Recent News

September 11, 2017

Talking with Bob Miner

Bob Miner

The earliest incarnation of Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement was founded 128 years ago, and since then countless lives have been impacted by our work. Our legacy,  like those of many settlement houses, is a rich tapestry woven together by people, events, stories, meanings, and memories – some of which, understandably, have faded with the passage of time. And yet, retaining a connection to our past is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Knowing where we come from and acknowledging the contributions of those who came before us enables us to ground our work in something greater than the day-to-day minutia and helps to reaffirm our raison d’etre.

It is easy to gain hold of Riis’ past when one speaks with Bob Miner (pictured above center). Bob is a former executive director of Riis Settlement (1960-1990), and a 96-year-old walking treasure trove of memories so sharp you might find yourself suspiciously wondering if his tales of yore actually happened just yesterday. We sat with him recently for a trip down memory lane that was both enlightening and inspiring.

Bob joined Riis in the early forties as a gym instructor and sports coach when it was located at 48 Henry Street in Manhattan – leaving briefly from 1943-1945 to enlist in the service as a bomber pilot. Upon his return, he resumed work as director of the athletics department. When he returned, Riis Settlement was still located at 48 Henry Street but the then executive director, Helene Nelson, was already having conversations with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) around the needs of public housing residents. There were many settlement houses tending to the needs of the Lower East Side, so it made sense to begin serving the boroughs. Shortly thereafter the agency spread its wings and began offering services/ activities for all ages at a number of satellite sites including Red Hook Houses, Marcy Houses, Queensbridge Houses, and the Stephen Foster Houses. At the Stephen Foster Houses they operated a dramatic arts program that was overseen by Robin Gibson, a company stage manager with the renowned D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and the first British stage manager at the Radio City Music Hall.

In 1952, they sold the building at Henry Street to raise much-needed funds and consolidated all their activities at Queensbridge Houses. One of the first programs they started at Queensbridge was a senior services program, which was overseen by comedic actor Arnold Stang’s aunt, Rosetta. Arnold stared in movies alongside the likes of Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, and, because of Arnold’s celebrity status, Rosetta was able to secure many donations for the center. In those early years, ED Helene Nelson (a celebrity in her own right: her real name was Baroness Liljencrants) organized grand galas in the ballrooms of Queensborough Plaza, where some of the New York City’s elites would come together to raise large sums of money for the agency.

Over the following decades the agency offered a wide range of activities for youth and adults. The center had many championship winning basketball teams, such as the Riis Raiders and the Riis Rockets; baseball teams; and boxing teams. The ring and cleats they used were donated by none other than Sugar Ray Robinson himself, who came to the center to teach the youth to box. Riis teams would compete against teams from the Police Athletic league, Boys Athletic League, and the NYC Parks Department. And, both Silvercup Bakery (now the famed Silvercup Studios) and neighboring Canada Dry would regularly finance uniforms, trophies, and referee fees for tournaments.

There was also an African cultural program, which was facilitated by Gus Dinizulu, founder of the troupe called Dinizulu and His African Dancers, considered one of the oldest African dance companies in America. Outdoor dances were held in the handball court and outdoor movies in the basketball court. Each year, the agency would hold an African cultural festival in the park and Butterfly McQueen of Gone with the Wind fame would attend as a special guest of honor.

Of all of the people who Bob can recall passing through Riis, none has a more remarkable story than Gemma LaGuardia Gluck. Gemma was the sister of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and lived in Budapest when WWII broke out. When the Nazis invaded in 1944, Gemma and her family were sent to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp where they remained until the war ended. It would be another two years before Mayor LaGuardia could secure passage to the US for Gemma, her daughter Yolanda, and her grandson Richard. Her husband, unfortunately, did not survive internment. When they finally made it to the US, 65 year old Gemma and her family came to live in Queensbridge Houses. Her reunion with her brother was short-lived, as he died a few months later. Gemma spent the rest of her years living in Queensbridge, and for many of those years taught English and piano to the youth at the center. One of her young students was Charlie Smalls who excelled and went on to study music at Julliard. Charlie would eventually garner worldwide fame as the composer and lyricist of the acclaimed musical, The Wiz.

These are but a few of Bob’s many, many vivid recollections of his time at Riis Settlement. Connecting to the past through his stories, we are reminded that the extraordinary can be found in the most seemingly ordinary of places. Being a place where such disparate lives can intersect and reciprocity can endure is something to remember, something to be proud of, and something to continue striving for.

Celebrating Riis Staff!

It is no great secret that those who work in the non-profit sector are often undercompensated for all their hard work and effort. For most of the individuals who enter the field, the driving motivation is rarely money. Rather it is the belief that by engaging in this work, one can make a real and meaningful difference in the lives of others. And that kind of commitment deserves highlighting. In an effort to acknowledge and show appreciation for the dedication of our employees, Riis Settlement recently initiated an “Employee of the Month” program. Along with the accolade, each selected staff member receives a gift card and a chance to win a $1,000 bonus at the end of the year.

Meet our winners thus far!

