The Real Great Society

Roberta Washington

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his plans to end poverty and racial discrimination—to create the Great Society. In that same year, some former members of a Puerto Rican street gang started their own effort to reform society called the Real Great Society (RGS) in New York City’s East Village. RGS leaders declared that they would “fight poverty rather than each other” to address unmet educational, cultural, and community needs. In 1967 RGS organized a branch in East Harlem to represent Puerto Ricans and Latinos in confronting urban renewal and redevelopment plans that threatened to displace them.

In 1968, a Columbia University School of Architecture design studio, working with RGS’ Willie Vazquez, dedicated a year to East Harlem issues. It was an effort to have the class of mostly white planning students provide the professional expertise needed for the young Puerto Rican activists to challenge the system.

Harry Quintana, a Puerto Rican activist who had attended Howard University’s school of architecture, advanced the view that for the RGS/Uptown Planning Studio (RGS/UPS) to succeed as an architectural advocacy planning group, Puerto Rican architects/planners had to be involved. Approximately ten graduates were recruited. Some observers at the time considered the RGS to be the most progressive community-based organization in East Harlem.

Occasionally, RGS/UPS worked with ARCH, a neighboring planning advocacy organization in Central Harlem. In 1969, Harry Quintana representing RGS/UPS, became the face of orchestrated protests with ARCH that led to Mayor John Lindsay’s appointment of the first minority commissioner to the New York City Planning Commission.

Funded by federal anti-poverty and private foundation grants, the era of RGS/UPS influence was ending by 1971. But during its time the RGS/UPS planned community gardens, responded to the threat of large-scale housing and educational projects, advanced alternate development schemes, and introduced Puerto Ricans in New York to the concept of community advocacy planning.