The scene at The Bahche, a popular coffee shop on Third Avenue and 7th Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn, was far from a typical pre-protest gathering.
Rather than the requisite leather-clad anarchists and angry militants, more than 60 Gowanus residents were sipping free hot chocolate while they toiled away with a rainbow array of colored Sharpies. There were smiling parents. There were little children. Soon they would all be braving the elements — it was an unseasonably frigid 33 degrees on November 18 — to march two blocks away to a dead-end street full of manufacturing and industrial sites. And there, they listened to a band of pre-teens called Eye of Time jam out to a selection of classic rock favorites.
Despite the festive atmosphere, the residents were there as an ad hoc coalition called Gowanus United. The group is irate about a new parole center that’s opening in their neighborhood on Second Avenue between 5th Street and the Gowanus Canal. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has said the facility, which was approved for construction in 2013, will serve more than 5,000 parolees a month and employ 120 armed peace officers.
Residents say that the area, which is full of factories and warehouses, lacks the lighting and access to public transportation to make them feel safe having former criminals roaming the streets. They also argue the parole center is too close to neighborhood day cares and schools.
Earlier this month they slapped the DOC with a lawsuit — arguing that the state failed to undertake a thorough environmental review before approving the building.
The movement to try and stop the facility from opening has gotten the attention of both city and state officials who have taken on the cause.
New York State senator-elect Jesse Hamilton said to a cheering audience that he will do “everything in my power” to stop the parole center.
Though Hamilton, a Brooklyn Democrat, doesn’t assume office until January 1, and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision plans to move in that month, he told the Voice that he’s already planning to reach out to state agencies to delay the plan. For now, though, he is “still in dialogue with Gowanus United.”
“Do I have a plan of how to stop it yet? No,” he said. “Will I have a plan? Yes.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told the protesters that he didn’t like the state’s lack of consultation with city officials on the decision to build the center in the first place.
Adams said the location was inconvenient for parolees and not close to anything actually useful — like a Social Security office or an employment center — for the re-entry process. “They’re not here to go to Home Depot,” he said, referring to the nearby home improvement store.
To the Voice, Adams explained that there’s not a lot he as a local official can do to stop the parole site, but he added, “We made it clear to organizers of the lawsuit that our attorneys are here to help them.”
Also at the protest in “an informal capacity” was Mark Benoit, a political consultant with Geto&DeMilly who has worked for mayors Bill de Blasio and David Dinkins; the Reverend Jesse Jackson was also in attendance. Benoit told the Voice his firm hadn’t yet been hired by Gowanus United but that he has been in talks with the group.
Gowanus resident Adam Walsh, 44, said he came to the protest because the R train subway station on 9th street and Fourth Avenue, which parolees may use to get to the center, is too close for comfort to the Maurice Sendak Community School on 8th Street, which his daughter attends. Adams said he told his daughter, Sadie, six, about the center, explaining that “there were going to be people who had done some bad things walking around” the neighborhood. “I asked, ‘What do you want, how do you feel about it?’ And [she] said, ‘We want safety.’ “
Gowanus United spokesperson Adine Schuman-Pusey said she’s not altogether against a parole center being built in the area, but she’d rather the state break up the mega-hub into several smaller facilities scattered throughout the borough. “We’d be willing to discuss that,” she said. “What we are saying today is ‘no mega-site.’ “
That would be unusual. New York State has one parole office in each of the other boroughs, except the Bronx, which has two. Currently, Brooklyn’s parole center is split into three temporary locations until the bigger, permanent space is finished. The temporary offices are in Manhattan, Queens, and downtown Brooklyn, according to a DOC spokesperson. Because of the pending lawsuit, the department declined to discuss the matter further with the Voice.
Pusey said the group’s message has mostly gotten out thanks to in-kind donations, many of which were from graphic designers and printing companies, which helped with a massive flyer campaign that blanketed the neighborhood with shiny yellow and black pamphlets. Gowanus United has also received donations from business and neighborhood groups like Gowanus Alliance. “Except for the legal fees, we’re running on the cheap,” she said.