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The East Harlem Real Great Society, A Puerto Rican Chapter in the Fight for Self-Determination

March 12, 1999 by Administrator in March/April 1999

by Luis Aponte-ParÞs

This is a story of an important “advocacy planning” experience during the late sixties in New York City. Its importance is twofold: to add a missing chapter in the history of “progressive planning,” and to gain a critical understanding of ethnic-centered planning as it was articulated during the early period of the “advocacy” planning paradigm. Among the many missing voices of this period are those of Puerto Ricans and Latinos.

When Puerto Ricans were moving to New York City in great numbers during the early postwar period, there were momentous transformations taking place in the city. The emerging post-industrial city had no need for housing structures built for industrial workers of earlier periods. Puerto Ricans lived in neighborhoods where a large number of these buildings were deemed to be surplus. Poor communities generally lacked the institutional infrastructure or framework to devise strategies to stop displacement. By the sixties Puerto Rican neighborhoods like East Harlem and the Lower East Side were the target of massive spatial restructuring and the state’s role was articulated through urban renewal.

Advocacy Planning and other Responses

The architecture and planning professions responded to the restructuring through “advocacy” architecture and planning. Paul Davidoff was a principal proponent of advocacy planning, which openly invited political and social values to be examined and debated within the profession. This position was a clear rejection of planning prescriptions which made the planner a “technician.” Davidoff argued that appropriate planning action could not be prescribed from a position of value neutrality. Thus planners had to go beyond explaining the values underlying their prescriptions: “He should affirm them. He should be an advocate for what he deems proper,” argued Davidoff.

In contrast, Frances Fox Piven cautioned that advocacy planning implied that “the urban poor can influence decisions once they are given the technical help of a planner – or better still, once they actually learn the technical skills of planning.” Piven also argued that involving local groups in “elaborate planning procedures is to guide them into a narrowly circumscribed form of political action, and precisely that form for which they are least equipped.” Advocacy planners were “coaxing ghetto leaders off the streets,” where they could make trouble.

In New York City there were many advocacy groups. There were “technical” advocacy centers linked to universities, like the Pratt Center and Columbia’s East Harlem Studio, and “ethnic-centered” ones like the Architect’s Renewal Committee of Harlem, and the Real Great Society Urban Planning Studio.

The Real Great Society is Born

The Real Great Society (RGS) was founded in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1964 by former gang leaders who teamed up to “fight poverty instead of each other.” The East Harlem branch (RGS/Uptown) was organized in 1967, also by former gang leaders who along with young professionals wanted to be “at the center of the struggle for total environmental control.”

In 1968 the School of Architecture at Columbia brought together a group of students, a studio professor and RGS/ Uptown. Under the leadership of Willie Všzquez, the studio engaged in a year-long study of projects in East Harlem. But, the results of the Columbia Studio were mixed. Envisioned as a joint effort, an “experiment” to bring together the technical knowledge of architecture and planning students at Columbia, and the know-how and community knowledge of RGS, it was nevertheless a difficult and uneasy partnership. At this time, Harry Quintana came onto the scene. He felt that the “Columbia kids would not stay long enough for any of the projects to come through, thus leaving the community hanging.” His view that only those with a vested interest should be in charge of development drove Harry Quintana and the staff of RGS/Uptown to establish the RGS Urban Planning Studio, replacing the Columbia studio. The new studio’s founders believed that as long as the technical resources necessary for physical development were controlled by forces outside the community, the development itself would not be completely for the community.

A New Approach to Advocacy

Two visions guided the founding of the RGS studio: a critical view of the architecture and planning professions, and the goal of community self-determination through ethnic-centered development. The advocacy this studio espoused differed from both Davidoff’s and Piven’s. Quintana and others in the RGS studio saw how Columbia’s advocacy planning studio had failed. Their principal argument, while echoing Piven’s, was that even “los blanquitos liberales” would never cross the line and attempt to disrupt the system, particularly since the RGS studio saw itself as part of “oppositional movements.” Between 1968 and 1970 the RGS studio instigated protests by joining others in the community in civil disobedience: by burning trash on the streets and blocking traffic on the 125th street entrance to the Triborough Bridge. Furthermore, people in the RGS studio argued that the “problem” dwelt with “white professionals” and that self-determination through ethnic-centered development was good. Although the two views were not necessarily incompatible, the RGS studio partially based its rhetoric on the long tradition of Puerto Rican radical politics in the U.S. Quintana and others in the RGS studio recognized that only through a massive grass roots response by the community residents to the nefarious policies being implemented through urban renewal, would the power brokers, both in the neighborhood as well as the “white establishment,” make adjustments and stop the displacement.

RGS and its studio were organized by Puerto Rican youth whose political awareness was being shaped by the cultural forces that had shaken the nation during the sixties. With calls for “community empowerment,” “advocacy planning,” “citizen participation,” “black/Boricua Pride,” etc., the RGS studio espoused the language of those who called for a community’s right to development by those who “looked like them.” The RGS studio emerged in a transition period in the development of Puerto Rican institutions. It combined several of the characteristics of groups organized during those years: it was founded by grassroots community youth; it was a professionally staffed organization; it was structured around an advocacy model; and it valued its ethnic-specific Puerto Rican-ness.

A Lesson in Turf Politics

When the RGS studio emerged, ethnic-and-turf-centered community development was deemed by many progressives as an appropriate means to “empower” the dis-empowered. The people in power also supported community development through territorial or “turf” control by one or another group, assuring that those groups would compete against each other and undermine the other’s legitimate demands. The history of disputes between Puerto Ricans and African Americans in Northern Manhattan, or Jews and Puerto Ricans in the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, shows how turf-centered and ethnic-centered development schemes divided these communities.

And yet, the legitimate calls from each community to “control” their development should not have necessarily meant that alliances across groups could not be made. In today’s more complex multi-racial and multi-ethnic neighborhoods – the “borderlands” where new immigrants replace and displace “traditional” minorities – new challenges have emerged. For example, Harlem, the traditional “Homeland” for African Americans in New York City, is increasingly being “Latinized.” People from the Dominican Republic, Mexicans, and other Latinos are moving in. Some African Americans resent the loss of institutions and images that had helped define Harlem for close to a century. Others support the legitimacy of new immigrants in reviving the nearly defunct shopping districts of these neighborhoods, and thus projecting new images that “look like them.”

Outstanding Questions
Many questions remain. How does a planner deal with these conflicting demands? In a city like New York where people of color have become the majority, what role, if any, should ethnicity and race play in planning and community development? What role do “whites,” the new minority, play? What if the planning and community development professions do not change and whites retain control of the major institutions?


This article is excerpted from “Lessons from El Barrio – The East Harlem Real Great Society/ Urban Planning Studio: A Puerto Rican Chapter in the Fight for Self-Determination,” New Political Science Volume 20, Number 4, 1998, pp. 399-420.

Luis Aponte-ParÞs teaches at the School of Community Affairs, University of Massachusetts in Boston.

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