Gwen Goodwin Interview on P.S. 109 with Deepa Fernandez, host of WBAI's "Wake Up Call" Show

DF:  During the fund drive we began to cover a very important story. Seven years ago, Gwen Goodwin began a campaign to save P.S. 109, an East Harlem school built at the turn of the 20th century. Her efforts saved the building from demolition in 1999. At that time, the roof had already been removed and the struggle was won to put the roof back on. However, the school has not been populated for many years. Now the New York City Department of Education wants to turn the building over to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD, to be converted into a 64-unit housing development for artists. The Department of Education's argument that there is no overcrowding in this school district is based on questionable formulas for the school's utilization. However, as those who are fighting to save PS 109 argue, in a district where gymnasium space has to be rented from private entities, it seems unlikely there are no overcrowding issues facing the community. We're joined right now by Gwen Goodwin, who's the head of the Coalition to Save PS 109. Good morning, Gwen. Thanks for being with us.

GG:  Good morning, Deepa.

DF:  So Gwen, I want to announce a very important date today, but before we get to what's going to happen, I wonder if you could just recap for us, in a little more detail, the importance of P.S. 109 and your struggle to save it.

GG:  Well I think you've pretty much said it all. I will just go back a little bit and tell you what has happened. Again, you pretty much got it right, but actually in 1993, we were actually in the Capital Plan to have a $10 million restoration for PS 109. The children were taken out of the school and they were put into other schools, and unfortunately we got a call from the Mayor and our funding has been lost. So we were no longer in the Capital Plan, and our school was standing empty. We thought we would go into the next Capital Budget, but that didn't happen either, and by 1999, the school was still standing empty, and that's when the decision was made to just tear it down.

Along with P.S. 109, they had already taken down two other schools illegally in Harlem, so they were coming for their third one, and that's when I questioned this. I went down to the school space and saw what they were doing. They were actually selling the pieces of our school and they had planned to sell pieces of our school. We formed the Coalition to Save P.S. 109, we stopped this illegal demolition that was being carried through by the Board of Education, and we went ahead and landmarked it. It is now in the National Register of Historic Places. It has been on the eleven most endangered places with the National Trust of the United States. And since that time, I worked with a few other neighborhood groups, mostly with the East Harlem Coalition to Improve our Public Schools, and we've been working since that time to turn P.S. 109 back into a public school.

DF:  Gwen, let me ask you something. The Department of Education's saying it's not necessary because of no overcrowding. Is that also an attempt to say that the children of the area who would attend P.S. 109 are being housed in other schools?

GG:  No. I think what is really going on here, Deepa, is that we are seeing a massive gentrification at alarming speed, and I think that that is what's really going on for P.S. 109, and I think that P.S. 109 should really be the line in the sand where the public says enough is enough. These are our tax dollars, and the Board of Education and the mayor's office continues to push to privatize public land, even, I would say, that turning Randall's Island into a playground for private schools is another very disturbing prospect of what's going on in our city. We are literally privatizing our city.

When you're talking about the population of East Harlem, though, and the children, you must understand: We haven't had a count in 10 years. So we really don't know what the population is in the public school system. But I know, at least by the mayor's office, Reverend Eddy and the East Harlem Coalition to Improve our Public Schools did do a count of 23 schoolhouses, and what we have is 82% of our schools are overcrowded, in East Harlem. P.S. 198 is over by 400. P.S. 72 literally has to rent space from their former schoolhouse, which is right next door, because they privatized that some years ago. So I do believe we have a problem with overcrowding.

The other problem in East Harlem is that nobody is factoring in the immigrants, so that we don't have a count of any of the children that are undocumented, so they're there going to our public schools. You have an obligation to educate these children, whether they're documented or not. And we have, somebody mentioned at least 5,000 immigrants that are in the schools. I'm sure it's even more than that, but they're not being factored into this equation either.

DF:  Gwen, today then is a really important day because HPD looks set to make this deal happen with a developer. Can you just talk about the different parties that are coming to the table today to talk about what's going to happen to P.S. 109?

GG:  Sure. Today we are not yet at the total end of the road here. I want to make it clear that P.S. 109 is still owned by the Department of Education today, and the developers have to have their final papers in by today. Now during the month of November, the HPD will go over the papers and see if they have all their ducks in a row. And that is why we're really asking the people to raise their voices during the next couple of weeks.

