A resident speaks out against tMadison Boys and Girls Club's proposed ssale of the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse on April 9. By Edwin Pagan.

Aleicia Hutchinson, 37, has fond memories of attending the Hoe Avenue Boys and Girls Club in Crotona Park East as a young girl growing up in West Farms.

“I had all my firsts here,” said Hutchinson. “I learned how to swim here, karate, camp.”

The club at the corner of Hoe Avenue and East 173rd Street, where many young South Bronx residents like Hutchinson have learned life skills over the decades, may soon close, due to revenue-draining lawsuits its parent organization says have left them no choice but to sell.

The club opened as the Freeman Street Boys Club in 1958, then reopened as the Hoe Avenue Boys and Girls Clubhouse in 1971, following a fire that gutted it in 1967. The club was renamed the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse in 2010, after a generous donor, and it has gone by that time since then.

Members have been advised the clubhouse will be put up for sale at the end of August, after summer programming ends.

Hutchinson was one of many former and present members who attended a rally at the clubhouse on April 27, to speak out against the proposed sale. The parent organization, the Manhattan-based Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, owns five other clubs: one in the Fordham section of the Bronx, and two each in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The lawsuits Madison Square has settled stem from accusations of child abuse against a physician who volunteered at their former clubhouse on East 29th Street in Manhattan, during the 1940s through ’80s. When Madison Square’s board reviewed their financials, they decided to sell the Smilow clubhouse and a field next to a Brooklyn club, to raise the needed revenue. Last year, they sold the Navy Yard Clubhouse in Brooklyn to fund the settlement that was reached with the abuse survivors who filed the suit.

Elected officials whose districts comprise Mott Haven, Melrose and Hunts Point as well as Crotona Park, issued a joint statement, urging Madison Square to come up with an alternate plan for the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse. Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., State Sen. Luis Sepulveda and Assemblywoman Chantel Jackson joined Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and Rep. Ritchie Torres, saying they are “deeply concerned by the lack of meaningful engagement and transparency from the Boys and Girls Club and its Board of Directors, who have failed to establish a substantive dialogue” with local community and elected officials.

They worry about the potential loss of the club which has provided programming for “leaders in government, law enforcement, health care and beyond” in their youth, and whose success as adults serves as an example of the “profound impact of strong community programming.”

A former club member who now serves on its alumni association, Mel Corbett, said he and fellow members were blindsided by the Madison group’s decision to sell Smilow, learning of the plan only after seeing the prospective sale posted on the website.

“We need this clubhouse to stay open,” said Corbett, 71. “It’s our position that if we would have known earlier when they were in trouble, we would have been able to start our search and publicize this, so that we could bring attention to this matter and hopefully raise the kind of funds that are needed to keep the club open.”

The parent group’s offer to explore other possibilities of “using schools, community centers, churches or other sites as alternative locations for local programming” is a smokescreen, he said. He and other alumni would work with ownership to find a buyer who would commit to continuing the club’s legacy as a community center, he added.

“This is not an adversarial thing,” said Corbett. “Yes, we want to voice our displeasure. We want them to go back and work harder and relook at this and keep this club open as long as possible.”

The Madison Square Boys and Girls Club did not respond to a question from the Mott Haven Herald/Hunts Point Express, when asked why the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse is the only one of the group’s six clubs being put up for sale. But present and former members say it is because Crotona Park is the least affluent of the six neighborhoods the clubs serve, making it the least politically powerful, and the most vulnerable to being sold without consideration for the community it serves.

“If this was downtown, trust me, this wouldn’t even be happening,” said Joyce Allen, 65, a resident of Longfellow Houses, who says she found out about the proposed sale on Facebook. “All three of my kids came here.”

The 37,000 square foot property is assessed at $5,773,410, and includes a swimming pool and full-sized basketball court, along with classrooms.

Supporters urged fellow members and alumni to visit the website for more information, subscribe to the newsletter, call their local representatives and sign a petition to preserve the clubhouse.

The story was updated on May 6, to correct the dates when the clubhouse’s name was changed. Additional changes were made on May 7 to correct details involving the lawsuits and the Madison Boys and Girls Club’s finances. 

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