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June 25th, 2008

HOME IS WHERE “THE CENTER” IS.

by Lawrence Pfeil Jr

In large social environments, inevitably a central gathering place develops where its members can come for safety and support, to share information and ideas, to organize and strategize, to plan and build, to celebrate and mourn. Through the ages that place has varied greatly–prehistoric fires, ancient temples, medieval castles, Elizabethan taverns, a colonial tree, settlement houses, southern black churches–but its intrinsic function has remained the same: to foster a sense of common unity, of community.

For the past 25 years New York City’s, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center has been doing just that…and much, much more.

Located on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village, “The Center,” as it is most often referred to, is the second largest LGBT community center in the world, with an annual operating budget of $8 million—75% of which goes directly to programs and client services. Its doors are open to serve the tri-state LGBT community 14 hours a day, 7 days week, 365 days a year. The Center produces over 30 cultural, health and wellness, social, and civic programs; hosts some 250 recreational, cultural, and civic activities and forums every month; its calendar of events, “Center Happenings,” goes out to 56,000 households monthly with an additional 10,000 copies picked up by some of the more than 300,000 visitors it welcomes every year.

To call The Center merely “impressive” would be at once an understatement and an over-simplification of the work it does. Considering the fact that its mission is to provide an inclusive safe home for one of the most dynamic, rapidly evolving, and ethnically, sexually, and socially diverse communities imaginable, we should call it exemplary. Or better yet, call it extraordinary, given The Center’s meager beginnings 25 years ago in the former Food and Maritime Trades High School’s dilapidated building (circa 1844) with no hot water, no elevators, no A/C, limited lighting, a hand-stoked coal burning furnace for heat, and a crumbling facade.

According to Robert Woodworth’s personal account of The Center’s birth in his article “A Community and its Building…”

“By the early 1980s, Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCC) and Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE) had secured affordable quarters in a surplus school on West 13th Street… [But] faced with the possibility of losing their affordable space, the tenants and their allies from other organizations strategized about how to convince the City that the building should become a community center. In surprisingly short order the call went out for groups to start using the building for meetings; the community members who had been working in politics for years used their knowledge and influence to convince the City to make the right decision; and the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center Inc. was incorporated in Washington, DC, just after the Fourth of July, 1983. By New Year’s Eve, the Board of Estimate (comprised of the Mayor, the City Council President, the Comptroller and the five Borough Presidents) held a public hearing and unanimously approved a contract of sale for $1.5 million.

Two crises – the AIDS epidemic and the threat of community organizations being out on the street – rallied gay and lesbian people to an unprecedented degree of self-interested philanthropy… That fall, the Community Center appealed for gifts and loans and raised the $150,000 down-payment… By the end of 1983, the Center had cleaned out an unused teachers’ locker room on the third floor, made it the Center Office, and staffed it with a part-time consultant. All this a full year before the deed was signed in December, 1984!”

When Richard Burns was hired as Executive Director in December of 1986, The Center had a staff of three, a handful of volunteers was being utilized by only a small number of organizations, and the building was on the brink of foreclosure. Over the last 22 years, under his vision and guidance,The Center not only avoided foreclosure but successfully undertook a $14 million capital campaign for building renovations in 1995. Since then it has grown to a staff of 80, has a volunteer force of more than 2300, and is home to over 300 organizations including the Stonewall Veterans Association. The Center has been the birthplace of such prominent organizations as Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACTUP), Marriage Equality, and Immigration Equality, just to name a few, and in 1990 became the permanent home of the “National Museum and the National Archive of LGBT History.”

Another major component in The Center’s success is the volunteers who give their time, talents, and energy to make it all happen. Gay pride planning, Garden Party and event staffing, dance committee, bingo night, voter registration, CenterMedia production, and administrative support are only a few of the ways the dedicated volunteers get involved. “I wanted to give something back to the community,” says 16 year volunteer veteran and 2006 Volunteer of the Year, Rob Zukowski. “It’s about being part of something bigger.” Center volunteers contribute a staggering 54,000 hours annually, which roughly comes out to every volunteer giving back one entire day of their life to the continued life of The Center.

Looking ahead, the challenge in the next 25 years, according to Executive Director Richard Burns, “is being flexible enough to meet the changing and evolving needs of the community, such as the growing number of LGBT families, the ‘Gayby bomb,’ and gay immigration rights.” But its immediate challenge is far more concrete… literally. The Center has run out of space. “We have groups meeting everywhere,” Burns chuckled, “in corners of the basement, in the attic, anywhere they can find a place!”

In order to meet the ever growing demand by LGBT organizations looking for space, The Center announced a 50 million dollar endowment and capital building campaign, which will double its square footage in the short term with a new five story addition to the building create an endowment insuring its financial security in the long term. The campaign got off to a flying—make that a soaring—start at last year’s Garden Party when City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer announced three major allocations of capital funding from the Mayor’s Office, New York City Council, and Manhattan Borough Presidents office totaling $9.5 million. This past April the campaign added another $1.5 million in private donations from The Center’s Board of Directors. That’s $11 million already and fund-raising doesn’t “officially” begin until this fall.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center’s story of success is not about a building, or an organization, or individuals. It’s about a place… a place called home. As Richard Burns put it, “Our 25th anniversary gives us the opportunity to honor the people who built a home for our community and reflect on the legacy we leave for future generations of queer people.”

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center
208 West 13th Street
New York, NY 10011
212.620.7310

For more information, to become a volunteer, or to make a donation please visit…
www.gaycenter.org

And tune into…
Out at the Center, airing on the fourth Thursday of the month at 10PM on Manhattan Neighborhood Network – Time Warner 34 and 78 (digital), RCN 107 and 83 (digital).

Filed Under: Articles | Commentary | Community | New York

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