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Grand Designs

A community arts center in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood makes ambitious plans for a rebirth

by Molly Eadie on November 20, 2013


GSCA, photo by Molly Eadie

Stanley Oliver spun on the floor and stood on his hands, break dancing, at St. Anthony’s Church on Grand Street. This was on a recent Saturday (Nov. 9), and it was only 3 PM—not a usual time for a Saturday dance party, but DJ Trumastr and Oddygato were spinning beats and beams of green, purple and blue light were running through the old church. Families with small children, teens and adults were all dancing in front of the former altar. “He’s on our board of directors,” says Edwards Grimes-Carrion, executive director of the Grand Street Community Arts, laughing.

This was one of the “guerrilla events” the GSCA was holding to support its fund-raising campaign on a crowdfunding website, Indiegogo. The group is trying to raise $45,000 to fix the building—including the roof, floors and heating systems—so the organization can reopen its doors.

The building, on the corner of Madison Avenue and Grand Street, was built in 1907 to serve the Italian Roman Catholic community. Even then, it was something of a community arts center: It hosted musical performances and instructional classes, and the basement served as a rehearsal space for operettas. The church closed in 1972, after the construction of the Empire State Plaza wiped out parishioners’ homes in the South End, and later it served as a theater for two seasons in the 1990s.

In 2004, a non-for-profit community organization, Mansion Community Arts, Inc., bought the building at the suggestion of Gabby Becker, whose parents, Larry and Ellen Becker, are still on the board. The group became Grand Street Community Arts, aiming to “bridge the cultural and economic divides in the neighborhood,” according to the organization’s website.

The condition of the building hasn’t hindered the group’s sky-high dreams. They have plans to expand and strengthen their existing programs, like Youth Organics, Kids Club and the award-winning film program Youth FX; they’ve also just applied for a Low Power FM license.

Programs like these bring opportunities and activities to the Grand Street neighborhood and South End—areas which, while rich in diversity, history and community, struggle with poverty and crime.

“You’ve got a lot of people who are renters and living on really, really low income, and it’s really easy to feel like you’re kind of nothing when you’re poor,” says Grimes-Carrion. “If you can give people something to have pride in, that only helps.”

Grimes-Carrion says he’s focused on having a few very strong programs rather than a multitude of weaker ones. Most of the programs already offered have not only been successful, but multidimensional, reaping rewards and benefits for different groups and in different ways. The Youth Organics program uses urban and sustainable gardening methods to get kids involved with beautifying their neighborhood, while learning about photosynthesis, pollination, and expanding their interest in science. In the future, GSCA would like to bring in a master gardener, teach organic gardening methods and cover Grand Street in flowers from beginning to end.

“All those trees you see, with dried weeds—we’ll be planting flowers all around them,” says Grimes-Carrion.

Bhawin Suchak directs the Youth FX program, teaching youth ages 14 to 18 how to make documentary and short narrative films. Youth FX projects have been featured in (and won awards at) the Ballston Spa Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, PBS Project VoiceScape, WMHT’s TVFilm program, Proctors’ Media Arts Festival, and more. When it started six years ago, Darian Henry, Majestic Tillman and Rashid Howel were 14 and 15 years old, and Suchak, their then-teacher at the Free School, got them involved in the six-week summer program.

“We make films based around things we don’t see on TV,” says Henry, “where you have teenagers or a group of people from different backgrounds coming together and expressing themselves.”

Henry’s documentary Tyler tells the story of Tyler Rhodes, a 17-year-old from Albany who was stabbed to death during a fight at a city park, and discusses ways to end that violence through the voices of young people in the community.

“The boundaries of what Youth FX is doing are stretching as these guys do their own independent work,” says Suchak, pointing out that those three students have gone on to make their own projects, do work at Troy’s Sanctuary of Independent Media and Albany High School, and more. “They’re doing stuff with film I don’t even know about,” says Suchak.

The newest program that could be coming to GSCA would give the community a voice on the Albany airwaves. Barbara Spring, who is on the board of directors, recently sent in the application for an FCC license for the Low Power FM station, and is hopeful.

“This would be one more tool to educate [on social-justice issues], and hopefully be a strong voice for this area and this community, and we anticipate sharing that resource with all the other organizations that work down here and the broader community,” says Spring. “We have the space, and it fits with the mission—so let us have it.”

William and Chris Medina's sculpture at GSCA, photo by Molly Eadie

In the middle of the church, near the entrance, is a trail of rubble. It is separated from the party with yellow caution tape, and covered up with a black tarp. Green paint is drizzled on top, the first sign that this isn’t just a pile of garbage. Atop the pile sits a blue chair, like a makeshift throne, and a stick with a heart with wings and hands—a majestic scene erupting from the rubble. William Medina and his son Chris, the artists behind the sculpture, came up from New Jersey to work on the piece; it began as remnants from a demolition in July, when the group filled up the dumpster it had rented and had rubble left over.

“It’s still going to be removed,” says Grimes-Carrion, “but it represents what we are. We are coming up from the ashes. It’s like a rebirth.”

After the organization was in a lull for a while—not having enough funding, and with only two board members—five new members were voted onto the board earlier this year.

“We’ve been really taking the past eight months to strategically plan how to get Grand Street back on its feet,” says Grimes-Carrion. “This is a great leap forward starting our movement–our Renaissance, our golden age.”

The board is looking to make the building self-sufficient, for what would be the first time. They’d like to see the basement functioning as a space to be rented out to local artists, or available for community group meetings, performances and rehearsals. Grimes-Carrion is creating a membership system, which would help lock in donations but also provide perks for members, based on different levels, and bring more people to participate in the arts center.

“We’re really dedicated and in for the long haul,” says president Victoria Kereszi, who joined the group in July. “We know this building can’t be fixed overnight. We’ve embraced taking baby steps, and constantly trying to figure out ways to fundraise for the next five years or so.”

While fundraising, the group will continue to operate. The members are planning Be Quiet, a project in January that will celebrate winter and the cold, through expression. The goal is to get as many people involved as possible—to show art, perform, create and participate—from the schools, colleges and universities and other organizations in the community.

Once the major fixes are done, they would like to add a ramp to make it more accessible, then burnish the building’s aesthetics, and add signage. “But we can worry about that later,” says Grimes-Carrion. “Now we’re just trying to make a home a home.”

The board of directors knows that the neighborhood is just that—a home—and wants to make sure their organization fits in with that home. They are forming a community advisory board, to stay focused on what’s doing what’s right for the community without alienating the residents.

“We don’t want to isolate the community,” says Grimes-Carrion. “It’s about bringing the community to Albany. We want this community to be known and celebrated throughout Albany for what it has—and not just this building.”