Alternative Technology and Urban Reconstruction


A look at community development in Loisaida and the experience of CHARAS, a community group that introduced alternative technologies and organic food production to their urban neighborhood. In doing so they developed new forms of leadership and a directly democratic approach to community planning that, for a time, successfully contested the city’s plans for the transformation of their neighborhood.

We are living in the new era of “green.” Green technologies like solar, wind, biomass, and co-generation are being presented as the solution to climate change, our dependence on foreign oil, and the economic crisis. We are told that green jobs are the jobs of the future. Ideas and technologies that were once the province of radical ecologists and the counterculture have entered the mainstream, and large transnational corporations are scrambling to jump aboard the bandwagon. BP, formerly British Petroleum, recently marketed itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” Greenwashing is the order of the day.

“Green Cities” are all the rage. The new interest in, and policy shift toward encouraging the use of alternative technologies, like solar energy and wind power, in urban environments—along with a growing emphasis on urban farming, energy efficiency, green architecture, green planning, and all things local—is unprecedented. Or is it?

In the late 1970s the Hispanic section of New York City’s Lower East Side, known to its Puerto Rican Residents as Loisaida, grassroots efforts at community development utilized all of these approaches and more. In light of the newfound emphasis on green technology as the force that will move us into the future, these remarkable efforts seem prescient, and further examination might prove instructive.

I was privileged to be a part of these experiments, through my work with the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE), and my involvement with CHARAS, a group of young activists and community organizers who played a critical role in the developments in Loisaida. I first became aware of this work in 1974 when I organized a conference on urban alternatives in New York City. We brought together urban activists and green technology innovators like John Todd of the New Alchemy Institute, Karl Hess from the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington, Milton Kotler, author of Neighborhood Government, wind energy developer Ted Finch, and urban gardener Tessa Huxley. Following the conference I was approached by grassroots activists from Loisaida and asked if the Institute for Social Ecology could provide technical and program planning assistance.

The ISE worked on a variety of projects with the 11th Street Movement, the Cultural Understanding and Neighborhood Development Organization (CUANDO), and CHARAS, helping in planning of programs and the design of specific projects related to solar energy, wind power, aquaculture, and urban gardening. I was living in New York at the time, and began to work intensely with the Lower East Side groups as a volunteer consultant. We developed a relationship of reciprocity, where groups of ISE students came to New York to help with projects in Loisaida, and members of the Loisaida groups came to Vermont to help us with our projects. An intersubjective relationship based in solidarity, mutual respect, and affection developed which forged strong relationships that persist to this day.

As my involvement deepened I became fascinated with the projects and convinced of their importance as an application of many of the ideas and technologies that we worked with at the ISE. I was studying Cultural Anthropology at the New School for Social Research and I decided to write my doctoral dissertation about Loisaida. My thesis focused on the role of alternative or green technology in grassroots efforts at Loisaida’s neighborhood reconstruction. The reconstruction undertaken was both cultural and physical. The people of Loisaida were people in transition, seeking a new, ecological lifestyle. It was a cultural expression with many sources: rooted in a strong traditional Puerto Rican culture, it was an adaptation to the conditions of life in the ghetto, and also a response to the mass culture of global capitalism. Above all, it was an experiment in urban survival. The experience of Loisaida has much to teach us all. While I was able to offer insights and bring skills to the process, I readily admit that I learned much more than I taught.

Alternative Technology

A group of Loisaida residents was the first low-income group of urban dwellers in the United States to attempt utilizing alternative technology in the reconstruction of their community. They used ecologically sound organic gardening and aquaculture techniques to reintroduce food production to New York City. They developed low-cost ways to use solar energy to meet their energy needs, and they began to recycle the wastes that littered their neighborhood into resources for development. They pioneered the transformation of abandoned buildings into affordable tenant-owned cooperative housing through the process of urban homesteading. Ultimately, they began to create forms of social and political organization through which they tried to regain control of their lives and neighborhood.

The alternative technology movement in the 1970s and ‘80s was largely the province of middle-class people of a counter-cultural persuasion. The involvement of this low-income, mostly Puerto Rican community was indeed a significant development.

During that period technologies based on utilizing renewable energy sources were known by a variety of names: radical, soft, alternative, or appropriate technology. In general, they were understood as those technologies which are small scale and relatively simple, and therefore useful for decentralized application, based on the use of non-polluting, renewable energy sources; they were tailored to utilize locally available resources, both for construction materials and labor in a manner which supports, or at least does not disrupt, local cultural patterns and enhances local self-reliance.

Alternative technology was first applied in relation to developing nations as an alternative to capital-intensive models of Western development. By the mid 1970s, there was a growing interest in the application of these technologies to the developed world, as a means of alleviating our dependence on fossil fuels and the concurrent ecological costs of that dependence.

The advocates of this technological approach were arrayed on a continuum ranging from those who advocated the incorporation of alternative technology into existing capitalist modes of production, such as E.F. Schumacher, to those who saw these technologies as part of a more fundamental transformation of our society into a decentralized, non-hierarchical, and communalistic one, such as Murray Bookchin. The distinctions between the various positions on this continuum are crucial. It must be emphasized that the mere use of a non-polluting, renewable energy source does not make a given technology an alternative. The very definition of alternative technology excludes those technology applications that reflect the highly centralized—“the bigger the better”—grow-or-die ideology of capitalism.

Alternative technology must be understood as a social concept rather than an instrumental technological application of gadgetry to a given problem. Alternative technology reflects a self-conscious notion of the crucial relationship between technics and both the natural and social worlds. At the ISE, while we did develop and demonstrate technologies, our primary concern was always with the social and ecological matrix in which any technology is embedded. Who owns it and who benefits from it? How are decisions made about what technology to develop and deploy, and who controls it? Is it humanly scaled and decentralized? What is the ecological impact?

