Design and Advocacy in the South Bronx

The Lincoln Recovery Center building on 349 West 140th Street, present day. | Courtesy of Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY (CUNY)

After a grueling battle with Fresh Direct for the environmental health of the South Bronx, the activists of South Bronx Unite (SBU) had their hearts set on securing permanent, community-controlled space in the neighborhood. A former health clinic that symbolized a history of neighborhood self-sufficiency could provide permanently affordable space for the community advocates and non-profit service and cultural organizations that help the neighborhood thrive.

So when Nandini Bagchee approached SBU about collaborating on a studio, they knew just what they needed: to prove that their visions of a community center on West 140th Street were achievable, and to find a way to extend the site’s radical past into a viable future in a changing neighborhood. For Bagchee and her students at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York (Aiyah Mousa, Christopher Lee, Emanuel Gjini, Elif Karamustafa, Jeremy Iannucci, Julian Usman, Cindy Santamaria, Sarwat Yunis, Sofia Mojica, Sean Kim, Shola Owolewa, Sonnathan Maharaj, and Victoria Graziano), this meant getting out of the studio and getting familiar with the building, the neighborhood, and most importantly, the people and organizations who would inhabit it.

The studio asks how architects can learn to listen and collaborate, without sacrificing the agency of speculative design. The appeals of a “real-life” studio are commensurate with its pitfalls — with the constraints of time, distance, and different institutional imperatives, the process can take much more out of a community than it gives back. Here, the studio was envisioned as an even exchange for future architects to become organizers, and for residents to become designers. So far, the approach has borne fruit. On the strength of the students’ designs and the organizers’ tenacity, SBU has secured a grant from the New York Foundation to investigate the feasibility of a renovation, the next step forward. Below, Bagchee explains how designers and activists wove together memories of the past, demands of the present, and dreams of the future into the fabric of a new life on West 140th Street. – O.S.

Historical image of the Lincoln Recovery Center. | Photo via NADA Denmark

Context

On July 11, 1970, the Young Lords Party, a radical, militant political organization, made headlines by marching into Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx and staging a nonviolent takeover. Notoriously understaffed, undersupplied, and malfunctioning, the hospital had developed a reputation as a “butcher shop.” After the death of one young woman, Carmen Rodriguez, during what should have been a low-risk procedure, the hospital became a symbol of city government’s neglect of African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, and the interconnected social, economic, and environmental problems that plagued New York’s low-income neighborhoods. The Young Lords delivered a set of demands that even the hospital’s chief administrator admitted were legitimate.

Though the Young Lords left peaceably after twelve hours, their occupation had lasting effects, including the establishment of a one-of-a-kind holistic drug rehabilitation program. Administered by a group of radical doctors, psychiatrists, and community leaders, the Lincoln Detox Community Program pioneered the use of acupuncture as an alternative to methadone to treat heroin addiction, and was the first in the country to provide drug recovery programming tailored to the patient’s gender.

In 1978, Mayor Ed Koch declared the program a failure and forcibly evicted staff and administrators from the Lincoln Hospital building, but it persevered, finding a new home in a disused Public Health Department building on West 140th Street. There, the Lincoln Recovery Center was more than just a locus for alternative care, becoming a community center offering many kinds of help. Retired nurse Nancy Smalls, who worked for the program from 1973 to 2013, recalls giving money to patients so they could buy food, fighting to secure emergency housing for patients, and even temporarily sheltering a young child while the mother, a patient, was in treatment. It was a space of positive community building as well, not merely crisis management. “It was like family,” Smalls remembers.

Community gatherings across the years at the Lincoln Recovery Center. | Photos courtesy of Nancy Smalls

But since 2011, when the program was downsized and moved into a basement office nearby, the building has stood empty. The peeling paint and the mold gathering on the walls inside have ironically transformed this heath center into a health hazard.

The residents of Mott Haven grieve the loss of this facility, which served an important function not only for recovering addicts but for the neighborhood at large. Indeed, the sight of this shuttered, city-owned building in a neighborhood that has experienced decades of economic neglect is disheartening to shoestring-budget community organizations who struggle to secure space for their programs. While the South Bronx remains the poorest congressional district in the country, escalating rents on commercial and residential properties threaten many people and grassroots organizations that have historically sustained the culturally rich South Bronx.

