Wallflower Dispatches

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The WD Interview – Bob Townley, Director Manhattan Youth

May 25th, 2009 · No Comments · Education, General, The WD Interview

Amid the general debates about downtown issues Bob Townley, Executive Director of Manhattan Youth keeps his eyes firmly focused on the one group of people that’s most important to him: the children and teenagers of lower Manhattan. Founded in 1986, Manhattan Youth is a non-profit group that runs youth programmes and after-school activities for about 1,000 children.

“We are the only organisation of its kind downtown and we cover everything south of Canal Street,” explains Townley. Every year the programmes are financed primarily 60% by parents’ fees and 40% by local city and state government and foundations.

The reason why Townley adopted a parents supported programme is simple: “Our community has historically never been seen as popular. When I got down here in 1983 there were only 2,500 kids as compared to other community boards that have 60,000 or 70,000 kids. We still have a very low population: 6,000 or less kids are under 18 now.”

As he bounces around the office and talks about the Youth program, just occasionally coming up for air, his main purpose is clear: he cares deeply for the welfare of the children, loves his job and all his energy is committed to it.

Some of that energy is directed to sorting out Manhattan Youth’s long-term upheaval: that of the interrupted project for a community centre. Plans for 35,000 square foot recreation facility that was be housed at Site 5C, a lot behind P.S.234, are in Townley’s own words “dead.” He explains: “The scheme has been damaged tremendously because of the market of residential housing. The developer has changed the nature of the project.”

Townley believes in the urgency for having a community centre: “The majority of young teenagers down here need a space. In five years there will be many more. We cannot wait for a centre to be built in five years.” And the cost? “I need $4 million dollars to build a space – this is chomp change. We don’t necessarily have to build, we could renovate an existing building – so really I need anything between $2.5 to $4.5 million depending on the project.”

There have been gifts and grants. Manhattan Youth received $106,000 from the September 11th Fund. The Bankers Goldman Sachs contacted Townley and gave $100,000. The international advertising agency Young and Rubicam has produced a PSA (Public Services Announcement) for the organisation free of charge.

The ad juxtaposes images of Ground Zero and the neighbourhood with pictures of what downtown used to look prior to 9/11. Children remind the viewer that “this used to be our playground” and that it needs to be re-built. Townley is hoping the PSA will play at the Tribeca Film Festival and on major TV stations.

Townley is not being greedy. “I used to run a homeless shelter and a foster home – I know what abject poverty is in America and we are not that. However, the middle classes down here need services as well. And we have to remember that 90% of the kids who live in Community Board 1 go through one or more of our programmes.”

He compares the youth funding issues to a fire house: “Every community needs a fire house, no matter how big or small they are and I have always been trying to put out a fire in the sense that we still need a critical mass of dollars to have an agency down here.”

The cost of opportunism

Without wanting to name names, Townley is very critical of what he calls ‘carpet beggars’: “There are more organisations present now in lower Manhattan than there were before (9/11) as they try and get a piece of the pie down here. Some businesses would never be interested in the community if it weren’t for the generous money that is coming down. I am on a higher spiritual place than that. I feel that there could be damage done if there are too many youth groups and no plan. There have been some people approaching foundations trying to implement things. And I hope that the foundations are knowledgeable enough to know that it’s just because the money is there.”

So does Townley feel Manhattan Youth is losing out as funds are distributed? “There has been opportunism, I don’t care if there are groups that do great work and talk about September 11th. I don’t even care if people are using 9/11 to raise funds. But I do object to the traumatising of the downtown people. I object to services that make the community nervous, make the community feel that we can’t heal. I don’t even care if they are taking money – we weren’t going to get the money anyway. But I do oppose the stigmatisation of us as a neighbourhood.”

Instead, Townley wants to get back on track and look ahead and not to the past. “We existed before September 11th in this community – that’s what we want to get back. We don’t need a ton of new services down here. We could do with some. But we don’t want to see Manhattan Youth fold up in two years because its income has dried up. Money is going to get very tight in this city after this space gets cleared up.”

Rebuilding values as well as buildings

Despite the worries and talk about money, Townley’s concern is ultimately a different one. Recently, he went to Sarajevo privately to meet with a couple of youth organisations. He wanted to see what rebuilding is really about. Although he doesn’t want to compare Sarajevo with home, he is keen to put the downtown New York into perspective. “In Sarajevo, all the buildings were destroyed. All of them have got gunshots and people are living in these buildings now. It’s a small city and everywhere there are the sign of hand-to-hand shooting, grenade launching. 300,000 people died. For three years, the people of Sarajevo lived without heating, hot water or electricity. ‘No windows in Sarajevo’ was the expression – all the windows in all the buildings of one million people were out.”

He describes how at first there was a lot of unity among the people. “Then a lot of factionalism set in, the people started to disagree, and then they start to disagree more publicly. In addition, the lost of values and despair set in, especially among teenagers.”

For Townley, this is the underlying concern at the heart of his work with the children: “If this can happen, what’s the point? If my building can be destroyed, what future do I have? What is the impact of that on the mentality of the people with values and people with a vision that try to build their lives together. I think it’s much more acute in Sarajevo than it will be here. It will happen here in downtown and around the country. If an idiot can blow up a federal building in kill people in Oklahoma, how does the High School Student in Oklahoma feel about the future and how does he really feel about the world?” 

Townley admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but in the meantime he feels that he can help the children practically: “The only role we can play is to do fun things and make things ok, even if they are not ok.  We, the decision makers can be more of a clown and have an optimistic bias. I want to concentrate on the psychological, spiritual and academic programs with the kids. I would like to teach them analytical skills for the next generation so they do better than us.” 

In the past, Townley has been labelled as a ‘political activist’. He smiles and agrees, but points out: “My friends on the community board say I am a political softy. I have not done any activism for a long time from the days when I was a treasurer for major anti-nuclear movements. I have a long history of activism. Nowadays, I am a political wuss, rolling over for the governments to attract funding. What I have done in this community is not activism, even though people want to see it as that. What I have done in this community is planning with a heart, good concrete community organising.”


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