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Secret Histories | Martha Cooper: NYCasitas

Take a trip back in time to revisit the hidden gems nestled in vacant lots, celebrating Puerto Rican culture in New York,

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen

Nestled into vacant lots sprinkled across the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and the Lower East Side are little slices of home for the Puerto Rican residents of New York: a casita (“little house”) and surrounding gardens. Casitas first sprang up in the late 1970s. At the time there were hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned buildings scattered across the city, the result of arson schemes that reduced much of New York to rubble. Resilience was essential to existence, and with that in mind, a number of middle-aged African American and Puerto Rican residents were inspired to reclaim the land for flower and vegetable gardens.

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Realizing this was a positive thing, Koch administration established Green Thumb program in 1978, which allowed residents to lease the abandoned lots for a dollar a year while also supplying tools, seeds, and fencing for the gardens. It is within these gardens that the casitas lie, sparkling like gems under the city’s sky. A form of Caribbean vernacular architecture, casitas are constructed of wood and consisting of one or two rooms. The exteriors are painted in bright, vivid colors of the island: red, turquoise, and yellow abound. They also enjoy glorious names like Villa El Gato (“The Cat’s House”), El Balcón (“The Puerto Rican Veranda”), and Rincón Criollo (“Creole Corner”).

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On the island, the castias were by inhabited by the working poor, used by peasants, coastal workers, and urban shanty dwellers. In New York City they became a social club for all generations in the neighborhood. Many casitas feature a pitched roof and a veranda, and are also wired for electricity and basic plumbing so that the community could come together to do everything from celebrating holidays and hosting performances to playing dominoes and roasting pig over an open spit. Chickens, ducks, rabbits, and geese also live on the land, recreating the atmosphere of island life like nothing else.

From 1988–1990, celebrated photographer Martha Cooper documented the casitas throughout New York as part of a major research projected funded by the Bronx Council of the Arts. She remembers, “There were five researchers on the project; I was the one with a car. I drove all over the city locating casitas for the researchers. I like to document for historic preservation. It’s the same thing I had been doing taking graffiti photographs; I knew this was going to disappear some day and I’m going to have the picture. I think a good photograph is always going to be interesting because of the subject matter.”

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Cooper’s instinct proved correct: many of the casitas have since closed, but Rincón Criollo lives on in a second location in the Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx, where they are now seeking landmark status. Cooper observes, “It’s amazing how fast time files. A lot of people are really interested in the casitas now. It’s a whole new topic for some people, and for others, it it’s nostalgia.”

Bringing it home, Cooper was invited by Carlos Mare to show this work at Hi-ARTS Gallery, New York,  in the heart of Spanish Harlem. Martha Cooper: NYCasitas , now through May 15, 2016, establishes a meaningful connection between the past and the present. The photographs are a wonderful trip back in time, celebrating the community spirit of Puerto Rican life. In Cooper’s work, we return to a New York that existed nearly three decades ago, a city that was struggling through the twin plagues of crack and AIDS. Yet in Cooper’s photographs, you are whisked away from all of that, taken into a private oasis that shows the power and strength of community. We share in the pure joy and pleasure of coming together to enjoy one another.

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All photos: ©Martha Cooper

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.