In 2016, a coalition of residents and organizations united to form the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust. Local activists see the land trust as a model of community stewardship: a means to ensure that community gardens, housing, cultural, and other non-profit spaces continue to thrive in this largely low- and median-income neighborhood. The coalition is committed to keeping existing city-owned properties public and affordable in perpetuity, shielded from the vagaries of the private market.

Site

Building upon the existing network of grassroots organizations in the neighborhood, the land trust coalition sees the future community-owned and -operated social center in the Lincoln Recovery Center building as a home for collaborative projects addressing health, education, and the arts (hence, H.E.Arts).

The center would provide small workrooms, classrooms, shared meeting rooms, event and performance spaces to support the work of community advocates and non-profit service and cultural organizations. Potential beneficiaries would include organizations such as UpBeat NYC, a youth orchestra ensemble; Rebel Diaz Arts, a socially conscious hip-hop collective; Community Connections for Youth, an anti-incarceration program; Mothers on the Move, a group of parents invested in education; the Birthing Project, working to improve birth outcomes among women of color; MLK Center SUNY ATTAIN Lab, offering employment training; La Finca del Sur, a farming cooperative; and Friends of Brook Park, an environmental initiative in the South Bronx.

Aerial view of the Lincoln Recovery Center’s block, with key surrounding buildings and institutions flagged. | Courtesy of Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY (CUNY)

The land trust coalition’s primary representative, South Bronx Unite (SBU), has informed city officials of its interest in acquiring the building and, in June 2016, obtained access to the building through the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. SBU invited various community members and an inspecting engineer into the building. The 24,000-square-foot, four-story building is at the center of a block that includes a tower of NYCHA housing, a charter school, historic townhouses, an abandoned MTA building, and the Tercera Iglesia Bautista church, as well as playgrounds, parks, and open public space. Proximity to other spaces of collective life makes this building ideally suited for conversion into a community-owned social center.

The overall structure of the building appears to be robust, and the existing layout of the old clinic could easily be modified to meet the space needs of the new community center. The imposing WPA-era façade, the large skylight on the top of what once a meditation room, and the accessible terraces at the top are some of the architectural assets of this building. However, years of neglect have taken their toll on the interior. To bring this building back to functionality, SBU would need to raise a substantial sum of money.

“Building Forensics” summarizes the findings of the building structural analysis. | Illustration by Chris Lee and Jeremy Iannucci, CCNY (CUNY)

Process

In order to further investigate the acquisition of the building, the members of SBU collaborated with the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College (CUNY) to envision a program for and design the H.E.Arts Community Center in the fall of 2016. The task of repurposing an existing building with its rich history of activist occupancy allowed the students to examine themes of preservation and renovation anew. The collective memory of radical organizing confronting gentrification forced the design team to re-think, challenge, and innovate when dealing with the existing structure.

The research-based design studio provided a first platform to investigate the potential to “develop” the vacant Lincoln Recovery building. The students’ involvement had two purposes: first, to begin mapping out the stakeholders’ needs, and second, to use design as a means to explore the opportunities that this building provided to the community. In order to get to this dual agenda, the students combined methods of traditional research, such as site and building analysis, with experimental workshops crafted to engage residents, organizers, and students in planning the future community center. The studio emphasized one overlooked but nonetheless challenging aspect of architectural practice: learning to listen and collaborate without losing the sense of agency that speculative design affords.

The design process took us outside the confines of our studio to engage with residents in existing spaces and generated participatory planning exercises that began as pedagogical tools but quickly became an active form of advocacy in and of themselves. The proximity of Mott Haven to City College as well as the backgrounds of many of the students, who came from similar neighborhoods within the city, enabled familiarity and mutual trust over the course of the fifteen-week studio.

