Women’s Prison to Nonprofit Women’s Center: Creepy or Not?

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November 11, 2015; New York Times

Bayview Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in New York City’s now-gentrified West Chelsea neighborhood, is slated for repurposing into “The Women’s Building,” with offices for nonprofit groups that serve women. Given that the neighbors had been worried about the site being used for luxury housing, perhaps this is a relatively good choice.

The state listed Bayview for sale in December 2013. The building has some historical significance; not only has it housed deep human misery since 1974 as a prison, but it was also designed by the same architects as the Empire State Building. Prior to acting as a prison, it was known as the Seamen’s House, providing housing for merchant sailors as a YMCA. When it was evacuated before Hurricane Sandy, the 153 women within were transferred upstate and far from their families, a fact noted at the time by Pamela Wolff, a member of Community Board 4 in Manhattan. Concerning the new plans, she expresses support “not only about the new use of the building, but also for the fact that they are not going to tear it down and turn it into condos for extremely rich people.”

The developer will be working on the project with NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic group established by Warren E. Buffett and now led by co-presidents Peter Buffett and Peter’s wife, Jennifer.

Oddly, the 52,000-square-foot building has a swimming pool ringed with fish mosaics that had been being used as a storage space. That will be refilled and restored, along with a small chapel. New balconies will be added, as well as other amenities like an art gallery and rooftop views.

“A prison is the evidence of the defeat of society,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a news conference last month, and we would agree with him there, but we are reminded of the admonitions of Jerome Miller, a champion of deinstitutionalization and a juvenile justice reformer who felt strongly that if you did not raze the buildings that had been used as prisons or reform schools, they would eventually be put back to that use.—Ruth McCambridge