We saw alternative technology as having great potential for decentralized, humanly scaled applications in the urban setting, and as lending itself to community control and directly democratic forms of decision making, thus providing a material base for the development of a decentralized, directly democratic society. We also understood alternative technology as a way to address growing concerns about pollution, particularly air quality, in the urban environment. Although Bookchin had pointed out the threat of greenhouse gasses as early as 1964, we did not have a sense of urgency concerning climate change. At that time he suggested it might pose a danger in 200 years, but his warnings were ignored, and even, in some cases, ridiculed. In light of today’s assessments, we were foolish not to take those concerns more seriously. However, the experience in Loisaida still has relevance to the issue of global warming: Its call for decentralized, democratically controlled, and humanly scaled technology are echoed today in the climate justice movement, which recognizes that industrial scaled and corporate controlled energy production, even if it is based on renewable resources, is still part and parcel of a capitalist society run amok, and, as such, fails to address not only the ecological concerns, but also the questions of social justice, democracy, and equity that were central to the alternative technology movement.

Lower East Side History

New York’s Lower East Side is America’s portal of immigration and also its archetypal immigrant ghetto. Virtually every major immigrant group that established itself in the United States came through the Lower East Side. The Dutch, who first colonized Manhattan, built their city, New Amsterdam, in the 1620s on the fecund hunting and fishing grounds of the Lenape Indians and extended their Bouries, or farms, into much of the area now known as the Lower East Side. This was not a peaceful process: In 1643 a company of Dutch Militia under the command of Governor Wilhelm Kieft slaughtered a group of forty Indians, mostly women and children, encamped on Corlear’s Hook. The Dutch were followed by the British, whose colonial project, resting heavily on the African slave trade, finally collapsed after their defeat in the American Revolution.

The Irish, fleeing the potato famine, were the next group of immigrants to establish themselves on the Lower East Side, mostly in what was known as the Five Points District and around Chatham Square, beginning in the early 19th century. The Irish habitation set the stage for what was to be an on-going way of life on the Lower East Side, the ghettoization of immigrant groups in the physically isolated confines of Corlear’s Hook, which jutted out into the East River, cut off from the rest of Manhattan. The isolation, discrimination, poverty, crime, exploitation, and neglect faced by the Irish became a pattern imposed on the many other ethnicities that followed.

Western European Jews, from Germany and Austria, established a strong presence in the 1830s, and other Northern European immigrants flooded the Lower East Side after the failed revolutions of 1848. By the 1860s, over 100,000 residents of German extraction lived around Tomkins Square Park in a neighborhood known as “Kleindeutschland.” Chinatown was established on the Lower East Side beginning in the 1850s, following the depletion of the California gold mines. The 1870s and ‘80s saw large numbers of Italians, mostly from the South and Sicily, and Eastern European Jews, escaping the pogroms and forced conscription that were their fate in Russia, immigrate to the Lower East Side. At the turn of the century, the Lower East Side had a population density of almost 240,000 people per square mile, greater than the “Black Hole” of Calcutta. These were the people whose plight was documented by the photographer Jacob Riis in his shocking work, How the Other Half Lives. The tide of immigration continued until the strict imposition of immigration quotas in 1921.

Puerto Ricans, due to the colonial status of their Island, were excluded from the quotas and established a presence on the Lower East Side beginning in the 1950s. Loisaida is the name they gave to their neighborhood, approximately 30 square blocks, bounded by the East River on the East, Avenue A on the West, 14th Street on the North and Houston Street on the South. By the 21st century, tens of millions of immigrants of various ethnicities had come through the Lower East Side.

The Crises of the 1970s

The 1970s was a period with a growing awareness and concern about energy supplies and energy costs. The United States’ dependence on Middle Eastern oil was highlighted by the emergence of OPEC and the Arab oil embargos of 1973 and 1979. Gasoline shortages, rising prices, and long lines at gas stations all contributed to a growing sense of crisis that President Jimmy Carter called “the moral equivalent of war.” Nor was the “energy crisis” the only crisis we were facing.

We were also in the midst of an “urban crisis.” The crisis of the cities called into question the very viability of our urban centers. It was characterized by a general trend toward urban decay, finding specific manifestation in fiscal crises, like the one that nearly bankrupted New York City; the breakdown of once identifiable and coherent neighborhoods; the abandonment of whole areas of the City, epitomized by the South Bronx, but also affecting Manhattan neighborhoods like Loisaida; and a widespread erosion of services. All of these trends were symptomatic of a deeply rooted malaise.

The flight of capital from our central cities, exemplified by their rapidly eroding tax bases and the shift of corporate operations to the hinterlands and suburbs, indicated a growing willingness to “write off” our older urban centers. While urban values and urban culture are the predominant forces that have shaped modern American society, the cities themselves were no longer considered essential to our national wellbeing. City after city was being deserted by the middle-class and the cultural elite, and this trend continues today in cities like Detroit and other decaying “rust belt” cities. The festering class and racial tensions that once again flared up in our cities showed that the period of optimism, born of the massive social programs of the 1960s, was over.

Loisaida was the poorest neighborhood in Manhattan. Per Capita income averaged $1,852 per year. Unemployment was estimated at 20%, with a high percentage of the remaining population underemployed (working part time or sporadically). Youth unemployment was close to 40% and one third of the housing stock consisted of abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots owned by the City. The rest of the buildings were rapidly deteriorating: on some blocks the number of abandoned properties was as high as 60%.

The pattern of abandonment began with landlords milking high rents from tenants and refusing to make repairs or deliver services. They also stopped paying taxes to the City. After three years of non-payment the City would move to seize the building, at which point the landlords would bring in arsonists to displace the tenants and burn down the building in order to collect fire insurance. At 519 East 11th Street 14 mysterious fires broke out in a three-month period. By the time the ownership reverted to the City all that were left were burned out brick shells, which often collapsed into a mound of rubble. These derelict five and six story tenement houses and the vacant lots strewn with their rubble were the cityscape of Loisaida.

In an eerie parallel to today, it was ironic that the very forces that contributed to the downfall of our urban centers were proposing the official solutions. When the government bureaucracies, the banks and the large corporations condemned fiscal irresponsibility and informed us that we had to pay the price for our free spending past, failing to mention that the price included exorbitant interest rates and massive public bailouts from which they benefited. We were told that the public must pay the costs and have confidence in its elected leaders to deal with the crisis. The onus for the “urban crisis” had been shifted to those who were its victims, the inner city poor and working people.

