New Latino Cultural Center Forges Community in North Philly’s Barrio – Next City

New Latino Cultural Center Forges Community in North Philly’s Barrio

In 1978, 15 young Puerto Ricans fanned out across the Philadelphia barrio, centered in a faded industrial ward called Fairhill, to collect the stories of their neighbors. Working out of a fledgling neighborhood arts organization called Taller Puertorriqueño, they styled the oral history project a “self-study” and titled it Batiendo La Olla (“Stirring the Pot”) after a Puerto Rican saying, “No one knows what’s in the pot except the person who stirs it.”

For 42 years, Taller Puertorriqueño has never stopped stirring that pot, surfacing the arts, culture and daily experience of North Philly’s barrio.

As of this winter, Taller (Spanish for “workshop” and pronounced tay-YEHR), housed all these years in two cramped and creaky nineteenth-century buildings, has moved into a new home that amplifies its long tradition and celebrates the fruits of persistence: El Corazón Cultural Center, an elegant, contemporary gathering place that lies in the literal and figurative corazón, heart, of the community.

Taller Puertorriqueño’s original headquarters (Photo by Annie O’Neill)

Taller has also embarked on a new oral history project, some four decades after that first, touchstone project. In “A Meditation on Memory: Visually Mapping Fairhill,” local historians are collecting the stories of local residents over home-cooked dinners and in small gatherings. Those histories will be made “visible” on the neighborhood’s streets in a series of permanent installations that are part sculpture, part historical marker. Rafael Damast, Taller’s curator and exhibitions manager, calls them “statements of being that are planted in the ground.” The street markers, in turn, will be represented on an eight-by-eight-foot map of Fairhill that will hang like a luxuriant tapestry in El Corazón’s glass-sheathed atrium.

This marking of Fairhill with the signs, symbols and metaphors of communal identity is a potent example of what people in the community development field call creative placemaking. The idea, which has been gaining traction over the last decade, is that artistic and cultural expressions can help build strong neighborhoods where people want to be. These works can help in ways small and large to reclaim space, spark economic activity, enable social connections and unearth historical memory.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national nonprofit, is a longtime Taller partner whose Philadelphia team has secured funding and provided years of technical assistance for the group, culminating in a $2.1 million loan to help make the El Corazón building a reality. Over the last 25 years, LISC has invested some $60 million in the surrounding neighborhoods and has come to see placemaking as part of broader revitalization efforts that include such things as affordable housing, community safety programs and workforce development. As an intrinsic strand of this work, creative placemaking helps successfully transform neighborhoods like Fairhill because, at its core, it is equitable and participatory — reflecting the lives and aspirations of the people who call that place home.

For Lynne McCormack, LISC’s director of creative placemaking programs, the new community center is the fruit of that long-term commitment to Taller, and of Taller’s commitment to its community. “When you walk into El Corazón, you’re struck by the beautiful design and architecture,” says McCormack. “It’s a true reflection of the organization and its mission to provide a space for inspiration and connection.”

El Corazón, in fact, is an emphatic statement of identity in itself. It is an $11.4 million project in the middle of one of Philadelphia’s lowest-income neighborhoods, often carelessly labeled by sensational media coverage as one of the city’s “worst.” The nearly 25,000-square-foot building at Huntingdon and North Fifth Street is surrounded by dense blocks of diminutive row houses built for working people more than a century ago. It anchors a commercial strip of storefront businesses where Latino families have come to shop for decades.

El Corazón cultural center, designed by Antonio Fiol Silva and WRT Design, looks strikingly different from its environs — a vast space full of light and air which includes a large indoor plaza with a café and adjoining terrace, a modern gallery and a spacious performance space that can be divided into smaller programming areas. But this contemporary building was designed to harmonize with the neighborhood around it, and its welcoming entry porch and multi-colored façade panels reflect the surrounding dwellings with their painted fronts. El Corazón looks like something new opening up in the neighborhood — that remembers, with respect and affection, where it came from.

