“It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time,” said Samuel Johnson.
Anyone who knew Luis Garden Acosta saw a life of importance that was cut short on January 8th. He made the moments of his 73 years and 297 days of life count not just for himself but for his family and community. Those moments became part of the bone structure of North Brooklyn and enabled Williamsburg and Greenpoint to rise above a self-destructive past and stand tall.
A desire for social justice was rooted in his parentage, his mother, Maximina Garden Acosta, became an activist after her fiancé was killed in the 1937 Ponce massacre. In 1945 Luis was born on St. Patrick’s Day in Fort Green. It could be said the activist was activated in him when he was nine-years old. This was when Luis went to Virginia with a black friend who was visiting family. Luis had noticed a movie he’d wanted to see was still playing at a theater there, but he was told they couldn’t go in that theater because it was segregated. In a 1999 interview with The New York Daily News, Luis said, “I was so hurt. I can still feel it. I was angry. I was sad. Something pierced my soul.”
At fifteen, Luis started on a path to the priesthood and entered the seminary, St. Mary’s College in Pennsylvania. Before taking his vows and after watching Martin Luther King, he chose to pursue social advocacy. He joined anti-Vietnam War protests, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the Young Lords Party. After working in NYC as a community organizer during Mayor Lindsay’s administration, Luis enrolled in Harvard Medical School. He would return to Brooklyn in 1980 to serve as director of community medicine at Greenpoint Hospital. The neighborhood was in crisis at that time, and the young were paying with their lives. Acosta saw many enter the hospital dead on arrival, victims of the “teenage gang capital of NYC”. After witnessing the death of a young woman named Sugar, he decided to find a way to make this stop.
He founded El Puente in 1982. This community organization united church leaders, artists, educators, health providers, and activists in the mission to make the streets safer. Luis and his organization also became vigilant protectors of the environment, fighting radiac, the Greenpoint incinerator, and waste inequity and joining with the Orthodox Jewish Community and the Polish Community in these causes. In the WGBH documentary Earthkeeping- A Call to Action Luis remembered how his mother would tell him, “We are of the Earth, we have to bring the Earth inside of us,” which stoked his belief that people have a sacred obligation to protect it.
When someone dies there is usually a feeling of loss. When someone like Luis Garden Acosta dies that sense of loss is multiplied in all the ways he influenced people and the community. But that sense of loss is curbed by seeing all he brought to the community and knowing there are rivulets that will continue to originate from his splash long into the future.
Karina Taveras witnessed how life in the community changed for the better because of El Puente. “I was born and raised on South 4 Street, between Keap and Rodney Street. In those days, we were not allowed to walk passed Havemeyer Street. The other side, as we called it, was more dangerous than our side. In 1994, I was allowed to cross Havemeyer Street to go to El Puente for a Summer Youth Employment Program application. [That June she went to El Puente’s June showcase] When I saw those dancers on stage, I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ I enrolled in the Afterschool Leadership Center where a range of classes were offered including dance, art, theater, videography, karate, cooking, writing, English as a Second Language and homework tutoring. I enrolled in dance. I also started working through the LEAP program.
We were like a big family! Everyone knew each other’s names and we took part in all types of demonstrations. El Puente’s founder, Luis Garden Acosta, and facilitators took us to One Police Plaza to peacefully protest against police brutality as well as to 26 Federal Plaza to protest the US Navy’s occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico. My first time at City Hall Park and Harlem’s Apollo Theater was with my dance class.
We also learned about each other’s heritage; from the Dominican Independence with masks and costumes to El Dia De Los Muertos with murals and pictures to Parandas during Christmas time! We were able to appreciate customs from back home that our ancestors brought to the States.
Luis planted so many seeds in my community of Los Sures!! I thank Luis for his vision, tireless efforts and leadership for the neighborhood I call home, the Southside of Williamsburg! He was a selfless human being and role model for me and so many young people to be leaders, to do better, to serve our community and to RISE UP in the face of injustice! I remain forever grateful for his existence!! May he rest in power!”
Council Member Antonio Reynoso was a mentee of Luis Garden Acosta, “Last night NYC lost a hero & I lost a mentor in Luis Garden Acosta. Acosta’s dedication to youth empowerment & environmental advocacy will continue to inspire & has shaped my work. Thank you for revitalizing our community & paving the way for young leaders,” he said on Twitter.
“Through building up the young people in the community, we are building a future and a new positive identity. We should all be grateful for humble leadership like that of Luis Garden Acosta, who rarely receives the celebrity or accolades that political leaders do, but makes a longer lasting and positive impact than many can imagine,” said Emily Gallagher in her Greenpoint Star column.
As D.H. Lawrence said, “The dead don’t die, they look on and help.”
Family was a primary part of his life and work. Luis Garden Acosta is survived by Frances Lucerna, Co-Founder & Executive Director of El Puente and his two daughters, Arianne Garden Vazquez and Raísa Lin Garden Lucerna.