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Introduction to Lower East Side Retrospective.

For many people, the Lower East Side of New York City has been a place of of historic interest and nostalgia. Groups often visit the area, particularly the decaying buildings that were sites of immigrant culture at the beginning of the century. Through the decades, this community--home to artists, the poor, and the working poor--has been vibrant, its activity fueled by an abundance of dilapidated, low-rent tenements that have served as a haven for apartment seekers. Known for its multi-racial culturalism, the Lower East Side has generated much socially, politically, and artistically progressive thought and expression.

Many of the African Americans who lived on the Lower East Side in the 1960s were aspiring and maturing artists who took their inspiration from social and cultural changes occurring nationally and internationally, and the resultant outburst of African American cultural production advanced to levels never before experienced. Working during the period as a volunteer for Freedomways, an African American Quarterly of the Freedom Movement which was located in offices bordering the Lower East Side, I had the opportunity to become acquainted with many of the local African American artists and evolving arts institutions. The cultural intensity on the Lower East Side during this dynamic era could be seen in the opening of La Mama Experimental Theatre and the formation of the Negro Ensemble Company, in the coffee-houses where poets met to read their poetry, in the writing workshops held by Umbra, in unforgettable performances by jazz musicians in the various clubs, in exhibitions of visual art, and in literary and political publications such as Freedomways, which served as a cultural oasis for many serious and talented writers and artists. These outlets for creative expression stimulated thought and dialogue, helping to give new direction to African American culture.

In 1991, I established Cultural Dimensions, an organization which, in association with the Henry Street Settlement Arts Center, sponsored a two-day forum and six-week exhibition of photographic/theatrical memorabilia at the Center in the fall of 1991 under the title "African-American Literary and Arts Movement 1960s, Lower East Side." Participants in the two-day forum--all of them residents of the Lower East Side during the 1960s--included writers Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Will Inman, Rashidah Ismaili-Abu-Bakr, Joe Johnson, Ishmael Reed, Brenda Walcott, Bruce McM. Wright, and Sarah Wright, actress Vinie Burrows; painter Emilio Cruz; educator Calvin Hicks; jazz musician Archie Shepp; journalist/ photographer Alvin Simon; and Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La Mama Experimental Theatre. The event drew an enthusiastic and stimulating audience, and was an auspicious occasion for the many writers and artists who came to the forum from various parts of the country. The exhibition opened a window on many artistic personalities, places, and performances, in the process illuminating some of the extraordinary achievements by residents of an historic working-class community.

Sadly, professional historians have tended either to ignore the area in their writing or to romanticize the community's history. Barely a trace of the residents' many outstanding cultural accomplishments survives in scholarly accounts of New York's Lower East Side. The writings and photographs that follow are part of a process designed to unveil the truth of contributions made by African Americans to twentieth-century urban social and cultural history.

Norman Rogers is the founder of Cultural Dimensions, an arts organization located in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Lower East Side Retrospective
Author:Rogers, Norma
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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