There are 40 years of design plans, renderings, and sketches of urban design ideas for our neighborhood from elite schools — and very little has ever come of them. Our neighborhood is used by some educational institutions as what I call a “credit farm,” when they need to look as if they’re doing socially responsible work. Over the decades, people in the neighborhood have gotten jaded from helping these institutions and not getting anything real back. Typically, students would come, talk with a few people for a couple of hours, and then disappear for the duration of their design process. They’d come back in a few months and present everything they’ve “done for the community.” So in this studio, we were very conscious of creating a new dynamic between the students and the community. We did not want to engage in a design approach where the community would be treated like a blank slate. When planners look at our neighborhood, they have often said, “Blow it up and start over.” For both moral and practical reasons, we wanted to build from the strengths of the community, their resources, and their skills. Other proposals have this science fiction quality because they’re all about letting the student’s creativity flourish. With this studio, there was no science fiction because the students learned the politics and history of the neighborhood. —Monxo López, South Bronx Unite

During the first half of the semester, the students met with community activists, residents, and children in a series of formal and informal settings. The students facilitated envisioning workshops, attended community events, interviewed organizers, and presented the in-process design work at reviews that included both architects and community organizers.

The first envisioning workshop was facilitated on picnic benches at Brook Park, itself a model community space that engages a multigenerational constituency in growing food, beekeeping, cultural events, and educational programs. This workshop involved local organizers from UpBeat NYC, Mothers on the Move, Radical Health, Bronx Arts Space, The Birthing Project, La Peña, SUNY ATTAIN Lab, Friends of Brook Park, SBU, and other parties with a stake in the future community center. The students collectively devised a series of “games” that began with trying to define the community in words and understanding the neighborhood at large as a network of pre-existing “public” spaces, and ended up programming the building with the help of the workshop participants.

The “word game” aimed at creating a shared language to define “community” and moved towards describing the attributes and qualities of a physical space that embodied the aspirations of community. Participants also created a “memory map” of the South Bronx, tagging places of personal and public significance. This map was a way to exchange stories and weave the daily rituals of personal lives into a shared public narrative.

The “What is Community?” word game helped community members locate their values in physical space. | Courtesy of Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY (CUNY)

The final “block game” consisted of placing wooden blocks of color-coded “program” onto a scaled model of the four-story building. The organizers grappled with how much space they would allocate to health, education and the arts. This complex negotiating exercise provided the grounds for further development of adjacencies within the building, and became the basis for planning the H.E.Arts Community Center.

Through the “Block Game,” participants reckoned with the physical constraints of the space in an effort to reconcile their many hopes and visions for a new Community Center. | Courtesy of Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY (CUNY)

Workplace visits allowed students to see how participant organizations were using limited existing spaces to their maximum potential. On one Thursday afternoon in October, students visited the children’s orchestra group UpBeat NYC during their practice sessions at the Tercera Iglesia Bautista. The auxiliary spaces surrounding the main sanctuary of the church were filled to the brim with children between five and 18 and their violins, cellos, and drum sets. Liza Austria, the program’s founding director, described a pressing need for dependable space to house the 150 students of the fast-growing music ensemble. Though they make do with space in neighborhood churches and the library, more consistent access to an acoustically suitable performance arena as well as smaller practice rooms with instrument storage space is what this group needs.

Students reflect on the visit to the UpBeat NYC practice session in Tercera Iglesia Bautista. | Illustrations by Sonnathan Maharaj and Sean Kim, CCNY (CUNY)

Meanwhile, a highly effective advocacy program for youth at risk of incarceration had a different set of spatial needs. Community Connections for Youth (CCFY) is located on the seventh floor of an office building on a busy block. Private, safe spaces for the young people that attend gatherings and need counsel are critical to the work of the organizers. A communal kitchen to prepare food and share stories is the way to create health and better futures for the adolescent population of this neighborhood. The ideal design would bring these programs together in one building.

Our students often need help with their homework, which is not our area of expertise. If there were someone down the hall or in the same building that we could refer students to, it would create a more resilient community. Parents of our students sometimes say that they wish their child could talk to a therapist, and if there were someone in the building, someone that they knew they could trust, it would be a lot better than having to refer them to another institution. To some extent those connections are already happening. For instance, when teens in our program have needed help resolving issues, we’ve invited CCFY to come and lead conflict resolution. From their perspective, it’s good because their goal is to engage young people before they get involved in the criminal justice system. A building that housed all these things, that felt like a home and gave people easier access to the services they need, would be really powerful. —Liza Austria, UpBeat NYC

This first envisioning session was followed by a larger community event organized by SBU at the Bronx Arts Space. Over a hundred people of all ages attended the event and approximately half of the attendees participated in the envisioning exercises in English and in Spanish. In addition to the previous memory and block games, student Sean Kim designed a “time wheel” to engage in the question of user occupancy over the week and weekend.

