North Brooklyn’s Hispanic community is mourning one of its most beloved members, Luis Garden Acosta, who passed away yesterday. A towering community leader with a deep concern for social justice, Acosta was the founder and president of El Puente, a nationally celebrated, Brooklyn based, community/youth development organization. A man of great passion, Acosta was so active in a variety of fields that he defied easy identification. The community organizer and advocate for the disadvantaged, was also an environmental leader, a housing activist, and an educator, but he was something even bigger than these various roles. Acosta embodied the fighting spirit of the Hispanic community in North Brooklyn and his death leaves a massive void.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is the founding of the community organization El Puente, which means ‘the bridge’ in Spanish. As the name implies, ‘bridges’ connect people to major initiatives in health, the environment, education, and the arts. One of Luis’ ideas, the “Green Light District”, a 10-year project that has taken El Puente’s message door to door, engaging, virtually, every family in transforming the Southside of Williamsburg, from a crime infested underserved community to America’s model neighborhood for community health and environmental wellness.
His biography is worthy of being made into a film. Born locally in 1945, Acosta grew up in a poor mixed Dominican-Puerto Rican family. Entering St. Mary’s Seminary in Pennsylvania at age 15, he earned a college degree before starting to prepare himself to serve as a Catholic priest. Acosta’s plans changed, however, when he heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech on social justice. Instead of becoming a priest, Acosta became a political activist. A pacifist, he left the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer without taking his final vows as a priest, becoming a Catholic antiwar organizer in Brooklyn.
His strong passion for social justice and sincere Christianity moved him to become involved with the Young Lords, a radical anti-colonial Puerto Rican group fighting prejudice and discrimination against Hispanics in the 1960s. His work with the Young Lords raised many eyebrows amongst older, more conservative members of the community who were shocked by the Young Lords militancy. Nevertheless, Acosta saw the Young Lords as doing God’s work amongst the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community.
Acosta also grew deeply concerned by the drug epidemic that was taking the lives of many young Southside Williamsburg Hispanics. In 1970, Acosta decided to study medicine, enrolling in Harvard University’s school of medicine. Three years later, he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts to work as a substance-abuse counselor. He also began hosting a five-minute radio program of Latin-American news, which eventually led to his hosting a three-hour prime-time program. Acosta returned to our area in 1980 to work as an administrator at Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Hospital and to syndicate his radio program, but he was shocked by what was happening to the community. In a 12-month period (July 1979 to June 1980) out of a population of a little over 30,000, 48 young people, virtually one adolescent every week, was assassinated in what the mass media termed as the “teenage gang capital of New York City.”
Horrified by the high level of local violence, Acosta left his broadcasting career and founded El Puente. It developed a school that involved students in a host of community service activities.
Acosta also served as vice chairman of the Citizens Union; founding chairman of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice; he was a member of New York State’s Environmental Board, and a board member of such organizations as New Yorkers for Parks, Just Food, the Latino Commission on Aids, and the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.
His many awards included the “Spirit of the City” from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, The Citizens Action and Public Works Awards, “The Dream of Equality” award from Asian Americans for Equality, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Forsythia Award and “Celebrating Success” from the Children’s Defense Fund. Along with his partner, Frances Lucerna, an El Puente co-founder and Executive Director, Luis Garden Acosta was the 1998 Heinz Award Winner for the Human Condition.