Picket signs, marches, and acoustic guitars. What do 60s-era protests have to do with the Houston Street Center?
HSC was erected in 2006, but the idea for a Lower East Side community space was forged and popularized in the cauldron of a high-profile political battle for the heart and soul of LES, decades earlier.
In 1959, Robert Moses, a legendary and famously ruthless New York public builder, proposed eliminating what he saw as urban blight by leveling a huge swath of LES, from Delancey Street to East Ninth Street, from Second Avenue to the Bowery, and displacing 7,000 residents.
University Settlement knew this area as a vibrant community; it needed improvement – not destruction. Staughton Lynd, a University Settlement Community Worker, convinced two urban planners to join a brewing movement of LES tenants – one of the planners, Walter Thabit, then formed the Cooper Square Committee to oppose Moses' proposal and develop a new proposal called the Alternate Plan.
According to the Alternate Plan, buildings that could be renovated would be preserved, enabling residents to stay in their homes. Remaining parcels would be replaced with a carefully planned mixture of housing options and community space. To this day, the Alternate Plan is a celebrated model for urban planning that's sensitive to community residents' needs.
But it took a decade of fierce advocacy by the Cooper Square Committee for the city to sign on. These efforts reached a climax with "Cooper Square on the Warpath," a late 1960s campaign which included community rallies, demonstrations, leaflets, even setting up teepees along Houston Street to dramatize the need for affordable housing. In 1969, the city agreed to the Alternate Plan.
Yet it would take decades more of slow and painstaking advocacy, organization, and planning for the city to make good on its promise. In the 1970s, big parcels of land were cleared. In the 1980s, hundreds of affordable units were built.
By the 1990s, there were two key pieces of real estate left and advocates saw an opportunity for the city to build a community center, which would make good on the long-awaited promise of community space and replace the abandoned Church of all Nations – a splendid multi-use center for neighborhood gatherings that moved to a smaller space in 1975.
In 1996, the City formed a task force, which included various government and elected representatives as well as the Cooper Square Committee and University Settlement Executive Director Michael Zisser. The task force hammered out an agreement to build the community center as well as more affordable housing.
University Settlement and Chinatown YMCA forged a unique partnership with each other and with the developer, AvalonBay, to operate the center after it was built.
In 2003, ground was broken, and in 2006 the Houston Street Center finally opened. It remains a state-of-the-art center for the LES with a competition-sized swimming pool, full-court gym, fitness center, classrooms, meeting rooms, dance and aerobic studios and community offices – a true communal 'living room and backyard' for the surrounding neighborhood and a testament to the passionate advocacy of University Settlement, the Cooper Square Committee, and the LES community over six decades.
Since opening, the Houston Street Center has tallied 20,000 community participants, 9,800 classes, and 23,000 hours of programs and is embraced by the local community as a place of possibilities, hope and acceptance.