Andrew Blacks is one persistent, determined person. We are in the middle of winter but planning is well underway for the 2022 summer version of Positive Influence Basketball – a community league created by Blacks in 2005. It is held every summer in the Bennerson playground located in the midst of the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Amsterdam Houses on West 64th Street. The playground is named for Samuel Bennerson II, who created one of the first leagues in the NYCHA development in the 1960s.
Other leagues followed but none have had the impact of Andrew Black’s Positive Influence – a program that began with sixty young people and now draws over 1000 girls and boys from all over the city in eight different age divisions.
Blacks’s success is no small feat. There is a long, contentious history to the development of Lincoln Center and the surrounding area. Amsterdam Houses, which stretches from West 61st to 64th Street on Amsterdam Avenue, was constructed in 1948 on land once occupied by tenement buildings. Like much of the public housing stock developed in the postwar period, the housing was intended for returning veterans and their families, and was racially and economically diverse. The development consists of 13 buildings with over 1,000 apartment units and nearly 2,200 residents. Today, over 80% of the tenants are Black or Latino and have an average yearly income of under $30,000. The Houses are surrounded by one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. The contrast does not go unnoticed.
In 1955, Robert Moses, who headed what was then the City Clearance Program, had his sights on building a world class arts center just east of Amsterdam Houses on what was called San Juan Hill. Despite the displacement of thousands of poor residents, Moses spearheaded the building of Lincoln Center promising that there would be a bridge built between Lincoln Center and the public housing. As we know, such a bridge was never built over Amsterdam Avenue. Today, Lincoln Center stands as a concrete moat overseeing the public housing development.
This reality has not deterred Andrew Blacks. Seventeen years after that first summer, Blacks is still at it, pleading for a permanent home which would not only house his renowned basketball league, but also fulfill his dream of creating a year-round community program for the hundreds of local kids in search of a safe place and life-changing activities to combat the lure of the streets.
“My whole vision is to have a home, to have a building where I can create all different types of programs for kids. I know the programs that are needed for the youth, but I need help. Groups not from the community often use the spaces that exist in the neighborhood like the local schools. I can’t get access to them. I need somebody to kind of believe in what I’m doing,” Blacks said the cold day I met him at the playground.
Andrew’s life trajectory and deeply held passion to help the kids in his neighborhood has hardly waned in the ensuing years. His personal story speaks to how one person can make a real difference.
“I grew up in the Fordham section of the Bronx but had a lot of family who lived in Amsterdam Houses. I always considered this my community and moved into the development when I returned from college. I’ve been here ever since.”
When he returned from college, where he played basketball, Blacks took courses in theater at Brooklyn College. There, he was involved in all aspects of theater production from set construction to staging and prop selection. He was hired by ABC and learned more about the industry, eventually landing a position with the Alvin Ailey company where he had the good fortune of traveling all over the world. He still works in the theater industry and lauds the union representing theater workers for helping him through the pandemic.
Blacks attributes much of his determination to his father who passed away five years ago of pancreatic cancer. “I was overseas on assignment when I received the news that he was very sick. It happened so quickly. My family wanted me to focus on my work and not see him the way he was. I had to rush back to the city. I know he would be very proud of me if he could be here. From him I learned how to be a productive Black young man – to always work hard for what you want and never look to anybody to give you anything. You have to earn everything you do.”
Andrew’s passion has always been basketball and helping neighborhood kids. “Don’t get me wrong, my work in theater is my livelihood and I love what I do. They give me the flexibility to leave work early and be here in the playground when I need to operate the league and summer camp. But, my vision is way bigger than that. I’m here to change peoples’ lives and try to make things better for the community.”
The impact of the league on the community cannot be underestimated. Gale Brewer, the local City Council member, has known Andrew (or Peach as he is called – a name given to him by his aunt when he was a young boy) for many years. As borough president, she was instrumental in procuring the $2.7 million in funds for a complete overhaul of the playground. It is now a state of the art outdoor facility with a new basketball court equipped with an electric scoreboard, built-in tables, benches and stands for local residents to come together and cheer on the players. It also has new playground climbing structures that are open to the entire neighborhood.
The playground, which hadn’t been renovated in thirty years, reopened in June 2018 after six years of winding its way through the public approval and construction process. “I met Andrew when I was first elected to the City Council in 2002,” Brewer related. “Andrew is very understated. He possesses a rare combination of brilliance and leadership for the right reasons. He is serious about what he is doing and why he is doing it, and very clear about what is right and what is wrong,” she added. “We worked very hard to make this playground renovation happen, and Andrew was a big reason we were able to get it done.”
Susan Matloff-Nieves, now the Deputy Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center, became the director of the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center on West 65th Street in 2015 when it was in the throes of creating a partnership with Goddard Riverside. She knows Andrew well and openly sings his praises. “He is such a positive force for good,” Susan said. “He’s just quietly on the ground doing the hard work of youth development that doesn’t get funded and doesn’t get acknowledged or valued. He turns the playground into a place of commitment, of learning and of joy. There’s always a positive spirit there. Positive influence really says it. You feel it when you walk past that park at night and in the summers. I love to go home through the playground and listen to him yell encouragement through his bullhorn to everyone who is there.”
Robert Moses may have turned up his nose on the community by never building a physical bride to Amsterdam Houses, but Blacks has built his own bridge over Amsterdam Avenue. “I work with everyone in the community,” he proudly stated. “We’ve made the playground into a community park where everybody is comfortable no matter what nationality or background you are from. Positive Influence is like a family, trying to give kids the opportunities they normally wouldn’t have.”
Registration for this summer’s league and summer camp begins in mid-April. You can go on their website to find out more information and to support Andrew. https://www.positiveinfluencebasketball.com/
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.