Columbus Circle. Thomas Jefferson Park. The Washington housing projects.
Ismael Nuñez, a Puerto Rican political activist, is all worked up over Manhattan’s place names. “George Washington was a slave owner, an imperialist,” he tells 150 East Harlemites, “and he didn’t grow up in East Harlem.”
Almost everybody crammed into the old auditorium of the Spanish United Methodist Church on East 111th Street is from the neighborhood, so they laugh.
These people–teachers, parents, politicians, poets–have been summoned to celebrate and preserve their neighborhood’s political history. The event was sponsored by Place Matters, a citywide group dedicated to promoting and preserving community history.
In East Harlem, that meant bringing together players from the neighborhood’s two great heydays. In the 1960s, Puerto Ricans, led by the Young Lords, began asserting their cultural and political power throughout the city. The legendary Lords were responsible for nurturing a generation of political leaders, and unleashing ex-member Geraldo Rivera on an unguarded world.
A half-century earlier, East Harlem was almost entirely Italian and undergoing a similar coming-of-age. It was from these streets that the careers of the city’s two greatest socialists were launched: Congressman Vito Marcantonio and the Little Flower, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
The roots of those days run deep. Even though he’s a staunch conservative, Vincent Velella, the 84-year-old Bronx Republican who runs the city Board of Elections, grew up in the neighborhood and claims Marcantonio as a boyhood friend. Between coughing fits at the podium, Velella insisted that Marcantonio, whose pro-Communist stance helped him carry East Harlem as the American Labor Party’s 1949 mayoral candidate, was not really as red as reputation had it. “Today, people make Marcantonio out to be a radical, but he was never a radical,” he said.
Carlito Rovira, a former member of the Young Lords and still a Communist, was less apologetic about his past associations.
Rovira, now a truck dispatcher and part-time writer for Worker’s World, hadn’t been back to the old church in almost 30 years. One of the last times he was inside, he was beaten by cops after the Young Lords entered the building in hopes of convincing the reluctant church leadership to start a neighborhood children’s program.
Rovira bitterly recalled the hostile congregation singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as he and his friends were dragged out.
“We were about community, we were about self-determination,” said the avowed atheist, his voice tinged with bitterness. “The church was an alien in the community.”
But the billy clubs seemed pretty far away on this day, as Rovira made his way through the crowd shaking hands and hugging old friends. It seemed that everybody knew someone, whether they were from the old neighborhood or not.
The only people who seemed a little out of sorts were 30 architecture students from Denmark, who were in town to study civic affairs. As speakers screamed, chanted poetry and reveled in political arcana, they scribbled meticulous notes, trying to take it all in stride.
When asked what she thought, one of the women in the group said she expected no less.
“After all, you’re Americans, right?” she said.