Humans of the Lower East Side’s Loisaida

Thirty-seven years ago, a group of Latino community members started a community center in Alphabet City. They called it Loisaida after a Bimbo Rivas’ poem. “Loisaida, I love you, I dig the way you talk,” he wrote in the 70’s.

By the late 80s the barrio was rough, David Potteiger remembers. Life in a squat “was horrible,” he said, “winters were very cold, pipes would freeze. Storefronts were drug fronts, some were coke, some were pot. On that corner used to be a little store. But it was really a coke front.”

His squat, a half block from the Loisaida Center, caught fire in 1994. The squatters didn’t have money for joist hangers—most didn’t have jobs—but he had a friend in the corner building on Avenue C with the little store that was really a coke front. He moved in upstairs and got a job with the Transit Department.

A restaurant named Esperanto moved in where the little coke store was 7 years later and started selling Brazilian and Latino fare. Today, its sidewalk tables, brightly painted in tropical colors, are dappled in spring light.

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“I used to get mugged every three or four months,” he said, “but I could run really fast—they can’t stab you if they can’t catch you.”

Pepe Flores lives on Avenue C between 5th and 6th. He’s been in the neighborhood for 42 years—moved to the Lower East Side after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans were established in the community by the late 40s and 50s. By the 60s it was considered a destination. “By the 70s,” he said, “It was all Puerto Ricans and blacks. Later—in the 80s, more Dominicans.”

He said he had always known there was a punk rock scene, but the neighborhood had always been a magnet for musicians of all kinds—jazz, rock, latin—there were so many places to perform. “But now,” he says, “they’re almost nonexistent.”

In the 80s and 90s the barrio went through a transition, it was abandoned by landlords and the city: no sanitation, no health, no education services. The drug scene was very strong. It was ground zero for the AIDS and crack epidemic.

“I saw a lot of people die.” he said.

Pepe Flores
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“But even then, there were people that were optimists, that believed.” They created gardens and day care centers.

Pepe collected music and brought it to the gardens, which provided a place for people to gather. Empty lots turned into lawns. “They are our lawns, a place for people to socialize safely, to sit down with neighbors.”

Each garden has its own personality, su sello. Some inspired musical traditions, others were headquarters for certain groups like Charas and Latinos in the Hood. Pepe, who worked in day care for 30 years, brought children to maintain the garden boxes year round.

The 90s were the hardest, he reckons. A lot of art, galleries, graffiti, and culture defined the moment of gentrification. And then, little by little, gentrification won. A red-tail hawk screeches outside his window, sirens whine softly in the distance. The light from the open windows plays on walls of records and musical instruments.

Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez gazebo
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Pepe says, “People that didn’t get involved got evicted. It wasn’t in the sense of one day to the other, but people died, moved out, and our community shrunk, spiritually and symbolically.”

He says he used to walk out the door and before he could take ten steps it was, “Hi, How are you? How are you doing?” Now, he says, “I can walk two or three blocks before people recognize me.”

Tato, who works at the Loisaida Center, remembers coming down from the Bronx and East Harlem to shop at Delancey; to hit up live music, to see something that wasn’t commercial. The community, he remembers, had the only Puerto Rican bookstore, Agueybaná, a place where the Latin diaspora connected.

He leans back and smiles, black shirt, black denim, black Dock Martins with a black wrist belt. “Gentrification—it’s a double edged sword,” he says, “when it comes to the arts and culture.”

Artists make communities trendy. “Once you have the openings with the wine and cheese and then the lotus flowers coming out of the mud,” he says, people want to move in. They want to live next to the mural.

The Lower East Side Puerto Ricans, Tato says, have always been different, exposed to more influences—they grew up with punk rock, Jews, Armenians, Chinese in this great cultural pallete. But now we are no longer distinctive, and so we have this festival to celebrate the history and the legacy and to establish that we are still here.

