An empty firehouse, wedged between a shoe store and a clinic on East 125th Street, wears its past: chipping red paint, collapsing ceilings, dusty carvings and rusted gates.
The 224-year-old building inspired a bout of community nostalgia when fire department budget woes forced its shutdown nine years ago. But in 15 months, if Marta Vega’s plans materialize, the firehouse will be reborn as the new home of the Caribbean Culture Center African Diaspora Institute. A glass projection screen will replace the rusted door; mosaics will cover its walls and an ocean-themed lounge and café will open on its first floor.
The firehouse redevelopment project will allow the institute, which curates research, art, exhibitions and conferences, to move closer to the people its serves. “When we moved to West 58th Street 22 years ago, it was very different,” Vega says. “Now, it’s rich,” and East Harlem seems more hospitable.
Firehouse Engine 36 became available in 2008 when the Bloomberg administration decided to turn historic firehouses into cultural centers. The institute and eight other organizations vied for development rights; the institute won.
With project managers Denham Wolf and architects CSA, it’s now working to integrate the three-story firehouse’s original charm with performance spaces, conferences rooms, exhibition areas and a Story Corps-style recording station. “We’re looking at different designs that tell the people that this is their home,” says Vega.
In a neighborhood that’s “threatened with gentrification,” she adds, “we want to focus on issues that are generally not included: Who are our artists? Who are our heroes? What are our aesthetic perceptions?”
Her team, which has hopped from one government agency to another, sketches and PowerPoints in tow, got the green light from Community Board 11 earlier this month. Before the unanimous vote, cultural affairs chair Yma Barbara Rodriquez insisted that the Institute reserve one-third of its construction jobs for East Harlem residents. “I think they will serve the community well,” Rodriquez says.
The project will cost $5.2 million. “Roughly $1 million came from the city, another $1.5 million came from the state and the rest is coming through private foundations,” Vega says. Of the private funds, $70,000 for the firehouse’s façade came from a social media contest sponsored by the National Trust of Historic Preservation and American Express.
The contest led the institute to turn to Twitter and Facebook. “We’re trying to keep in touch with the community and get them excited,” says special projects and social media consultant Regina Bultron Bengoa, adding that the institute’s Twitter following has reached 4,700.
Clark Pena, an activist, businessman and former member of Community Board 11, is optimistic. “It’s a great idea to convert the firehouse into a community center,” he says. “People come here for good restaurants, housing, bars and lounges. Why not come here for an arts space?”