“When my nieces and nephews came over, it was always like a party,” 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, 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,” 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. 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. 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.
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,” 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.’”
And then her brother-in-law told her about Essex Crossing, a mixed-used development primarily on the south side of Delancey Street, that was giving affordable housing preference to those who could prove they lived in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area between 1965 and 1973.
During that period, Robert Moses had demolished tenements, displacing and dispersing the ethnically diverse communities that had long called the area home. After that, the land remained vacant for decades, until the Bloomberg era, when a coalition of companies now known as Delancey Street Associates (including L+M Development Partners, BFC Partners, Taconic Investment Partners, the Prusik Group and Goldman Sachs) was selected to build a mixed-use complex with 1,079 apartments, more than half permanently designated for low- to middle-income families.
Using church records, Santiago was able to verify that she had lived in the neighborhood as a child. But her income was too low to qualify for any of the available apartments. So she asked her younger son, Carlos A. Hernandez, a cook at Russ & Daughters, if he would like to apply for a two-bedroom with her.
“In our culture, you live with your parents until marriage,” she said. “When we applied together, it worked.”
They were offered a two-bedroom apartment at 125 Delancey St., known as the Essex, a mixed-income building above a Regal Cinemas theater and the new Essex Market, for $1,065 a month. And in December, they moved in with their two rescued tuxedo cats, Travieso and Waffle.
“Even today, I look at the place coming back, I can’t believe it,” Santiago said. “It’s like a dream. I always thank God.”
Friends and family have been generous with old furniture and kitchenware. “I’ve been blessed for coffee makers. They know my taste: red,” said Santiago, who also has a red love seat and a red step stool, and that morning was wearing a red dress.
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.”
$1,065 | Lower East Side
Ruth Santiago, 64, and Carlos A. Hernandez, 32
Occupation: Before retiring, Santiago founded and ran the Nehemiah Foundation, a nonprofit focused on religion and the arts in Puerto Rico. 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,” Santiago said. “I can do some Spanish dishes like arroz con pollo, but he likes to show off.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.