1982 – Neighborhood Women House Living and Learning Center

NW Members outside the NW House‘The spaces will blur the traditional divisions between working and living. They will allow for personal privacy, peer-support, and bring permanent residents, visitors and the community together under the same roof. Embedded within the LLC concept is the belief in life beyond retirement; the value of multiplying partnerships and interface between grassroots groups; the opportunity to use a neighborhood as a campus; and the possibility of creating wealth through communal sharing. The LLC will be the showcase of the positive impact NCNW’s principles have on people’s everyday life. It will be a model for capacity- sharing projects across the world.’

Living Learning Center: 249 Manhattan Avenue
By Milano Graduate School – New School University
and The City College of New York

The Living and Learning Center (LLC) provides institutional support for neighborhood women who have made a lifetime commitment to the community building to share experiences among those with differing cultural, economic, race and gender backgrounds. They are designed to illustrate how the community can be a learning campus, how wealth can be created through pooling resources, and how intergenerational mentoring and support can sustain leadership and organizing for the long-term. Similar centers are established or currently being developed in the Appalachian and Mid-Western regions of the United States, Africa, and Asia.

“…One of Caroline’s [Caroline Pezzulo, founder of GROOTS International] dreams was to establish living and learning centers where people of all ages and ethnicities would be able to come together to foster a community of common interests and concerns. Today vibrant centers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Missouri and Appalachia— Clearfork, Tennessee—form part of the legacy of Caroline Pezzullo’s life. They, like her, nurture the best of the human spirit in service to social justice and recognition of the wisdom, gifts and skills of grassroots women.”

Marie Cirillo
World Habitat Day, 2009

The Neighborhood Women House Living Learning Center at 249 Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, New York was founded by the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW), whose mission is to strengthen the leadership capacities of grassroots women developing their low-income urban and rural communities. The Neighborhood Women House is an intergenerational and shared LLC hosting the offices of local and global women’s community development organizations. The NCNW and Neighborhood Women Williamsburg/Greenpoint are the national and local groups involved with this Center, with support from GROOTS International and the Huairou Commission (HC) at the international level. The LLC is a safe space and power base for women of all ages and from diverse racial and ethnic, class and religious backgrounds, to visit and exchange experiences and skills. It is open to the neighborhood women for support groups, resource information, and workshops.

Mission

The mission of the Center is continue the legacy of women’s activism in the community by creating an intergenerational public living, learning, and working space that celebrates the history of grassroots women who have taken leadership in the historically poor and working class community of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It enables women organizers from these neighborhoods to mentor and remain in the community after retirement. The Center also supports the mission of the local, national, and global grassroots women’s groups by providing a local home for these organizations.

Primary Activities and Users

The Center is used by grassroots and professional women who are members or guests of the networks. It provides a base for the accommodation of women from across the global south when they are in New York City to represent their development priorities at the United Nations. It also provides housing for women community leaders of all ages. As the Secretariat of four organizations—local, national, and two international networks—it supports their activities, including:

  • Local and global advocacy
  • Leadership support and training

Networks

Neighborhood Women House is supported by the NCNW network of Living Learning Centers, and by GROOTS International.

Funding

The women involved with the Center purchased the building through program monies and fundraising in 1982. Subsequent renovation, in 2003, was financed by private grants. The Center meets operational costs through project funding, rental income from four residential units within the building, and through funds from private donations.

Tenure, Ownership, and Management

The Center is owned by the National Congress of Neighborhood Women and co-managed by the two global networks (Huairou Commission and GROOTS International) whose New York offices are located in the Center.

Description of the Space

The building is a three-story, 4,400-square foot (410 square meters), brick rowhouse on a 1,900-square foot (176 square meters) lot, originally constructed in the late 1800s as a courthouse and judge’s residence, later becoming a light manufacturing sweat shop for teddy bears and garments for Saks Fifth Ave. Remnants of the old uses remained when NCNW acquired the building, which has always had a residential component. The ground floor has two large workshop/office spaces for daily office work and intern training, a kitchen, washrooms and shower, with storage and mechanical systems in the basement. On the second floor, the former classroom and office space was converted into a spacious and well-lit community living room used for meetings and workshops. Part of this area can be used for temporary accommodation as well. This floor has a two-bedroom apartment, the kitchen and living room of which can be made available for hosting special events and additional guests. The third floor has two additional small apartments and a studio with roof access. The building is located on a corner lot in the heart of the neighborhood, in close proximity to a diverse retail area. Its small outdoor space includes the Geraldine Miller Center for Dialogue, named in honor of the activist leader and founder of the Household Technicians Union.

