Construction delays as the Women’s Building builds community first



Keila Pulinario, with the mic, speaks of being incarcerated at the Bayview Correctional Facility. Photo: Keith Brooks, courtesy of the Women’s Building.

Recalling her incarceration at the Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea, Keila Pulinario, 43, would have never predicted that just a few years after her release, she would be selling Dominican food steps from prison’s entrance.

Dressed in a neatly-tied chef’s apron bearing the name of the catering company she founded last year, Chi-Chi’s Kitchen, Pulinario said, “I used to walk out of this building in cuffs and shackles. Any time you left the building for medical, or court, or whatever reason, you’d be shackled. Now to be on the other side, to be free, it’s just—” Pulinario trailed off and danced a few steps.

Last month, the second annual Women’s Building Block Party brought vendors like Pulinario, as well as advocates, families, and local residents to a closed-off section of West 20th Street between 10th and 11th avenues to celebrate the hopeful, if slightly delayed future of the building that was once the Bayview Correctional Facility—now set to become the Women’s Building, a hub for women’s rights activists and service providers.

Initially slated for 2020, the completion of the Women’s Building has been delayed until 2022, because the NoVo Foundation and the Lela Goren Group, which hold a 99-year lease on the property, want to do it right. They have committed to hiring 35 percent tradeswomen for the redevelopment, although women form only 3.5 percent of all construction laborers and 1.4 percent of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Every single aspect of this building from start to finish is going to be values aligned. We will never take a shortcut. And sometimes that might mean it takes more time, but it will be done in a way that honors the project,” said Pamela Shifman, the executive director of the NoVo Foundation, a non-profit organization for women and girls created by Jennifer Buffett and her husband, Peter, the youngest son of billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

“This month, we will be at the Women Build Nations national conference, the largest national gathering of its kind, to spread word about The Women’s Building, ask for ideas, and share strategies,” wrote Shifman in an email. The NoVo Foundation also supports organizations like Nontraditional Employment for Women, which trains and supports future tradeswomen.

The two groups won a bid to redevelop the former Bayview Correctional Facility in 2015, three years after flood damage because of Hurricane Sandy required the facility to close.

Though the selection of tenants for the Women’s Building remains several years away, a working group of formerly incarcerated women recruited through the Women & Justice Project (WJP) is helping to shape the direction of the building and inviting others into the process.

A member of the working group, Rusti Miller-Hill, 56, said that the NoVo Foundation is already providing paid work opportunities for formerly incarcerated women at events including the block party.

“There is opportunity for employment, advancement, and to share information, through our own incarceration, of what it was like to live in the building, to be at the hands of an all-male correctional staff, and to be subjected to their sexual advances and their degrading of our reproductive health needs,” said Miller-Hill, the director of programs and re-entry services at New Hour for Women and Children – Long Island, who was incarcerated at Bayview for nine months of a 2.5-year sentence for possession with intent to sell over 20 years ago.

Pulinario is also a member of the working group. When a younger woman ran over to her to catch up and hug quickly, Pulinario said, “When you’re inside, you develop family—this is like my daughter.”

Pulinario was incarcerated for 20 years, two of which were at Bayview, after being convicted of murder in the second degree for killing a man who Pulinario said raped her, bragged about it, and threatened to do it again. Her sentence was reduced in 2005 from 25 years to life to 15, after a federal judge found that the initial judge in her trial had improperly barred a psychiatrist from speaking to the court about the impacts of rape trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Of the 215,332 women incarcerated in the U.S. in 2014, a 700 percent increase since 1980, the majority report having experienced physical or sexual abuse, and one third report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

Across the street, another member of the working group, Sharon Richardson, 57, sat on a folding chair behind tables filled with food, wearing an apron with a sewn-on patch reading, “Forever blessed, forever loved.” Convicted of murder in the second degree, Richardson also served 20 years, including one year at the Bayview Correctional Facility, and was released in 2010.

“I got into relationships that weren’t good for me, abusive relationships, and that was what took me to prison—being in an abusive relationship, making the wrong decision, and not seeking help from fear, real honest fear,” said Richardson, who, with her organization Reentry Rocks, supports formerly incarcerated women with histories of domestic violence.

“I think about the moments where I wanted to be free,” said Richardson, describing her view of cyclists and wedding parties at Chelsea Piers from her fifth floor cell inside Bayview. “And I think about my sisters who I’ve left behind, and the struggle of wanting that same thing, and the administration that we’re under now.”

In 2015, Richardson founded Just Soul Catering, serving up soul food in New York and beyond. When the Women’s Building opens, Richardson hopes to run a cafe in the space where she can employ other formerly incarcerated people.

When asked about possible supports for those who want to access space in the Women’s Building, Shifman wrote, “We are committed to making the building as accessible as possible, while also setting it on a sustainable path for the long term. Ensuring that we can provide all tenants with reliable, sustainable, high-quality space will remain our top priority.”

With the support of the Women’s Building, the working group’s members are also fighting negative narratives and stereotypes about formerly incarcerated women.

“If you think about what the media says about us, then you would want to keep us in prison, lock us up, and throw away the key,” said Cheryl Wilkins, 56, the Senior Program Manager at Columbia University’s Center for Justice, who is also a member of the working group with experience of incarceration.

“But once you know us, and you get to know that we’ve changed, and that we want to make an impact, not just on ourselves, but on our communities and our families, then you will be less fearful of us,” said Wilkins.

For many New Yorkers, the Women’s Building may be their introduction to the difficult history of Bayview, which in 2010 had the highest rate of staff-perpetrated sexual violence of any prison in the country according the U.S. Department of Justice.

Last year, while Pulinario worked an exhibition of Annie Leibovitz photographs hosted inside the former Bayview, some long-time Chelsea residents told her that they hadn’t known the building was a correctional facility, despite walking by it for many years.

“Hearing those things, from the community of Chelsea, it was kind of shocking,” said Pulinario. “This building has so much history, and to bring awareness to that—that’s not something that happens overnight.”