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Inside the Casitas of the South Bronx's Community Gardens

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Despite their historic significance, the aging casitas of the South Bronx face an uncertain future. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, in the latest in a sequence of essays about New York City's vernacular architecture, Kensinger visits the casitas of the Bronx.

The last crops of a bountiful summer are now being collected in the South Bronx, as peach trees, vineyards, and cornfields yield up their final harvests. After a busy season of barbecues, functions, festivals, and lechon, the chill of autumn is approaching, and soon it will be time to go indoors, into the communal warmth of the casitas. Dozens of these one-room structures are scattered across the Bronx, anchoring community gardens in Melrose, Morrisania, Longwood, and Mott Haven, and each has its own complicated history and identity. When considered collectively, however, the Bronx casitas represent one of the most impressive ongoing community rebuilding efforts in New York City. Yet despite their historic importance, they face an uncertain future.

This year's harvest festivals and garden parties have been bittersweet. At the peak of the growing season, the Bronx casitas lost their founding father, Jose "Chema" Soto, who passed away at the end of July at the age of 70. In 1978, Soto built the first Bronx casita in an empty Melrose lot, and the history of each casita in this community can be traced back to "La Casita de Chema" and the communal space he and his friends created around it, the Rincón Criollo. "I was eleven. I went in and watched them build it," recalled Ivette Rivera, one of Soto's daughters. "I was like, 'Daddy's making a clubhouse.' And that's how it started. He made a small casita, but the first one burned down, and after that he built a much bigger one. That was the first one in the Bronx."

Soon, casitas were being constructed in empty lots throughout the neighborhood, as local residents began to reclaim a landscape blighted by arson, half-demolished buildings, and acres of stolen cars. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, a network of these communal spaces would radiate out from Melrose, created for recreational and educational use. "We learned the culture of Puerto Rico here, because they don't teach us that in school," said Rivera, while contemplating her father's casita, a simple, one-story aquamarine cottage currently located at 157th Street. Almost ten years ago, the Rincón Criollo was forced to relocate here, after a city housing development claimed its original location one block away. Today, it is an award-winning, internationally known center for Puerto Rican culture in New York, helping preserve traditions like the parranda, and bomba and plena music. "This is his legacy," said Rivera. "We are trying to keep it going for him. It's the least we could do."

Melrose is still the stronghold of casita culture in the Bronx, but over the decades, many of these buildings have been demolished to make way for new residential projects, or have been left behind as their founders retire and move back to Puerto Rico or become too ill to care for their gardens. However, the older generation remains fiercely attached to these structures and their grounds. Some commute from outside the city to maintain their patch of green, while others ignore the physical limitations of old age. At El Coqui Community Garden, Lydia Pagan was surveying her vegetable patches and casita with the aid of a walker. "This year, I got sick. I had a hip replacement. So I couldn't work as hard on it," said Pagan, who has helped run this 30-year-old casita for the past six years. "Next year, we have to repaint it," she said. "This is like therapy for us, because most of us are seniors. We come here, we talk, we play dominos, we cook on Mondays, we barbecue."

Though just a few decades old, the Bronx casitas are similar in many ways to the city's century-old bungalow colonies. The origins of the bungalow can be traced back to rural Bangladeshi huts, while the origins of the casita have been attributed to the simple countryside homes of Puerto Rico. As a form of vernacular architecture, the two building styles are very similar. The Bronx casitas are each unique, hand-made, and individually designed for their location, but generally are rudimentary one-story wooden structures, surrounded by windows, with a peaked roof and a large front porch. Most casitas have just one small room, with activities assigned to take place on the yard around them, known as the batey, which typically includes benches, domino tables, chicken coops, gardens, barbecue pits, a small wooden platform for musicians, and a concrete or brick patio for parties and dancing. The casita can only exist within the context of this larger recreational space, a tradition similar to the shared bungalow courtyards in Brooklyn and the Rockaways.

While the landscape of the South Bronx is still pockmarked by overgrown lots filled with rubble, garbage, wild rabbits, and burnt out cars, a staggering amount of rebuilding has occurred in recent years. "If you were to come here in the 60s or 70s, this would have looked like war-torn Europe during World War II," said Tony Cruz, while visiting two casitas at the lush United We Stand Garden in Mott Haven. "This was all tenements. Some buildings were half torn down, and you could see inside them." Today, many of the larger plots of empty land here have been built upon, leaving the remaining gardens hemmed in by new towers. Most of these community spaces are operated under the umbrella of GreenThumb, which helps facilitate their temporary leases with the city. "Our lease is five years. If they are going to sell it, they have to wait until our lease expires. Otherwise, we get a percentage," said Julio Cesar, who helps coordinate the Palmas Del Caribe garden. "Any time they want to sell it, they can."

