At the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in East Harlem I was one of the first scholars to examine the still unprocessed 17 boxes of material on Charas, one of the oldest and most respected grassroots Puerto Rican community development organizations in New York City, says Timo Schrader, recipient of the 2015 Elizabeth and Elisha Atkins Postgraduate Travel Award.
My project offers the first in-depth urban cultural analysis of the network of community activism in Loisaida (part of the Lower East Side). This community organized itself to fight against postwar urban deindustrialization, housing disinvestment, and gentrification, which negatively affected low-income areas. By recreating the urban history of sustainable activism in Loisaida and focusing on the initiatives and projects of key community organizations, I demonstrate how they sought to reclaim urban space, educational space, and cultural space. I argue that
analyzing the interplay of sustainable activism, community organizations, and space in a small urban neighbourhood such as Loisaida, provides three crucial insights: (1) the necessity for community organizations to adapt their activism to changing needs of the community, (2) the importance of neighbourhood control over both physical and non-physical (spiritual, cultural, educational) space, and (3) Puerto Ricans’ ideas about and practices of their ‘right to the city.’
Thanks to both the Elizabeth and Elisha Atkins Postgraduate Travel Award (British Association for American Studies) and the Postgraduate Transatlantic Travel Grant (European Association for American Studies), I was fortunate enough to travel to New York City for two months from 20 June to 20 August 2015. I found a room in Brooklyn’s iconic Bed-Stuy neighbourhood from which it only took me between 20 to 40 minutes to my research sites. Mainly I visited New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, the Centro Archives and Library, the New York Public Library, as well as some community organizations in Loisaida.
I spent two weeks in the impressive Elmer Bobst Library, which houses Tamiment, to examine the Ronald Lawson Research Files for the Tenant Movement in New York City. This collection includes vital organizational and personal documents about the community organization Interfaith Adopt-a-Building (AAB), to which I devote an entire chapter in my thesis. This organization was at the forefront of turning abandoned and decaying buildings on the Lower East Side into newly renovated and affordable homes for lower income earners. The documents in this collection includes interviews with key leaders of the organization as well as details on specific projects and their overall working ethic: sweat equity as a means to home ownership.
At the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman building, I examined the holdings of the Vincent Astor Foundation’s archives, which holds letters and forms pertaining to AAB and another primary organization in my thesis, The Real Great Society or RGS (the foundation funded AAB and RGS for several years). This helped me to get a picture of the financial requirements for the largely self-help initiatives of AAB and RGS.
Finally, I went to the biggest Puerto Rican archive in the US: the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in East Harlem. They hold collections on key organizations such as Charas, Seven Loaves, El Puerto Rican Embassy, AAB, and RGS. I was one of the first scholars to fully examine the still unprocessed 17 boxes of material on Charas, which operated for almost 40 years in Loisaida and kept records dating back to their beginnings in the mid 1960s.
I will return to New York City in 2016 to conduct additional interviews with people active in the organizations as well as curate an exhibit on Charas at the Loisaida Center—a project that I’m working on with the director of that center. This key research trip would not have been possible without the support of BAAS and EAAS and the material I found will enrich my research, which I look forward to presenting at the prestigious American Historical Association Annual Meeting 2016 in Atlanta.
Timo Schrader is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nottingham and recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship for Research Excellence, researching the history of Puerto Rican community activism in Loisaida in the post-World War II decades. He is also the Associate Postgraduate Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R) at the University of Nottingham.