Casa Adela and the Dreams of Loisaida

The poet Tato Laviera once composed an ode to the tripe soup and pig’s feet at Casa Adela, a Puerto Rican restaurant on the Lower East Side: “we walked into adela’s five- / thirty morning mountain smell / of madrugada simmering concrete,” he wrote, in his poem “criollo story.” Casa Adela’s founder and namesake, Adelina…

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

The poet Tato Laviera once composed an ode to the tripe soup and pig’s feet at Casa Adela, a Puerto Rican restaurant on the Lower East Side: “we walked into adela’s five- / thirty morning mountain smell / of madrugada simmering concrete,” he wrote, in his poem “criollo story.” Casa Adela’s founder and namesake, Adelina (Adela) Fargas, moved to New York in the nineteen-seventies, when she was nearly forty. “I was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico,” she once told a documentary-film crew. “Pure Boricua. From where the coqui sings, and never leaves.” Her plates of roasted pork, plantains, and rice and beans soon gained a devoted clientele; for many of her customers, Fargas’s presence, as much as her food, was like a home away from home. She loved Guinness beer, which she sometimes drank mixed with Clamato. Twice a day, she called Puerto Rico, to play the numbers. She had a system that involved addition, subtraction, and multiplication. (Three times, she won on 000.) One morning, in January, 2018, while peeling potatoes in her restaurant’s kitchen, Fargas suffered a stroke that immobilized her on the spot. Two days later, she died.

Earlier this month, Nicolas Heller, a documentary filmmaker who runs the Instagram account @newyorknico, posted alarming news to his seven hundred thousand followers. Casa Adela, now run by Fargas’s two children, Luis and Abigail Rivera, was in trouble. The restaurant had been operating without a formal lease for nearly a decade, and the landlord now wanted to raise the rent from thirteen hundred and fifty dollars a month to, eventually, more than six thousand dollars. The Riveras had offered to pay three thousand dollars a month, with three-per-cent increases each year for ten years. “The landlord refused the offer,” Heller wrote. “Their bottom line is $4000 in year one (backdated to august) and $6,750 starting in year two of the lease, and 3% increases after that, which is a 480%+ increase in rent and sure to force the business to close.” A show of support was being planned for that weekend. Heller hashtagged the post “#MomNPopDrop.” It was quickly shared thousands of times.

The following Saturday, the weather was overcast and misty, and perhaps two hundred people, many of them holding small Puerto Rican flags, met outside Casa Adela. “This is much more than a restaurant,” Alejandro Epifanio Torres, the executive director of the Loisaida Center, told the crowd. “This place is a very important meeting place for our community, in the diaspora, and worldwide.” Luis Rivera, Fargas’s son, stood nearby, his hands clasped in front of him. He has a bit of a belly, a graying beard, and large, dark eyes. When the speeches were done, people got in line to order food. Rivera told me, “When this was a ghetto, we were the first ones here. We basically went through it, you know? We sometimes fed the homeless.”

That morning, a large portrait of Fargas had been spray-painted onto the metal shutters of a neighboring storefront. Power Malu, a local activist with thick biceps and a halo of curly hair, stood near it. “Adela was like my mom,” he said. “This restaurant is like people’s second home.” But, Malu cautioned, the dispute between the restaurant and its landlord wasn’t the old story of a big, bad developer kicking out a neighborhood joint. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is gentrification,’ ” he said. “It’s not.” The building, as much as the restaurant, was part of the Puerto Rican community’s legacy in the neighborhood. Malu gestured toward a blue-and-white tile mural above the building’s front door, which read “66 Ave C Homesteaders.” “These people, actually, with their own hands, helped to restore this building,” he said. “And that’s important for people to know.”

As the City College professor and architect Nandini Bagchee recounts in her 2018 book, “Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side,” the L.E.S. once functioned as a “stepping stone” to America. Poor German, Irish, Jewish, and Ukrainian immigrants landed, and left in a generation or two. But, in the middle of the twentieth century, the manufacturing jobs those immigrants had relied on began to dwindle in New York. By the nineteen-seventies, as the federal government cut spending on housing and social services, local schools and hospitals were closing. The city, plunging toward a financial crisis, cut back on policing, garbage collection, and other services. With the public sector pulling out, real-estate values in the neighborhood fell, and landlords began neglecting their tenants, avoiding their taxes, and sometimes burning properties down to collect the insurance. “Charred buildings, boarded-up windows, and garbage-strewn lots characterized the urban landscape,” Bagchee writes. “And the lack of heat, electricity, and hot water was a domestic constant that plagued many families trying to survive in the barrios within New York City.”

