, the day-care center
had become a still-life. Most of the parents had pulled their children out, and most of the teachers had left to find other work. On a recent day, there were only three two-year-olds in attendance, and the pre-kindergarten class was down to 11 kids.

It’s not that a demand for day-care centers doesn’t exist. In fact, according to the Bloomberg administration’s own estimates, a third of a million New York City children under the age of six qualify for subsidized care, and about 200,000 of them are currently out of luck.

Despite the need for such places as the CLDCC, many of its loyal parents knew the fix was in. Board member Paul Williams, who has sent three of his children through the center (the oldest is in her twenties and the youngest is still in Pre-K), worked hard to fight the inevitable. “The Bloomberg administration is characterized as the ‘arts administration,’ ” he says. “Behind the scenes, they started hatching a plan to make a baby ban and make P.S.122 an all-arts space. Our lawyer caught wind. They knew it was going to be unpopular and got ACS to do their dirty work.”

Spokespeople for the ACS and the Department of Cultural Affairs vehemently deny that allegation.

Of course, there were reasons for the CLDCC to be unhappy. The city initially offered to find it a new home, but the proposal would have split the center into two locations, both of them outside the East Village—which, despite the recent gentrification, still has a major need for affordable day-care centers.

Despite the profusion of luxury apartments and construction cranes, Community District 3 is still a hodgepodge of immigrant communities, from Alphabet City to Chinatown. In Community District 3, where P.S.122 is located, there are 14 ACS center-based programs, two family child-care networks, and 14 Head Start centers. There are also 47 private child-care centers whose tuitions are comparable to small colleges.

Williams says that the CLDCC’s own search for new space was futile: “There is no room for us in the East Village,” he says. “One space we did apply for, we were outbid by the Blue Man Group. They are starting a kindergarten—tuition is $20,000.”