The Art Deco Pitkin Theater in Brownsville, abandoned and disintegrating for many years, has been restored and is now home to the Brownsville Ascend Charter School and, soon, big-box retailers. Borough President Marty Markowitz and a festively dressed crowd of proud and excited parents and execs turned out Thursday afternoon to celebrate the ribbon cutting of this symbol of the past and the future of the neighorhood. Markowitz spoke about the dramatic changes in Brownsville, which he personally experienced, having worked down the block when he was a boy at the auto supply company AID when Pitkin Avenue was one of the busiest commercial strips in all of New York City. “With Ascend, I do hope the culture of violence will disappear from our streets,” he said. “I hope the day will come soon when it is easier to buy a book on Pitkin Avenue than to buy a gun.”
The building at 1501 Pitkin Avenue was a total wreck when affordable housing developer Poko Partners of Port Chester, N.Y. bought it in 2007, intending to build affordable rentals and retail. But thanks to the crash, it was impossible to get financing for residential, said Poko President Ken Olson. “We acquired the building pretty much at exactly the wrong time,” he said. In 2008, the developer started talking to Ascend Learning, which now has four locations in Brooklyn. Later, Poko received $43.3 million in private funding from a variety of partners, including Goldman Sachs, to remake the structure. The roof had caved in and exposed the interior to the elements, so Poko gutted the interior completely but restored the exterior (in fact, work on the upper floors and outside is ongoing). “It was by far the most challenging project we’re ever done,” said Olson. “We had to maintain the building’s structural integrity and blow in 900 windows without disturbing the existing architectural character.” The theater dates from 1929.
The school currently occupies two floors and goes from kindergarten through fourth grade, but will eventually occupy six floors and go to 12th grade. It is a college prep school, and each classroom is named after a state or Ivy League school. Students teach their peers, and older students help run the school, which includes a library and full-size gym. Every class studies Spanish daily, in addition to standard academic subjects, as well as “cultural” lessons intended to help the students succeed in life, such as how to shake hands, make eye contact, “disagree in an agreeable manner” and persevere, said school Co-Director Kelly Bowers.
“Brownsville suffered decades of middle class flight and retail leaving the area,” said Markowitz. “Today we’re still fighting many challenges in this neighborhood. Rather than an abandoned property, this theater can be reused for education and jobs and be a beacon of hope for Brownsville.” Deals Stores is the first retailer to sign, and Markowitz said he has been calling Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Old Navy, H&M, Pathmark, Foodtown and others to encourage them to move into the space. But what Brownsville really needs is manufacturing and warehousing jobs, he continued. To that end, he has recommended to Mayor Bloomberg that the city offer land and tax credits to encourage international companies to locate manufacturing and warehouses here.
Fourth graders perform the Cornell cheer.
The interior of the theater before restoration, exposed to the sky.
Work on the exterior and upper floors of the building is ongoing.
Photo of theater interior before restoration by Poko Partners