What America Looked Like: Puerto Rican Slums in the Early 1970s


These San Juan residents have been living in squalor for decades, building shanties atop garbage heaps in the polluted Martin Pena canal. Will a new EPA grant transform their lives?

During the years 1972 and 1973, Ken Heyman and John Vachon traveled to one of America's furthest -- and most tropical -- regions, Puerto Rico. As freelance photographers, Heyman and Vachon were enlisted by the Environmental Protection Agency to document the problems of environmentally threatened locations.

They were assigned the Martin Pena canal, a small channel bordered by mangrove swamps that runs three miles into the center of San Juan. Although venturing separately (and during different years), both photographers discovered a community threatened by pollution and poverty.

But they also met the people of the Martin Pena canal, living in crowded shanties literally built on garbage heaps. It was a community faced with a daily sense of resignation -- and yet one that still maintained the faint hope for a better life.

A legal document filed in 2010 details the history of this little-known area. Due to the devastation of the Great Depression -- and two of Puerto Rico's worst hurricanes -- thousands of the country's citizens were rendered homeless. They eventually left the countryside and hoped to find solace in the city -- only to be directed to the Martin Pena Canal. In order to make the area habitable, "residents [sank] dirt, garbage, and debris into the swampland" until it was able to support the shanties they constructed from rotten wood and corrugated tin.

Forty years later, although some septic systems do exist, sewage continues to flow directly into the canal.

Martin Pena is thus not only a source of major pollution, but also a health hazard. And in addition to affecting the well-being of residents -- totaling some 30,000 according to a 2010 estimate -- the slowly shrinking canal threatens the entirety of the San Juan Bay Estuary.

But fortunately, the Martin Pena canal finally has a chance to clean itself up -- and in doing so, its residents, who form the core of Puerto Rico's labor force, have the opportunity to improve their own lives. On July 3, the EPA announced that it would provide a $60,000 grant in order to boost the revitalization of the channel (a process first started in 2001). The recipient of the grant, ENLACE, is an organization based in the Martin Pena region -- an encouraging fact, since the group has long interacted with the residents and intimately understands the environmental concerns of the area.

A crucial component of the ENLACE Martin Pena program is community education; the group plans to instruct the residents (both children and adults) in ways to keep water clean. Through this process, ENLACE hopes to motivate the residents to restore the canal -- as well to give them the tools to maintain improvements. And as the EPA announcement points out, "Healthy and accessible urban waters can help local businesses grow and enhance educational, recreational, employment, and economic opportunities in nearby communities."

The revitalization of the channel has the possibility of reducing not only environmental damages, but also of bettering the life of a community -- one that has struggled amid the squalor for too long.

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Madeleine Kruhly writes and produces for The Atlantic.

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