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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

A community center built with perseverance

The North Hempstead "Yes We Can" Community Center

The North Hempstead "Yes We Can" Community Center makes its final preparations the day before its official opening. (Sept. 7, 2012) Credit: Linda Rosier

April Brown-Lake, silver bracelets on her arms and bright blue sneakers on her feet, was in what will become an art gallery in North Hempstead's jaw-dropping-gorgeous new community center on Friday when a young worker approached with an important question: "Can we, um, use the vending machines?"

Brown-Lake didn't miss a beat. "Yes!" she exclaimed, beaming a smile. "They're ready for business!"

The worker -- "Thank goodness," the woman replied, "I'm so thirsty" -- was one of many readying the Westbury/New Cassel center for its debut Saturday.

The excitement in the building -- a state-of-the-art, multiuse facility -- was palpable. "You should have seen us when those vending machines came in, all sparkling new, a few days ago," Brown-Lake said. "We were clapping."

There was plenty to cheer about. Boxes of new basketballs. Rooms of new furniture. New computers and TVs. A new stage, with changing rooms. New television, recording and dance studios.

The 60,000-square-foot building, at 141 Garden St., also houses a gym and meeting rooms; and, in nonpublic areas, a few town departments and programs, and an impressive control center that, in emergencies, will house the town's communication lifelines.

The Yes We Can facility -- the highlight of New Cassel's ambitious and successful, if somewhat bumpy, revitalization program -- was built on a decades-long conviction that a center was essential.

Brown-Lake's parents, who moved to New Cassel to own a home, send their children to good schools and live near relatives, were among residents of the mostly African-American hamlet who worked years ago to get the community's first park.

It would take decades more for "the stars to align," as county Legis. Robert Troiano (D-Westbury) put it.

Why has Westbury/New Cassel succeeded while other Long Island communities faltered? It took a hamlet willing to work together; a town willing to listen and a commitment to succeed -- in everything from planning to finding myriad revenue sources to supply more than $125 million to finance the revitalization and community center.

Most of all, it took perseverance. Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, for example, was an adviser to former Supervisor May Newburger in 2002, when the community came together over five days to design their new community.

He left town government to become a judge, but when he came back, he was put in charge of overseeing the project. Years later, after succeeding Newburger, Kaiman negotiated $10 million in seed money for the center.

The community came together -- and stayed together -- to see the project through. As time wore on, the scope of the project grew.

The community wanted art, so the building has a space dedicated to art; the original plan for a regulation high-school-size basketball court grew to two regulation NBA-size courts.

In 2005, a group of Westbury fourth- and fifth-grade students envisioned a garden to grow vegetables on the imagined community center's roof.

Some of those children, now teens, were on hand Saturday to see the grounds -- on the building's perimeter rather than the roof -- where vegetables really will grow.

"We wanted something intergenerational; somewhere where a child or a resident can come in and begin to make their dreams come true," Brown-Lake said.

To the delight of her civic activist mother, Brown-Lake is the center's first director.

"I brought her in here last week and her eyes lit up," she said before getting back to work. "We are all so proud."

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