“[You can avoid arrest] by joining the other protestors on the sidewalk. You have been instructed.” Bull horns, chants, rattling tambourines, etc., obscured the first words of the instruction, but the intent of the police officer was clear: If Councilman Antonio Reynoso, District Leader Nick Rizzo, Housing Advocate Debbie Medina, and two seniors from the threatened Swinging Sixties Senior Center didn’t move from their position in the center of where Manhattan Avenue and Ainslie Street cross they would be handcuffed and taken down to the precinct.
The five stood pat and — starting with Debbie Medina, then Antonia Ortiz (from Swinging Sixties), then Nick Rizzo, and then Kurt Hill (from Swinging Sixties), and finally the councilman — they were all, one by one, handcuffed and escorted into the police van.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso has not once wavered in the fight to save 211 Ainslie Street since the start of its troubles. On Christmas Eve 2013 the center was served eviction papers by the building’s owners Victor and Harry Einhorn, and their most recent offer to the day care/senior/community center was to increase their rent by 250%. In turn the leaders of the Small World/Swinging Sixties Centers at 211 Ainslie initiated an action in Brooklyn Supreme Court against their landlord and the City, challenging the landlord’s right to terminate their tenancy and the City’s right to abandon the Center. That latter case is pending before Justice Johnny Lee Baynes. Nuestros Niños, a child development school in Williamsburg since 1973, joined them on the steps of the Supreme Court as they had been served an eviction notice. This made situation directly personal to Councilman Antonio Reynoso for he is an alumnus of Nuestros Niños.
The potential loss of this community institution is rooted in the negligent Bloomberg administration that dropped the ball. For over two years there have been rallies, press conferences, legislative initiatives, all bent on maintaining the affordable community services that 211 Ainslie provides the North Brooklyn community, for over 40 years. Mayor de Blasio took office in January of 2014, Council Member Reynoso and advocates for affordable day care and community services asked this mayor to correct the problem created by his predecessor. They have yet to see Mayor de Blasio take action. An action, according to the mayor’s first State of the City Address, would “offer every New Yorker a fair shot. Fighting to end the Tale of Two Cities – not just because it’s moral and just but because it makes all of our lives richer.”
“Mayor where are you? Where are you? Where are you? … .” the crowd numbering 500 repeats.
It’s a timely question. The rally was preceded by a march that started from three points Nuestros Niños, Stagg Street Child Care Center, and 211 Ainslie — all centers threatened with eviction. These three processions met at 152 Manhattan Avenue, the former Bushwick United UPK and Early Learn, which received an eviction notice last fall and closed in December. Moreover, there are a growing number of threatened centers. Fort Greene Council also supported this rally and march as their Young Minds Day Care Center and The Grace Agard Harewood Neighborhood Senior Center are also under the same threat of closing.
“There are 25 daycare centers like Small World, Bushwick United, and Nuestros Niños in privately owned buildings across the city without leases at this time, and 115 centers at risk of closing if the city does not act! How can the administration allow this to happen?” said Phil Caponegro, President of the Conselyea Street Block Association.
Many elected officials and their representatives came to speak out at the Rally to Save Our Centers. Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna spoke through a bullhorn at the site of the former Bushwick United. Two large banners placed on each side of the Bushwick United Early Learn sign said: “This Day Care Center Closed, While City Hall Fiddled.” DBP Reyna is an alumna of Nuestros Niños, one of the threatened centers. Senator Dilan, Assemblyman Lentol, Sam Pinn from the Fort Greene Council, Ms. Dealice Fuller Community Board 1 Chair, and others all lent their voices to the rally.
Council Member Stephen Levin poignantly foreshadowed, “This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we stand up as a community and say we are not for sale. It’s time for us to stand up to the forces of greed that are out there and say: this is the bedrock of our community this is what our community is built on our senior services our child care services those need to be here when we think of our future and the future of our community. This is what makes a city a community. Let’s just keep on standing strong and standing firm: we aren’t going anywhere. This is the Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Southside community we’re staying here and staying put.”
“He got himself arrested before he became mayor, making sure that a hospital would stay open. So I ask Mayor de Blasio today, ‘Where are you for us? Where are you for our children? Where are you for our seniors? Where are you?’” Said 50th Assembly District Leader Nick Rizzo.
The crowd chants, “Where are you?”
Mr. Rizzo’s district includes Greenpoint, North Williamsburg, the Navy Yard, and parts of Clinton Hill, so when he calls Mayor de Blasio to task about the Tale of Two Cities he has strong reference points. He acknowledges that the previous administration may have enabled the worsening disparate division the closing of these centers is symptomatic of, “but right now they are on [Mayor de Blasio] and it’s up to him to make them better.”
He went on to introduce the leader of the rally and marches, “I’d like to now introduce a real champion in our community. Someone who has always stood strong, someone who’s a product of the Southside, someone who will never stop fighting for us, someone who will throw his body on the gears of this horrible machine: Councilman Antonio Reynoso!”
The council member took to the stage and saluted each participating faction, and then went into his call, “Maybe we didn’t have the mayor’s support because there were only 50 of us or a 100 of us but now we have 500 strong here. This is not about a daycare center alone. This is about our community. You know what? We know how to stand up and fight back! We know how to show up! We’re asking him for partnership. We’re asking for him to show up and help us. But until then we’re not going to let this get shut down. You know why? Because we are the only ones who are going to save this center, and we are going to stand here today for you and we aren’t going to move until Mayor de Blasio shows up and tells us that he has our back.”
The crowd’s unison repetitions of “The people united will never be defeated” surrounded the five as they took to the middle of the street blocking traffic and marking their protest, four sitting in a circle with arms linked, while Antonia Ortiz stood giving the crowd thumbs ups and peace signs. The crowd stayed respectful of the police request to keep to the sidewalks, but they raised their voices to show support of the five willing to sacrifice their freedom over civil disobedience for this community’s sake.