The neighborhood’s Puerto Rican community, which had arrived in large numbers in the nineteen-fifties, organized a response. Vacant spaces were converted to community centers, and empty lots became organic gardens. The Real Great Society, a collective of Puerto Rican youths interested in bottom-up self-sufficiency, opened a day-care center, a night club, and the University of the Street, a storefront at the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park where volunteer teachers offered free courses. Activism, economic solidarity, and public performance were fused together. In 1974, the writer Bimbo Rivas wrote a poem titled “Loisaida,” a new name for a new conception of the neighborhood as a working-class-led experiment in community building. The name, and the dreams it represented, stuck.

The boundaries of Loisaida ran roughly from Houston Street up to Fourteenth Street, and from Avenue A to Avenue D. Avenue C, where Adela Fargas set up shop, was its “commercial spine.” People began to talk of the “Eleventh Street Movement” and of “miracles” happening on the Lower East Side. In 1978, after solar panels and a forty-foot wind turbine were installed atop 519 East Eleventh Street, the Washington Star ran a photograph with the turbine in the foreground and the Empire State Building in the background, looking smaller by comparison. Ted Kennedy called it “the little windmill that could.”

Housing was an early focus of Loisaida activism. When landlords began abandoning their buildings, a citywide coalition of residents, housing groups, legal-aid societies, and Catholic charities began to organize rent strikes. Soon, the ideas grew more ambitious. A group called Interfaith Adopt-a-Building held community meetings in Loisaida, m.c.’d by Bimbo Rivas, “who punctuated serious discussions of jobs and housing with spontaneous bursts of poetry,” Bagchee writes. Howard Brandstein, a longtime community activist, told me, “We were having these incredible meetings. It was finally, like, let’s do something.”

The city had thousands of abandoned properties on its hands that it didn’t want. The community wanted decent places to live. The two sides worked out a deal. If the tenants or prospective tenants of abandoned properties fixed up the buildings themselves—putting in “sweat equity,” as it came to be called—the city would transfer ownership of the buildings, for as little as a few hundred dollars per apartment, to entities known as Housing Development Fund Corporations, or H.D.F.C.s, which the tenants would control. By 1974, this process, known as urban homesteading, was recognized by the federal government. “It was a very exciting concept,” Brandstein said.

The six-story red brick building at 66 Avenue C, built in 1902 and abandoned in 1977, was converted into an H.D.F.C. coöperative about a decade after the first wave of homesteading began in Loisaida. According to Brandstein, who wrote some of the grant proposals seeking funding for the building’s renovation, it became one of the flagships of the movement. Four of the apartments in the sixteen-unit building were set aside for elderly, homeless, or disabled people. Maintenance charges originally ranged from two hundred and ten dollars a month, for a one-bedroom, to four hundred and twenty dollars a month, for a four-bedroom. Homesteaders worked to fix up the building on weekends, mornings, and evenings. In the winter, it was often colder inside than outside. “I was young, just married,” Reynaldo Javier, one of the original residents, said. “You had to work. A thousand hours minimum to get an apartment.” A dedication ceremony for the building was held on June 20, 1987, with Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Cardinal John J. O’Connor in attendance. The program for the event included a quote from Isaiah: “They shall rise up and restore the ruined cities, desolate now for generations.”

Soon after, Brandstein heard that Fargas was being forced out of the original location of her restaurant, which she had opened down the block a decade earlier. “The rear wall of the building collapsed,” Brandstein recalled. “The landlord was waiting for everybody to leave before he would fix it.” Brandstein introduced Fargas to the residents of 66 Avenue C, and Casa Adela moved into one of the building’s two commercial spaces.

Loisaida’s flowering was short-lived. As New York real-estate prices rebounded, development rolled in, clearing out many of the neighborhood’s activist spaces. The solar panels and wind turbine on Eleventh Street came down. The CHARAS Recycling Center—“a place where not only our garbage but our spirit is recycled,” one writer said—closed. In 2001, the building that housed El Bohio Community Center, a hybrid organizing and arts space that was a headquarters for neighborhood activism, was sold to a developer for $3.15 million. When protesters refused to surrender the space, the city sent in police in riot gear to remove them. Condos went up; cocktail bars opened.

