By Sabina Mollot
On Sunday afternoon, a crowd of around 30 people, mostly community activist types, gathered at the northwest corner of East 22nd Street and Third Avenue for a ceremony to co-name the block “Children’s Court Way.”
The project was in the works for the past two years, and was the idea of East Midtown Plaza resident Michelle Deal Winfield.
The Children’s Court used to be located on East 22nd Street, in what is now home to Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute. Today, there is just a bit of lingering evidence as to what the building’s prior purpose was, like the marble water drinking fountain built specifically for a child’s height, as well as some of the stairs in the building that are four and a half inches high instead of the standard eight.
According to Gramercy: Its Architectural Surroundings, a book published by the Gramercy Neighborhood Associates in 1996, a court for children was first established in Manhattan in the former Department of Public Charities Building on Third Avenue and 11th Street. This was in response to a push by reformers to treat juvenile delinquents differently from adult criminals and take their family circumstances into account. However, this court, a division of The Court of Special Sessions, was still required by law to treat children in the same manner as adults.
It was in 1915 when The Children’s Court was established as a separate entity and the following year it was moved to a newly opened courthouse on East 22nd Street. At that time, the area was known as “Charity Row.” By 1959, however, the East 22nd Street building, a classic revival structure faced with limestone, was converted for use by Baruch College. After that, cases involving minors were dealt with in Family Court. As for the original courthouse in the East Village, it has since been demolished.
Prior to the unveiling of the new street sign on Sunday, a few speakers shared some of the Children’s Court’s history, at a ceremony hosted by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.
Dr. Samuel Albert, a member of the committee on the street co-naming project and a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, recalled when the area from Third to Fourth Avenues between 21st and 23rd Street was known as the Social Welfare District “or more colloquially, The Do-Gooder Corner.”
Local institutions to call the neighborhood home included the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which, Albert noted, was established after the Society of Cruelty to Animals, The Children’s Aid Society, The Protestant Welfare Organization and the Russell Sage Foundation (now Sage House), to name a few.
Another speaker, Criminal Court Judge Althea Drysdale, cheered the co-naming as well as strides made over time in justice with regards to juveniles which stress reform and treatment.
“Thank God New York has embraced ‘raise the age,’” she said. “Children under 18 should not be in adult institutions unless accused of the most heinous crimes. Their minds are still developing and they’re still learning the difference between right and wrong.”
The sentiment was echoed by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who had a statement read by a representative at the ceremony that was also read to her colleagues in Washington. In it, Maloney noted how statistics have shown young people put in jail are more likely to become repeat offenders.
Winfield later said she decided to push for the co-naming after a stroll into the Baruch College building lobby for an unrelated pet project in which she had checked out a number of neighborhood lobbies. While there, she noticed a plaque stating the prior purpose of the building, the aforementioned water fountain, as well as a sign that still remains above a classroom that reads “courtroom.” She became further intrigued upon learning about the various children’s services offered at nearby buildings, which is believed to be the reason for the court’s location, and the fact that those organizations’ purposes were sometimes reflected in the architecture with relief sculptures of children. After that Winfield said she made it a mission to have the building’s past recognized.
“No one knew it was here,” she said. “We wanted to educate the community.”
Winfield, along with contributing occasional local news stories to Town & Village, is a member of numerous civic groups. They are the Tilden Democratic, Gramercy-Stuyvesant Independent Democrats, Coalition for a District Alternative and Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Clubs, Gramercy Neighborhood Associates, Progressive Action of Lower Manhattan, NY Democratic State Committee and The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. She also works with the following arts groups: Signature Theater as an usher, National Dance Institute as a speaker for government funding, Alvin Ailey and Manhattan School of Music.