La Fortaleza Concept: Avenida San Juan

A Plan for Business and Economic Development in our Puerto Rican/Latino Community:

This was a vision I developed when I lived in East Harlem. Since my relocation to Buffalo, I shared it with several of your Puerto Rican community leaders hoping they would review it and adopt it as part of Buffalo Economic Development, which is taking place all over the city. I suggested or recommended that this project can be revised to implement on Niagara Street, which is an excellent location (from City Hall to Porter Avenue). I'm sharing with my Facebook friends because this page includes many Puerto Ricans/Latinos that are affected by the changes and activities taking place in this city of "good neighbors", plus I promised that I would. This plan would put a stop to the gentrification that is taking place on the Lower West Side, and we would be able to develop our own plan. We do not need a beautification project on Niagara Street. We need a Puerto Rican/Latino Business and Economic Development Plan. Here it is. I would appreciate your commends.


Edited and prepared by Jose Garza and Félix Leo Campos:


“La Fortaleza” is a business and economic development project conceived by Alberto O. Cappas, former Deputy Commissioner (NYS Division for Youth) and a Boricua from Buffalo, NY. It is being developed collaboratively with Félix Leo Campos (a Nuyorican and former member of the Board of Director for Manhattan Neighborhood Network), with added business and technical support from Jose S. Garza (a Chicano from San Antonio, Texas and Executive Director of the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation).

It targets local efforts to protect and defend El Barrio/Spanish Harlem against gentrification by focusing on using Latino art and cultural assets to economically revitalizing the community. This gives recognition to the historical role of the Boricua (Puerto Rican) community as founders of El Barrio/ Spanish Harlem, but also acknowledges the influence of the growing Mexican and Dominican communities as well as other ethnic groups. It incubates the thought that new arrivals, like Middle Easterners, Continental Africans, and Asians, along with Latinos, bring impetus for change, growth, and development by introducing new languages, cultures, artistic expressions, and small businesses.


“La Fortaleza” initiates its development model for El Barrio/Spanish Harlem focusing on one of four major commercial corridors in the neighborhood, East 116th Street, Harlem River to Fifth Avenue. On East 116th Street, La Fortaleza will establish a creative hub for artistic and cultural entertainment opening galleries, artist’s workshops, performance and rehearsal spaces, and peripheral businesses like artist supply stores, cafes and restaurants.

Perennial events (“The Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel”, “The Dance of the Giglio”, “El Cinco de Mayo”, “The Annual Three Kings Children's Parade”, “Union Settlement East Harlem Multi-Ethnic Festival“), musical performances (Yerbabuena, Alma Moyó), readings and recitations (“Poetas Con Café“, “El Festival del Libro”), and exhibitions (El Taller Boricua/The Puerto Rican Gallery, El Museo Del Barrio), showcasing local venues (CAMARADAS el barrio restaurant, East Harlem Café, and Mojitos), arts schools (The Mariachi Academy, Boys & Girls Harbor for the Performing Arts, Los Pleneros de la 21, Manna House), and demonstrate the historic significance, and social bond that are inclusive of the diverse Latino Cultures in El Barrio/Spanish Harlem.

New initiatives like walking and bicycle tours at casitas (“lil houses”), murals, etc will expose visitors to the cultural flavor and creative talent of the local neighborhood, demystifying the reputation of Spanish Harlem being a “dangerous” community. Chat sessions with artists at local venues will endear locations, people, and flavors to visitors, tourists, and locals alike.

Exemplifying our plan to produce events of cultural significance, artistic talent, and economic growth incentive La Fortaleza, together with the Harlem Book Fair and the Children's Aid Society, hosted “El Festival del Libro“ (Book Fair), the first Latino book festival in East Harlem to focus on Latino literacy and literature. This was followed with a successful Mother’s Day weekend event at the Taino Tower’s Crystal Ballroom, called HERspanic Achievement Celebration 2013. The event is a personalized event where their families, friends, associates, and neighbors choose honorees. Each honoree received a heart-shaped crystal with their names engraved.

In 2014, we added Encuentro Mundial de Cine, a global gathering of cinema at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center where over 20 cities across the U.S., Latin America, and Europe shared a program of bilingual films for children, youth, and adults alike.


The 2012 summer season assistance of four Columbia University/Kenneth Cole Fellows worked in mapping the art and culture of El Barrio. They also conducted an inventory of businesses and buildings located on the 116th Street business corridor (also known as Puebla York); the information will be use to create a data base as the foundation to develop strategies to regenerate El Barrio/Spanish Harlem. In 2013, we had another four students from Mexico refine the previous year’s internship into a user-friendly web site.

