By Erica Varlese. Reprinted from The Manhattan Times.
They came to perform at the open mic armed with silky smooth voices and staccato chants, the wit of street-level rap and folksy poetic musings, six-string guitars and even a trombone. They also came to tie a big festive bow around this year’s edition of the Uptown Arts Stroll, Northern Manhattan’s ninth annual arts festival.On Mon., June 27, those involved with this year’s Uptown Arts Stroll celebrated their success with a closing reception at Apt. 78, a lounge that is turning into a beacon for the arts on Broadway near W. 191st Street. Guests lingered around the food, sipped drinks from the bar, and chit chatted about the 114 events that took place throughout June.
“I feel so happy about what happened this year in our community,” said Sandra Garcia-Betancourt, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), as she stepped up to the microphone to give a closing speech. NoMAA has been the Stroll’s primary organizer since the organization was formed in 2007. Garcia-Betancourt later compared this year’s events to a blossoming of a new type of community. “It [the Stroll] is becoming an institution.”
Artists who had participated in the Stroll discussed future events with their peers. Artist Andrea Arroyo spoke with Susan Schear and Maureen Vanacore from Artisin consulting about ways for artists to improve their income and sales. The firm has worked with NoMAA on its membership campaign for the past year.
One of the Stroll’s highlights reiterated by Vanacore and Shear, as well as others present, was the diversity of participants and attendees it attracts.
“A lot of arts organizations look for this kind of involvement with the community,” Vanacore said, speaking of the partnerships NoMAA and the Manhattan Times, which co-founded the Stroll in 2003, have forged with local businesses like Apt. 78.
Shear agreed, adding, “Any event NoMAA does attracts people of every age and every ethnicity.”
But the Stroll, as the community’s largest artistic showcase, also benefits from collaboration with other local institutions, such as the Juan Pablo Duarte Foundation, the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, and Washington Heights & Inwood Online. Many Stroll events this year also seemed to enjoy the added vitality introduced by new partnerships with The Bago Bunch special events organizers and the Uptown Collective blog.
To give an idea of how much the Stroll has attracted a new audience, by one count of the 75 or so people who attended the closing, only six had played a role in the creation of the first Stroll when it was only a one-day affair: City Council Member Robert Jackson, Community Board 12 member and NoMAA president Zead Ramadan, Jackson aide and quintessential uptown booster Martin Collins, WaHI Online founder Eduardo Gomez, and Manhattan Times associate publisher Mike Fitelson.
But at its core, that’s the role of the Stroll: to build community.
“[NoMAA] did a fantastic job of bringing artists together. You see so many artists participate and see the whole community get involved. That, to me, is very unique,” artist Andrea Arroyo said. This is the third year Arroyo, a Mexican-born artist, has participated in the Stroll.
Wayne Young, another Northern Manhattan-based artist, was most excited about the Uptown Arts Stroll’s ability to bring people together. This year, he participated in both the Open Studios and Blooming Arts Festival. Laughing, he explained that he transformed his own kitchen into a gallery for the Open Studios event and had neighbors coming in that did not know each other. “Art can really bring people together,” Young said. “[And] that’s what I wanted, to connect with artists in my community, to do what’s going on downtown up here [in Washington Heights].”
The Stroll, which attracted thousands of visitors, is making Northern Manhattan neighborhoods the envy of the rest of the city, Ramadan said. Among the many goals of the Stroll is to foster economic development and a greater sense of pride in Northern Manhattan.
“[The Arts Stroll] is not for gentrification,” Ramadan said in a short speech at the closing, “but for uplifting ourselves and our community.”
Underscoring the direct connection between the community’s artistic happenings and economic development, the closing reception itself was co-sponsored by State Farm agent and Washington Heights native Julio Tejada.
NoMAA members are looking forward to the prospects for next year, which will be the 10th anniversary of the Uptown Arts Stroll. According to Ramadan, they are already looking at the honorees for 2012.
As Betancourt encouraged in her closing remarks, it’s already time for the audience and artists to start thinking about the upcoming Stroll of 2012. For the dedicated volunteers of the Uptown Arts Stroll, the work has already begun.