Hochul Mum as Key Legislators Swing Behind Knickerbocker Greys’ Bid To Stay at Seventh Regiment Armory

The group facing expulsion, the Knickerbocker Greys, was founded in 1881 and has been based at the Armory since 1902.

Chae Kihn/Hechler Photography courtesy Knickerbocker Greys
Cadets of the Knickerbocker Greys, seen with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (right) and Kwame Anthony Appiah (left). Chae Kihn/Hechler Photography courtesy Knickerbocker Greys

Opposition is growing to the Park Avenue Armory’s plans to evict a 141-year-old youth organization from its Manhattan premises, with lawmakers, including Representative Carolyn Maloney, questioning the move and a community board committee criticizing the expulsion Thursday evening.

The group facing expulsion, the Knickerbocker Greys, was founded in 1881 and has been based at the Armory since 1902. The Armory, which has been renovating the military facility to serve as a performing arts venue, claims it is “bursting at the seams” and has no space to accommodate the group. 

On Thursday there was record-level attendance — “the most we’ve had, by a long shot,” Co-Chairwoman Taina Borrero observed — at the usually quiet meeting of the Youth, Education and Libraries Committee of the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8, with more than 180 participating via video call.

The committee approved a resolution urging New York State “to work with the Armory to keep the Greys” in the building. The matter will next be weighed at a full Community Board meeting on May 18. 

The Greys have been told to decamp by June 1. The group’s management contends losing its base of operations at the Armory would call its future into question.

Public comments on Thursday evening were uniformly in support of the Greys in their dispute with the Armory. The City Council member for the Upper East Side, Julie Menin, endorsed the group’s request to keep its 800-square-foot basement office at the Armory “a de minimis ask.” 

Ms. Menin also observed that in light of the large size of the Armory — with just less than 200,000 square feet — letting the Greys stay, and maintaining the Armory’s busy schedule of artistic performances, “are not mutually exclusive.” 

Yet the founding president of the Armory, Rebecca Robertson, said her organization envisions the Park Avenue landmark as being “open to the public, not just the privileged few.” 

She noted the Armory needs more room to accommodate its theater, musical, and arts performances, including recent examples like Sam Mendes’s “Lehman Trilogy” and a concert presentation by the Berlin Philharmonic of Bach’s “St. John Passion.” 

Ms. Robertson also emphasized the Armory’s arts education program serving 5,000 students, the vast majority of whom are minorities and from families living under the poverty line.

With all that activity, she said, “we really need the space back.” 

Ms. Robertson told the committee board the Armory has “legal authority” to evict the Greys “under our agreement with the State of New York.” Yet board members asked how the Armory, which is itself a tenant of the state, had the power to expel the youth organization. “You don’t own the building,” Ms. Borrero observed.

Asked by the community board whether the state approved of the Armory’s plans, Ms. Robertson stumbled momentarily.

“Uh, uh, uh — I don’t know the answer to that question,” she said, adding, “I don’t believe it makes a difference.”

Asked by the board why the arts group had allowed the Greys to remain on-site rent-free during the 16 years since the Armory took occupancy of most of the building space, Ms. Robertson said “no good deed goes unpunished.”

The Armory did not immediately respond to requests for additional information on Friday.

A Community Board member, Michele Birnbaum, noted what she felt was “poor treatment of veterans and the Seventh Regiment” beginning when the Armory moved into the space in 2006. 

Pointing to Ms. Robertson’s presentation, which listed many citywide community and school groups served by the Armory’s programs, Ms. Birnbaum asked why space for the Greys could not be found. “Here in your lap, in your premises, is a local  community group — and that’s the one you want to remove.”

A 9-year-old member of the Greys, Max Philips, praised the group for teaching him “how to properly present and display the American flag at events,” and he hoped the group could stay at the Armory “for another 120 years.”

The president of the Grey’s board, Adrienne Rogatnick, got “choked up” as she recalled the honor roll of cadets who went on to serve in the military and died in World Wars I and II. These names are listed in plaques located in the entry hall of the Armory building. “Our blood is in that building,” she said.

The Greys, a co-ed organization, describes its membership as coming from all backgrounds and walks of life.

The Armory has identified alternative space for the Greys at the 369th Regiment Armory at Harlem, Ms. Robertson said. Yet many of the meeting attendees scoffed at the suggestion of sending the young cadets to a new facility nearly four miles north of their current home. 

“It’s a shondeh, an accommodation can’t be reached” for the Greys, a Community Board member, Barry Schneider, observed.

Lawmakers including Ms. Maloney and a state senator, Liz Krueger, are advocating for the group — whom Ms. Krueger calls “a beloved part of the Upper East Side” — to be able to remain at the Armory location.

Ms. Maloney has asked Governor Hochul to intervene in the dispute to give the Greys “a separate lease with New York State” allowing them to stay at the Armory. 

Manhattan’s borough president, Mark Levine, was also asking Ms. Hochul to aid the Greys, Ms. Rogatnick told the Sun. Mr. Levine’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Hochul’s office has not responded to requests for comment on the dispute between the Armory and the Greys.

The New York Sun

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