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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 25, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Southside center seeks neighborhood revival

In those days

Leslie “Floyd” Carrington first stepped into the Southside Community Center in 1958. He was 8 years old, and the candy store in the secretary’s office was his favorite place to be. He would be there when it opened and when it closed.
“You got candy for a penny then,” he laughs, and when Floyd laughs, it’s not just a grin: His entire frame shakes.

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From left, a student sits with “Ms. Evelyn” Pontes at the front desk of the Southside Community Center, built in 1937 as a place for the black community to gather. ALLISON USAVAGE/THE ITHACAN

Today Floyd sits at the front desk of that same center. Slightly overweight with his black hair slicked back with specks of gray showing, he usually wears an extra-large gray T-shirt or another low-toned color with his jeans. He has a diamond stud in his left ear and wears long gold chains, one with a huge F for Floyd and one with a large dollar sign. He joined the center through Experience Works, a program that helps employ low-income seniors.

The Southside Community Center is located on South Plain Street, a fairly narrow street that would’ve functioned better as a one-way street, especially with cars parked on both sides of the road. Tall and majestic, the building still has the same red bricks with white framing along the sides as it had in 1937, the year it was built.

The secretary’s office is where it was then, but the front desk is not. Floyd rolls his chair around the lobby as he tries to recount the center’s structure when he first came, placing himself near the door to note how the front steps weren’t there. He swivels slowly back inside saying the kitchen hasn’t moved but that the outdoor park, which could benefit from some landscaping, is a new addition.

Instead of his front desk, there was a winding flight of stairs leading to the second floor. That’s where there used to be a balcony overlooking the gym, Floyd’s favorite spot after the candy store. He would go to the gym after school and play on the court; the center was known for its basketball clinics.

“First thing we’d do is go to the locker room, change into practice uniforms. The basketball coach would have us run around a few times, do some calisthenics and stuff. Then we would line up on one side of the gym.” He plays out the scene in his head with casual concentration. “[The coach] would stand underneath the basket, and he would rebound and pass the ball. [We’d] go around to the end of the line, make a left, then we’d line up like five men on the court and we’d practice plays and stuff: 2-1-2, 3-2 … .”

Often the Southside kids would hop on a bus and go away on a ball game to Elmira, Binghamton or Rochester. Rochester wasn’t a popular opponent because the Southside kids would leave with embarrassing numbers on the final scoreboard. There usually was a dance right after, and then they all got on the bus back to the center.

Along with basketball, Floyd boxed. Everyone on the team had a nickname depending on how each of them boxed. His was Floyd, but he says that didn’t have much to do with Floyd Patterson, a two-time world heavyweight boxing champion.

“I boxed and held my own, but I sure wasn’t no pro,” he laughs dismissively. Nowadays, fishing is a bigger part of his life; he spends hours at the lake as soon as it gets nice outside.

He lives about 10 minutes away and drives into work around 2 p.m. He walks with a limp, clutching a walking stick for support. He puts his stick away, settles down in a chair that has aged with stains on its seat; he hardly leaves that seat for the six hours that he works. Before he can even begin dealing with the kids, he starts with his first priority at work and takes a second to prepare himself for the next five minutes of frustration — turning on the computer to get Windows Media Player to play his soul tunes.

Sometimes the CD player doesn’t work, sometimes the program won’t open, or maybe he has trouble turning on the computer — a PC that’s stuck in late the 1990s — but he gets it to work. The CDs are usually personal mixes, and one of his favorites is Natalie Coles’ “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” He could start singing along even while in a conversation.

Once the music is at a reasonable volume, he turns his attention to the kids. Kids from the ages of 3 to 18 years old roll in with the kind of high that comes with the last school bell. The rule is they have to sign in as soon as they come in, which the kids tend to forget. Floyd reminds them to sign in as they simply walk by the desk. In the days when Floyd used to go to the center the protocol was the same, except the kids were different.

“Now they got no respect. I ask them how they doin’, and they look at you like, ‘Who you talkin’ to? Why are you even addressin’ me?’ Maybe I’m a little old-school, but I just feel better when they speak to me.”

His favorite days at work are when the respectful crowd comes in. Once Floyd thanked a 14-year-old boy for signing in, and the boy responded with a rarely heard, “You’re welcome,” leaving Floyd to respond with just a nod of amusement.

He’s not a fan of the way kids carry themselves today. Boys and men walk out of the center’s gym, sweating, shirtless or in a beater. Their jeans are usually halfway down their ass. Sometimes you catch the boys literally pulling their pants halfway down to show just enough so you’re aware of their choice of boxers for the day.