Despite efforts to landmark them, the casitas have not been recognized by city or state preservation groups, but one hopeful sign for their future is that the current generation of adults, who grew up with casitas in their backyards, has begun to take a role in their upkeep. "This was done by our forefathers," said Ivan Carrero, who is now the coordinator of the United We Stand Garden. "Now, we have one casita for the young guys, and one for the old guys. The old people don't go to the senior citizen house up the street. Why go from four walls to four walls?" Working side-by-side, these two generations are also passing along the traditions of the casitas to their children and grandchildren, encouraging them to have a hand in raising chickens and growing crops.

As the Bronx community gardeners prepare for their annual Halloween festivities, their dedication to engaging the next generation is apparent. "The biggest day is Halloween," said Hank Arroyo, who remembers helping build the 30-year-old casita in the Rainbow Block Association Garden when he was a child. Now, Arroyo is working with Gerardo Incle, the casita's architect, to create an elaborate haunted house, complete with skeletons, a guillotine and a cemetery in the garden. "I make it for the kids," said Incle, who built several casitas in the neighborhood. "The kids never had nothing in the old days, when I was coming up."

At the RockGarden/Little Green Garden on East 160th Street, two casitas and gardens have combined forces to create a large, two-tiered community space, with peach trees, concord grape vines, and chickens.

This casita's interior is a small one-room meeting space, bathed in sunlight.  An even smaller casita is situated on a rocky cliff out back, in the Jardin la Roca. Both gardens relocated here in the 2000s.

A rustic chicken coop sits onsite, near benches and shrines. "The New York casita and batey are an attempt to evoke a specific place and time, that is, Puerto Rico of the recent past," the New York Folklore Society explained in 1994. "It is this constellation of culturally significant objects that gives people a sense of being home."

At the El Coqui Community Garden on East 163rd Street, a decades-old casita is surrounded by mature trees. "My casita is the biggest one," said Lydia Pagan, who has coordinated this space for six years. "This one has more than 30 years."

The interior of this casita is also a single room, with a small kitchen and social space looking out onto several gardening plots. "It's like a park. We have picnics, parties. We have berries, cherries, tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries, peaches, apples. I give it all away," said Pagan. "This is a little Puerto Rico in the Bronx."

At the Rainbow Block Association Garden on East 159th Street, the small casita is being prepared for Halloween. "I am an architect. I built this," said Gerardo Incle. "This has been here 30 years. This was the second one in the neighborhood."

Incle's casita features a large porch with a chandelier, and a small interior room used mainly as an office and workshop. "This one collapsed because the new building next door took the foundation out. But I fixed it up," said Incle, who has built multiple casitas along this block. "Two were knocked down by new buildings. This is the last one standing."

At the Palmas Del Caribe garden on Eagle Avenue, Julio Cesar helps maintain a small casita on a hillside."They used to throw cars in here. That's why they started all these gardens, to stop people from putting stolen cars," said Cesar.

The casita interior includes a small stage for musicians, and a collection of ephemera from the garden's past. "I've had it for 12 years, and the people before that had it for 10 years," said Cesar. "We've got to keep this place."

Up the block, several empty lots are currently for sale, including several with an abandoned cars. Empty lots still dot the landscape, though they are increasingly rare.

Further south on Eagle Avenue, at the expansive El Batey Borincano garden, the apple harvest is still ripening. "This is the end of the season. You have to come earlier. We have plums, peaches, corn," said Heyon Velazquez, a member of the garden association. "It's not easy to keep this here. It's a lot of work."

The garden has a newly built casita and concrete patio, surrounded by a recently built residential complex. "They tore down the old casita," said Velazquez. "They took a little space to build the buildings. You know, this is the property of the city."

Across the street, three other casitas are hemmed in by residential towers, near El Bohio Garden, which is the property of the NYC Housing Authority.  "I've lived here almost 35 years," said Velazquez. "Everything used to be garbage, abandoned cars."

The Vogue Garden on East 156th Street was also relocated due to development. "This casita is six or seven years old.  It used to be in the middle of the block, until they built a new building there," said one gardener. "This casita is smaller. The old one was torn down. The garden was like 15 or 20 years old."

Wild rabbits wander in and out of the garden, from an empty lot nearby. "We call him Domino. When he came over here, he was only six or seven inches," said the gardener.

At the nearby abandoned lot, rabbits scrounge for food in the trash, or wander over to the garden's crops. "There are like 30 rabbits in that lot," said the gardener.

Down at the United We Stand Garden on 137th street, one casita was full of younger men watching Sunday football, while another was used by the older generation, for a quiet game of dominos. "We congregate on Sundays. It's all about community," said Ivan Carrero, the garden coordinator. "We've been here for eons."

The older generation's casita sits in the shade of a thick grove of trees. "This is a safe haven. Most of the people have been in this neighborhood for years," said Tony Cruz, who grew up across the street from the garden. "There's a little bit of everybody here… from all of that, you got paradise." 
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