Flying back and forth between San Juan and New York every two weeks...
Flying back and forth between San Juan and New York every two weeks since September 20, 2017 brings a new perspective to the work of an architect. Local comparisons resonate and linger -Loíza Street pop ups and Canal Street hawkers, Atlantic Ocean trade winds and Hudson River gusts-horizontal tropical sprawl dotted with blue tarps and the frigid thundersnow clad brownstones- the luxury cruise ships and the commercial office towers each packaging five thousand “passengers”.
The comparisons stop dead on arrival once you’re in the rhythm of each place and start witnessing crazy progressions in overnight evolution: airplane flights jammed with construction workers and their hundred pound toolboxes, to octogenarians fleeing in wheelchairs, to full families and teeming millennials on spring break. Trees, trunks twisted and toppled and piled in towering heaps; those that survived stripped bare down the their bark, now irregularly tufted like Dr Seuss illustrations.
The informal communities’ streets are stage sets with quick scene changes, act one: impassable from downed electrical poles of wood and concrete and tropical urban trees of mango, avocado, breadfruit, palm, mahogany, giant ficus; act two: flood line residue blackening the once yellow pink green blue facades seen behind rotting waterlogged couches, mattresses, dining room furniture sets beyond recognition; act three: FEMA workers finally appear scrambling tirelessly to install blue tarps from dawn to dusk; act four: neighbors helping neighbors with arroz con habichuelas and water jugs, gas and diesel generators webbed with orange extension cords distributing electricity, roaring at a hundred decibels and spewing unfiltered airborne particulates creating the highest asthma rates in the nation; act five: new cars, new electrical poles and new cables lining the streets (just to come down in the next one) dotted with plywood infilled windows of storefronts that will never re-open... curtain closes and the tragic play ends and we are left with nagging lingering thoughts about jobs that will never be replaced, schools that will never have children and teachers, homes abandoned by people and nature takes over crumbling the concrete and rusting away the steel.
But Instead of letting the island rot and sink into the Atlantic and Caribbean, El Nuevo Día reported 72% of the current population is willing to work hard to improve the island - dreaming about the possibilities of a better tomorrow.
Personal testimony that the gloom and doom overcast clouds are now sunshine: last weeks’ activities on the island for the architect activist: a commission on new affordable housing will report to the governor, meet with twenty mayors paired with twenty mayors from the “lower 48”, and inspire a team of university level architecture students from Florida, New York and San Juan to reimagine the future of the informal vulnerable communities.
And what exactly is that future? It’s people like Richard Carrión, the president of Banco Popular, wanting to build the prototype vocational training center for all ages; it’s Ricardo the community organizer recycling an abandoned school to create a co-working technology hub to host the island’s first city shared bike; it’s Andrés Rua and Thrity at SELVA and Guillermo at MAHOF recycling the downed trees into milled tropical hardwood; it’s Alejandra Castrodad and Bill Keegan of Heart 9/11 rebuilding rooftops in flooded Playita, its Tara Rodriguez buying a bus and transporting loads of people to help the farmers replant their crops; it’s Fernando Lloveras and Para la Naturaleza organizing volunteers to plant 750,000 pollinator tropical trees in the next seven years; it’s Arturo Masol at Casa Pueblo creating micro-grids of renewable energy to power up Adjuntas and a public radio station; it’s strong never ending support from countless of not for profits and foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, Open Society, Acacia Network, PRxPR, ConPRometidos, Rocky Mountain Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council: the list is thousands of people with initiatives large and small from all over the island and all over the world ready to try something new.
So when I arrive back in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan where I live and work, I’m inspired by our own mayoral initiatives that helped us rebound from the 9/11 terrorist attack and the SuperStorm Sandy natural disaster. I’m inspired by the call for one million trees, 300,000 new or preserved affordable housing units, and 90 new homeless shelters. It gives me hope and energy to do the same for our beloved Puerto Rico, connected to this big hearted city by an air bridge, over which rush and roar streams of donations of people’s time, love, capital. Gracias Nueva York for all you give from your Big Apple to our Isla del Encanto (Island of Enchantment).