“This has always been a neighborhood of transition.” Walking uptown past 96th Street in Manhattan, not too far from the Guggenheim, eastward of Central Park and above the tidy and buttoned-up Upper East Side, crossing over into East Harlem is like feeling a sudden spark. What separates East Harlem from so many neighborhoods in New York City is its unbridled vibrancy: its storefronts and sidewalks splashed in color from street art, the echoes of bachata around every corner, the food trucks purveying an assortment of treats from ice-cold flavored snow to tongue-toasting tacos, plus its plethora of parks and gardens, galleries, mom-and-pop shops, and cultural centers. East Harlem is one of the last holdouts of the city’s pervasive gentrification problem which allows neighborhoods to constantly be reborn with new housing, chain stores and expanded greenery, but often at the cost of lower-income families who have populated the area for generations who can no longer afford to live there. For over a century, gentrification has disappeared entire neighborhoods for the sake of renewal. East Harlem is currently in between two worlds, and the center of it is Harlem RBI and the kids that it serves.
What is it like to grow up in East Harlem? While a cultural hub and a center for diversity, a report from NYC.gov states that only 13% of residents over the age of 25 possess a college degree and 38% live below the poverty line as of 2011. There is also a high percentage of youth, with nearly 30% of the population under 17, exposing many young people to the ills that plague the neighborhood. In what is called a middle school desert, a reported 75% of East Harlem kids failed reading proficiencies because of the few quality educational opportunities in the vicinity. Because of a lack of investment and the neighborhood’s resistance to “renewal,” in addition to gun violence and poorer housing condition, El Barrio’s kids have to compete with an educational system that doesn’t serve them and leaves them unprepared for adulthood.
Harlem RBI, now called the Dream Charter School, began when a deserted parking lot was transformed into a baseball diamond for neighborhood kids who didn’t have access to higher-quality facilities. Play, Learn, Grow is the motto of this organization that offers mentorship, scholarship and social services through sportsmanship and other community programs geared to uplift at-risk students onto a college-readiness track. It is a program for the community, by the community. Then, over 20 years later, superstar athlete and Harlem RBI board member Mark Teixeira donated $1 million, plus helped fundraise another $15 million to create a state-of-the-art school and adjacent facilities, including desperately needed affordable housing. Merging mentorship with educational opportunities, Harlem RBI then transitioned into Dream School.
But it’s not just the shiny newness of the facilities that benefits the kids and neighborhood. Within the walls of Harlem RBI, pre-kindergarteners to co-eds develop from the inside out with the help of trusted community volunteer mentors that provide guidance year-round. With its charter school merger, students can get quality education, but also learn teamwork, discipline, emotional intelligence, and problem solving—something that schools don’t always impart. It’s an educational and support system in one.
And mentorships are beneficial for both mentor and mentee. Sustained relationships provide a consistency that many don’t receive in their home lives. Many mentors guide their subjects from junior high until high school graduation, providing a guiding force of familiarity moreso than their academic educators. Building trust and mutual respect are also critical assets to the program. Dream is more than just baseball; no kid warms a bench during a game or in life.
Harlem RBI metamorphosed into the Dream School can be a marriage of the old and the new. Newer schools, homes and outdoor spaces will have a lasting effect on future generations but it’s unsure if, down the line, East Harlem will trade its trademark warmth and vibrancy for cooler skyscrapers and steel. But maybe the Dream is a sign that both sides can meet halfway.
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