Re-imagining the City’s Probation Centers
The NYC Department of Probation (DOP) knew that re-imagining its 18 service centers had to be part of its sea change.
Enter See ChangeNYC to oversee the transformation. It had to be done fast, be replicable and be affordable. Most importantly, the design had to signal change in the way clients experienced the probation system.
With the clock ticking, See Change enlisted the pro bono services of design pros, Biber Architects and James Victore, for the challenge. Their mission: to create an environment with the power to be a portal of change. It meant re-thinking everything from furniture and messaging to tone and identity — and everything in between.
City agencies — the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS — which takes care of many city buildings) jumped on board to provide manpower. The Painter’s Union (DC-9), Lutron, FLOR, Armstrong Flooring and KAMCO jumped in with product and service donations to leverage city funding.
The turnaround: no simple task. The centers were dismal. Broken furniture, bolted together in rows; signage that said, “No,” to everything, sleeping clients, barking staff, barren walls, and, information so hidden and old that it was no longer useful. Hope was invisible. Just convincing staff to embrace the changes that were coming, was a challenge.
Some ask, “Why invest in places for people who have committed crimes — and have no choice but to show up?” Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi’s answer is the opposite — ours, too. With other improvements coming from Probation to enhance the centers — a greeter, on-site service vendors, arts programs and GED classes — we saw an opportunity to change-up the landscape and the experience for all who entered — from the staff to the clients and their families and friends. Biber Architects even added a new café to make readings, performances and relaxed conversations possible.
The new message, “You matter.” Come here and change your life. One of Victore’s posters says it best, “Improve Yourself, Change the World.” In less than two years (a New York minute by city standards), See ChangeNYC overhauled seven probation centers. You be the “judge.” Did we accomplish what we set out to do?
Says Sally DeSimone, a Supervising Probation Officer, “We’re finding that our clients are more relaxed when they see a probation officer. The more relaxed they are out here, the better things can get done with our clients in our offices.”
P.S. And since the probation centers were rehabbed — no more graffiti.
Old City Furniture Reborn—Lives, Too
Within the City’s service centers — from food stamps offices to senior centers — there is a mind-numbing number of broken chairs, tables and desks, many simply beyond repair — or not.
See ChangeNYC, to save money, tasked itself with reviving the old. For its pilot, CHAIRity, See Change recruited graphic designer Carin Goldberg, to use her ingenuity to come up with a solution for the furniture of a juvenile probation center.
And she did.
The plan: See ChangeNYC brought in job training program NEW (Non-Traditional Employment for Women) to repair, sand, prime and paint graffiti-ridden wood benches, tables and chairs — each one as heavy as a house — while Goldberg developed a template of symbols, arrows and geometric shapes that her School of Visual Arts students would apply to the furniture, via hand-painting.
The students took to it like bees to honey. As one student noted, “When I first saw the furniture, I thought, oh my gosh, what a mess. And by the time we finished, I thought, oh my gosh, what a miracle.”
Fifteen hours, 200 bottles of water, 137 sandwiches and 172 cookies later (thank you, City Bakery), the furniture was actually transformed — and so were the people that did it.
After the “new” furniture was returned to the South Bronx juvenile probation center, one client said, “This is nice! I thought I was in the wrong place.”
And one year later: still no graffiti.
Our goal: more CHAIRity.
Waiting Room Has Its Own Poet-in-Residence
See ChangeNYC is all about the unexpected. That’s why we “dropped” a Poet-in-Residence into a South Bronx Probation Center after overhauling it.
Biber Architects and graphic designer James Victore did their part by creating an inspiring place, now we had to put it to good use. Why? It drove us crazy that even after overhauling the site, clients were still sleeping. Says See ChangeNYC Executive Director and New York City Department of Design and Construction Chief Change Officer, Lonni Tanner, “They needed a wake-up call.”
Tanner spent hundreds of hours studying the centers before and after the overhauls to better understand what was really going on in them. “There’s no substitute for being on-site,” she says, so she embedded herself inside the probation centers. And she knew poet Dave Johnson had to do the same.
When Dave Johnson — an accomplished poet and teacher — was appointed Poet-in-Residence by Tanner, he started roaming the center, handing out poems, engaging the lonely and offering up spontaneous readings. It wasn’t an easy sell. Clients were conditioned to keep their eyes peeled on the door where probation officers came to retrieve them.
For clients, the goal had long been to get in and get out, whereas the new mantra was, please stay. And the only way to make it happen was to create meaningful things to do — especially for those who eschewed traditional forms of learning. With Johnson on-site, clients now had the opportunity to discover their voices.
