A Cultural Corridor

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The blocks above 155th Street were a little livelier last month, the streets just a bit more vibrant. The energy between the East River and the Hudson had even the residents from Upper Manhattan buzzing with excitement.

Washington Heights, Inwood, and surrounding areas saw a transformation this June, as the 6th annual Uptown Arts Stroll infiltrated churches, restaurants, parks and other public sites. The stroll is an opportunity for local artists to showcase their talents within their community. The events this year garnered special attention as the formerly volunteer-based effort is now headed by Sandra Garcia-Betancourt of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), a non-profit organization founded to support artists in the area.

“I used to look at this block on Dyckman and say, ‘This place could be a cultural corridor,’ and all of a sudden, it’s happening,” says Sandra, a Washington Heights resident herself. Sandra, raised by missionary parents in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, but born in the Dominican Republic, feels a special connection to the community she represents. For one, she is an artist like those she helps – a poet pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University. Second of all, the spirit of giving, particularly to the Dominican community, was a household standard throughout her childhood. “My parents’ relationship with the Dominican Republic was really strong because they were missionaries there since very young,” she tells me in a strong voice over the phone.

Those roots have given Sandra the fortitude to run NoMAA and the Uptown Arts Stroll, a complex task considering the former has only been in existence since 2007, and the latter had never been run by her organization before. “It’s complicated because I’m dealing with very intense people who are creating something, but it’s complicated in a good way,” she says of the cause. Sandra was hired to handle the meticulous mission after the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ) provided the Hispanic Federation with funding to incubate an organization for Northern Manhattan artists.

“We’ve got a lot of Latinos who don’t know how to get support. They don’t apply for funding because they don’t know how to do it, where to go, or don’t speak English,” says Sandra with urgency. NoMAA is hoping to become a refuge for those struggling artists working in Washington Heights and Inwood, a district that is over 70 percent Latino, according to the NYC Department of City Planning.

So far, so good. The calendar on NoMAA’s website has at least four events listed each day, and people have taken notice. The stroll wasn’t just a walk in the park, but was more a series of happenings from the first day of June to the 30th, all taking place in various neighborhood posts above 155th Street. An art opening at Community Board 12, a bilingual opera at the Y.M.C.A., and a Dominican art exhibit last Friday, all saw packed crowds.

The month-long celebration was a mere one day event when it started up just five years ago. Local artists who, at the time, didn’t even have an arts council in their district, looked to the coffee shops and restaurants they frequented. The small businesses agreed to hang art on their walls, or allow performances in their spaces. And like that, a small, organic something gained momentum and grew into a cultural festivity filling the Indian Road Cafe, the Piper’s Kilt, and Mamajuana Café, to name a few.

With the Uptown Arts Stroll five years strong, NoMAA now has the chance to not only showcase new talent, but to honor how far the Washington Heights and Inwood community has come. Colombiano Knox Martin, a Heights resident for over 75 years whose world-renowned work has been featured in museums like the MOMA, has an ongoing exhibition at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. Residents were also able to come together for the In the Heights dinner party, a gathering at Hispaniola Restaurant coordinated with the Tony Awards. In the Heights went on to win best musical.

“We’re making so much noise; even people outside the community are asking, ‘What’s going on over there?” says Sandra about the response. Noise they’ll continue to make, as NoMAA will be receiving a new $50,000 grant in July to carry on the artistic offerings.

“It’s really a sense of community when everybody participates and uses the resources available here,” says Sandra with a pride her mother once likely spoke with. “Everything is connected.”

Places to see art/hear music/walk around in Northern Manhattan:
KB Gallery
875 W 181st Street, New York, NY 10033
(212) 543-2393
Rio Penthouse Gallery
10 Fort Washington Avenue
bet. W. 159th & W. 160th Streets
New York, NY
212-568-2030 x208
Mamajuana Cafe
247 Dyckman St
New York, NY 10034
Phone: (212) 304-1217
The Cornerstone Center
178 Bennett Avenue
New York, NY 10040
The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center
3940 Broadway
New York, NY 10032
(212) 568-1341
Hispanic Society
(entrance on B’way between 155th & 156th)
613 W 155th St, New York, NY 10032
(212) 926-2234
Morris-Jumel Mansion
65 Jumel Terrace
New York, NY 10032
a short block which extends from West 160th & West 162nd Streets
One block E of St. Nicholas Avenue and one block W of Edgecombe Avenue
Please note that West 161st Street does not extend this far west.
Parlor Entertainment
555 Edgecombe Avenue (at 160th Street), Studio 3F
New York, NY 10032
The Cloisters
Fort Tryon Park
99 Margaret Corbin Drive, New York, NY 10040
(212) 923-3700
Fort Tryon Park
Riverside Drive to Broadway, West 192nd to Dyckman Streets

Inwood Hill Park
along the Hudson River from Dyckman Street to the northern tip of the island
Libreria Caliope
183 Dyckman St
New York, NY 10040

(212) 567-3511