Empty properties don't have to be a nuisance
In the face of Puerto Rico’s dire socio-economic crisis, grassroots initiative Somos Machuchal proposes a groundbreaking alternative in the historic and culturally rich neighborhood of Machuchal.
Members of the Machuchal community of San Juan, have been fighting for nearly four years for legal rights over a vacant house which has laid abandoned for forty years. After occupying and transforming the property, the community has rescued and converted it into what is now known as Casa Taft 169. Now, the community has embarked upon a new stage in their initiative to convert it into the first “off-grid”, community-managed and self-sustained Civic Center of the entire capital city with funding by ArtPlace making all the difference. Since the very beginning, Casa Taft 169 has deployed collaborative and artistic actions to denounce the lack of attention and promote new approaches for the island’s shameful inventory of abandoned properties.
From placemaking to politics
When the neighbors of Machuchal started to gather around a small garden we had planted in the front patio of what was to become Casa Taft 169, we quickly realized we had an extraordinary opportunity to go beyond placemaking and include capacity and community building. What we never imagined at the time is that to fulfill that dream, we would have to expand our placemaking efforts to include policy making. In August 2015, we launched ourselves into the marble hallways of Puerto Rico’s capitol building, advocating and leading the effort for the approval of a new law. What resulted was Act 157 of 2016 – which amended the inheritance chapter of Puerto Rico’s 1930 Civil Code to tend to abandoned and nuisance properties without living owners or heirs. This amendment allows for ‘nuisance’ properties to pass to the municipal government who can then grant, assign, sell or rent the property to nonprofit organizations like ours. We had, by our efforts, affected government policy.
Bottom-up, self-run, self-sustained
Our goal is to transform Casa Taft 169 into a unique co-created, bottom-up, self-run, self-sustained Civic Center, a place where locals and visitors can access services and engage in different activities. We also wish to endow the community of Machuchal with a much needed space to empower ourselves to work on improving the quality of life of all machuchaleros. We envision our Civic Center as the epicenter of a broader transformation within our community. That is why we have also promoted other activities outside Casa Taft 169, specially at the local public school, which unfortunately became another abandoned property after the government decided to shut it down to “save money”. In other words, we wish to go from placemaking to capacity and community building. Casa Taft 169 aims to set a different standard by demonstrating that public nuisance houses are not exclusively disposable, but instead offering great opportunities for the sustainable reimagining and redesigning of spaces. The wording of Act 157 that we helped to pass says “the convenience of integrating citizens into the alternative of reusing and rehabilitating these properties must be acknowledged. With recent examples, we have been able to witness how communities have organized to squat officially-declared public nuisances, avoiding the undesirable use of those spaces or the proliferation of pests due to abandonment and lack of maintenance.”
A collaborative pilot project
There is a strong commitment to rehabilitate Casa Taft 169 leveraging collaborative design and action with recycled building materials, restoring cross ventilation, installing renewable energy and water harvesting systems, and so on. This not only reduces the costs of the eco-oriented rehabilitation of the property but can also develop a model for grassroots placemaking initiatives in other communities willing to transform spaces with a little bit of investment and lot of work and creativity. Under those premises, Casa Taft 169 is partnering with La Maraña, a participatory urban design firm that will join us to accomplish the Civic Center’s off-grid rehabilitation and the making of a creative master plan for the whole community. Together we hope to dovetail participatory methodologies with the unquestionable power of art to engage “machuchaleros” of all ages in the creative processes inherent in visionary urban planning to plant a seed for long term civic empowerment.
In a territory facing over a $70 billion debt and 3 times the national poverty rate this is an unparalleled opportunity to configure a replicable model that will demonstrate our innate capacity to transform ourselves and our circumstances. The “Somos Machuchal” initiative hopes to pave the way for people interested in applying themselves in a purposeful way pairing their needs and ideas with the vacant and abandoned properties surrounding them thus transforming nuisances into useful and meaningful places for all.
Written by Marina Moscoso Arabía and Luis Gallardo Rivera