“Really having the neighborhood participate in a community space is very important for us,” says activist Eliana Godoy, who along with Monica Maltby recently opened Carlito’s Gallery and Café, in El Barrio in East Harlem. As an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing cultural institutions—more sophisticated and sometimes intimidating atmospheres such as El Museo del Barrio and the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center—they came up with an idea for a community space that is open virtually 24 hours. During the day Carlito’s is a space where neighborhood kids and adults can take art and English classes. At night it serves as a gallery for emerging Latin American artists, and as a café and bar for readings and tango performances. “We don’t want to structure it too much because it’s really important for us to be very organic,” Godoy says. “Most of it will depend on the people who come and who needs what.”
The duo’s biggest challenge—accommodating all their programs with a small space and a small budget—was solved when they hired young architects Enrique Limon and Miguel Baltierra. Working on a superminimal budget, the architects designed a continuous structure to inhabit the space and tie its various uses together thematically. Made of inexpensive fiberboard with a wood veneer, the structure starts out as the floor in the gallery and teaching area, climbs a wall to become a section of ceiling, and then morphs into the bar itself. Godoy was thrilled with the outcome. “The architects really captured the idea of creating a single flexible surface that could accommodate a multitude of activities,” she says.
Godoy hopes Carlito’s program of “social entrepreneurship” will have broad appeal. “It’s very intimidating to go in [to some cultural spaces] if you’ve just moved into the neighborhood and don’t speak English,” she says. “Our effort is to create this space where anybody can feel comfortable. We want to make sure our ESL students will not feel embarrassed to come to the opening of an exhibition.”