As crime concerns grow in Pittsfield, community weighs potential benefits of a youth center

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PITTSFIELD — As more and more of the city's young people struggle to find footing, so goes the city.

While most agree more needs to be done to support the community's under-resourced children and youth, there are many different ideas about how to accomplish that.

This week the City Council Committee on Community and Economic Development heard a petition to build a new youth center on city-owned land in the city's West Side neighborhood. Councilors referred the matter to the West Side Neighborhood Initiative for further review, and now people in the city are weighing in on the best path forward.

While the city hashes out logistics, young people in the city continue to founder — about 28 percent of city children are living in poverty, according to U.S. census statistics from 2015, and the city recently lost a young woman to gun violence.

"We need a community center — a hub of information for kids to go to," said Jerome Edgerton, who grew up in the neighborhood and volunteers as a mentor through Pittsfield Community Connection. "The time is ripe right now."

Many agree a new kind of center is needed in order to address a growing poverty problem, but others feel more should be done first to draw kids into existing programming in Pittsfield.

Valerie Hamilton, lifelong West Side resident and petitioner behind the latest effort, asserts a youth center should be built on city-owned property on Dewey Avenue. She said recent murders have been in that neighborhood, and so it makes sense to cluster resources where they are most needed.

Hamilton asserts the Boys and Girls Club and the Berkshire Family YMCA fail to attract the teens she's trying to help.

"Nobody is serving our neighborhood," she said.

When she was growing up in the West Side, she said, children could go to the Christian Center and get tutoring, entrepreneurship training and lessons in black history. Community leaders there looked out for them and took them on trips to New York City.

She's not sure where the funding came from, and she acknowledges it's not likely to come as plentifully as it did then, but she's confident fundraising could provide some level of support for neighborhood teens.

"I just want to give back to the kids a little bit of what we had," she said. "They don't have anyone that's pouring into them like they poured into us."

The land Hamilton is proposing to use is land the city is shaping into a passive riverside park, which officials say will enhance river access and green space in the neighborhood. The site has already been cleared and prepared for that purpose, and the improvements have already gone through permitting and approvals.

Plus, officials say, the land is not developable because it's in a floodplain.

Earl Persip, city councilor-elect and program director at the Y, said he disagrees with Hamilton's vision.

"Valerie is passionate and she sees an empty spot. It's not a good space for it," he said. "It's meant to be an open-space area in a community that doesn't have a lot of open space."

Persip said he'd like to know why more children aren't taking advantage of existing programming.

"I don't think we necessarily need to build something new," he said. "Everyone needs to come to the table in that community to really assess what the needs are and come up with the same plan."

Meantime, a member at the Christian Center, David "Tack" Burbank, has formed a steering committee and raised $100,000 in seed money for another vision of similar intent. He said former mayor Jim Ruberto will serve as chairman of an advisory council comprising neighborhood residents, as well as representatives from social services agencies and cultural organizations. Those interested can email him at tackburbank@aol.com.

He said they'll first use the seed money to hire a consultant and hire an executive director. All the work and funds, he said, will funnel through the Christian Center.

Then, he said, they aim to hear from residents what they'd like to see.

`We need to find out what the community wants and what the community needs, specifically," Burbank said.

He said the plan is to build a new center in three vacant lots on Robbins Avenue, just south of the Christian Center. He said they're so far modeling the plan after "promise neighborhoods," which exist through a Department of Education program that bolsters education from "cradle to career."

He said they've visited other promise neighborhoods — a national movement inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone — and found they're successful in propelling children into healthier, more fruitful lives.

"We're hoping we can change significantly and improve the lives of West Side kids and Morningside kids," he said.

Other leaders in the same effort include former Conte School principal Bamby Neale, attorney Bruce Grinnell and Jason Cuyler, vice president of the board at the Christian Center.

"We made a pledge at the beginning not to raise any money from the existing donor base in Berkshire County. That pie is shrinking and the need is growing," Burbank said. "All of that funding has come from second-home owners and Pittsfield natives who have moved out of the area and have had financial success elsewhere."

He said they're a group of people who are "pained by what has happened locally and nationally with the disparity of wealth in this country."

"It's really important for the neighborhood to acquire ownership in the project, and leadership in the project," he said, adding he'd like to work with others interested in helping city youth. "We'd love to coordinate our efforts with whatever efforts are there."

Warren Dews, a minister for Price Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a board member at Berkshire United Way and the Boys and Girls Club, and consumer sales chief and events officer at The Berkshire Eagle, said it's time to get everyone moving in the same direction on this issue.

"We have a lot of people with good hearts and good intentions working in silos and vacuums," he said. "We all need to come together."

Jon Schnauber, program director for Pittsfield Community Connection, said he agrees there's a need for a youth center. He argues, however, that the Morningside neighborhood needs one just as badly. He said current issues with violence are inextricably linked between the two neighborhoods.

"This is something we need to come together on, the safety of our youth and our community. Two years ago the murders were happening in Morningside," he said. "We all, as a community, are suffering from this violence."

He therefore proposes looking at a site in the area of Berkshire Medical Center, along the northern side of North Street, where the two neighborhoods meet.

The Rev. Ralph Howe, founder of Fenn Street Community Development, said he became intimately aware of the needs of city youth through a failed attempt at a youth center, a downtown spot dubbed "the hub" that he said fizzled from lack of funding.

Howe cautions that a future center "shouldn't feel like a school," like yet another institution where young people are analyzed and measured.

"It has to be in a location where the kids feel comfortable going in," he said. "The youth who go to them have a greater sense of being met on a more equal, relational basis rather than being told how they should act from above. You're meeting them where they are and you're engaging them in their futures."

Howe said city leaders need to break the cycle of hopelessness.

"There is an expectation among many kids that there is no better tomorrow — there is no better life than what they're looking at," he said. "That leads them quite naturally into drugs and crime, but they would as easily go to something else if it were perceived to be available to them."

Joe McGovern, CEO of Boys and Girls Club, said his organization is hatching a transportation plan to bring children from West Side and Morningside to the club for programming. He said offerings at the club are inexpensive — memberships for children cost $20 a year and include all of the after-school courses — and that fee is often waived for families of limited means.

"Money is not an issue here at the club for kids," he said.

Beyond that, he said, his organization is happy to help city youth in whatever way possible, including via a new youth center separate from his own.

"We want to support any ideas, any projects or any organization that is trying to help kids," McGovern said. "We are more than willing to do what we can to step up and make a difference in kids' lives."

Randy Kinnas, CEO and executive director of Berkshire Family YMCA, is not sure a new youth center is necessary or would accomplish the desired outcome.

"A building is just that — it's just a building," he said. "The bottom line is we need to have an open dialogue. Everybody needs to be involved. We all need to be helpful and open."

Persip agreed that a building won't fix anything without buy-in from the community.

"If we had a magic wand we could wave it and put a youth center in each one of our communities, but we don't have that so we have to work smart and work together," he said. "It's not about the adults and how they want it done. It's about the kids, and people forget that sometimes."

Reach Amanda Drane at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.


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