One Year Later: Casita Maria

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

Two ground breaking organizations, Casita Maria and Dancing in the Streets, have teamed up to create a heritage trail in a 12 block radius in the Hunt’s Point neighborhood in the South Bronx that chronicles areas rich history as the home of Latin music and the birthplace of hip hop in the United States.

When I spoke with the organizations last year both were excited to begin working together and to bring in the local community to advise them on the trail’s creation. They wanted to approach the collaboration from a perspective that included and utilized community resources, not approaching the project from an ivory tower. Dancing in the Streets Executive Director Aviva Davidson described the project as a “process of inquiry” and explained, “We are going to create a show in response to what we find out, if it’s a process of inquiry we can’t fail.”

A year later Davidson emphasized that the inquiry process continues and the collaboration to create the trail has been, “A combination of vision and reality,” balancing high expectations with practical concerns. The organizations have held events to launch the trail, established a community advisory board, are organizing a large scale site-specific public art event, and have deepened there understanding of long-term collaboration and, the case of Dancing in the Streets, refined their organizational focus.

The Innovation

The project aims to make visible important sites in Latin music and Hip Hop history, such as clubs and popular addresses for parties and jam sessions, which have been forgotten by history. The first part of the trail focuses on Latin music within a 12-block radius of Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx. Dancing in the Streets will commission two site-specific works focusing on Latin Music in the next year. While Casita Maria has been based in the Bronx since 1961 and is a trusted community institution, Dancing in the Streets is a 28 year old organization with a city-wide focus that moved to the Bronx a year-and-a-half ago. This is the organizations first time working together on a major project.

Progress to Date

In April of 2012, Casita Maria and Dancing in the Streets officially launched the trail along with a community advisory council made up of members from the arts, dance, music and local South Bronx communities and Casita Maria alumni. With the launch of the trail they collected stories from local residents and collaborated with The Moth to hold a storytelling workshop. In June they held a “Bronx culture trolley” tour showcase the initial trail sites. They have increased their capacity by hiring a music director and a community outreach coordinator, who are both from the neighborhood.

Currently they are planning one of the site-specific performances, which they have called a Paseo, or promenade. They are working with artist Joanna Haigood who is creating the piece with prominent local musicians and neighborhood residents. It will include an 11-block promenade led by a Bomba band, performances in stoops and storefronts, and culminate in a salsa party.

Key Lessons

Casita Maria Executive Director Sarah Calderon reflected on the evolving collaboration, remarking, “We’ve discovered there’s an abundance of talent and culture that’s here in the community, and the struggle is how to capture and showcase it all appropriately and how to collaborate with other groups who are also organizing? [Those questions] have informed the way that we’ve been moving throughout.”

The major lessons the two organization have learned so far are:

  • Successful collaboration demands commitment to a shared ultimate goal and a willingness to negotiate: They have found that collaborating on a large, conceptual project is very different than collaborating on a single event and as the project evolves the organizations must negotiate. They make decisions to address the needs and wants of each so the project can move forward. The collaboration has worked because, “We have a commitment to the ultimate goal and we have similar philosophies about how organizations can function in the world, even though our missions are different,” said Calderon.
  • Focus is key to moving the project forward: A targeted area for the trail has been mapped out and Calderon explained that the project often has to be brought back to function within this limitation. It’s a question of “How do we fulfill what we said we were going to do, not go off mission, so that we can accomplish our goals,” she explained.

Shift in Thinking

The lessons the organizations have learned have shifted their thinking about how they present programming. The major shifts that have occurred for both Casita Mari and Dancing the Streets are:

  • Working on the trail has focused the organizations as a whole: Casita Maria had recently launched a presenting programming that felt “haphazard” according to Calderon. The trail has provided a focal point and an opportunity to get community buy-in and community decision-making about what arts programs they will present.
  • Increased commitment to arts, culture and the cultural resources in the Bronx: Dancing in the Streets has been going through a strategic planning process as they work on the trail. Newly based in the Bronx, Davidson found they, “Discovered the richness of the local culture, and made a strategic decision that we are committed to not only be located in the Bronx, but that all of our programs will be related to the Bronx.”

Next Steps

After the Paseo program in October the organizations will assess its potential as a model for community-based programming relate to the trail moving forward. While the first year has focused on a specific geographic area and Latin music, next year is the 40th anniversary of hip hop and the organizations are beginning to explore the possibility of programming and a celebration of sites related to this anniversary. They are also looking for a permanent organization or coalition to maintain the trail and figuring out ways to permanently mark the trail’s sites. “It’s away of keeping this idea alive and creating new performances for trails of cultural experiences in the South Bronx,” said Davidson.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.