Saving Landmark Theaters and the Environment

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Ecofest organizer began by working to keep the Beacon open

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

The West Side Cultural Center started with a knock on Nanci Callahan’s door in 1989. A neighbor told Callahan that the historic Beacon Theatre was in danger of becoming a nightclub, and she realized that she would have to get involved in order to preserve the cultural landmark.

Nanci Callahan turned to neighborhood work when arthritis forced her to give up her job.

“When the person knocked on my door and told me about the Beacon Theatre, I just thought, yes, we have to have an organization. I had to make a difference and do something,” said Callahan.

Callahan, a psychologist, had recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was no longer able to work, but she wanted to continue to help the community. “The easiest thing would be to just lie in bed and not do anything, but that isn’t my nature.”

Shortly after Callahan formed the West Side Cultural Center, the organization began to branch out into other areas.

“As soon as the Beacon was saved, we went on to do other things I really cared about—working with children and with the environment,” she said.

This year marked the 22nd Ecofest. The annual event showcases environmental exhibits, an eco-friendly fashion show and environmental groups and speakers. Over the years, Ecofest has been held in Central Park, Riverside Park, Lincoln Center and, this past year, Battery Park. From the beginning, Callahan saw the event as a way to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“There was basically nothing visible happening with the environment when we started that long ago. We were ahead of the times,” Callahan said. “It’s nice to see the environment finally getting the visibility and importance it deserves, but it didn’t for a long time.

“Our first parade was two conversion vehicles, a solar car from RIT and a marching band,” she continued. “The very first electric car was a GM car called the Impact. It was the forerunner of the EV1 and we debuted it in New York. “

Callahan, 59, runs the West Side Cultural Center out of her brownstone apartment on West 70th Street, and relies on a combination of college and high school interns, volunteers and staff to organize annual events.

In addition to Ecofest, the West Side Cultural Center organizes four annual events. Twice a year, it showcases performers from Broadway shows in A Taste of Broadway as a way to reward public school students for excellent attendance records and improved academic scores. The event is part of the Board of Education’s Attendance Incentive Dropout Prevention program.

“It is about using the carrot as well as the stick,” said Callahan. “We involve children in everything we do. You have to involve the children because the future is theirs.”

Callahan also organizes an annual poster competition for city schoolchildren. Art teachers submit their students’ work for a poster that exemplifies the importance of preserving the environment. The finalists’ artwork is displayed at Apple Bank on West 72nd Street, and the winning selection is used to promote Ecofest. Peter Max has judged the art contest for the past two years, and before that LeRoy Neiman was the judge.

“This is a grassroots movement that is very effective,” said Callahan. “If there is a place to do that, it’s on the Upper West Side.”

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  • Traci Mann

    Awesome article. You should send it in to President Obama and ask for some Grant Money.
    It’s about time you got some press with all the great things you do for the community and BEYOND deserves praise and honor!
    Love and Peace!
    Traci Mann

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