Luis Garden Acosta, who died Tuesday, founded a community organization in 1982 in response to neighborhood violence

By Greg Hanlon
January 13, 2019 08:55 AM
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After New York City community organizer Luis Garden Acosta died on Tuesday at 73, Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter that the city had lost “a tireless community activist” who “never stopped fighting for a just and peaceful world.”

The Brooklyn-born Garden Acosta initially studied to become a priest, but he left the seminary to study public health, thinking it a more tangible way to help people.

By 1980, at 34, he was the director of community medicine at the Greenpoint Hospital, which served Brooklyn neighborhoods grappling with the exodus of jobs in previous decades and the accompanying poverty and gang violence. Garden Acosta spent time in the hospital’s emergency room, he told The New York Times in a 2009 interview. During one stretch spanning 1979 to 1980, in the predominantly Latino Southside section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 48 young people died violent deaths, he recounted.

Today, Williamsburg is internationally associated with a type of trendiness and gentrification. Back then, before the monied real estate interests gave the neighborhood a second thought, Garden Acosta saw the parade of bullet-ridden bodies go into the ER. Most of them were boys and young men of color like himself, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father, and most were dead on arrival. He had attended Harvard Medical school so he could help people, but he couldn’t help them.

One time, he recounted, a 19-year-old woman named Sugar was brought in. The doctor tried to resuscitate her, to no avail.

“Do it again,” Garden Acosta told the doctor, and said it again three more times.

“And I started crying,” he recounted to the Times. “And that’s when I decided that this would end.”

He left his career in medicine and in 1982 founded El Puente, a multi-pronged community organization focused primarily on local young people.

The organization — whose name translates to “The Bridge,” a reference to the nearby Williamsburg Bridge and the symbolic bridges among groups it sought to builld — grew to include an alternative high school school, the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, which received consecutive “A” grades from New York City’s Department of Education in the years before the city discontinued assigning schools letter grades in 2014. (Garden Acosta’s wife, Frances Lucerna, co-founded El Punete with him and was the school’s founding principal.)

Meanwhile, Garden Acosta worked to shut down Eastern District High School, an incubator for some of the neighborhood’s gang violence, and spearheaded the creation of four smaller schools that replaced it.

The organization also emphasized environmental advocacy in an area that has some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the city. (A 2011 study by the SUNY Downstate Medical Center found elderly area residents were hospitalized for asthma three times more than other Brooklyn residents their age.)

“At that time the environment was more the province of older white men on horses, the Sierra Club, certainly not of inner-city youth, or people of color,” he told the New York Press in 2008.

Thanks largely to the efforts of El Puente and other community advocates, crime plummeted in the area as it did across New York City. This made the area ripe for gentrification, which had its downside: Many of the longtime, mostly Latino residents who had worked to stabilize the neighborhood could no longer afford to live there.

Amidst the displacement, El Puente fought for affordable housing and emphasized cultural pride. Its annual Three Kings Day musical production, commemorating a day more important in many Latino households than Christmas, drew a citywide audience.

At bottom, El Puente’s goal was to foster a sense of pride in young people. Their community cared about them, even if many indicators — displacement, substandard rental homes, dilapidated schools, violence surrounding them — suggested much of the world did not.

He inspired multiple generations, but his inspiration remained the tragedies inside the Greenpoint Hospital emergency room. As he explained to the Times, “I didn’t want to lose another kid.”

Garden Acosta is survived by Lucerna and his two daughters, Arianne Garden Vazquez and Raísa Lin Garden Lucerna.