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Welcome to Urban By Design Online! This blog is a notebook of my travels as a city planner, historic preservationist and nonprofit advocate. It's a virtual collection of the many things that I adore, featuring cities, the arts, architecture, gardens, interior design, and retail. Enjoy! - Deena
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Entries in La MaMa (1)

Monday
Jul182011

Fourth Arts Block: Manhattan's Only Cultural District

 

La MaMa Annex at 66-68 East Fourth Street.

Over the past several months, I had the opportunity to participate in a special series of walking tours, hosted by Open House New York (OHNY).  The first tour was led by Tamara Greenfield, the Executive Director of the Fourth Arts Block (FAB). FAB is a nonprofit organization that is leading the development of the East 4th Street Cultural District in the East Village, located between the Bowery and Second Avenue. As Manhattan’s only designated cultural district, it is home to more than a dozen arts groups, 10 cultural facilities and 17 performance and rehearsal venues.  

In the 1950’s, East Fourth Street was slated for urban renewal. Robert Moses, New York’s most powerful city planner in history, wanted to build a high-rise housing complex for the middle-class.  If the plan had been approved, 11 blocks of buildings in the East Village, and Lower East Side would have been demolished.  The Cooper Square Committee, a group of concerned residents and business owners, defeated the plan, sparing the community from destruction.

During the early stages of the urban renewal plan, the city acquired several buildings by eminent domain.  In the 1960’s, the city leased the vacant spaces to arts groups.  In 1969, one of the first organizations to take up residence on the block was La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. La MaMa was founded by the late Ellen Stewart, a fashion designer, and one of the pioneers in the off-off Broadway movement.  Today, the theatre continues to nurture the talents of playwrights from around the world. 

In January 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that six buildings formerly owned by the City were sold to cultural organizations that make up the Fourth Arts Block for $1. The existing tenants and cultural arts organizations renovated and refurbished the buildings sites with a $4 million contribution from the City.

Two cultural institutions graciously opened their doors to allow the OHNY tour group to see their facilities.  The first stop was at La MaMa's Annex at 66-68 East Fourth Street.  La MaMa acquired the building in 2005.  The site’s artistic roots are quite substantial, as the first Yiddish theatrical production in America called “The Witch” was staged there in 1882.  Today La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre and Archives, and the Millennium Film Workshop both occupy space within the building.

While visiting the La MaMa Annex, I noticed the photos of many now-famous actors, adorning the lobby’s walls.  Those who have appeared in past La MaMa productions have included  Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Nick Nolte, and Diane Lane.   A long-time member of the company spoke with the assembled group about her experiences as an actress.  She also shared lively anecdotes about the theater’s founder, and its evolution from humble café beginnings, to worldwide acclaim.

The second and final stop was to the Duo Multicultural Arts Center at 62 East 4th Street. Originally, the building housed a social hall in 1889 and “once hosted meetings by John Philip Sousa as he established the first musicians union in NYC as well as the early International Ladies Garment Workers Union organizational meetings.”   During the visit, we were shown the operetta scene featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, which was filmed at the theater.  The tour concluded at the center’s upper level, where an exhibition of work by up-and-coming artist Alex Masket, is currently on view. 

Overall the visit to the East Fourth Cultural District was quite enjoyable.  Hopefully one day I will join the 200,000 annual theater-goers and take in a show on the FAB.

The New York Theater Workshop moved to the block in 1992. They purchased 79 and 83 East Fourth Street.


East Fourth Street is home to many small retailers.

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