Robye Patrick Wallace grew up in Lower Peach Tree Alabama, a town with less than 500 people. She moved from Alabama to New York City in 2003. Wallace is the executive director of New Song Community Corporation, an organization dedicated to being a part of the community through multiple programs aimed at community building in Harlem. It was started through New Song Community Church but strives to be a non-religious organization that is a resource to the changing Harlem community. She spoke fondly of the people from her hometown who, according to her accounts, would kill a pig and share it with the neighborhood.
“I know that’s why community is such a strong part of the fabric of who I am,” she said. “It’s because community had to exist. It’s a very poor community even though they don’t really know it.”
The Harlem community of today is not the same as it was in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a neighborhood in demographic change and is struggling to find an identity again. In June 2008 the change was set in full motion when Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved a rezoning of 125th Street, Harlem’s most iconic street, to be more commercial, angering people from the neighborhood.
“When I came into office, we promised to stimulate economic growth and strengthen neighborhoods across the City, and our plan for the area around Harlem’s famed 125th Street is the latest example of how we’re doing it,” said Bloomberg in an April 2008 press release.
People were so angered by this decision that there were shouts of “liar” and “sellout” during the proceedings when the New York City Council voted on the zoning. The public had to be removed from the meeting for the vote to continue, according to a New York Times report.
Since the vote the neighborhood has been hit by hard times. Once a poster child of Bloomberg era development, the neighborhood was one of the hardest hit during the current recession. One third of Harlem’s businesses were closed due to economic conditions according to the Clinton Foundation, which published a special edition Zagat Guide to help Harlem small businesses in August 2009.
New Song Community Corporation doesn’t seek to be the solution to all of Harlem’s problems, it aims to be a good neighbor, according to Wallace. Yet they are very ambitious in their scope. They run an after school program, a youth internship program, they bought a building on 119th Street and 8th Avenue to provide affordable housing to the neighborhood.
They also hold an English as a Second Language class on Monday nights and have a computer lab, which is open to the public. They started a holistic health program in August 2008, which focuses on preventative education and has yoga, Pilates and salsa classes for an affordable price.
“I want to be a part of a movement in Harlem to transform the way classic Harlemites look at health and identify with food and exercise,” said Vivian Williams-Kurutz, Director of Wellness at New Song Community Corporation.
For a $75 lifetime cost, one can take an unlimited number of wellness classes provided by New Song Community Corporation. The program started in August 2008 and since then more than 300 people have signed up.
On Saturday evening Kurutz and the wellness program hosted a holiday salsa party in the sanctuary of the church. The chairs were cleared aside and the loudspeakers, which are used on Sunday for church music, were blaring salsa tunes. The lights were dimmed and there were candles around the room. Fifteen women and two men came to the party. One of the men was the salsa instructor.
The dancing started at 7:55 p.m. when Julie Yvonne Benn, 62, who last year had bilateral knee replacement, grabbed the instructor by the arm and danced with him.
“At my age I need to move,” Benn, a practicing Buddhist for 25 years, said.
The sanctuary didn’t have the usual decor of a church. It had no pews or crosses. The only sign that the space was a religious space was the Christmas tree in the front of the space.
“I have no idea what the religious background of New Song is,” said Benn.
Taous Bennai Tam, an Algerian Berber who has been living in Harlem for 13 years, said that she saw signs for yoga classes on her way to French-African restaurants in the neighborhood.
“I didn’t know that the space we stood at was a church worship space,” she said. “It’s convenient for me. My home is here. My office is here.”
There was no mention of the church or religion at the event. To Wallace it matters little if New Song Community Corporation brings in new members to the church.
On Sunday the sanctuary was converted for worship. The service was both lively and solemn featuring gospel songs and traditional Christmas hymns. Pastor Jeff White gave a sermon and spoke about getting involved in the community.
“That’s what God calls us to,” he said. “To get into the mess in our community and the mess of the world.”