The forces that created the crisis stood ready to pick the bones of the ghetto for their own enrichment. The middle class who abandoned the city was ready to return, if the poor could be eliminated. City planners talked about “planned shrinkage” in population that would eliminate the poor by displacing them. The banks, which consistently red-lined areas like Loisaida, refusing to extend credit for low-income housing, stood ready to finance speculators and developers who would revitalize the area to make it attractive to the middle class. Gentrification had already transformed neighborhood after neighborhood in Manhattan, and Loisaida was prime turf for the implementation of those solutions.

The Decentralist Response

There was, however, another response to the crisis of the cities. It was rooted in the decentralist approach to town planning developed by people like Peter Kropotkin in Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Ebenezer Howard in Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities, Paul and Percival Goodman in Communitas, and Murray Bookchin in works like The Limits of the City and From Urbanization to Cities. It was a response that called for a radical restructuring of cities and a basic redefinition of urban life. It was not a unified movement with a national program or leadership, nor even a strictly political movement. It was, rather, a broad social movement based in neighborhoods and communities involved in transforming the cities at a grassroots level. It was guided by the principle of local self-reliance and concerned with a wide variety of issues related to that principle. The areas that emerged as priorities included community control of schools, health care, law enforcement and governance; urban food production, housing, planning and land use; energy production and conservation, waste treatment, and neighborhood economics.

It was a movement that was influenced by an ecological sensibility, not simply in terms of sensitivity to issues of environmental quality, but in a more profound sense as well. The movement viewed the neighborhood or community as an ecosystem, not merely as a spatial entity. This provided a perspective that emphasized the interrelationship of the various issues outlined above. It urged people to understand the crises that they faced as symptomatic of a deeper social and cultural malaise. It allowed people to develop a holistic vision for the future of their community.

This approach drew on the lessons of natural ecology and worked with ecological principles in developing both its critique of existing forms of urban organization and in the alternatives it put forward. The ecosystem approach stressed the danger inherent in the simplification of an ecosystem, and pointed out that natural systems find unity in diversity: the greater the number of species interacting in an ecosystem the more stable it is. Simplification via the centralization of functions like food and energy production, far removed from the people who rely on them, creates a situation that is not only alienating, but inherently unstable as well. They also understood ecosystems as non-hierarchical: a web of interdependency, not systems based on command and control. Furthermore, they were informed by the scientific insights into the mutualistic nature of natural systems.

The ecological perspective also informed the concern about the environment of the neighborhood. The urban environment of Loisaida consisted of abandoned buildings, garbage filled vacant lots, decaying tenements, deteriorating public parks, streets lined with stripped cars, and soil contaminated with heavy metals and lead paint chips, polluted air and congested streets. Those were the environmental concerns that the movement focused on.

On another level the movement was ecological in that it looked toward newly emerging ecologically sound technologies in areas like energy efficiency, solar energy, wind power, and organic forms of food production to alleviate their environmental problems.

The reintegration of functions like food and energy production into a neighborhood or community was seen as a means of revitalizing the urban environment. The movement for urban alternatives looked toward the introduction of non-polluting, renewable sources of energy as a facet of the reconstitution of the cities. Solar, wind and other alternatives present the possibility of decentralized control and small-scale application. Intensive organic food production techniques were being used in vacant lots and on rooftops to reintroduce the growing of food into the urban economy. All of these techniques were being integrated into plans for neighborhood development that emerged directly from grassroots organizations, rather than from centralized and bureaucratized City or Federal agencies.

While the emphasis was on local control and decentralization, the movement was not isolationist but recognized the need for cooperation and coordination of certain activities, with the insistence that this coordination should be facilitated through the principle of confederation. Rather than beginning with the assumption that centralization was efficient, the movement began with the principle of decentralizing whatever functions could be dealt with in that fashion, and accepted only the degree of central coordination which proved to be necessary. Their vision was the creation of “A world of neighborhoods.”

This emphasis on decentralization grew out of a concern for the creation of social forms and institutions which retained a small scale which was accessible to people. A human scale acts as an inhibiting factor to the growth of bureaucracy, and helps to ensure that people can retain direct control over the decisions that affect their lives.

Chino García of CHARAS put it this way: “I myself, my group or my family, is my nucleus. My building is part of it, my block is next. There are family issues, building issues, block issues, there are neighborhood issues, city issues, on to universal issues. Everybody has to look up to that. You can’t play games. Things do not just happen, there are always people scheming and manipulating. Therefore every human being must be prepared to deal with this, with issues, with everyday life operation.”

“In this society you are unconsciously or consciously a servant for people who manipulate your whole life,” García continued. “You can’t just sit and allow things to happen. You should take issue with everything, everything that affects you.” García’s words reflected a growing awareness in Loisaida.

Reconstructing Loisaida

A walk through the streets of Loisaida in 1978 revealed some remarkable things if one knew where to look beyond the garbage-strewn lots and abandoned buildings. Vacant lots on 12th, 11th, 9th, 8th, 3rd Street and Houston Street were producing a bounty of fresh, organically grown tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, squash, and beans. A rooftop on 11th Street had sprouted a windmill and a bank of solar collectors. Numerous buildings, gutted by arsonists and abandoned by greedy landlords, were undergoing tenant directed renovations. An abandoned oil company garage on 8th Street was transformed into a recycling center. A loft on Avenue B served as a center for the construction of portable geodesic domes, which were used as greenhouses on rooftops and in vacant lots. A garbage-filled lot on 9th Street and Avenue C was developed into a cultural plaza for neighborhood residents. Design work had begun on a permanent dome greenhouse intended to house a 2,400 gallon (9,000 liters) pond for raising fish to edible size in an intensive, closed system aquaculture project; fish were also being raised in basements on 11th Street. A youth run community center on Houston Street near the Bowery was retrofit with the first passive solar space heating wall built in New York City. Rooftop gardens were flourishing at various locations around the neighborhood, and rooftop solar greenhouses were under construction.

Alternative technology had come to Loisaida. The projects mentioned above were the result of the work of a loose coalition of grassroots organizations, including the 11th Street Movement, CHARAS, and CUANDO.

