Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Hopeless Future For Gardens Of Hope?

Casitas: Gardens Of Reclamation

25 color photographs by Ejlat Feuer (E-mail: celebrating the beauty and cultural significance of casita gardens located in New York's Puerto Rican neighborhoods.

Text by landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom (E-mail: illustrating how casitas function as places of refuge, cultivation, recreation, celebration and expression.

El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street
New York, New York

Saturday, November 14, 1998 - Sunday, February 28, 1999
Opening Reception: Friday, November 13 at 6:30 PM

11 AM to 5 PM - Wednesday through Sunday

Ejlat Feuer, 908.766.9893 (Photos available)
Jane Weissman, Urban Arts & Ecology, 212.989.3006 (E-mail:

Since 1995, photographer Ejlat Feuer and landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom have been documenting community gardens in El Barrio (East Harlem), the Lower East Side (Loisada), Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Joining hundreds of community groups throughout New York City, Puerto Ricans have transformed garbage strewn, rat infested vacant lots into vibrant and productive community vegetable and flower gardens - gardens of hope and reclamation. Drawing on Caribbean agricultural and architectural traditions, the gardeners not only cultivate vegetables, fruit, and medicinal as well as culinary herbs, but also construct one- and two-room wood frame structures known as casitas or little houses.


Yet, casitas are now imperiled. Most are located on city-owned land targeted for development. Of the ten casitas featured in this exhibition, two have already been cleared for housing. In the next few months, one will be replaced by a day care center. Another is slated to become a park. An additional two are included in a condemnation order that was recently approved by the courts.

For Puerto Ricans, whose immigrant experience has been one of displacement rather than assimilation, "casitas enable them to take control of their immediate environment and, in the process, to rediscover and reconnect with their cultural heritage," states Ejlat Feuer. The architectural roots of the casitas and the clean-swept bateys or open spaces that surround them are found in the structures of the indigenous Taino Indians, the Spanish conquistadors and the African slaves.

Casitas are community endeavors that transform vacant lots into valuable community spaces. "Functioning as social centers for the entire neighborhood, casitas are protected places where children can safely play," explains Daniel Winterbottom. "They are welcoming and restful places where adults garden, converse and play dominoes away from the sounds and bustle of the city."

Casitas allow for cultural expression through music, dance and art. Gardeners host secular and religious celebrations characterized by Puerto Rican food, bomba and plena music, and dancing. Gardeners create murals, assemblages and Santos or shrines that have both decorative and religious purpose.

Through their casitas, gardeners demonstrate pride in their heritage and carry on cultural traditions, thus ensuring their continuation to the next generation. "It is ironic," says Mr. Winterbottom, "that casitas, which have helped stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods, have contributed to another wave of Puerto Rican displacement. Like most powerful landscapes, casitas are fragile ecologies, susceptible to disruption."

Dancing at Casitas

An immigrant himself, Ejlat Feuer came to the United States from Israel in 1957 at the age of 8. Reflecting on his interest in casitas and their creators, Mr. Feuer realized that they shared "similar journeys of displacement, assimilation, courage and pride." "No matter your social or economic standing," he added, "casitas confer respect and dignity on all who enter." His photographs include panoramic views of the casitas, portraits of the gardeners, and images of details that give the gardens their unique personalities. Mr. Feuer's work has been published in The New York Times, Urban Latino and Garden Design. He also designs and builds furniture.

Mr. Winterbottom is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Interested in cultural and social influences on environmental design and vernacular landscapes, he has presented his research at many conferences and has published in several journals. Mr. Winterbottom is currently directing a DesignBuild project in Mexico, working with a rural community near Cuernavaca.

