We Have Cooling Centers – Did You Know?

07.17.12 David Lumb

The city has been cooked since the first heat wave of the season rang in the summer in late May. Eager New Yorkers reading heat wave news articles may have perked up at the mythical oases listed at the end of each piece: the cooling centers. The city rises to combat the heat for John Public like it would for any other radical weather. ANIMAL decided to explore these bastions of cool calm in the midst of heat wave chaos–and found the “cooling center” to be a huge exaggeration of the term.

The Columbus Branch Library on 742 10th Ave is one such cooling center, a “community center” as opposed to a “senior center” according to the city website’s cooling center locator. There are no signs outside the library to note its special cooling status, nor are there any apparent features added on hot days to make it a specialized zone to keep cool. Aside from central air conditioning set to 71 degrees, the library was as useful a cooling center as any of the others we found.

The senior centers marked as cooling centers offered, as their lone heat wave-combating feature, slightly longer hours. They serve reduced-fare lunch, like always; they keep the AC units cranked, like always. The Project Find Clinton Senior Center at 530 W 55th Street is located in the bottom floor of a giant housing unit, and though listed as a cooling center, its patrons sit in the same cool rooms they’ve always gravitated to. The makeshift library is kept exceptionally cold, but computer room and dining room draw people in for their services, not the AC units set to a uniform 60 degrees (stoves, people, and computers pull that up to an unremarkable 70ish). Not only is the center off the street and unmarked–it’s not open to folks who aren’t senior citizens (those under 60).

Senior centers, it turns out, form the majority of these cooling centers. The senior demographic often finds nearby senior centers by dialing 311, though they’re mostly looking for lunch. The center underneath St. Malachy’s on 239 W 49th street officially opens at 9, but lets folks in for breakfast if the neighborhood chips in food. Normally open until 4 p.m., the center extends its hours by request of the city during heat waves.

“We normally close at four,” said Senior Center Assistant Director Niewves Tavares. “But in a heat wave, we are a cooling center. We end at six instead, because the other groups, like [Alcoholics Anonymous], show up.”

An email in the morning from the NY Department of the Aging is the only update Tavares gets when St. Malachy is instructed to stay open later. They can’t stay open later than 7 p.m., but are instructed to “allow entrance to any person who seeks respite from the heat.”

Of the four cooling centers we visited, only one advertised itself as such: the Salvation Army Times Square Corps on 315 W 47th, which trumpeted its air-conditioned offerings with a large banner facing the street. Inside, we found our promised oasis: air conditioning, cold water in cups, and shade. All free. All accessible.

“People stop in for five to ten minutes. Then they leave,” said Alex Booth, a caseworker at Times Square Corps who makes sure the lobby is cool and unlocked for travelers seeking respite from the heat. If there’s funding, the room has water bottles, and the site’s pastor, Lt. Joshua Jones, blasts the lobby with central air. The Times Square building is one of five on Manhattan that operate as cooling centers when the word comes from District Headquarters on 14th Street; Staten Island has two, and so does the Bronx, and Brooklyn has five.

One out of four cooling centers matching our expectations of a city-supported resource to combat heat and dehydration isn’t impressive–but these sites do provide valuable services. The “cooling center” seems more like a rebranding effort by the city to save face under public scrutiny, amounting to little more than extended hours of existing services and requests to independent benevolent organizations. Our advice: find a library and educate yourself to beat the heat with a mental warm-up while you cool down.

(Photos: Bucky Turco/ANIMALNY)