Hispanic Heritage Month: New Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute to Open in East Harlem

With gentrification rapidly transforming East Harlem, a new cultural center on 125th Street aims to remind people of the neighborhood's importance to the Hispanic community. Our Michael Scotto has the story — as we begin our coverage of Hispanic Heritage Week.

Like much of the city, East Harlem is rapidly changing.

Luxury apartment buildings are springing up everywhere, as are places that cater to a population that is increasingly white.

But on 125th Street inside this old firehouse, a difficult mission is underway, one aimed at preserving the neighborhood's Hispanic character in the face of gentrification.

"If you don't sustain community, you don't sustain family, you don't sustain tradition, then you dehumanize a people, you dehumanize a population," said Marta Moreno-Vega, President of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

The story of this community will be on full display later this month when the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute opens its new home in East Harlem.

The building will house art installations that focus on the importance of home. This dresser depicts spiritual life in a Hispanic household.

"It still persists not only in the elders' homes but in younger people who are seeking spirit," Moreno-Vega said.

Photographs in another room show the past, from the struggle for rights, to the remnants of a hop-scotch game, evidence of the  neighborhood's vibrant street life.

One of the exhibits won't be taking place in the center but rather out here in the streets of East Harlem, where visitors will be encouraged to take out their cell phones and immerse themselves in an augmented reality.

The system — similar to Pokemon Go — isn't up and running yet but when it is, artwork will appear over buildings.

"He might have created a video, he might have created a poem, but something making sure you understand the importance of the place you're looking at," Moreno-Vega said.

The firehouse that's home to this vision was shuttered by the Bloomberg Administration in 2003. Years later, the center won a bid to renovate it, a process that cost $9.3 million in city, state and private money.

Officials there know their mission is a challenging one, as they try to hold on to a neighborhood and educate the new people who are moving in.

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