Opening Up Opportunities
Department of Probation Resource Hub
346 Broadway, 9th Floor
New York City
The Department of Probation’s ninth-floor waiting room at 346 Broadway, designed by James Biber of Biber Architects and with signage and posters by James Victore, stands out among the 22 similarly purposed rooms across New York City. Some 27,000 New Yorkers are required to appear regularly in these waiting rooms, which are typically painted in a dingy gray or bland yellow, with rows of bolted-down metal chairs or rectangular wooden benches. For some visitors, probation represents a last-ditch attempt by judges to keep them out of jail. Most clients are young men between the ages of 16 and 24, most are black and Latino, and many struggle to find work.
Lonni Tanner is the director of See Change NYC, a mayoral initiative in collaboration with the Department of Design and Construction, where Tanner is chief change officer. The initiative seeks to reimagine many of New York’s civic facilities, particularly those used by at-risk New Yorkers in need of city services. Tanner spent hundreds of hours inspecting bureaucratic offices and looking for opportunities to intervene. She was determined to transform Department of Probation waiting rooms from dreary pens where clients wait in anger into resource hubs, work spaces, and places to find some inspiration and help.
Tanner picked Biber, a former long-time partner at Pentagram, and within six months, on a $25,000 budget, they had finished installing computers, Eames DCM chairs, white Coalesse Ballet tables, comfortable light-green park benches, charcoal gray Interface carpeting, new ceiling tiles, and an active series of graphic elements. “I thought from the beginning that defining the spaces as waiting rooms was unfor-tunate, because that was all they really were,” Biber says. “People sat in rows of chairs, and had to sit and wait. It got them, understandably, anxious and grumpy. Anything we could do to make it more useful and less stressful seemed like a good idea.”
To stimulate the visual environment, Biber developed a rectangular pattern of muted, non-gang-identified colors, offsetting the deadening effect of monochromatic walls, which, in private spaces, would normally be decorated with bookshelves, photographs, and personal items. He clipped sign-in sheets and informational flyers on to boards. “Walls that are a single color and empty almost always feel institutional,” Biber says, “no matter what color they are.”
Victore supplied a consistent visual tone by reorganizing the graphic cues. He set directional arrows, welcome signs, and informational leaflets in bold DIN type, forcing a clean, regular order. He also created five posters, with messages such as “1. Improve Yourself 2. Change the World” over an image of footprints in sand, and “Ask for Help” in thought bubbles over fighter jets.
“We’re finding that our clients are more relaxed when they see a probation officer,” says Sally DeSimone, the supervising probation officer. “The more relaxed they are out here, the better things can get done with our clients in our offices.”
A restructuring of the Probation Department under the two-year-old tenure of Commissioner Vinnie Schiraldi prompted the design process. “It starts by being a less noxious environment,” Schiraldi says. “Now we’ve got to see how we can get people attracted to something positive while they’re sitting here. People walk off the elevator and turn back around and say, ‘I’m in the wrong place,’ because this isn’t what a probation office looks like.”
Tanner is also working with Biber to help the department create five Neighborhood Opportunity Networks, local probation offices that are more integrally connected to programs like NYC Justice Corps, which pays young people to work in their communities, provides them with incentives to get GEDs, places them in internships, and lands them full-time jobs. “We’re trying to involve people more with their communities,” Schiraldi says, “and involve them in the kinds of changes that are going to turn their lives around.”
In the lobby of the waiting room, retired psychologist Roberta Posner volunteers full-time, connecting clients to services. I ask her to name one thing that would be helpful to people on probation. “They need money,” she says. “They need to see a future of employment. If they can see that, then there’s a possibility. The big thing is to get a job and make an income.”