Peer Learning Exchange: Cultural Hubs​ and Community Anchors

by Charlie Vazquez, 11/26/18

Arts Innovation Consultant
charlievazquez.com

Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts NY (NOCD-NY) organized a Peer Learning Exchange: Cultural Hubs​ and Community Anchors–hosted by THE POINT CDC in Hunts Point, Bronx–on Friday, October 26, 2018. This moderated round table discussion and information exchange featured some of the most innovative and pioneering thought leaders in the New York City arts and culture sector, representing organizations such as Pregones Theater/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, The Laundromat Project, La Morada restaurant, THE POINT CDC, and City Lore. Featured speakers provided first-hand insight into the development, function, and challenges of their respective hub and anchor organizations to peers and cultural workers who provided feedback and additional commentary on behalf of the Loisaida Center, ARTs East New York, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, Spaceworks, and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, to name a few.

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Moderator Rosalba ​Rolón is Artistic Director of Pregones Theater/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. She’s a director/dramaturg specializing in adaptations through ensemble work.

Featured speakers:

Danny Peralta has been Executive Managing Director at THE POINT Community Development Corporation since 2015, overseeing programs and partnerships; Hatuey Ramos-Fermín has been Director of Programs and Community Engagement at The Laundromat Project (The LP) since 2015; Yajaira Saavedra is a Mott Haven, Bronx-based community activist and operates the Mexican (Oaxacan) restaurant La Morada with her family; and, Molly Garfinkel who directs City Lore‘s Place Matters project and manages programs in cultural resource management, public history programs, museum education, exhibition curation, and traditional arts presentation.

Danny Peralta began by welcoming attendees and shared some history on his development as an artist and arts administrator. He emphasized the cultural legacy of the South Bronx as the birthplace of hip hop and graffiti culture, building upon the urgency that drove innovation amidst rampant devastation in the 1970s and 1980s, the transformation of delinquency into artistic heritage with scant resources. He described THE POINT’s role as cultural hub and community anchor, the local alliances they’ve forged to affect the greatest change via cross-sector collaboration and capacity-building initiatives. Rosalba Rolón added that Pregones Theater donated a number of theater risers to THE POINT during a renovation, one such example of the power of relationships and interconnectivity—as life practice and philosophy.

NOCD-NY’s Director Caron Atlas set up the larger group discussion by stressing the important role that cultural hubs and community anchors serve, which is often overlooked by city government. They have made long-term commitments in their neighborhoods and are places residents continue to engage with as places of belonging. Arts and culture organizations may come to mind first, but neighborhoods also include restaurants, markets, health service organizations, community groups and small business and services that coexist and support one another. Organizations that shape culture such as restaurants and theaters are more likely to thrive amidst broader networks that offer various opportunities for interconnectivity that make incubators and youth innovation programs possible, as opposed to time-limited “pop up” projects.

Hatuey Ramos-Fermín of The Laundromat Project gave an overview of The LP’s ongoing service to artists-of-color in three New York City neighborhoods, through project support on the local level, arts training, a Fellows program, and the Kelly Street Garden Collaborative. These various strategies develop artists and community at once, even promoting health and wellness through a Field Day event and healthy eating interchange. A space for local residents was created by activating an apartment that hosts artist residencies for Bronx artists, who are connected to one another for sustained development and engagement at a community hub that operates on a local, grassroots level.

Yajaira Saavedra spoke on behalf of La Morada restaurant, a community anchor that employs undocumented workers and serves as a forum for activism through practice in the South Bronx. La Morada’s ability to build community with no obligation to funders comes with its challenges. They’ve discovered that sticking to their convictions has garnered them unparalleled community support, however. La Morada deepens local bonds and ties by listening to community needs directly, engaging residents through food and culture. While they had the opportunity to raise their prices for increased profit and a higher-end clientele, they chose not to do this so they could continue to serve local community members, such as public housing residents across the street. Loisaida Center’s Libertad Guerra was on hand to share an anecdote which emphasized La Morada’s unwavering role as a cultural hub for progressive politics. Local activists sounded the alarm when Mayor de Blasio showed up to dine there and surrounded him, demanding that a long-requested meeting with his office be granted. It was as a result. The fact that they have a library hints that the community can just come in and be.

