Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is a harsh streak of downtown-rushing traffic edged by project housing, high-rise urban development apartments, Spanish grocerias, bodegas, and bars, empty lots bull-dozed for new developments, condemned storefronts, and apartments with boarded and tinned-over entrances and broken windows. To the east lies Central Park, to the west the multilingual, multicolored, slovenly vitality of Amsterdam Avenue. Columbus Avenue maintains a naked, scarred, inescapably bleak air for all the ferocity of new building in the name of urban renewal.
In September, 1970, on a corner in the 90s, two school buildings stood across from each other. One was—and still is—the sleek new brick wing of an old established boys’ preparatory school.1 The other, lodged in a (now demolished) storefront bordered by an empty lot full of broken bricks and glass, didn’t look like a school at all. Over the bright blue doorway was the sign left behind by the storefront’s occupant before the building was condemned: ELIZABETH CLEANERS. Across the street a huge crane hauled building materials to the top of a half-finished high-rise. In the store-fronts next door and down the block were an assortment of grassroots community projects: a cooperative fruit store, a day-care center, a council of the dispossessed tenants squatting in the condemned buildings, a free coffee shop, a neighborhood candy store. Inside the Elizabeth Cleaners a tuition-free, alternate high school was beginning to hold classes.
In June, 1970, after checking their plans with Operation Move-In, the local squatters organization, about half a dozen parents, two prospective teachers, and about ten students broke open the entrance of the abandoned cleaners and took possession. The group had been meeting since early February, with fluctuating membership and erratic levels of hopefulness, trying to devise some alternative to the experiences the students were having in various schools around the city. The common linkage among all the families was the fact that the students, whether they were attending conventional private schools, New York City public schools, or “liberal-progressive” private schools, felt completely disaffected from their education. Some were simply sitting out the time of forced servitude in sullen misery; others were listed in their schools as underachievers, disturbers of the peace, problem students; others were frequent truants. For all—and these were bright, articulate adolescents—boredom and anxiety were the routine feelings in the classroom.
Some of the parents actively shared their discontent; others simply felt that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, force their children to go to schools they hated. The group was amorphous in many ways but essentially white, middle-class, professional (most of the mothers work), and politically liberal. For most of them, breaking into and entering a storefront was a previously unthinkable act; and the idea of a school controlled by students—with no bureaucracy, no accreditation, no financing, and no guarantee of permanence—was a concept most of them would have difficulty grasping for some time.
Throughout the summer of 1970 a few students practically lived in the storefront, which had…
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Copyright © 1972 by Westside Project for Progress, Inc.