Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Jewish Council raps cuts to 'Y' theater

by John DeSio
Riverdale Review, 08/28/2008

The Riverdale Jewish Community Council is fighting a budget cut made to the Riverdale Y's theater program.

The RJCC has issued a letter to the Department of Cultural Affairs, urging the agency to reconsider its cut. The theater program had been funded by the agency for 25 years, and last year the Riverdale Y was presented with a total grant of $18,900 by the DCA. This year the agency recommended that it receive no grant, and the Riverdale Y will see only $5,000 in the form of a member item from City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell.

"The Y's theater groups not only provide Riverdalians of all ages and backgrounds with an environment to express themselves and grow artistically, but also provide the entire surrounding community with access to affordable and high-caliber cultural performances," states the RJCC's letter.

In addition, the RJCC has launched an online petition, available at the website, urging Riverdalians to push the DCA to restore the Riverdale Y's grant, lest the theater group be eliminated.

Ari Hoffnung, co-president of the RJCC and a candidate for City Council in 2009, said he is concerned that the Riverdale Y lost its funding due to a form of backhanded racism, possibly because the panel empowered to make those grant decisions considers Riverdale a wealthy area that does not need city help.

"What I suspect may be going on here is a perception, or perhaps stereotype, in city government that all Riverdalians are wealthy and that our local nonprofits are therefore not in need of financial support," said Hoffnung. "The fact of the matter is that Riverdale, like most outer-borough communities, is a predominately middle-class neighborhood where many families struggle to make ends meet. As Riverdalians, we pay our fair share of taxes and should therefore be entitled to receive our fair share of city services. We will continue to speak out until our community receives its fair share of funding."

A panel is convened by the DCA to make these grant decisions based on borough, discipline and the total budget size of the requesting agency, said Kate deRosset, a spokeswoman for DCA. It was unclear as of press time how many groups were funded through the grant process for fiscal year 2009 that had never received funding before.

Some of the grant recipients might raise eyebrows for different reasons. The Point Community Development Corporation is a Hunts Point-based group that routinely engages in social activism in the South Bronx and has played a role in protests to prevent a prison from opening in that community and to move waste transfer stations from the area. It was awarded $94,587 by the DCA for FY 2009.

In Brooklyn there is El Puente of Williamsburg, a controversial organization that co-operates an established public high school whose curriculum focuses on hip-hop and graffiti as art. The organization also participates in numerous acts of community and political activism and boasts on its website that it "remains at the forefront of community/youth learning and development issues and as such, initiates and impacts social policy both locally and nationally." This year its grant level was raised to $48,000, up from $25,000 last year.

DeRosset said that many similar organizations had also received grants and that it is common for groups that engage in social activism and have cultural programs as well to be awarded DCA grants.

"Basically, if your organization is nonprofit, it’s primarily social service but has significant arts programming of recognizable quality that helps foster public access to culture in a really meaningful way, then absolutely those groups are eligible for funding," said deRosset.

In the letter to DCA, Hoffnung invited DCA Commissioner Kate D. Levin to visit the Riverdale Y, see a show, and then reconsider these cuts.

"Socially, the theater groups promote tolerance and cultural sensitivity by providing a unique forum for Bronxites of different ethnic and religious backgrounds to work together. It also provides teens with a quality after-school experience that helps build self-esteem and teach the value of respect, camaraderie, and teamwork," states the letter. "Perhaps most importantly, theater groups teach young people who are being raised in an era of 500 cable channels, video-on-demand, and YouTube, the value and joy of live community theater."