The 11th Street Movement was a federation of low-income tenant’s cooperatives on East 11th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B. Though mostly Puerto Rican, the movement had a diverse membership including young and old, black and white. In 1973 they were the first group in New York to undertake urban homesteading on a sweat equity basis, which came to be a key concept in the reconstruction of the neighborhood.

The process of Sweat Equity Urban Homesteading began with the formation of a group of homesteaders, initially community activists, who went into the abandoned building as squatters, claiming the space as their own. Often this required confronting the police and resisting eviction by the City. In the early days, repeated efforts were often necessary to lay claim to a building. Since the squatters were poor, unemployed, or underemployed people they lacked the financial resources necessary for traditional approaches to home ownership, where typically banks required a 10% payment of equity in order to get a conventional housing loan. Instead, as the name suggests, they used their own labor, or sweat, as equity. The group then began the physical renovation of the building, which usually required an extended period of time cleaning out the debris before the actual construction process could begin. This stage of the process often took up to a year of work.

After the cleaning process was completed, the homesteaders needed to find the materials required for renovation and acquire the skills needed to do the work. They looked first to themselves and other community groups for those resources. They formed an income-limited housing cooperative to negotiate with the City for ownership of the building. At that time, the City saw the buildings as worthless and was anxious to get them back on the tax rolls. Under pressure from the community the City frequently sold the buildings to the homesteaders for a pittance, sometimes as low as $100 per unit.

In the work on 11th Street, local tradesmen and union members helped to train the homesteaders, who then went on to train others. They hustled and scrounged building materials until they were able to secure an interest-free loan from a dairy cooperative in upstate New York, and over a period of six years were able to complete the renovations and provide low-cost, attractive housing for themselves. They would continue to contribute labor each week for the maintenance and management of their building.

Buildings undergoing sweat equity renovation and management are income limited. Homesteaders may sell their apartments, but only for what they have put into them, eliminating profit and effectively removing the property from the real estate market. They can only sell to others who meet low-income guidelines, ensuring a supply of affordable housing for poor people.

By 1978, East 11th Street between Avenues A and B was in the process of rebuilding itself, with two sweat equity low-income tenants cooperatives completed, six other tenement houses under renovation, and an ambitious program of open space reclamation. Their movement grew and, after its initial successes, it would eventually gain national attention. Ultimately over 40 buildings in Loisaida were successfully renovated through the sweat equity process.

519 East 11th Street was the first building in the city to utilize solar energy and wind power. The 11th Street Movement was best known for this solar project, and for their legal battle with the energy company Con Ed over the installation of a rooftop windmill, which resulted in a decision that set the precedent for the purchase and installation of independent power-producing utilities. Today, independent power production constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry.

The 11th Street Movement was also the prime sponsor of El Sol Brillante Community Garden on 12th Street. Under the direction of 11th Street member and ISE alumna Linda Cohen, residents began using organic growing techniques, solar cold frames, and intensive composting and worm production to grow a wide range of crops.

A series of large plywood tanks were constructed in a basement on 11th Street. These tanks provided the basis for experiments in urban aquaculture. Species being cultured included trout, carp, catfish, tilapia, freshwater clams, and crayfish. The tanks were structured after a system used at the ISE, where one tank yielded a harvest of approximately 70 pounds (32 kilos) of fish every six months. The 11th Street Movement was attempting to find ways to integrate the various projects, using wastewater from the fish tanks to fertilize the gardens and garden waste and worms to feed the fish. The hope was to create closed, self-supporting systems.

CHARAS was a small collective which touched the lives of thousands of neighborhood residents. The group still exists today, after over forty years of struggle. In the 1970s its full time members included men and women, mostly young people between 18 and 30. They were local activists who worked on projects involving environmental education and community development. The group was founded after community activists met the designer Buckminster Fuller in the summer of 1967. He introduced them to geodesic domes and they proceeded to build over one hundred domes throughout the city working with school kids, street gangs, garden clubs, and anyone else with the desire. They transformed vacant lots throughout Loisaida into playgrounds, gardens, vest pocket parks and cultural plazas for local artists. CHARAS was active in the area of housing as well, helping to initiate the work on 11th Street, among other projects. Their members included former gang leaders, carpenters, poets, and musicians. They were committed to working with the youth of the neighborhood and showing them alternatives to the street.

Their work centered on La Plaza Cultural Redevelopment Area, situated on the corner of Avenue C and 9th Street, and the adjacent blocks, which was the largest vacant lot on the Lower East Side. This lot, where weeds, garbage, and rubble from collapsed buildings once provided a breeding ground for rats and disease, was transformed into a congenial setting for neighborhood cultural events and festivals, and to this day remains an important community gathering space in Loisaida. Local poets, musicians and dancers performed poetry, Latin music, and folk dances for a cross-section of the community on a regular basis. With its mural depicting the many cultures of the Lower East Side as a centerpiece, La Plaza was an oasis of color in an otherwise bleak cityscape.

It also illustrated the crucial role that arts and culture played for the movements in Loisaida. Local poets developed a school of street poetry, known as Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican), which spoke about people’s lived experience in Loisaida, and dealt with issues like drugs, police brutality, rent strikes, and racism. At the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 6th Street, they invented the form of performance poetry known as the poetry slam. They also developed a vibrant community theater. Bomba and Plena dancers kept Puerto Rican traditional dance and folk music alive, and performed for the community in La Plaza. Local graffiti artists and muralists, working in the tradition of Diego Rivera, presented graphic descriptions of social issues facing the neighborhood by painting on the sides of abandoned buildings.

Music filled the streets of Loisaida, particularly in the warm months when life was lived largely outdoors on the stoops, street corners and open spaces of the neighborhood. The sounds of congeros pulsed up and down the block, salsa bands played at street fairs, in La Plaza, and at local social clubs. The Nueva Canción movement also found expression in Loisaida. A band called Loisaida, founded by CHARAS members Edgardo Rivera and Edwin (Pupa) Santiago, performed music that melded Nueva Canción, Latin rhythms, and hard rock to express a variety of experiences in the neighborhood.

