Having grown up in the Lower East Side, Rosario Dawson said there were not many opportunities for girls in the neighborhood.
“Having grown up here myself, I can attest to the fact that there really was no place for me to go,” said Dawson. “Now when I do meet those young people who say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky; you’ve had a amazing opportunities,’ I can say, ‘So do you. You have this amazing opportunity that I didn’t even get to have.’”
Dawson is talking about the Lower Eastside Girls Club (LESGC). While there are two boys clubs in the city, neither of them opened their programing to girls, and to this day, none of them do. In 1996, community members founded the LESGC to fill that gap, serving girls who faced gender and socioeconomic barriers to success. According to LESGC, 95 percent of the families affiliated with the club live below the poverty level, and 45 percent of the members have a family member who is incarcerated. The club moved around from the backrooms of churches to donated business spaces over the years, but this month, LESGC completed construction and opened its new $20 million, 30,000-square-foot center.
“Being able to have this space now after all these years, its incredible. There is a lot of gentrification in this community, and it’s not for the community. This is really the first project of its kind, and it’s actually truly for the community,” said Dawson. “This is breaking habits, this is breaking violence loops, this is stopping kids from dropping out of school. When we are interrupting that, habits are replaced, and we are replacing [them] with compassion and empowerment and creativity.”
The impressive space houses rooms for every activity a girl could imagine. LESGC Associate Executive Director Lyn Pentecost explained that these rooms mirror industries in New York, giving girls the opportunity to investigate different fields and build job-specific skills for their futures.
“We don’t want to waste girls’ time,” said Pentecost. “You can try a little engineering and science here, but you can do a bit of art and art history too. Girls can find out what they like and what they don’t and what they may want to study in college.”
While the space has the basics—a dance room, an art room, a health and wellness center and a library—most of its spaces go above and beyond.
The art room has a camera obscura, which distorts images for more intense study. The music room has a DJ learning space and a recording studio inside of an RV. The Science and Environmental Education Center has rolling microscopes that girls can take all over the center, and its garage-door wall opens up directly onto the roof’s garden. Each of these has a high-caliber lineup of teachers. I even ran into Hettie Jones teaching a writing class.
While LESGC, unlike its male counterparts, will be open to children of all genders, there is one space that is “girls only.” That is the Tyra Banks’ TZONE, a large, two-story meeting space with a computer lab and counseling offices that will house a leadership program and GED classes.