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BLACKS CLAIM CULTURAL NEGLECT

As African-American cultural organizations work simultaneously to keep their doors open and showcase authentic culture and art forms, they say the city needs to be more supportive of their endeavors.

Officials at the city's major African-American cultural organizations use terms like "abandoned stepchild" and "benign neglect" to describe the relationship they have with City Hall.

Their frustration came to a boil recently when city officials seemed on the verge of approving a plan to forgive back rent that was never collected from Studio Arena Theatre. Theater officials quickly withdrew the request, but for officials at African-American cultural organizations who say they never get such special deals, the episode struck a nerve.

They say that when the city speaks of its cultural cornerstones, such as Studio Arena and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, their organizations get no mention.

"They don't value us and the diversity that we bring," said Dorothy Hill, president of the Langston Hughes Institute on High Street. "All we are asking is for them to be conscious of the smaller cultural organizations and be sensitive to our needs and know that we do play a part."

Some believe racism is at the root of the neglect, which has resulted in their organizations not receiving sufficient funding to renovate their facilities, expand or improve their programs.

"They ignore us," said Lorna Hill, founder of Ujima Theatre Co. "And I believe it's racism."

Eugene L. Pierce, a Langston Hughes board member, agreed.

"People don't realize the racial profiling that's been done across the board," he said. "It's something that a community that hopes to progress cannot afford."

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said he was disappointed by the allegations. He said his administration values all of the cultural organizations in the city and has increased funding for African-American organizations each year that he's been in office.

"I believe in what they are doing," he said. "They do provide a valuable service to our community."

Common Council President James W. Pitts said he has always supported the organizations and legislation to give them funding, but there's a general lack of funding across the board for all cultural organizations. He said African-American organizations need to appeal to other sources for money.

"They don't have accessibility to other funds," Pitts said. "It relates to how diversity is treated in this area, period."

While they do receive cultural grant-in-aid funding -- which all cultural organizations receive -- and some receive community block grant funds through the city, they said mainstream organizations get perks.

Leaders at African-American organizations said over the years they've watched other organizations receive emergency funding, have debt forgiven or get bailed out of financial binds by the city.

Meanwhile, they have had to scramble to pay utilities and make repairs to their facilities without such help.

"We aren't even talking about how to thrive, but barely how to stay alive," Dorothy Hill said. "It's not about Studio Arena, it's about special accommodations."

Looking to create a universal theater program that would have seniors, children and handicapped people work on theater productions, Lorna Hill -- who's not related to Dorothy Hill -- presented the city and the mayor with a proposal in 1998 to turn the Delaware Asbury Methodist Church into a theater arts institute.

But she said her request was denied because city officials assumed she couldn't afford to renovate the building, and now Righteous Babe Records is doing a structural analysis of the facility.

"They didn't even read my proposal, and I want to know how the mayor disposed of my proposal," she said.

For three years, that question lingered in her mind. And for two years, she said, she has tried to get an answer. But she said her calls were not returned, and her requests to meet with the mayor were not addressed.

Only after visiting City Hall dressed as a slave during recent budget deliberations was she given an appointment to meet with Masiello.

That meeting occurred Friday, and both Lorna Hill and Masiello agreed that it went well. She said Masiello promised to address her concerns, including the city's refusal to give her community development block grant money.

Dorothy Hill said the Langston Hughes Institute has been appealing to the city to waive the $120,000 that Langston Hughes has to pay the city for the parking lot next to its building, with no luck. She also said the facility's heating and electrical systems are not functioning. And the entire facility needs to be renovated. She said Langston Hughes is in the process of organizing a major drive for funding.

Agnes Bain, executive director of the African Cultural Center on Masten Avenue, said the center is embarking on a $4 million capital improvement fund-raiser to expand the building and its programs. She said the city should have a state-of-the-art center devoted to African and African-American culture.

Lorna Hill said support of the African-American cultural organizations is crucial because their programs and productions give inner-city youth the rare opportunity to learn about their culture and history.

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