At the second Community Envisioning Session at Bronx Arts Space, the “Time Wheel” exercise asked participants to imagine the use of the building’s spaces over the course of a week. | Courtesy of Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY (CUNY)

Though exciting as a social event rallying around a cause, this larger community event proved much more difficult for the students in terms of managing expectations and creating a focus for the conversations. Back at their work in the school, students felt overwhelmed by the responsibility to accommodate everyone, “preserve” the history, and continue to be financially responsible.

Proposals

The workshops and conversations with future users provided an opportunity for the students to experience and craft a design process with regular feedback from the “clients.” Rather than try to resolve and create proposals that addressed all the criteria, we discussed a way to collectively address the larger goals for the H.E.Arts Community Center by prioritizing different perspectives, emphasizing one or the other aspects of the program, as well as attitudes towards conservation and economic viability, in each proposal.

The envisioning process helped us to design better, because there’s only so much information to be gotten from site analysis, Google maps, and historical records. Not many records about the building existed, and we weren’t able to go inside, but the community provided photos, documentation, and stories from their experiences to help us better understand the building. Without the information-gathering process, we would never have known what the community needed. But the process also yielded a volume of data and information that was challenging to sift through and make useful. —Julian Usman, student designer
“Assembling” prioritized adaptability and customization. | Jeremy Iannucci, CCNY (CUNY)
“Assembling” prioritized adaptability and customization. | Jeremy Iannucci, CCNY (CUNY)

In his role as architect-as-instigator, Jeremy Iannucci focused on re-designing the core elements within the building, inviting the future users of the building to program their own spaces with a flexible kit of parts. “Assembling” leaves the placement of the many work rooms to the evolving needs of the different occupants of the building. A modular metal frame hooks into the “fixed” architectural elements and provides a series of panels with different material properties to create a variety of private, semi-private, and shared spaces.

I was interested in the idea that this new center would not only be a place for the community, but a tool for planning and functioning beyond the walls of the H.E.Arts Community Center, a tool that may change and grow with the neighborhood around it. I believe that the act of planning and putting these ideas into the public sphere will spark a more immediate reaction within the community and the organizations that transcends the scope of designing and building in a traditional sense. —Jeremy Iannucci, student designer
“Civic Stair" centered the need for conversational and performance spaces. | Elif Karamustafa and Victoria Graziano, CCNY (CUNY)

“Civic Stair” is Elif Karamustafa and Victoria Graziano’s joint proposal to create a gathering and performance space as the core of the new H.E.Arts Community Center. A new, large stair was inserted in response to the idea that the community remains connected through casual encounters. The stair cuts through the building and opens it up at ground level to Willis Park. The rest of the offices and classrooms organize themselves around this central intervention.

Space isn’t usually created for the families we serve to talk about the changes they would like to see. The building could bring in even more parents, inviting them to step into the role of advocate. Currently, we have those conversations informally in hallways and stairways, so in the design, it was important to preserve informal spaces and environments that encourage discussion, as well as conference rooms and theater space or gallery space that could hold the various meetings continuing that activism and bringing these organizations together. —Liza Austria, UpBeat NYC
“Layering” wrapped the building in a metal screen. | Shola Owolewa and Christopher Lee, CCNY (CUNY)

Shola Owolewa and Christopher Lee’s “Layering” partially wraps the old brick building with a metal screen to emphasize the relevance of the old building, while visually and physically connecting it to the surrounding park and playgrounds. This process of masking and revealing the old with the new continues on the interior, where a new geometry is established within the old shell. The old brick walls frame the new insertions, and the center opens up toward a series of light-wells and terraces.

“Green Insert” connected health education and new public green space. | Courtesy of Julian Usman and Sarwat Yunus, CCNY (CUNY)

“Green Insert,” by Julian Usman and Sarwat Yunus, adds a greenhouse to the top of the building and also creates an open co-working space in the center of the old building. The reconfiguration of the H.E.Arts Community Center around the idea of food — growing, preparation, and health — is in step with the interest in a holistic approach to health described by the community throughout the envisioning sessions.

