Since 1993, the Harlem Meer Performance Festival has been a cultural cornerstone of the community surrounding the north end of Central Park. Founded to celebrate the original restoration of the Harlem Meer and the surrounding 225-acre area above 96th Street, as well as the opening of the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (the first visitor center in the north end of the Park), it’s been a mainstay of New York City summer for more than 25 years.
Forming the Festival
Each year held along the northern shore of the Harlem Meer, the Festival is a gathering place where regulars from the neighborhood and visitors from all over the City come to dance, listen, and commune through music—a result of the Conservancy’s early restoration work around the Meer.
The neighboring Conservatory Garden opened in 1983, but there was still a lot to be done in the area at that time. The Conservancy raised the money to build the Dana Discovery Center, a hub for visitors to enhance their Park experience with maps, tours, and free educational programming. As soon as the Dana Discovery Center was finished in 1993, it was ready to serve the community and became home to this beloved event.
“The Harlem Meer Performance Festival has shown the importance of the Park for the surrounding community and the City at large,” says Sean Reynolds, the Conservancy’s Manager of Visitor Services. “A well-maintained and looked-after park is needed for these types of public programs, and that’s the message we give to everyone that attends.”
Making it all happen
Although this year’s Festival is going virtual, in years past it’s held on multiple Sundays in a row throughout the summer. This involves support from a variety of Conservancy departments—from Special Events to Visitor Experience to Communications—working together to pull off the event.
“Every year we get the same feedback from those who attend the Festival about how important it is for them and their family,” Sean explains, “to come and experience such a fun and positive environment in such an incredible and unique place within the City.”
Roz Smith of Circuit Productions, Inc., which assists the Conservancy in the Festival, revels in the event’s growth over the years. “What I find intriguing,” she says, “and what makes this festival one of the [hidden gems of New York City summer], is that it covers all the bases of each ethnicity.” One day there might be a program of Latvian music and music from the Jewish and klezmer tradition. On another, soca. And gospel, especially, is one of the Festival’s most important traditions.
Going virtual in 2020
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conservancy is unable to hold the Festival in person this year—but it was a priority to continue it in some form, Sean explains.
“The Harlem Meer Performance Festival has been a staple of the community for so many years now that the Conservancy thought it was important to continue the tradition,” he says. “The idea to run the program virtually allows us to continue this beloved summer event that has brought thousands of people together every year, in a safe and fun way.”
One of this year’s performers includes Paul Beaubrun, who is originally from Haiti. Beaubrun and his band have created a unique and transfixing sound that he calls “roots/blues.” His connection to the Festival speaks to its deep importance to the surrounding community and decades-long history.
“I was six years old and I remember my parents performing at this Festival,” he says. “The Park has always been a peaceful place for me. There's always music, art, and community around, and there’s a sense of history. When I come here, I feel that spirit, that energy. It’s always a great honor to be here and perform for this community. It’s something any musician around the world would want to do—performing in Central Park.”
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