It's about time to create an Uptown Theatre District in Spanish Harlem
By Eugene Rodriguez
Hey Mr. Mayor, what about us? While everybody is talking about saving the economy of the nation let us not forget (NYC's) El Barrio! As the president has said, “We should work to turn this national disaster into an opportunity to fix our economy.” And the economy of East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, El Barrio surely needs fixing.
Hard times are upon us again, but truth be told, hard times never left El Barrio. Good jobs have always been few and far between in East Harlem. Businesses have always lived on the edge of disaster, and families have always struggled to survive here. The fact of the matter is that the last recession never left Spanish Harlem, and now we are faced with “Great Depression.” And, as a long term resident of EL Barrio, I can tell you that nobody is coming to El Barrio to build wind mills, or solar panels, or fuel efficient cars. So, what’s left for us to do that will give our local economy an economic jolt? I respectfully submit that now is the time to create an Uptown Theatre District in Spanish Harlem.
In December of 2004, Richard Schwartz, in an article entitled “City’s economy is getting Artsy!” said, that the “Key to the city’s future is ICE; which stands for all things Intellectual, Cultural, and Educational.” In the city’s economy of 2004, ICE had grown by 30% to 485,000 jobs; while FIRE, which stands for Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate, had shrunk by 506,000 jobs, and that was before the current fiscal crisis! In addition, New York City is the biggest theatre town in the world. So, what better business is there in New York than “show business,” which is inherently intellectual, cultural, and educational.
What needs to be done to get our theatres up and running and acting in concert, is to create an entity whose sole mission is to rent, refurbish, program, and develop an audience for all the theatres in East Harlem. Lost somewhere in the labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape in City hall, is a project called The El Barrio Theatre Development Fund, ELBA for short, is a Not-For-Profit Public Service Corporation tasked to create a cultural tourism destination of national importance in East Harlem. It’s the most “shovel ready” project available to jolt the economy of Spanish Harlem! She can be up and running in three months and operate on her own within five years.
And, El Barrio is an ideal place to create an Uptown Theatre District. There are currently 4 underutilized Off-Off Broadway Theatres in El Barrio that are basically White Elephants. Two of them are owned by the City. They look good, but aren’t used for anything productive. These valuable community assets are closed most of the time, offer no regular programming, and generate no income for their owners, the cities economy, or the local theatre artists who would be glad to inhabit them.
Simply put, if our Theatres weren’t being rented during good times, it is pure wishful thinking to believe that they will be rented during the coming bad times. The theatres of El Barrio are in fact stuck on the horns of a dilemma. The people who have the money to rent our theatres, don’t want to work in them, and the people who would love to work in them can’t afford to rent our theatres! Something clearly has to change.
The 4 theatres have a seating capacity of about 1,150. Operating at just 50% of capacity over 5 days a week, they can attract around 134,000 visitors to the community yearly, generate over $3 million in ticket sales, and employ almost 200 part time artists and technicians. The economic ripple effect from the District, generally estimated at $4 for every $1 spent in the theatre, means that an operating uptown theatre district will generate over $13 million in additional spending yearly!
We estimate that for a total investment of $2.5 million in UMEZ funds over a 5 year period, ELBA will leverage more than $35 million in loans, grants, and private investment from City, State, and private sources to create, manage and solidify a Latino Theatre District in El Barrio. Over the initial 5 year incubation period, ELBA will generate $15 million in ticket sales, and pump $65 million into the local economy. A return on investment of more than $8.50 for every dollar invested, and that’s just for the first 5 years of operation of a project that will continue to operate an grow on it’s own in the foreseeable future. How long has Broadway been in operation? How about Off Broadway?
ELBA is a project whose time has come. It is designed to create a uniquely Latino Theatre District in Spanish Harlem that can change the basic economics of the community. It will create a theatre district that will be the most significant Latino cultural project since the creation of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. A theatre district that can bridge the East River and bring life to the underutilized theatres in the Bronx. A theatre district that insures that the road to Broadway for Latinos passes through East Harlem. If somebody can come up with a better economic development plan for East Harlem, I would love to hear it.
Clearly, to mitigate the economic disaster we as a community now face, we must change the basic fundamentals of our economy. We must try something we have never tried before. Something new, something unique to our community, something we can do right now that doesn’t cost a lot to start up, but generates a significant amount of long term revenue for local businesses. Why not create an Uptown Theatre District in the heart of the Theatre Capitol of the world?
Eugene Rodriguez is a contributing writer.