A fiery Community Board 8 Youth, Education and Libraries Committee meeting shattered attendance records of recent memory on Thursday evening, drawing in a crowd of over 180 New Yorkers and an outpouring of testimony on the highly contentious future of the Knickerbocker Greys, an after-school drill program for kids.
The resounding message from speakers of all ages: Don’t kick the Greys out of the Seventh Regiment Armory. “For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to Tuesdays, which is our drill day,” said Max Philips, a young Knickerbocker Greys member. It’s a routine suddenly thrown into jeopardy.
The Knickerbocker Greys, a nonprofit, has operated out of the state-owned armory building at 643 Park Avenue for 120 years, without a lease. Now, it’s facing “threats of eviction,” according to a letter from Knickerbocker Greys Board President Adrienne Rogatnick — and communication with the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, the nonprofit arts organization intending to send the group packing, has been fraught with uncertainty and misunderstanding.
Back And Forth
During the pandemic, the Knickerbocker Greys suspended usual in-person, indoor programming, just like nearly every other organization in the city. But last winter, the group’s leadership started to question why the kids still hadn’t been permitted to resume their once-weekly activities at the Armory.
In a March 10 email to Park Avenue Armory Conservancy Founding President Rebecca Robertson and Kirsten Reoch, director of capital planning, preservation and institutional relations, Rogatnick referenced attending an in-person Armory event in December with no hang ups. She also noted that she’d continued regular meetings there with the Greys board, as pandemic precautions eased. “Now, we’d like to have the cadets return too,” she wrote. “Previously, their various vaccine statuses prevented this but now city protocols have changed. Additionally, they are now all vaccinated.”
In a subsequent letter to Governor Kathy Hochul on March 17, Rogatnick wrote that her request had not elicited any formal written response. Instead, the day prior to addressing Hochul, the Greys board received a call from a representative of Robertson informing them that the Knickerbocker Greys was “being evicted from the building” with a June 1 deadline, she claimed. The 800-square-foot basement space the group occupied was supposedly slated to accommodate a “coat check room.”
“We do not believe that this expulsion of the Greys is fair or legally justified,” Rogatnick wrote to Hochul, additionally suggesting that perhaps the Knickerbocker Greys could sign a lease directly with the state, as the arrangement stands with the National Guard and the Lenox Hill Women’s Shelter, the only other tenants of the Armory alongside the conservancy.
During the CB8 meeting, Robertson stated that the conservancy is initiating an eleventh phase of building renovations, which would impact the space used by the Knickerbocker Greys. She also claimed that a 2006 letter from the state informed the Greys that without a lease, the group must “vacate” the property; At the time, she said, the conservancy allowed the organization to stay.
For the past 16 years, the conservancy has hosted interactive exhibits and performances from a diverse array of artists. “We’ve just gotten to the point where we literally have no space left,” Robertson said, adding that there “was always going to be a time that we would come to this.” She suggested that the Greys move instead to the Fifth Avenue armory in Harlem.
A Rising Tide
Already, there’s been no shortage of input from politicians; Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and NYS Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright both wrote letters to Hochul in March and April, respectively, while State Senator Liz Krueger wrote directly to Robertson. All three local politicians highlighted their conviction that the Knickerbocker Greys plays an important role in the local community and in the Armory. At the CB8 meeting, Council Member Julie Menin also voiced her support for Greys, adding that considering the over 194,000 square feet of space in the building, the Greys’ wish to remain is a “de minimis ask.”
CB8 also heard on Thursday from current and former Knickerbocker Greys participants who spoke to the role the organization played in fostering a sense of belonging, structure and confidence in social settings. Some noted that participating in the group helped them overcome struggles with ADHD or dyslexia. “It really changed my life,” said Ian Bell, the Knickerbocker Greys’ cadet colonel, “and I’ve been able to pay attention in school, I’m an A+ student now.”
Setting plays a critical role, others testified. “Drilling in the halls that many cadets hundreds of years before you have drilled really gives a meaning to it,” said Michael Kourakos, a former Knickerbocker Greys member.
The meeting was so well attended — and speakers so impassioned — that comments from the public were capped at one minute per person. CB8 members ultimately voted to pass a committee resolution to compel the state to keep the Greys in the Armory.
The Greys won’t go down — or, in this case, move out — without a fight.
“We do not believe that this expulsion of the Greys is fair or legally justified.” Adrienne Rogatnick