Stand by the Greys

Good for Representative Carolyn Maloney and other lawmakers who are entreating Governor Hochul to intervene on behalf of one of Gotham’s most venerable youth organizations.

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

Good for Representative Carolyn Maloney and other lawmakers who are entreating Governor Hochul to intervene on behalf of one of Gotham’s most venerable youth organizations, the Knickerbocker Greys. These cadets formed to inculcate the military virtues among the sons of Manhattan, face eviction from their home of 120 years in the basement of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. 

The Greys have long since broadened their membership to include girls as well as boys. They say their future is imperiled because the Park Avenue Armory wants to turn their basement headquarters into a coat room — the Armory says it’s for handicapped access — and send the Greys elsewhere. That would sever the ties the cadets forged in 1902 with the Armory and unmoor a group that is a “living landmark” in the city. 

Nearly 5,000 New Yorkers have trained over the years with the cadets, whose name stems from their original gray uniforms. They featured knee-length pants called “knickerbockers.”  The group was initially formed to keep boys off the streets and out of candy shops, by providing youth between six and 16 years old with leadership training. The Greys are now the oldest after-school group in the nation. 

The Greys’ alumni include Vice President Rockefeller, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., Mayor Lindsay, and the novelist Louis Auchincloss. A more recent alumnus is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, Colonel Thomas Pike. He tells the Sun that the group has long since come to encompass “all walks of life,” including children from public schools and diverse backgrounds and financial needs.

In its heyday, the Greys comprised more than 200 cadets, who would train to march in close-order drill — a military discipline  requiring group cohesion and precision — within the cavernous space of the Armory. The endeavor was not for the faint of heart, as one cadet reported.  “You get very hot,” he told the Times, “and very nervous. You think you’re going to faint,” he added, “although you think you ought to die first.”

Today the Greys average between 20 and 30 cadets. To lose its Armory base, Colonel Pike observes, would be a “big problem.” Their office headquarters is only 800 square feet. Considering the Armory’s size — just under 200,000 square feet of space — “I think the building can come to a solution easily if they put some thought to it,” Colonel Pike says. The Armory avers it needs all the space, and blames New York state for the eviction.

The Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, which is focused on hosting live performances of classical music and avant-garde theater, in March told the group to vacate their basement headquarters by June 1. The president of the group’s board, Adrienne Rogatnick, has been pleading, she says, with the Armory to “let the kids back in.” As for an explanation for the eviction, “that is the burning question,” she says. “Why?”

Expulsion would appear to violate promises made. State Senator Liz Krueger, in a letter this month to Rebecca Robertson of the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, quotes from the notes taken by the senator’s deputy chief of staff during discussions in 2006 when the Armory was transitioning to arts programming. “I was told,” the senator’s aide wrote, “the Conservancy views the organizations currently using the Armory, including the Knickerbocker Greys, as an ‘integral part of the tradition and future of the Armory’.”

Congresswoman Maloney, in a letter to the governor, asks Ms. Hochul to grant the Greys “a separate lease with New York State” to keep them at the Armory. At a recent Greys event, Ralph Gardner wrote in the Wall Street Journal, he got “a lump in the throat” as he watched the Greys march, a sensation we ourselves have shared while watching, at one event or another, the Greys stand by the colors. We hope Governor Hochul rides to their rescue.

The New York Sun

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