PUERTO RICAN VILLAGE: A BRIEF HISTORY
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Downtown Brooklyn and its waterfront communities are significant sites in the history of Puerto Rican migration to New York City. For the first half of the 20th century, the New York and Porto Rico Steamship Company, which transported Puerto Ricans from the archipelago to New York City, primarily docked on Pier 35 in Red Hook. Many newly arrived Puerto Ricans settled in what is now called Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, and Williamsburg because of the proximity to the waterfront both for ease of travel back to Puerto Rico and because of employment opportunities at the docks.
Pablo Avilés, whose family migrated from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico to New York City in the mid-1920s, was an active community organizer who sought to improve the lives of Nuyoricans living in Downtown Brooklyn. Frustrated by the social, economic, and political disenfranchisement that plagued his neighborhood along the Columbia Street waterfront (which today spans the communities of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens), he was eager to cultivate opportunities for himself and his neighbors to build a self determined, thriving, and creative community.
The year was 1967, and while the violences of the Vietnam war was being unjustly waged abroad, the wars of systemic racism, violence, poverty, and drugs were stealing lives at home. After several rejected proposals, Pablo finally received funding from the New York City Department of Youth Services to sponsor a series of summer events and youth workforce development projects on Columbia Street. The funds were directed to pay local residents to collectively construct outdoor community plazas on Columbia and Irving Streets, which would be named “Puerto Rican Village.”
Two empty lots were transformed into tree-lined cultural oases, complete with a garita reminiscent of San Juan’s Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
One of the plazas also hosted a stage for performances named the “Antonia Denis Memorial Theater” after the Downtown Brooklyn Afro-Boricua activist.
From summer of 1967 to summer of 1969, Columbia Street was buzzing with activity through Puerto Rican Village-sponsored movie nights, concerts, block parties, parades, and skill building classes in silk screening and photography.
Summer of 1970 would mark the end of Puerto Rican Village. The New York City Department of Youth Services did not renew the grant that funded the initiative. Despite this loss of city support, Avilés continued his organizing work along Columbia Street. He founded Los Tintos Indios and Park Road Gardens Youth Services, whose missions were to improve the quality of life for Black and Puerto Rican residents of Downtown Brooklyn through arts and civic engagement.
By the 1970s, the plazas came to be known as "Cat's Village," a settlement for houseless community members, many of whom--according to Avilés daughter Nena--were the same community members who had built Puerto Rican Village. Cat’s Village was part of the casita movement, a city wide initiative led by Nuyoricans who responded to the City’s housing crises by building homes on empty lots, referencing architecture reminiscent of homes on Puerto Rico’s countryside. Cat’s Village, which was wired with electricity and had a vegetable garden, burned down tragically in a fire in 1994 (NYTimes).
Meanwhile, Avilés’ family left Columbia Street by the early 1970s. Pablo moved overseas for work and relocated to Queens, where he continued with community organizing until his passing in 2006.
Today, the site of what was once Puerto Rican Village is an apartment complex. Now referred to by developers as the “Columbia Waterfront District,” the neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Red Hook and its Black and Nuyorican residents have been largely displaced due to gentrification. Even in this erasure, the legacy of Puerto Rican Village persists through the sweat equity of generations of Nuyoricans who persist in their commitment to lead lives rooted in creativity, reciprocity, and love.
In Avilés’ memoir, Pablito, in which he writes extensively about Puerto Rican Village, he opens the manuscript with this self-authored poem:
Here Lies not men but the sweat of man,
The Unknown Heroes of the war on poverty,
This battleground is lost,
But the war continues,
May god forgive us for being poor.
Infinite gratitude to Pauline “Nena” Avilés for her support and blessing on all aspects of this project.
Thank you to the community of the Puerto Ricans of Columbia Street (Carroll Gardens/Red Hook, Brooklyn) Facebook Group for introducing us to Puerto Rican Village.
Special thanks to Willie “Marine Boy” Estrada, Billy Chaparro, and Stephanie D. Ortiz.