Casita Rincón Criollo
24 December, 2013
In my last news post, I wrote a little about the objectives of a recently formed American Folklore Society Task Force on Historic Preservation, and as I explained, my involvement with the Task Force relates to a pilot project in which we are trying to expand the use of the “Traditional Cultural Property” designation within the National Register of Historic Places nomination process.
The property I’m nominating is the Casita Rincón Criollo, (otherwise variously known as “La Casita de Chema” and the “Centro Cultural Rincón Criollo”) which is in the South Bronx. The Casita Rincón Criollo forms part of the Puerto Rican tradition of creating Caribbean style casitas and gardens in vacant lots in New York City which began against a backdrop of urban decay in the 1960s and 70s. As the Puerto Rican scholar Luis Aponte-Parés puts it, these casitas were places created by the “disenfranchised urban poor living in landscapes of pollution, joblessness and violence, increasingly invisible to the rest of society”. They offered an environment where people might gather to relax, share problems, garden, take their children, play dominoes or cards, celebrate special days and generally disseminate traditional Puerto Rican culture such as music and dance.
The Casita Rincón Criollo is an exceptional example of a casita as it is one of the city’s oldest and largest and is linked to a particularly strong and vibrant community who are passionate about the place. For example, one member said “It means home. This is a place where I can come and relax and take a deep breath. You can always come here and get a hug and a kiss and feel welcome. It’s like being in Puerto Rico, you know, comfortable.”
From the National Register point of view, the Casita Rincón Criollo is problematic. For example, it is less than 50 years old and, in addition, it was moved six years ago from its original location when that site was reclaimed by the city for a building project. The community wanted so strongly to preserve their casita they moved as much of it as they could to a new home one block south, taking with them the plants, the trees and even the dirt. They really, really want this place to be on the National Register because they hope being listed will afford it greater protection in the future, so I will be working as hard as I can to make a good case!