By Jennifer Acker '00

Rosanne Haggerty stands in the ballroom of the Prince George Hotel in Manhattan, a building that is being renovated in a new project undertaken by Common Ground Community. 

Rosanne Haggerty ’82 looks out the 15th-floor window and motions to the ground below. Ten years ago, when her non-profit Common Ground Community bought the building we're standing in, a transvestite bar, a XXX movie place and lap-dancing were the entertainments across the street. Despite the distinguished next-door presence of The New York Times, its namesake square was seedy at best. Today the block is different. Now a theater sparkles with a freshly painted red and gold façade and advertises plays suited for the general public; a luxury Westin Hotel is going up next door. Haggerty credits the recent improvements to new adult-use zoning laws that prohibit the clustering of pornography stores, strip clubs and other such businesses while protecting their First Amendment right to exist.

Haggerty wouldn't say so, but it is largely through her own efforts, too, that the block has begun to show a better face. Many years ago, the Times Square Hotel, on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, catered to those who could afford front-row orchestra seats in the area's nearby Broadway venues; but its last incarnation was as a welfare hotel, a dumping ground for the homeless, including people with mental illness, drug addictions and violent tendencies. The building was a place of stabbings, fires and rats. In 1990 the city threw up its hands and sought proposals from developers to create a budget hotel. But what would be done with the tenants, many of whom were destitute and ill? Some proposals called for "bifurcating" the building, Haggerty recalls: sectioning off a part of the hotel for the borderline homeless who would surely be undesirable to the tourist crowd. For Haggerty, then still in her late 20s, that solution left much to be desired.

The Times Square Hotel had the potential to be a shining example of innovative supportive housing, where tenant social services are provided on location; and from her experience of working seven years at Brooklyn Catholic Charities, Haggerty knew what kinds of questions to ask about plans for a renovation. Her biggest challenge, however, was not architectural, nor was it navigating the city's bureaucracy. It was the conceptual, social design: "how to mitigate the scale of the building." The hotel had more than 700 rooms, and "all the conventional wisdom on housing for the poor and people with special needs was that small is beautiful," she says. "A lot of the large-scale housing for the poor in this country, and in other parts of the world, has just imploded; it's ended up creating miserable ghettos of social pathology and despair."

For a couple of months after she learned of its plight, the Times Square "intruded on my thoughts," she says, stirring her mentally and emotionally. For one thing, she did not trust the city's instincts to create something good out of a very bad situation. "I just couldn't imagine that a responsible plan could be forwarded that would advocate the building's uses as supportive housing targeting the homeless." As she watched the hotel slide "toward oblivion and bankruptcy court, the impulse to do something became pretty overwhelming," Haggerty says. She grimaces now, imagining the hopeless waste the structure could have become. Haggerty has a physically striking face—straight nose, wide eyes and smile, and dark, arching eyebrows. Yet her voice is soft and calm, both reasoned and compassionate. "I think it was one of those insights in the shower, where it occurred to me that this was one of the few places that clearly had a market for affordable housing serving low-income working people, particularly people in the arts, in the theater and entertainment industry, who are usually quite proud of their pioneering, edgy attitude, 'Give me the run-down neighborhood and we'll turn it into lofts and galleries.'"

Integrating individuals from the arts community with other low-income workers, the formerly homeless, the mentally ill and people with AIDS became the founding principle of Common Ground. "Even though the idea wasn't particularly well established in the early '90s, it made abundant sense to me that you could just as easily mitigate the sense of scale here by integrating . . . as by sectioning off the building," Haggerty says. The hardest work was formulating the concept—realizing her own, workable vision for the place.

It is this creative intelligence that won Haggerty a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in November of 2001. Frequently called the "genius" grants, MacArthurs are not awards you can apply for. Instead, one is nominated for the $500,000 prize—paid over five years, no strings attached. Fellows are not chosen based upon past accomplishments, the MacArthur Foundation says, but upon the promise of future "originality, insight, and potential to effect positive change."

The passion to transform the Times Square Hotel led Haggerty to create Common Ground in the late summer of 1990. Mayor David Dinkins approved the plan put forth by the new organization and its collaborator, the Center for Urban Community Services. Nearly $29 million in city funds was allocated for renovation. After the construction—which began with a great deal of destruction—Haggerty was urged by friends to consider using funds from the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit. "Starting off, I thought one of the building's great appeals was its style. Even though it was completely run down back in 1990, you can see what a gracious lobby it had, and the façade was impressive," she says. Restored to its former design, the striking gilt and white plaster of the lobby ceiling now draws an upward glance from visitors. The eyes then follow the shiny rail of the mezzanine and look down the marble staircase to a terrazzo floor. A larger-than-life golden angel flanked by cherubs rests against the back wall. Haggerty hadn't thought about placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places, believing it to be a cumbersome process with few direct benefits to the project. In fact, the preservation consultants Common Ground finally hired provided aesthetic and financial assistance. A preservationist detail that Haggerty at first deemed "trivial" concerned the doors of the housing units. When the wooden doors were replaced with metal ones, the state historical review team insisted on affixing squares of molding to them, to create a less modern, more residential feel. It works, creating an effect Haggerty describes as "homey."

