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 crafts.

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.

Residents install 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.

As the 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.

Ejlat Feuer
August, 1998