A casita in the United We Stand community garden. The clubhouses offer a rural Puerto Rican tradition.
Playing congas inside Rincon Criollo in Melrose, the Bronx.
February 23, 2009
In Bronx, Little Houses That Evoke Puerto Rico
By C. J. HUGHES
Cabbage boiled on a makeshift grill. Wine pressed from grapes grown on a chain-link fence surrounding the property sloshed into cups. Under paintings on a wall showing women in pastel dresses, and a brightly colored machete sitting on a ledge, men played their congas, making a rhythmic thumping.
Though the cracked sidewalks outside were frosty, inside the Rincon Criollo, a lime-hued wooden clubhouse in a community garden at East 157th Street and Brook Avenue in Melrose, in the South Bronx, a summertime vibe ruled.
The 16-by-16-foot clubhouse, where a dozen men gathered on Friday, is one of many scattered throughout the Bronx that are meant to evoke the Puerto Rican countryside, where low-roofed buildings surrounded by gardens, known as casitas, “little houses,” are a common sight.
“This is an important place for the community because it helps it to remember its roots,” said Carmelo Diaz, 55, as he sat inside the Rincon Criollo and began, in song, to beg forgiveness of a long-lost love.
Bronx leaders seem to agree. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Bronx borough president, who last week was appointed to a position in the Obama administration, has urged the New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in a report issued last month to declare Rincon Criollo, along with other casitas, as city landmarks.
Many of the sites proposed in the report, which is the culmination of a nine-month block-by-block survey, are in line with other city landmarks and bear notable architecture, like corbeled brick cornices and Art Deco courtyards.
But breaking with tradition, the list also features more basic modern-day structures, like the beige raised ranches along Charlotte Street, along a stretch ravaged by arson fires, and a highway-side brick apartment tower at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, which many believe to be the birthplace of hip-hop.
Emphasizing sites that have cultural significance, like the casitas, “is very, very different from how we normally have done things, but it is important to broaden the definition,” said Bernd Zimmermann, a former planner in the Bronx borough office who headed the task force that created the list.
“Puerto Ricans wanted to recreate their villages to stabilize themselves while adjusting to society and they were doing it in a place that was an absolute wasteland” because of crime, abandonment and decay, he added.
Rincon Criollo, which translates roughly to down-home corner, has occupied its current 3,000-square-foot corner lot, which also includes an open-air stage, some grills and a shrine to the Virgin Mary, since 2007, after relocating there from a site one block north.
That earlier site, which the city owns and seeks to develop, was a junk-strewn lot in 1974 when Jose Soto, who is known as Chema, led the effort to construct a casita.
Rincon Criollo may be the oldest casita in the South Bronx, residents say, though many have sprung up since. Indeed, a dozen examples are scattered around Melrose Avenue. Although few casitas are open regularly when it is cold because of their thin walls, passers-by can still savor their designs and occasionally sylvan settings from the street.
The yellow-trimmed version on East 157th Street, between Melrose and Elton Avenues, for example, with a symmetrical four-columned porch, is notable among its older brick neighbors. And the clear glass walls that enclose the thickly timbered casita on East 158th Street, between Melrose and Courtlandt Avenues, give it the offbeat feel of a fishbowl.
Tony Incle, 52, a retired electrician, showed a visitor the chandelier he installed at his own creation that went up in 1994 in an abandoned lot on East 157th Street, near Melrose Avenue, which anchors the ceiling of a blue faceted roof.
“And we used to have another casita next door, too, but then they built those homes,” Mr. Incle said.
At most casitas, men seem to dominate among the regulars who show up, and many of them are retired.
An exception to both rules, though, is found at the United We Stand Garden on East 137th Street, near Cypress Avenue, where the group of five men at a square table on a recent afternoon included Pedro Cintron, 33, an ironworker who lives nearby.
“In Puerto Rico, you would be playing outside, but we have to adjust a bit,” said Mr. Cintron, whose bushy ponytail lay against a puffy jacket. “But I still roll in here every day.”
Meanwhile, a few steps away, past plots for tomato plants, now desolate, and two wandering roosters, stood a second casita, built in 1992, where four women played dominoes in studious silence.
“We could meet in our apartments, but you wouldn’t have these views,” said Aida Rosa, gesturing toward a pair of pine trees. “And we need room for spectators.”
Whether the landmarks commission agrees to protect Rincon Criollo is unclear; it typically frowns upon buildings whose exteriors have been significantly renovated. And the only pieces to survive its move two years ago were roof beams, says Yolanda Gonzalez, executive director of Nos Quedamos, a 17-year-old community group that helped the club buy its lot and provided $15,000 for the move.
No matter what happens, though, the attention will benefit casitas in general, even if it’s as simple as educating a broader audience that they exist.
“It brings a light to what culture is to a community, why people came together and why they stayed where they were,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “This is history that is not taught in textbooks.”