Cultural touchstone fighting to stay on the Upper West Side

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

Celebrating 35th anniversary, El Taller Latino Americano facing a steep rent hike

El Taller Latino Americano - The Latin American Workshop - has thrived for the past two decades on the Upper West Side, at Broadway and West 104th Street. El Taller (tie-year) offers Spanish and English language lessons, dance, art and music classes, and is an art gallery and venue for community events. El Taller also puts on live shows that have drawn musicians like Pete Seeger and David Byrne over the years.

But El Taller's lease expires at the end of July 2014, and the building's owner, Prana Investments, said they plan to raise rents by $10,000, which Palombo said they can't afford.

"We're not [just] a Latin place, the whole idea of us is to have an open space so the cultures meet and create and recreate," said founder Bernardo Palombo. "We're Latin - that's American. Places like this are disappearing."

An effort to convince Prana not to raise the rent, and to find revenue elsewhere, has been mounted by El Taller and the community. Palombo has enlisted the support of Upper West Side Council Member and Manhattan Borough President-elect Gale Brewer, as well as incoming Upper West Side Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine.

"There aren't many places like that on the West Side. I've been going in and out of that building as long as El Taller has been there," said Brewer. "It's a really special place, it's almost like a landmark in terms of an institution, it's so special, and it would be a crime to have it not able to remain in our community."

Brewer's office is calling and sending a letter to Prana imploring them to reconsider the new rate. "We'll push the owner as hard as we can," said Brewer. "They need a lease they can afford."

Prana could not be reached for comment.

El Taller initiated a petition on that has 650 signatures as of this writing that they plan to send to Prana. "While legally, you have the right to set the terms of any lease agreement with a tenant, the proposed lease increase deprives the community of an organization that has been creating value through art, music and dialogue for over 35 years," says the petition. "A place that, in the words of Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, 'offers education, music, art and services that benefit more than 200,000 people each and every year.'"

El Taller's Program Director Anthony Cody said the the workshop functions as a window between cultures on the Upper West Side. "This is a place where people can come together and have dialogue, so that's really the loss, that lack of connection where instead everyone is very provincial in their little circle of what they do with their daily routine," said Cody. "Without [El Taller], that interaction isn't happening."

Cody said El Taller is considering opening in another location north of the Upper West Side if Prana doesn't change its mind.

For the El Taller community, the rent hike is another consequence of gentrification in an area that's certainly seen its share. In 2012, Brewer's office passed legislation that made a "mom and pop zone" to help protect small, independent businesses on Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue.

"I wish I was able to do the same on Broadway but I wasn't able to," said Brewer. "El Taller should stay as is and the owner should work out a lease arrangement with them."

Palombo sees El Taller's struggle to maintain their space as the classic trope of a small village against the land-hungry cattle rancher, and sees the problem of gentrification as a characteristic of the city.

"Business used to be a humane activity," said Palombo. "Right now, what's happening to us is happening all over in Manhattan."

Program director Anthony Cody said El Taller has actually followed the gentrification of Manhattan in a physical sense, from being located on the Lower East Side, then midtown and Chelsea, and is now facing the prospect of having to move out of their home of 19 years on the Upper West Side.

"This is the history of immigrants," said Palombo. "The immigrants never have a place to stay. It's crazy, the nature of this city and this country, this country of immigrants."