Coming Home to the Lower East Side

In 1966, when she was 11, Ruth Santiago moved from Puerto Rico to an apartment on Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, with her parents and five brothers. The youngest of 17 children, Ms. Santiago had many older siblings already living in New York by then, which made the move feel like an adventure and a homecoming.

“When my nieces and nephews came over, it was always like a party,” Ms. Santiago said. “I loved it.”

She remembers playing in the snow in the empty lot behind her apartment building, attending P.S. 12 and going to church with her parents, who were members of the Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway. Her father, a minister and army veteran, spoke English fluently and wanted his children to, as well.

Eight years later, at the urging of her parents, Ms. Santiago moved back to Puerto Rico. But she retained a fondness for the city and her old neighborhood. And later in life, after her husband died in 2010, she longed to return to the Lower East Side.

“After he passed on, I always had this yearning to come back,” Ms. Santiago said. “In Puerto Rico, I was very involved with the community and politics. I needed a fresh start. This is where I had good memories. I had good memories there, too, but it was very connected to my husband.”

She met her husband, Juan Hernandez Ferrer, who grew up in Brooklyn, shortly after moving back to Puerto Rico, where she worked as a bilingual secretary to the mayor of Toa Baja, a municipality in the north. Mr. Hernandez Ferrer happened to be the mayor. He later became a senator in District 2, and they had two sons, who are now 32 and 33 and live in New York.

On a rental budget of less than $1,000 a month, she could hardly afford to live in New York, let alone in a highly sought-after area like the Lower East Side. Ms. Santiago, who is retired, spent most of her life doing counseling, as well as community-, arts- and church-related work, much of it unpaid, and now lives on Social Security income.

$1,065 | Lower East Side

Occupation: Before retiring, Ms. Santiago founded and ran the Nehemiah Foundation, a nonprofit focused on religion and the arts in Puerto Rico. Mr. Hernandez, her son, is a cook at Russ & Daughters.
The youngest of 17: “I was protected by my parents and my brothers. I felt like a little princess,” she said. “Cuchy was my nickname growing up — I was very ticklish since I was a little girl and I was always laughing, laughing, laughing.”
She speaks English fluently: “But I still have my accent,” she said. “I don’t want to lose it. I keep it intentionally.”
On food: “My son does most of the cooking,” Ms. Santiago said. “I can do some Spanish dishes like arroz con pollo, but he likes to show off.”

But memories weren’t the only thing drawing her to the Lower East Side. She also wanted to be close to family members who lived there, including an 85-year-old sister with Alzheimer’s. “I said, ‘I want to be in my old neighborhood,’ and I didn’t want to live in an old apartment — I was worried, I see a lot of fires,” Ms. Santiago said. “My son says, ‘Mom, you’re asking too much. You’re never going to get that.’”

“But I believe in prayer,” she said. “I was like, ‘God knows my heart.’”

She has decorated the apartment — and the furniture — with her art. A sculpture she made of Don Quixote sits in the foyer, along with a bench and hatrack she painted with a sunflower motif. In the living room, she covered a drop-leaf table with a scene of a Puerto Rican fortress at night. On the wall behind are illustrations of the indigenous Taino people and the Spanish colonization of the island that she did for one of the 17 children’s books she has written but never published.

She walks an hour or two every day for exercise — her phone tells her when she has met her goal — which has helped her get to know a neighborhood that is old and new to her at the same time.

“This area is very different, but it’s looking good,” she said. “The building where I was raised is not there anymore. And there was a live poultry place under the bridge that’s gone. But I’m getting to know some little shops and restaurants. There’s one, this very cute restaurant called Beauty & Essex, that you have to walk through a pawnshop to get to.”

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