Directly across from La Plaza on 8th Street stood an abandoned oil company garage, squatted and renovated by CHARAS to serve as a neighborhood recycling center. With the closing of the Village Green recycling center on the West Side, CHARAS operated the only recycling program in Lower Manhattan. According to Angelo González, coordinator of the center, it was designed to recycle glass, paper, aluminum and ferrous metals. The recycling center was a major step in the effort to combine ecological concerns and neighborhood restoration.

On Avenue B, at a loft that served as CHARAS head-quarters and communal living space, the first of a new generation of lightweight, portable domes was completed. It was built to serve as a portable greenhouse for the Green Guerillas, a citywide group of gardening activists. Luis Lopez, coordinator of the porta-dome project for CHARAS, asserted that domes had a number of other potential uses, including as portable shelters, loft bedrooms and emergency housing.

Lopez and other members also designed a permanent dome to be built in La Plaza, to contain a 2,400-gallon (9,000 liters) tank for raising fish. Utilizing passive solar energy, the dome was designed to produce fish year round with a very low startup cost and minimal energy inputs. That dome was never built in La Plaza, but CHARAS members came to Vermont and, working with a group of our students, constructed it at the ISE center there.

The coordinator of Youth Environmental Action Projects for CHARAS was Luis Guzmán, who later went on to fame as a film actor, but still retains ties to CHARAS and his neighborhood. He noted how “all these projects help people gain a sense of pride in their neighborhood. They help them to see that things here are not hopeless and that if we all work together we can change things. The domes are like a symbol of something new, and it is happening here first.”

A concern with environmental action and the use of alternative technology were areas that had been generally associated with the middle class. Popular wisdom had it that low income people were too concerned with daily survival to become involved with the luxuries of environmental and alternative technological concerns. The experience of these groups proved the conventional wisdom wrong. In fact, it was the concern with daily survival that led these groups to begin working with alternative technology. In the words of Edgardo Rivera, they were looking for “survival with style” and alternatives to the arenas of survival traditionally presented to Loisaida residents: survival via welfare, street hustling, menial jobs, or, for a very few, assimilation into the middle class.

Nuyorican poet Miguel Algerian also described the options available for survival in Loisaida: the workaday world at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, and survival via the street. He then mentioned a third option: the establishment of a new set of social economic and political forms that can sustain a people. It is this third option in which CHARAS was engaged. Its members searched for alternatives to the traditional economic options offered by capitalism, alternatives to the individualism and homogenization presented by the mass culture, alternatives to the assimilation of Puerto Rican traditions into main stream America, alternatives to official plans for urban renewal, and alternatives to the sense of powerlessness which permeated their ghetto environment.

CHARAS went on to claim an abandoned elementary school on 9th Street as part of La Plaza Cultural Redevelopment Area. They began squatting the building in 1979 and turned it into El Bohio Cultural and Community Center. There they ran important educational, environmental and cultural programs for 22 years, until they were forcibly evicted by the police acting on the personal orders Rudolph Giuliani, in one of his last official acts as Mayor of New York. Giuliani also tried to reclaim Loisaida’s many community gardens in order to auction the lots off to developers. He declared that “The era of socialism on the Lower East Side is over.”

Cuando means “when” in Spanish. It was also the acronym for Cultural Understanding and Neighborhood Development Organization, a youth-run organization that offered a variety of educational, recreational, and cultural programs at its center on 2nd Avenue. The group was founded in 1969 by students from the First Street School, a libertarian school founded by Mabel Chrystie, and their members ranged in age from their early teens to their early twenties. When I was first introduced to them and given a tour of their huge abandoned building I felt like I was meeting Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. When they told me of their ambitious plans, I was skeptical of what they could achieve. I was wrong. They spent three years as squatters in the building before community pressure forced the City to offer them a lease.

The reconstruction of the neighborhood in which these groups were involved took a radically different form than the official plans suggested for the neighborhood. The CUANDO experience provides a striking example of the difference. CUANDO was housed in the old Church of All Nations Settlement House on 2nd Avenue at Houston Street, which was part of a twelve square block area proposed as the Cooper Square Redevelopment Project. The group seized the building in 1975 when the church moved out, leaving the youth of the area without a recreational facility. According to CUANDO founder Roberto (Chi Chi) Illa, through continual struggles they were finally able to gain legal recognition of their occupancy in the summer of 1978.

Cooper Square wanted to tear down the CUANDO building and replace it with high-rise, middle-income housing. The youths had different ideas. With the aid of Ted Finch, from the Energy Task Force and under the direction of Fred Cabrera, coordinator of CUANDO’s solar project, they completed construction of New York City’s first passive solar heat wall to provide space heating for their third floor gymnasium. They installed five window box greenhouses and began developing French intensive gardens on their 5,000 square feet (465 square meters) rooftop. They developed plans for converting a nonfunctional 24,000 gallon (90,000 liters) swimming pool in their basement into a commercial aquaculture facility, and designed an attached solar greenhouse for the south side of their building. Richard Cleghourne, the program coordinator for CUANDO, envisioned the building developing into a center for demonstrating urban alternative technology.

The groups saw alternative technology as having the potential to provide a material base for the development of a cooperatively owned and managed, self-reliant economy for the neighborhood. Coupled with a developing system of community control of neighborhood institutions for education, health care, public safety, sanitation, housing, and planning, this was the basis of the long range, holistic vision that inspired the experiments they undertook.

The projects affected the community on three levels that interacted with and reinforced each other. First, they contributed to meeting the material needs of the people involved and improved the immediate environment of the neighborhood. Concretely, solar energy meant lower bills for oil and electricity. Gardens and aquaculture systems resulted in high quality, healthy food and reduced food costs. The recycling effort helped to alleviate the health hazards presented by garbage in the streets, and provided a small additional income for those involved. Neighborhood children now played in a grassy park rather than a rubble-strewn lot.

In relation to the total population, the number of people affected to varying degrees by alternative technology projects was arguably small. The projects were conceived as pilot and demonstration programs, their impact limited by definition. To meet needs, particularly food and energy needs, in a more significant fashion would have required a massive intensification of the principles demonstrated in the pilot projects.

