Farewell Fiesta for Community Center


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El Taller Latino Americano prepares to move from its longtime home on W. 104th St.


  • In its final days at its 20-year-home on West 104th Street, El Taller Latino Americano community center sells some of its paintings to make room for a smaller space. Photo by Oliver Morrison

Upper West Side After a long, contentious and ultimately unsuccessful battle to prevent its rent from rising, El Taller Latino Americano (The Latin American Workshop) held its moving party last Saturday at its old space on 104th and Broadway. But for a moving party, the community center staff and community members did very little moving. Instead, they ate empanadas, drank wine and drew on the walls, as Latin music filled the air, one last time.

“For normal people we should be packing everything,” said Bernardo Palombo, the founder and soul of El Taller. “But we decided to put more art out and to make more music and to keep on doing what we do until we have to leave next, next Friday. Which is less than a week.”

The landlord raised its rent this year, despite the center’s 20-year history in the space and letters from local politicians and community members hoping to keep El Taller in its current home.

“It’s the same thing that’s happening all over the city,” Palombo said. “The little business, the independent businesses that are not part of a corporation have to move to some other place. There are less places where people can sit down and be human and not be texting or have to pay $250 to listen to opera.”

Instead of continuing the fight, he decided to hold a series of 35 concerts over the last six months to commemorate El Taller’s 35th anniversary. During one of the concerts the children started writing on one of the walls and it has since become covered with drawings and messages.

“Before leaving we are going to cover the space with our history,” Palombo said.

This was the final celebration and the walls were filled with paintings that El Taller would no longer have room for, as supporters and volunteers wandered in between its classrooms, recording studios and the empty gallery that has served as space for dance classes and experimental music concerts.

The sense of loss emanated from Nichiren—“I like to be called Nicky: I just learned how to spell my actual name”—Palombo, Bernardo’s daughter, a fourth grader.

“I grew up here, I don’t know any other spaces,” Nicky said. “I shared a room with my mom where I had all my games. It’s going to be sad.”

For her, the space is filled with memories about to slip away, of salsa music while she did her homework, the sounds of Spanish classes as she played on the computer. And then during summer, the snack that she ate between art and music classes with kids from the neighborhood.

But her favorite memory is when she fell asleep and woke up all alone. “I was still really tired,” she said, “You know when you’re more tired than when you went to sleep.” She was scared at first, but then realized that the noise she heard was Latin music coming from the room next door.

It was one of the many hundreds of concerts in El Taller. She wasn’t around for the time David Bryne or Pete Seeger played at El Taller and wouldn’t have noticed in any case if she had been there for Phillip Glass. But she said the concerts were always her favorite.

“It’s nice to lie down on my mom’s massage table or the sofa we have here,” Nicky said, as she pointed to a nook nearby. “It’s nice to listen to music and lie down and try to go to sleep if it’s not too loud.”

The center has received a grant from the national endowment of the arts to create a digital archive of its long musical history. The heart of the space is the music and art, Paolombo says, but they pay their bills by teaching Spanish, not only in their own space, but in schools and hospitals.

The ten years of Nicky’s life are, in some ways, emblematic of the way her father has tried to celebrate Latin culture within the context of New York—trying to pay homage to his Argentinian roots, while at the same time stay centered in New York.

“Our history is a cross-history. It’s not a Latin place,” Bernardo said. “We are a Latin-American place; it’s a culture of the Latin people living in New York.”

Bernardo speaks to Nicky in Spanish and she replies in English. Halloween is coming up and she tells me that in Argentina they don’t really celebrate Halloween. “It’s more like a festival where everyone dresses up,” Nicky said. “And my dad dresses up as a pirate.”

“How come that picture is only $25?” Nicky asks her dad at one point.

“We have too many to take with us,” he replies.

“Oh,” she says; her shoulders sink just a bit.

She doesn’t have a favorite painting; they’re all where they’re supposed to be. “A lot of people just come here and paint,” Nicky said. “They paint pictures and then give it to us.”

This is El Taller’s fourth move since it was founded, but the first in 20 years. In the ‘80s up to the mid-’90s, El Taller was located twice in Chelsea and once on the Lower East Side. Its latest move will take them to the Upper East Side in a space that is being retrofitted for them, in a building that was designed to house artists and needed an artistic non-profit that fit into the community.

“It is kind of a tragedy for most of us,” Bernardo said. “Is also an opportunity to go to a much more congenial space in a place where you are part of something—a cultural renaissance in El Barrio of Spanish Harlem.”

But for the next few months, El Taller will be based out of a church just a few blocks from their current space. Nicky hasn’t been to El Taller’s next home in the basement of the old P.S. 109, where 35,000 people have applied for 89 artists’ apartments. But she has been to the church on 99th Street where El Taller will live temporarily for at least the next four or five months.

“It’s small,” Nicky said. “It’s not really underground but you go down three stairs...it’s going to be hard to fit an office.”

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