The Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center: Art, Transformation, and Political Muscle

Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural CenterCouncil Member Mark-Viverito’s campaign to “reform” a sizeable portion of cultural programming space in a city-owned building has accelerated into a full-blown, East Harlem-style political brawl.

On September 30th, the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), on behalf of the Council Member, issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) to rent, operate and maintain 8,000 square feet of public space in the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center. (The area in question involves a 2,800 square foot, ground-floor community event space with two 560-square-foot adjoining rooms, and a second floor 4,300 square foot, 160-seat theater.)

The initial explanation for the RFEI, as presented to East Harlem residents in early meetings, was that the ground floor community space and second floor theater would now be overseen by a single leaseholder – one with sufficient means to resolve soundproofing and other technical problems preventing simultaneous renting of the event spaces.

The City’s action drew immediate opposition from the current leaseholder of the ground floor space, Taller Boricua/Puerto Rican Workshop. Though they will continue to maintain their own gallery, office and classroom space elsewhere in the building, members and supporters of the organization have vociferously contested the RFEI citing financial hardship, lack of due process, and general disregard for their role as founders of the famed institution. Taller then embarked on an ambitious petition campaign gathering over 1,000 print and online signatures calling for the process to be halted in favor of mediation.

During an October 4th “visioning” discussion on proposed uses for the community space held at the SCAN/La Guardia Senior Center, Council Member Mark-Viverito acknowledged her role in initiating the RFEI. Citing ongoing concerns about a lack of access to the public space and inequitable rental practices on the part of Taller Boricua, The Council Member defended the RFEI as an opportunity for a “new generation” of local – specifically Puerto Rican – artists and cultural institutions to revitalize the arts community in East Harlem.

While members of the Council Member’s District 8 Youth Council and other, similarly affiliated local residents have indeed expressed their support for the RFEI at public meetings, no East Harlem artists or cultural organizations have openly indicated their intent to apply for the lease. Such ambiguity has given rise to confusion and speculation about the possibility of outside and/or non-Latino-based organizations being brought in to oversee the community space.

On October 13th, EDC granted prospective applicants to the Requests for Expressions of Interest an “information session and tour” of the newly available space, at which no local organization with sufficient qualification for the City’s approval as a leaseholder was present.

Supporters of the RFEI continue to insist that the action should not be seen as an attack on Taller Boricua as they have “every right” to re-apply as leaseholder. Such proclamations seem disingenuous, however, given the concurrent condemnations of the founders’ “sexist” and “corrupt” practices.

Quite a number of local organizations, artists and activists have refused to be drawn into the whole affair, citing the Council Member’s acknowledgment that she has held discussions about “management problems at the Julia” for over three years (though none with Taller Boricua directly), as an indication that the process is a “farce” and that new tenants have likely been already designated.

Community Board 11 has also weighed in on the matter. In a September 23rd letter to EDC Chairmen Seth Pinsky, Chairman Matthew Washington inquired why the Board had not been included as a participant in the development of the RFEI (as was the case with similar solicitations involving city-owned spaces such as La Marqueta and the 125th Street Firehouse). On October 19th, the Board voted 26 in favor, 6 opposed, with 4 abstentions that a letter be sent requesting, among other things, that the City rescind the RFEI, that EDC communicate specific concerns regarding Taller Boricua’s management of the multipurpose room and allow them an opportunity to take corrective actions, and that City funds be provided for soundproofing and other capital improvements.

Nonetheless, officials maintain that the RFEI will help “better serve the surrounding community by providing classes, workshops, studio and performance space to neighborhood artists and residents … for use by theater, music and art cultural groups.” Others, however, question the need for such drastic action suggesting that East Harlem might be better served by challenging the City’s refusal to assign the entire building to arts organizations. (In addition to Taller Boricua, the only other cultural tenants are the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre’s Raul Julia Training Unit and Los Pleneros de la 21. The largest segment of floor space in the building is leased to the Heritage High School.)

Especially troubling to some is the language in EDC President Seth Pinsky’s September 29th response to Community Board 11 in which he writes “NYEDC will assess the feasibility for further activating the space pursuant to this original vision.” Pinsky’s choice of words is perceived by them as a clear signal that “the future of the entire building may very well be at stake.”

Other unvested parties are even more concerned with the City’s abandonment and disinvestment in much of the neighborhood’s vacant and underutilized cultural real estate and see the historical pattern as the more important issue. The consensus among these parties is that there already exists more than enough designated space that, with proper support and genuine opportunity, could meet the needs of every cultural organization and artist in East Harlem. “If we lose this building, there go the rest,” opines one artist.

The neighborhood conflict has generated a steady stream of newspaper articles, blog editorials, and a particularly disturbing, COINTELPRO-like, barrage of anonymous emails inciting readers to take legal action against Taller Boricua for alleged financial improprieties.

Not surprising, none of the “righteous” citizens involved in this latest form of mud-slinging have had the courage to openly air their charges. Neither has the Council Member chosen to repudiate these actions. If such allegations were of serious concern to her, an official (pre-RFEI) investigation by Mark-Viverito might have saved a lot of time and trouble and embarrassment to the East Harlem community.

Instead, hurtful insults are now routinely being traded between local artists/activists and supporters of the Council Member at community meetings and events. Many have received late-night phone calls and unsolicited emails and text messages, mostly pressuring recipients to support the changes.

Some have also been personally slandered, threatened with political and financial retaliation, and publicly lambasted as “cowards” and “crazy” for simply refusing to participate in such a poorly handled, political disaster.

While the damage that has resulted can never be undone, there is still an opportunity for progressive resolution and an end to the “madness.”

The deadline for submissions the EDC is November 17th. To be continued…

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