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Battle Brews Between East Harlem Arts Groups Over Access to Cultural Center

By Jeff Mays | October 8, 2010 2:28pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Arts groups in El Barrio are embroiled in a dispute about who should operate a coveted theater and multipurpose space at a cultural center on Lexington Avenue.

Taller Boricua, which translates to "Puerto Rican Workshop," is a beloved 40-year-old arts group in the neighborhood that has rented space — including the theater and multipurpose room — in the city-owned Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center since 1992. They hold exhibits, artist workshops and run a popular Salsa Wednesdays dance class that brings together different age groups from the community.

But last month, the city's Economic Development Corporation began soliciting proposals from other community groups to manage the theater and multipurpose space — meaning Taller Boricua could lose a big chunk of its home.

Fernando Salicrup and Nitza Tufiño, two of Taller Boricua's founders, say the potential loss of space will devastate the organization they believe has worked hard for decades to cultivate Latino artists.

"This will cut us in half," Salicrup said.

"This is about gentrification. it's about displacing people. This is about the community losing say of what happens here," added Tufiño.

But Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who insists she appreciates the work Taller Boricua has done for the community, hopes that offering up the space to other community groups will add to the neighborhood's culture.

Mark-Viverito said she had received complaints from other community groups that they haven't had adequate access to the space because of the high rental rates charged.

Those groups claim that Taller Boricua varies the prices unfairly depending on who wants to rent the space, which discourages access. The EDC and Mark-Viverito said the theater is vacant on most evenings.

"Based on my extensive conversations with arts and cultural organizations in El Barrio/East Harlem, I feel strongly that the Center should be made more inclusive of other groups that could provide greater utilization of this community resource," Mark-Viverito told DNAinfo.

Salicrup said they set rents for the space based mainly on what an organization can afford to pay, but they need to cover the $50,000 a year in rent they pay the city and another $20,000 they carry in insurance costs.

Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for EDC, pointed out that Taller Boricua will retain some space at the center on 106th Street and Lexington Avenue regardless of the outcome of the requests for proposals.

"There's a vibrant arts scene there and a lot of people that want access to that space," Wood said. "The most fair way to decide is with a public process."

Also stepping into the fray is East Harlem's Community Board 11, which is calling on the EDC to halt its plan to replace the tenant because the board nor Taller Boricua were given an opportunity to discuss and resolve the issues that Mark-Viverito and the EDC have raised.

Board chairman Matthew Washington said he was concerned about reports of Taller Boricua's discretionary pricing for use of the space, but said that doesn't mean the group should lose key parts of their home.

"There is a better pricing process that can be put in place, but this organization is an institution and it deserves a chance to do corrective action if that's what is necessary," Washington said.

"Taller Boricua has worked at Julia de Burgos for 15 years, and it seems the EDC is making a snap judgement. As a board, it is our belief that conversations happen with the community before these sort of actions are taken."

EDC says that Taller Boricua is free to submit a proposal for the spaces. 

The issue appears to have divided the community along generational lines.

Dozens of older and more established artists and community groups came out to support Taller Boricua at a meeting of Board 11's cultural affairs committee this week, while a newer generation of artists said the organization is stifling growth.

"If you see me irate and pissed off, that's because this is breaking my heart. Wherever I go I am known as a Puerto Rican poet from El Barrio. That's why this means something," said Jesús Papoleto Meléndez, one of the founders of the Nuyorican poets' movement.

"Taller Boricua has done a lot for the community. We have done more than Meliss Mark-Viverito has done."

But people like Carla Eliana Godoy Laguna, founder of Art for Change, said she scheduled a technology program at the center and recruited people to come, but the doors were locked the day of the event.

"I know a lot of artists who have resorted to using the streets, their apartments as alternative space," Laguna said. "This presents an incredible opportunity to be critical about the state of our cultural integrity."

Tufiño said the group is doing the best it can on a limited budget.

"We don't have a lot of money, but we've been in this community trying to work and we've been doing it for 40 years," Tufiño said. "The key here is money. The key is space."

EDC plans to hold an informational session and tour of the space on Oct. 13.