Tanner told Johnson to start by asking the question, “What are you waiting for?” It struck a chord and poetry submissions started pouring in. Says Johnson, “Clients needed a reason to write, and we gave them one — and it was a subject they knew all too well — waiting.” Client poetry went up on TVs in all the probation centers. Nothing provided a greater thrill to Johnson than watching a client say, “That’s mine.”
Soon Johnson launched a weekly open mic. Next, a poetry class. Rather than hold it in a classroom, we put it right in the middle of the waiting room. A collaboration with the GED teacher and her students got the ball rolling. And everyone got in on the act. Johnson got Probation Officers, secretaries, family members — even the security guards and maintenance staff — writing poems and reading aloud to a “captive” audience. It was a bridge that couldn’t be forged even if we had planned to build it. What made it work was that it was organic. As Johnson says, “It came from the people.”
New Lit Mag Makes Waiting Worthy
With the success of the South Bronx probation center waiting room poetry class, we upped the ante.
A literary magazine, called Free Verse, was born. Probation clients that graduated the class were hired as writing apprentices to “work” the waiting room and tasked with generating 500 poems from waiting clients, their families, probation officers, even security guards and maintenance workers. Plus, they had to keep attending class. It worked.
Imagine that: creating poetry — and jobs — right in the waiting room. For some, it was their first poem — and their first job — in years. Even better, the six-month program yielded 100% attendance, among a population that typically struggles with keeping commitments. And even more astounding was that they showed up more than their probation sentence required.
During that “extra time,” in a place designed to foster growth (thanks to Biber Architects and graphic designer James Victore), clients found their voice, thanks to Poet-in-Residence Dave Johnson and New School MFA students, Thomas Fucaloro and Gabriel Don. More than just making poetry, clients in the program built their confidence, socialization and presentation skills. They also boosted their morale and gained valuable job skills — and they grew, personally. Graphic designer Carin Goldberg, made Free Verse shine.
Another goal of the writing program was to create “flow” and reduce the lag time between the high of completing something successfully and the low of nothing to follow it up. Says See Change Executive Director and New York City Department of Design and Construction Chief Change Officer, Lonni Tanner, “Downtime is a killer.” Her long-term goal: to create a path from class to apprentice to employment, with as little downtime as possible.
Says Free Verse editor Johnson, “What’s cool is, nobody knows if the ‘poet’ is a drug-dealer, a law enforcement officer, a mother, a client or a secretary. Adds Department of Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, “Free Verse proves people are more than the sum of their Rap sheets — they’re parents, children, and dreamers. And yes, they’re poets, too.”
Noel Cuadrado, a 54-year old former drug addict on a 10-year probation stint says, “Poetry opened my world.” “For me, this is more than poetry. This is about people investing time and effort to make us part of the community again.”
Puzzling Changes at Juvenile Probation Centers
Fear, anxiety, frustration, depression, loneliness, exhaustion.
And add silence to the mix. That’s what we saw at the city’s juvenile probation centers. The Department of Probation wanted to change that.
Given less than three months, See ChangeNYC enlisted manpower from city agency DCAS (the agency responsible for maintaining the city’s buildings) and lassoed graphic designer Paul Sahre and Biber Architects to re-imagine the environments of these centers, all in family courts. Says Sahre, “You first have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: nobody chooses to be here, so the design has to take that into account.”
Walls that used to be bland and uninspiring are now vibrant and feature giant word puzzles, idioms turned on their heads and open-ended questions that challenge waiting viewers to think. “Depending on where you sit,” says Sahre, “You’ll always see something new. A word may catch your eye, a saying. Everything is purposeful — from placement to size. The idea was to create conversation starters — in your head, with the person sitting next to you, with your probation officer.”
Biber’s design provided the perfect backdrop to allow Sahre’s “words” to be front and center. He softened the sterile centers with carpet, created a fresh palette to encourage young people to stay alert. He removed the rows of bolted down chairs and replaced them with a café. Adding outdoor seating was intentional, says Biber, “I wanted the young people that come here to feel like they were on a front porch, not in a courthouse.” Though the site is often over-crowded, especially after-school, Biber reduced the number of seats to add breathing room.
After entering the court building, passing belts, cell phones and keys through metal detectors overseen by uniformed officers, coming into the probation center feels like a breath of fresh air. Says, Lisa Frost, the Borough Director, since the makeover, "we’ve had a lot less acting out."
Project Dear John: Please Don’t Write on Me
It might seem odd to want to turn bathrooms into art galleries.
But it was the graffitied stalls that gave rise to a new project: Dear John. The idea: to stem graffiti by creating works of art that are something to admire rather than deface.
