Places that Matter

Two Bridges Neighborhood Council

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Affordable housing developed by TBNC and Settlement Housing Fund, 2015
Affordable housing developed by TBNC and Settlement Housing Fund, 2015
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, 2015
Senior housing developed by TBNC and Settlement Housing Fund, 2015
Two Bridges News, 1961, courtesy Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
Two Bridges Tower, developed by TBNC and Settlement Housing Fund, 2015
Long-standing community-based organization
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In 1960, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council (TBNC) published the Two Bridges Self-Renewal Plan. The document, developed over the course of five years, benefited from the input of hundreds of citizens as well as representatives of numerous neighborhood organizations and institutions. It was a unique and dramatic demonstration of how an organized, well-defined neighborhood, with support from a unifying agency, can mobilize and revitalize itself to meet its own needs. More than a proposal for affordable housing, the plan deliberately sought a comprehensive approach to community rehabilitation that encompassed housing, health care, improved race relations, education, recreation, and commerce. With coordination from Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, local citizens and institutions created a road map for redesigning, redeveloping, and improving their community while avoiding displacement, unnecessary hardship to residents, or drastic transformation of the neighborhood’s character. 

The city accepted the Two Bridges Self-Renewal Plan in 1961. From that moment forward, the Council and community have continuously planned, evolved, and grown from a position of strength. For the last 60 years, the Council has promoted everyday people determining, in grassroots fashion, what the future of their community should be. To achieve this goal, the Council has supplied planning acumen, activist zeal, and dedication to the continuing mission of self-renewal – both for the neighborhood and the Council itself. They have sponsored community recreation, reconciliation, and education programs; created affordable housing, recreational facilities, supermarkets, and schools; defended tenants rights; designated historic districts; organized relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy; and promoted recreational access to the East River Waterfront. 

Two Bridges Neighborhood Council is embedded at the core of an uncommonly heterogeneous metropolitan community, the boundaries of which have remained fluid to accommodate changing demographics in an evolving city. The current service area roughly includes the land between the Brooklyn (1883) and Williamsburg (1903) Bridges, and north from East Broadway into Chinatown and Little Italy. When the Council was formed in 1955, it was named for the two bridges bracketing its then core advocacy area: the Brooklyn & Manhattan (1909) Bridges; at that time, the neighborhood included Italian, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Chinese, African American, Greek, Basque, Armenian, and Slavic residents. 
By the late 1950s, African American, Puerto Rican, and Chinese families integrated in large numbers into Two Bridges’ rooted Jewish and Italian enclaves. Two Bridges became a neighborhood of distinct working-class communities with limited communication between groups, or with the rest of the city. At the time, Hamilton-Madison House (HMH), funded in 1898 and the area’s largest long-standing settlement house, primarily served the local African American and Puerto Rican communities, and did its best to introduce and integrate these new neighbors with the old. However, racial tensions mounted, and fighting gangs representing the various ethnic groups dominated the streets. Parents were overwhelmed by the dangerous social climate, as well as the deteriorating quality of local schools and recreational facilities. A group of community representatives attempted, to no avail, to get the city to institute local remedial reading classes, and they organized to fight the city’s proposal to do away with Coleman Oval, the neighborhood’s only playing field. When they asked Geoffrey Wiener, Sr., director of Hamilton-Madison House, for help, he suggested that they create a neighborhood committee to address these problems. The committee’s later success in saving Coleman Oval and creating a reading program lead to the establishment of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.
Two Bridges Neighborhood Council was created in effort to encourage individuals and organizations to assume greater responsibility for improving race relations and securing public services for the neighborhood. The community group quickly formalized into a dynamic framework for citizens to engage with and guide efforts to change their physical and social environment. Membership was open to neighborhood residents and businesses, as well as public and private organizations and institutions. From the start, the Council committed to equal opportunities and responsibility in local affairs for all participants, and it was buoyed by encouragement and support from locals. The Council would soon become affiliated with the Lower East Side Neighborhood Association (LENA), an area-wide organization of neighborhood councils and institutions, with which it collaborated on resolving district-wide issues, most prominently, the development of the new Gouverneur Hospital. 
As Geoffrey Wiener served as the Council’s first president, remedial reading courses were hosted at Hamilton-Madison House. The reading initiative’s success catalyzed the formation of an Education Committee, which, with members recruited from local parents’ associations, implemented an after-school program at one of the area public schools. Over the years, the Education Committee established a strong, multi-racial coalition of community parents whose children attended local schools. Many of the members were also on the board of the neighborhood’s Mobilization for Youth center, an organization founded to prevent juvenile delinquency and address gang conflict and drug abuse They were a force to be reckoned with, and soon led a campaign to replace one of the area elementary schools. For six years, the committee dispatched delegation after delegation to City Hall. In 1964, monies were finally re-appropriated, and construction of P.S. 126 Jacob Riis School began. 
The Education Committee also dedicated substantial energies to advocating for neighborhood parents. The Parent Development Program assisted local families by holding trilingual workshops on how to help with homework, and how to effectively communicate with educational professionals to advocate on behalf of their children. Two Bridges’ Sports Committee quickly became the symbol of progress toward racial integration, bringing children from the neighborhood's various communities together on the same playing fields.  Often hundreds of people came to watch the children play. The Council also published a community newspaper, Two Bridges News. Edited for many years by Reverends George Younger and William Chapman, the ministers of Mariner’s Temple Baptist Church, Two Bridges News was an eight-page quarterly featuring articles about Council programs, debates related to neighborhood issues, historical and editorial essays, Little League schedules and scores, and advertising space for local businesses and politicians. 

