By Mike Fitelson. Reprinted from The Manhattan Times.
When the Manhattan Times helped co-found the Uptown Arts Stroll in 2003, one of the goals was to create a larger stage upon which to showcase our local artists — and Northern Manhattan itself.
At its core, the Stroll uses artistic expression to connect local residents with local places, since most of the art happenings occur in venues that are not traditional centers of artistic expression.
Nine years ago Washington Heights and Inwood had not yet earned their status as emerging artistic communities; the artists were still largely disconnected from each other; their creativity was not seen as an expression of what was happening in the surrounding community.
Now dozens of local visual and performing artists often save up their best work to present during June, offering a collective snapshot of the character, concerns, and questions about what it’s like to live in our corner of this metropolis.
Consider how some of the entries from of this year’s Stroll calendar are quintessentially Northern Manhattan: A solo performance of the Pulitzer Prize–winning story about an overweight Dominican boy and the curse that has followed his family from the D.R. to America. A “pop-up bookstore” in a vacant storefront selling all manner of English and Spanish literature. A tour of barber shops and hair salons that blends performance art and public intervention.
(The entire Uptown Arts Stroll schedule can be found in the guide inserted in this week’s Manhattan Times or online at www.artstroll.com. The Manhattan Times will also publish updates to the calendar every week through June.)
Somewhat conspicuously, this year the Stroll schedule has been filled with more performing arts events than before.
“It’s like there is something in the air,” said Sandra Garcia-Bettancourt, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, which has produced the Stroll every year since the nonprofit was founded in 2007. “All of a sudden all these groups want to do performing arts, people want to see more theater. It is almost like it is on demand.”
The three Stroll honorees NoMAA selected this year reflect the more prominent role the performing arts have taken.
They include Gina Crusco, founder of Underworld Production Opera which uses alternative approaches to opera to win contemporary audiences, such as the May 22 presentation of a one-act opera set to the Senate confirmation hearing, and sexual harassment allegation, against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas; Rashaad Ernesto Green, a filmmaker whose works include “Premature” currently airing on HBO and “Gun Hill Road,” which was selected for the 2010 Tribeca All Access Program; and Manny Perez, star of films such as “Washington Heights” and “La Soga” and actor on the TV shows “Third Watch” and “Rescue Me.”
Crusco, Green, and Perez will be honored during the Stroll kick-off on June 2.
Another area of growth this year is the number of partnering organizations, each one blending its unique talents and visions to the Stroll’s sancocho-stew of flavors.
For the first time in its 12-year history, the summer’s biggest event uptown — Carnaval del Boulevard — is being held in June instead of July to cross pollinate its celebration of neighborhood pride with the creative presentations of local artists. The festival will shut down St. Nicholas Avenue from W. 181st to W. 188th Streets on Sat., June 4 as the Juan Pablo Duarte Foundation hosts stages to showcase both national and local talent, presents dozens of children’s activities, and invites vendors to sell their specialty goods and services. NoMAA, partnering with the Washington Heights Business Improvement District, will have a block devoted to local performing and visual artists and family-oriented arts and crafts activities. (Yours truly will also set up a photo booth and make portraits of passersby as part of a new community art project.)
Another key partner with this year’s Stroll is the Bago Bunch, a collection of local performing and video artists who taped public service announcements with local notables to help spread the word about the Stroll.
The Bago Bunch, as well as several other groups, are also co-sponsoring one of the most talked about events on the Stroll schedule.
On Sat., June 11, two stage productions adapted from noteworthy books will be presented at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. At 5 p.m. is Elvis Nolasco’s one-man performance of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Then at 7:30 p.m. is “Down These Mean Streets,” adapted from Piri Thomas’ 1967 memoir. While most of the events on the Stroll are free, these performances cost $25 for each show or $40 for both.
Another characteristic of this year’s Stroll is that more artists and groups are presenting work that pushes the boundaries of where art is supposed to be found.
Growing out of a conversation about a need to better promote Northern Manhattan’s growing literary community, Veronica Liu, a writer and DJ on Washington Heights Free Radio, helped organize what is being billed as a “Pop-up Bookstore” in an empty storefront from June 14 to 20 at 3855 Broadway at W. 161st Street. The vacant property, with the help of the landlord Vantage Properties, will be filled with printed material — books, manuscripts, comic books, poetry, prints, posters — created by local authors and artists. All of it will be for sale.
“The uptown literary community has been recognizing itself more and more each year … but space-wise it’s still a bit scattered,” said Liu, who has coordinated small press fairs in Manhattan Valley that have become so well attended that earlier this month the cops showed up “because it seemed suspicious that so many people were” at a book fair. “I know there’s a vibrant online community [uptown], which is great and keeping people reading and engaging. But it would also be great to have a multi-language, general-interest bookstore in the neighborhood that could serve the needs of as much of the uptown population as possible.”
The organizers are looking for volunteers to help, from donating furniture for the week to promoting and staffing the shop. Email info[at]fractiouspress.com to learn more.
A highlight of each year’s Stroll is the annual day of open studios, which this year will fall on Sun., June 12, and features 19 stops and an opening reception at the Rio Gallery.
The day will also include another one of performance artist Hector Canonge’s “is it real life or is it art?” explorations.
His “Hairtalk: On Kinky Curls and Baldy Looks” features six stops at hair salons and barber shops in Inwood, which Canonge declares “the hair capital of NYC.” At each stop he will facilitate discussions between visitors, employees, and customers about the role hair plays in the community.
“[Hairtalk] brings up certain issues that relate to our community and gender identity,” Canonge said. “[The shops] serve the purpose of the beautification of people, but you’re not just going, doing your hair, there is always this political and social aspect of it as well.”
Most of the artists who are part of the Stroll will present their work in non-traditional venues, such as Northern Manhattan’s small businesses and outdoor spaces. They know that besides the opportunity to showcase their work, they are also helping to foster a greater sense of community and introduce more visitors to the richness of Northern Manhattan.
“The Stroll means that publicly, the community and artists are in a way being expanded to other populations. We are opening up Northern Manhattan — things are happening here,” Canonge said. “Come and visit our studios. Visit the restaurants where art is displayed. Northern Manhattan is not just the far away place where people sleep.”