People in Washington Heights, a low-income neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, don't trust financial institutions and often resort to stuffing money in their mattresses or cookie drawers or even burying it.
"I don't use banks at all," said one resident who requested anonymity. "There's a park by my apartment, and I bury my money in a spot I can watch from my window."
Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union, situated in a former Chemical Bank branch in the George Washington Bridge bus terminal, is offering another option.
The upstart community development credit union is trying to fill a void left by banks in a New York City neighborhood where people often bank with check cashers and loan sharks.
Though not many residents go to the extreme of stashing their cash in the park, most of the credit union's customers have never had a bank account-75% of them, estimated Mark Levine, its 27-year-old president and co-founder.
"It's more than simply coincidence" that the credit union set up shop in a former bank branch, said Clifford Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.
Mr. Rosenthal said Neighborhood Trust is an example of how community development credit unions literally fill in the gaps banks leave, thus serving a segment of society that couldn't otherwise afford to bank.
"For the individual who only has a couple hundred dollars to deposit in a savings account or needs to keep a very-low-balance checking account, the fees at one of the major banks would very quickly erode the person's balances," said Mr. Rosenthal. "For those sorts of individuals, credit unions are really the best bet."
That's where Neighborhood Trust came in.
Situated in an area largely populated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the credit union is targeting residents to whom federal deposit insurance is a novelty.
Since it opened March 20, Neighborhood Trust has attracted 220 members who have deposited more than $75,000.
Educating those customers-as well as potential customers-has become an important part of the credit union's business, and Mr. Levine has visited PTA meetings, tenant groups, and churches to get support and hold seminars on banking basics.
"We spend a long time with people opening a new account, about half an hour, explaining everything about the credit union and translating it all into Spanish," said Mr. Levine, who also is founder of Credit Where Credit is Due Inc. The nonprofit agency is Neighborhood Trust's sponsor, helping it get started and temporarily covering payroll and some other expenses.
But Mr. Levine stressed that the credit union isn't trying to rival New York City banks. It is actually getting some help from its industry's greatest foe.
Although banks have been fighting to end credit unions' tax-free status, they seem to make an exception where community development financial institutions are concerned. Many of the largest banks in New York have rallied behind the more populist credit unions.
Chase Manhattan Bank has deposited $100,000 at Neighborhood Trust, as have Bankers Trust Co. and Fuji Bank and Trust Co. Republic National Bank of New York made a nonmember deposit of $50,000.
Last year, Citibank gave the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions a $1.25 million grant to help capitalize credit unions nationwide. Likewise, Chase, Republic, and J.P. Morgan & Co. have made similar grants, as well as nonmember deposits in New York City community development credit unions.
"We see them as complementing our services, not as a competitor," said Mark Willis, president of Chase's Community Development Corp. and a committee member of the American Bankers Association's Center for Community Development.
Being able to occupy a commercial bank's castoff branch saved Neighborhood Trust some expense.
With its original mahogany teller counter and vault intact, Mr. Levine said, the branch only needed some fresh paint, carpet, and wiring.
"It would have cost over a million dollars to build a branch from scratch," he said.
But Mr. Levine, a former math and science teacher in the South Bronx, is working to build a financial company from scratch.
"None of us are bankers," he said. "We're learning as we go."