“If I wore my pants the way they wear their pants now … I mean to each his own. My kid wouldn’t do it.”

He wouldn’t want his kids to come here, he admits as a matter of fact.

“The running around, the cussin’ and the swearin’,” he said. “In those days, if something wrong went down here, then the director tapped you on your behind, and then you go home and your mama tapped you on your behind. … There’s not enough structure in the place.”

There isn’t an obvious sense of structure to this place. There are at least 60 volunteers coming in regularly. Six employees walk around, making sure everything is in order. But it’s not unusual to find kids running unsupervised in the gym and around the center, talking loudly in the lobby or blaring music in the computer lab.

Floyd was hired to add a sense of respect to the center — that respect for the older generation. But for Floyd, there isn’t much he can do to bring the situation under control.

“The kids are too rowdy,” he said. “They don’t care what they say, how they say, who they’re talking to. … I come here to do my job. … Back then babies weren’t making babies. In those days, you would deal with riggedy-raggedy kids. Now you gotta deal with crack babies.”

Community roots

The Southside area is a largely black neighborhood, a holdover from the days of segregation, and houses many low-income families from different cultures. Host to the Department of Social Services, a drug rehab center and a homeless shelter, this side of town is not home to the richest of Ithaca. The stigma of it being the “sketchy” part of town is still strong. From the outside many houses have bent roofs, holey chairs on porches and peeling paint on the outside.

The center came around in 1934 to give the black community a place to gather outside the black church. James L. Gibbs was this building’s first director and was instrumental in increasing employment opportunities for blacks in the area. A framed photo of him still hangs against a peeling beige wall on the second floor alongside other photos that give glimpses into the history of the center. One is of young men playing football outside the center and another of community members gathering inside. Outside some finished and many unfinished murals remain: one of a tall, muscular black man holding the globe in his hands sitting by a lion with a groomed mane; another, a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt’s arrival at the center when she came to inaugurate it in 1938; one of the circle of life with animals and humans that still needs final touches.

The center gets most of its money from the city, United Way and the county to a certain extent. A small amount comes from donations and grants. A pool table in the middle of the lounge was recently donated and so are most of the books on the second floor.

Most of the kids are black, Latino or biracial. White kids do come in for tap dance or karate classes, occasionally stopping by other classes that include hip-hop dance lessons, arts and crafts, the famed basketball clinics and the ever-popular Monday night youth bingo. The center does make it a point to offer programs that work to attract youth from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of interests. The center holds tutoring sessions and has the UNITY studio on the second floor. Well equipped with four Macs, a Pro Tools program and other recording equipment, the studio is where people come in for beat-making sessions or to take advantage of the free recording hours.

“It’s personal style”

Teenagers make up most of the population at the community center. Enlylh, 12, has been coming to the center for a year. Her mother, Kirtrina Baxter, is the center’s program director, and so when Enlylh walks in, she practically knows everyone. A hug for anyone who walks in that she knows, a friendly “hi” to the employees, but Enlylh’s most talkative in the computer lab — it’s where all the kids gather.

“There’s nothing else to do for teens, so we just come to Southside. Most of my friends come here; most who aren’t of color go home, and those who are come here.”

The computer lab has 10 PCs and one desktop Mac and computer chairs that are six years old with cushiony seats, but the armrests are practically not there. The carpeting in the lab needs cleaning and is usually worn out from all the rolling around in the chairs by the kids. The recycling bin is full of the $1 Arizona Half Iced Tea Half Lemonade that the kids drink frequently.

The center serves as an after-school space where students can wind down or work with tutors to get homework done. Getting homework done might be a tad harder because, as Floyd pointed out, this place is loud. The contrast is the most obvious between 3 to 4:30 p.m. Before the high school or middle school kids come at around 4:30, the center is creepily quiet and the computer lab is empty. But as soon as the clock nears 4:30, it starts getting loud and hearing the phone ring at the front desk becomes an added task.

Trevon, 15, says people shouldn’t come here if they want to get homework done. Soft-spoken and distant, Trevon moved to Ithaca when he was 3 years old from New York City to be with his grandma. He walks in with his blue athletic shorts halfway down his ass, wearing a white T-shirt and his New York Yankees hat.

Trevon spends most of his time in the center sitting outside on the ledge or coming in for DJ lessons or playing on the computer. He agrees with Floyd that kids are disrespectful nowadays and blatantly admits he’s part of it.

“You get smart with your parents. I damn sure do. I damn sure do,” he repeats. “I just love arguing with people. I don’t know why; I do it with my mom all the time.”

When he comes home, his mother asks him to pick up his shoes and he tells his mother no, “Why do I gotta do it? You do it.”