Secondly, the alternative technology projects provided a valuable focus for community organizing. The groups were remarkably successful in involving neighborhood young people in their work. They managed to draw youth off the street and in some cases even recruited participants from neighborhood gangs. The energies of the street, which claimed so many of Loisaida’s youth, were drawn upon and channeled into productive directions.

The gardening projects in particular drew participation from a broad cross-section of the community. Many of the older gardeners brought experience from years of gardening on the Island of Puerto Rico. The gardens, housing cooperatives, and recycling efforts were all arenas in which the participants developed the skills of self-management necessary for community control.

Participatory Politics

The organizational forms which emerged were truly grassroots and participatory. Each organization functioned as an autonomous group and each had a particular structure, but they all reflected a common concern with ensuring that all of those involved in a particular project participated in making the decisions that affected that project. Emphasis was placed on teaching rather than telling participants how to work together. Learning by doing was the rule of thumb, and youth were given positions of responsibility to help develop their leadership skills. Leadership itself was defined in non-hierarchical terms. People lead by example and by virtue of their experience. Leadership shifted from individual to individual in relation to the specific activity. The processes of both decision-making and physical work were seen as inseparable from, and as equally important as, the end result.

Leadership in CHARAS was situational, shifting from task to task, with everyone in the organization at some point providing leadership in one activity or another, often defying stereotypes, with women taking on a variety of leadership roles, including in traditionally male arenas like construction. When working on projects, CHARAS always tried to involve the broader community. As Chino García put it: “We try to make it, as much as we can, a collective effort. It is not easy. A lot of people don’t know how to work with a collective structure. A lot of people want leadership, we have that trouble. They feel that they are useless without it. They want some central body. They’re used to dictatorship, not their own plans and preparations. We try to teach them to be more independent of a central body, more independent as a team.”

That “people should work together collectively,” was the explicit ideal. García further described the process: “We try to make decisions as a group. Things are written by the group and signed ‘collectively’ rather than ‘respectfully.’ It means the group decided. We do not use names like ‘Director,’ we are not traditional leaders; we call ourselves co-coordinators of what has to be done.” The whole point being that CHARAS “try to get people to the point where they can be their own bosses; develop their skills and break out of that whole leader/led mindset,” García concluded.

This process of personal empowerment was reflected in the integration of new members into the group. Leadership took on an educational form, teaching people to become leaders themselves by empowering individuals to become an effective part of a collective decision making process. CHARAS had a mechanism known as the Yucca system. The principle at work, according to Angelo González, was “Each one teach one.”

This practical learning experience was powerful. “I felt close to my people. I wanted to do something, about the neighborhood,” said Luis Guzmán, describing his experience as a seventeen-year-old. “When I was in high school I was part of a study group of students and we would discuss things, like how the economic system works, why we have poor people, really breaking it down, you know, how the system works, different forms of government. My mind was developing, questioning lots of things.” Guzmán did organizing for the United Farm Workers when he met Chino García, who invited him over to CHARAS. “I started getting more involved, going to meetings, getting involved with committees, and learning a lot about community politics, being asked to speak about the community and my feelings.” In the process, “I opened up to a lot of ideas, learned to make judgments, say yes or no; to develop a sense of myself, and a commitment to the movement and my people; to understand the system, come up with alternatives and think positive.” Participation affected everything, he explained: “It’s like being a warrior, you have to learn everything out there and change yourself, you can’t learn it all from books.”

If politics is defined in its most basic sense as the way people relate to each other and make decisions that govern their lives, then the movement in Loisaida must be understood as intensely political. But not so if politics is defined in its narrow, more generally accepted sense as the parliamentarian or sectarian exercise of political power. The groups did not conform to a particular political ideology, doctrine, or dogma. However their practice was informed by a set of principles.

Edgardo Rivera explained it this way, “A different kind of politics is emerging. A state of change is happening. Rather than push one model or one program on people you have to be participatory and give support to things that are beneficial to the people and the environment of the neighborhood.” In reference to CHARAS he said, “Everyone is an individual with their personal beliefs, but as an organization CHARAS does not identify itself with any system, party, or political organization. It is not separatist politics; it is a matter of direction.” The basic idea was that the community should address its own needs. “We are aiming for the area to define its own future,” said Rivera. “As people keep learning they realize that there is a lot they can do themselves to make things better.” The political implications were obvious: “You suddenly realize that nobody should plan for anybody else,” Rivera explained. “We meet our own needs. The community meetings serve that purpose.”

The major emphasis of CHARAS was exemplary action and praxis. In the words of Victor Sanchez, a prison organizer and former member of CHARAS, “The concept is based on the practice of self-reliance and self-determination. We do not deal with ideology or false pride. We are about work.” To be sure, “When you talk about community development, in the long run you are talking about controlling the police, the schools, everything,” Sanchez admitted. “We are aware of the fact that we live in a country full of contradictions; we don’t need any more contradictions among ourselves. So we try to set an example of how things can be done.”

“The practice centers on everyday life,” Sanchez explained. “Did you eat today? Do you have heat? We are open.” Indeed, “we have been accused of being liberal, too open, too vulnerable. But it is not liberalism,” he insisted: “we just don’t want our organization to be used as a platform for someone’s ideology.” Their rejection of sectarian ideology should not be misinterpreted as anti-intellectualism or ignorance, rather it was a conscious choice to develop a politics based in direct action and a reconstructive vision, and a recognition of the inadequacies of sectarian political theory in dealing with the particulars of their situation.

The organizations involved were part of a larger network of Lower East Side groups involved in housing, health care, educational and cultural issues. For several years these groups assembled at quarterly Loisaida town meetings to make plans, discuss the problems and celebrate the triumphs of their neighborhood. These town meetings, attended by individual citizens and representatives of over one hundred community organizations, were initiated by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a Chicago-based group devoted to grassroots community empowerment and reconstruction, rooted in a utopian, communal, Christian tradition. While overt religiosity was rejected by most of the groups and individuals who participated in the town meetings, the forum itself proved to be extremely valuable as a way to make decisions about neighborhood priorities, assign responsibility for specific projects, and coordinate activities between groups.

