If you’ve ever taken one of Manhattan’s east side trains to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, or the Metro-North Railroad to its stop just up the street on Park Avenue, you experienced that feeling of having either stepped back in time or far forward to a dystopian future. Both along Lexington Avenue, moving downtown, and along 125th Street, going east, you’ve seen the throng of bodies falling from a plateau of wakeful, energized awareness, to a hazy, shadowy lassitude that’s often coextensive with a slide down the personal well-being and social status scales.
I’ve seen many men, and some women, shuffling through trousers around their thighs, no light in their eyes, clothing somehow beyond filthy — sometimes face down, on the odd, asymmetrical, vented metal benches that look like public art. This part of the East Harlem district is the epicenter of several storms: the drop-off point for the newly released from Riker’s Island, two major methadone clinics, a retail outlet for the infamous drug K2, and a couple of liquor stores and dollar pizza joints to keep it all glued together. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, on some days, this square of land looks post-apocalyptic. For years now, as I’ve taken the train from the South Bronx to this intersection to trade the subway for buses heading west across town, every single trip makes me despondent.
Into these desperate circumstance steps the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), which just reopened on October 15 in a landmark building that was once a firehouse at 120 East 125th Street, right in between the atria and ventricles of this territory. The Institute is an organization that, in the words of founder Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, was created “to make African descendants visible, part of history, and [make us] dynamic participants in the creative process of our existence, to make us visible and highlight our people’s brilliance since systemic racism has portrayed us in the deficit.”
CCCADI was formed by Vega in 1976 on East 87th Street, in a space donated by the now defunct Phelps Stokes Fund, and with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund Vega’s research. Over the years, Vega has steered CCCADI toward a multi-pronged approach to showcasing the arts associated with people from the African diaspora: musical programs including salsa, jazz, and rap (including showing hip-hop artists for the first time in Lincoln Center); colloquia for practitioners of religious and organized spiritual practices; and presenting visual art, which has entailed collaborating with other nearby institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Much of this energy and vitality was on display during the opening weekend festivities. The events included the first art opening at the firehouse, for the exhibition Home, Memory, and Future, a concert and outdoor celebration, and a lecture series hosted at Positive Workforce focusing on the crosscultural, theatrical exchanges between African Diaspora communities in East and West Harlem since the turn of the 20th century.
This celebration was the culmination of CCCADI’s move to Harlem four years ago, into a temporary space where it continued its mission, while key members of state and local government worked to get a more permanent home. Vega told me that New York City Council Speaker and District 8 Representative Melissa Mark-Viverito was particularly instrumental by advocating the removal of five former firehouses from the auction block, designating them landmark properties, and thereby allowing them to be kept by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. That department then accepted proposals from nonprofits for future uses of the firehouse on East 125th Street, eventually choosing CCCADI’s pitch to make it the Institute’s permanent home. The organization is currently finalizing the purchase of the building from the city for one dollar, after it did the heavy lifting of raising $9.3 million in contributions from government, private foundations, and individuals, to renovate the building. Once the sale goes through, CCCADI will be one of the few nonprofits in the city to own its location.
Walking through the building, I was impressed by how solid it feels, how well constructed. While the exterior is fairly nondescript, with its façade of tempered glass doors, on the ground level the interior is welcoming, with wood flooring that begins where the front enfilade opens up into a small atrium with spot lighting at the building’s back. The upstairs has a similar layout that allows for the display of art while still feeling intimate, rather than stiffly formal like typical white cube spaces.
A significant reason for the exuberance displayed in the ceremonies surrounding the rebirth of CCCADI is that it holds a unique position within the ecosystem of the district. The institution is both a cultural mainstay and an infrastructural one, attempting to mitigate the degradation of drug use, persistent poverty, and a lack of community resources on the one hand, while also presenting an alternative to the insidiously creeping gentrification of Harlem on the other. In essence, by reopening here, it is making the claim that a cultural organization is part of a community’s infrastructure, sustaining it by providing a space for vital representation of its audiences and its cultural history.
CCCADI is trying; it wants to be the cultural organization that anchors the neighborhood and prevents its drift into the powerful currents of either of the forces of cyclical poverty or the displacement of longtime residents by the gentrifying forces capital. One of CCCADI’s most ambitious programs, formed through a partnership with New York University’s Department of Art and Public Policy, is the ongoing series of conversational gatherings entitled “The Art of Justice.” These meetings are focused on establishing equity in the arts and are open to artists, arts administrators, and those who support the arts. The forums seek to address the distribution of public and private funds by considering how organizations come to be considered “ethnic” and “community-based,” and how these designations value or devalue the creative work of East Harlem communities and others like them around the city. The continuing work of the series is to establish a framework for arts funding and support that is inclusive and equitable.
The CCCADI is, in this respect, a proposition. It seeks to prove that art and cultural institutions can do something that pure commerce, aggressive policing, and public policy cannot: keep community residents together in a neighborhood that is thriving and still very much their own.
The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute is located at 120 East 125th Street. Its opening exhibition, Home, Memory, and Future, continues through March 2017.