He says it’s normal.

As for the shorts that sit halfway down his ass? “It’s personal style.”

The cussing too is just part of their everyday lives.

Enlylh was walking with her 15-year-old friend to the community center when her friend saw a girl he knew. He called at her multiple times, but she didn’t look back. She was almost out of sight and finally he yelled, “Booty stank bitch.”

“I couldn’t stop laughing,” Enlylh says. “When you’re cussin’, an emotion comes with it. If somebody told me not to use that word, it’s like telling me not to use a certain emotion. If I feel [a] way, I’ma say a word.”

The Renaissance

At the center, Kirtrina is always running around from one place to another. She’s either attending meetings, making sure the kids are OK, taking over the front desk if Floyd isn’t there or driving the center’s white van to pick up kids from pizza. She usually goes up to her second-floor office and back down at least five times every hour with her long dreadlocks swinging back and forth, her heels giving her quite the workout. She always wears earrings that match her necklace and complement her outfits of the day.

Kirtrina joined the center in April 2009 after moving from Oneonta to ensure her daughter grew up understanding her culture. Before Oneonta she lived in Philadelphia, having moved to Oneonta for a more natural surrounding. The lack of diversity in Oneonta led her to Ithaca.

Kirtrina grew up in a family that has a lot of black pride. She wanted her daughter to have a black experience growing up, and the Southside Community Center fit perfectly into the plan. Historically, the center has primarily catered to the black community. It came about when blacks needed a safe place to stay, a place “where they wouldn’t be judged.” This is where many gathered and continue to gather today to learn about the heritage of the African diaspora and also build a community. Knowing the history of the place, Kirtrina walked into the center.

“I was really disappointed in what I found. There weren’t many programs … didn’t feel like a very friendly atmosphere. I decided I was not gonna be sending my daughter here.”

She immediately went home and e-mailed the center’s director because she still wanted to volunteer in any way possible so she could work with teens and pursue her love for human services.

Kirtrina comes from a family where both of her parents are pastors. Often, when people needed housing, they would walk over to the Baxters’. The family wouldn’t have enough for themselves, but that’s what they did. At the church, Kirtrina would help the ladies in the kitchen with dinner and helped others when needed.

“I knew that was what I had to do … I knew I had to be in service to others,” she says.

When she handed her résumé to the center’s director, Mr. Mack, a large man with dreads down to his shoulders who has to approve anything the center does, she told him this was her job. She knew it. No one else was going to have it.

Before she came, the center was staffed differently. Most were volunteers and were usually there to fulfill required hours. Kirtrina says most who worked at the center were scared of those who actually used the center.

“Most who volunteered weren’t really African-American or Latina or Latino and had never really interacted with this community,” she explains. “The teens can be rough. … I can see that the average person may or may not be comfortable in a setting if they’re not used to the cultural aspects within our community.”

One of the first things Kirtrina did when she got to the center was change the people at the front desk from volunteers to employees. She hired Floyd and Evelyn Pontes, whom everyone calls “Ms. Evelyn,” an elderly woman who also came in through the Experience Works program, to share front-desk duties during the day. “We call it the renaissance,” Kirtrina says to describe the ongoing changes.

Kirtrina notes that as a culture, blacks can be very dynamic and loud and boisterous, which sometimes could be misunderstood, especially for those outside the culture. She recalls a confrontation from last year.

Driving by the Southside, you can never miss the guys hanging out front with their hats turned to the side, watching people as they go by. The boys, generally between the ages of 16 and 18, usually sit on the porch ledge, hanging out, gambling across the street or playing dice. Last spring, a 16-year-old girl who was volunteering at the center was on her way in. They hollered at her, and she flipped out on the boys. She yelled at them and was “in their faces,” and they said nothing.

It’s the negative stereotypes of black men, furthered by the media, that might make this incident seem unexpected, Kirtrina says. Typically, you might expect the boys to respond aggressively.

“These boys might holler at a girl, check her out, but they are not thugs. I know thugs,” she says, emphasizing with her eyebrows raised and gesturing with her hands. She uses her hands a lot to emphasize her points. “Most men that I know are thugs would’ve dealt with that. That’s when I first changed my mind and saw these gentlemen for who they are. It’s hip-hop culture that has seeped into young men that makes them wanna be thugs.”

It’s one of her top priorities get to know the youth to change the center’s reputation. When she came in, a lot of the Ithaca community was unwilling to work with her and the center. In the past year, she had to ask the guys smoking blunts out front, in the park or by the trash cans to stop.

“This is our center, and don’t mess up our reputation,” she would tell them. This is a reputation with a history.

