CASITAS: GARDENS OF RECLAMATION
Photos and Text by Ejlat Feuer
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Casitas de madera (small wood houses) surrounded by their fruit,
vegetable, herb and flower gardens first appeared in the early 1970's as a
community response to the burning of the South Bronx and the collapse of the
abandoned tenements of the Lower East Side and East Harlem.
With great courage, pride and hard labor, the men and women of the
barrios have been converting derelict, trash strewn, rat infested lots into
gardens of hope and reclamation. It has taken men and women willing to
stand up to drug dealers and junkies to reclaim the land and build casitas
from the rubble. Today the casitas serve as places of cultivation,
recreation and performance. They are the centers for social life as well
secular and religious celebration. Casitas derive from a unique blend of
collective and individual expression.
The casitas' roots can be traced to the Taino Indians, the Spanish
Conquistadors, African slaves and the Jibaros tradition. While fleeing to
the mountains to escape the Spaniards, the Jibaros relied on their ingenuity
to create shelter, to grow and prepare food and to develop their arts and
Many of the casita members attribute their skill in gardening and
their ingenuity in creating a casita from recycled objects to their Jibaro
ancestry. Whether in the home-made pig roasters, the murals, the santos or
the casitas themselves, the spirit of the Jibaro is ever present.
It would be easy to consider casitas as solely nostalgic recreations of
life as it was on the Island. But they are much more. They are, in fact,
vibrant places used daily to provide for the contemporary needs of its users.
Children in Latino culture are a focus of devotion and a number of casitas
have been specifically created to provide safe play areas.
play structures, provide safe surfaces and donate toys. These casita
mini-playgrounds are created in neighborhoods typically under served by city
recreational programs. Many casitas hold special dances for neighborhood
youth to celebrate birthdays, graduations and sporting events.
children play, the adults socialize, play dominos, listen to music, prepare
food or garden. At other times, children, as well as adults, seek outthe
casita during its quiet and peaceful moments away from the intensity and
noise of the urban environment. Whether as a quiet refuge, a community
social place or an active play space, the casita offers a familiar place for
residents of all ages.
A place in which "respecto", (respect) and "dignidad"
(dignity) are the social mores and in which individuals are celebrated for
their uniqueness and special talents.
Be they born in New York City or Puerto Rico, the next generation's
connection to their mythical forebears will continue to be strong. Hopefully
the next generation's creativity will manifest itself in many original ways.
If we are lucky, among those ways will be a connection to the lovingly
created casita gardens of the Barrios.
City goverment has always viewed casitas as expendable rather than as
innovative use of public land. The casita's stewardship of neglected and
abandoned property is a temporary one. Now that property values have risen
(in no small part due to the effect the casitas and their gardens have on the
surrounding community) the lots are being reclaimed, bulldozed and sold to
the highest bidder.
In 1995 my friend, landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom, and I
began documenting the casitas of New York. These photographs are a partial
product of this ongoing project.