Interior of building

Inside, the rooms are bright with white paint, natural light and new furniture (bearing a close resemblance to Amherst's dorm furniture, as it is purchased from the same New England company). The 652 efficiencies are equipped with private bathrooms, and most rooms have kitchenettes. Each floor has 50 rooms and a craft space of some kind: sewing rooms, computer rooms, "rather than the proverbial lounges where people hang out and smoke cigarettes," Haggerty says. Rent is charged on a sliding scale, approximately 30 percent of a tenant's income, which at the time of move-in must be between $13,000 and $25,000. Tenants sign one- or two-year leases and, Haggerty says, "The expectation is not that you move but that you stay as long as you need to." Currently Common Ground is trying to design an incentive program for people who are "very comfortable and like the kinds of communities we create but don't need the services as much as some new homeless person." Fourteen of the building's floors are residential; the 15th was added during renovation and has a common dining area, commercial kitchen and three roof gardens that were still green and vibrant during my visit in November.

Haggerty points to an alcove featuring painted portraits of tenants, and to the tiles on the walls crafted by residents and local artists. While we wait for the down elevator a tenant says hello to Rosanne, addressing her by first name as everyone does, and asks how she is. He bends down to wipe up the yellow puddle his dog has just made ("We allow pets," she says to me).

An activity board hangs nearby, displaying notices about coming events, a coffee house with improv comedy and Thanksgiving dinner. When Haggerty had only this one building to manage—before completing another, partnering a third, initiating three new projects and winning the MacArthur grant—she planned and oversaw many of these activities at the Times Square, feeling like "the mayor of a small town." About half of the tenants of the building are working people, a figure vital to the social dynamic. Haggerty's idea was to "destigmatize" people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and HIV/AIDS by integrating them with those who are actors, waiters and waiter/actors. Through the revolving lobby door spin people sporting canes, bright orange scarves, leather jackets and scruffy beards. A skinny, older black man had stepped into the elevator with us on our way to the top floor. "Fourteen, David?" Haggerty asked; then, "Did someone already recruit you to play the piano during Thanksgiving dinner?"

"Yeah, I'm doing both the morning and the afternoon," he says. Stepping out at 14 he tells her that it's odd he's been getting all this work recently because he's moving to Philadelphia.

Haggerty is surprised. "We'll miss you."

The stunning success of the Times Square would lead one to believe that Common Ground's next endeavor would have been easier. In 1995 it bought the mortgage to the Prince George Hotel, a mile farther downtown, which Haggerty describes as "the great, dark, hulking legacy of failed homeless policy." Homelessness exploded in New York City during the 1980s, and during the last five years of the decade, the city leased the hotel, then abandoned its 1,600 tenants to miserable existences infected by crack, crime, child abuse and prostitution.

"The neighborhood was traumatized because you couldn't go by the building without getting mugged," Haggerty says. For this reason, the community voiced strong opposition to the idea of turning the Prince George into supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless individuals, despite positive reactions from neighbors of the Times Square. Crucially, Haggerty did not try to overwhelm the skeptical residents with missionary-style zeal. Instead, she sympathized with their concerns and acknowledged their fears. She describes quietly how she went to one community meeting after another and honestly agreed with those who felt angry and betrayed by the corruption of their neighborhood. "That helped reassure people that we weren't the city come back in another guise," she says. And, finally, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani "showed great political courage," supported Common Ground, and stood up even to those project opponents who had contributed to his campaign.

"Go figure," Haggerty says regarding the mayor's surprisingly strong support. When pressed, though, she admits that defeat was simply not an option. I asked if she found herself living, walking and dreaming the Prince George during its unending setbacks in the mid-'90s. "Oh, I still do, I still do," she says readily. "I think these projects need to become obsessions. Nothing happens unless someone is obsessed with making it happen." Haggerty has a tough, unshakeable optimism. Even after the "fifth bruising day in bankruptcy court," Haggerty was thinking, "‘There's no way this is not going to happen.'"

Common Ground has blossomed into a large operation, providing many kinds of services to its tenants, yet its approach to housing is cost-effective. A prison cell costs society $22,000 per person a year, and institutionalization $122,000. Common Ground spends $10,000 to $12,000 per tenant. It initiates social ventures, such as the Top of the Times Special Events Facility, and the three Ben and Jerry's ScoopShops the organization owns and operates in Manhattan. A comprehensive job training program has been developed, including partnerships with Home Depot and Marriott International, to provide living-wage employment. Three new projects are on the horizon, including one targeting youth leaving foster care—individuals who enter the ranks of the homeless in staggering percentages—and a program called First Step, a safe and modern kind of "flophouse" where individuals may stay for up to three weeks at $7 a night, no questions asked.