When the crack epidemic hit the United States, South Plain Street and State Street became Ithaca’s hub of drugs and drug deals. Ms. Evelyn recalls a conversation with a cab driver who said that people “were OD’ing all over the streets. There were robberies and killings everywhere.” Community members took it upon themselves to clean up the neighborhood, but the stigma of this “rough” side of town has hardly left.

At meetings with other community leaders, Kirtrina’s often told to get those drug dealers out of there, which is an ongoing process. Sometimes the teens walk in smelling like “funk,” but at least there’s a chance they might’ve smoked elsewhere.

Around 50 to 60 children participate in the program. Kirtrina’s main goal is to bring in as much programming as she can to serve the kids better. Unlike Floyd, Kirtrina thinks a solid set of rules might not help the center much.

“Kids have been coming here doing whatever they wanted to do. So they say, ‘Now why can’t I go to the computer lab? Why you gotta be followin’ me everywhere?’”

Dream

“Nobody wants to come to a place where you do this and don’t do that,” says Ally, a 15-year-old freshman at Ithaca High School. “That’s why they have school.”

Once Ally came to school early and asked the teacher permission to put her books in the locker before the bell rang.

“[The teacher] still said no even when I had come early to class, and that made me mad,” she recalls, annoyed.

Mature for her age, poised even, Ally casually walks around with her hair high up in a ponytail and a necklace with a pendant that spells “dream.” Her stepmom gave it to her.

“People look at it and say, ‘What does that say?’ and I say dream,” Ally explains, “And then they ask, ‘Why does it say that?’ and I say cuz I’m dreaming for success.”

The school bell rings at around 8:50 a.m. Ally then comes home around 3 p.m., cleans the house, takes care of her 13-year-old sister and then comes to the center to chill. Her mother is a manager at Tops and usually doesn’t come home till 7 p.m. Sometimes she works till 11 p.m. Her father lives around the corner with her stepmom, so she goes there sometimes.

The main reason Ally comes to the Southside is to hang out with Vinnie Sierra, the one who supervises the computer labs and gives DJ lessons.

#1

Vinnie hosts the 5-to-6 p.m. radio show featuring the latest hip-hop tracks every Friday — 305Live. The show is hosted out of the center’s computer lab. Vinnie sometimes cleans the computer lab with an industrial vacuum that’s placed in the corner of the lab, right next to the torn speakers. After the kids leave, it feels like the “Tasmanian devil just went through a tornado.” The computer lab is not the most advanced around, but this is Vinnie’s space. His desk has a desktop PC, his DJ equipment and his 15-inch Toshiba laptop.

With earphones around his neck, his over-large jersey over a shirt, denim shorts and necklace that says “#1,” Vinnie gets ready for the show. He has his list of songs of the week out, waiting for the other kids to walk in at any moment. He has copies of his radio show, having highlighted the parts the kids need to say. Usually, the kids pick the Top 10 for the week with him.

The show broadcasts live on video on shoutnet.com. So he looks into the camera, swings and just moves to the beat and the rhythm, dancing for someone — hopefully.

“Helllooo world.”

Vinnie hits a couple of the white buttons on his massive switchboard and begins his radio show.

Spinning the CD turntables, he picks a song. He owns the equipment, not a single moment of hesitance in pushing the next white button. He’s been doing it for years – 16 to be precise.

He picked it up from his father, he says. His father used to DJ when Vinnie was a kid, but once his younger brother was on the way three years after him, his father sold the equipment to meet financial needs. While doing all of that, his father started using crack cocaine in the early ’80s.

The oldest of three brothers, Vinnie often became the one to take care of his mother and then the one to make sure his brothers were OK. Many times he would come home to find his father “high as a kite” or with a pipe in the kitchen. Often Vinnie would be there rubbing his mother’s back telling her it’s OK, that he’s there for her because his father had just hit her.

Living in the “concrete jungle” of Spanish Harlem in New York City, he grew up with families dealing with similar troubles. He would play tag with his friends inside his 18-floor high-rise but would also see “people falling like zombies all around” because crack cocaine had taken over.

“Growing up in that time was real crazy. A lot of good people ended up getting caught up in that stuff. A lotta families had broken up, a lotta homes torn apart. You know living in a ghetto area — for lack of a better term — relatively low income, we made do with what it was that we had.”

Vinnie takes care of people, makes sure the ones he loves are OK. The kids who walk into the Southside Community Center have similar stories. Single-parent households, abusive households, and so they come speak to him, relate to him and learn from him.

They know of his history and all that he’s been through. They know he got himself through his childhood and through college, graduated and now has a steady job at the center.

