Hostos — and the Bronx — Laud ‘Mr. Arts and Culture’

Wally Edgecombe poses with art installation by Antonio Martorell designed for floor display.

The South Bronx was burning when Wallace “Wally” Edgecombe arrived at Hostos Community College in 1973. Gangs were active, drugs were ubiquitous and many people lived in poverty.

“You could see the storm brewing,” Edgecombe recently recalled as he reviewed nearly 40 years of association with the college, which opened two years before he took the position of assistant director of college relations. “Don’t ask me why I took the job,” said Edgecombe, 66, speaking from behind the desk in his office, which showed signs of being pared down this June as he prepared to retire. “I was just taken up by the issue of urban America and the people I met.”

That interest would make Wally Edgecombe a veritable household name in the area. He won the hearts of all who knew him for his work during more than  three decades as director of the Center for the Arts & Culture he launched at Hostos, which vitalized Hispanic and African-American life in the South Bronx.

When Flora Mancuso Edwards became Hostos president in 1979, she floated the idea of a cultural center and turned to Edgecombe to make it a reality. Did he ever!

Admirers speak of him as a visionary and a trailblazer who empowered the area’s ethnic groups through the center’s programs, which last year served more than 108,000 patrons — 15,000 of them children. It hosts more than 300 events, including its own productions as well as others from the college, community-based organizations, local schools and independent producers.

“It’s a very busy place,” said Edgecombe, who in its developing years supervised the operations, did fundraising and public relations, and selected and scheduled programming with members of the board — the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College Foundation, comprising leaders in business, education, public policy and philanthropy, with an annual budget that “hovers around $1 million,” Edgecombe said.

In 2007, the center was one of eight in a national project selected to receive a grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Doris Duke Foundation to foster closer ties between college-based arts centers and academic departments. The grant was the stimulus for a study-abroad program in which students travel to experience the cultures of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and this year, Cuba. The center also has received an award from the Municipal Art Society of New York for its contributions to city cultural life.

Born in Havana, Cuba, where he lived until he was 15, Edgecombe came to the United States with his family in 1960. He did a year’s tour of duty in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, earned a B.A. in history and Latin American Studies from Columbia University, then a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism after working for a year at CBS writing radio copy in the newsroom.

Because he was bilingual, “I got all the stories in the Latino neighborhoods of the city, especially in the South Bronx. I was fascinated by the Bronx: the gangs, the fires, the detox. I developed a lot of affection for people here. I wanted to get involved.”

At the time, Hostos was located in an old tire factory and had a student population of about 1,800. In his public relations role, Edgecombe was involved in struggles to expand the campus and prevent Hostos’ merger with Bronx Community College but he was also motivated by an activist’s spirit. Exposure to Afro-Caribbean culture in Cuba prepared him for the cultural life of the South Bronx and he immersed himself in it when salsa, Latin jazz and hip-hop were in their heyday.

In 1982, Edgecombe set up a committee of faculty, staff, community and student leaders to develop a plan “to serve the cultural needs of residents of the South Bronx and similar inner-city communities who do not have the means or the inclination to attend arts events in midtown Manhattan.”

Undaunted by doubters, he organized concerts in the gym, featuring professional performers from the community as well as such luminaries as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ballet Hispanico. “Other Latino and African-American arts groups emerged. It was sort of a phenomenon,” Edgecombe said. “From the beginning we got full houses.”

A makeshift gallery was set up in the cafeteria to exhibit works by community artists, and from that modest beginning the center has grown to include a museum-grade art gallery and two theaters (900 and 367 seats), with a box office and full-time production manager.

From the outset, patrons indeed have come from all over the metropolitan area, making the center an arts institution of regional importance. A typical season includes music, dance, painting, sculpture, drama and literary arts, from folk traditions to the avant-garde — attracting a lot of favorable press.

“Even though we don’t pay high fees a lot of professionals want to participate, because the reputation is so high,” Edgecombe said. Programming also includes a visual arts series and a children’s performing arts series; periodic festivals featuring different cultural traditions, and works of the Hostos Repertory Company. Individual artists are offered commissions and residencies.

The Center has co-produced productions with such organizations as the Latin American Writers Institute and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Bill Aguado, retired executive director of the council, said Edgecombe “built bridges between the community and the college using music. … He was able to empower various ethnic groups through that music. He had just about every major performer perform there and also younger people who got their first break because of him.”

Elba Cabrera, who was on an advisory council formed to consider creation of the arts center, said Edgecombe did two jobs. “He was the college person writing wonderful press releases, and he was Mr. Arts and Culture. … His vision, his foresight made this possible for Hostos. … People just refer to him as Wally. You don’t have to say his last name. … his contribution will be forever,” said Cabrera, now secretary and a member of the board and chairperson of the Arts and Culture Committee of the center and college.

Gerald Meyer, a retired Hostos history professor who arrived at the college a year before Edgecombe and currently mentors teachers, created a film series for the Center and was on the board for 15 years. Meyer said Edgecombe “… was the main leader at every point. … Wally and the board had a deep commitment to the belief of culture as a very powerful force against demoralization and for personal, individual and community acclamation. … We saw the community as a great resource that had a need, but it wasn’t like we were fixing anything. It’s really giving a chance for this culture to be expressed and making it available.”

The arts and culture program was a major source of positive publicity for the college, Meyer said. “It was an invaluable piece of the college and a great resource for recruitment.”

Hostos President Félix V. Matos Rodríguez — one of eight presidents with whom Edgecombe served — said, “For the past four decades Wally Edgecombe has been a driving force in the cultural life of Hostos Community College and the population it serves. … but by maintaining the standards of excellence he established we will ensure that the center continues to be an invaluable cultural resource for the South Bronx and the city as a whole.”

Edgecombe said he was leaving “with some butterflies and some doubts,” but will complete programs and projects booked for the next season “that’s unfair to hand over to anybody.”

He and his wife, Nydia, who met at the college (she is director of alumni affairs), live in Yonkers. He said there’ll be more time for bird-watching, reading, being with his grandchildren and getting involved “with advocacy through organizations like Common Cause.”

Looking back over his years at Hostos, Edgecombe said, “I had the best job in the college. … You get feedback right away. … Our cultures have a life of their own. All they need is a little space and they flourish. They are so powerful and so rich I think anybody in my position would be successful.”

Hostos plans a major concert in November dedicated to Edgecombe.