Volume 16 • Issue 32 | January 9 - 15, 2004

Local parent fights for his dream

By Jaclyn Marinese

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Mike Saes, director of “New York City Urban Experience,” a cultural center for hip-hop culture located at the Seaport. It’s been closed for several months due to lack of funding.

When Mike Saes opened the New York City Urban Experience, a non-profit cultural center and gallery space the mission was to preserve the traditions of urban street cultures like hip-hop, punk rock and skateboarding. This unique space is located at the Seaport in the historical Tobacco Building on South Street.

Unfortunately though, Saes’ doors have been closed for the past five months as the center struggles against rising downtown rents, currently $9000 monthly, and the post 9/11 hustle to find funding. With a scheduled opening date of September 13, 2001 it’s been a struggle since day one for this organization.

“My morale is high, it’s just my pockets are low,” said founder Mike Saes, 33, an East Village resident. He speaks with an aura of ease, though it’s clear that his life’s work depends on what comes next.

“It’s pretty sad but the reality is that without money, a great idea might flounder. If it wasn’t for the few people that have been believing in it, I would have given up already.”

Giving up though, is not in Saes’ repertoire. Besides his core team, what Saes also has is a star-studded powerhouse of talented artists. The Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, DJ Marc Ronson and Sopranos actress Annabella Sciora, are just some of the artists who have expressed interest in the center.

“There are so many reasons why this project is necessary but what it really comes down to is, kids,” says Saes, a father of three children who attend PS 234 on Chambers Street. The mother of Saes’ children lives in the neighborhood. “If I can have kids interact with role models like musicians and poets or rappers or athletes, and be able to have a space where this can take place, then I’m offering children something that I never had, or that most people never had.”

The center is a 6,000 square-foot-space, complete with a movie theater and DJ booth. Exposed brick walls are a backdrop for an array of artwork representing all aspects of urban youth culture. Along with the birth of hip-hop and the history of graffiti art, Saes also incorporates genres like skating and biking, the history of tattoos and gangs, and hard core punk rock genres of New York City

Born on the Lower East Side, Saes moved to the West Village in 1979. A one time street break dancer and graffiti artist himself, Saes remembers the 1980’s when the neighborhood was a crossroads for arts movements stemming from New York’s outer neighborhoods.

“Most of the cultures that we know and love now started with poor people,” says Saes. Referring to things like hip-hop, dj-ing and breakdancing, Saes said, “Basically, whether it be the Bronx, the Lower East Side or parts of Brooklyn, all these cultures started there but eventually wound up in the West Village and downtown through either a nightclub, or places like Washington Square Park.”

It was downtown where Tribeca artists like Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, co-producers of the 1984 graffiti documentary, Style Wars and Charlie Ahern, associate board member of the Urban Experience and director of the 1982 film Wildstyle, encountered the beginnings of these cultures and documented them in what are now some of the most important historical films of hip-hop history.

Saes wants his cultural center to bring that history to those who may not have access to the historical roots behind what brought hip-hop onto the TV screen or skateboarding onto Hollywood movie sets. Before the center closed, its arts education program hosted a number of workshops for schools and after school programs.

“Kids don’t want to be in school all the time,” says Alan Ket, an Urban Experience board member. “The good thing is that it’s not only a space for youth but a place for youth to meet mentors and professionals in the real world.” Saes hopes to attract visitors from all walks of life to the space’s art exhibitions, educational workshops, film screenings, musical performances, poetry readings, and social events.

Saes is glad to see these cultures getting recognition in the mainstream. Corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have marketing departments geared toward urban youth and universities hold classes in the history of urban youth cultures. But he worries about the roots being distorted or lost.

“The frustrating part is when I realize, ‘wow you know I can do this right now.’ I could supply Harvard with all the hip-hop or punk rock information if I just had a little solid ground under my feet. It’s good to know that eventually as people realize this I will be able to get those grants.”

Until then, Saes will hustle to secure the funding to make his vision work. Keeping the center in the historic seaport area is also very important to him because downtown is so close to his heart.

“If it wasn’t for downtown then hip-hop might still be in the Bronx, but basically downtown is where it mixed in with different people,” he says. Even closer to his heart than location is making this project work and remaining optimistic.

“It’s going to happen regardless,” adds Saes. Letting the dream die is simply not in the business plan.

For more about the Urban Experience please visit http://www.nycurbanexperience.org


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