Puerto Rican Presence in Columbia Street: Community Park turned Shantytown
The story of the last efforts of the pioneros of the community in trying to preserve their way of life against the rapid urban development that erased their history.
When the first wave of Puerto Ricans traveling by steamship arrived in Brooklyn, lamplighters could still be seen at dusk lighting the street lamps along Columbia Street. This, at a time when urban areas in Puerto Rico had electricity, was the first impression of political and social activist Joaquín Colón López when he arrived in 1918. Over the next years Columbia Street became the center of the first Puerto Rican colonia, reaching its peak in the 1940s, struggling for survival from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and abruptly and completely ending in 1990s. In a neighborhood where the Puerto Rican presence is all but completely forgotten, this paper tells the story of the last efforts of the pioneros of the community in trying to preserve their way of life against the rapid urban development that erased their history. It is the story of the Puerto Rican Village Park/Plaza that occupied the empty lots on east Columbia Street in front of Irving Street and later became, and is now solely remembered as, The Shantytown. But first, to better understand the reasons and ultimately the significance of the Puerto Rican Village, it is necessary to know the context of its history, starting in 1917…
Although allowed to enter the US without going through immigration since 1904, the year 1917 is very important in explaining the Puerto Rican presence in all of New York, especially Brooklyn; that year Puerto Ricans were granted US Citizenship by the Jones Act passed by Congress. Along with citizenship came compulsory military services; the US had just entered the World War I, and recruited 17,000 Puerto Ricans during the war. The many Puerto Ricans that came to Brooklyn during the following decade was, in part, a result of a memorandum issued in 1917 addressed to the US Secretary of War, entitled "Excess Population in Puerto Rico, ‟that recommended bringing between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals to labor on farms as agricultural workers; if that was not possible, then similar work requiring manual labor might be arranged." (1)
Whereas prior to 1900 Puerto Ricans would come to the US as students or political exiles, the new wave immigrants consisted of manual laborers that were leaving the poor working conditions of the island in the hopes of a better future. (2)
The New York and Porto Rico Steamship Company brought Puerto Ricans aboard shipping lines like the SS Carolina,SS Porto Rico, SS Borinquen, SS Coamo and Carabobo from 1901 to 1940s. These ships docked primarily on Pier 35 at the end of Hamilton Avenue [Fig.1], and Amity Street. The brochure for the SS Borinquen and SS Coamo [Fig. 2] illustrates some of the accommodations in these steamships. The journey took 5 days and cost anywhere from 20 to 80 dollars. The development of Puerto Rican neighborhoods along the Brooklyn waterfront was due to two major factors: first the availability of jobs for migrants was plentiful due to the drafting for WWI; second, the proximity to the waterfront and the steamship ports gave them a sense of connection with home in that more Puerto Ricans would arrive constantly with news of the homeland, and if they needed to, they could go home quickly and easily. For this reason, the first Boricua settlements reached along Hamilton Avenue, President, Sackett, Union, DeGraw, Van Brunt, and Carroll Streets but never straying far from Columbia.(3)
Brooklyn was well known back then for its mercantile, shipping, artillery and distribution activities; also for its numerous shoe, paint and varnish factories, and their machinery, chemical and medical production. Some Puerto Ricans found jobs along the waterfront, others found disappointment and discrimination; two industries that frequently employed Puerto Ricans (both men and women) were cigar factories and the needle trades.
They made their homes, businesses and social clubs around Columbia Street, mostly an Italian community at the time. The first Latin bodega was established in 1917 by Rufiño Pastrana and Francisco “the Venezuelan” on the corner of Van Brunt and DeGraw Street; many followed after that, sometimes taking over Italian-owned stores.