As far as the developers are concerned, what we have here is a very, very interesting equation. First of all, it's a group from Minneapolis called Artspace. They build artists' housing, and they have to partner up with a local group, and they partnered up with a group called East Harlem Operation Fightback, Now, there are a lot of interesting things going on here, because East Harlem Operation Fightback apparently didn't have enough money, our City Council person, Melissa Mark Viverito went ahead and allocated one million dollars from her discretionary funds to give it to this private, not-for-profit organization for artist housing.

The next thing that's interesting is that East Harlem Operation Fightback's developer's name is Gus Rosado. But his brother is Felix Rosado, and Felix Rosado is a deputy for Allen Hevesi's office, and what I have been told was that it was Hevesi who oversaw the deal and literally pushed it through so that they could acquire the building for only one dollar. So I take issue with that, because the way buildings generally go out when they are public buildings, and let me make this clear: I am not interested in P.S. 109 going anywhere except for being a public school restored and reused, but the general rule of thumb is that if you have public building and you want to get rid of it, you are supposed to put it up for public auction and it's supposed to go to the highest bidder, so that the taxpayers, because we paid for that school, get a good return. Of course, that's not what I want to see happen, but the point I am trying to make here is that we have broken it looks to me like a lot of laws, and when I called Allen Hevesi's office to ask him to look into this, I didn't realize that he had an employee working for him who is the brother of the developer. So, I think that that is a very interesting combination of people.

And I'd also like to make people understand that there's just a few players here that stand to make a huge amount of money out of taking this building away from the children of East Harlem. And I really think that the people who live in New York have got to get their priorities straight. I mean, understand something: P.S. 109 when restored and reopened will educate twelve hundred children a year. That's an amazing thing. Twelve hundred children a year can be educated in P.S. 109, as opposed to sixty-four apartments for, you know, a very select group. Sixty-four apartments, half of them go out for market rate, and the other half are for people who make, I think, from twenty-three thousand to forty-eight thousand per year.

And I would also like to talk about that equation, because if you go through the newspapers and you look at other HPD buildings that are new construction, usually the formula only goes up to forty thousand dollars for low-income and moderate-income people: You can only make up to forty thousand dollars, and you can see they're in much nicer, I don't mean to say nicer, but different neighborhoods, okay, much more expensive neighborhoods to live in. For example, Murray Hill is just putting up new construction, ninety apartments, and these apartments go to people with a cap of forty thousand dollars a year.

Well, in the case of P.S. 109, of those apartments, only fifty percent go to neighborhood people, and those people can make up to forty-eight thousand dollars a year, and they have to be artists. And that's a problem, because, you know what, the people of East Harlem, our median income is twenty-two thousand dollars a year. So many people are not even going to be able to qualify financially, but then you're telling me they have to be artists on top of that. So it really makes the equation very slim. So I don't really see where we solve the housing crisis. And that's what we have in East Harlem.

We have a housing crisis. We need real affordable housing for many more units than sixty-four units, and that's why I think that this is a waste of a space that can be used in a much, much better way, and that's the original way: It was designed to educate children, and we do have problems in East Harlem with the population of children, and we need to use that building in a way that's going to be the best use for everyone in of that building for the public, not a select group.

DF:  Where exactly is P.S. 109?

GG:  P.S. 109 is on 99th Street. It's 215 East 99th Street, and it's located between Third and Second Avenues.

DF:  And, Gwen, you said it's not the end of the road, so what is your plan for these final days.

GG:  Well, we've already had a wonderful forum called the Will-of-the People Forum, and now what we're asking people to do is to please go to our website, and a) sign the auto-petition, and, b) we are now planning groups to make site visits with our elected officials, so we are asking people, whey you sign the auto-petition, in the comment box, to write down, "Please contact me," that's all, and in that way we will contact those people and we'll also ask them to join us in going to our elected officials to lobby for P.S. 109.

This is not just a story about a school in East Harlem. This is a story about privatizing public parks and public schools, and turning them over to a select group of people. And I think that this affects everyone that lives in New York City, and indeed through the United States right now. And I really think if people don't start standing up, stepping up to the plate and holding their local officials accountable, that this is just going to, you can see, it's mushrooming into continuing havoc. So, I think that for anybody who lives in New York City, this should be a very, very important issue. It's about children, it's about education, it's about doing the right thing with our tax dollars, and not just wasting and frittering it away for projects like this which really, really serve only a very, very few people.

Oh, by the way, our website is .

DF:  Okay, We'll link to it from our website, . Gwen, thank you and good luck, and please keep us posted.

GG:  Thank you very much.

DF:  8:21am, Gwen Goodwin is the head of the Coalition to Save P.S. 109. This is Wake Up Call, good morning; I'm Deepa Fernandez.