Nestled into vacant lots sprinkled across the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and the Lower East Side are little slices of home for the Puerto Rican residents of New York: a casita (“little house”) and surrounding gardens. Casitas first sprang up in the late 1970s. At the time there were hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned buildings scattered across the city, the result of arson schemes that reduced much of New York to rubble. Resilience was essential to existence, and with that in mind, a number of middle-aged African American and Puerto Rican residents were inspired to reclaim the land for flower and vegetable gardens.
Realizing this was a positive thing, Koch administration established Green Thumb program in 1978, which allowed residents to lease the abandoned lots for a dollar a year while also supplying tools, seeds, and fencing for the gardens. It is within these gardens that the casitas lie, sparkling like gems under the city’s sky. A form of Caribbean vernacular architecture, casitas are constructed of wood and consisting of one or two rooms. The exteriors are painted in bright, vivid colors of the island: red, turquoise, and yellow abound. They also enjoy glorious names like Villa El Gato (“The Cat’s House”), El Balcón (“The Puerto Rican Veranda”), and Rincón Criollo (“Creole Corner”).
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Photo: ©Martha Cooper