210 West 61st Street
B&W Photo of Entrance to PS 452, the former PS 191 at 210 West 61st Street

View of 210 West 61st Street from north 

210 West 61st Street, the former P.S. 191

by Tom Miller

Called by the New York City Housing Authority as “the worst slum section in the City of New York,” the San Juan Hill neighborhood became the target of urban planner Robert Moses’s Lincoln Square Renewal Project in the early 1950s.  Over a period of three decades, 371 acres were leveled and redeveloped.  Among the earliest buildings to be constructed was Public School 191, designed by William Gehron in 1952.

The facility opened in 1956.  Clad in beige brick, the L-shaped building wrapped a large playground at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 61st Street.   Continuous bands of windows alternated with long planes of brick to accentuate the sleek, horizontal lines of the structure.

The population of San Juan Hill had been mostly Black, Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean.  Urban renewal did not immediately change that.  On March 12, 1964, The New York Times reported that Councilman Theodore S. Weiss had argued in favor of bussing students to achieve racial balance.  He proposed “to pair Public School 199 in the Lincoln Center area, now 35 per cent Negro-Puerto Rican, with Public School 191, eight blocks away near Amsterdam Houses.  P. S. 191 is perhaps 97 per cent Puerto Rican.”  Weiss emphasized he “would favor involuntary transportation if it did not drive non-Negro pupils out of the public schools.”

Weiss’s percentages were off.  In fact, The New York Times reported four months later that, according to court papers, “About 5.2 per cent of the 700 pupils at P.S. 191 are white.  Puerto Ricans constitute 41.9 per cent of the total enrollment and Negroes 52.9 percent.”  Of the 500 students at Public School 199, 61.8 per cent were white, 12.5 per cent Black, and 25.7 per cent Puerto Rican.”  Four families sued to block the proposed bussing but failed.  On July 17, 1964, Supreme Court Justice Charles Margett ruled in favor of the pairing, saying, “Both school plants and facilities are good.  They are nine blocks apart, and bus transportation is provided free.  There is no showing of hardship to individual children.”  When the integration program went into effect in September of that year, the second graders of Public School 191 were bussed to P.S. 199, and the fourth graders of that school were sent to P.S. 191.

“You need a captive audience.  You must get them in school, where there’s no escape, and show them that dancing is fun.”

Ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise faced a distinct challenge in 1976 when he decided to bring free dance lessons to the boys of Public School 191.  The New York Times described him as “one of America’s best-known dancers, both as a leading member of the New York City Ballet for 26 years and as a prominent dancer in films like ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and ‘Carousel.’”  He set out to “counteract the image of the male dancer as ‘sissy.’”  D’Amboise explained that it was crucial to introduce boys to dance early in life, at a time when “they’d rather be out playing basketball and football.”  He said “They aren’t exposed to dance, so it doesn’t grab them.  I want to make it easy for them.”

To do that, he went on, “You need a captive audience.  You must get them in school, where there’s no escape, and show them that dancing is fun.”  The classes were voluntary; no one was forced to participate.  And little by little, he wore down the resistance by not diving right into ballet.  The article said,

But for now, it’s basic exposure to movement for its own pleasure.  Mr. d’Amboise teaches in a worn sweater, street pants and track shoes.  The boys wear sneakers, jeans, T-shirts and an ornamental cap or two, and plunge right into jazz sequences rather than ballet.

Jacques d’Amboise’s free classes were no doubt the first exposure to dance for the boys who, mostly, came from the Amsterdam Houses project.

Dance was not the only unorthodox method put to use in Public School 191.  The lack of exposure to classical dance and music was the least of the worries for many of the children.  For those, their home lives might involve domestic abuse, alcoholism or drug use, or poverty.  In April 1994, principal Dr. Elena Nasereddin told The New York Times that “many of her students came from broken families and needed guidance counseling and extra reading help.”

An unconventional method to reach students was employed by educational therapist Arlene Mark.  In December 1993, four months before Dr. Nasereddin’s interview, she had written to The New York Times to outline “the numerous benefits of rhythmic drumming or tapping for children with learning or emotional difficulties.”  She said the children chose any percussion instrument they wished and were allowed to simply start beating it.  She explained:

A child generates a rhythmic pattern (he cannot be wrong as the pattern is his own) which I immediately copy.  By my copying the child, he or she feels validated.  Then the child copies my pattern (she immediately sees that she is doing something correctly).  The rhythmic tapping provides needed structure for children lacking this organization.

On May 17, 1998, architectural critic and journalist David W. Dunlap began an article in The New York Times saying, “More and more, the castles in the air rising around New York City are a combination of one landlord’s castle and another landlord’s air.  Unused development rights—widely called ‘air rights’—are a keystone in almost every big project under way or being planned.”   Somewhat shockingly, the Giuliani administration had decided to monetize the air assets of the public schools.  At the time of the article, the city’s Economic Development Corporation was negotiating the sale of the air rights above P.S. 191 to developer Laurence Ginsberg, who intended to build two 30-story apartment towers next door.  By acquiring the school’s air rights, Ginsburg’s project would increase from 400,000 square feet to 600,000 square feet.  Not everyone was thrilled.  Councilwoman Ronnie M. Eldridge, in whose district the school was located, told Dunlap, “Not only are we overbuilding, but we’re finding additional ways to do it.  It’s very scary.” 

The de facto segregation of the 1960s had returned.

By now, another problem had arisen.  The de facto segregation of the 1960s had returned.  In his 2021 book The Velvet Rope Economy, Nelson D. Schwartz writes that in the 1990s,

At P.S. 191, white parents gradually moved their kids to better-performing, wealthier schools as their children advanced, leaving upper grades poorer and more segregated.  So with each passing year, the meritocracy moved further out of reach for those left behind.  In third grade at P.S. 191, more than half the students were ranked as proficient in English.  Two years later in fifth grade at P.S. 191, just 17 percent performed at that level, and none were considered advanced.

At the turn of the century, the school’s performance was mediocre.  On its 2009-10 Department of Education progress report, Public School 191 received a letter grade of C.  It resulted in a rezoning battle that once again involved P.S. 191 and P.S. 199.  On November 9, 2016, The New York Times reported, “Central to the battle is the resistance of well-off families who are currently zoned for Public School 199, a crowded and celebrated school where most of the children are white, to sending their children to P.S. 191, an under-enrolled school with mostly black and Hispanic students and a history of low academic achievement.”

Despite heated arguments from some families, the rezoning was accomplished for the school season starting in the fall of 2017–along with some name changes.  On November 11, 2017, The New York Times explained, “P.S. 191, formerly on West 61st Street, moved to the newly constructed building a block to the west, and P.S. 452 was moved from West 77th Street, where it shared a building with two other schools, to P.S. 191’s previous building.”  The Amsterdam Houses was now divided among the three schools’ zones, “resulting in each zone being significantly more diverse,” said the article.  The scheme worked.  On August 22, 2018, The New York Times reported, “On state exams last school year, 85 percent of students [at P.S. 452] met standards in English, versus 40 percent citywide; on math exams, 81 percent met standards, versus 42 percent citywide.”

Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com

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