On Sundays, it’s a yoga studio. On Tuesdays, there’s a sewing club. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, it could be a movie theater, art gallery, or town hall. On Friday nights, there are parties and performances, and on Saturdays, it’s a neighborhood hangout with comfy couches and free Wi-Fi. It’s LaunchPad, an arts-based community center in Crown Heights.
Started by Mike Kunitzky last winter, the space transforms depending on what neighborhood groups want to use it for. “I wanted a place where people could exchange ideas and make things happen,” says Kunitzky, a constantly smiling 35-year-old. “There’s potential for magic in those unexpected talents and interactions.”
Kunitzky moved to Crown Heights six years ago, driven by the affordable property. He bought his apartment, then, a few years later, bought the storefront that is now LaunchPad, with the idea that he’d turn it into a cafe. For a while, he used the space as his office. “People would look in with this glare of curiosity,” says Kunitzky. “That’s when the light bulb went off.”
Mike Kunitzky quit his job in web marketing and opened LaunchPad with $12,000 of his savings and $6,000 raised through the fundraising website Kickstarter. In just six months, LaunchPad has grown into a thriving neighborhood hub on Franklin Avenue. The 25-year-old Crow Hill Community Association now hosts its monthly meetings there, young members of the Jewish community started a Hebrew Scriptures study group, and creative types offer book clubs, art lessons, yoga classes, and a sewing group. Art shows change monthly, music performances happen on the weekends, and there’s at least one movie night every week. Kunitzky’s only requirement is that all events remain free and open to the public. He currently funds the space with his own savings, but is working to secure grants while waiting for LaunchPad to be officially approved as a 501(c)(3).
The large storefront windows give a clear view inside, where comfy couches, chairs and tables welcome visitors. The cream-colored walls don paintings, drawings, and photography from local artists, and dozens of books line the walls. A stack of board games sits haphazardly on top of a cabinet. The backyard is open and airy, with a grill and plenty more seating. The space can easily accommodate 60 or 70 people for events. Groups schedule time in the space with Kunitzky, who lives just around the corner. The hours of LaunchPad vary depending on the events, but it’s generally open Monday through Friday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Kunitzky believes LaunchPad can be a place that transcends cultural differences.
“When I moved here, I’d walk down the street and try to say ‘hi’ to people and no one would even look at me,” he says. “There are a lot of barriers set up in society. People don’t want to smile at each other or talk. I want people to feel that regardless of their background or interests, this is a place where they can come hang out.”
Kunitzky has formed partnerships with several neighborhood groups — like the community advocacy group Crow Hill Community Association and Urban River Arts, an arts education group — that host regular events at LaunchPad. “It’s created a focal point,” says Nina Meledandri, 53, project manager for the CHCA, which hosts its monthly meetings at LaunchPad. “It’s a space where people who have projects can come and bring them.”
Kimberly Carmody, founder and principle teacher of Urban River Arts, offers regular painting and mandala-making lessons at LaunchPad. “I love Crown Heights,” she says, “but I’ve been running off to other neighborhoods to teach art. Now I can offer top notch art education right here.”
On a Saturday in November, Carmody transformed LaunchPad into a painting studio for a three-hour long class. The couches were pushed aside and tables covered in painting supplies filled the room. Participants quietly blended oil paints into landscape paintings while others worked on their paintings in the backyard. Carmody walked around offering assistance. It started as a solitary activity, but as people began talking, the mood changed. Marci Matthew and Loren Talbot discussed local daycares. Kasey Schweickert and Jonathan Wolloch traded tips on painting. Cameron Persen-Loreto talked about growing up in the neighborhood. Phone numbers were exchange. Future plans were made.
“This isn’t just about learning how to make art,” says Carmody. “We’re creating a place where people of all different ages and economic backgrounds are coming together. Instead of ignoring each other on the street, people are coming to these events and meeting their neighbors.”