The Loisaida Center has a brand new building and a decades old festival permit. A few years ago it was the copy and paste NYC street festival – sausage and pepper and cotton candy vendors – but now a whole new team is working to take it back to its roots.

One way that the Center is working to make the festival relevant again is by recognizing individuals. The Viva Loisaida Awards reinstated last year celebrate those people that have made Loisaida such a vibrant community for so long. Latinos and non-Latinos. There are the activities surrounding the Festival: art exhibits, cabarets, traveling exhibits and a carnival procession on Sunday.

Its goal is not to sell as many spots as it can to your generic funnel cake cart, but to celebrate the community’s history and reflect its growth and its changes.

Tato leans forward and smiles. “The festival will hold us accountable to the legacy of our history.”

Edgardo “Larregui” Rodriguez is an artist in residence at the Loisaida Center. He lived in La Perla, the infamous favela on the cliffs below the bastions of Old San Juan, for ten years. He paints an outline of a pool on the tile floor in the Center’s outdoor patio.

He says he wants to create a “Domingo Familiar,” where the family can pass a day in the painting of a tropical terrace. He admits the pool is, “un sueño Americano” and possibly a little ostentatious, but it is, he declares, consistent with the concept.

Kidney shaped and painted blue, in the artist’s rendition a hammock will hang over imaginary water. It will be un escape de la vida del trabajo, de compromisos. A place to reconnect with your gente querida. A magical place where you can play chocolate dominos, and a clothes line of culture between one apartment and another.

Above the patio, a fire escape is painted blue. Blue to signify that it was once a squat.

Edgardo carefully fills in the width of the pool’s edge, measuring it out with a paint stirrer. Asked how he feels about gentrification, he says it’s a game of injustice, of colonization, it kills culture. It takes you from your house, from your creations and ends in many sadnesses. Young people move on, adapt, but the old people, “los mas viejitos,” don’t adjust so well to the impact.

And that is why, he hopes, that each person coming to the festival with learn a little more respect for their culture—and learn how to defend it.

Libertad Guerra is the Director for the Center culture and arts programming, and has worked to infuse this year’s Festival with a real carnivalesque spirit, one that showcases all kinds of emergent artists.

She says it will be “a very different type of festival—we do have sausage and peppers—but from Latinos!”

Libertad warns that community centers are closing everywhere, but in this neighborhood of mixed incomes, dominos still sound out from the gardens. Loisaida, Inc.’s Center is a place from which to do battle with displacement. People can come from whatever neighborhood and see how this community is reclaiming their little slice of downtown, how they haven’t ever lost it.

“The squats and homesteading were started by the Latino community,” Libertad says, “a lot of what came after—even the graffiti—came out of it, out of murals to beautify the neighborhood.”

Aida Sosa, the manager of Esperanto on the corner, dreams of roasting a pig on the sidewalk during the festival. She says, “Nothing against gyros, but having a goat or a baby pig roasting on a spit fire outside is something you don’t see all the time.”

An elderly Ana Ramos works with her husband in the garden across the street. She waters flowers growing in garden boxes. She has been living in the neighborhood since 1958. When asked about Loisaida, she says, “I’ve had two babies here, I like the neighborhood. Never had a problem here.”

She remembers the founding of the garden in 1989 after the building fell down. When we came from the Dominican Republic, she says, it was “all buildings.” Now she says, “Es bonito, por que hay mucha cultura. Mucha musica también.”

Micheal Formika
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We have to fight to keep it neighborhoody, says Micheal Formika, the queen bee of Loisaida’s queen scene in the 90s. He works and lives in the neighborhood. His hopes and esperanzas are Loisaida’s.

Come for your sausages and peppers this Memorial Day weekend, hang with your queridos in a tropical patio painting, listen to some music, soak in the culture, or maybe just chill in some of Manhattan’s nicest gardens.

On Avenue C you can share, right down to the lingonberry. So come down to get down and learn a thing or two about how the hood stays hoody.