From trade school to settlement house, the Lawrence-based Five Towns Community Center boasts a rich history, and has lent a helping hand to countless immigrants from Europe — including Irish, Italian and Jewish families — as well as Southerners who migrated north. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the center in the 1960s.
This year, the facility is celebrating its 105th anniversary. “The center has a long, rich history, and I’m very proud to be a part of this momentous occasion with those who go back to some of the center’s early years,” Executive Director Bertha Pruitt said. “Whenever you talk to some of the old-timers whoare still here with us, you can see in their eyes fond memories of the good old days. I always love to hear the stories because you know that the feelings run deep and the relationships remain strong.”
The Margaret Sage Industrial School was built in 1907, and was later called the Nassau Industrial School, or trade school. It stood on what are now the community center’s soccer fields, at 270 Lawrence Ave. In 1942 the building was renamed the Five Towns Community House, and began operating as a settlement house.
“The concept changed from a trade school to caring for children, teens and families,” said Peter Visconti, the center’s director.
In 1964, the federal Economic Opportunity Act required municipalities such as Nassau County to establish economic opportunity commissions, with the aim of helping those living in poverty. “Many of the center’s programs came out of that,” Visconti said, “including Head Start, employment training, drug treatment, our senior center and Aid to the Foreign Born program.”
Pruitt, who was appointed executive director in 2009, first came to the center in 1974 with a youth services program.
Marie Caronia, a longtime Inwood resident, has been working at the community center for 44 years. In 1967 she took a job as a secretary, and assisted with the after-school program. “You don’t realize how fast time goes,” she said of the 105th anniversary. “It’s a big celebration because we’ve been here so long, and so many people remember this place as the trade school. It goes way back.”
As various storefronts throughout Inwood took in the different trade school programs, the original building was razed in 1971, and a new one was built a year later to house all of the programs under one roof. Along with the new building came a new name, the Five Towns Community Center Inc., and Sadie Scott became the center’s first executive director. “She was an exceptional leader and a strong woman,” Visconti said.
Though the new building was needed, Caronia said she still misses the old one. “It was like a big house and everything was closer,” she said of the trade school. “We used to have trailers in the parking lot and not enough parking. Though we didn’t have enough room, everyone got to know each other better.”
Despite losing $400,000 in county funding this year, Visconti and Pruitt said they remain hopeful about the center’s future. “It’s such a tough economic environment and it’s been a struggle to get grants,” Visconti said, “but we have staff who have been volunteering their time.”
“Because of the strong roots and the value of services to the community,” Pruitt added, “I would expect the center will be here for many generations to come, as the children and grandchildren of those who grew up here so many years ago continue to refer to it as ‘trade school.’”
The center will host its anniversary celebration on Nov. 3, from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., at 270 Lawrence Ave. in Lawrence. Tickets can be purchased by calling (516) 239-6244, ext. 233 or 234