30 years of shaping 3-year-old minds


By Ronda Kaysen

When Ronnie Moskowitz opened a nursery school in Tribeca three decades ago, the neighborhood was a sleepy corner of Lower Manhattan that wasn’t even called Tribeca. It didn’t have a park — the bucolic Washington Market Park was little more than a sandy mound of grass — or an elementary school or even a grocery store.

It was hardly a place one would consider for a preschool for toddlers. But in 1976, 28-year-old Moskowitz did just that. She moved from the Village to a loft on Greenwich St.— the building has long since been torn down to make way for the high-rise Citigroup building — and opened the neighborhood’s first preschool with half a dozen tots, calling it Washington Market School.

“It was like throwing a party and not knowing if anyone would come,” Moskowitz told Downtown Express one recent afternoon, surrounded by a gaggle of three and four-year-olds at the school’s present home on Hudson St.

But the children did come, and soon Washington Market School outgrew its loft apartment and hopped from one storefront to another on Greenwich St. until it found a permanent home on Hudson St. Now the nonprofit school has 312 children, the largest in the neighborhood. In 1992, it opened a second space on Duane St. to accommodate younger children. The school now serves children from 18 months to five-and-a-half years.

This month, Moskowitz will celebrate Washington Market’s 30th anniversary with a gala and an auction at Cipriani 23rd Street. “This is going to be a great 30th birthday!” she gushed, wondering what surprises the parents had in store for her.

Washington Market is a Montessori school and the presence of Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor who created, the educational style, is everywhere. A picture of her hangs on the wall beside the school’s charter, another photo with a quote by her is tacked to Moskowitz’s office wall, muddled with children’s drawings and pictures of Washington Market graduates.

Building Washington Market was not an easy feat. Moskowitz spent the first few years working the graveyard shift at two Tribeca restaurants to make ends meet. The neighborhood—known simply as Washington Market—was a very different place than it is today. Moskowitz described it as “a lot of people sitting on loading platforms smoking dope.”

She soon learned that legalizing her little loft room school would not be so easy. Tribeca was zoned for manufacturing, not schools. Washington Market found space at Independence Plaza North, a sprawling residential complex zoned for commercial use, only to be displaced when the Food Emporium arrived. When a space on Hudson St. became available in 1985, Moskowitz had to wade through the city’s complex Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to rezone the space.

“People say that I’m the patriarch of children Downtown,” said Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, an after school program. “There’s a little debate that Ronnie Moskowitz is the matriarch. She is really a pioneer.”

Moskowitz sat on the Community Board 1 committee that hired Townley to start a youth program Downtown. “It’s not that the community made these organizations, but these organizations made the community and Washington Market has to be on that list,” Townley said.

As much as Montessori is the school’s foundation, Moskowitz is very much at its center. A slender woman with sharp, dramatic features and thick auburn hair, at 58, Moskowitz has a childlike quality to her. Constantly in motion, she is a lilting, buzzing presence that attracts the children to her. She flutters about the school, intercepting children and teachers as she goes.

In one classroom, a little girl with chipmunk cheeks and pigtails dropped wooden butterflies and cotton balls in a mountain of glue she had poured on construction paper. Moskowitz suggested she try affixing things to the glue. The child tilted her head, contemplating the proposition, and then added more glue to the pile.

At one point, Moskowitz’s 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, dropped by. Holding a beta fish swimming in a water bottle, Elizabeth handed her mother a ticket to the Tribeca Film Festival and vanished as quickly as she had arrived.

Washington Market has changed with the neighborhood over the years. In 1976, tuition for a full day program was $1,200 a year. Today, the same program costs $16,100 a year. Once a place that catered to “families who had no other options,” according to Moskowitz, the school now has a body of parents who throw gala auctions where they auction off a five-day yacht trip to the Mediterranean, a prize valued at $29,000, or a week at a luxurious hotel in South Beach worth $25,000.

At the start, parents were mainly artists and writers, like trapeze artist Philippe Petit, whose daughter went to the school. Petit, famous for traversing the World Trade Center on tightrope, did the same feat across Greenwich St. in 1983 to raise money for the school.

Although the demographics may have changed, the commitment of the parents remains strong, said Moskowitz. “I have no words for how extraordinary they are,” she said. “The parent participation is as good as it was from the beginning.”

After 9/11, when 32 families did not return to the neighborhood, Washington Market parents organized an auction. Its first auction raised more than $100,000. The street fairs used to raise about $25,000 a year. The location of the May 10 anniversary party — Cipriani 23rd Street — was a gift from a generous parent, Giovanna Cipriani of the Cipriani dynasty.

At 3 p.m., Washington Market parents began arriving to collect their children. One parent, Madeline Vaz trotted into the school with a poster rolled up under her arm. It was a surprise for Moskowitz, she said, for the birthday party. Vaz, who owns an advertising agency, designed the logo and posters for the event. “You just watch how everyone is so in love with your kid here,” she said. “And you feel in love with them back.”

The neighborhood might have changed and Washington Market might have swelled in size over the years, but to Moskowitz, it’s still the same school. “For the kids, it’s always been their home away from home,” she said. “We might have seven classrooms and a gym and a toddler program now, but it’s still a home for the kids.”


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