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2009 Garden Crusader José Soto

José Soto
José Soto

In the South Bronx, gardening and Puerto Rican music sit side by side in an urban oasis.

The site is referred to as La Casita de Chema and it is many things to many people. It is a performance space, a place to play cards and dominoes, a place for impromptu jam sessions, a site for neighborhood cookouts and a space to grow vegetables.

Its official name is Centro Cultural El Rincón Criollo. But its common name honors the man who founded the community center 35 years ago, José “Chema” Soto.

To honor Chema for creating urban gardens and a lasting center for his community, Gardener’s Supply has named him a 2009 Garden Crusader Winner inUrban Renewal.

From Fires to Community

In the mid-1970s, the South Bronx was, literally, burning. There were 12,000 fires in one year and the area lost 40% of its housing. Meanwhile about 300,000 people fled the area. Many of the abandoned lots were havens for drug dealing and criminal activity.

While the South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay and blight for many people, it was also home to thousands of people, including Chema. And he had to walk past these empty lots every day. One day when he was walking his daughter to school, he decided to do something about one lot in his neighborhood. He started clearing the lot of debris, garbage and abandoned cars. Soon, 50 neighbors came out to help.

He and a group of his musician friends – they called themselves the Fellas Social Club – brought folding chairs and played music. Then they built a map of Puerto Rico and planted cilantro. Before long, they built a small wooden house, or casita, on the lot. And then more gardens were planted. Quickly, the garden and casita became a safe place the neighborhood could gather to celebrate their traditions.

Now, the 3,000-square-foot corner lot includes a casita, an outdoor stage and community gardens. And it is a place where celebrated Latin musicians come to jam and perform. It now serves over 500 members, plus the community at large. And it is one of the oldest community centers and gardens in the South Bronx.

Francisco Velez, who nominated Chema for the award, calls it one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Chema said he never thought it would be as big and successful and impact as many people as it has. His goal, all along, was simply to bring Puerto Rico – where he and many of his neighbors grew up – closer to New York.

Puerto Rico in New York

Rincón criollo means, roughly, "hometown corner.” And that name is apt, because the casita and gardens were built and designed to be similar to those scattered all over Puerto Rico.

The South Bronx is primarily made up of long stretches of buildings, asphalt and concrete. The casitas help people living in the city keep in touch with the more rural traditions of Puerto Rico, including its music, food and community traditions.

The video above gives an overview of the scene at El Rincón Criollo. For more video, take a look at a celebration by filmmaker Ashley James and ethnomusicologist Roberta Singer. You can watch it at City of Memory.

The casita is just 16 feet by 16 feet and is painted lime green with white trim. It looks like a rural farmhouse in a warm country. The windows are not screened and there is no insulation. There is a wide porch and a patio. Outside there is an outdoor stage for the concerts of bomba and plena, the traditional music of Puerto Rico’s working class. There are even classes for young musicians. And the gardens outside help people become more self sufficient and to pass gardening skills to their children.

La Casita de Chema is one of many casitas in the Bronx. There is now a movement to designate some of them (including Chema’s) as city landmarks. To learn more, read In Bronx, Little Houses That Evoke Puerto Rico in the New York Times.

Landmark or not, you can count on the music continuing, thanks to 35 years of work by this Garden Crusader.

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