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Preserving Community Culture In the Midst of a Boom

An article in Next City details how LISC’s NYC Inclusive Creative Economy Fund is connecting local cultural institutions and artisanal manufacturers to much-needed capital, like the venerable La MaMa theater in the city’s East Village, where real estate has become prohibitively expensive. LISC is working to extend a $3.2 million line of credit to La MaMa, filling a critical financing gap for the theater, which must renovate its historic home in order to serve artists and audiences on into the future.

The excerpt below is from:
Experimental Theater Pushes Boundaries to Preserve Itself
By Oscar Perry Abello, Next City

In Manhattan’s East Village, there is a block of East 4th Street that contains just about everything New Yorkers are afraid their city is losing.

The affordable apartments in the five- and six-story pre-war buildings along the block are home to many artists and their families. Some have lived on the block for decades; some have moved in more recently. At street level, mom-and-pop shops sell guitars, prints, and therapeutic fragrances; there’s the Fourth Street Food Co-Op; and arts organizations that for decades have served the artists on the block and from all around the world, providing affordable spaces for studios, exhibitions and performances.

Founded in 1961, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is the geographic, economic, and cultural heart of the block, putting on 50 to 60 productions annually, providing opportunities for some 1,500 directors, writers, performers, costume and set designers, and other professional artists a year, not to mention its youth and community programming. In its 2011 obituary of founder Ellen Stewart, the New York Times called La MaMa the capital of “Off Off Broadway.” The theater’s experimental productions, while earning it the 2018 Regional Theatre Tony Award, have never made much money for the theater itself. But that was never the point.

“It’s not just about fame and fortune, it’s also about how one artist impacts another artist, impacts another artist, this whole creative ecology that exists in a place like La MaMa,” says Mary Fulham, the current executive director.

The East Village, meanwhile, has become a posh location for many seeking to associate themselves with the neighborhood’s artsy reputation — but the influx of big spenders has come at a cost. The average East Village studio apartment currently rents for nearly $3,000 a month, according to RENTCafé. Cultural institutions have struggled to survive amid the changes.

The legendary folk and punk rock club CBGB — an East Village landmark — held its final show back in 2006, after a bitter rent-hike dispute. Grassroots Tavern, a landmark dive bar and gathering place for community organizers, was one of a smattering of long-running establishments that said goodbye in 2017. The Village Voice, around the corner from this block of East Fourth Street, stopped printing in 2017 and published its last online story earlier this year.

But this particular block of East Fourth Street has found ways to defend itself against the dark arts of real estate investors. Across the street from La MaMa, a stretch of buildings form the core holdings of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust, a nonprofit entity created specifically to own the land and keep the buildings on it permanently affordable for residents and commercial tenants. Meanwhile, La MaMa itself owns the two properties it occupies on the block, and this fall it launched its first-ever capital campaign to renovate and maintain its facilities for the next generation of artists.

“There’s been a real influx of high-powered real estate in this neighborhood, and it continues, which is why securing these buildings now is so crucial, because how do you withstand that kind of pressure?” says Fulham.

Like the performances that take to its stages, La MaMa’s capital campaign also pushes boundaries.

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