HIGH HOPES: The Cypress Hills/East New York Community Center is topped by the 275 affordable apartments of the Chestnut Commons complex. A 2016 zoning change cleared the way for construction of the 14-story building. (Amanda Braitman)

A new Brooklyn community center is changing lives

BROOKLYN — The lot on the corner of Dinsmore Place and Chestnut Street in Cypress Hills sat vacant for over a decade. 

Now, more than $150 million later, it’s the site of a bustling community center and an affordable housing complex, places that offer opportunities for neighborhood residents to gather, learn and stake out new paths for their lives and careers.

The Cypress Hills/East New York Community Center, one long-awaited result of a 2016 city zoning change, serves as the foundation for the Chestnut Commons apartment complex. The building opened to the public in October.

Chi Okafor, 21, has firsthand knowledge of the possibilities the center can provide.

She didn’t know where to turn when her mother had a stroke in 2020. Armed with just her high school diploma, she struggled to care for her mother and was able to land only short-term gigs doing marketing and fundraising. 

The security she craved seemed impossible to find.

 “A lot of stuff was thrown on me out of nowhere,” she said.

Then she heard about a free program at the community center that could help her get an IT certification. In August 2022, she began commuting from Manhattan to the center for a program run by Per Scholas, a tech workforce training nonprofit.

“It was really well rounded…It really elevated me as a human being, I’m not going to lie,” Okafor said. “I turned into a different person.”

She completed her certification on Oct. 21 and got a temporary job as an Election Day technician within a week.

Per Scholas also offered financial, housing, tax and professional advice as well as IT certification. She’s now optimistic about her future—and her ability to help her mother. Okafor accepted another position proctoring exams at Fordham University and will be starting as an associate engineer at the IT company Nagarro in January.

Young drummers get into the beat at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music class at the community center. (Courtesy Brooklyn Conservatory)

Building connection

The zoning change that cleared the way for the East New York Neighborhood Plan allowed construction of taller residential buildings such as the 14-story Chestnut Commons. 

The center offers a range of courses, from computer training and career certifications to family services and counseling. (Braitman)

The Atlantic Avenue development includes 275 permanently affordable rent-stabilized apartments, half set aside for residents within Brooklyn Community District 5. Fifty-five units are designated specifically for formerly unhoused New Yorkers, who can get on-site support from the nonprofit Housing Plus.

Rent ranges from $202 a month for a studio to $2,037 a month for a three-bedroom. 

The apartment complex and the community center cost $149 million to build, with another $4 million for expenses such as furniture, fixtures and equipment. Financing came from the city  Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Development Corporation, Bank of America, the City Council and state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The project is only a fraction of the nearly 6,500 housing units the neighborhood plan is projected to complete by 2030 in an area long seen as among the most crime-plagued in the city.

The 75th Precinct, which covers East New York and Cypress Hills, hasn’t been at the top of the gun murders list since 2020, according to NYPD data. Yet serious crime—including a high number of shootings—persists. And controversial fictional portrayals of the neighborhoods keep the topic of safety at the forefront.

Still, Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, which runs the community center, said crime shouldn’t define the area and its residents.

“We’re always portrayed as the murder capital of New York City…” she said. “Really it’s a very connected, civically engaged community through the houses of worship.”

Getting trained 

In October, the community center held an event offering food, clothing, legal assistance and housing help for recently arrived immigrants and asylum seekers.

The menu of the in-house cafe at the Cypress Hills/East New York Community Center. (Braitman)

“I’m from Colombia, and it’s nice to see [the community center] helping people who actually need it,” said Angela Valencia, 38, a facilities manager at the center and a new graduate of the Hot Bread Kitchen program, which operates in the building’s community kitchen. Through this program, Valencia received compensation for her culinary training, as well as a MetroCard and the fee paid for her food-handling license.

At low or no cost, the center offers computer courses, training and certification for transportation careers, college support and success programs, construction-skills training, youth and family services and counseling, and benefits assistance. 

A café serves affordable and healthy food in a neighborhood where it can be notoriously difficult and expensive to eat fresh. There’s a half basketball court, an amphitheater for movie nights and free wifi.

Kingsborough Community College is developing a satellite campus at the community center, which will include continuing-ed courses and college classes. Neugebauer said the long-term goal is for students to take their freshman courses at the center and then commute to the main campus in Manhattan Beach via shuttle bus to complete their degrees. 

“It’s kind of like a living, breathing vehicle for advancement,” said Neugebauer.

The Hot Bread Kitchen program operates in the building’s community facility.(Courtesy Dattner Architects, Chris Cooper Photography)

Deborah Huntington, 43, of Brooklyn, a graduate of the Hot Bread Kitchen program, used to work part-time gigs at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. She now has a full-time position cooking for the meal-delivery company Everytable. 

“I love it,” she said of her new job, which allows her to take time off without being penalized for emergency absences. 

She said the new job brings increased self worth, financial stability—and the path to her business dream: owning a barbecue food truck or shop.

Huntington said the center has already made a difference in the way people in the neighborhood look at themselves. 

“I see an uplifting attitude,” she said. “It has a great culture…a sense of community and unity.”