By Erin Ward
Lower East Side Manhattan has seen a lot of changes in the past decade. What was once a notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary slum has transformed into a popular destination for tourists and Manhattanites alike. Small business ventures mixed with philanthropic initiatives and visionary investments have helped to shape this richly historic section of Manhattan into a cultural hub and a picture of a proud community.
The mix of old world preserved in a new vision can be found at 197 East Broadway, the site of the Educational Alliance’s historic settlement house. The flagship building is under-going a two-year, $59 million renovation, which will maintain the original facade “” bricks that hold 125 years of the neighborhood’s history.
The revamped settlement house is the site of the Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center, which is set to open its doors this December. The anticipation for the opening of this state of the art community center has downtown Manhattan buzzing with excitement, as it will provide the community with quality, yet affordable programming and a brand new facility for education, fitness, art and creativity, and social events.
Joanna Samuels, Executive Director of the center who came to the Educational Alliance after years of working to advance women’s roles in the Jewish community, has been fastidiously working to enhance the programming that will be offered by the center, using her passion for social outreach and her love of her city as a motivation to transform the experience of the local community. “I have been deeply concerned over many years, like many New Yorkers, about the gap between wealth and poverty in the city…When I learned about this project …I said “˜Sign me up!'” said Joanna of her professional investment in the project.
Joanna shares the goal of closing the disparity gap with CEO Robin Bernstein, who is lauded as the visionary behind the renovated community center. The center started with an observation about the needs that were not being met in the community.
“She knew that people “” regardless of class “”want similar things. Parents want high-quality, nurturing early childhood education for their kids, they want a safe and stimulating place for older kids after school, they want to know that aging parents have opportunities for lifelong learning and access to social services…The Manny Cantor Center will provide these programs to Lower East Side residents across the economic spectrum,” said Samuels referring to Bernstein and the center’s conception.
The vision to make the center’s top-notch programs accessible to all members of the community despite social or economic background separates The Manny Cantor Center from many other community centers. Many of the settlement houses, originally designed to serve large numbers of immigrant populations are struggling to include the more affluent community members and provide programs and services that meet everyone’s needs. As Samuels noted, “We embrace all residents of our Lower East Side Community…We hope that what we are doing can serve as a model for many organizations “” some of whom do not see the poverty in their own backyards and others who categorically oppose gentrification.”
The Manny Cantor Center operates with a philosophy of embracing the exciting changes occurring in the neighborhood, rather than one which separates its people based on financial circumstances. The center opens its arms to both underserved populations as well as the growing number of wealthier residents settling in the neighborhood. Besides economic class, the center also transcends age, providing programs for babies at the day care facility and to seniors at the Weinberg Center for Balanced Living. As Samuels enthusiastically noted, “The Manny Cantor Center serves everyone!”
The opening of the Manny Cantor Center symbolizes what can happen when power and passion unite under the vibrant lights of the Lower East Side. It offers its proud and eclectic mix of residents a place to learn, grow, meet, and celebrate their ever-changing but ever-beautiful community.
Erin Ward is a NYC based freelance writer and Kripalu yoga teacher living in Brooklyn with an insatiable passion for outdoor adventures. After graduating from NYU in May 2012 with a degree in English and Creative Writing, Erin took the reigns into her own hands and began working as an independent writer. She has experience helping small businesses and start-ups develop their brands and communicate their visions. She has worked as a ghost writer, a travel writer, copywriter, and fiction writer. Besides writing, her other biggest passion is leading a fun, healthy, and balanced lifestyle, and she enjoys sharing her wellness knowledge with others. When not writing or teaching yoga, Erin can be found test-tasting the brews at local Brooklyn coffee shop, chasing the elusive dream of determining where to find the best cup. For more information and to contact Erin””she is always excited to meet new people “” visit her at www.erinrward.com.
Photos via Educational Alliance