Life in and around Columbia Street was made possible, even through the hardships and rejection the Puerto Ricans faced, because there existed a willingness to help from some members of the community. Joaquín Colón López recalls the kindness and hospitality of “Jimmy the dock loader”, an Italian married to a Boricua on 1st President Street, and Doña Ramona “La Paisana”at 56 Union Street. The former would give jobs to Puerto Ricans in the shipping lines, and the latter, a boisterous woman of strict character would never let anyone go without food and shelter. (4) Many political and social clubs developed in the neighborhood, among them: political activist Carlos Tapia opened his civic reunion hall and club on 40 Union Street, the office of the 3rd district of the Porto Rican Democratic Club Inc. (established in 1923) was on 286 Columbia St. In 1928 the murder of two Puerto Rican boys in the corner of Sackett and Van Brunt resulted in the creation of the Betances Democratic Club, a political club based in Sackett Street [Fig.3]. Activist Antonia Denis was a pillar of the Puerto Rican community, an activist and community organizer, she co-founded the Betances Democratic Club. “During the 1920 crisis, she provided room and board to about forty needy compatriots in the second floor of her home in 183 Columbia Street” (5) address of the present-day poultry market on Columbia.
A conversation with long-time resident Isabel Sanchez, whose grandparents came from Puerto Rico and settled in Columbia Street during the 1920s, painted a picture of a bustling commercial neighborhood that, although working-class, was a commercial Mecca back in the day. Buildings along Columbia St. during the 30s-50s consisted mostly of factories and tenement buildings, but always with commercial space on the street level. Mrs. Sanchez recalls Sam the hatter, where residents would custom order their hats; Phil & Paul’s clothing store, Columbia St. Clothing, where custom suits were made; Bill’s Chicken Market, Charlie’s, and Packers, an A&P-like store. Though the neighborhood cannot boast of any vast riches, the truth is that the high commercial activity in and around Columbia kept it alive. Two events in the following years would change this: the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 1956 severed the neighborhood from the richer Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens areas, which meant losing precious customers. Afterwards, a few buildings in Columbia St. began to fall down due, according to residents, to their previously deteriorated state. Mrs. Sanchez remembers the building on 199 Columbia St. (now vacant) that had Jose’s Grocery Store on the street level and housing above; this building began to fall while the people were dancing pachanga at a party upstairs; luckily there were no casualties. A row of three buildings, numbers 135, 137, 139 Columbia St, that appear in the 1940s tax photos as tenement building with commercial space at the bottom, also came down during the late 1950s. The exact reasons are unknown; by some residents’ accounts many of the buildings were old and much deteriorated. This would be the site of the Puerto Rican Village.
In 1963, Pablo Avilés, a member of the community whose parents had arrived from Puerto Rico in the 1920s, saw that his neighborhood had become rundown, that the young Boricuas had lost their sense of pride in their Puerto Rican heritage. The help provided by community centers such as La Casa Neighborhood Center, which provided counseling, housing and social services; and community leaders like resident musician Jose “Tuffy” Sanchez who helped many kids find jobs to help their families (even creating fake Identification Cards for minors), did not suffice. In his book Pablito, Avilés notes that the new generation had changed, that many had been in jail and were “youthful offenders, statutory rapists, burglars, possessors and users of narcotics, and thieves –or so society has rightfully or, perhaps wrongfully, labeled them”.6 He then created Park Row Gardens Buddies Outpost Program and Los Tintos Indios, which consisted of seven men and one woman from the neighborhood, in order to help the community. According to Avilés’ daughter Pauline, the office and place of meetings for the PRGBOP was the first floor of their residence in 133 Columbia St –formerly a barber shop and a take-out restaurant. On the empty lots next to the building they decided to build a community plaza, The Puerto Rican Village park/plaza, built by the hands of the young Boricuas they recruited. The Puerto Rican Village was completed by mid 1960s; it had trees, a fountain resembling a waterfall called Gabriel‟s Waterfall, benches were organized towards a space that served as a stage thus creating an outdoor theater called the Antonia Denis Memorial Theater. It was enclosed within an outside wall that had a garita, sentry box, resembling the iconic image of Puerto Rico’s 16th century Fort San Felipe del Morro. The community would gather in the park/plaza, there would always be some activity going on like plays, outdoor movie presentations, and of course music and dance.
Good times in the Puerto Rican Village were short-lived; according to the NY Times, “there was the disruption of a new city interceptor sewer built deep in the watery ground below Columbia Street. The decisive blow was the collapse of several buildings during that work, causing fatalities and widespread property condemnations and vacancies [Fig. 4].
