Landmark Harlem Firehouse to be Reborn as Afro-Caribbean Cultural Institute

MANHATTAN — The transformation of a landmark Harlem firehouse into an academy for Afro-Caribbean studies is set to begin this spring, but with scaled-back ambitions.

The former home of the FDNY's Fire Engine Company 36 in East Harlem will soon house the Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute. (DNAinfo/Jon Schuppe)

The brick-red firehouse, built in 1888 and empty since the FDNY abandoned it eight years ago, will be reborn as the new headquarters of the Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute.

The organization, which currently resides in Hell’s Kitchen, has spent years raising money for the project, the first phase of which involves a $5 million rehabilitation of the three-story Romanesque Revival building on East 125th Street, near Lexington Avenue.

That money is in the bank, but not enough for the $700,000 second phase, which will revamp the narrow space to accommodate a full-scale community-based group with a reception area, community room, performance space, offices, a shop and a café.

The group originally wanted to add two floors to the firehouse, but dropped those plans after realizing how hard it would be to raise another $3 million to cover it.

“We’re pleased that in this difficult economic climate we are moving forward and people are supportive of it,” President Marta Moreno Vega said. “They’re excited about the move.”

Renovation work will begin in March or April, she said.

The project has had help from local elected officials, including City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city has promised to transfer the property to the CCCADI for a dollar.

The agreement was part of a 2008 deal to find cultural uses for the firehouse, which was the longtime home of Fire Engine Company 36 until it and several other FDNY units were decommissioned in a 2003 budget crisis. The building received landmark status in 1997.

To help finance the redevelopment project, the CCCADI has been trying to sell its West 58th Street brownstone, which went on the market last July with an asking price of $3.7 million and was soon discounted to $3 million, according to

Vega said Friday that her group was in contract with a buyer, but would not say who it was.

“We are inching along but we’re confident that we will make it,” she said.

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Theater at East Harlem’s Julia de Burgos Cultural Center Gets New Operator

Taller Boricua co-founder Fernando Salicrup outside the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center.

HARLEM—The city’s Economic Development Corporation picked two local East Harlem groups and a national Latino organization to operate an underutilized theater at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center.

The Julio de Burgos Arts Alliance will be comprised of the East River North Renewal, which hosts live music and domino tournaments at La Marqueta; Los Pleneros de la 21, a performing arts group that already rents space at the center; and the national organization, The Hispanic Federation, which provides grants to Latino nonprofits.

The groups will reactivate the 2,800-square-foot theater and multi-purpose space at the center, located at East 106th Street and Lexington Avenue, by providing programming and opening the space up for use by community groups, EDC President Seth Pinsky told DNAinfo on Monday.

“What we ended up with will be a huge benefit to East Harlem,” Pinksy said. “Upper Manhattan and East Harlem has a vibrant cultural scene. The fact that this theater was dark for a long period is unfortunate. The community is excited.”

The new consortium will provide 1,700 hours of programming at the center during the first year, including more than 700 hours in the theater space.

The announcement comes a year after a controversial decision by EDC to not renew the lease on the space with Taller Boricua, which translates to “Puerto Rican Workshop.”

The beloved 40-year-old arts organization was not fully utilizing the space and did not have clear guidelines for renting the space out to community groups, said East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito.

Taller Boricua founders Fernando Salicrup and Nitza Tufiño said the loss of the space would crush the organization.

They still maintain space in the cultural center.

However, the theater needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs such as soundproofing. That was one of the reasons it was not always programmed, Salicrup and Tufiño said.

They also said they charged groups based on what the organizations could afford to pay, but they had to cover $50,000 per year in rent to the city and $20,000 in insurance costs.

Members of Community Board 11 and other local leaders criticized the EDC’s process, saying Taller Boricua was not given a chance to explain the situation or make any changes.

“It’s really clear that it was an undemocratic and untransparent process that reflects politics as usual,” said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a neighborhood advocacy group.

She was also concerned that the involvement of a national organization, the Hispanic Federation, removed the influence of local groups such as Taller Boricua which fought for the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center to be created for the community.

“With La Marqueta, 125th Street, East River Plaza and the Corn Exchange we have huge parcels of land being turned over to outside entities. Our community is being parceled out bit by bit,” said Ortiz.

Mark-Viverito disagreed with the assesment about Taller Boricua being left out.

“The leadership of Taller Boricua never reached out to me as a local elected official to seek assistance — financial or otherwise — at any point along the way in this process or prior to this process being initiated,” she said.

Taller Boricua was also free to respond to EDC’s proposal request, said Mark-Viverito.

“I believe that the consortium selected has a fantastic proposal, including a strong community access plan, that will ensure that this building becomes the vibrant, active cultural space it was always meant to be,” said Mark-Viverito.

She said the Hispanic Federation will provide a “solid organizational base” for the effort as it has done with other ventures. The Hispanic Federation helped to launch the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance in 2007.

“The Federation has stepped up to help incubate this alliance and provide technical assistance, as it’s done for many other ventures in our communities,” said Mark-Viverito. “I believe this is a model that will work and will provide a strong foundation on which to build to ensure the future viability of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center.”

Community Board 11 Chair Matthew Washington said in a statement he hopes the new agreement will “ensure that fair and equal access is granted to all potential users.”

Pinsky said the EDC worked closely with the community to gain their feedback during the selection process.

City capital funds will be made available to make repairs to the theater, said Pinsky. The new consortium will also be able to produce more revenue and reduce the gap between the center’s operating costs and the subsidy the city has to provide to cover the shortfall.

The group has agreed to a five-year lease with an option to renew for another five years.

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