Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Arts groups propose center at Seward renewal site

By Ronda Kaysen

A quartet of nonprofit arts organizations has plans to transform a portion of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area into an arts center celebrating New York City’s immigrant and ethnic history, despite the city’s recent move to abandon its renewal plans for the area.

City Lore, the Society for Educational Arts, the World Music Institute and the Center for Traditional Music and Dance will apply for a $50,000 planning grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, part of the Cultural Capital Grant Program announced last December. The organizations — three of which are already based Downtown — have plans to build a $10 million Center for Art, Tradition and Cultural Heritage, dubbed CATCH, near one of the old Essex St. Market buildings in Seward Park.

“The groups have worked extensively with Latinos, Jews, Asians and Italians, the people that have played a huge part of the history of this area,” said Steve Zeitlin, executive director of City Lore, a cultural organization on E. First St. and the lead organization in the plan. “By strengthening the work that these organizations do, by putting it all in one place…there’s a real opportunity to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

But CATCH’s prized future home — in the Seward Park renewal zone — is tenuous, at best. Last September, the city’s Economic Development Corporation backed off from a contentious urban renewal plan for the area that would have included 400,000 sq. ft. of affordable housing and 400,000 sq. ft. of commercial space. The Seward Park proposal, presented in 2003, was met with heavy criticism from various opposing groups, including City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who told The Villager last month that the plan was “unsatisfactory and incomplete.”

Gerson originally proposed CATCH for the renewal area last June as part of his Campuses and Corridors program, which is intended to support arts and culture Downtown. “There’s been so much tension over [Seward Park],” said Paul Nagle, Gerson’s arts and culture liaison, of the councilmember’s decision to propose an arts center in the renewal area. “We thought a cultural center would be a way to mitigate some of that tension.”

But now that E.D.C. has abandoned its Seward Park plans, Nagle is less hopeful CATCH will find a home there. “Seward Park is once again in limbo, as far as we can tell,” he said. “[The four arts organizations] are proceeding on their own.” With no plans on the table for Seward Park, banking on a home in the renewal area “would be premature,” he said.

E.D.C. has yet to unveil an alternate redevelopment plan for Seward Park and a spokesperson did not return a call for comment.

The founding organizations are willing to consider other sites, however. “We’re not committed to any particular area,” said Robert H. Browning, executive and artistic director of World Music Institute, currently located in the Flatiron District. However, he added, “We haven’t really searched out other areas.”

The organizations have not seriously considered an alternate site primarily because of the scale and scope of their project. With a $10 million price tag, their plan calls for 25,000 sq. ft. of either renovated or newly constructed space and significant government funding, said Browning.

Seward Park “is the only area that’s come up so far, because [CATCH] is geared to what funding there is available from the state and feds for Downtown Manhattan,” said Browning. Without a considerable state, city or federal contribution, he added, “I don’t see the possibility of [the arts center] rising at all.”

If the center does come to pass, it will house a performance space, cafe, gallery, library, theater, gift shop, study center and archive of historic images and recordings. Although New York is home to scores of cultural museums and institutions, the center would be the first to house so many diverse groups in one central location, serving as a cultural heritage hub for the city. “The whole idea of those groups under one roof is amazing,” said Nagle. “We would very much like Lower Manhattan to be the international city within the city.”

CATCH will also serve as a permanent office space for the various organizations, an enticing proposition for the small arts organizations. “The real story is that we’re incredibly vulnerable unless we own our space,” said Ethel Raim, executive and artistic director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, one of the central organizations in the plan. C.T.M.D., now at Broadway and Morris St., has moved four times since its founding in 1969. The last three moves, all Downtown, were not voluntary. “Wherever we move, the neighborhood picks up and then we’re ousted,” Raim said. “It’s just time to secure our own space, which will help in so many ways, but not least of all, in sustainability.”

With the first grant deadline less than a week away, the four organizations are gearing up for a long fundraising effort ahead.

“It’s important that we do this in the most effective way possible,” said Raim. “We have a lot of homework to do, but we’re excited to get started on it.”

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