Before the Council was formed, the neighborhood did not have its own name; “Two Bridges” was selected by members of the Council’s Housing Committee to encourage neighborhood cohesion and, possibly, to enhance the credibility of the Two Bridges Self-Renewal Plan. For its part, the Housing Committee was engrossed with the onerous task of creating consensus around the Self-Renewal proposal. It hosted countless public meetings to discuss community concerns about city domination of the urban renewal process, as well as fears that integration of residents’ wishes would be diminished to mere promises and platitudes.     

In 1961, the city approved the Self-Renewal Plan largely because the Council was able to present a united neighborhood front to city agencies. The plan provided for the construction of middle- and low-income housing, shopping, and community facilities on a site east of the Manhattan Bridge in the old industrial zone along South Street, where new buildings could be constructed without displacing residents. That year, the Council won the Metropolitan Committee on Planning’s Planning Award for its originality. In 1964, the City Planning Commission adopted a portion of the Self-Renewal proposal, and assigned it as a priority for federal study funds as an urban renewal area.
As elsewhere in the country, the tumult of the 1960s washed over Two Bridges like a wave.  In 1963, the Council sponsored a successful voter registration campaign for Two Bridges’ African American and Puerto Rican citizens. The Council’s executive board also felt that it was critical for Two Bridges to participate in 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as the issue was of critical importance to the neighborhood and the nation. The Council set up registration tables in front of Hamilton-Madison House, and later voted $100 to support the March.  Along with leaders of local churches and Hamilton-Madison House personnel, the Council and community sent busloads of residents to join the ranks of the rally. Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, then an HMH employee, organized the bus rentals. A year later, Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were killed by the Ku Klux Klan while working on the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi. Outcry over their deaths threw momentum behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 
Community organizing and protest in the 1960s prepared the Council to effectively mobilize in 1970 when the New York Telephone Company attempted to raze the block bounded by Henry, Madison, and Market Streets to build a switching station. The demolition would have forced hundreds of low-income families from their homes. In response, Two Bridges’ 300-member“We Won’t Move” Committee staged a rally and block party on Market Street, protesting eviction by the phone company. Two Bridges Neighborhood Council hired its first social worker, organized the community, and devised a plan to save the houses by moving the switching station to a commercial, non-residential location.
Bolstered by the Madison Street victory, the Council trained it energies on its biggest battle to date: turning the Self-Renewal Plan into reality. In 1970, the Council hired Edelman and Salzman, which became the Edelman Partnership (now Edelman Sultan Knox and Wood), as architects and planners of the Urban Renewal Area (URA). The following year, the Council joined forces with Settlement Housing Fund (SHF), a non-profit affordable housing developer, to form the Two Bridges Settlement Housing Corporation (TBSH). Moving forward, TBSH would sponsor housing development in the Two Bridges Urban Renewal Area. 
Between 1972 and 1997, when the last building in the URA was completed, TBSH succeeded in creating nearly 1,500 units of low- and moderate-income housing, much of which will remain permanently affordable. Thanks to the efforts of the Council and Settlement Housing Fund, the neighborhood remains affordable, as well as racially and economically integrated.
