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Creative Placemaking in Loíza, Puerto Rico

June 22, 2023

An example of creative placemaking in Puerto Rico: a colorful mural on the exterior of a Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres building.

At the beginning of March, the 2022-23 Community Revitalization Fellowship (CRF) cohort travelled to Loíza, Puerto Rico for their second learning exchange. These learning exchanges, which include technical and leadership training, are an opportunity for the fellows to learn in and from each other’s communities and tour creative placemaking and revitalization projects.

During these exchanges, fellows also learn about the local history and policies that contributed to the proliferation of vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties in each city.

In 2016, the government shuttered a large number of public schools across Puerto Rico, leaving hundreds of vacant school buildings as a result. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017, Puerto Rico’s vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated property crisis grew exponentially. Loíza residents, like the grassroots leaders participating in CRF, have worked hard to reclaim some of these properties as sites of community and culture.

Many of these vacant properties are located on prime beachfront real estate in an economy that relies heavily on tourism. However, locals lamented that instead of turning the properties into projects that benefit the community—or even proactively seeking out investments to turn them into tourist attractions—the government has allowed these buildings in their possession to languish.

In many disinvested communities, the people doing creative placemaking step up to be the responsible caretakers of a long-abandoned property needs—often before getting formal permission to do so.

“We were tired of seeing these buildings deteriorate and bring our community down,” said CRF Fellow Tanisha Gaspar. “This land is ours and we wanted to show that it was important to us by treating it with the respect our community deserves.”

Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres is a vacant school that the CRF fellows from Puerto Rico have repurposed as a community center. Gaspar’s family had been attending Emiliano for multiple generations before it closed, so keeping the school site within the community and the people who had the connection to it was important to her.

A colorful building exterior depicting figures holding hands around the name of Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres.
Building signage at Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres.
A colorful mural on the exterior of a Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres building, depicting the Puerto Rican flag and people celebrating Loíza’s rich Afro-Puerto Rican history.
A colorful mural on the exterior of a Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres building.

Thanks to the work of the CRF fellows, Emiliano once again serves the community. As a multi-building campus with kitchen and classroom spaces, the revitalized school hosts many community offerings: it serves as a conference center, early childhood education space, and community kitchen. Still other spaces in development: it will be the site of a future Bomba dance studio.

The fellows have transformed the school inside and out—CRF fellow Ingrid Pérez, an artist, covered the school buildings in murals that reflect local culture. 

Over the course of three days, the fellows also toured other creative placemaking projects. Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI) is a community space in Piñones that offers education and activities around culture, justice, and conservation to residents and visitors. El Ancón de Loíza is a gallery and historic site which preserves the space where the barge used to cross Rio Grande de Loíza. La Junta Comunitaria de Parcelas Suarez is another abandoned school building (Escuela Goyín Lanzó) turned community center for early childhood education.

Colorful exterior of Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI), a community space with three steepled roofs. A mural on the wall of the building depicts Afro-Puerto Ricans and palm trees.
Exterior of Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI).

Part of what the fellows—and other residents at their respective creative placemaking projects—are working to preserve is Loíza’s rich Afro-Puerto Rican history. During the 16th century, Africans from the Yoruba tribe, who were brought to the island as enslaved people. Those who were able to escape from enslavement settled in and established the community of Loíza. Today the town has the largest Black population in Puerto Rico. The Loíza fellows all shared the importance of cultural preservation. Artist Ingrid Pérez said,  “I didn’t realize that I was doing creative placemaking—I just called it being in the community and creating culture, how I do community development.”

Mural at Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres by artist and CRF fellow Ingrid Pérez. The mural depicts Afro-Puerto Ricans playing the drums on a vibrant blue background.
Mural by artist and CRF fellow Ingrid Pérez at Centro Comunitario Emiliano Figueroa Torres.

CRF fellows from Syracuse and the BEN region echoed that, while their communities may look different, the mission was the same: to preserve and revitalize the neighborhoods for the people who’ve lived for generations. They found solidarity in seeing a fellow community of artists, grassroots leaders, and community activists do a lot with very little.

“With every class of CRF fellows, the goal is not the visit itself—it’s the side conversations we hear our fellows having,” said Justin Godard, Associate Director of National Leadership and Education at Community Progress. “It’s the joy of seeing people get inspired by a project halfway across the country, and immediately start asking questions to figure out how they might adapt that project for their community.” 

To read this post in Spanish, click here.

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