Rivers: Harlem’s Cultural Crusader

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Harlem once thrived as the cultural Mecca of New York City with more than 50 cultural institutions before the glitter faded during an economic decline. After decades of disinvestment and declining economic conditions, Harlem seems to be ascending again— the low rents and tax abatements have seduced retailers like H&M and The Disney Store into the neighborhood, anchoring a long overdue transformation.

Yet a cultural crusader who never gave up on Harlem hopes that amidst a real estate boom, the community’s artistic institutions won’t be ignored. After all, it was Harlem’s institutions that first put the area on the map. “We must maintain those facilities and we must support them financially with resources so that they can also exist in the 21st century,� says Voza Rivers, chairman and founding member of the Harlem Arts Alliance and executive producer of The New Heritage Theatre Group. Rivers is concerned that in the midst of all the construction and rehabilitation, the cultural institutions, which he refers to as “anchors� in the community, will be forgotten.

In order to survive, cultural institutions must have two things—contributions and supporters who are willing to attend events. Government funding is important too, but is usually confined to entities that can generate income as a byproduct of their existence. “When people talk about workers that live from paycheck to paycheck, the artistic community is living from grant to grant,� Rivers explains. Institutions are starting to keep attendance records because they know that funding depends on it. “People are now counting how many bodies are in the seats, how many people go through your doors,� he notes. This is fine for downtown Manhattan which is a magnet for local and international visitors because those venues will be able to reflect attractive attendance records, he adds. Those downtown and midtown venues are favored when the city and state provides support, based on their relatively higher numbers.

Places like Lincoln Center Theater and The Metropolitan Opera attract tourists and generate large amounts of money for the city’s economy. People who attend those attractions stay in local hotels and they eat and shop in the area. “What we’re saying is not to take anything away from downtown, just be as mindful that uptown can have the same kind of attractions,� Rivers stresses.

Last year about 39 million visitors came to New York City adding $15 billion to the economy, according to NYC & Co., the city’s official visitor website. Cultural tourism is and always has been an income generator—the challenge is getting some of those dollars to flow uptown. 

Other groups recognize the disparity that Rivers is talking about. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ) has been working to improve the economic conditions in Harlem since 1994. Recently UMEZ created the Cultural Industry Investment Fund to help position upper Manhattan as a “premier� cultural district. “We’re just trying to use tourism to increase the flow of capital into the community,� Says Aaron Donovan, director of communications at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. “We’re trying to bring about a more robust group of locally run and locally operated and owned cultural institutions that are self-sustaining and able to go for the long-term.� UMEZ has invested in Harlem Strategic Cultural Collaborative and the Harlem Arts Alliance; both are service organizations committed to promoting the arts in Harlem.

Rivers, a cultural crusader, has been advocating for the arts for over four decades. His mission started in 1964 after meeting a man named Roger Furman at the local YWCA in Harlem. Furman had studied at the American Negro Theatre with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. He decided to start a theatre company and Rivers reluctantly volunteered. “Forty years later I am still here and I run that theatre,� he quips. The New Heritage Theatre Group is the oldest non-profit theatre in Harlem. In addition to running the New Heritage Theatre, Rivers founded the Harlem Arts Alliance, a service organization committed to promoting and celebrating the work of its more than 400 members. The Harlem Arts Alliance provides opportunities for members to showcase their work. “We collaborate with other institutions to make that possible, we feel very celebrated,� he notes.

So, what does the future hold? A movement is underway in Harlem, a grassroots effort, that will hopefully change the perception and ultimately the economics of a neglected community, Rivers says.  “That’s how we’re going to grab the attention, we really have to document how many people are going to our events,â€? he says. Donations are important, but at the moment head count is just as important. His final message? “Go to Aaron Davis Hall they do free programming and some low admission programming, pick up their brochures, go to the Studio Museum, we have to show that our community is supporting us.â€?

In celebration of Harlem Week, members of the Harlem Arts Alliance will be performing in Harlem’s “Uptown Saturday Night� series, Saturday, August 20 and on Sunday, August 21, members will perform in the children’s village on 135th Street and throughout the block from 5th Avenue to St. Nicholas.

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