HARLEM — The old hay loft at the landmarked El Barrio Firehouse once had a state-of-the-art system in the 1800s to pull its canvas hoses up to dry.
But it took a total renovation by public access TV's Manhattan Neighborhood Network to get the decommissioned firehouse back to featuring cutting-edge technology.
"There were dead pigeons and God knows what up here," said Dan Coughlin, executive director of MNN, which took over the space at 175 E. 104th St., between Lexington and Third avenues, in 2007.
The new-and-improved El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center is now filled with three high-definition live broadcast and production studios, as well as editing and training facilities. Residents will be able to learn how to produce a television show and then use the equipment and facilities at the media center to do so.
The space also houses a youth media center that will give residents aged 12 to 25 a chance to learn digital production skills and produce up to 25 hours a week of programming.
"We are not just into teaching production skills but critical thinking," said Iris Morales, who will serve as director of the El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center.
Morales, a lawyer who previously served as executive director of the Union Square Awards, which has distributed more than $16 million to grassroots non-profits, is from East Harlem and has an activist background.
"We want young people to use the skills they acquire here to tell stories from the perspective of their community. It's part of an educational process that says, 'Your community has value. You don't need to replicate what you see on reality television,' " Morales said.
Bringing services to the Harlem community has been one of MNN's long-term goals. Harlem residents are the biggest users of MNN's 16,000-square-foot studios in Midtown West, at 59th street between 10th and 11th avenues.
"Traditionally community access is used by communities that don't have access," said Coughlin, who added that MNN reaches 620,000 cable subscribers in Manhattan. But with live video webcasting, that audience becomes global.
Inside the 10,000-square-foot space, the colorful design and high ceilings give the space an airy feel. Designed by Kostow Greenwood Architects, which has designed studios for CNN, MTV and WNYC, the space allows for multiple activities, from live broadcasts and editing to training classes, to occur at the same time in the five-story space.
The firehouse dates back to the late 1800s when it was designed by Napoleon Le Brun & Sons, the official architects of the New York City Fire Department. El Museo del Barrio was the previous owner.
The project was funded with public money from the Manhattan Borough President's Office and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, as well as funds from cable operators.
"The community wanted this to retain the public service component that the firehouse had," Coughlin said.
Many details of the landmarked fireplace have also been kept intact or repurposed. On the elevator, tin-ceiling panels decorate the walls. Much of the wood flooring was preserved. Outside, the bricks and decorative sconces were repointed and preserved. The stained glass was retained.
"It's important for a community that has not had access to have a facility where the community can take pride in the quality. We wanted to send the message that you are important," Coughlin said.
Morales said she is most excited about seeing the ways in which young people will utilize the facility.
"All of my work has been community oriented," she said. "When I came into the space, it spoke to me about possibilities."
Morales envisions young people coming to the studio and becoming empowered and inspired to seek details about their neighborhood and, subsequently, the world beyond.
"They should be examining issues like gentrification, but also looking to understand corporate media, how messages are crafted and why it costs so much to run for office," Morales said.
"We see this as a place for young people to learn to look at the world differently and dream about how the world can be different," she added.
"If you can't dream, you are doomed."