"The Heart & Soul of El Barrio/East Harlem"
The mission is to brand the community of El Barrio/East Harlem as a vibrant living cultural community with history and were the non-profit sector is equally regarded as a major contributor to the local economy as is the for-profit sector and where arts & culture are valued as engines for economic development and establish an arts & cultural hub where they're stimuli for creating jobs and influencing surrounding communities to do likewise.
La Fortaleza Project was conceived by published poet and former NYS Department of Youth Services, Alberto O. Cappas, with the thought in mind of an organization comprised of vested community investors and neighborhood stakeholders in arts/culture, small business & non-profit sectors, faith leaders and residents. It represents a growing trend in raising progressive social consciousness, re-mapping neighborhoods, defending communities against encroachment, while taking management of its assets and resources.
Puerto Ricans, NYC's predominant Spanish-speaking group since 1900, inherited a neighborhood in decline, East Harlem, and turned it into “EL BARRIO: La Cuna/the Cradle” of its community. "LaFORT" takes what others deem as negatives and re-assesses their value as assets/resources to generate jobs, incorporate youth in cultural maintenance, and to claim El Barrio/East Harlem based on our longevity and contributions with the purpose of reaping its wealth building potential.
Its unincorporated founding board of directors consisted of the Educational Pledge (Alberto O. Cappas), the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation (José Garza), and local P.E.G. Access media organization, AfterDark CATV PRO (Félix Leo Campos). From 2011 to 2012, Kenneth Cole/Columbia U and Colegio Técnico de Mexico helped La Fortaleza survey and map the neighborhood producing a final report and content for a web site with details, photographs, and testimonials. The report is a guide for building community around its rich history and identifying avenues for residents to be gainfully employed and open local retail ownership opportunities.
Noted as a reason for why $484 million in revenue leaves El Barrio/East Harlem are the redundancy of businesses in small areas, i.e. the number of bodegas (convenience stores), barber shops & beauty salons, tattoo parlors, etc. Their work revealed avenues previously thought of as ancillary, but that have great social, cultural, and political importance and are building blocks for sustainable growth, arts/culture & the non-profit sector. They mapped under utilized venues and locations available for performances and exhibitions. Our events take place at these venues. Each venue represents a "parapet" along the perimeter.
Metropolitan Hospital Center
El Barrio's Artspace P.S. 109
Taino Towers (Crystal Ballroom & Tato Laviera Theater)
Mount Sinai Medical Center
NYC School of Medicine
El Museo del Barrio
La Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center
Children's Aid Society East Harlem Center
Furthering the need is a report published by the Harlem Community Development Corporation together with the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation which found that $484 million is spent outside the neighborhood namely for lack of choices, particularly in the cultural, artistic, night life of El Barrio/East Harlem. La Fortaleza recognizes that revitalizing the local economy, its social and cultural (nightlife) Arts & Culture need to step up & play a pivot role.
Art & Cultural Programs:
We have created several art and cultural projects to meet this need.
“El Festival del Libro/Festival of Books” has been a constant since 2013. The project introduces Puerto Rican/Latino authors, writers, poets, and literary organizations can meet & interact with locals, present their work, introduce their publication, provide guidance & tips to both readers & writers as well as make books available for sale. "El Festival" takes place during Indigenous People's Weekend, generally the 2nd week in October and is held on both a school day and weekend.
“HERspanic Achievement Celebration” (May), a personalized aware ceremony where patrons & sponsors choose who to honor. The event features live cultural arts entertainment, dancing, and pan-Latin American cuisine. This is a way of bringing community, friends, & families together as a symbol of the “Village” to promote harmony, unity, and community partnership. We make sure to contract the art community to participate and display their talent at all events, thus pushing the art theme as the carrot to business and economic development.
La Fortaleza has been a vital partner & collaborator is such place-making activities such as the "National Writers Union Virtual Open Mic" series, “The International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival", "Benefit Nights", the "ONE Festival", and others. Our calendar of events is made possible by individual patrons, community organizations, local & corporate businesses, and grants from local government agencies.
We are working directly with the local businesses to provide art space to feature the artwork (prints/posters) of our artists to expose Latino art to a Latino community that has a low attendance record in attending art exhibitions. If space is available, our poets, writers, and artist will have a place to perform, which further enhances consumer traffic. Our plan is to transform the whole designated or target area into a Community Art & Cultural Community Center.
Our quote: “If our community does not go to an art gallery, we will bring the art gallery to the community.”
La Fortaleza has a unique communal approach to economic development. Based on this belief, we have shared our program concepts with other Latino communities in other states and we're working on a calendar of collaborative events & activities that will be hybrid, multi-point, and accessible to the general public as well. For example, a Puerto Rican/Latino group in Buffalo, NY has adopted our concept and is now working on sponsoring similar programs such as “El Festival del Libro”, and the community Latino art gallery. Similarly, we working on joint programs in Philadelphia (Pa), Holyoke (Ma), and several cities in Connecticut as well. This has led to the sharing of ideas both ways, helping each region to enhance and provide better community service.
As an appreciation for our community partnership, the Buffalo Latino Village has offered us a monthly column in their publication. We have a similar partnership in Connecticut and Tennessee.
Our immediate need to continue this vision and concept project is sufficient financial seed money. We plan that within five (5) years, La Fortaleza will be financially independent, and able to fund and support its own programs. We are proud to report that since the development of La Fortaleza in 2012, it has been responsible for retaining a greater portion of the $484 million of lost revenue or income.
Our effort alone has created new consumer traffic with our businesses, and there is more to come.
Photo: Felix Leo Campos