Gardens of Reclamation

a collaboration of
Ejlat Feuer, photographer,
and Daniel Winterbotton, landscape architect

Long ago, I used to dream for a yard where I could grow plants and vegetables. This casita reminds me of my island with the house and plants. I feel very happy.
Iraissa Cancel Vogue, South Bronx

Human nature impels us to create safe environments - warm, familiar, comfortable places where family and friends gather, where children are raised and nurtured. Since the 1970's, Puerto Rican residents in El Barrio (East Harlem), the Lower East Side (Loisada), Brooklyn and the South Bronx have fashioned such refuges. Joining hundreds of community groups throughout New York City, they have transformed garbage strewn, rat infested vacant lots into vibrant and productive community vegetable and flower gardens.

sky view of garden

Although all community gardens reflect, to some extent, the ethnic and cultural traditions of the people who create them, the gardens in Puerto Rican neighborhoods actively draw on Caribbean agricultural and architectural traditions. In addition to cultivating corn, tomatoes, peppers, fruit trees, and medicinal as well as culinary herbs, Puerto Rican gardeners often construct one- and two-room wood frame structures known as casitas or little houses. Surrounding the casita and separated from the garden area is a non- vegetated and clean-swept yard known as the batey.

The architectural roots of the casitas are bohios, the round or polygonal thatched huts originally built by the Taino Indians, Puerto Rico's native inhabitants. In 1493, the Spaniards conquered the island and, later, brought in African slaves. Influenced by the Spanish, the bohio evolved into a rectilinear structure; verandas and porches were added on and functioned as reception and entry areas. Originally, bohios had separate kitchen facilities and were grouped around an open space used by the Taino for ceremonial events. Influenced by the Africans, the kitchen moved indoors and the batey evolved into a plaza or "commons" where social and political activities took place.

Decimated by the introduction of small pox, the surviving Taino population fled to the mountains and intermarried with deserting Spanish soldiers and escaped slaves. Known as the Jibaro, they practiced subsistence farming and became adept at salvaging and recycling discarded materials. A colorful folk tradition grew up around them, and today's Puerto Ricans attribute their love of nature and gardening as well as their ingenious use of found materials in building casitas to their Jibaro roots.

For many Puerto Ricans whose immigrant experience has been one of displacement rather than assimilation, casitas - with their garden, house and yard - are a conscious attempt to recreate their homeland and, in so doing, bolster cultural identity and pride. For the gardeners and their guests, casitas offer a place for refuge, recreation, cultivation, celebration and expression.

Casitas are community endeavors, opportunities for neighborhood groups to take control of their immediate environment. Functioning as social centers for the entire community, they are protected places where children can safely play. They are welcoming and restful places where adults garden, converse and play dominoes away from the sounds and bustle of the city. Casitas allow for cultural expression through music, dance and art. Gardeners host secular and religious celebrations characterized by Puerto Rican food, bomba and plena music, and dancing. Gardeners create murals, assemblages, and Santos or shrines that have both decorative and religious purpose.

Through their casitas, gardeners demonstrate pride in their heritage and carry on cultural traditions, thus ensuring their continuation to the next generation. However, the future for New York's casitas is bleak. Most are located on city-owned property targeted for development. Of the casitas featured in this exhibition, Rodriquez Community Garden and El Jardin de la 10 have already been cleared for housing. In the next few months, El Bohio Boricua will be replaced by a daycare center. Los Compadres is part of an assemblage that will be developed into a New York City park. Vogue and Memory of Silverio Gonzalez Pipon as well as El Rincon Criollo are included in a court-approved condemnation order. It is ironic that casitas, which have helped stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods, have unwittingly contributed to another wave of Puerto Rican displacement. Like most powerful landscapes, casitas are fragile ecologies susceptible to disruption.

The Gardeners Speak

I named it for my grandmother. In Spanish it's called "El Batey de Dona Provi." In Puerto Rico, especially in the rural areas, you have the casita, the house, and the batey, the wide open area in front of the casita. Everybody has them. The batey is a gathering area, with planted areas around it and places where you have pigs and chickens. Here, I have a rooster and some chickens, and the whole neighborhood likes it. It's like bringing our culture up to New York City.

My grandmother spends all day here. She lives in the senior home down the block. She goes from there to here and from here to there. Some of the other residents come and sit here, too.

Making the garden was a lot of work. The place was full of lots of junk, toilet bowls and refrigerators. Three of us put together a few dollars and built the casita. The colors we used to paint the casita are the colors we use in Puerto Rico.

