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New York’s Best Kept Caribbean Secret Moves Uptown

The future home of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute
The future home of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in East Harlem (image via denhamwolf.com) (click to enlarge)

An abandoned firehouse on the east end of 125th Street will be renovated and transformed into the new home of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

The center is one of New York City’s best kept cultural secrets. It may not plan the fancy galas or exhibitions for the international art circuit that result in high-profile press, but do we really need more of that anyway? It’s a refreshingly community-oriented place where real, working New Yorkers can learn drumming, hone quilting techniques, see a film, hear a lecture, or take in a Caribbean music concert. And all for just the price of a designer cocktail. New York needs more affordable arts venues like CCCADI.

For many years, the institute was housed in a small brownstone in Hell’s Kitchen and watched the neighborhood change around it. “Our small brownstone has served us well. The larger facilities of the firehouse will allow us to expand our programs,” Executive Director Dr. Marta Moreno Vega wrote in a message on the center’s website.

These affordable arts activities will be good news for the Spanish Harlem residents near the firehouse. We are only human, after all, and our capacity to tack on an arts event or enrichment class after work is so often framed by logistics, timing, and what’s within walking distance or a few subway stops from home. It will be a huge boon to the Caribbean community in El Barrio to feel the presence of Vega’s team and the ambitious calendar of activities she oversees.

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega
Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (image via newlatina.net)

Although the old brownstone in Hell’s Kitchen is shuttered and the new firehouse is not open yet (scheduled for January 2014, according to the Uptowner), Vega and her team are continuing to work at breakneck speed to pull together events at other sites uptown. A talk on October 24 will explore black spirituality and mysticism at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The fall film series at the Maysles Cinema looks at some fascinating microcosms within the African diaspora: one film shines a light on individuals living with albinism in Kenya while another explores Gullah villages in South Carolina that retain African traditions centuries after their ancestors’ abduction from their homeland.

Vega is a veteran of planning events for the Caribbean community in New York. This actually isn’t even the first time Vega has specifically contemplated converting an uptown firehouse into a center for art and culture. As director of El Museo del Barrio from 1971 until 1975, she was at the helm during the early planning process of moving El Museo into the firehouse at 175 East 104th Street. But it was a project she never saw to fruition — she resigned three days after Community Board 11 gave final approval for the move. Vega continues to work in the grassroots and community-focused spirit that defined the early years of El Museo.

Three and a half decades later, it seems that the more things change, the more they also stay the same. A repurposed firehouse will once again become a fulcrum for accessible cultural events uptown.

 

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