In addition to creating events and build on brand recognition, we are creating partnerships with local community stake holders (residents, businesses, organizations, and agencies) and negotiating with Partners for Livable Communities to assist us in obtaining buy-in from all the community stakeholders and identifying funding (Ford Foundation, Citigroup, Bloomberg Philanthropy, Art Place, Municipal Arts Society, Art Space) and sources whose focuses include but aren't limited to economic development, arts & culture, and local historic preservation.


Other targeted sources include discretionary funds from local elected officials who have a stake in promoting and publicizing development efforts. A new wave of funding is emerging in the arts that re-enforce development initiatives. Public entities such as Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council for the Arts, among others, are earmarking dollars for projects such as La Fortaleza. Earned income will be generated by admission to live events, sale of “La Fortaleza” merchandise items (caps, Tee shirts, tote bags, etc), and foundation grants. Residual income will be derived from collaborations with local artists and arts and cultural institutions. The generation of documented performances and concerts will generate funds to sustain “La Fortaleza”.

El Festival Del Libro enhances La Fortaleza’s core with new stakeholders, Harlem Book Fair, Hunter College’s Silberman’s Graduate School for Social Work, and others to create exploratory ideas of bringing revenue and respect to Spanish Harlem. In the wings are the Julia de Burgos Arts Alliance, Arts Space 109, Taino Towers, PRIDA, and others.


La Fortaleza targets urban neighborhoods like El Barrio/Spanish Harlem that are undergoing the same experiences with gentrification and local development that we are experiencing today. In particular, we are targeting the Latino Art & Culture assets in these neighborhoods with the goal of demonstrating how these assets can bring the diverse Latino communities together to utilize art and culture as economic development tools to improve the well-being of the community in order to stem the gentrification tide. By doing so, we want to bring more attention to the arts & culture communities of different cities as being viable means for sustainable economic growth and social development in the urban inner-city landscape organized to resist gentrification.

Another need and interest of Latinos is the sense of permanence and ownership of communities in areas previously disregarded, neglected, and abandoned, the urban cities communities. Targeted by developers and property speculators for the purpose of creating upscale & luxury apartment houses and homes to draw new urban dwellers as property owners, into the neighborhoods as investors in real property rather than as homesteaders.

The gentrification of neighborhoods has displaced and disrupted tight knitted communities that struggled, often without assistance, to build and sustain a suitable quality of life against the backdrop of urban plight and its entrapment: crime, drugs, absences of public & social services, decaying housing stock, and the lack of investment for improvement.

Left to the “inner-cities”, Latinos have had to survive and thrive in neglected and abandoned neighborhoods only to find themselves on the verge of displacement without any pre-conceived notion of where else to live, work, and play.

Gentrification and urban housing stock piling play a big role in making it possible for property owners and developers to deny affordable and descent housing and businesses investment to the inn-cities to groups not thought of as desired. It is a history of displacement experienced early in the expansion of Europeans across the United States against Native Americans, i.e. “Trail of Tears”.

In neighborhoods that have experienced a downturn, new immigrants such as Mexicans, have served to revitalize locales by introducing new products, cuisine, small business, arts & cultural commemorations and events. “La Fortaleza”, Puerto Ricans El Barrio/Spanish Harlem's founders, together with the influx of Mexicans, Dominicans as “organic revitalizers” and others, are the engines that are driving the sustainability of El Barrio/Spanish Harlem.

La Fortaleza is a place-making project that fives meaning to places” values the diverse Latino arts and cultures; celebrates El Barrio/Spanish Harlem heritage and history' advances the arts and inspires pride in the Latino community. It also strives to promote the cost and quality of housing and encourages collaboration and cooperation between merchants. Its goal is to regenerate and preserve El Barrio/Spanish Harlem shape its future to make it better.


The legacy potential of La Fortaleza is limitless. Its locations, events and activities, characters and personalities are all subject to documentation for the purpose of creating DVD documentaries and feature films, audio CD, printed books, newspapers, and magazines, as well as media materials for televised and web streamed series.

The project's footage will include excerpt video journal entries from each of the fellows, talking head interview footage of residents on the gentrification and changes in the neighborhood, a video walking tour with local journalist, Ismael Nuñez and filmmaker, Anthony Padilla, a sit down talk with author & historian, Christopher Bell, and others.

By: Alberto O. Cappas

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