Places that Matter

Sixth Street Community Center

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Restored third floor stained glass windows, 2016
Restored third floor stained glass windows, 2016
Sixth Street Community Center at 638 E. 6th Street, 2016
Organic Soul Cafe and World War III murals of neighbors and heroes, 2016
Hepworth Farms CSA shares at Sixth Street Community Center, 2016
Sixth Street Community Center farm stand, 2016
Center's community room, 2016
Long-standing, grassroots community center offering public programs and fresh produce
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Place Matters Profile

Founded in 1978, the Sixth Street Community Center has provided the Lower East Side’s diverse communities with myriad development and empowerment programs for over three decades. From its early days offering children’s programs and social services, also serving as the long-time home of the Lower East Side Anti-Displacement project, to its current roster of health and wellness initiatives, the Sixth Street Community Center is a beloved and indispensible resource carrying and kindling the torch of true grassroots activism into the 21st century.

The eponymous Sixth Street Community Center is headquartered in a lovingly restored former synagogue located between Avenues B and C. Sometime around 1890, the building at 638 E. 6th Street was constructed as a house of prayer for congregation Ahavath Yeshurun Shara Torah, which used the structure until the mid-1970s. By the time the congregation had moved out of the Lower East Side, New York City was in the midst of a severe financial crisis, and, like inner cities across the country, experienced a dramatic loss of residents, as well as cycles of municipal disinvestment, arson, and displacement.  Although no longer based in the Lower East Side, the congregation was adamant about not simply abandoning the structure and determined to contribute the synagogue to community use. “They were very generous in allowing us to purchase the building for a very small sum,” recalls Howard Brandstein, Executive Director of the Sixth Street Community Center. “They had a really great lawyer who wanted to see us succeed.”
The nascent Sixth Street Community Center negotiated the building’s acquisition, and the Save the Children Federation supplied the funds for its purchase. The transaction was completed in 1979, however, neighbors had taken action on the building in the wake of the black out of 1977, a five-borough electricity outage that resulted in looting and vandalism across the city, including at 638 E. 6th Street. Shortly after power was restored, local residents entered the building to make repairs to the extent that they could. Brandstein, a neighbor, homesteader, and then an Adopt-A-Building employee, began volunteering at the site in 1978. “The building was still in very rough shape,” he recalls. He credits the Center’s founder, Maria Cruz, with keeping the volunteer corps’ spirits high, and the building’s historic elements in tact.
As luck would have it, a twenty-five foot section of interior wall collapsed soon after the Center officially acquired the property.  The damage, which extended from the roof all the way down to the basement, would require serious financial commitment, so Brandstein got to work as a pro-bono fundraiser. Happily, Wai Chin, an architect involved with Brandstein’s homesteading projects, offered his services and those of his brother, Mao, a mason, for a nominal fee.
Slowly, the Community Center’s staff and volunteers, with support from many allies, were able to fully renovate the building. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brandstein and Annette Averette, the Center’s current Program Director, established a construction job training program for young adults in collaboration with Lower East Side churches. Much of the building was renovated through this effort. According to Brandstein, the interior partitions and the building’s rear wall were completely rebuilt with the help of the young people who enlisted in that program.
Shortly after the Center was established, staff and volunteers also began to provide on-site social services including assistance with landlord-tenant issues, English –Spanish translation, Section 8 housing applications and New York City Housing Authority applications, as well as public assistance. Annette Averette became involved through her sister organization, the Lower Eastside Anti-Displacement Project, which was housed at 638 E. 6th Street for a decade, and focused on landlord-tenant matters, represented tenants in housing court, and also organized tenants’ associations to deal with landlord abuses. “We had a pretty broad social services function going on here from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s,” Brandstein notes. The Center served an average of thirty-five people per day for over ten years. The second floor waiting area upstairs was always crowded during the Center’s early years, as they also offered a robust roster of children’s programs for after school and summer, including after school homework help, creative writing, and art. In 1996, the Center introduced a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The CSA brings together neighborhood residents and local farmers in mutually beneficial partnership. Residents are guaranteed fresh organic produce by purchasing shares in the farmers’ harvest, and the farmers, in turn, are ensured adequate funds to meet ongoing expenses.
Brandstein reflects on the Center’s trajectory noting, “in the early years, we were focused on a lot of the construction issues. Trying to pull together a neighborhood that faced resident displacement and housing abandonment. And as time goes on, we’ve seen the impact of the deteriorating environment and poor nutrition on people’s health. So around the early 1990s, the Community Supported Agriculture movement really started to take off in the country and we jumped in.” 2016 is the Center’s twenty-first season of providing organic produce to neighborhood residents.
While still offering after-school homework help and enrichment workshops, the Center’s Café committee helps to staff the Organic Soul Café, an extension of its CSA permanently located in the first floor of 638 E. 6th Street. In 2009, the Café began serving dinners to show members young and old how to create simple, healthy, delicious meals with their weekly shares of produce. The meals are prepared and served by a team of volunteers lead by Averette, who, in addition to her duties as Program Director, serves as head chef. The Café is decorated with brightly colored murals of neighborhood heroes, all painted by artist collective World War III Illustrated. Figures permanently emblazoned on the wall include Will Sales, a beloved, long-time board member who passed in 2013, and late poet Bimbo Rivas, who is generally credited with coining the term “Loisaida,” and who taught English at the Center during the youth job training era. “He was really great, very dramatic,” Brandstein remembers fondly. The tableau also features poet El Coco Jorge Brandon, who was known to walk around the neighborhood in a hard hat, shouting poetry in Spanish. The Café is currently open Monday through Friday, from 9:30am to 1:30pm, serving organic juices and elixirs, coffee and tea. All proceeds go to the Sixth Street Youth Programs.
The murals were completed in 2002, and in 2011, the Sixth Street Community Center received a grant from the Landmarks Conservancy to renovate the building’s historic front doors. Brandstein, who has served as the Center’s Director since 1992, also stewarded the refurbishment of vestibule’s marble floor tiles, which date to 1890, and the restoration of the Center’s façade mural (originally created by City Arts Workshop) and stained glass windows.  While the building renovations are more or less complete, the Center’s work is hardly done.
The Center’s youth and family programming is now focused on urban gardening, healthy food preparation, and nutrition. Sixth Street partners with Hudson Valley-based Hepworth Farm, which provides twenty-four weekly deliveries of fresh organic produce to the center. The Center’s roughly 150 members participate in and staff the programs and various committees, including those for the CSA, the composting program, the Center’s newsletter, and events, including organized farm trips, potlucks, film screenings, food justice and nutrition workshops, as well as collaborations with Just Food, the Lower East Side Girls Club, and other groups.
Place Matters interview with Howard Brandstein, August 16, 2016