What's Next for the Historic RKO Hamilton Theater? These Columbia Students Are Collecting Community Ideas

SIPA students canvassed Hamilton Heights to understand what kind of community arts organizations people would like to see.

Kelly Moffitt
April 26, 2022

The historic RKO Hamilton Theater, at Broadway and West 146 St., has fallen into a state of disrepair over the years. Originally a vaudeville house, which later featured movies and boxing, it opened in 1913. Its ground floor is currently home to a Spectrum internet and cable store and a SNIPES sneaker shop. Now, Manhattan Community Board 9 has been spearheading an effort to restore the theater and include an 18-story development above it, which would include affordable housing.

The RKO Hamilton Theater, photographed in 2019. Courtesy CB9.

Board member April Tyler first led the efforts to restore the theater and since her passing, others have taken up the reins. In 2020, residents chose between two possible redevelopment plans, landing on a plan put forth by Brisa Builders. Community Board 9 is currently seeking funding to aid the restoration. They're also still seeking input from community members on how to best use the resulting space.

That's where Columbia School of International and Public Affairs students come in. The Columbia Community Impact Investing Initiative (Ci3) is a student-led organization dedicated to the field of impact investing (an investment that generates financial returns while also creating positive social impact) and social entrepreneurship. The organization hopes to support high-potential initiatives for impact investing and to help students prepare for roles in this field. This semester, the group partnered with Manhattan CB9 on revitalization plans for the theater.

"Funding the revitalization of the theater is important, but even more paramount is gaining a comprehensive understanding of community members' desires and needs," said Alexia Ipiotis (SIPA'23), one of the members of the Ci3 team. 

SIPA students canvas in front of the RKO Hamilton Theater

The Ci3 team developed a survey and hit the ground running on Saturday, April 16, 2022, near the RKO Hamilton Theater to connect with West Harlem residents and find out what type of art offerings and programs are most appealing to them, in the event of the restoration.

Ideas ranged from rap concerts to pottery classes to comedy shows, and more. Residents also proposed after-school workshops for children, presentations in Spanish, and spaces for community members to share performances.

With this information in hand, Ci3 will present their findings to the RKO Task Force, a subcommittee of Manhattan CB9, which will eventually help the neighborhood board reach out to potential partner organizations. 

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