Community debate continues over East Harlem cultural center space

After two months of tense debate surrounding the occupancy of two spaces in the Julia De Burgos Cultural Center of East Harlem, back and forth accusations have caused a rift in the community, leaving several people questioning both management and the intentions of their councilperson.

Taller Boricua, the arts organization that occupies the majority of the center, is feuding with the neighborhood’s Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito over whether the group can stay in the building.  The building, designated for community art space, is located on Lexington Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets, and has four tenants including the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, Los Pleneros de la 21, the Heritage School, as well as Taller Boricua.

Mark-Viverito, and, Fernando Salicrup, the Director of Taller Boricua, met recently to discuss the future of the building. Salicrup said he met with Councilmember Mark-Viverito in an attempt to convince her about the importance of community collaboration when decision-making for the building takes place.

“She is taking on one of the oldest organizations [in East Harlem] and not paying attention to them,” said Salicrup, who explained that 40 years ago, Taller Boricua was one of the founding organizations. He added: “We told her at no time did you meet with us, and if any consideration should be taken it’s of us being founders of this building.”

The battle started in mid-September when Mark-Viverito, who argues that Taller Boricua no longer fits the definition of a community arts organization, asked the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the landlord of the building, to prevent Taller Boricua from re-occupying the theatre and multi-cultural venue.

Because of the councilwoman’s concern, EDC released a “Request for Expression of Interest” (RFEI), which allows other community organizations the right to apply for the 8,000 square ft. of art space occupied by Taller Boricua.

Emails sent between Community Board 11 members show a detailed letter written by board member Aurora Flores on Sept. 27th stating her concerns about the space, alleging that Taller Boricua was not using it properly.

In the email, Flores, who supports Councilmember Mark-Viverito and the EDC’s decision to issue an RFEI, claimed Taller Boricua “has turned the multi-cultural space into a profit making nightclub that does not benefit the institution, but the pockets of the individuals running it.” She also claimed that such activity has brought in people who are using drugs and harassing women on the premises.

Taller Boricua said Flores’s claims were “unfounded and baseless.”

Salicrup argues that no one wants to rent the space not because of practices of Taller Boricua but because of the poor management of EDC, including a lack of practice time for artists.  “[The EDC] has no understanding of what the arts and culture is all about,” he charged.

Despite opposing views on the issue, the community board voted in favor of sending a letter of opposition to the EDC.

Community Board 11 Chair, Matthew Washington, insisted the board has not taken a position in the conflict but sent a letter to EDC asking them to stop the RFEI because the board felt there needed to be community discussion before a decision was made.

“We made a stance on process, not in support of Taller Boricua,” said Washington. “[We need] to have conversation of the overall use of the space in addition to working out any grievances.”

Still, the process continues. The board sent their first letter to the EDC in September, which responded saying they would continue moving forward with the motion to issue the RFEI. Washington said the Community Board will be sending another letter soon asking the EDC to stop the REFI and will just have to wait to see how they respond.

“East Harlem is a culturally dense neighborhood,” said Washington. “Cultural preservation is so important  — [it will] be a matter of discussion forever.”

Although Taller Boricua does not own the building the organization has occupied most of the building for 15 years. According to a blog post by Founder and President of East Harlem Preservations Inc, Marina Ortiz, there is speculation of entities working outside of the community being involved because although there are organizations that have showed support of the RFEI, no art-based organizations have voiced their interest in occupying the space.

Since the RFEI was issued and later implemented on September 30, a wave of opposing opinions have turned into a cascade of misleading information, hearsay and according to Salicrup, even gossip.

Salicrup further charges that Councilwoman Mark-Viverito used her position of power to push for a reissuing of management, alleging that she established the board that decided their fate.

“When we went to the planning board, they had a conflict of interest and they couldn’t even vote – who put them up to it?” Salicrup said. “Whatever she says they will jump.”

There are mixed opinions throughout the community about the Mark-Viverito’s intentions. The rift has energized a segment of the community that was already unsatisfied with the Councilwoman, who was elected in 2006 and is serving her second term.

“We don’t know anything about her,” said long-time East Harlem resident, Ervesso Souchet, who has used the space for dancing purposes. “She doesn’t do anything for this place here- nothing at all, she just gets her pay and that’s it.”

Supporters argue such distrust is unfair. President of the East Harlem Community Youth Organization, Laura Benitez, has worked with the Mark-Viverito for the past two years and said people are making judgments without knowing all of the facts.

“I think it has to do with people not knowing the whole story,” said Benitez. “The space is supposed to be for artists, to give back- and that’s not what they’re doing.”

She added: “The councilwoman likes to include the community in her discussions, she cares for us, but some people may not see it like that,” she said. “You can’t please everyone, that’s politics in general, but she tries to stay as true as she can to her community.”

Although Councilwoman Mark-Viverito could not be reached for a comment, she recently issued a statement denying accusations of having an “elitist agenda” and said she supported EDC’s decision for RFEI because the two venues were underused and the space needs new management to “revitalize [the] communities cultural life.”

“We are held back by fearful, rigid, complacent leaders,” she wrote, “who, in refusing to share and mentor, are unwilling to embrace the next generation and, or ideas — continuing down this road will only contribute to our social, cultural and political decline.”

In the meantime, Salicrup said Taller Boricua plans to continue protesting Mark-Viverito’s decision. The organization has even created an online petition and has gathered over 1,000 signatures in their support.

“Division is not a healthy factor right now,” said Salicrup “And that is what [the EDC and Council] will be facing.”