Artist Jon Burgerman accepted the challenge, and painted distinctive murals on the men’s and women’s bathroom stalls of a busy Bronx probation center. Like every surface in the probation centers, the bathrooms, too, were meant to stimulate conversation. Thanks to Burgerman (and KRINK), welcome Loo and Loo Loo.
And one year later — still no graffiti but a lot of, “Those are cool.”
A gold plaque outside the bathrooms is meant to poke fun at the precious nature of plaques that adorn museum walls. Jon’s plaque speaks to his audience, “I made a lot of mistakes, too.”
Furniture Designer and Job Training Grads Nail it!
When See ChangeNYC Director and Chief Change Officer for the New York City Department of Design Construction, Lonni Tanner, showed furniture designer David Weeks the forlorn, gum and graffiti-laden benches, tables and chairs from two South Bronx adult probation center waiting rooms, his first reaction was shock, but his next was, “I can make those benches better.”
So he took one back to his home, took it apart and put it back together — with a nod to Donald Judd. Weeks shared the instructions with job training program NEW (Non-Traditional Employment for Women), which was tasked with taking the furniture apart, fixing, sanding, varnishing and putting it back together again, so it could be returned to the center. Not as easy as one would think. In terrible disrepair, the benches required the trainees and graduate, all-female carpenters to be whizzes with hammers, saws, drills and varnish. But they “nailed” it.
Weeks, an accomplished furniture designer, known for his lighting, tabletop products and children's toys, was overwhelmed with the results. Said Weeks, “What can I do next?”
Turning an Old Senior Center Young
Joan Rivers says, “Getting old sucks.”
We thought so, too, until our lunch with seniors at the Leonard Covello/Carter Burden Senior Center in East Harlem (they make really good mashed potatoes). Housed in a four-story City building, owned by the Department for the Aging, everyone that comes to the center seems young, maybe not in age, but in spirit. The only thing that was really old was the building.
Seniors come to the center in droves — in wheelchairs, walkers, and on the arms of nurses, friends and families to draw, crochet, sculpt, paint, write, workout, play pool, do yoga, watch movies and use the computers. (Carter Burden even has its own art gallery downtown in the Chelsea arts district, committed to empowering re-emerging older professional artists). A senior center this robust deserves a building — not on its last legs.
See ChangeNYC to the rescue. With our budget slim and our timeline short, we decided to focus our energies on turning the dining hall — the place that 100% of the population uses — into the building’s centerpiece. With the pro bono support of Biber Architects, money and talent from New York City Department of Design and Construction, cash from Carter Burden and city agency DCAS (the agency that cares for city buildings), and donors such as the Painter’s Union (DC-9), Herman Miller and Carnegie Fabrics, as well as discounts from everyone from Cooper Industries, Big Ass Fans, Armstrong Flooring and Acoustical Solutions, we were able to raise enough pennies to get the project chugging — as well as refurbish the center’s Alzheimer’s Day/Night Center (which required the Painter’s Union to paint 13 colors — all in an effort to help clients find their way around effortlessly).
The project is still a work in progress. A $4M capital project on the way will do what we couldn’t: turn the aging building into a playground for the young-at-heart. Why? Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best, “We do not quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing.”
Problem-Solving to Ease Shift Out of Shelter
After studying family shelters, See ChangeNYC honed in on a challenge that parents worried about: making the transition from shelter to home.
Starting a new life, means being able to create a home — with family or friends or on their own — often without the funding and goods to do so. Though some get small stipends to purchase furniture, many don’t use it for that purpose, they make do, fearing they’ll end up back in shelter.
See ChangeNYC invited Designing Hope’s, Sahar Ghaheri and Ashley Thorfinnson to devise a cost-effective and replicable solution to help families bridge the transition from shelter to home.
Their answer: cardboard furniture. Using regular, inexpensive, ready-made boxes, they added beautiful patterns that made one forget the material was cardboard. The boxes were designed to morph into shelving units and desks. Clients were involved every step of the way, but testing produced a mixed response. A second iteration will treat the cardboard with a water-resistant material. The project, called U-Matter, we hope, will eventually matter to families starting over.
A second effort took a different direction: See ChangeNYC tasked Bader Stageberg Cox (BSC) — with helping hands from job training program Brooklyn Woods — to develop furniture that required no tools for assembly. The beautiful wood tables and chairs that resulted were “stars” at the Armory Art Fair (thanks to BSC which had “staged” the fair) and outfitted the cafe. Simple but stunning wood benches became rest spots, too. At the end of the show, the furniture was given to individuals moving from shelter to home. The next step: to make the prototypes affordable and replicable — a kit-of parts families can make on their own — ready in an emergency — and even sellable as collections with proceeds to fund other furniture collaborations with designers and job training graduates.