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When Marta Moreno Vega walked through the old firehouse, tattered pinups littered the floor, rats scurried along cracked walls, and parts of the Romanesque ceiling had fallen to the floor. But still she saw her dream: A space that could, once again, become an anchor in its East Harlem community.
“It’s just a lovely space,” Ms. Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, said last week on the eve of a ceremony at the building her organization will take over. “It’s small, yet majestic.”
For nearly 40 years, Ms. Vega has steered the cultural institute she founded, a nonprofit organization focused on documenting, exploring and celebrating cultures of the African diaspora. Its headquarters were in a brownstone in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, but it moved uptown last year.
After waves of demographic and economic shifts, Ms. Vega said, Hell’s Kitchen no longer reflected the cultural institute’s work. “With the whole gentrification process,” she said, “our audience was just not there.”
The institute now operates out of rented office space along a commercial strip of fast-food restaurants and discount stores on 125th Street near Park Avenue, across from the former firehouse. The neighborhood, affectionately known as El Barrio to those with roots there, is buttressed largely by Puerto Rican, African-American and Mexican residents.
In 2008, the institute got its chance at a permanent home when the city decided to turn five decommissioned firehouses into cultural facilities. After submitting a proposal, Ms. Vega was selected by the city to develop the one on 125th Street, a four-story brick and stone building, into a gallery with performance and workshop space. But she first had to raise the money needed to fix it up.
Six years and $9.3 million in public and private financing later, the crumbling firehouse has been cleared out and work is set to begin this month. Ms. Vega was joined last week by elected officials, community leaders, staff members and family members in a ceremony to mark the moment, during which libations were poured and musicians pounded on Djembe drums.
“It’s been a long journey,” Ms. Vega said.
The campaign continues, she said, to raise enough money to keep the center running once it opens, which is planned for fall 2015.
“It’s going to do a lot for 125th Street,” Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, said of the institute at the ceremony. “The future is bright.”
Still, Ms. Vega and many in East Harlem worry that the culture she has devoted herself to, like that of the neighborhood’s Italian communities before it, is fading visibly. From 2000 to 2010, based on census data, in the two ZIP codes that make up East Harlem, the number of Puerto Rican and African-American residents has decreased, and the number of white and Asian residents has increased. The median household income has also risen. Mom-and-pop businesses have closed because they could not afford higher rents. New condominiums with doormen glisten next to red brick public housing developments. The price of everything, from rent to groceries, has gone up, residents have lamented.
“It’s always been sort of an underserved area, an economically poor area,” said Ms. Vega, who grew up in East Harlem, “but real rich in the cultural communities that have made El Barrio home.” Parts were also marred by crime and joblessness. “So you have this sort of dichotomy,” Ms. Vega continued. “It’s rich in culture and in the creativity of the different ethnic communities, and at the same time you have challenges based on the economic blight.”
She started the institute in 1976. It has a full-time staff of five and an annual budget of a little over $900,000. Ms. Vega also teaches a class on cultural equity at New York University, her alma mater.
Ms. Vega, whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico and met in East Harlem, grew up on 102nd Street near First Avenue with two siblings. The family lived in a small apartment where, Ms. Vega said with a laugh, the bathroom was in the kitchen.
She would like to move from the Bronx back to the neighborhood but discovered that such apartments in East Harlem now rent for up to $2,000 a month. “It’s scary,” she said.
Back when she was attending schools in the neighborhood, and even through college, Ms. Vega said, “the cultures that reflected my people were not included” in classroom studies.
Ms. Vega said the institute was the only one on the east side of 125th Street focused on African descendant cultures of the diaspora. In its new, expanded home, the institute plans to offer programs on music, literature, dance, film and spiritual practices. Admission will be by donation.
The institute is working on a project called Mi Querido Barrio (My Beloved Community), during which residents in East Harlem are being interviewed to record their cultural memories. Two of the voices are sisters-in-law who over many years planted and nurtured a community garden that includes apple trees and a bright blue casita, a small house, on 118th Street near Lexington Avenue. The institute is also working on a virtual exhibition of revered locations — past and present — in East Harlem.
“If you don’t see yourself reflected in your everyday experience, you are invisible,” Ms. Vega said. “And when you feel you are not part, then you’re isolated. You’re isolated in your mind and your opportunity to contribute to the larger whole, because you don’t exist.”