Grand Street Community Arts was formed by concerned neighbors in the Mansion Neighborhood in 2003 as a way to bridge the cultural and economic divides in the community. The organization (originally named Mansion Community Arts) quickly received its designation as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization from the IRS and negotiated the purchase of the former St. Anthony’s Church, a long-vacant cornerstone of the community and a link with its immigrant past.
Directly, Grand Street Community Arts serves the Mansion and Pastures neighborhoods of the South End of Albany, although through growing involvement in the new South End Community Collaborative, the organization is now reaching the entire South End of the city. In addition, through its WCAA-LP radio program, GSCA is now reaching most of the City of Albany, as well as communities stretching north to Watervliet, south to Glenmont, Ravena and Bethlehem, as well as into neighboring Rensselaer County.
The majority of the organization’s direct outreach and impact, and WCAA-LP’s programming, is designed to entertain, enlighten, illuminate, and empower our neighborhoods’, communities’, our city’s and this county’s minority and lower income populations, while also providing all with a common forum to meet, discuss, and grow a sense of shared community. As our motto puts it, we are the means by which our community has a voice in Albany.
In its 15 years as an organization and caretaker of the historic St. Anthony’s Church — a beautiful Italian Renaissance Revival church that lost its parishioners during the construction of Empire State Plaza in the 1970s that briefly reopened its doors as a community center before closing for what seemed to be good later that decade — our organization has worked to make this treasure into a vibrant center for what has changed from Albany’s Italian area into one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city, the aim always being “to create unity and connection, especially through the arts, in an inner-city neighborhood with racial and economic diversity.”
In our first decade, Grand Street Community Arts was home to a number of artistic events including Vestuary Operatics, a triumphant one-weekend-only art exhibition of site-specific works by 19 local artists; performances by visiting musicians Kimya Dawson, the musician for the movie Juno, and the Sierra Leone Refugee All Star Band. We hosted plays and musicals from the nearby Albany Free School, organized exhibitions by local artists on the boarded -up windows of abandoned buildings in the South End. GSCA’s first regular program was “YO!” — or Youth Organics! — a kind of informal Fresh Air Fund. We launched the Vacant Lots Project, a project which, in collaboration with the City of Albany, transformed a number of vacant lots in the South End into places for gardening, playgrounds and community events (now part of AVillage). In 2008, Grand Street Community Arts initiated Youth FX, a program designed to inspire and empower young people in Albany’s under-resourced neighborhoods through a hands-on exploration of digital filmmaking that has since won numerous awards at more than 40 film festivals across the country and around the world and has become its own organization, housed in a City of Albany Housing Authority building.
Throughout these years we have given our blood, sweat and tears to the rehabilitation of St. Anthony’s to better house our programs, as well as our community’s dreams. We cleared out trash and debris, replaced floors, fixed windows, got a heating system up and running. When the band Pearl Jam came to town, they chose Grand Street Community Arts as a recipient of their funding largesse. In 2009, Grand Street Community Arts received support from the New York
State Dormitory Authority, making possible repairs to the slate roof, basic electrical upgrading, and the creation of small heated offices and a large seasonal performance space. Other significant grantors relating to repairs, construction and design of our facility include The Community Foundation, Troy Savings Bank, the Lincoln Fund, the Albany Housing Authority, and the Troy Architectural Project, whose grants have been significant in more recent upgrades. Two years ago we received a planning grant from the New York State Council for the Arts to complete blueprints for a build-out of St. Anthony’s basement for offices and classrooms, a small theater space, radio and A/V studios, and bathrooms.
Over the past three years, all our work has been augmented through a mutually beneficial arrangement with Empowered Construction Workers Association, Local 102, who have helped us acquire and keep our certificate of occupancy. And begin a new round of programming, including the inauguration of WCAA-LP. Most recently, the CDPHP bike share program has set up one of its key locations in front of our building; many are starting to strategize about our location’s central spot within the Capital District Transportation Authority’s award-wining system, and closeness to much free night-time and weekend parking that accommodate events at the Times Union Center, new Civic Center, and Empire State Plaza, as well as nearby Lincoln Park, one of the least utilized treasures of Albany.
We envision all we do in terms of community building and, eventually, job creation and neighborhood stabilization. The capital funding we are seeking from various sources will provide GSCA, and the St. Anthony’s community space, with the ability to provide an array of programs, from entertainment and classes to a workspace and our radio voice for all, that will increase engagement directly on Grand Street and The Pastures, within their rental environments, throughout the shifting Mansion Neighborhood and nearby downtown Albany loft areas, as well as for all the reviving dreams of resurgence within the South End of Albany.