Latino cultural center rises in North Philly as a beacon of connections, commerce

A cultural center has taken its place in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairhill, designed to be the inspiration for a financially depressed community. The new building is an expansion Taller Puertorriqueño, a Latino cultural organization.

The building was 12 years in them making, taking up almost 25,000 square feet, and costing $11.5 million. It’s designed to make a statement.

“The space is magnificent, state of the art, beautiful, expansive, magnetic, welcoming, comfortable,” beamed Dr. Carmen Febo San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño, the organization she has been involved with for 30 years.

Its operations used to be split between two small buildings in the neighborhood of rowhomes and storefronts. But Febo San Miguel needed a new, central location to expand and consolidate all the after-school programs, art classes, exhibitions, performances, and workshops that Taller Puertorriquño offers.

She is getting rid of the two older buildings. One is already sold, the other nearly sold, Febo San Miguel said while sitting in her new office. It still has the aroma of new carpet, with ground-floor, plate glass windows to the street.

“This is something I’m going to have to figure out: my old was office was on the third floor. It was my exercise every day,” she said.

Taller Puertorriqueño works mostly with the residents of its Fairhill neighborhood, but often branches out with partnerships at cultural institutions across the city — including the Barnes Foundation and the Painted Bride. A big new building, with state of the art technology, sends a signal that it is capable of big things.

“We see ourselves as a bridge, a connection to a multi-ethnic society, which is Philadelphia,” said Febo San Miguel. “This is where people can come to see Latino art.”

The lively grand opening Wednesday night attracted hundreds of people from around the city — including Mayor Jim Kenney — to see the theater, art galleries, classrooms, and central courtyard that many hope will revive the neighborhood’s fortunes. It even has a fenced parking lot with a drop-off curb.

The blocks surrounding the new building have more than their share of vacant lots and boarded-up windows. The lot Taller Puertorriqueño built upon had been an abandoned parking lot of a hospital that closed two decades ago.

Taller Puertorriqueño was helped by the local community development corporation, HACE. Its president Maria Gonzalez, said the new building will be an anchor for the neighborhood’s economic revival — and an aspirational beacon to its residents.

“Why do we have to settle?” said Gonzalez. “This is a showcase, a model for how we can develop spaces that are key to the neighborhood, to showcase the talent in the neighborhood. We don’t have to settle for a corner property or a vacant rowhome into another purpose.”

Gonzalez wants to leverage the Taller Puertorriqueño cultural center as a hub for neighborhood nightlife, attracting customers to local restaurants, as well as a focal point for a planned development of small businesses and affordable housing.

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