Nestor

June: Nestor Ulep
Nestor has served as our marketing/graphic designer for the past seven and a half years — dedicating his time to designing flyers, publications, appeals, mailings, banners, awards, reports and so much more. Over the years, Nestor has diligently created graphics that have helped us effectively communicate our mission, work, and achievements.

Kayla

July: Kayla Almanzar
Kayla is the case manager for our Immigrant Services program. She works hard on behalf of our immigrant participants, as well as many other community members, helping them obtain vital social services. Kayla assists our participants with everything from housing to healthcare related issues and serves as a valuable resource for all those in need of assistance.

QuenasiaScott2

August: Quenasia Scott
Quenasia Scott is a group leader at Riis Academy –C.S. 111. She has been recognized by her colleagues for her hard work, willingness to be a team player, and her dedication to the young people with whom she works. Working in an after-school environment can be quite demanding, and Quenasia puts great effort into creating a fun and educational environment for the participants in her program.

Each and every one of our staff members deserves highlighting. They are all valuable members of the Riis Settlement family, and each one plays an integral part in helping to propel the agency’s mission and effectively serve the hundreds of participants who come through our doors each day. It is because of their hard work that we are successful in our efforts to be a true catalyst for change in western Queens, and we are thankful to them all!

Books, Books, and More Books!

This summer, Riis Settlement partnered with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for two book giveaway events as part of the national Book-Rich Environment Initiative.  The initiative, which was launched by the National Book Foundation, the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education, the Urban Libraries Council, and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, seeks to eliminate “book deserts” across the nation by supplying books to public housing residents and increasing their access to high-quality literacy tools.

BRE

Riis held one event in Queensbridge Houses and the other at the Ravenswood Houses, and both were a huge success.  Hundreds of community members came out to peruse and select up to eight books from a wide range of offerings that catered to toddlers all the way up to young adults. For our youngest readers there were colorful board and pop-up books, and for the older readers popular reads such as “Maniac Magee” and the “Twilight Series”. Representatives from the Queens Public Library were on hand to help people register for a library card, and children enjoyed healthy snacks, face painting, and arts and crafts activities at both events.

The giveaway events happened not only in Queensbridge and Ravenswood but also in public housing communities all across the country.  Thirty-six public housing authorities participated in the initiative and over 270,000 books—generously donated by Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan Publishers—were distributed at community centers like ours. Within NYCHA housing properties alone, 50,000 books were distributed.

The benefits of reading—especially early childhood reading—have been well documented. The earlier children are exposed to books and reading, the greater their chances for socioeconomic success later in life. However, there is a vast disparity in access to books between low-income communities and middle- and upper-income communities. The term “book desert” has come to identify these low-income communities where brick and mortar book stores are few and far between, libraries are typically underresourced, and many families do not have sufficient access to the internet to make up the print gap. This initiative is a wonderful first step in helping to overcome that inequity, and we are thrilled to have been able to participate and help the youth in our community build their libraries!

Danish Cultural Exchange Program 2017

Now in its 12th year, our Danish Cultural Exchange Program continues to honor our ties to the birth country of our founder, Jacob A. Riis, and continues to afford some of our young Riis Academy students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel abroad, explore a new culture, and gain a broader worldview. This summer, six of our students departed New York City for what would be a very memorable trip. They were accompanied by Veronica Franklin, director of youth programs at Queensbridge, as well as Riis’ newly elected board chair, Gordon Mehler.

Airport
Off to Denmark!

The group first flew to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, and from there they took a four-hour train ride through scenic countryside to Jacob Riis’ birthplace, Ribe – where they were greeted by their host families. The following day the group explored the small town, which is the oldest town in Denmark with a population of just over 8,000. They experienced the unique Danish concept of the hygge by enjoying warm coffee and cake with their new friends at a local café and attending a barbecue at a local farm. Hygge, pronounced hoo-guh, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” It is a way of life that the Danish hold dear and one that the hosts were proud to share with our youth.

Next on the itinerary was a trip to the Wadden Sea and Mando Island. The Wadden Sea is a few miles from Ribe and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Mando Island is home to extensive birdlife but only 40 human inhabitants!

Mando Island
On Mando Island

During their time in Ribe, the youth also had the opportunity to learn more about Denmark’s connections to the Vikings, who ruled Scandinavia between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. They visited the Viking museum and a replica Viking village.

The last two days of the trip were spent back in Copenhagen where the group visited the famous Tivoli Gardens amusement park, experienced Danish city life, and bid their final farewells to their new friends.

Tivoli
At Tivoli Gardens

The Danish Cultural Exchange Program has been sustained over the years by some of our most steadfast supporters. This year, in particular, we must thank board member Neda Yagan and her husband, Ove Haxthausen, for facilitating a generous donation from the Stamford Denmark Friendship Committee, which allowed our youth to have this life-changing intercultural experience.

We looking forward to the start of the 7th cycle of the program next year and welcoming a new cohort of Danish students to New York City and treating them to some American hygge!”

 

 

 

 

August 17, 2017

Queens Connect Cohort Fall 2017

Out of school and out of work? 18-24 years old? You or someone you know maybe interested, See flyer for more details.

qconnect