Understanding the Community

Revitalizing an Institution

Founded just a few years after World War II ended, the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center has its roots in the settlement house movement, and its programs have historically been designed to respect and capitalize on the community’s culture, tradition, and history. That translates into a commitment to “leverage the social capital of our residents,” explains Stephanie Pinder, the center’s executive director.

Despite its storied past, Lincoln Square had fallen away from the people who lived there and onto hard times in the waning decades of the 20th century. The physical space was in desperate condition, with holes in the ceiling and filth on the floors. Staff skills were thin and the board of directors had ceased to function effectively.

Although they were aging and in need, residents had little reason to turn to the neighborhood center for help. A single room comprised the senior program, offering lunch three times a week, and some arts and crafts, but not much more.

In 1999, new leadership came in and the painstaking process of renewal began. Stephanie Pinder brought a background in community organizing to her position as executive director. At her side was homegrown talent Joanne Ricco, who was struggling to keep the existing senior services program alive.

When city NORC program funding became available, Ms. Ricco saw it as a tool for strengthening the community and rebuilding its relationship to the neighborhood center. She set out to make that happen.

Talking to the Seniors

Ms. Ricco had grown up in Amsterdam Houses, and married one of its native sons. She knew its people – often several generations of the same family – and she knew their personal history. That had two enormous benefits as Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center pursued city funds. It meant she understood what a program could do for her community, and it meant she had the trust of its residents. Older adults would open their doors when Ms. Ricco knocked, and then they would talk candidly – about empty pantries, faraway family members, their own late-night drinking, and so much more.

As Lincoln Square developed its proposal for city funding, Ms. Ricco guided the process of finding out what the older population needed. Input from older adults came in many forums – Town Hall meetings in building lobbies, discussions at the small senior program site, and one-on-one conversations in person or on the phone.

Lincoln Square staff asked broad questions designed to elicit specific answers: What are you missing? What do you need to make life better? The answers informed the first proposal submitted – and funded – by the City of New York. Continued...

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