The casita is always open when I'm here and when my grandmother is here. And it's open all summer. We try to maintain the area. We try to push the drugs out of the immediate neighborhood. You can only push them so far, but at least they respect this area.

Our casita is recreation oriented. It's for the entire community. We grow some things from Puerto Rico - tomatoes, eggplant, okra and corn, peppers - but many things from the island can't survive the cold. We play dominoes, have a softball team, and host barbecues. For Labor Day, I prepare a pig the day before and then put it on the spit the next morning. Most everybody participates in the community activities. That's the main thing.

Gerald Lanausse
El Batey de Dona Provi
East Tremont, South Bronx

The casita reminds me of my island. I feel like I'm in Puerto Rico.

Miriam Lopez
East Harlem, Manhattan

Casitas are important for our cultural identity. They represent the way our ancestors and grandparents used to live.

The garden reminds me of the countryside. It make me very comfortable. I like to take care of the plants because it is good therapy for humans. I feel relaxed and it relieves my stress.

Carmen Fernadez
East Harlem, Manhattan

I am proud of all the progress we've made in our garden. We've shown our community that by working together we can do many wonderful things. Our bohio is one of our best efforts. We built it for our Indians of Puerto Rico, the Tainos. Inside, we've made a museum of Puerto Rican things.

Harry W. Lebron
El Bohio Boricua
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I come from the country, near Ponce. I prefer the country where there is a lot of green. Kids from the neighborhood come and play here. We have daycare for a few kids starting at nine months. I don't allow ball playing because it took hard work to get the plants like this. We have peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins - lots of stuff. We have an apple tree, a peach tree, a mulberry tree, and some grapes and blueberries.

Ivelisse Torres
Melrose, South Bronx

People come here to hang out, often in the afternoon after work. To get away from the sun, they go into the casita and play dominoes. When the softball teams come from Pennsylvania and Connecticut, we have a barbecue dinner for them. Teams from Puerto Rico join us, too.

El Batey de Dona Provi
East Tremont, South Bronx

When people come to the casita we show them how to garden. I was five years old when my father told me it was time to work. I show a lot of kids here how to plant.

We grow lots of herbs. A lot of people come here for yerba buena. You put the leaves in a pot and boil them. After it turns green you add cold water. Then you take a shower with it. You pour it on your head and let it run down to your bottom. You do this for three days and it will take everything bad away. If somebody does something to you, hurts your feelings, the water cleans it away. We also use plantain for medicine and cilantro (coriander) for cooking.

The batey is where we have parties to celebrate birthdays and weddings. We put chairs around and some decorations up front. People come with congas, guiros, and maracas. On Halloween we put things up for the children. In summer, we show movies on the walls and everybody comes.

In Puerto Rico, everybody has a Santos in front of the house. Some use it for good luck and some use it for bad luck. Here, we use it for good luck. You go in and light a candle when you want something good to happen. We also use it when someone dies. A week ago, a guy died. One day he was here and the next day his dad came and said he had died.

Jose Valentin
El Jardin de la 10
Lower East Side, Manhattan

This is what casitas looked like in Puerto Rico in the old times. Now they have houses of cement. It's very different. We painted our casita in bright colors, they way they did in the 1930's in Puerto Rico. There were a few in the city, but in the country they were very bright so people could see their houses in the dark. Our casita is painted red, white and blue -- the colors of the Puerto Rican -- to remind us of our island home.

People come here with their children. They come and sit, play dominoes and bingo, and talk -- just like they do in Puerto Rico, like they are living in the old times. Kids come and do their homework.

We grow aloe vera for burns and yerba buena for stomach pains. Some people cook with it; others use it for tea. Plantain grows everywhere. Some people use it for the stomach, for baths and for Santeria or witchcraft. Here, in New York, they cast spells to make people cry or to cause heartbreak. I have to pull out the plantain because I don't want people "playing" with it.

When we cook the pig, everybody helps out. People chip in for rice and tortillas. We do three roasts over the summer for special occasions. People give what they can afford.

