Who Needs a Building? A Harlem Wellness Center Promotes Physical and Social Health

When Laurence Debucquoy moved to Harlem she did not have a sense of belonging. She had come to Midtown Manhattan from Belgium in the late 1980s, and headed uptown in search of an affordable two-bedroom apartment for herself and her son. She just went to work and came home, and never expanded her social circle beyond those who lived in her building.

Patricia Elaine was born and raised in Harlem. Though she moved to the Bronx in her early 20s, she has consistently been drawn back by Harlem’s energy.

Both women were looking to stay active, and crossed paths with Vivian Kurutz, the founding director of what is now known as the Harlem Wellness Center.

Once they began attending the center’s classes, Ms. Debucquoy and Ms. Elaine said, they found much more than a good workout. They found people to check on, people to spend time with and people to love.

“That’s what living in a community is about,” Ms. Debucquoy said. “So it goes, I don’t know what I would do without the Harlem Wellness Center, honestly.”

The two women might not have forged their bond had it not been for the center. Founded in 2013, it aims to serve as a shared space for longtime Harlemites and newcomers amid the divisive forces of gentrification. Ms. Kurutz achieves this through what she calls a “holistic sense of wellness,” nurturing both physical and social health.

The center hopes to serve the entire community, particularly those who are suffering health issues “because of the lifestyle, because of culture, because of tradition,” Ms. Kurutz said. “I want to see us really taking care of that population of people.”

Ms. Kurutz has spent the past five years doing just that. The center was originally housed in the Oberia Dempsey Multi-Services Center on West 127th Street, but Ms. Kurutz found that the building wasn’t a great fit. In 2016 Harlem Wellness began operating as a center-less center.

From left, Patricia Elaine, 74, Laurence Dubucquoy, 57, and Dorothy Foster, 70, at a Harlem Wellness Center yoga session. Chad Rhym/NYT Institute

They’ve used locations like the Harlem Jewish Community Center and Church of the Master to host activities such as fitness classes, women’s circles and spa nights. They are open to the public and donation-based, meaning patrons pay what they can, even if it is nothing at all.

The center is primarily funded through individual donations and social crowdfunding campaigns. Due to their limited resources, Rick Linde, the head of the center’s board of directors, said it has been difficult to find a permanent home.

“We’re a real nonprofit in every sense of the word,” Mr. Linde said. “So we needed a space that wasn’t going to cost us a fortune in order to really fulfill our mission.”

Rising rental prices have affected Harlem residents. According to yearly reports released by the real estate advisory firm MNS, between April 2008 and April 2018 the price of a two-bedroom apartment in a building without a doorman increased by 23.55 percent. Meanwhile the cost of a studio apartment in a building with a doorman has increased by 88.16 percent.

Though prices are going up, Harlem remains an attractive place for wealthier buyers. This has resulted in an apparent disconnect between different kinds of residents.

“Harlem had a strong sense of community,” said Cathy Bristow, who attends the center at least twice a week. “We knew our neighbors and I knew my neighbors.”

Ms. Kurutz said she wants to mend that rift. The product of a childhood in a diverse neighborhood in 1970s Milwaukee, and a father who she said instilled in her Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision for an inclusionary and peaceful community, Ms. Kurutz believes she has an affinity for bringing people together.

Ms. Kurutz said she realized that she could do it through wellness. While living in New York as a full-time actress in the early 90’s, Ms. Kurutz took her first yoga class, then began training with yogi Dharma Mittra, and joined him on a retreat.

“I thought ‘This is how I want to live,’” Ms. Kurutz said. “So I just went on a quest to figure out what that meant for me and I just started studying yoga. But everything is better when you share it.”

After receiving certification and teaching one yoga class a week for some time, she started the Harlem Center for Healthy Living in 2008. It had evolved into the Harlem Wellness Center by 2013.

Dublin Salas, who teaches a Saturday morning yoga class, said teaching for the center is different because he has the freedom to teach his own way, with more focus on meditation and mindfulness than on fast flows and music.

“I’ve just been learning so much about yoga with Vivian and this group of people,” Mr. Salas said. “I just love it, I have to be honest. This is one of my favorite classes to teach.”

Though the center has made the best of its situation, Ms. Kurutz is eager to get the group into a space of their own. It is not yet final, but she said they are very close to securing a location.

“Our name is Harlem Wellness Center, and that’s no accident,” Ms. Kurutz said. “That is the fullness of the vision. So if there is no center, there is no fullness of the vision. And I didn’t get into this to do half of a vision.”