East Harlem’s Unresolved Dilemma
by Jessica Hartogs Oakley

The grand, old building of Pubic School 109 sits empty, as it has done for the past 16 years, on 99th and 3rd Avenue, in the heart of East Harlem.

An ongoing dispute between local residents, state government and a redevelopment company based out in Minneapolis means that it has never reopened since the school was shut down in 1995.

One side wants P.S. 109 to be renovated and turned back into a public school. The other wants the building to be converted into luxury apartments and artists lofts.

“It is a reflection to me on society, when you decide it is a priority to give some rich people housing, and not give the people who are the poorest and the most needy proper education,” said Gwen Goodwin, founder and chair of the Coalition to Save P.S. 109 campaign.

Gwen Goodwin lives near to P.S.109, and has been on a mission to save the building ever since she heard of the renovation project. So arduous is her campaign, it has been featured in the New York Times.

“I’ve learned in life that sometimes the best people are those who just passionately care about something,” said Goodwin.

The project to convert P.S. 109 is run by property developers Artspace. The company specializes in converting old buildings into artists’ lofts all over the United States, including in California, upstate New York, Florida and Minnesota.

According to Artspace’s website, the company is ‘America’s leading nonprofit real estate developer for the arts.’ It describes its work ethic as, ‘in communities across the nation, Artspace develops a mix of affordable live/work units, retail space, and administrative and performance space for arts organizations.’

Artspace’s plan with P.S. 109 is to convert the school into 19 apartments. Half will go to families who earn under $50,000, and the other half will become luxury apartments.

“I can’t think of a more inefficient way to use the building,” said Goodwin. “We have huge overcrowding issues in the schools of East Harlem, as we do all over the city of New York.”

Marina Ortiz, head of the East Harlem Preservation Society, and a supporter for the conversion of P.S. 109 into apartments, said by email, “I am generally supportive though very concerned about who will actually get to live there. I disagree with Gwen Goodwin's focus because it is clear the city has no intention of building new public schools let alone renovating older school buildings. The Mayor is actually more interested in closing public schools and has encouraged the takeover of these buildings by private charter school agencies.”

“We are concerned about the application and selection process vis-à-vis eligibility requirements such as arts-related income thresholds and credentialing,” continued Ortiz.

Artspace says the total cost of the works will be $50 million. The company has partnered in the project with a local renovation agency in East Harlem called Operation Fightback.

Goodwin and many other residents believe the school, built in 1898, still belongs to the State and therefore it should be illegal to convert the building into housing.

“A private organization cannot just take money for something that is still owned by the public,” said Goodwin, “And today, P.S. 109 is still owned by the Board of Education.”

Despite several attempts, neither Artspace nor Operation Fightback responded to interview requests for this article.


Gwen Goodwin

Marina Ortiz

Shawn McLearen
P.S. 109 Project Manager

Operation Fightback
Gustavo Rosado
Phone: (212)410-7900
Email: ebofb413@aol.com