BY PUMA PERL | The Lower East Side, late ’70s — garbage in the streets, crime, substandard housing, poverty, and drugs. When someone asked why I liked living down there my immediate reply was, “Because I can walk by La Plaza Cultural on a random Saturday and find Tito Puente playing.” The spirit, the music, and the sense of community carried us through difficult and dangerous times.
La Plaza Cultural’s history is a fascinating one. In 1976, a coalition led by founding members of CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural Center, including Chino Garcia and the late Armando Perez, cleared and claimed an empty lot at the corner of East Ninth Street and Avenue C. None other than master architect Buckminster Fuller helped the group build a geodesic dome; artist Gordon Matta-Clark worked with community artists, residents, and activists in constructing an amphitheater, using railroad ties and found materials. Green Guerillas pioneer Liz Christy helped create the iconic gardens and planted towering willow trees. The shared vision was of a public green space to enhance community life.
In the ’80s, the space fell into disrepair as developers fought for the land and the neighboring buildings emptied. Gentrification had begun and now, instead of substandard housing, there were burning buildings, forcing the disintegration of families. Surreptitious drug sales had grown into an open-air market, attracting addicts from the entire metropolitan area, and the new businesses and renovated buildings were neither affordable nor culturally relevant to those who hung on.
In 1985, Artmakers Inc., an artist-run, community-oriented mural organization founded by the late Eve Cockcroft, posted flyers around the neighborhood calling for “artists of conviction to paint political murals.” Cockcroft, an activist and leader of the national community murals movement, had been inspired by her visit to the San Francisco project known as PLACA, in which artists painted murals with political themes. On May 7, 1985, a meeting was held and a call to interested artists was put out. During the summer months, 34 artists convened in the garden and produced 24 “La Lucha Continua” murals on seven walls of four surrounding buildings. Today, three of these buildings have been renovated or torn down and replaced, leaving only two murals. The paint has faded and restoration is not possible, but La Plaza Cultural is alive and flourishing.
The current exhibit at the Loisaida Center — “La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017” — uses text and photographs to take us through the history of the mural project’s creation. Jane Weissman, exhibition curator and longtime Artmakers Inc. administrative director, walked me through and provided fascinating insights. Interestingly, many pieces fell into place almost serendipitously. The Loisaida Center, a multi-purpose space, was not targeted as the home for the exhibition but turned out to be the perfect spot, both logistically (it’s just across the street from La Plaza) and spiritually. The Center began as a grassroots movement in the ’70s, and continues to, as its website notes, “stand firm on its original mission: address the serious economic and social disenfranchisement of poor and low-income Latino residents, with employment and training opportunities, comprehensive youth development initiatives, as well as neighborhood revitalization activities that positively highlight the rich culture, heritage, and contribution of the Puerto Rican and Latin American community in this City — while offering programming that meets the demands of the times and the neighborhood’s changing demographic.”
Libertad O. Guerra, The Loisaida Center’s program director and chief curator, noted that May is Lower East Side History Month, and that the exhibition coincides with the area’s largest community event — the annual Loisaida Festival, taking place this year on Sun., May 28. The Loisaida Center produces and organizes the Festival, and La Plaza Cultural traditionally provides music, poetry, and family activities. Additionally, the Center has joined forces with the Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc) along with other local groups and community members to create a new mural at First Street Green Art Park (33 E. First St., corner of Houston St. & Second Ave.) paying tribute to the group of murals known as “La Lucha Continua.”
The original collective mural overlooking La Plaza Cultural addressed the theme of gentrification through negative images on the left side (homeless families, eviction) and positive, hopeful images on the right (solar paneled rooftops, local markets). Individual artists or pairs continued the political themes idealistically and globally, including murals depicting struggles in Nicaragua and South Africa, as well as local and thematic focuses. Rikki Asher’s work, “For the Women of South Africa, Central America and the Lower East Side,” is one of two that still exist. In the left hand corner is the artist’s self-portrait, paintbrush in hand, followed by images of South African and Central American women; in the lower right corner we see a woman hanging laundry on the Lower East Side. In Asher’s words, “the issues that were important then are still relevant now. La Lucha Continua!”
“Not for Sale,” by Nancy Sullivan, is a response to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. Two oversized hands are shown trying to stop the wrecking ball, symbolizing development, as children play innocently in the background.
Sullivan became an anthropologist and moved to Papua New Guinea, gaining fame as an advocate for residents whose way of life was threatened by logging companies. In 2015, at the age of 57, she was killed while driving on the Taconic State Parkway.
Another take on Downtown life occurred when Artmakers Inc. reached out to owners of 8BC (a club/gallery at 337 E. Eighth St.). They were agreeable to a mural painted on the building but preferred that it reflect the burgeoning art scene rather than a “social realist” style. Artist Luis Frangella painted an image he was known for, the “expressionistic head,” which conveyed frustration and outrage more surrealistically. Originally from Argentina, Frangella died of HIV-related causes in 1990.
At 2pm on Sat., May 27, Weissman will lead a gallery tour of the exhibition followed by a visit to La Plaza Cultural, where attendees can take a closer look at the existing murals and get a live sense of the history. My gallery tour with Weissman concluded with a visit to La Plaza Cultural Community Garden (Avenue C, at E. Ninth St.). Despite my decades of familiarity, it provided a new connection on historical and artistic levels. Happily, La Plaza Cultural was finally preserved in 2002, and in 2003 was renamed La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, in honor of the slain CHARAS co-founder and former Democratic district leader for the East Village.
“La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017” is on view, free of charge, through July 31 at The Loisaida Center (710 E. Ninth St., btw. Aves. C & D). Viewing hours are Thurs., Fri. & Sat., 12–6pm and by appointment. For info, call 212-989-3006 or visit laluchaartmakers.org. The 30th Annual Loisaida Festival will take place Sun., May 28,12–5pm, along the Avenue C Corridor (E. Sixth through 12th Sts). For info, visit loisaida.org.