Travis Berry’s eyes filled with tears as he watched the piano player on stage at Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park’s Cultural Performance Center in Harlem. Each movement of the artist’s fingers dancing across the keys filled the space with resonant, vibrant sound. In the packed auditorium of more than 750 seats, other community members were reacting similarly to the emotional performance.
Travis, who manages the newly restored Robert Frederick Smith Center for the Performing Arts, still beams as he recalls that night. “I couldn’t believe that a legend like Jon Baptiste graced our stage.”
But it is what’s happened since that 2019 grand opening that really excites Travis. “Since the center was renovated, we have hosted many more community performances. The upgrades to the stage, audio system, and lighting have provided our performers with the professional look and sound that they deserve.”
Riverbank State Park welcomes more than 3 million people each year and serves as a four-season recreational and cultural hub. Having worked at the park since it opened in 1993, Travis has witnessed the entire lifespan of the center. “After 26 years, through natural wear and tear the center needed updating and the technology was outdated. Our effort to update the center began 15 years ago, but it was difficult for the project to find funding. We’re so happy that OSI did something to improve our theater space.”
In 2018, OSI raised $2.8 million to revitalize the legacy performing arts center, with philanthropist Robert Frederick Smith providing a lead million- dollar gift. Major support also came from Lucy Waletzky, chair of the New York State Council of Parks, and members and supporters of the New York City Regional Parks Commission, including Alexander Durst, Leisle Lin, Allison Whipple Rockefeller, Janet Felleman, and Simon Roosevelt. Support also came from late Assemblyman Denny Farrell, for whom the park has been renamed, and from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilman Mark Levine.
“While opening night was certainly a spectacular celebration that few will ever forget, it’s most gratifying to hear about how the renovated performance space has increased Riverbank’s capacity for events,” says Kathy Moser, who directs OSI’s Parks program. “Music and artistic expression have a power to unite communities and this project has ensured that Harlem’s rich culture and heritage will continue to take center stage.”
Lonnie Youngblood, known as the “Prince of Harlem” and a performer at Riverbank State Park for more than 15 years, has nothing but praise for the newly renovated center. “Having performed all over the world and in 48 states, I can attest that these updates put Riverbank in line with top-tier performance spaces and gives the space a new, professional edge,” says Lonnie. “I am full of gratitude and applaud OSI for supporting our thriving, artistic community.”
For Travis Berry, the renovation of the performance center is another chapter he can add to his book of stories on Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park. “People love the new theater,” he says. “The space looks magnificent and we have received many requests from artists and community members for shows and events. Finally, in the heart of Harlem we have a theater with the capacity to showcase the tremendous amount of community talent here.”