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Danny Peralta added that THE POINT’s 14-15 yearly projects reflect the culture and history of the local community, such as the Fish Parade which started as a protest. Now a celebration, the event began in opposition to Fulton Fish Market’s move into the neighborhood and the additional trucks and exhaust pollution that continues to aggravate high asthma rates in the area. The battle was lost but the Fish Parade lives on, held on the third Saturday in June. A procession marches from park to park to participate in various activities being held at them such as raffles, concerts, and giveaways—direct community engagement. Kemi Ilesanmi of The Laundromat Project echoed this urgency of community dialogue and communications versus waiting for residents to learn about an organization’s cultural offerings. Organic engagement is critical, as is the learning of “community rhythms” that may not coincide with those of an organization. The collecting and analyzing of stakeholder feedback are also critical for this.

Rosalba Rolón reported that Pregones Theater/PRTT grew out of the community that continues to support it, an organic culture of interconnected circles that nourished the ensemble format in the organization’s earliest stages. This power of the collective provided the opportunity to create great art without compromise and even made it possible to pay artists a fair wage. Other well-known theater highlights include a Block Party and the Stage Garden Rumba Community Garden Series, which features local performers, activists, and poets. Pregones also hosts local students who are allowed to play in the theater space. A relationship with a local firehouse makes it possible for firefighters to drop by and watch rehearsals. These natural versus transactional relationships forge long-lasting bonds that have strengthened the area’s cultural fabric since the Walton Street theater opened. Similar relationships have been cultivated with apartment building supers who work near the PRTT in Midtown West.

Participants stressed the importance of identifying new income streams in the wake of an often unpredictable and trend-driven philanthropy sector. Inventiveness has proven effective for teaching local residents about home ownership as a means to counteract displacement; the development of financial literacy through cross-sector partnerships. Another approach is to think as developers do, to bypass them for the benefit of the community first. The promotion and stewarding of ownership, as opposed to subsidized services, creates alternatives from within. THE POINT has spent the last 25 years at the forefront of campaigning and traditional organizing but has expanded its services to the community by identifying new sources of income; alternative energy initiatives and spaces to generate wealth for the neighborhood including initial planning for a community solar farm. José Francisco Avila of the Garifuna Coalition shared an anecdote about the feldgling diaspora and how it was able to capitalize on its culture (cuisine, folklore, arts) during the coalition’s formation in the 1980s, which spurred individual and collective presence and agency as the community grew.

Molly Garfinkel of City Lore discussed the Place Matters program, which protects key sites beyond the confines of historical preservation. This is achieved by creating community exchanges for residents and participants to inform one another on local places and histories. This multi-strategy objective includes landmarking and has spread to other cities. Challenges being faced by cultural hubs and community anchors include broad stroke issues such as funding, reporting, core programming, and the diversification of income streams. Organizations must anticipate generational shifts, succession planning, and staff development in addition to this. Solutions might include shared resources such as an online toolkit to promote best practices for academics, urban planners, and arts administrators.

Participants expressed interest in a system for mentoring one another on a nuts and bolts level, finding ways to balance philanthropic obligations, support and activate community uses, and sustain long-term activism and advocacy. Rosalba Rolón concluded the session by urging cultural hubs and community anchors to adapt to mixed and shifting economies and income streams, while thriving through cross-sector support as aligned with their missions. Attendees continued on to two optional field trips after the program concluded: the opportunity to have lunch at La Morada with Yajaira Saavedra or to join a Hunts Point Village of Murals and Environmental Justice Tour with local artist Chen Carrasco.

resource: City Lore’s Community Anchors: Sustaining Religious Institutions, Social Clubs, and Small Businesses That Serve as Cultural Centers for their Communities

photos: Peer Learning Exchange at THE POINT CDC, Hunts Point Village of Murals and Environmental Justice Tour, and lunch at La Morada.

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