As I reached the end of 140th Street, I was intrigued by an imposing structure designed to resemble a castle on the corner of Riverside Drive. Further investigation revealed that the building, aptly known as “the Castle,” was opened by the Fortune Society in 2002 as a housing unit for those with a history of incarceration who are in need of a place to reside. The adjacent building, Castle Gardens, opened in 2010 as an expanded version of the original program that allowed for long-term rather than just temporary housing. The residence is designed to facilitate the tenants’ transition into society after their incarceration and reduce the number of repeat offenders. Residents are assessed on an individual basis to determine the best course of action for them, including their projected length of stay and what programs they might need the most in order to readjust smoothly. To this end, the Fortune Society offers services in education, counseling, and career planning. Just as importantly, the shared housing creates a community that helps combat the feelings of isolation that commonly afflict the formerly incarcerated.
Since opening its doors, the Castle has housed and helped nearly 1,000 people. Yet this is only one of several efforts the Fortune Society is involved in that aim to correct the injustices of what can be an excessively harsh penal system. The Society has a series of programs that improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated, such as readily available mental health services, treatment for substance abuse, a nutrition program that encompasses both free meals and cooking lessons, and even opportunities in the arts. In addition to this, it tries to attack the root of the issue through its Alternatives to Incarceration programs, which seek to reduce the potential for reoffending by providing adequate mental healthcare and various other support services.
Founded in 1990 by a group of Dominican immigrants, the Mirabal Sisters Center devotes itself to living up to the legacy of its namesake by fighting against injustice. The Mirabal Sisters, three Dominican heroines who protested Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship and were martyred for their cause, serve as a central inspiration as the organization works to serve its community, people of color and working class families in particular. The Center has led a series of initiatives over the years, such as youth programs that educate adolescents on substance abuse, a partnership with public schools to arrange for more after-school activities, and a cultural program with a focus on arts and crafts. In 2017, the organization has focused most of its efforts on a collaboration with the Urban Justice Center and tenant associations in order to support the rights of tenants. Pio Tejada, brother to Luis Tejada, the head the organization, explained to us that the increasing gentrification of the city - and Harlem especially - has resulted in numerous conflicts between landlords and tenants. “Landlords are trying to drive off and profit from tenants, ” he said, citing examples of escalating rent prices in non-rent-controlled buildings and even sabotage to the facilities to force residents to pay additional maintenance fees. To help right the injustices being wrought against tenants, the Center holds open consulting hours every Tuesday and Thursday, during which anyone from the five boroughs are welcome to bring up their concerns and grievances. In return, the Center offers advice and connections to legal counsel or similar organizations that can aid tenants in the fight for fair treatment. The Center is Luis’ passion project, almost entirely self-funded, since it is a relatively small organization that has difficulty garnering significant support. “Work like this can only be done from the heart, ” Pio insisted with pride, sharing how his brother, once a high school teacher and university professor, left academia to start the Center out of a genuine desire to help others. Much of their work involves educating the community on their rights as renters, since a common issue that Luis and Pio face is people’s lack of trust in the system. Many are resigned to mistreatment and do not believe that their circumstances can change for the better, so it is the Center’s job to encourage people to speak up.
Sprawled along five blocks of Convent Avenue and bordered by St. Nicholas Park, City College of New York’s campus is an impressive sight in West Harlem. Although CCNY was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy of the City of New York, it did not move to its current location until 1907. The buildings were designed by American architect George Browne Post, who was known for his unique projects and penchant for pioneering new ideas. His work on the campus reflects this, as CCNY is one of the first colleges to implement the Collegiate Gothic style in the United States. Its architecture, of course, is not the only feature that makes CCNY unique. It is known for being the first free public university in the United States, created with the specific intention of making education accessible to all, even members of communities typically barred from higher education due to their status as immigrants or low income. Over the years, it has abided by this founding mission of fostering diversity and opportunity. For example, the school boasts one of the first fraternities to admit members of different ethnicities and religions, it started accepting women into their graduate program as of 1930, and it eliminated the policy mandating weekly chapel attendance. To this day, CCNY continues its efforts to change with the times and broaden its student body.