As the public debate continues around the Economic Development Corporation’s decision to release a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for two underutilized spaces in the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center (the Center), allow me to respond to a specific type of criticism that equates my advocacy in challenging the status quo with an elitist agenda. Most disappointing is a recent column that missed the point on the need for change by resorting to inflammatory and dismissive characterizations of those of us who are striving to optimize the strength and vitality of our community’s assets.
At the core of this most recent community struggle is a larger dilemma we have been remiss to confront and is tearing at us. We must face the fact that too many of our institutions, community based organizations and political leaders, have ignored the urgent need for leadership development and succession planning. Instead of reaching out to, identifying, encouraging and mentoring those who will continue the work into the future, we are held back by fearful, rigid, complacent leaders, who, in refusing to share and mentor, are unwilling to embrace the next generation and/or new ideas. Continuing down this road will only contribute to our social, cultural and political decline.
This particular chapter in our struggle is about allowing a new generation of artists and cultural institutions into a space that was considered visionary in its origin and is now seen by many as languishing. While it is understandably painful for all sides, it’s time for us to step up to the plate and overcome the complacency that has been choking us. Let it be said that this struggle will open the way to a major turning point for our community in El Barrio/East Harlem.
Opening up these spaces at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center to the new ideas and perspectives as well as the talents of some of our most vibrant cultural organizations will give them the access and opportunities they need to revitalize our community’s cultural life. Our community’s legitimate concerns regarding gentrification are being irresponsibly exploited and used as a scare tactic in an attempt to stymie progress and much needed change — change that will re-activate the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center so that it can return to its mission to preserve El Barrio’s identity. We must not allow the misinformation campaign being undertaken on numerous fronts to jeopardize or further delay achieving these important goals.
The City’s Economic Development Corporation, has been asked to correct the unfair access enjoyed by one tenant. The RFEI process addresses the use of the common spaces and in no way jeopardizes the spaces leased for the exclusive use of the existing tenants. My support of EDC’s decision is not intended to minimize the historical contributions this organization has made to El Barrio’s collective Puerto Rican cultural legacy. At the same time, no one organization can claim exclusive ownership of the collective community struggle that was organized against institutional neglect (i.e. allocation and investment of City resources) and led to the creation of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center. No one organization’s participation in that struggle entitles it to an endless monopoly on the space that was envisioned as low cost cultural space for local cultural organizations.
Finally, let us be very clear about my stand as your Council Member regarding gentrification and displacement in El Barrio, as documented in my legislation and Community Board reports since taking office. The fact is that I have made the preservation of our neighborhood’s Puerto Rican culture a top priority. For example, I worked diligently to save the 125th Street Firehouse from being auctioned off by the City and instead ensured that it would be converted into a vibrant cultural resource for our community under the direction of the Caribbean Cultural Center. Likewise, I have worked to create and preserve housing for low-income residents of the neighborhood, and have founded the East Harlem Anti- Displacement Task Force, among other efforts, to help protect our community against further gentrification.
The beauty of the Center’s original vision was the collective spirit that, if fulfilled, would have engendered mutual support among our cultural organizations. This process will allow us to commit to fulfilling that collective spirit that allowed for access and participation. Let’s not squander this opportunity but seize it.