We season the pig the night before and set it out at eight in the morning. We tie it on the spit with wire and mound charcoal around it. Then we start turning it for five to six hours. We have a little motor and it turns by itself. People come and play dominoes while it is cooking.

Melagros Lagin
Los Compadres
Lower East Side, Manhattan

I had a casita when I was young. In Puerto Rico, people used to live in the casita. There, it's tropical and hot, and the casita is open. There were huge orchids and grapefruit and orange trees all around. Now I have nothing. Here, I live in the back of the building and can't stand to be inside all day. The only way I can get in contact with nature is to go outside, but I don't like hanging out in front of buildings. I hope we can keep this garden.

We use rue for arthritis; it helps the pain. You break the leaves and put it in some alcohol. When it turns green, you rub it on the joints. They sell a tincture at the corner store, but we buy little plants. Because we use just a little, they will last forever.

Nativida Gonzales
Los Compadres
Lower East Side, Manhattan

I grew up in Puerto Rico in the country. My home town is Vega Alta, on the north coast, five minutes from San Juan. Many people here grew up in New York and they don't know the customs. They are Nuyoricans. I want to keep my culture. That's why I do this.

We got together and cleaned the lot, put up the fence and built the casita. Little by little, I brought every piece of wood I could find on the top of my car. Others brought nails. We built it together.

We hold many religious celebrations in the yard in front of the casita. That's the custom in Puerto Rico and we keep this tradition alive. On May 31st, we celebrate Rosario de Cruz. We sing to the cross and to the earth. Everybody brings flowers and candles. A lot of the guys here play plena. And a lot of us are singers. We sing to the guitars, guiros, panderettas and congas. At a quarter to midnight, we start walking to the river, singing all the way. We go there and pray for the people. It's great.

Enrique Dias
Los Compadres
Lower East Side, Manhattan


Casitas De Madera
Casitas de madera represent a type of vernacular architecture that is rapidly disappearing in Puerto Rico. Once home to the island's rural peasants, casitas or little wood houses have been replaced by houses of reinforced concrete. In New York City, casitas have become a metaphor for "home," but the structures are not lived in. They are used as social clubs, museums, and personal shrines filled with decorative objects, mementos, and photographs of Puerto Rican places, local heroes, sports figures, musicians, and politicians.

Usually constructed of scrap wood and painted in bright tropical colors, casitas typically have pitched roofs, with an entrance located at the gable end. Foundations and stairs, constructed with bricks, cinder blocks or concrete, lead to a veranda or porch, frequently distinguished by x's in the railing and hanging plants above.

Prominently situated in the garden, either in the front or the rear, the house is usually aligned with the garden gate and entry path.

El Batey
The batey or open yard links the casita de madera with the garden's entrance. This cleared open space is usually carpeted, composed of raked or hardened earth, paved with salvaged bricks or lined with concrete slabs. Here, children play, adults relax, and secular and religious celebrations take place.

Surrounding the batey and casita are activity areas that can be considered a series of outdoor rooms - vegetable and herb gardens, eating and domino areas, and children's play spaces. Extending the vocabulary of the casita into the yard, painted wood fences often divide these areas. Stones, too, are painted and used to demarcate space. Work and storage areas, outdoor kitchens and pig roasters, drums for storing water, and covered patios are usually located to the side or rear of the casita. Movement through these spaces is fluid as it is in Puerto Rico where the tropical climate offers little distinction between outside and inside.

The frequent presence of animals in the gardens help to recreate Puerto Rico's agricultural landscape. Chickens, roosters and cats roam freely. Prized animals or those prone to prey are caged. These include rabbits, doves, pigeons, peacocks, ducks, geese, turtles and fighting cocks. The sounds of roosters crowing and chickens scratching in the earth bring back memories of rural Jibaro gardens.

