The Lower East Side of the 1970s was a gritty, perilous place. Gang violence, drugs and poverty peppered the streets and rubble-strewn lots, threatening the livelihood and lives of the many Latino families who called the area home. Not about to see their population ravaged by the disorder, a group of Puerto Rican activists, along with residents of the neighborhood, started a movement to combat the conditions and bolster the community. Loisaida, Inc. was formally established in 1978, the name coming from a Spanglish nickname for the Lower East Side coined by poet Bimbo Rivas.
“That word itself implied an activism inherent in the Puerto Rican and Latino population of the time,” said the aptly named Libertad O. Guerra, chief curator and director of Loisaida, who gave us a tour of the newly renovated center Friday. “That was the time of community gardens, of reclaiming of the space that was completely disinvested.”
The Center once occupied the entirety of 710 East 9th Street and offered a wide range of social services, and over the years it’s evolved into an arts and education headquarters focused on the city’s Latino population. After the city seized much of the building for development in 2008, the community board rallied to ensure that Loisaida still had a home on the ground floor and basement – but a series of delays and funding needs meant that the center wasn’t reborn until August of last year.
Only six months into its new life, Loisaida has grown markedly. A big part of establishing itself anew in the neighborhood was gaining the trust of the public as a benevolent institution. “You do it from the bottom up,” Guerra explained. “We try to build inclusion, through partnerships with cultural centers, academic centers. That’s part of the new, revitalized mission of the center.” Loisaida reached out, through various organizations and social media, to artists and educators who would support their goal of building connections and offer affordable education opportunities.
In the past six months, Loisaida exhibited photographers Marlis Momber and Lisa Kahane, hosted a residency for Flux Theater Company and mounted a multidisciplinary celebration of poet Julia de Burgos. “All true New Yorkers,” said Guerra, “are interested in the background and the different sectors that contribute to the iconicity of a neighborhood. The Latino community is host, but [Loisaida] is open to everyone.”
The Center works primarily through art, with the aim being education about social issues and the Lower East Side’s history. Starting in March, they will host a screen-printing workshop examining the intersection of the Latino and Asian communities and a plena drumming class. Believing strongly in the power of artistic sensibility in all enterprises, Guerra plans to maintain that bent as the Center starts to offer a more diverse range of classes and presentations. There are plans to build a commercial kitchen, Apple-authorized computer training center, an outdoor screening area, and a dark room — all designed with education in mind. Guerra thinks of Loisaida as “an incubator of entrepreneurial practices,” and there is already significant support for the new Center’s mission. Investor’s Bank was one of the first to recognize the potential here, awarding a generous $150,000 grant that will allow Loisaida to hire more staff, improve their facilities and bolster their programs.
With the 28th annual Loisaida Festival on the horizon, Guerra is looking forward to further disseminating word of the revitalized cultural center. The festival, which is the largest Latino pride event on the Lower East Side, attracts over 15,000 participants and guests each year. “The visibility is already in place with the festival,” she explained, “for artists, businesses, culinary [ventures] to showcase their work.” Visibility is one of the chief advantages of the growing center and festival in a neighborhood where a deeply rooted culture is overshadowed by decades of gentrification. Despite all of the changes the organization has gone through, Loisaida’s main goal has remained: to keep the Latino spirit alive on the Lower East Side.