Patience for Reopening Latino Cultural Space Is Gone

Two spaces inside the Julia De Burgos Cultural Center, a city-owned building in East Harlem, have been closed for over 18 months.

Two spaces inside the Julia De Burgos Cultural Center, a city-owned building in East Harlem, have been closed for over 18 months.

The Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, a city-owned building in East Harlem, has long been an important hub for the neighborhood’s Latino population. Named after a renowned Puerto Rican poet, the five-story building served as a place for local artists to showcase their work and residents to gather to celebrate birthdays, hold funerals, discuss community affairs and dance salsa.

“It was about all of us coming together,” said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a group dedicated to preserving East Harlem’s culture and history. Ms. Ortiz said she used to visit the center regularly for almost 20 years, before New York City officials closed a large multipurpose space and theater there over a year and a half ago for renovation and to find a new operator.

Eugene Rodriguez, who lives in East Harlem, is part of a protest campaign to try to pressure the city into reopening the spaces.

Eugene Rodriguez, who lives in East Harlem, is part of a protest campaign to try to pressure the city into reopening the spaces.

“It was torn out from under us,” she said, adding that her efforts to determine why it was taking so long to reopen the two rooms had been futile. Other parts of the center remain in use, but work has not even begun on the renovation.

Having grown frustrated, a coalition of community leaders and artists plan to stage a series of street performances as a form of protest outside the Julia de Burgos center, starting Wednesday, to pressure the city.

“It’s not about one show; it’s about no show,” said Eugene Rodriguez, a playwright and longtime resident of East Harlem who is leading the effort. “Latino artists have no access to Latino institutions in the neighborhood. It kills me. It really kills me.”

Mr. Rodriguez, 65, swallowed, looked away and started to cry.

City officials contend the changes will benefit the neighborhood and local cultural groups. But many residents and activists say they view the delay as part of the marginalization of East Harlem’s working-class Latino population and the city’s disinterest in preserving the Puerto Rican identity of a neighborhood undergoing a slow but steady gentrification.

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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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New York’s Spanish Harlem- A Place of the Past?

Issues like child abuse, domestic violence; sexual abuse, rape, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse are real life disasters hardly ever spoken of in polite Latino society. What would the nosey neighbors think? Worse yet what would they say? And when one is Gay in a family, one conceals who one is because of what others will think and if they do respond it most likely be the worst possible condemnation, a horror show of dogmatic religiosity. As Latinos, many of us live in denial, sweet, heavy, exhausting denial in order not to deal with reality that we are less than perfect. What would God say? Worse yet, what would God gossip about us?

Living in lies, half-truths and concealing reality has been a way of dealing. This is a small start for New York Latinos: Spanish Harlem, El Barrio is slowly becoming non-existent. Because of gentrification, the once thriving Manhattan Latino community will one day be no more. Because of artists, politicians and developers, this community is on life support and will one day die and fade away. Even with the housing projects, the poor people there will slowly be moved out and El Barrio will be no more.

Latinos must come to terms and come to grips with the reality that people have moved in and taken over. And very few Latinos have done anything to stop it in the last 15 years.

The gentrification began years ago when El Museo del Barrio, which was first created by Puerto Ricans, became co-opted by wealthy museum mavens who changed the museum’s mission from a community-based organization to a Spanish arts museo. Where were the voices of protests? Where was the real little boy to say the Emperor has no clothes?

Ten years ago in 2001, El Barrio was bustling with Latino life. Events like Julia’s Jam at Julia de Burgos Cultural Center were packed with appreciators of poetry and music. “Siempre” newspaper was the community newspaper to read. A small community shopping mall opened. Summer street festivals teemed with people. Latino life thrived for only a short time during a final crescendo of good feeling before vultures flew overhead signaling that the corpse was ready for devouring. The cancerous consumption commenced. No one now wants to believe that the end is near.  Someday soon El Barrio as one remembers it will be no more, a thing of the past, only living in memories.

The first line of gentrification has always been the artists who come into a low rent community, bringing their art and making life so quaint with bars, coffee shops, galleries, poetry readings and art happenings. The neighborhood soon gets better services in spite of the fact that, after years when Latinos and African Americans lived there, no one noticed or cared. Soon the artists can’t afford to live in a community they helped change.

The community was heralded in the press as being new, up and coming, then landlords raised rents. Developers began building, not for members of the community. No, they’re on their way out but for the more affluent.

Latino Barrio politicians have sold out the community for development, slowly putting herself out of business because when there are no more Latinos who will vote and the politician’s usefulness gone, then it will be time to vote for someone new. The kind of gentrification coming to El Barrio is the same that has come to central Harlem, with large corporate outlets on every corner. Today, no one wants to recognize that the Apaches are being moved from the Reservation – again.

But, Latinos in El Barrio live in a cloud of purple haze. Maybe this is the only way to get through the day – a big, generous spoonful of denial to make reality go down right. Denial might be good for the psyche because to face all of life’s harsh realities square on could be mentally damaging. We might become depressed leading us to feelings of powerlessness then we turn to the bottle, the drugs or worse the needle. In denial, hurt, alone in a hospital we’ll say “the Devil made me do it.” Makes more sense than facing the truth.

Deadline Looms for Taller Boricua in East Harlem

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