From Lorimer to Leonard, the Building of a Block Association that Built a Community Center

Founders of Conselyea Street Block Association (who built a childcare, senior, and community center at 211 Ainslie St.) to celebrate Golden Anniversary

The following is based on the oral history of the founding as relayed by: Jan Peterson, Ann Barone, Millie LaCioppa, and Maria Aragona on the night of March 15, 2018.

What is a 1960s housewife in her 40s living on Conselyea Street to do when a bunch of disgruntled tenants are throwing trash out of their windows and into her yard and the yards of her friends?  Well, if you are Elizabeth Speranza you take matters into your own hands, enlist help from your neighbors, and find a solution. This was the Conselyea Street Block Association (CSBA) in 1968, in its earliest form.

“On their side of the house they truly couldn’t use their backyard, because of the garbage being thrown.” Ann Barone (one of originators of the CSBA).

When Elizabeth objectively looked at the situation she saw that these were tenants of a welfare building on Metropolitan Avenue who were being harassed by their landlord. She figured the best way to stop those from acting out was to become their ally.

B Clinton bocce 001
Bill Clinton, while on the campaign trail as a candidate for president in 1992, stopped by 211 Ainslie for a game of bocce. (photo credit: Daily News)

“Elizabeth had the idea if you worked with people you build relationships,” said Jan Peterson (who helped consolidate CSBA into a formal organization).

However this was too large a job for her alone, so she gathered her fellow housewives of Conselyea Street and nearby blocks around her kitchen table to come up with a plan. They began to host block parties and day trips for the kids, in addition to assisting the adults learn English.

“Their extraordinary leadership took place at a time when women were not seen or acknowledged as leaders nor were there any community development organizations or other funded local organizations to take on this work,” said Peterson.

April 20, 4:30 p.m.–10 p.m at 211 Ainslie Street: Celebrate the founders and Small World and Swinging Sixties center with dinner, music, and presentations on their history! All are welcome!

After a time, Elizabeth realized she needed someone who had some expertise at community organizing to help formalize the block association: enter Jan Peterson.  Jan’s mission as a social worker in the neighborhood was to reduce poverty. When she first got here she asked around to find allies to give her insight into the area and was pointed to Elizabeth. At that time, Jan was heading a War on Poverty program at the School Settlement House (120 Jackson St.).  When Jan was ousted from the settlement house she moved the War on Poverty program and its war chest of $50K to a storefront that was formerly Elizabeth’s uncle’s shoeshine shop. Elizabeth Speranza’s community goals and Jan Peterson’s poverty abatement efforts merged and the Conselyea Street Education Action Center became incorporated in 1972 with these additional original members:  Margaret LaPolla, Molly Manna, Millie LaCioppa, Tillie Tarantino, Ann Barone, Marion Varriale, Agnes Grappone, Anna Mae Pecora, and Frances Anella.

This early stage of the CSBA held English as a Second Language classes for adults, helped people with their immigration and personal problems , and gave breakfast and lunch. It was staffed with mostly volunteers and was serving Conselyea Street and beyond; they were helping the whole neighborhood. The CSBA needed larger offices and wished to continue to expand their community development work.  One of Jan’s contacts was the Deputy Director of the Agency for Child Welfare in the Bronx, he floated the idea of starting a day care center. This idea of a direct lease day care opportunity provided a lot of incentive: a day care (for young mothers in the neighborhood who needed to work to support their households), jobs for the community, and a building for a community center.

The women did some research on what a day care center was, as this was an innovation at that time. Then this group, made up of mostly Italian American women, decided to make the day care center idea a reality. This was no ordinary struggle; first it was a first for traditional Italian women of the neighborhood to organize as activists, speak out, and participate in negotiations with political leaders.  Later they would face opposition in the form of candlelight vigils, petitions, and (alleged) death threats made against some of them and their children.

Still the women of the CSBA persisted and would received help from District Leaders Adelle Haynes and Marie Finley and legal help from Marty Needelman. Jan brought in Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm to add her voice to the fight. Chisholm reportedly saw the situation as a community trying to stop a daycare center because of race prejudice, as African and Latin Americans would be served by the center.

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Jan Peterson saw it differently, “My view was the political clubs and the men were very threatened by the fact that women were going to have all this power, jobs, and money.”

After three appearances before the Board of Estimate, Brooklyn Borough President Sebastian Leone asked for a special meeting. There he conveyed his support for the day care center on the condition that the CSBA add eight men to its all-female board.  They agreed.  Although, it’s doubtful that the eight men knew all they signed on for, as these women were tigers by that time who weren’t about to take a secondary role in the board meetings.

It didn’t take long for the community to come round to see Small World Child Care and later the Swinging Sixties Senior Center at 211 Ainslie as being a huge benefit to the neighborhood.  They even rallied, in recent years, with St. Nicks Alliance, other community organizations and elected leaders to protect this center from a landlord who wanted to turn the building into luxury condos.

“The center brought back hope and became the center of the community for young and old and the gatherings of the Daughters and Sons of Italian American Heritage, and the public meetings of the Community Board 1,” said Peterson.

On April 20th there will be a celebration in honor of the Golden Anniversary of the Founding of CSBA at 211 Ainslie Street, from 4:30 p.m.–10 p.m. The free festivities will include: dinner, dancing, and presentations on the history of the CSBA and community. For reservations call Roseann Tuohy at (718) 963-3793

Author: Lori Ann Doyon

Managing editor, head writer, and lead photographer of Greenline | North Brooklyn News since October 2014. Resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 1990.

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