Art / Education

Legendary community center grows up

Photo by Monica Johnson

Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education on Simpson St. reopened in 2010 after extensive renovations.

You can’t miss Casita Maria. Architecturally speaking, it stands out. It’s big. It’s colorful.

The new Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education at 928 Simpson Street is not only easy to spot; it’s easy to find a reason to visit.

This is precisely the impact Casita Maria had hoped for when the New York City Department of Education proposed a multi-million dollar partnership in which the city built the community center’s new home on land owned by Casita Maria.

Now, with access to six floors and 90,000 square feet, the 76-year old community center devoted to helping the Hispanic community, has something many non-profits only dream of: tons of space.

Casita Maria shares the new building with the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists, a public magnet school and the reason the Department of Education footed the bill for the new construction. Its students can be found throughout the first five floors during regular school hours.

On a typical weekday, the ground floor gymnasium is full of activity, as kids from grades 6-10 spend pent-up energy running noisily around in gym class and recess.

On performance nights, however, the gymnasium is transformed.

Basketballs and jump ropes are packed away. Up to 400 seats can be arranged on the gym floor, all pointing towards the new 32-foot stage. Audiences find themselves treated to free performances that before the new building was completed would have required travel to Lehman Center for the Performing Arts or to Manhattan.

Last spring, for example, Mexican-American singer Lila Downs played to a sold-out crowd. With an ensemble of seven musicians, she sang original songs and invited the audience to join her in singing traditional Mexican folk songs.

Ariana Hellerman, an avid concertgoer and former volunteer at The Point, called the concert “really amazing,” adding, “It felt like a community event, and I thought that was really nice.”
Downs’ performance was part of a partnership with Carnegie Hall called Community Sing, and is one of several new partnerships the building has made possible.

The Artist-in-Residence program was initiated in 2009. Because of the increased space, it is able to host not just one artist, but an entire company of artists. Dancing in the Streets–a non-profit organization that produces public dance programs–will be Casita Maria’s Company-in-Residence for 2011.

In addition to using Casita Maria’s new dance studio as rehearsal space, Dancing in the Streets plans to host a block party in Hunts Point in July. School groups and the general public will be encouraged to participate in many outdoor activities, including a cipher–a kind of dancing made popular by hip-hop in which a circle forms and individual dancers move to the center, taking turns to show their moves.

Unique to the sixth-floor gallery is Xico, the 10-foot-tall dog. A permanent fixture of the gallery, the canine sculpture was created by Mexican illustrator, Cristina Pineda. It was donated to Casita Maria as a symbol of communion between cultures.

Because of the gallery, Casita Maria has been able to partner with the Scholastic Art Awards, the longest-running and most prestigious art awards program for teens in the country. For one month every spring, the gallery will showcase hundreds of award-winning artworks by creative teens from the New York City area.

Also in the spring, Casita Maria will partner with The Point to curate an exhibition in the gallery.

“A really big part of Casita Maria is partnerships,” says Lyla Rose, Visual Performing and Literary Arts Manager for Casita Maria.

The facilities are also available for rent to other non-profits and for private parties. Says Development Director David Dean, “We see this as a shared community resource.”

Marta Rivera, director of programs, who has been on staff for 28 years, says the new building is like a dream come true.

“Throughout the years we had been talking and planning about this new building, but I never thought it would be done in my lifetime,” she says.

A version of this story appears in the March 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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