Though Common Ground has expanded significantly, Haggerty remains involved with operations on an intimate, detailed level. An alarm sounded soon after I arrived, and an announcement calling all fire brigade members to the lobby followed. Haggerty stayed calm, called down to the lobby from her cell phone, and learned that it was just a mock evacuation, part of a post-September 11th routine.

"You know," she says quietly, "we're in a neighborhood that everybody acknowledges is of potential interest to terrorists," and in the last couple months, there have been bomb threats and moments when the building staff thought real evacuations would be necessary. "The complexity of evacuating a building like this is just enormous when you have so many frail and disoriented people who have to be matched with others," she says, adding that she is part of a Times Square neighborhood coalition preparing itself for everything from suicide bombers to chemical warfare in the subways.

It is one of several civic groups up and down the eastern seaboard that Haggerty belongs to. She's also been an Amherst Trustee since 1990. "Rosanne is a great credit to Amherst and we're proud to claim her as one of our earliest women graduates," said Trustees Chair Amos B. Hostetter, Jr. '58. "As a Trustee she has served the college admirably, taking on a series of tough responsibilities and discharging each with great skill. She's a careful listener with the ability to cut through the rhetoric to the essence of an issue; her judgment is impeccable."

Haggerty is driven to service, to helping the homeless and pre-homeless. There are particular reasons, however, that she has shaped her career as a successful pioneer in housing development. After graduating as an American Studies major at Amherst, where she was editor of The Amherst Student and never participated in community service, Haggerty went to work for New York's Covenant House. There she earned $12 per week—plus room and board, she is quick to point out—working in the tenements on the same block as the Times Square Hotel. For a year she counseled adolescent boys. It was a struggle. With a self-effacing laugh, Haggerty admits, "I have to say maybe I'm driven to housing because I'm so bad at casework." Working one-on-one with individuals living in tenuous situations and striving for the vague promise of a better life was not, she felt, how she could make the greatest impact. "I need things to be more concrete than that," she says, adding that "you have to be of a certain temperament to work patiently with people around those issues of personal progress over a long period of time. I think I'm much better at working with people in a generally encouraging way, rather than being the one who's personally following up on whether an appointment was kept. I have enormous respect for people who do that."

By contrast, the creation of affordable and supportive housing—where social services are accessible but voluntary—is a tangible accomplishment. "The housing is there. It's not ambiguous whether some progress has been made for the poor," she says. "People are living in a safe place where others care about them and are invested in making progress for their greater independence. You can come and look at it. That's satisfying to the pragmatist and solution-seeking part of me." Haggerty is passionate about housing not only because she can touch the results with her hands, but because it is so essential in people's lives. Without income and a place to live, "people can't take full advantage of services, whatever the quality, whether around substance abuse, or employment or education. Stability"—as offered by residences like the Times Square Hotel and the Prince George—"is a precondition for progress in those other areas."

Haggerty's creative design in Common Ground's projects is based on the model of SRO [single room occupancy] low-income housing, an environment she was well-acquainted with growing up in West Hartford, Conn. The oldest of eight children, Haggerty followed her parents' instructional lead on Sundays when the entire family crossed the street from their church to an old SRO, where they'd bring meals to the elderly and spend an hour or two with them.

"Frankly, it was easy to do, and what a disproportionate difference it made," she says, in retrospect giving her parents full credit for their generous, if unusual, example. "Beyond the very real services people need, a positive network of relationships is one thing they need most of all." To her mortification and fascination, her parents' kindness extended into their own home. Holidays "were just wacky at our house," she remembers. Joining uptight New England grandparents were always half a dozen of the folks they visited on Sundays—"a collection of people, talking about different things, over each other. It was a madhouse. And kind of wonderful, too." As a teenager, though, Haggerty longed for a "normal," more sedate Thanksgiving dinner.

In turn, Haggerty's own son, 15-year-old Aiden, has practically grown up at the Times Square Hotel. During his kindergarten years he spent every afternoon there, and most of his holidays after that. He is comfortable in the SRO, a place that hums with well-lit, cheery efficiency. Many of the residents know Aiden and ask about him.

After Haggerty has given me a thorough tour of the Times Square operation— including the gym, the tenant-run food pantry and thrift store, the supportive health services and the base of corporate partnership operations—we run into her sister Mary in the lobby. Baby daughter Nora is snuggled against Mary's chest, and Rosanne picks up her older niece, Eily, staring from under a layer of blonde bangs; she settles comfortably into her aunt's arms. Mary worked with Common Ground for its first four years and now lives in the neighborhood. Only a few minutes remain before Rosanne's next meeting, but she acts unhurried, talking to Mary about her plans for the afternoon and the next day and chatting with tenants and employees who walk over to see the children. Quiet and even joyful persistence seems to be Haggerty's mode of operation—though one could never be fooled that her calm signals disinterest. The opposite. Every detail is important to her vision, even the piece of paper she picks up off the floor on her way out, putting it carefully in the trash.