The greenhouse proposal adds additional square footage to the top of the building, which at present is not built to its maximum allowable zoning capacity. H.E.Arts Community Center could potentially add another four stories to the existing structure. The studio encouraged students to investigate this approach of expanding the current facility. The possibility of creating a different model of financial feasibility with help from a future partnership with an anchor tenant was discussed early on. Most of the students were reluctant to explore this option since it contradicted their preservationist instincts. Though the physical structure of the building is not landmarked, it has assumed the status of a landmark for some within the neighborhood, for whom its WPA-era aesthetic symbolizes a continuous legacy of social activism.

“Maximizing” explored the potential of building anew. | Sean Kim and Aiyah Mousa, CCNY (CUNY)

“Maximizing,” by Sean Kim and Aiyah Mousa, expands the building within the zoning envelope to double its original size. The terracing, a feature adapted from the existing building, allows the modulation of space and creates more outdoor spaces. This project provoked criticism since it proposed re-building the cherished Lincoln Recovery Center anew. However, by examining the potential of maximum build-out, the proposal suggested avenues for adding more services to the center, which could potentially subsidize the future renovation. This project demonstrates the complex ways in which the organizers and designers impacted one another’s practices.

The Next Phase

“Neighborhood,” wrote Jane Jacobs disapprovingly, “is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine.” In opposition to this sentimental gloss, she proposed the idea of a neighborhood as a way station where different collectivities can constantly interact and engage. The process of architecturally envisioning the H.E.Arts Community Center was one such point of contact. Though far from the perfect vehicle for “data collection,” the envisioning sessions were instrumental in finding common cause. Discussions of where to place rooms within the building frequently branched out to questions of social equity, food deserts, and clean air. In working closely with the organizers, the students developed an understanding of the larger concerns of the different stakeholders, but also provided a forum through which these different groups spoke to one another about an important public space. In a city where people are pressed for time and have many responsibilities, the studio became a vehicle to focus on a small but meaningful spatial discourse. It created an even exchange for future architects to become organizers, and for residents to become designers.

The projects from this studio laid the groundwork for the potential acquisition of the building. In December 2016, SBU applied for a New York Foundation grant to develop a complete proposal for the acquisition, renovation, and repurposing of the city-owned abandoned Lincoln Recovery Center Building. SBU invited the CCNY design team to be a part of their presentation during the interview process. This inclusion as part of a broader coalition of organizers was a high mark for us in the larger scheme of the participatory goals of the project. Designing the design process itself was more important than designing the artifact. This incremental back-and-forth became a tool for advocating community control over the building.

In January 2017, SBU won a $40,000 grant from New York Foundation to further investigate the development of the Lincoln Health Recovery building into the H.E.Arts Community Center. This grant will allow them to move forward and produce a more detailed feasibility study to acquire the building. The body of work generated by the studio will become the basis for this next phase.

The author is grateful to all the people from Mott Haven that generously participated in this studio and made time in their busy lives to share their knowledge with us at City College. In particular, those that spoke to the students and visited City College to participate in reviews: Mychal Johnson, Corrine Kohut, Monxo López & Libertad Guerra (South Bronx Unite), Liza Austria (Upbeat NYC), Melissa Barber (The Birthing Project), Jo Anne Lenny (NADA), Linda Cunningham (Bronx Arts Space), Ivy Brown (SUNY ATTAIN Lab), and Ray Figueroa (Brook Park). She would also like to thank studio critics Valeria Mogilevich, Caroline Dionne, Joan Krevlin, June Williamson, Julio Salcedo, Marlisa Wise, David Glick, Philip Lee, Susanne Schindler, and Anke Roggenbuck.

Nandini Bagchee is an Assistant Professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture at CCNY (CUNY) and principal of Bagchee Architects. Her research focuses on activism in architecture and the ways in which collaborative building practices provide an alternative medium for the creation of public space. Nandini is the author of a forthcoming book on a history of activist-run spaces, Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side (Fordham University Press, 2018).

Series

Studio Reports

Student research and propositions from design studios with real-world implications.