by Paul West
Last night, unbeknownst to many of its residents, New York City took another step toward its next landmark. At the Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church on Fordham Road, a diverse assembly of hundreds gathered to express its support for the brainchild of one of New York City’s greatest sports heroes.
For two decades, Mark Messier was known as the man who helped bring the Stanley Cup back to New York, breaking the ‘curse’ that hung over the New York Rangers’ franchise despite many successes. Now, Mr. Messier wants to be known as the man who helped rejuvenate the Kingsbridge Armory, and the communities of the North Bronx along with it. Messier is the CEO of the proposed Kingsbridge National Ice Center (known as KNIC), which aims to be the world’s largest ice sports facility as it brings living wages, increased tourism, an economic boost and broadened horizons to the residents of the North Bronx community.
Addressing last night’s gathering, Messier spoke of being “proud to be here tonight,” and he spoke with conviction as he said that KNIC would prioritize “kids, jobs and community.” Speaker after speaker, from local politicians to community leaders and middle school kids, expressed their gratitude to the NHL legend (as well as former Olympic medalist Sarah Hughes, who has also lent her name and efforts to the project) for lending his star power to a community that could use more of it. But the most compelling thing about last night’s rally was that it did not, in fact, feel like it was all about Messier and paying homage to a celebrity for donating a bit of face time. The prevailing sentiment was that this was, indeed, a watershed moment for the Bronx, and New York City in general.
Among the several hundred in attendance were those you might expect: elected officials, community board members, and a smattering of corporate types who were there with KNIC’s developers. But there were also community members, young and old and of all ethnic backgrounds. There was the Fordham Prep hockey team, at one point grinning ear to ear as they posed in their jerseys next to a New York Rangers legend. There was the choir from the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, who buzzed around excitedly between inspiring performances–including a lovely rendition of “The Greatest Love of All.” There was Natalia, the 11-year-old synchronized skater who clambered up to the podium and told the crowd that “it’s not just the boys” who are excited about the KNIC project. There was Francisco, the 11-year-old boy who told the assembly about how KNIC will mean he won’t have to travel as far to play sled hockey. The kids from the Mott Hall Bronx High School were also in attendance, as well as a smattering of other local kids. There were numerous instances of spontaneous applause, and a feeling of unity and empowerment.
One of the more compelling speakers was Ginette Sosa, a board member of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a grassroots organization that has lent a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and strategic planning to the KNIC effort. She alluded to her past efforts to get people interested in developing the Kingsbridge Armory, and spoke of her happiness at seeing “actual development…it’s been a long time coming.” As she continued, she spoke of her thoughts as a parent and community leader. “Why not ice skating? Why not our kids? This is the first time ever that…a developer has come and sat down and listened to the Bronx.” This drew resounding applause.
During the proceedings, great care was taken to make it clear that KNIC is not just about putting rinks in the Bronx. The Collective Bargaining Agreement was spoken of elaborately, and matters of sustainable energy and nutritional awareness were highlighted. The matter of living-wage employment was also heavily stressed, as was the fact that local kids will be given free and/or discounted access to ice time. Messier assured the assembly that KNIC would “engage the kids and the people of the community to share in this project,” and expressed his desire that KNIC be “beneficial not only to kids here in the Bronx but everybody in the Bronx.”
As the event wrapped up, Messier posed graciously for photos for over twenty minutes (I’m happy to say I snagged my own photo op, proudly displayed herein). Attendees were reminded to spread the word and keep the faith, and as people filed out, the general feeling was one of a successful effort. Earlier in the day, KNIC’s lease agreement had passed unanimously though its home borough’s board.
“Here we stand,” said Messier, “on the doorstep of doing something iconic.” Many people in the Bronx community seemed to agree.