From prison to empowerment in Chelsea

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The former Bayview Correctional Facility is being transformed into an activist Women’s Building


  • Rendering of the former Bayview Correctional Facility, a 100,000 square-foot space in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, which is being developed to unite more than a dozen women-focused organizations. Courtesy of the Governor’s Office

  • Marcie Chase, who served time at the former Bayview Correctional Facility, worked at the recent Annie Leibovitz portrait exhibition held there and shared stories related to the images. Pointing to a photo of Elizabeth Warren, Chase said the U.S. senator from Massachusetts could have been the first woman president of the United States. Photo: Diamond Naga Siu

  • Marcie Chase, who served time at the former Bayview Correctional Facility, organized the reading room table of the Annie Leibovitz portrait exhibition held there. Chase's favorite set of pictures featured photos of drag queens ready to perform, juxtaposed with their less painted daytime looks. Photo: Diamond Naga Siu

Marcie Chase believes in transformation. She is a transgender woman and a former inmate of Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea. Chase has now dedicated her life to social change for women. One part of her advocacy is helping to transform the onetime prison on West 20th Street and 11th Avenue into a Women’s Building, a structure symbolic of women’s potential and accomplishments.

“It was really a dark place for women to be — the amount of sexual abuse that was happening with the correctional officers and the women,” Chase said. “I was there in the 80s, and it was really horrible.”

Transforming the Bayview Correctional Facility, which shut down in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, is a project supported by the NoVo Foundation. The organization holds a 99-year lease to the building, and the transformation aims to exemplify NoVo’s goal of ending all types of violence and discrimination against women.

“The Women’s Building is about providing space and resources for women who are working to advance justice and equality for girls and women everywhere,” NoVo Foundation Executive Director Pamela Shifman said. “So just imagine a new vertical neighborhood, where activists can connect with each other in really powerful ways.”

Shifman said that the building, expected to open in 2020, will provide a centralized location for activists visiting New York City to collaborate with others working on the same causes in different parts of the world. NoVo Foundation partnered with the Lela Goren group, a development company, to spearhead the project. The two organizations then chose the female-led Deborah Berke Partners architecture firm to enact their vision.

Shifman said the Women’s Building hosted a block party in September to interact with the community while sharing ideas, and an advisory circle is still helping to shape the building and its ideals. However, even with these unfinished details, the Women’s Building hosted its first event in November — a photography exhibition entitled “WOMEN: New Portraits” by Annie Leibovitz.

Syretta Wright, 38, a formerly incarcerated person, worked at the exhibition. Although she never served time in Bayview, she said that all prisons have negative connotations.

“They treat us like animals, we’re property, we’re slaves,” Wright said. “For [this prison] to ... become a Women’s Building is kind of ironic, but for myself and other women in my situation, it shows a sense of hope.”

Wright is working to become a physical trainer, so she hopes that the building incorporates some aspect of fitness, since that represents empowerment, growth and confidence to her.

Although no official jobs have been filed yet with the Department of Buildings, the Women’s Building will include office space, meeting areas and an art exhibit on one of the lower floors.

“It means good things,” said Kim Foster, who owns the Kim Foster Gallery located on the same block. “My understanding of the Women’s Building is that it focuses on not just art but all things that are related to women’s issues, and that’s great.”

Foster said that she has been in the area for 18 years and believes that a Women’s Building is a greater asset to both the community and her business than the correctional facility.

“A lot of the galleries in the area — including mine — are owned by women, and we do show woman narratives,” Foster said. “I think it’ll take people down to 20th Street.”

Foster said that she expects the building to include something akin to a museum dedicated to women, and that it would be a place where women would feel welcome.

Wright felt a sense of unity and equality while working at the Leibovitz exhibition. “During the show, I could stand there with people of stature, and they didn’t even know and couldn’t even look at me and say ‘she was an inmate,’ so I felt like I could be part of that society,” Wright said. “I’ve never experienced what going to these art exhibits [is like] or what it’s like in that part of culture, so that made me feel like, ‘Oh shoot.’”

Marcie Chase hopes the building will be a comfortable environment for all women, regardless of their differences.

“If we don’t take care of each other, then who’s going to take care of us? The men?” Chase said, laughing. “I want it to be such a home base for all women that when a woman walks into the space that she is met by another woman with love and honor, because it’s about us honoring each other as women and supporting each other as women.”

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