Volume 74, Number 23 | Octuber 6 - 12 , 2004

At ribbon-cutting ceremony, from left, Lynn Pentecost, Lower Eastside Girls Club executive director; District Leader Rosaura Mendez; City Councilmember Margarita Lopez; Mary Spink, Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association executive director; and Veronica Ballass, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union manager.

Bakery and branch are recipe for success on Avenue C

By Lincoln Anderson

It was a sweet moment for community empowerment last Wednesday morning as the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union and Lower Eastside Girls’ Club opened up a new branch and a new bakery.

The two businesses are located next to each other on Avenue C between E. Eighth and Ninth Sts.

The credit union is a 350-sq.-ft. mini-branch that will offer ATM cards and debit cards and education on financial services, such as savings accounts. It has an ATM inside and outside. There are two teller windows but plans don’t call for them being staffed right away.

The Sweet Things bakery will give young women in the Lower Eastside Girls Club program a chance to learn business skills while earning the minimum wage. At the opening event, Girls Club members opened bank accounts at the mini-branch.

“The partnership of the bake shop and the credit union are what true, community-based economic development is about,” said City Councilmember Margarita Lopez at the ribbon cutting.

Eighteen years ago, when financial institutions had abandoned the east side of Alphabet City, the Lower East People’s Federal Credit Union was born at 37 Avenue B. Credit union officials and local politicians hailed the new mini-branch as a sign of Loisaida’s continuing economic revival.

Said Lopez, a founding member of the credit union, “Nobody should be surprised at how the credit union is expanding its services — because we’re here to stay for as long as we are needed.”

As opposed to a bank, which has major stockholders, the credit union is owned jointly by all its depositors. Veronica J. Ballass, who joined the credit union in August as L.E.S.P.F.C.U.’s new manager and C.E.O., ran a credit union in Manchester, Conn., for the past 10 years.

“We want to focus that we’re emphasizing financial education and providing affordable financial services [at the mini-branch],” she said. Cash transactions will be handled at the credit union’s main Avenue B branch.

With all baking done on the premises, the Sweet Things bakery features muffins, scones, lemon bars, brownies and cupcakes, as well as the girls’ special granola ($7.50 a lb.) sweetened with rice syrup.

“It’s sweet — and it’s addictive,” noted Renee Laster, 19, a Girls Club member, of the oat ambrosia.

They plan to add “girl power” bars, made with the granola.

The bakery serves Alta Gracia organic, fair-trade coffee — the coffee workers are paid a fair wage — from author Julia Alvarez’s plantation in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s the idea of being an ethical consumer,” explained Melissa Petra, Girls Club’s director of economic initiatives.

T-shirts and mugs are also for sale.

The heart and soul of the bakery is its manager Milady Ramirez, 37, who grew up in a building on the corner of Eighth St. where the new Housing Police headquarters and temporary home of the Ninth Precinct are located now. Maybe it was fate, but there was a bakery on the former building’s ground floor, she recalled.

“I love my community and I’m so happy to be giving back to my community,” said a beaming Ramirez behind the counter on opening day.

Inside the bakery is a plaque on Girls Club executive director Lynn Pentecost’s Aunt Minnie, who lived at Ninth St. and Avenue C in the early 1900s, when she was known as the Lower East Side’s most radical baker. Progressivism and baking just seem to go together, Pentecost said.

The mini-branch and bakery are renting space in a building belonging to the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Organization, which owns 26 formerly abandoned, city-owned buildings in the neighborhood. Mary Spink, the M.H.O.’s executive director, said they were proud to have them as tenants.

Not surprisingly, one of Sweet Things’ first customers was Deputy Inspector James McCarthy, commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct next door. He deliberately scanned the offerings.

“I think I’m going to have to try……….probably……….a cupcake,” he said, finally settling on a chocolate one laced with a streak of cappuccino flavor.

The verdict? Affirmative. It tasted so good it was almost criminal.

“I can tell you, I’ve tasted Magnolia’s, and these are better,” said McCarthy. “It’s very nice to know that I don’t have to leave Avenue C in the morning. I can get all my stuff right here. Delicious.”

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