H.D.F.C. buildings were mostly left to fend for themselves. (By one estimate, over a thousand such buildings remain in existence in the city, containing thirty-three thousand apartments.) Some of them have drifted from their original purpose. Earlier this year, Bloomberg published an article about trust-fund kids—with access to millions of dollars in capital but technically little income—qualifying to purchase apartments in H.D.F.C. buildings. “The way the city sold it to people at the time, there was no mention of the permanence of this,” Rachel Jaffe, a real-estate attorney who specializes in H.D.F.C.s, said. “There was a desperate need to stabilize the city for a certain amount of time. But I don’t think anyone contemplated that a unit in the West Village could sell for millions of dollars.”

Some H.D.F.C.s, including 66 Avenue C, have stayed true to the dream of their founding, even as many of them have struggled to keep up with rising costs and capital repairs. At 66 Avenue C, residents endured leaks, heating issues, and other problems. A few years ago, in an attempt to get the situation under control, the building reshuffled its board. “There is a real crisis happening,” Carlina Rivera, a thirty-seven-year-old city-council member whose district covers much of Loisaida, told me. “Some of these H.D.F.C.s, part of the larger urban homesteading movement, are in financial trouble, trying to keep up with everything that has gone on in the neighborhood. They’re feeling a little pressed. ‘How do we keep up with increasing costs?’ And so they have to pass those costs on to somebody else.”

Photograph by Dennis Flores 

At Casa Adela, the rotisseries had quietly kept turning. Among the building’s new board, an idea emerged: Why not have the restaurant pay more? Rivera—who has no relation to Luis or Abigail Rivera—has sat in on several meetings between the restaurant and the board members of 66 Avenue C, trying to find a compromise. “What I’m trying to avoid,” she said, “is where we have low-income Latino versus low-income Latino.”

A few days after the rally, Gregory Byrnes, a real-estate lawyer who has been working with the residents of 66 Avenue C, arranged for me to speak with the three members of the building’s board. We met at an imitation speakeasy on Ninth Street—“It’s been tough trying to find a place that will be relatively quiet and the board does not want to meet near Casa Adela,” Byrnes wrote, in an e-mail—and took a table in the back. Gladys Duran, the board president, was born and raised in Loisaida, while Eva Eumana was born in Mexico, and Maria Peralta in Nicaragua. All three had been in the building since the nineteen-nineties, when sweat equity was still expected of new residents. Eumana, who works as a housekeeper, did cleaning work at other H.D.F.C. buildings to contribute her share.

In 2018, the board members said, the prior board president met a real-estate broker named Aretha Busby at a seminar for small landlords held at City Hall. The building hired Busby to write a report about its two commercial spaces—the space not occupied by Casa Adela is currently a bodega—to get a sense of how much more money it could be charging. (“They’re a lovely group of people,” Busby, who previously worked for the city’s public-housing agency, and as the beauty director of Essence magazine, told me. “I do appreciate that they’re voluntarily remaining in affordable housing. That’s a pretty noble thing, in New York City.”) The building then hired Byrnes, who took a look at its management and finances and was appalled by what he found. Byrnes was told that the building needed hundreds of thousands of dollars for capital repairs to address issues with the roof and the boilers, and, Byrnes said, to pay for a management company and a superintendent. The co-op was operating at a deficit each year, and its reserve fund was depleting. Byrnes had helped the residents reduce the size of the board, from every resident in the building to the current three members, to aid in decision-making, and was preparing to help them sell a couple of vacant apartments, which will be listed at only a “fraction” of the market rate, he said, in keeping with the building’s history. Raising the rent on the storefronts was needed to make up for the money the building wasn’t getting elsewhere. It had to come from somewhere.

Over the noise of the bar, Duran spoke with the gusto of someone making a fresh start. “This administration,” she said, “is just looking to reach a lease agreement that works for the building.” She said she’d felt threatened by the recent attention and support the restaurant had received. “I feel like I’ve been placed in danger,” she said, mentioning attacks on social media. “We’re being portrayed as slumlords.” Duran noted that the benefits of the H.D.F.C. were never intended to extend to the building’s commercial tenants. “They were the renters, and we were the shareholders of the building,” she said. “And never the two were mixed.” I asked about the difference between what the building was asking for and what the restaurant was offering. The gap came down to around three thousand dollars a month. “Three thousand is a start, to help us move forward,” Duran said.

Read More