Commerce shifted, primarily to Court Street. (7) Many Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood were left homeless and, with no help from the city, gave up an moved away. In the Puerto Rican Village, the benches and plaques were stolen, the trees and waterfall were removed; all that was left was the outer wall. Some of the young adults who originally helped build the park/plaza decide to settle in the now empty lot, they build small houses of recycled scrap lumber and other found objects culled from the remnants of abandoned or destroyed buildings [Fig. 6]
What little is known about the Shantytown (and the Puerto Rican Village) is based on other people’s perception. It is said that drug trafficking went on in those houses, that thieves lived there, that they would steal electricity from the city, connecting directly to a street lamp. Other resident say that they were sort of accepted within the community, that although they may have been thieves, they respected the community they came from hence they stole from other neighborhoods. The newer residents wanted them out. According to a NY Times article, in 1989 the shantytown in its most elaborate incarnation, was complete with a vegetable garden, some shacks had carpeting, televisions and other luxuries. (8) They were called Villa del Gato or Cat’s Village, for their many lives; this site that so many people dismissively called Shantytown was a unique example of a New York phenomenon called Puerto Rican Casitas. These were houses built on empty lots by displaced Puerto Ricans in a style resembling the peasant houses of preindustrial Puerto Rico. In places like the Bronx and Loisaidathese were places of social gathering as well as shelters. Casitasrepresented the endurance of Puerto Rican culture in NY. The uniqueness of the casitas in Columbia St. is expressed by folklorist Joseph Sciorra:
Rarely is more than one casita constructed on an individual plot of land. A few exceptions to this pattern do exist. East 139th street in South Bronx, 3 casitas were erected as housing on a single lot but the property was subdivided with fences and each section had its own separate entrance at the sidewalk. In El Barrio, a walkway connects over half a dozen buildings accompanying dooryard gardens in an East 119th Street lot. At Villa El Gato on Brooklyn's Columbia Street, homeless men displaced from neighborhood apartments have constructed their dwellings (as many as 10) in a semi-circle around a central plaza, or solar. (9)
After more than fourteen years in existence, the Shantytown was burned down in 1994, a fire that killed two residents and consumed all the structures in the lot. Along with the destruction, came forgetfulness; few residents remain that remember the true identity and reason behind the Shantytown. The new buildings in the lots are solely residential and do not speak of the traditional Columbia Street, they have finished erasing all memory of the place.
As a closing thought I cite urban planner, professor and advocate of preservation of Latino cultural landscapes in the United States Luis Aponte-Pares:
Puerto Ricans and other Latinos are absent from most accounts of the history of the city and remain generally invisible. The spaces and places created by the settlement of Puerto Ricans over the past century have been all but destroyed, with an attendant loss of memory: they represent a 'deterriorialized' community. This loss compounds the common view that all Latinos are immigrants, that they have not contributed to the development of the city, and that somehow Latinos do not have a place in the city's history. (10)
1 Virginia Sanchez Korrol. From colonia to community: the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1994. 18.
2 According to Sanchez Korrol (pp 25), prior to US conquest in 1898, more that 60% of the sugar was exported to the US; the coffee, tobacco, cacao and other products were more popular in the European market. After 1898, connections with the European market were lost and the sugar production, now owned by the US, was the basis for the island’s economy now based on a system of absentee ownership and the reliance on the production of a single crop. Agricultural land were seized, and within a 25-year span the sugar production increased from 347,000 tons to 1,114,000, but the total employment in that sector remained almost the same.
3 Joaquín Colón López. Pioneros Puertorriqueños en Nueva York: 1917-1947. Arte Público Press, 2002. 36.
4 Colón López, 44.
5 Colón López, 145.
6 As stated in correspondences with Pauline Avilés, daughter of Pablo Avilés.
7 Alan S. Oser, “Neighborhood Stores; Columbia Street Tips Hat to Commerce.” New York Times 14 Apr 1991. n. pag. Web. 22 Nov 2009.
8 Joe Sexton. "2 Killed as Fire Destroys Shantytown in Brooklyn." New York Times 4 Jan 1994: ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2006)
9 Joseph Sciorra. "Return to the Future: Puerto Rican Vernacular Architecture in New York City," Representing the city: ethnicity, capital and culturein the 21st-century. Ed. Anthony D. King. New York NYU Press, 1996. 75.
10 Luis Aponte-Pares. “Appropriating Place in Puerto Rican Barrios.” Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America. Ed. Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2000. 94.
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