At the town meetings the community was divided up, block by block, and detailed plans were blueprinted for the redevelopment of each abandoned building and vacant lot, with responsibility for each project assigned to a specific neighborhood group. A comprehensive plan for the neighborhood resulted.

Over 300 individuals attended a typical town meeting. Decisions were made using direct democracy, and the decisions affected a group of approximately 3,000 people actively engaged in the process of community reconstruction in Loisaida, about 10% of the total population of the neighborhood. Given that a large number of neighborhood residents were children and another large percentage of the population were involved with crime, drugs, and other activities that made their participation unlikely, 3,000 people constituted a significant block of Loisaida’s citizenry. The groups also produced a magazine focused on community issues, The Quality of Life in Loisaida.

Mutual Aid

Another level on which the projects affected the neighborhood was more long term. While the projects that I have described were experiments and pilot projects they were all seen as having a potentially transformative impact on Loisaida. The economic development of the area through alternative technology meant not only the physical reconstruction of the neighborhood, but the creation of jobs, job training and new sources of income as well. Such opportunities were desperately needed in Loisaida, where estimates of unemployment among youth ran as high as 40%. Job training was provided to people in the rapidly emerging fields related to alternative technologies like solar energy and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. Jobs for those trained could have been developed in the neighborhood itself where about 70% of the housing stock was abandoned or dilapidated.

The groups began to create small-scale cooperative businesses to put their skills to use. CHARAS began building portable domes. CUANDO constructed window box greenhouses that they hoped to market. Plans were made for the expansion of the recycling center to full resource recovery from raw garbage. The members of CUANDO designed an attached greenhouse for their 2nd Avenue center to supply ornamental plants for neighborhood shops in addition to raising vegetables. The 11th Street Movement constructed two rooftop greenhouses for food production. A carpentry cooperative and a tool lending library were developed on 11th Street, as was a solar installation cooperative. Sweat equity buildings throughout the neighborhood formed a fuel oil purchasing cooperative, and the community started both a food cooperative, and a community credit union.

The development and survival of the projects in Loisaida rested on an economic base rooted in the tradition of mutual aid. It drew on Puerto Rican communal traditions, and a sense of mutualism often found in immigrant communities, with mechanisms like hometown clubs, extended family networks and street cliques providing support and sharing resources. The motto of CHARAS was “Doing more with less.” As Chino García described it, “It means to take a dollar and stretch it, by not being individualists and one person or group hog it all.”

In CHARAS people shared money as it became available; reciprocity was the principle at work. Individual needs were taken into account; a father of two children would receive more than a single person. The rule was “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her need.” Edgardo Rivera said, “Sometimes we get paid, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes someone may have an outside job, or unemployment. We share, we stay open, people are happy, and they survive. Sometimes it is hard to believe that no one has any money.”

Funding for the projects has come from a variety of sources: community churches, private foundations, public grants, and low interest loans. After the work was already established, the three groups received $96,000 from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), an independent organization funded by the federal Community Services Administration to finance experiments in alternative technology for low-income people. NCAT funded numerous projects around the country, though most focused on the application of alternative technology in rural situations. The projects in Loisaida were the first attempt at a concerted application of alternative technology in the urban environment. Hiram Shaw, the acting Director of NCAT, believed that “If it can work in New York, it can work anywhere.”

The groundwork for the projects was laid over a period of several years. Technical assistance through the planning and design phases was provided by a number of groups and individuals, including Buckminster Fuller, the Energy Task Force, Adopt-a-Building, the Urban Homestead Assistance Board, the Green Guerrillas, landscape architect Robert Nichols, and the Institute for Social Ecology. This collaboration between radical environmentalists and the low-income Puerto Rican community of Loisaida was unprecedented. The cooperation provided a strong argument against those who claimed that environmental issues were irrelevant to inner city people.

It is important to note that while outside assistance was instrumental in making the projects a reality, the primary impetus rested within the Loisaida community. Chino García noted that “In the ‘60s the anti-poverty program came into the neighborhood with millions of dollars, and the government had all these programs that were going to help us out and save the Lower East Side. Those programs were supposed to be controlled by the people, but they never really were. So those millions of dollars were spent and nothing really changed, in fact things got worse. Some people got the idea that the government would provide for them. But some of us came to understand that we had to do for ourselves if we really wanted to control what happens in our neighborhood. That’s what the environmental projects are about. We do for ourselves, we use whatever resources we have available in the community (‘doing more with less’) and after we have gone as far as we can go we look to the outside for some help. We welcome assistance from the outside, but they have to understand that the community will make the decisions about what goes on and the community will own and control whatever we build up.”

This emphasis on grassroots control and decision-making was crucial to the success of the projects. It enabled alternative technology to gain a foothold in this neighborhood where other efforts to introduce alternative technology to the inner city, like the community technology experiments in Washington, D.C., which Karl Hess wrote about in his book Community Technology, had failed. These were not groups of middle class people bringing the blessings of alternative technology to the poor. Rather, the efforts were an expression of the people of the neighborhood demanding access to the tools that could enable them to reconstruct their own neighborhood. In the words of Angelo González of CHARAS, “It is the human energy, not the solar energy that will really make the difference.”

Reflections on Gentrification

While the projects were but a tiny fragment of the work that needed to be done if Loisaida was to be turned around from its state of decay, they represented an important first step. The use of forms of neighborhood organization for which the technologies can provide a material base had the potential to transform the Lower East Side. There was, of course, no guarantee that such a transformation would occur. The projects were underfinanced, understaffed, and frustrated by the constant bureaucratic entanglements involved in any community work. But given the technological and more importantly human energies involved, there was great hope for “un milagro de Loisaida,” a miracle of the Lower East Side. That miracle, the transformation and reconstruction of America’s archetypal immigrant ghetto, had important implications for all of our decaying cities, and for the redefinition of an urban lifestyle for all of our citizens.

