My LES – Raquel Algarin

This weekly feature spotlights a wide variety of people who live and work on the Lower East Side. If you know someone you would like to suggest be featured in “My LES,” please email us here.

What do you do?

I’m the Executive Director at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. I oversee all operations, government contracts and foundation supporters.   I started working here as a volunteer in the early 90’s when it was still illegal to distribute sterile syringes to active drug users. While working for the NYC Department of Health, I provided HIV/AIDS education to others who volunteered and participants (clients). Eventually, I was offered a position as Peer Education Program Coordinator in 1994. This was when we were located at Avenue C between 3rd & 4th Sts.

We moved to Allen Street in 1999, after the 4 storefronts we were renting were sold. I became the Executive Director in 2009. We not only provide sterile syringes, we also collect those that are used for proper disposal. We also provide case management, substance use counseling and overdose prevention training, mental health services, a number of support groups and peer education. We also have some of the best volunteers in the city!  Our mission is to help stop the spread of HIV and Hep C and to connect our participants to services, particularly health care, and if requested, drug treatment.

How long have you lived on the LES?

Since about 1958.  My mother came here from Puerto Rico to be closer to my dad and other family.We first lived at 138 Orchard Street for a few years and then moved to 159 Delancey Street, right by the Williamsburg Bridge (a.k.a. “The Big Parking Lot!”). I’ve been living on Madison Street since 1965.

Favorite block in the hood?

It used to be Orchard Street – now it’s Madison Street.  I love Madison Street. I live between Clinton and Montgomery. I love it because it’s what shaped a lot of what I do today. When I was a teenager here I had opportunities to see the things that our neighborhood lacked. This helped formulate my decision to be a nurse, and eventually a social service provider.

Favorite date spot in the hood?

No longer dating but when I did, Adela’s or Nuyorican Cafe.  Adela’s was and still is the BEST PUERTO RICAN CUISINE anywhere! I know folks who have moved away and still ask if Adela’s is still around. Adela’s is on Avenue C between 4th and 5th Streets.

Do you still visit the Nuyorican these days?

Yes…the Nuyorican Café is, for those of us who grew up here, OUR historic landmark. It’s a place that celebrates latino arts and culture. If you haven’t been, you really must go! It’s on 3rd Street between Ave B and C.

Favorite coffee in the hood?

Bodega coffee used to be the best although I don’t drink coffee now. I miss the old fashioned hot café con leche that in my day cost $.50!   Two sugars and a splash of milk was my favorite.

Favorite slice in the hood?

Frank and Tom’s on Madison Street between Rutgers and Jefferson Streets

Where do you take your visitors when they’re here?

Any El Castillo Restaurant in the neighborhood.  I love El Castillo restaurants…they are all over the neighborhood…Rivington, Clinton, Madison, Essex! Although my personal favorite is Adela’s I find that it’s easier to get a seat at a Castillo.

Favorite dive/locals bar in the hood?

I don’t do bars at all anymore. When I did, I went uptown.

How has the neighborhood changed in the last few years?

OMG…too long a story considering I’ve been in the neighborhood since childhood. But, in the last few years there are more bars, restaurants and noise than there ever was in the past. Rents are too high and there’s less of an opportunity to move into better housing. Many of my friends and neighbors have left the community, as they have no other choice, for the reasons I just described. I get nervous at times that I might be put in a similar situation in the future. Rumors abound that all of the ‘Projects’ will be bought by big investors and we’ll all have to find somewhere else to go. Those of us who are still here as long as I have been, talk about how proud we are that we ‘stuck it through’ all these years, even through the roughest years when buildings were burned down, crime was way up and a lot of our people couldn’t find jobs. My fingers are crossed!

Favorite LES memory?

Playing on the street on Orchard Street after the stores closed; we used discarded cartons/boxes to create fantasy ‘homes’ …everything from playing double dutch, stick ball, hopscotch…until it got dark and the moms would call out our names to ‘get upstairs.’  Railroad apartments on Orchard Street with bathtubs in the kitchen and we left the doors unlocked…Fire escapes — when it snowed we placed a can outside to catch it and added jelly to make homemade ices. Fire pumps with flowing water to cool us off…And in the really hot Summer days , EVERYONE headed to Coney Island!

LESHRC will celebrate it’s 20th Anniversary next year. If you would like to get on their mailing list, contact Melanie Alvarez at Melanie@leshrc.org.