Advocates behind Long Island's Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade are opening a community center Friday in Central Islip that group organizer Margarita Espada said will aim "to unite the different communities and build dialogue and civic engagement" through the arts.
Group members and volunteers have been hard at work renovating a rented property at 63 Carleton Ave. that formerly was a cellphone shop -- making furniture, painting the walls of a large storeroom in the back, and sprucing up the surrounding grounds.
Those spaces will become an art gallery that will double as an instructional area; a performance space for theater, fitness and dance; and a community garden, group volunteers said. They hope to fund the endeavor through class fees and donations.
The arts center for Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, the nonprofit behind the project, will open at 7 p.m. tomorrow with a small exhibit from local artists and a performance of traditional string music from Puerto Rico. To start, the center will house a few art classes.
"Art is a very powerful tool for social changes," said Espada, 48, a theater lecturer at Stony Brook University who is Teatro's founder and artistic director. The area encompassing Central Islip, Brentwood and Bay Shore, where many Latinos and other immigrants live, has lacked a gathering place for artistic activities, she said.
"This community has a history of being neglected, and there's a lot of stigma about undocumented immigrants and gangs, but we have a lot of diversity here" that the group hopes to tap, Espada added.
The project has been in the works for months, even as the nonprofit scrambled this year to secure continued funding worth nearly $31,000 from the Suffolk County Legislature for the parade held every summer in Brentwood. The organization took the event over in 2012 after loss of sponsorships over the years.
The owner of the property, part of a larger set of lots that includes rental apartments and yard space, is immigration attorney David Sperling. He said he is renting it to Teatro for $800 a month and giving the group flexibility in using the yard because he believes in the idea."This is all like a labor of love, done by volunteers," said Sperling, who acquired the property for $632,000 in 2008.
The group's members are hopeful they will attract more residents and partnerships from area institutions with the year-round venue for artists and community art projects.
They already have received help from area residents and students from Harvard University and Stony Brook University in designing furniture, clearing debris from the lot and painting the center's walls.
"We had people with nails, with drills, from one end of the room to the other," said Angel Paniagua, 65, a landscape painter who will coordinate local exhibits.
He called the project "a work of passion."
Luz Velázquez, a group board member who is an art teacher at Central Islip Senior High School, said the center could grow into an after-school resource for students who "cannot take advantage of all the programs in other areas."
José Galindo, owner of the Viva Mexico restaurant less than a block away, sees the center as a "very positive" addition to the street, lined by Latino restaurants and small shops, including a barbershop, a hair salon and Laundromat.
"It's a place that could be for all of us," he said in Spanish.
Galindo said he may even take his guitar and go there and perform -- something he hasn't done in years.