The gardeners' strong connection to Jibaro life, which revolved around land and family, is manifested in the home-style altars found in many casitas. Interpreting Catholicism in very personal ways, gardeners construct Santos or small shrines that honor the Madonna or chosen saints. Statues of saints are housed in small, brightly painted gabled structures and are surrounded by plastic flowers and candles offered in gratitude for good luck and answered prayers. Functioning as a ceremonial gateway to the casita, Santos are often placed near the front of the garden. Crosses and other religious objects are found throughout the garden along with assemblages, masks and murals that have decorative as well personal content.

Murals & Masks
Murals extend the boundaries of smaller gardens well beyond their adjacent walls which can seem confining and oppressive. Painted by friends and local artists, their subjects are often "memories of place" - views of San Juan, Catano and Ponce, rural landscapes, and distant vistas of rocky coastlines and mountain ranges. Many are rendered in a graffiti style, especially memorial murals dedicated to loved ones who have died. Murals reflect Puerto Rican culture and depict such emblematic symbols as el coqui or tree frog and the towers of El Moro, the 16th century fort overlooking San Juan Bay. Not only a popular mural subject, the Puerto Rican flag is flown in casitas alongside the American flag, an affirmation of Puerto Rican culture and a reminder of its contribution to the diversity and richness of American life.

Found objects, birdhouses and masks are sometimes incorporated into the painted walls. With their demonic and animal faces, masks resemble those created for carnival celebrations held in Puerto Rico prior to Lent. Others are based on the masks of the Vejigante, a clown-like character, an amalgam of Caribbean, Spanish and African influences, that was introduced into Carnival almost four hundred years ago.

Pig Roasters
At both religious and secular celebrations, everyone anticipates the serving of the roast pig. Seasoned with oregano and basil from the garden, it is slowly cooked for six to eight hours on a homemade rotisserie. Usually located close to the casita's kitchen, pig roasters are often permanent structures, many having masonry walls. Some roasters are driven by a motor; others by hand. Manually turning the driving wheels mounted on the steel tubular spits takes great effort. The pit becomes a focus of attention as everyone takes a turn.

Music & Dance
Music is part of daily life in the casitas. Salsa is everyday music and is broadcast through speakers mounted on the casita de madera. Many garden members are musicians and play guitars, conga drums and such traditional instruments as panderetas or hand drums and guiros or scraping percussive instruments made from gourds.

Plena, Bomba and Jibaro music are performed in casitas on specials occasions. Plena originated as street music in the poorer neighborhoods of Ponce and Santurce around the turn of the century as singing commentary. It functioned as a newspaper, a way of spreading local news. Today, it can be heard in concert or parks.

Bomba flourished among enslaved African plantation workers. When slavery was abolished, its popularity declined and today it is usually presented at folkloric concerts and festivals. Gardeners sometime make bomba drums from recycled pickle and salt cod barrels.

Originating in small, isolated, mountain farming communities worked by Spanish and mixed settlers, Jibaro music dates to the 16th century and incorporates elements of European social dances. Played year round both in Puerto Rico and New York, it is usually associated with Christmas and The Day of the Kings (Epiphany).

Folkloric dances of bomba and plena, performed by children's dance groups, are handed down from parent to child keeping island traditions alive. Yet, these traditional song and dance forms are not static; they reflect the influence of today's rap singing and break dancing.

Puerto Rican folk art and sculpture flourish in casitas. Assemblages are made from found objects and can be very simple - a doll, toy, or automobile hood ornament affixed to a piece or plywood. They can also be very elaborate, composed of disparate objects such as painted tires and mannequin parts that have been reassembled and painted. Assemblages are often attached to casita walls or hung from trees. Frequently created to evoke and honor the memory of a particular person, they are sometimes mounted, like a totem, on poles.

Assemblages often have an unfinished quality to them; from time to time other elements are added. This additive process resembles some Puerto Rican funerary practices. Toys and common objects are placed on the grave of the deceased, forming a collage of separate pieces that eventually tells the whole story of a person's life.

Gardeners celebrate birthdays, graduations, weddings, Mother's and Father's Day, Labor Day, Halloween, and religious festivals in the garden. Many casitas sponsor softball teams and hold fiestas when teams from Puerto Rico visit. Family members and guests often travel long distances to join the festivities, bringing together a widely dispersed community. Musicians play traditional instruments and native food is served. Eating done, children climb into the laps of their parents and grandparents and watch domino games, or they join in the dance imitating the adults' undulating movements.

