Midtown Rising began in 2015, when members of the St. James United Methodist Church (that’s the big, beautiful stone building at the corner of Pearl and Fair Streets) saw opportunities to build a stronger neighborhood. Outreach coordinator, Jordan Scruggs, reached out to do some organizing among her connections, and something new was born—and five years later, with Scruggs as chair of the board, Midtown Rising is both a thriving nonprofit and a statement of fact.
“The idea is to create programming for the community from within the community,” says current Executive Director Frank Waters. “Jordan and I both work in Midtown, our vice president, Liz Baker, has a business here, and our treasurer, Stephanie Costa, is a resident. So we’re right here on the ground, engaging from within and working to meet the community’s authentic needs.”
As an asset-based community development organization, Midtown Rising has plenty to work with. “We’ve got a great location. We have amazing artists, so many that the Midtown Arts District was created as an acknowledgement of that. The number of dancers, theater people, musicians, drummers, poets, rappers, fashion designers, and makers here is through the roof, and these are people that are very community-oriented. We have some wonderful and powerful organizations; the YMCA, for example, operates a farm where teens can get a paid job learning not just farming, but nutrition, cooking skills, and best business practices when they run the markets. We have the only Montessori-inspired public school around at George Washington Elementary. Radio Kingston is in Midtown. Then there’s the work of RUPCO. I live in the Lace Mill, which is fantastic, and their Energy Square has just opened.”
Waters himself can trace his nonprofit adventure story back through several successful Midtown organizations, starting with MyKingstonKids, which he founded several years ago and is proud to note still thrives under the direction of Winston Queen. “We just wrapped a photography program and we have a reading program launching next month. Also, we just received funding to renovate our buildings—we’re getting started this week. We’re growing.”
His own journey led from MyKingstonKids to helping organize Black History Month Kingston with Harambee and on to Midtown Rising. “It’s been so wonderful helping to build all this,” he says, “and to think, it all started with just having fun and wanting to have fun things happening for the kids.” The organization has served over a thousand Kingston children so far.
With Midtown Rising and his broad-based team of scholar-activists, Waters wants to make Midtown living fun and prosperous for all ages. “It’s about offering the opportunity for folks to feel included, not left out, unseen, and unheard. We want to facilitate an environment where folks can be themselves, fulfill dreams, and access the power of their imagination.”
To make that a reality, Midtown Rising is renovating the Clinton Avenue Church into a community center, the Liberty Center, that will offer free tech and entrepreneurial education along with sports. “There was already a basketball court on one side of the building, so we redid the floors and we’re getting new hoops and equipment to make it multi-purpose and offer tennis, soccer, and golf. Nobody needs to listen when society seems to be implying ‘this is not for you.’ I mean, I only got into golf because I won a free lesson coupon as a kid in Harlem and the instructor, a Black guy, helped me see how cool it can be once you get into it. I got my girlfriend, now my wife, into it and she got better than me. Now our son and nephew play. Everyone—not just kids, either—should try all the things.”
Rolling out this month is the Connect Campaign, intended to make sure all Midtown neighbors get the latest important information and can participate in the growing opportunities and fun. “So much communication happens on email and social media, but there is about 30 percent of the population not in that loop,” says Waters. “About 45 resource providers have signed up so far; we’ve got free art classes, discounts at farm stands, free rabies shots, free teeth cleaning, a Relatives as Parents program, movie nights, food and nutrition programs, Circle Creative Collective masks, baby clothes…new things are coming in everyday. Providers have direct access to their profiles on the site so they can go there on their own and add services.” To make sure everybody gets the good news, the organization is rolling out a dedicated phone line, and Midtowners can sign up to get a weekly call with the latest. A paper Connect Guide is due out in September.
Waters hopes to continue to collaborate with city and county governments to keep Midtown on the rise. “Part of Connect is to keep people in the information loop. The city uses email a lot. For example, I just came from the police commission, and we talked about the need to publicize and market upcoming civil service job opportunities to the entire community. There are still very few people of color in those roles and a bit of a club mentality. We want to make sure people get heard and that Midtown is included in the decisions that get made. We’d like the city to help us repurpose or get rid of abandoned buildings, to establish policy to protect people from slumlords, and to enhance the beauty of this area—maintain streets and sidewalks—nice trees. Most of all, we need to welcome new blood into the leadership. Don’t be afraid of change! New ideas will make your world better too, and our city stronger.”
Midtown Rising has a portal at Tilda’s Kitchen and Market, with a computer people can use to find the resources they need. “We love the [Hudson Valley] Current and the idea of what it can bring, creating a robust local economy, and helping even the playing field so people can participate in a variety of ways,” says Waters. “The Midtown Rising Connect program will include an Ambassadors Program, where we offer people Currents to go eat lunch at Tilda’s; bring in ten people and get a gift card. There are all kinds of creative ways to use Currents to connect.”
With such an array of assets already in place, Waters is thrilled to be taking measures to raise awareness of them within the entire Midtown community. “The momentum is clearly with us,” he says. “We’re just going to keep having this kind of fun—and keep pushing.”
Learn more at: kingstonmidtownrising.org.