Michael Acevedo, Oscar Pagoada, and Angel Cortes, all in their mid-20s, remember what it was like to grow up in the Robert Fulton Houses public housing project in the now-popular Chelsea neighborhood. “This neighborhood wasn’t as nice when we were growing up,” said Pagoada, citing drugs, gangs, and prostitution.
“There was everything around here, it wasn’t what it is today,” added Cortes.
The three young men, who still live with their families in Fulton Houses, are trying to bridge the gap that has developed in Chelsea between new affluent residents, booming commerce, and real estate developments, on one side, and longtime low-income families on the other. Last June they founded Acevedo & Associates, a consulting firm, to channel their efforts. They recently launched their first endeavors, working from their homes, or in a room at Fulton Houses that was created by the Tenants’ Association primarily for educational purposes.
They run the company while juggling day jobs: Acevedo works in construction, Cortes works as a painter’s apprentice for New York City Housing Authority, and Pagoada is currently searching for a job teaching.
Their first effort involves access to a new neighborhood private school for the next generation of Fulton Houses residents.“Our big project right now is at the Avenues School,” said Pagoada, referring to Avenues: The World School, a $43,400-a-year private school that opened its doors in Chelsea in 2012. Acevedo & Associates has identified six potential applicants—from both Fulton Houses and Chelsea Houses, another housing project—and is setting up meetings with Avenues to get them started on the admissions process for fall 2015.
Soraya Díaz Tamayo, director of admissions for Avenues’ New York campus said, “[Acevedo & Associates] came on board in August,” and added, “This is a nascent partnership, a new partnership, and it’s exciting to have young adults who know the community well serve as a conduit and a bridge.”
“The perception is that it’s a rich school, but because we’re familiar with the neighborhood, the people, we can be a great liaison for kids and families,” said Cortes, who hopes that all six applicants will be able to enroll next fall. “We can help build the network and support, both for Avenues and the kids in our neighborhood,” he said.
According to Pagoada, “This is a big pet project and probably the one that will have the biggest impact. Our goal is to get [low-income] kids accepted to the school starting in elementary school and help them stay in Avenues until they graduate.” Díaz Tamayo said that all six students will go through the regular application process, and she will meet them soon.
The project with the Avenues School could benefit both sides. From its inception, Avenues has been plagued by fierce criticism. According to stern public memos from Community Board 4 members and some low-income area residents, the school has failed to provide enough scholarships and financial aid, further perpetuating the idea that this is elitist school for an advantaged few.
Díaz Tamayo denies the accusation, and insists that the school has always tried to attract students from different backgrounds. “Our objective has been to have a positive impact on the community and that’s through employment and education,” she said. “Financial aid is need-based; we don’t have merit scholarships […] and about 10% of our students receive financial aid.”
Families of four are eligible for public housing if their income is $67,000 or below, according the New York City Housing Authority’s March 2014 application guide.
To Pagoada, a recent Columbia Teachers College graduate, this project is essential for quality-of-life improvement in the less-advantaged pockets of Chelsea. If the partnership works out this year, he said, they will push for it to happen in subsequent years.
The Avenues project isn’t the only one the new consulting firm has undertaken. They also made inroads in another of New York City’s bureaucracies: politics. During the summer, Democratic state Senator Adriano Espaillat hired the crew to create a connection between his campaign team and constituents.
District 31, Espaillat’s district, was re-drawn in 2012; since January 1, 2013, the state senator has represented some Chelsea residents. To this voting bloc, though, he was mostly unknown, according to the Acevedo & Associates team, making them instrumental in introducing him to his new constituents. “He won the [September 9 primary] election, so we’re calling that a victory for us,” said Pagoada.
Cortes, Acevedo, and Pagoada added that during the campaign, Espaillat even stopped by a Fulton Houses barbeque and danced salsa with residents. The Acevedo & Associates team canvassed for the senator, and anticipates that their work will lead the senator to better understand the problems faced by low-income Chelsea residents.
Espaillat’s Chief of Staff, Aneiry Batista, was unavailable to comment on the partnership.
They’ve also reached out to Wells Fargo Bank about arranging a finance and personal savings seminar for low-income residents. “There’s a new branch opening down the block from us in November. We opened our business account with them, so we reached out,” said Acevedo. And they’ve been in talks with a local chef who is trying to buy property in the area. Acevedo & Associates’ expectation is that residents will be employed when the restaurant opens.
As the young men move forward with their enterprise, they believe that success will come from sharing their workload equally. “There’s no hierarchy,” said Cortes—even if on paper he is the CFO of the company, Acevedo the CEO, and Pagoada the vice-president.
They have a fourth partner, Miguel, who is Acevedo’s father, the president of the Fulton Houses Tenants’ Association, and the president of the firm. He insists that the efforts mainly come from the three young men. “This is more effective if it comes from them. They grew up here, they’re a product of this community, and they know everybody,” he said. “It’s remarkable how these young guys are giving back to the place they grew up in and are trying to make it better. It’s them,” This, from a man who, according to the other three partners, only sleeps a couple of hours a night because he’s always doing something for the community after he gets home from work as a foreman at Cooper Union University.
Despite their ambition, they remain cautious. “We have a ton of work, but we want our work to be done well,” said Cortes. “And this is where we started, so why not work for this community? We hope to expand some day, but this area [Chelsea] is our focus right now.”