John Freeman Gill
News and Events
New York
Op Ed
Book Reviews
Travel Lifestyle
New York subway map
New York stories
An Institution Departs With a Shrug, Not a Sigh

When Felicia Rodriguez was a child in Washington Heights, the courtyard of Audubon Terrace, the grand grouping of Italian Renaissance-style cultural buildings at West 155th Street and Broadway, was her playground. At age 8, she rode her bike past Ionic columns and played hide-and-seek amid the bronze sculptures in the Baroque sunken court, ducking behind the equestrian statue of El Cid.

Ms. Rodriguez is now a junior at Boricua College, which occupies the space on Audubon Terrace vacated in 1971 by the American Geographical Society. But despite her lifelong association with the terrace, she just shrugged at the news that the Hispanic Society of America, the complex's founding institution, had announced plans to move downtown.

"I wouldn't say I'd miss it," Ms. Rodriguez, who was wearing a rhinestone-studded T-shirt, said the other day as she shared a smoke with friends at the college entrance, "because I've been on this block like 22 years, and I've never been in it until they took us there." Last year, she explained, one of her classes took a trip across the courtyard to look at some of the society's world-class holdings of one million books and objects addressing Hispanic culture worldwide.

Her friend Jaitza Colon, a junior majoring in human services, volunteered this idea: "They should just turn that into the extended part of Boricua College, because ain't nobody go in there."

Such indifference amounts to a marked improvement in the relationship between the society and the largely Dominican neighborhood that surrounds it.

In 1993, Theodore Beardsley, then the society's director, was quoted in ArtNews magazine as saying that he didn't do more to promote the museum's treasures to the local community because of its residents' "low level of culture."

The comments, along with a description of the neighborhood as "nontaxpaying slums" by George Moore, then the society's president, incited protests by local Dominicans.

"I was actually there at one, and they actually chased Beardsley across Audubon Terrace," recalled Robin Cembalest, who is now the magazine's executive editor. Mr. Beardsley ultimately retreated into the society's back entrance, accompanied by chants of "Beardsley, racista."

Both Mr. Beardsley and Mr. Moore have since been replaced; the society conducts tours for schoolchildren; and museum admission, as always, is free. But Moises Perez, executive director of Alianza Dominicana, a local social services group, said that the area's large Latino community was the museum's natural audience and that the society's decision to leave showed a continued disregard for the neighborhood.

"It's feeding an image of Washington Heights that's maybe two decades old, and doesn't reflect what this neighborhood has become and the life and struggle of the people," Mr. Perez said. "Crime has decreased more dramatically in this community than anywhere else in the country, a growing number of artists is moving in, and we have a robust middle class."

Mitchell Codding, the Hispanic Society's executive director, said the museum had explored expanding its current facility, but that would have cost about $45 million and would have added only a fraction of the needed space. As for critics' contention that the society should specifically court local Latinos, he said that the society's mandate was to serve not just a local audience but a national and international one.

"We don't have the resources to devote to a relatively small section of the larger community we serve," he said.

Audubon Terrace was the vision of Archer M. Huntington, heir to the Southern Pacific Railroad fortune. Beginning in 1904 with the Hispanic Society, small museums and research institutions were built, as well as a church.

But in recent years that process has reversed itself, as one cultural jewel after another has been pried loose from its classical setting on the terrace and taken elsewhere.

After the American Numismatic Society left for Lower Manhattan in 2004, its space was absorbed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but the future of the Hispanic Society's buildings is not yet known. Although the terrace is a city historic district, that designation protects only the buildings' facades, not their use.

The uncertainty is provoking anxiety. "Everyone's terrified, wondering what's going to happen to this space," said Vivian Ducat, board president of the Riviera co-op on West 157th Street. "It's just this sense of, what contemporary aberration will happen with it?"

All of the contents of this web site are © 2019 by John Gill and/or the original publishers of these articles.
Unauthorized use of any part of this site without the written consent of the owner is strictly forbidden.