The local non-profit that provides Lower Manhattan with after-school programs, summer camps, athletic leagues, classes for seniors, indoor and outdoor recreation space, swimming lessons, arts enrichment and more is marking 30 years of service.
On Saturday (September 24), Manhattan Youth will host a Birthday Beach Party on Pier 25, in the Hudson River Park, near Harrison Street. All interested members of the public are invited to attend.
“I feel like I’ve had the greatest job in the world,” reflects Manhattan Youth executive director and founder, Bob Townley. “If I was going to live ten more times, there would not be a better job for me personally than what I do now. There’s no place else I want to be.”
Looking back, he observes, “this community and the world have changed around me, but the secret to Manhattan Youth’s success has been to adapt our mission and vision. When I started, I was focused on community and child care and recreation.”
“What draws me,” Mr. Townley notes, “is the community infrastructure of people working together, raising their families. If I travelled to India, I would be less interested in the Taj Mahal than in seeing how and where kids come together to play soccer and do theater. This is the kind of connective tissue that would spring up organically even without an organization like Manhattan Youth, but we leverage and amplify that, and give it structure.”
Manhattan Youth sprang into being in 1986, when only a handful of people lived in Tribeca or Battery Park City. “I was working for Community Board 1 as a part-time staff person,” Mr. Townley remembers, “because the City didn’t think youth programs in Lower Manhattan needed a full-time employee, since there were so few kids down here.”
“My job was to coordinate existing programs,” he recalls, “but almost no programs existed. That’s when I had the idea that I wanted to start a day camp.” In its first year, Downtown Day Camp enrolled 50 children and hosted them at P.S. 234. “We had to turn families away,” Mr. Townley recalls, “because we had such a small staff.” In the years that followed, Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Day Camp program grew to more than ten times its original size, “and became the engine that fueled Manhattan Youth in other, related areas,” Mr. Townley says.
In the fall of 1986, “we started the first after-school program at P.S. 234. When P.S. 89/I.S. 289 opened in Battery Park City in 1999, Manhattan Youth began providing after-school services there, too. In the decades since, the organization’s after-school programming has grown to cover seven elementary schools, and 16 middle schools.
But the year that the first program launched in 1986, the Related Companies, which owned an apartment building in Battery Park City that contained a pool, “were kind enough to let us begin a winter swimming program. At that time, we were such a young organization that we had no credit, no track record, and no business history. But they decided to take a chance on us. So being able to use P.S. 234 and the pool on Rector Place gave us the first two pieces of infrastructure that we could make available to the community.”
Within a few years, the swimming lessons on Rector Place led to Manhattan Youth’s first program for seniors. Shortly after that, Manhattan Youth came to the attention of a leader who would become a mentor in the years ahead. Sheldon Silver, who represented Lower Manhattan in the Assembly and had recently been elected its Speaker, “called me in and said he wanted to create a recreation program for this community on evenings and weekends. He allocated a grant of several thousand dollars, and told me, ‘spend it well.'”
Another important patron was State Senate Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein, who obtained a grant to fund the formation of youth football and basketball leagues. “Within a few months, we had the Lower Manhattan Giants playing in the East River Park and the Downtown Basketball League scrimmaging at Murry Bergtraum High School,” Mr. Townley remembers. This was followed by a soccer program, in which local children played on the Rector Place lawns, wearing shirts emblazoned, “Manhattan Skyscrapers.”
Additional support came from Trinity Church, “which was helping to fund these leagues,” Mr. Townley recalls, “and they encouraged me to spin them off into separate non-profits.” Guidance for these steps came from Paul Goldstein, then the district manager for Community Board 1 (CB1), and now an advisor to State Assembly member Deborah Glick.
The next milestone began to come into view one afternoon in the early 1990s, when Mr. Townley was walking along the Hudson River waterfront. “I was passing Pier 25,” he recalls, “where a nightclub was located at that time. They even had outdoor miniature golf. And I kept wondering why the pier wasn’t open to the community during the day.” After some checking, he learned that Anne Compoccia, then chair of CB1, was working to have the nightclub shut down.
“CB1 asked for proposals for what could be done with Pier 25,” Mr. Townley recalls. “They received a broad range of business ideas, like parking lots, but none that would have opened it up to the community. The proposal we submitted was the only one designed to create a new amenity for people who lived here.”
“We were always determined to make Pier 25 a community facility,” he recalls. “The first thing we did was build 20 wooden picnic benches and tables. Then we created a playground with a sandbox and a water sprinkler that kids could run through. We also expanded the miniature golf course, and eventually created a sand volleyball court. We did all that for about $12,000.”
Although Pier 25 (which was closed by the Hudson River Park Trust in 2005, and reopened — after a $40-million rehabilitation — in 2010) remains a beloved Lower Manhattan amenity, it is now one of many. This makes it difficult for people who did not live Downtown during the 1990s to appreciate how central it was to community life decades ago. “This was probably the No. 1 element that brought people together,” Mr. Townley recalls. “It brought young parents with small children from Tribeca and Battery Park City. And when local schools and daycare centers wanted to bring kids here for programs, Manhattan Youth was able to accommodate them. This was a turning point, because it was the moment when the community began to take control of its own resources.”
The emergence of Pier 25 as a focal point for the neighborhood also illustrates a theme that has marked Mr. Townley’s approach to local governance since the inception of Manhattan Youth. “Community is less about being against things or stopping bad ideas than it is about building and planning.” The process of building and planning led to another landmark achievement in 2008: the opening of the Manhattan Youth Downtown Community Center, on Warren Street. The facility (midwifed by Mr. Silver and a coalition of community leaders) contains 28,000 square feet of recreation and educational space, and now serves as Manhattan Youth’s headquarters.
Mr. Townley says that, “this anniversary is a magic number for me. The biggest surprise of the last 30 years is that I’ve spent most of my adult life in a single job. But I think I have another ten years in me, and during that time, I’d like to expand in the direction of more art and theater programming and outdoor adventure courses. I want to create reasons for kids to get away from computers for a few hours each week.” Asked to reflect on his tenure, Mr. Townley says, “the truth is, I wouldn’t give this up for anything. There’s no place else I want to be.”
Saturday’s Birthday Beach Party on Pier 25 begins at 2:00 pm and continues through 5:00 pm. The festivities will include music, refreshments, and games for kids of all ages, as well as adults. Tickets start at $10, with funds going to support Manhattan Youth. For more information, browse ManhattanYouth.org or email Camille@ManhattanYouth.org.
To purchase tickets, click here.