Clearly, the technologies were not a panacea. In fact, technology in and of itself can offer no solution to what are essentially social problems. But they did hold the potential to support the emerging cultural movement in Loisaida in significant ways. I wish I could point to Loisaida today as a model for a an ecological, self-reliant, directly-democratic neighborhood built on the rubble of a collapsed capitalist society, but the reality is that the larger economic and political forces of the city and nation-state conspired to prevent the developments described above from reaching their full potential. We discovered that, to paraphrase Lenin, you cannot build ecotopia in one neighborhood. From the early 1980s, the movement was forced to turn its attention to the battle against gentrification.

As the US economy recovered from the recession of the early 1980s and entered the era of Ronald Reagan, Loisaida was targeted for “development.” Just a twenty minute walk from Wall Street, the vacant lots and abandoned buildings were seen as ripe for picking by real estate developers, who rechristened the neighborhood “alphabet city.” Ironically, a major factor that made the neighborhood so attractive was the revitalization of the community through the efforts of the grassroots. Vacant lots were now community gardens, abandoned houses were being rehabbed, and a vibrant New York Puerto Rican culture had emerged. Artists, punk rockers, and students seeking low rents were moving east of Avenue A, and bringing clubs, restaurants and shops with them. A new “hip” neighborhood was taking shape, and real estate was cheap. Speculators started moving in.

The building next to the CHARAS loft on Avenue B changed hands three times in an eighteen month period, first for $12,000, then for $36,000 and finally for $320,000, without any work or renovation being done. The City changed its policy and instead of negotiating with community groups for ownership of abandoned properties, all City owned buildings and lots were put on the auction block.

A huge struggle was waged when the Giuliani administration decided to evict the community gardens and auction off the lots on which they were built. Squatters were targeted for eviction and long-standing community projects were under assault. The jiu jitsu of the real estate market forced the community of Loisaida to fight a holding action, which resulted in numerous confrontations with the police and the New York City Housing Authority.

The gentrification of the neighborhood moved into high gear during the 1980s. The active displacement of low income residents increased, with landlords using arson, harassment, and intimidation to force out renters, abetted by the City’s efforts to build middle income housing that would have excluded most of the poor and working people of Loisaida. The City also tried to divide various constituencies in the neighborhood; they proposed middle income artists housing be built on the site of La Plaza Cultural, a move that was successfully resisted by CHARAS and other community groups, including artists groups.

In the 1990s, the City renovated Tomkins Square Park in the heart of Loisaida and used the opportunity to tear down the amphitheater there, which had served as an important center for cultural and political gatherings, and to push the homeless population, which had been a strong presence in the park, out of the neighborhood in order to “sanitize” it for the more middle class residents starting to move east of Avenue A. In 1990 a massive riot began in the park and roiled into the surrounding blocks as a protest against these actions.

The community groups held a series of protests and direct actions to try to stem the tide of displacement; they fought back in every way imaginable. They were forced to abandon their ambitious plans for reconstructing their neighborhood and put all of their energy into fighting gentrification. The shifting population dynamics insured the election of a city council member who was a proponent of gentrification, and the real estate interests, arguably the most powerful force in New York politics, stepped up the pressure on the city for market sales of city owned properties. By the mid 1990s, gentrification of the Lower East Side was a fait accompli. Some of the community groups were able to hold on to what they had built up; Sweat equity groups who had negotiated legal title to their buildings were able to keep them. The actress Bette Midler gave millions of dollars so that some community gardens were purchased from the city and placed in a public trust, after years of protest and resistance. However, many more groups lost their hard-earned projects. After 22 years of operation, CHARAS was evicted from El Bohio, based in the old public school on 9th Street, and they also lost their recycling center on 8th Street. CUANDO was evicted, their property sold, and ultimately torn down. One of the most promising grassroots efforts at neighborhood reconstruction ever attempted was crushed under the weight of the real estate market.

In retrospect it is clear that the movement made some strategic mistakes. When the neighborhood was redlined by the banks and the abandoned properties were considered worthless by the City, the grassroots groups should have organized to ensure a comprehensive approach to community ownership and control of those properties, rather than the piecemeal approach that emerged. We should have had the foresight to realize that, given the pattern that had emerged in so many Manhattan neighborhoods before (like Greenwich Village, SoHo and Tribeca), gentrification posed a real threat, something that was hard to believe walking through the mostly abandoned neighborhood of the 1970s.

The City could have been pressured to guarantee community access as a first priority for City owned properties. This approach was used by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston and they were able to secure their part of the Roxbury neighborhood for community ownership and community based development efforts. There was a City wide coalition of grassroots groups that included the South Bronx People’s Development Organization, the Banana Kelly Block Association, the Brooklyn based National Council of Neighborhood Women, and numerous other grassroots organizations dealing with housing and open space issues, which could have mobilized to put more pressure on the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to insure community ownership and provide more public spending for Sweat Equity Urban Homesteaders, a position which would have garnered broad public support since Sweat Equity produced low income housing at approximately one fourth of the cost of building traditional public housing.

The movement also failed to fully develop the potential of the town meetings as a counterpower to the City government, a strategy later developed by Murray Bookchin in his concept of libertarian municipalism. As the pressure of gentrification increased the town meetings fell by the wayside, replaced, in part, by the democratization of the Community Planning Board, which now consists of elected, rather than appointed, representatives. Representative democracy, however, is not a replacement for the direct democracy practiced in the town meeting forum, and this, I believe, led to a growing disempowerment of residents.

An approach which combined protest and direct action, the two primary methods used by the movement, with the genuinely political dimension expressed through the town meetings could have had a powerful impact and set the stage for the creation of real community power. In addition to reinforcing the democratic inclination of the people in the neighborhood, and providing them with education and experience in the exercise of direct democratic decision-making, such a strategy could conceivably have presented a powerful counter-force to the real estate developers. And it could have been further advanced to challenge the very structures of decision-making that govern the City, ultimately forcing a change of charter and a redefinition of governance that would have allowed for the full realization of their vision of “a world of neighborhoods.”

From a distance of almost forty years it is easy to see the shortcomings of what we attempted. However, given the urgency of the crises we currently face, the growing dependence of the planet on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, the need to immediately deal with climate change, and the imperative to address all of these crises in a fashion that emphasizes freedom and equity, the lessons of Loisaida loom large, both as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale.

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Sep 14 2019 15:24


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