Teens Want to Give Harlem School a New Life

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It’s been thirty years since PS 186 in Harlem was closed because of its dilapidated conditions. The neglected building has been rotting away ever since. Now, students at a Harlem-based community center have created an exhibit about their local eyesore with the goal of changing it. WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports.

REPORTER: PS 186 has been abandoned for so long it’s literally taken on a life of its own.

DOMINIQUE: You see the trees growing out of the building?

REPORTER: Fifteen year old Dominique Mitchell is pointing to the long, green branches sprouting out of the school’s third floor. The five-story red brick building in the middle of West 145th street is wide open to the elements. There are no more window panes and pigeons fly in and out. There’s a big fence to keep out intruders. But Dominique, who lives around the corner, says it was a hangout for drug dealers.

DOMINIQUE: And there was a lot of homeless people just like sleeping on the steps, blankets, clothes, it smelled at a point in time where you didn’t even want to walk on that side of the street. It was horrible.

REPORTER: Dominique is now trying to do something about the abandoned school. She’s active in a local youth program called the Brotherhood/Sister Sol. A few teenagers in the program have created a multimedia exhibit documenting the history of the former PS 186.

TAHRIEK: I like this one right here with kids walking.

REPORTER: Sixteen year old Tahriek Crenshaw shows some of the photos teens collected from people who went to the school when it was active and thriving.

TAHRIEK: These pictures are of students that attended the school and functions around the school, like this is the glee club.

KIDS SINGING: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord standing in the need of prayer….”

REPORTER: This song is from an album recorded by the school’s glee club in 1970. The kids had assistance from designers, a photographer and a filmmaker as they collected materials and interviewed alumni. Sandra McIntyre Carter was among them. She recalled the autographs from her friends when she graduated sixth grade in 1958.

CARTER: “Dear Sandra when you grow up and have twins don’t come to me for safety pins. To Sandra when you grow up and get out of shape remember girdles are $2.98. So all these little sayings I know they’re corny now but back in 1958 those were the things.”

REPORTER: The school first opened in 1903. But by 1975 it was so run down that parents were holding protests and the city opened a new school across the street. The Convent Avenue Baptist Church bought the old building, in the 1980s, with the intention of creating a new space for its M.L. Wilson Boys Club. But that never happened. The church didn’t have the money and the school continued to rot. Sixteen year old Marsha Jean-Charles says that was a disappointment.

MARSHA: People didn’t really own up to what they were supposed to do to it, like turn it into a community center with 85% community space and like that was never really done.

REPORTER: But that may be changing.

The M.L. Wilson Boys and Girls Club – as it’s now called – is still based at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. It’s located in a cramped floor of the education building. Last month, the church placed an ad requesting proposals to develop the abandoned school. The goal is to move the Boys and Girls Club to a bigger space where it can serve more kids of all ages.

CAMPBELL: The board of directors has recommitted itself to making sure that the program expands and the building is built.

REPORTER: Eugene Campbell is the club’s executive director. He says the new space could include job training programs and tutoring. The developer would make money by leasing space out to commercial tenants. Campbell was hired last November and says he can’t comment directly on complaints by some neighbors that the church neglected the school and therefore community.

CAMPBELL: If you have a house and you own that house and someone comes into your house and says this is the way I think your house is supposed to look, I don’t think that’s the way we would want to work. And we are talking to the community. We’re talking to the community boards, we’re talking to the schools and all of that is going to be part of the development and the building and its usage.

REPORTER: It’s been a difficult year for the church. Its longtime pastor, Clarence Grant, died last month. But many believe the time may finally be right to carry out his vision. Harlem is hot property. The community board says other developers have inquired about the old school.

With change in the air, the kids at the Brotherhood/Sister Sol hope everyone can come together. After all, when Marsha Jean Charles envision the future for PS 186, it sounds a lot like what the Boys and Girls Club is planning.

MARSHA: We just want, I think like a general term of what we want is just a space for children and people in this community to feel like they could go to just for help. If the ML Wilsons Boys club is willing to do that for the community then we’d completely agree to it.

REPORTER: The question now is whether the community will agree with the church on whatever the potential developers propose. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

The exhibit about PS 186 opens tomorrow, June 18th, at the Brotherhood/Sister Sol on West 143rd Street in Harlem.