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With Luxury Condos Above, Hunger Museum is Set to Open

United States, October 10, 2008

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Julie Shapiro

Downtown Express
October, 2013

A new museum by Mercy Corps will bring a taste of the Third World to northern Battery Park City.

International nonprofit Mercy Corps is opening the Action Center to End World Hunger on Thurs., Oct. 16, World Food Day, at 6 River Terrace, in the ground floor of the Sheldrake Organization's new Riverhouse condo building.

The museum's goal is not just to educate students, tourists and local residents, but to impel them to action, said George Devendorf, who planned the museum for Mercey Corps and is working on a similar effort in Oregon.

"It's called an action center for a reason," Devendorf said during a tour of the soon-to-open museum.

The center offers levels of action ranging from "one minute" to "one lifetime," depending on how much time the visitor is willing to commit. Devendorf isn't concerned that many New Yorkers may lean closer to the "one minute" end of the spectrum.

"There are things you can do in a minute," he said, like signing an online petition or e-mailing an elected official. "And in taking one action, you may be enthused about taking a second one."

The ribbon-cutting at the museum on Oct. 16 will kick off a week of events, including a benefit comedy show Oct. 19 at the Highline Ballroom hosted by the Upright Citizens Brigade and Funny or Die, a comedy group co-founded by Will Ferrrell. Leonardo DiCaprio bought a condo in the Riverhouse last spring and is rumored to be attending the ribbon-cutting, but the museum would not confirm that.

The action center will be the first community space in the Sheldrake condo building to open. The Poets House, a poetry library and literary center, will move in next year, and a branch of the New York Public Library is slated to open in 2010.

The Hunger Action Center in Battery Park City heralds a new strategy for Mercy Corps, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that works in more than 35 countries to address crises and develop secure communities.

"If we want to advance the type of change we have in mind, we have to work on the home front," said Devendorf, who is vice president of a department Mercy Corps created last year to mobilize developed countries. "We have to inspire folks to get engaged."

Previously, the bulk of Mercy Corps' work in the developed world was in fundraising, except for when they responded to disasters like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 (in New York, Mercy Corps trained teachers and childcare providers to help kids in the aftermath of the attacks).

The B.P.C. center makes the most of its 4,000-square-foot space by using interactive multi-media exhibits packed with more content than most people could absorb in one visit. A video narrated by Tina Fey welcomes visitors to the museum and explains the center's mission. While watching the video, visitors sit on benches made of wood salvaged from houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Visitors then go the four "training towers," which pair four root causes of poverty and hunger with four countries that serve as case studies. Using touch screens, visitors can learn about conflict in Afghanistan, governance in Indonesia, climate change in Niger and land rights in Guatemala.

Visitors can then hear from those who face the problems every day. In one video clip, a 12-year-old boy from Niger remembers his community starving after crops failed.

"I don't ever want that hunger to come back," he says through an interpreter. "I'm afraid it will. I want it to go away forever."

The center harnesses the concern viewers may feel and converts it to action, giving examples of successful strategies to combat hunger in Niger, like feeding the very young and using water wisely. Then the screen offers actions visitors can do, from e-mailing information home (one minute) to hosting a fundraising dinner (one day) to lightening their carbon footprint (one lifetime).

Mercy Corps did not come up with the idea for the Hunger Action Center — it originated with the Battery Park City Authority. The authority wanted a complement to the Irish Hunger Memorial across the street from the Riverhouse condo building.

"While the Irish Hunger Memorial spoke about hunger at a very important time of history, we wanted to convey a message that it's still an issue worldwide," said Jim Cavanaugh, president of the B.P.C.A. "Hunger is not a fact of history but is an ongoing problem."

The authority requested proposals to create a museum, and ultimately gave Mercy Corps a 30-year lease on the space for only $10, along with a grant of $1.25 million to design and build the platinum LEED space, Devendorf said. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation pitched in another million.

The Battery Park City Authority liked Mercy Corps' plan to continually update the exhibits to keep up with current events.

"They clearly saw it as something people would come to not just once but time and time again," Cavanaugh said.

Starting Oct. 16, the Hunger Action Center (212-537-0500, ActionCenter.org) will be open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center has a suggested donation of $8 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens. Children are free.