“[They know that] this is somebody that’s familiar with what they’ve been through. It gives me a little bit of credence to what it is I say to them.”

Vinnie wanted to be a police officer at one point. So he earned a degree in criminal justice at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He decided later he would rather not be the one to deal with troubled youth at the end of the road. Vinnie wanted to be there not in uniform, but when they were growing up — before they got wrapped up with the system and while they still needed role models.

“The Southside kids are like the land of misfit toys … lot of kids that are rough around the edges … lotta people don’t understand how to work with kids like this. They use traditional methods, by the book stuff. It’s just about telling them that you understand where they’re coming from.”

He believes if the center fell into structure, it would be like school and insulting to the kids’ intelligence to always tell them what to do; they know what’s good and bad behavior.

He does not set up rules in the computer lab. In fact, when kids gather there, the place is usually blaring the most popular songs. Kids roll around in their chairs dancing to the music, often practicing what they learned at dance lessons. The only time Vinnie enforces discipline is when the volume is too loud or when the kids are “cussin’ up a storm.” Beyond that, he and the rest of the staff tell them to go “ahead and be themselves with the understanding that you know you have this responsibility … as long as you act a certain way that’s expected of you, you’re free to do whatever it is that you want.”

Fish to water

Ally is Vinnie’s prodigy. She started taking DJ lessons from him in February and has since played at multiple teen parties and events. At the parties, DJ Elev8, Ally’s DJ name, and DJ Split Image, Vinnie’s DJ name, are ready to rule the night.

Vinnie was given his DJ name by a friend his sophomore year of college. At the center he’s laid-back, walking around being his happy-go-lucky self, saying hi to everyone and helping out wherever he can. But at a party he’s loud, and you know for a fact that DJ Split Image is in the house. Vinnie gets an ego boost when he’s the DJ. Talking to everyone, hollerin’ at everyone, he is where he belongs.

“It was like fish to water … kinda just came second nature to me,” Vinnie says about being a DJ.

He gears up for each track, his hands on the wheels, mixing and matching the patterns and going with the beat. His body bent, focused, looking at the screen and then at the switchboard, never once does he stop moving. He’s in the zone.

He gets the crowd completely riled up when his songs have the word “Southside” in them. Those from the Southside can’t stop cheering with pride. “Go Southside, go Southside,” they yell with their hands in the air.

For Vinnie everything has a rhythm to it, everything has a beat and a vibe. Even as he walks home from work, he usually has his earphones in, bopping to music. It’s usually either hip-hop or Latin music. Don’t expect him to listen to country.

Ally looks up to Vinnie and is still learning from him. At these parties, she’s focused even as her friends surround her. She’s energetic and sometimes gives into dancing behind the turntables when she plays a tune she likes, but mostly she’s focused.

Spinning those wheels on the switchboard gives Ally something productive to do with her time and pays money, but most importantly, it has music.

“Music is my life,” she said. “[At the parties,] people like to dance, and if I’m putting the music together, it makes me happy.”

Her choice of music: hip-hop, reggae, reggaeton, pop and, much to her own timid admission, some country.

Up next

Kirtrina and every other employee in the community center have set roles, but they mostly work to make the center a place for camaraderie and community building. Next on the agenda for the center is a hot food program, so kids don’t stay hungry when they come to the center, especially since many of them stay till it closes at 8 p.m. Last year’s Congo Square market will be back this summer. The market is a huge gathering of independent entrepreneurs that need an outlet to start a business. This year, working-age kids will learn to grow fruits and vegetable and help families sell them at the market.

“We do a lot of things that have a cultural edge to them, but that doesn’t mean that it’s only for selective people.” Vinnie says. “Anybody who wants to come here is welcome here, and anybody who wants to contribute positively here is welcome here.”

The goal is to continue giving the Southside kids a safe space to come after school so they have a place to call their own.

Vinnie plugs in the industrial vacuum and starts running it over the carpet. “They just don’t clean up after themselves,” he casually notes. As the vacuum starts guzzling down chewing gum wrappers and sunflower seeds, Enlylh walks over to Vinnie’s laptop and turns up the volume to Rihanna’s “Rude Boy.”

Once the volume is high enough, she grabs her friend and they start dancing to the beat, hitting the floor, twirling their hips as Vinnie tries to vacuum the leftover space. For a moment, Vinnie puts the vacuum away and joins the dance party.

“Working here in the center is not something you do if you’re looking to make some money, health benefits or financial benefits or physical reward,” Vinnie says. “It’s more about an emotional reward. It’s more about giving yourself, to show that good people are left in the world.”