Harlem School of the Arts ribbon cutting celebrated

Yvonne Delaney Mitchell | 3/21/2013, 3:35 p.m.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renaming of the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) to the Herb Alpert Center finally took place, and it made you proud to be a New Yorker. It made you especially proud to be a Harlemite and even prouder to be a lover of the arts. The weather held up for the outdoor ceremony; it wasn't too cold, and even the sun peaked through the clouds of an otherwise gray day to celebrate the occasion.

Gracing the dais was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, always a poignant speaker; Yvette Campbell, president and CEO of HSA; Chairman of the Board of Directors Charles J. Hamilton Jr., Esq.; Janice Savin Williams, vice chair and secretary; Rep. Charles Rangel; and the man himself, Herb Alpert with his wife, Lani Hall.

Remarks were interspersed with entertainment featuring soloist Busisiwe Zamisa, singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand," accompanied by HSA students Sophie Blumenstein, Aoi Furutate, Madison Maklachi and Makai Jones. Young artist Leonay Shepard did a wonderful job singing "Tomorrow" from the hit musical "Annie." Putting the cherry on top of the icing was performer/actress N'Kenge, star of "Motown: The Musical," who sang "Defying Gravity" from the musical "Wicked." All of the performers were phenomenal and just went to show exactly what Harlem can produce.

"Defying Gravity" was so appropriate, because that is exactly what HSA has done. Since its inception in 1947 when former opera singer Dorothy Maynor incorporated the St. James Community Center Inc. into the basement of the St. James Presbyterian Church (located on the corner of 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue), where her husband was pastor, arts in the Harlem community have defied gravity and soared. In 1964, it was officially renamed the Harlem School of the Arts; it was then that Maynor really began to pave the way, providing an opportunity for children to hone a craft, to develop their inner being through finding their passion in the arts.

The school continued to thrive as Arthur Mitchell joined the ranks and began teaching classical ballet to almost 200 students prior to forming Dance Theatre of Harlem. Meanwhile, the success stories and accolades continued to mount until one day, a famine descended upon the school as the funding became scare and the HSA everyone had come to know and love almost did succumb to gravity; it was on the brink of closing.

Bloomberg heard the call and rallied the troops together to save what was once a little-known after-school arts center to what had become an institution. Councilwoman Inez Dickens; Lloyd Williams of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; Kate Levin, Department Cultural Affairs; Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Rangel; Ken Knuckles, president and CEO of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; and Rona Sabastin were some of the people who heard the call for help. Adding the last push for relief was Alpert, who gave a donation of $500,000 to help heal the wounds.

Humble and grateful, it was Bloomberg who put Charles Hamilton in charge and told him, "don't screw it up." Truth be told, the mayor admitted that he used language a little stronger than that, but he kept it clean for the press. Putting together a strong contingency, Hamilton grabbed a hold of the reins and no one has looked back since. Upon seeing just what HSA and the Harlem community was made of, Herb Alpert completed his gift by generously adding another $5 million to the pot. As Bloomberg stated so succinctly, "This guy's in love with you," a sentiment felt by us all, I'm sure.