“I have been part of the community at 249 Manhattan for 27 years. I got involved year one, in the basement they had a women gathering. I left my husband because of domestic violence. I was a single mother with 4 kids. I had no job and I was in a very bad depression. I first got counseling support from the other women who had gone through what I had been going through in life. Then I got my GED program, I got my college degree here from NW and I have been working here for a very long time. It feels so comfortable here and I feel welcome and it’s a family environment we have. We like the space here.”

Juanita Rodriguez, NW Fiscal and Building Manager

Claiming Space

About space and empowerment, founder Peterson has said,“Even now somebody brand new will walk in and you can see that they can feel that the women really feel that it is their space just by how we walk sit, what we do, where we put everything—very empowering.”

While empowerment of women through education and working together was important, the women knew that the key to sustainability of the organization and their work is in the control of space. To this end, in 1981, after losing the fight against closure of the local hospital, Neighborhood Women developed housing in three of the hospital buildings through advocacy and negotiation. Ten years later, after being designed through a community involvement process, Neighborhood Women Renaissance Housing opened, bringing 33 affordable housing units to the community.

But at the same time, while the community advocacy was successful, the fragility of claiming space that was not owned became apparent when Neighborhood Women was evicted by an ally organization in the fight to save the hospital. They had to move. Disappointment, however, brought the opportunity to buy a partially empty, light industrial building in a good location in the Williamsburg neighborhood. In 1981, NCNW purchased the building at 249 Manhattan Ave. By 1995, the building was debt free and fully owned and controlled by the women.

“Owning that building—women owned the space—transformed our work from the very beginning. We realized that we could turn it into a space that could be sustainable, just paying our little $231 mortgage which we always could manage. We could cover the cost of the building through rentals from people who are charged a lower rental than they would normally have to pay. We didn’t have to use our grant money to pay for the telephone, gas, electricity, repairs. That was a major step forward. Having this one asset was the most important.”

Jan Peterson, NW Founder

By 2000, the concept of the Living Learning Center had evolved, and in 2003, 75 percent of the building had been renovated. The intergenerational space has hosted women and their families from around the world as well as housed aging leaders and parents, and young interns and staff at below market rents. Other NCNW members have created LLCs in Saint Louis and Clearfork, Tennessee.

Challenges and Plans for the Future

“…Our center is a learning lab on our legacy as a social movement for promoting grassroots women’s leadership in poor and working class communities. We physically illustrate how our space supports organizations to grow, transform & also die out as well as the circumstances under which we can and cannot support a safe and decent quality of life for our grassroots leaders and professional partners as they (we) age, retire and require increasing levels of support. We probably have a lot to learn from the nuns…”

Sandy Schilen, GROOTS Global Chair

The Living Learning Center grew from the need of social activist women leaders who have worked all their lives for the community without pensions and with limited or no extended family support. NCNW has created a model of family and living/working space that provides security and sustainability within an active community and working environment. Most important is ownership and control of the space. Without this basic organizational need, the work and leadership would not have flourished.

For the last 10 years, NCNW has been looking for other land in the neighborhood to develop a LLC with a larger residential component. After the partial renovation of 249 Manhattan Ave and the arrival of gentrification in the neighborhood that is greatly increasing the value of land, the women are also considering an expansion of the existing building by adding 2 floors. With freehold title and no mortgage, the building could be leveraged for new premises or for a major expansion. The challenge now is to ensure the smooth transfer of leadership.’

Our Spaces: Grassroots Women Formalize
Their Leadership & Access to Essential Services
By Ayse Yonder and Marnie Tamaki

To learn more about the Neighborhood Women House Living and Learning Center please join us on our Walking Tour.

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