Church Street School for Music and Art, which has operated highly regarded creative enrichment programs for Lower Manhattan kids for the last 27 years has found a new home. This represents a reprieve for the school, which has been buffeted by series of rent increases over the last decade, as its Tribeca neighborhood gentrified, that called into question its very survival.
The school will relocate in coming weeks to the space formerly occupied by the Flea Theater at 41 White Street, near the corner of Church Street. (In 2014, the Flea moved from White Street to new quarters, at 20 Thomas Street.)
The upcoming move represents a homecoming of sorts for Church Street School, which was founded in 1990 by Dr. Lisa Ecklund-Flores (she holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology) and her co-founder/partner, Lauri Bailey, in a cramped, second-floor walk-up space at 311 Church Street, near Walker Street. With a few years, however, the program (which remains to this day the only not-for-profit school for the arts in Lower Manhattan) had become so popular with Downtown parents and kids that it needed more space.
So, in 1996, Church Street School moved to its current home, a 10,000-square-foot facility on Warren Street. (The organization took with it from its original location, however, the name Church Street School for Music and Art.) At that point, the area was still more bohemian than bourgeois, and the school continued to flourish, while the neighborhood surrounding it increasingly gained traction as a residential community, with particular appeal to families with small children.
But as Tribeca grew ever more fashionable in the two decades that followed, the annual cost of continuing to rent the Warren Street space skyrocketed to more than $500,000, consuming more than a quarter of its annual budget. As its financial situation became precarious, the school began exploring, two years ago, options such as purchasing its Warren Street home (at a price that would have approached $10 million) or renting other spaces nearby (all of which were smaller, of lower quality, and more expensive).
Dr. Ecklund-Flores also convened a series of meetings among parents, community leaders, and local residents to build support and brainstorm for new ideas. “I have organized this series of get-togethers to give the Downtown community an opportunity to listen to our story,” she said at the time. “To hear about the history of the school, talk about what works and what doesn’t, to envision what the Church Street School could be and should be in the future, and to strategize about ways to get there.”
At what was marked the beginning of the most uncertain period for the organization, in April 2016, she added, “my commitment to this school is undying. I know something very special happens here. I also know there are many many people in this community that feel the same way. It’s time for everyone who cares about Church Street School to come together and make sure it’s here for our children’s children.”
Community Board 1 advocated on behalf of the school, formally requesting in January of this year that the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs award it a $4 million grant to purchase and build a new headquarters, a request that was also supported by City Council member Margaret Chin.
At a fundraiser (also in January), Dr. Ecklund-Flores said, “you do the math. We are in between a ‘rock and a very hard place.’ We’re hanging by our fingernails between the old Tribeca and the new Tribeca.”
In the end, the school determined that renting was a more viable option than buying a building. This process came to a head in recent weeks, with negotiations to take over the Flea’s former home at 41 White Street, just a block away from the school’s original base, at Walker and Church.
“This is great news for the school,” enthuses a delighted Dr. Ecklund-Flores, “because the space is well-suited for us and it is 40 percent lower in rent. I’m so glad to have found a solution after so many years of struggle, so that we can stay in this neighborhood with all of the same programs.” She adds that her plan is to begin running programs from the White Street location as of the spring semester.
The range of offerings will continue to be robust. The Church Street School’s menu of options begins with Music and Movement classes for children as young as 16 months, continues through the Preschool (for kids ages two through five years), then After School (for elementary and middle-school students), and culminates with award-winning classes for teenagers, as well as instrumental lessons for all ages (including programs for adults).
“We are deeply committed to making this a smooth transition for our entire student body who come from all over the downtown area for our programs and events,” says Dr. Ecklund-Flores. “We are so thankful for the wonderful support we’ve received so far and cannot wait to celebrate a new chapter for Church Street School in the new year!”