The Manhattanville Community Center temporarily closed several rooms where its after-school programs were hosted due to unsafe lead levels in areas of the building, a move that incited community concern over disrupted services for children and health of visitors, following an inspection from the New York City Housing Authority earlier this month.
The center, located on 133rd Street, has served the community for years, providing after-school programs for six- to 14-year-olds and night programs for 13- to 19-year-olds as well as educational workshops for adults. The facility is also used for community programming like voter registration and English as a second language classes.
The facility directors at Graham Windham, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting youth in the West Harlem community, were informed that the facility had unsafe levels of lead in the building paint on Feb. 5. This problem is another item on the grocery list of unaddressed problems the Manhattanville Community Center has seen in recent years, as the center has had to deal with water leaks, heating problems, and chipping paint, according to Graham Windham CEO Jess Dannhauser.
“Many of our community members use the center, who we haven’t been able to accommodate in the last couple of weeks,” Dannhauser said. “It’s a very active community center.”
Community members have expressed a renewed interest in increasing the number of after-school programs in the area after three youth suspects were arrested for the attempted robbery and homicide of Barnard first-year Tess Majors. The community has long asked for more youth services and after-school programs and saw progress in February after a community-wide forum for Morningside Park improvements.
NYCHA approached the organization to conduct the lead test—the first in the building since Graham Windham began operating the community center—and found lead in several classrooms in which after-school programs were held, Dannhauser added.
Federal law requires NYCHA to visually assess common areas such as community centers each year for deteriorated lead-based paint, said NYCHA Deputy Press Secretary Rochel Leah Goldblatt in a statement. The Manhattanville center is one of 174 community centers that NYCHA is testing and, if needed, remediating this month.
The after-school programs at the center have been relocated to P.S. 129 temporarily, Dannhauser said. Senior programs are still operating, and parts of the center are still being used. A community meeting has also been held this week at the facility, according to Manhattanville Tenant Association President Emma Barricelli.
According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, lead exposure can lead to high blood pressure and issues affecting the brain, kidney, and reproductive organs in adults. In addition, the lower part of the Manhattan Community Board 9, a district including Morningside Heights and the surrounding area, “has a lead poisoning rate that is exponentially high[er than] the rest of the district,” according to a CB9 statement of community district needs.
Dannhauser said the sports and dance programs in the center have been disconnected, and that the relocated after-school programs have seen lower attendance rates.
Derrick Haynes, a Harlem resident and activist, said the center closing has decreased already-limited youth services and has created issues in merging different age groups into one program.
“The impacts are significant because you’re taking kids from a community center and moving it to an already-overcrowded building,” Haynes said.
Haynes also expressed concern over how the community did not know how long the lead situation had been unsafe in the building.
After learning about the lead, Graham Windham brought in a different vendor to independently test the lead levels, and the vendor found additional lead in the building, Dannhauser said.
“We were worried about how comprehensive that testing was,” he said. “There is right now a discrepancy over the city’s position on [its involvement in the abatement process].”
According to Dannhauser, the situation resurfaced long-standing problems between the community center and NYCHA over which is responsible for resolving building issues. For over a year, the building roof has needed repairs, several classrooms have lacked heating, the walls have had chipped paint, and many rooms and the gym floor have been ruined by water leaks.
“That’s been a situation for quite some time, and we’ve asked NYCHA for quite some time to fix it,” Danhauser said. “The fact that the roof has not been done in over a year has been on everyone’s radar. We want the city to make it right.”
Goldblatt said in a statement that NYCHA is currently working with Graham Windham on its concerns about the facility, some of which arose from the recent lead inspection. Since learning about the lead issue, Graham Windham has paid for the remediation process and anticipates that the center will reopen by March 9.