In the 21st century, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council continues to serve the Lower East Side through an extensive array of community programs and partnerships. The Council has evolved into a professionally staffed organization, but true to its grassroots origins, its work continues to center around its core tenets - advocating for the creation and preservation of existing affordable housing, tenants’ rights, and neighborhood conservation through building “bridges” among the area’s diverse communities.
Over the course of 2011, Two Bridges’ staff and board of directors created a strategic plan to better align the organization’s mission with immediate local needs. The plan, approved in December 2011, dramatically increased the organization’s capacity and strengthened existing initiatives, while laying the foundation for dynamic programming growth. Since 2011, the Council’s staff has developed an impressive array of new community programs and activities for local residents, most of which operate from the community room in Two Bridges Tower. Officially launched on Earth Day in April 2012, the Two Bridges Tower Community Programs offer a range of weekly activities for residents of all ages. Programs include courses and events focusing on health and wellness, arts and culture, and place-based science education. In its inaugural year, the new programs engaged nearly 1,500 residents and members of the general public.
The Council’s renewed mission and enhanced capacity helped to strengthen community relations during a critical time. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy’s nearly 14-foot high storm surge wreaked havoc on the city’s essential infrastructure. The Lower East Side was among Manhattan’s most heavily impacted neighborhoods. Particularly devastated were areas along the shore, where high-rise multifamily affordable housing stands on low-elevation fill, barely above sea level. Two Bridges Neighborhood Council operated an ad-hoc relief site that collected hundreds of pounds of donated food, water, and supplies for the residents of 80 and 82 Rutgers Slip. The Council also joined forces with Hamilton-Madison House to create a support hub for the Two Bridges/ Chinatown area, centered at 50 Madison Street. The joint venture distributed approximately 2,000 meals per day, as well as federally- and volunteer-contributed emergency supplies. 
Since well before the hurricane, the Council has led efforts to increase community awareness of environmental issues, and of the causes and potential threats associated with climate change. By many accounts, the hurricane’s overwhelming impact on the Two Bridges neighborhood was the result of poor, piecemeal waterfront planning. The Council is engaging neighborhood residents to generate ideas for long-term strategies that deal with river health and stormwater runoff.  The Council’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) afterschool and summer camp programs currently provide opportunities for students to learn about the local watershed and how green infrastructure can benefit Two Bridges residents.  Through these initiatives, local youth are becoming advocates for environmental justice. 
As of 2015, Two Bridges is among the last of its kind, both as a neighborhood and an organization. The community is one of the last bastions of affordability in Manhattan. With encroaching development pressure from neighboring gentrified areas, as well as increasing threats of sea-level rise due to climate change, Two Bridges geographic location and socio-economic conditions place nearly 40,000 residents in a position of economic and environmental vulnerability. As New York City changes more rapidly and aggressively, there is an increasing need to preserve economic, residential, and environmental sustainability. But these problems are not new to the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. Two Bridges is still empowering local residents, building equitable housing, and creating resilient civic and environmental infrastructure, just as it always has.
(June 2015)