Refuge & Recreation
Casitas are aesthetic, social and spiritual oases in neighborhoods beset by poverty, unemployment, substandard housing, gangs, drugs and crime. They often function as social service centers for the entire community, with members offering assistance in the translation and completion of official forms.

Casitas are also forts where limits on activity and behavior are upheld and enforced. Traditional social mores dictate activity within the casita. As long as rules are observed, everyone is accorded respeto or respect and dignidad or dignity, regardless of social or economic position. Individuals are celebrated for their uniqueness and special talents.

Free of drugs, fighting and swearing, casitas attract mothers desiring protected play spaces for their children. In communities underserved by city recreational programs, casitas become mini-playgrounds offering play equipment, safe surfaces and donated toys.

Daily life in the casita has the same extemporaneous quality as life in Puerto Rico. There, a mild climate draws people out of doors, into the yards and the streets. In New York, people stroll in and out of the casitas while others garden, relax and play dominoes. Eating is often a group affair, especially on weekends when family and friends appear with traditional rice and beans for a late afternoon feast.

As retreat, social center or play space, casitas provide a familiar and welcoming place for residents of all ages.

For many members, the vegetable, flower and herb gardens are the most valued spaces in the casitas. Living in high stress neighborhoods that lack accessible natural open space, they view gardening as relaxing and therapeutic. Planting, cultivating, reaping and consuming the harvest are also connected to shared memories of Jibaro subsistence gardens. Food is grown for personal use and is also given away to those in need. Many gardens offer space for growing food to residents of nearby senior citizen housing, daycare centers, and schools.

Corn, beans, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and squash are widely grown. Most gardens contain fruit trees apple, peach, apricot and mulberry as well as grapes and strawberries. Although few trees and shrubs are indigenous to Puerto Rico, some such as ailanthus, weeping willow and hibiscus visually resemble plants growing there. The leaf, color and pod of the Russian Olive are so similar to one native bean tree that passersby often wonder when it will bear fruit. Roses flourish in Puerto Rico and gardeners grow many varieties that remind them of home. Sunflowers, too, are popular annuals. Circles of brick and stone frequently protect shrubs indicating their significance as individual objects.

A wide variety of herbs are found in most gardens. Culinary herbs include parsley, oregano and cilantro or coriander. Mint, rue and yerba buena are used as medicinal teas and healing baths.

Religious Festivals
In Puerto Rico, many religious celebrations take place outdoors. In New York, the same celebrations are held in the gardens. In Puerto Rico, each town has a patron saint, and festivals or Fiestas Patronales are held in their honor. This tradition continues in many casitas.

The Jibaro livelihood, based on subsistence farming, relied on nature's good will and divine benevolence. As a result, religious celebrations became closely tied with the growing cycles. Gardeners at Los Compadres celebrate the spring festival of Rosario de Cruz in May, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Surrounded by flowers and candles, a cross, is placed on a homemade altar where a statue of Mary, crowned with flowers, stands. Community residents come to the garden to sing a special rosary called rosario de cruz.

The summertime Feast of St.John the Baptist is traditionally celebrated in coastal areas. In New York, members of Los Compadres form a candlelight procession and walk from the garden to the East River to wash away bad luck. Following the cleansing, they return to the casita to sing traditional plena songs, dance and feast.

Although many festivals take place in winter, usually they aren't celebrated in New York because of the cold weather. Christmas is the exception. Gardeners set out nativity scenes and hang lights and other decorations. Members of El Bohio Boricua uphold the tradition of plena aguinaldos, the giving of Christmas gifts in the form of song. Playing panderetas and guiros, they wind their way from the garden through the neighborhood singing traditional songs and joining in merry-making or parrandas.

Casitas are also centers for ritual healing. It is not uncommon for community members to leave prayers for those in trouble or to raise funds to pay for a funeral.

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Revised Saturday, November 8, 1998

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture