San Juan Center
By Catherine Meunier and Carol Correa de Best
The San Juan Center building of Clay Hill was built in 1890, with a warehouse added onto the Pleasant Street lot in 1900. Before the addition of the warehouse, the San Juan Building’s foundation was already a mixture of stone and brick. After 1900, the concrete foundation of the warehouse was added. The entire building’s frame is wooden and the roof is flat.
When the building was constructed the first level was meant for businesses and the upper floors for apartments. Currently the only businesses in the building with an entrance on Main Street is a Liquor Store and the San Juan Thrift Store. There is an old sign for “San Juan Center” with a forlorn window allowing those who pass by to look in at an empty and deserted room. To the left, there is an enclave entrance with a colorful sign above. The door is blue with a blue frame and a lintel that says the address, this is the original entrance to San Juan Center.
Along the Pleasant Street Lot are painted-blue boards in the upper-level windows. However, the rest of the building’s top levels feature empty windows. Previously these rooms served as low-income housing. After renovations, which lack an impetus, they will serve as offices.
Closer to the corner of Pleasant Street and Main Street is the thrift shop. San Juan Center opened the thrift store to provide clothing, furniture, and other items at affordable prices to the growing Puerto Rican community. In the window is a display of colorful shirts and skirts.
Finding the Center today is difficult. One can see the sign but no entrance, it is easy to assume that the San Juan Center is closed. Looking at the second photo, you could see why. There is no indication that the entrance had been moved to the back, however there are people in the community that can direct you to the entrance .
Walking South on Main Street one must turn right onto Pleasant and continue to walk around the perimeter of an empty parking lot surround by a tall fence. The fence opens close to the corner of Pleasant and North Chapel Street. Then continue around the large white structure, which houses the popular Dressler kick-boxing Arena. There a visitor will find the new entrance. San Juan Center is across from the site that the old Ann Street bilingual School, La Escuelita sat.
The proximity between the second and third site’s offices creates a strong connection between the past and the present. The new office is a large room with yellow brick walls. There are framed pictures of Puerto Rico and a framed Diego Rivera print. Some pipes show in the corner and there are many file cabinets and boxes. Along one wall are about six old PCs and five newer looking PCs. These are free for public use, and often five or six clients come in the morning hours to use them. San Juan Center still also offers computer and employment skills training in Spanish and English, faxing services, and helps with taxes and loan applications. Most of the clients are familiar with the San Juan Center because it is an institution in the Latino community.
San Juan Center runs from 1279-1283 Main Street, and the aged property demands individual consciousness of each section. It is a perfect example of the bricklayers craft commonly seen throughout Clay Hill. The construction of the building utilized the stretchers bond. This means that the bricks were placed so that the longer side showed on the face of the wall and each row was staggered. Furthermore, from across the street it is interesting to see that the bottom floor contrasted with the second and third floors reveals distinct variations in the color patterns of the bricks. The first floor consists of mostly light red-colored bricks and alternating darker colors. Above, bricks on the exterior of the second and third floors shows the possibility that these were additions of a later period.
There is a constant stream of noise from cars on the nearby highway and the overall feeling of the space is that the highway it sits close to, or the city it resides in, left it behind. However, across the street, Capital Preparatory Magnet School is under construction and there are several boarded up windows, but by September 2009 it will be bustling with teenagers.
The San Juan Center was originally founded in 1971, in the basement of Sacred Heart Church. It was a direct creation of the Puerto Rican for the Puerto Rican and later for other Latin peoples and those who moved into Clay Hill. It then moved to 1295 Main Street where it remained until a few years ago when the organization had trouble with taxes. An article from the Hartford Courant details the San Juan Center’s need for new management as property taxes increased.
San Juan Center still provides counseling to families, housing to the poor and elderly and activities for youth. It has lost much of its grant money over the last two years because of financial problems. Several members of its board resigned over the same period in protest to what they considered the bad management before Rivera’s arrival.
Upon entering the space behind one of the two desks for employees are two paintings. Aura Rivera, the Executive Director of the center, explains that her sister living in Guatemala made them. In Magical Urbanism, Mike Davis describes the “multicultural mosaic” of ethnic groups living in different neighborhoods of the same city or region. The offices of the San Juan Center seems to affirm this mosaic. There is no spacial distinction between where the art of Diego Rivera, a renowned Mexican painter, photographs of Puerto Rico, or still-life paintings created by a Guatemalan belong. They all reside in the same space.
What will the structure say in ten years? Aura (the San Juan Center’s Executive Director) is slowly renovating the upstairs space, with the hopes of creating new offices for future community programs. Author Mike Davis would say that the San Juan Center is a good example of the U.S’s Latino population’s efforts to continually renovate and improve inner city properties and give them new life. Aura is one of many who have fought to maintain community spaces that local governments have either abandoned or chosen not to continue to fund.