Taller’s own story is the story of how arts and culture can connect people to one another and to the place they share. Founded in 1974 in the basement of a Puerto Rican educational organization, ASPIRA, Taller was born in a time when marginalized ethnic groups were beginning to reject the notion that empowerment lay in cultural assimilation in the American melting pot (that figurative pot-stirring was no accident).

It began as a graphic-arts taller or workshop where young people could explore their roots and learn silk-screening. Before long, Taller was mounting all kinds of cultural offerings — concerts and films, lectures and exhibitions, dance and theater, classes for young and old, all connected in some way to the Latino cultures of North Philly, which, in addition to the city’s largest Puerto Rican community, over the years came to include Dominicans, Mexicans and other people of Latin American descent.

The idea, says Damast, was simply to make a place for expressions that “register” in the here and now. Artistic and cultural representation is more accessible than political leadership, he observes. Everyone can see or hear or taste it, respond to it, and perhaps identify with it.

Carmen Febo San Miguel, a physician who spent 14 years as Taller’s board chair before becoming director in 1999, vividly recalls her own response when she first encountered Taller. It was around 1976 and the occasion was a concert by the Puerto Rican folk singer Antonio Cabán Vale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Febo San Miguel was a young medical resident at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann University Hospital. She was living far from home for the first time, working as a doctor and enduring winter. She and friends went to the concert and felt like they had slipped into another world.

Carmen Febo San Miguel, Taller’s director, with artist José Ortiz-Pagán (Photo by Annie O’Neill)

“The room was full of Latinos,” she recalls, “and the music was Puerto Rican, the sounds, what we call the bullicio, the energy in the room, the spirit, all of it was very familiar. It connected with me at a deep level that had been kind of a gap.” She was hooked.

As the small arts group evolved, it seemed natural to adopt a heart — el corazón — as its symbol, says Febo San Miguel. In 2000, a local artist created a mosaic on the façade of Taller’s education building — a heart emblazoned with the single star and colors of the Puerto Rican flag. People walking by began to stop, touch the heart, and then touch their own hearts. El corazón cultural del barrio. The metaphor and the mosaic registered.

Thanks to Taller’s longevity in the neighborhood, what registered for one generation continues to reverberate for another. Much of the organization’s arts and educational programming aims to embrace young Philadelphians, offering a space where they can form and explore cultural identity.

A Latin dance class for young people at Taller Puertorriqueño (Photo by Annie O’Neill)

South Philly native Tony Rocco first came to Taller more than 25 years ago as a freshman at nearby Temple University. Miami Vice was the hottest show on TV and he found that when people heard Colombian, they thought cocaine. So he rarely mentioned that his mother was born and raised in Colombia or that he grew up speaking Spanish “more or less.” Then Rocco bonded with a group of Puerto Rican students who coaxed him to embrace his Latino identity. Pretty soon he was going with them to every event at Taller — poetry readings, art openings. And he began to use his own art form, photography, to explore culture and identity.

Today Rocco is both a professional photographer and a veteran teacher in Fairhill schools. He runs a popular after school photography program at John B. Stetson Middle School and has organized exhibits of his and his students’ work at Taller.

He often notices that a student will capture an image that surprises them, like one particular girl who snapped her brother standing on an overturned grocery cart at night. Looking up, city lights streaking the darkness, the boy looks “noble,” says Rocco, “and very powerful.”

Rocco pushes the young photographers to reflect on the images they make. “’It’s a pretty picture,’ ‘I thought it was cool,’ is not going to cut it,” he says. “They start really looking into themselves. And the question is, ‘Who am I?’”

As hard as that question can be to answer, Taller and the community that has grown up around it are poised to help new generations of Philadelphians do their own “self-studies,’ to keep stirring the pot — and to be empowered by the process.

Katharine Greider is a journalist and the author of The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side, among other books.

Tags: philadelphiaarts and culturerace