Community Gardens: A Puerto Rican Legacy

Plaza Cultural, in the Lower East Side, has changed along with the neighborhood's residents. (Photo by Marcela Alvarez via El Diario)

Plaza Cultural, on the Lower East Side, has changed along with the neighborhood’s residents. (Photo by Marcela Alvarez via El Diario)

Through the vines, the images of a mother carrying her child, the silhouette of a mountain range, a soldier and a timber house are still visible. As if they refused to disappear, the battles fought by the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York – still painted on the walls under the title “The Struggle Continues” – greet the passers-by, who often gaze in search of their origins.

More than 40 years have passed since Puerto Rican artists and activists came together to turn a Lower East Side vacant lot hijacked by drug smugglers into a space for social empowerment.

“It was a vacant, destroyed area. Drug addicts would come in here. It was an infested, decayed place where people would litter bottles and sat down to smoke pot. But the Artmakers Inc. group – formed by around 26 artists – came together, took the walls and painted 26 murals. [The project] made the square beautiful, and then the community became inspired to help us clean the park. A gate was installed, and this turned into a square,” said María Domínguez, one of the artists who participated in the Plaza Cultural project near Loisaida (Lower East Side) in the 1980s.

Domínguez painted the mural entitled “Sueño” (“Dream”), which appeared on the cover of salsa icon Eddie Palmieri’s album of the same name. She was one of the artists in a collective founded by Eva S. Cockcroft, Joseph Stephenson, Willie Birch, Camille Perrottet and Leslie Bender.

Back then, the space located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C also served as a stage for political debate. “In the beginning, since the space was in a sort of transit, new people started to come, gentrification… I wanted to make a statement about my Puerto Rican culture – images from Puerto Rico – to say that we were still here. Because they were raising the rent, destroying the buildings,” said the artist, who was invited to collaborate by the group CHARAS, founded by Chino García and Armando Pérez.

Martin Ross, an architect and member of the Plaza Cultural project, acknowledged the Puerto Rican community’s contribution in spite of the changes the area has undergone over the years. “They turned things around, reversed the energy that was leading to crime and violence by motivating and cleaning the area. The government was ignoring this neighborhood, they were not allocating resources, and [the people] were forced to find them on their own by recycling. They got inspired to make this a healthier city. It was part of a movement,” said Ross, adding that they lived through “tough” times.

Today, the lot is the site of a community garden and, although it is not totally exempt from the threat of redevelopment, it has been able to survive so far. “Some people are interested in building a public housing project but, politically, it is not the right time for the city. There is also another infrastructure project, but that would be a large investment,” said the community leader.

Sitting in front of a small wooden house, Ross explains that the garden – where apple trees, roses, peonies and even echinacea grow – is kept by a group of volunteers, and that the events held there have been extended to include the community as a whole. One of the activities taking place in the garden is a composting workshop sponsored by the Lower East Side Ecology Center as part of their environmental sustainability projects. The program seeks to reduce the amount of waste in the city.

(Photo by Marielis Acevedo via El Diario)

(Photo by Marielis Acevedo via El Diario)

“We are not taking resources away from the city but creating them,” said Ross, who was born in Arizona. The square, which is also a park and a recreational area, remains open thanks to government support, revenue generated from renting the space for weddings, and by holding music events and farming festivals, among other initiatives.

A history of self-management from Manhattan to the Bronx

In Marixsa Rodríguez’s article “Re-discovering Community Gardens and Puerto Rican Roots in New York,” gardens such as Brisas del Caribe and El Jardín del Paraíso – near Plaza Cultural – represent the efforts of Lower East Side residents to have safer, more livable areas.

In the Bronx, the Rincón Criollo, El Batey Borincano, Palmas del Caribe and El Flamboyán gardens “are all results of community efforts from neighbors and born out of the necessity to find a space in the community to congregate, make music and find safe spaces for children to play,” says the author, who works as a social media consultant at Centro Voices in Hunter College.

“I would dare to say that Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have pioneered rescuing land to create community gardens in New York. What they were really looking for was space. We lived in very small apartments, there were hygiene issues, and they were trying to find somewhere to raise their children and meet. That is how these spaces were born,” said Rodríguez.

The writer added that, today, many of these neighborhoods are more diversified because of community board requirements and by the arrival of new residents.

“Puerto Ricans have been forced to move out. They are still very much settled here, but not in large numbers anymore. Many have moved upstate. But, to me, they are still here and they are still part of the changes through these centers. It is not in the same numbers as back in the ’70s, but they are still present. An example of this is the Loisaida Center,” said Rodríguez.

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