Fernando Salicrup joins in chants of “El Barrio no se vende! El Barrio’s not for sale!” on a Tuesday night at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center. But the
Fernando Salicrup, director of Taller Boricua, defends his group's legacy at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center on Nov. 30. Posters by organizers from Movement for Justice in El Barrio hang on the wall. (Photo by Jason Alcorn)
director of the East Harlem arts organization Taller Boricua sounds more resigned than righteous, astonished that this is what it’s come to: He remains locked in a two-month fight with City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York City Economic Development Corp. over Taller Boricua’s lease on a 4,000-square-foot room at the cultural center.
“We created this space,” he tells the 30 or so people in the room. “We were the ones who put it together… And we’ve done all of this work, not for one year, two years – we’ve done this for 40 years.”
He goes on, “Now our reward for being there is that they’re going to take us out and replace what we do with a younger group because we’re too old. What is that about? How can you say that?”
The event, “A Night on Gentrification and Displacement in El Barrio,” brings Taller Boricua together with Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a neighborhood tenants-rights group. The tenant organization has rented space from Taller Boricua before, but this is the first time the two groups have worked together. Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council and Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community also speak, protesting what they see as the wholesale auction of Harlem to the highest bidder.
“We’ve been saying for years that the attack against the neighborhood is not limited to housing,” Juan Haro, an organizer with Movement for Justice, says the next day. “Now arts and culture organizations are able to make the link.”
He adds, “In the past, maybe it wasn’t quite as clear that the struggle against displacement is a broad struggle.”
The language of protest is familiar to Salicrup. Forty years ago, he and other artists fought urban renewal and inadequate city services alongside The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group. Salicrup recalls drawing posters for a fight that, by and large, the neighborhood won. Still, both Salicrup and Taller Boricua have long since fallen into a comfortable routine.
“As we grew older, we became an institution,” Salicrup says. “We pretty much fell asleep in the driver’s seat and we crashed.” An artist, he focused on creating a space for artwork in East Harlem. That’s what Taller Boricua remained. “Then we hit a lamppost that was Melissa Mark-Viverito. And that lamppost woke us up.”
On Sept. 30, the city development corporation, which operates the building, issued a Request for Expressions of Interest at Mark-Viverito’s request. Under the new plan, Taller Boricua will retain its classrooms, office space and exhibition galleries, but a multipurpose room on the first floor is eligible for transfer to new management, along with a city-managed, second-floor theater. The organization has been a tenant since its founders helped establish the center in 1996.
The theater, currently operated by the city, is hardly used. A lack of soundproofing prevents simultaneous events from being scheduled in the theater and the community room directly below, while the fire code limits occupancy to 162 people, too few for many performances. The theater also lacks a sound system and stage lighting. A new tenant that controls both spaces – and, critically, has enough money to make upgrades – would significantly increase the number of programs the cultural center can host.
“We want to make sure that there is a level of active, engaged and consistent cultural programming, a comprehensive cultural vision for that center, and those two spaces would allow that to happen,” Mark-Viverito said at a public forum in October.
Taller Boricua isn’t waiting until Friday, when it and other groups will submit proposals to the development corporation. Last weekend, it opened a new gallery exhibition, “See What I Mean,” and hosted a children’s theater company. The popular live-music dance party, Salsa Wednesdays, continues, and a three-part Nuyorican poetry series began Thursday.
“Because of what happened, they’re doing more programming,” says Celia
Ramirez, who sits on the Cultural Affairs Committee of Community Board 11 and is preparing a competing proposal to move into the cultural center.
Sitting in her office, Ramirez talks about the future of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center with the confidence of someone who knows the rules of the game, if not how it will turn out. In her work with East River North Renewal Inc. and the summer-long East Harlem Multi-Cultural Festival at La Marqueta, Ramirez has worked closely with both Mark-Viverito and the development corporation.
She rattles off the kind of leadership and experience she believes the center needs and currently lacks: “Technical expertise, business management, proposals, city funding, theater.”
Three others who all live or work in East Harlem will join Ramirez in submitting the proposal: Felix Leo Campos, a media producer at AfterDark CATV Productions; Yma Rodriguez, vice president of Puertorriqueños Unidos; and Edwin Marcial, director of Teatro Moderno Puertorriqueña.
“The dominant thought in the neighborhood,” says Campos, “is that management of the space should remain in this community.”
Ramirez adds that this is an opportunity for artists to collaborate. “We’re willing to work with other people, and we’re hopeful that whoever wins will be, too.”
Both this group and Salicrup agree that money remains the biggest question mark about the cultural center’s future. The city has promised to increase the theater’s occupancy to 254, but it has not committed to pay for soundproofing or the other needed improvements. Annual rent to the city for just the first-floor space is currently $28,000 per year, unchanged since 1996.
Any tenant will face significant upfront costs before it can start to recoup its money through ticket sales and rental fees to outside groups, currently $230 per day.
“There has been a lot of expressed interest,” says Mark-Viverito, who hopes that the city will share how many proposals it receives and what is proposed. “It’s my hope and expectation that with community consultation and feedback, a good decision will be made by the city.”
“I’m not a theater person,” says Salicrup. On Friday, the development corporation will start deciding whether he’ll get the chance to learn.
By Jason Alcorn on Dec 13th, 2010