La Lucha: The Struggle to Save Hostos in the South Bronx, 1975–76

By William Casari

Save Hostos rally in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank at 149th Street near Third Avenue. The November 19, 1975 rally was the first major activity of the Community Coalition to Save Hostos (CCSH). Courtesy Wallace Edgecombe/Gerald J. Meyer Collection, Hostos Community College Archives and Special Collections/City University of New York). For more information on this image, see: CUNY Digital History Archive

At the beginning of this presentation, I thanked everyone who had ever signed a petition. It was names on a petition which began the fight to keep Hostos open, and ultimately saved it from closing in 1976.

This is the story of a South Bronx community that demanded its right to higher education and fought hard to save it: the story of Hostos Community College. The founding of Hostos Community College and its continued existence represents an act of rebellion against the mainstream. Named after Eugenio María de Hostos, the 19th century scholar, educator and trailblazer for the rights of women, Latinos and people of color, the Hostos campus sits less than a mile from Manhattan, but a world away. La Lucha translates from Spanish into “the struggle or the fight.”

Hostos Assistant Professor and Librarian Jorge Matos explains the possible nuances of the term:

“La Lucha symbolizes the larger struggle for social justice in education, housing, employment, health care, etc. The Hostos facilities fell into that larger context, so “the struggle” conveniently had a double meaning during those years. I would also argue that for a smaller subset of Puerto Rican, Dominican or other Latino activists in the Hostos campaign, they linked local struggles to international struggles. Be they in Dominican Republic against the dictatorship and its legacy, independence for Puerto Rico or other Latin American struggles for social justice. Remember this was the period of gruesome dictatorships in parts of the Americas like Augusto Pinochet in Chile” (Matos).

In the 1970s, the entire college community and neighborhood clergy were mobilized to save Hostos from closure. Two principal leaders of separate groups emerged in the efforts to save the college: Ramón J. Jiménez and Gerald J. Meyer, both professors at Hostos in the early 1970s. Jiménez writes of the movement’s humble beginnings:

“Early in the 1975–76 school year, rumors began to circulate that Hostos Community College was on a list of institutions to be closed. A small group of professors, counselors and students began to meet to plan a response. Only five years old, Hostos had nonetheless produced success stories. Born out of community struggle, its existence had always been tenuous…The group circulated a simple petition demanding that Hostos Community College be kept open. As experienced organizers, we understood that for many staff and students this was their first act of resistance.” (Jiménez 101).

Community College Number Eight

In the mid-1960s, Puerto Rican community residents and local elected officials felt the higher education needs of the South Bronx community were not being addressed by mainstream colleges and, in essence, the whole of the City University of New York (CUNY), the public university system of New York City. Most CUNY resources landed at its popular and selective senior colleges like Brooklyn, Hunter, City and Queens Colleges. Predominantly white, these colleges served middle-class populations and had admission exams that excluded less well-prepared students.

“Hostos’s founding, along with other units of CUNY, was a direct response to the burgeoning enrollment in the university brought about by the implementation in 1970 of open admissions, which permitted any city resident who had earned a high school diploma or the equivalent thereof entry to the university” (Meyer 74).

The Board of Higher Education leased Hostos Community College’s first building, 475 Grand Concourse, for ten years beginning in 1970. Classes began in this renovated tire warehouse at the corner of 149th Street. Courtesy Wallace Edgecombe/Gerald J. Meyer Collection, Hostos Community College Archives and Special Collections/City University of New York

CUNY officials, ceding to pressure from the nearby community and the imminent beginning of open admissions, agreed to support a new college in the heart of the South Bronx. Founded in the tumultuous year of 1968 and temporarily named “Community College Number Eight,” the school began operations at the corner of 149th Street and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, serving a predominantly Puerto Rican and African-American student body. Classes started in Fall 1970, held in a renovated tire factory that CUNY had leased for ten years.

The 1970s proved to be a challenging time for the college and for the Bronx itself. Just as the college opened, neighborhoods around it succumbed to waves of arson fires, white flight, and racial and ethnic tensions, accelerating shifts that began in the years following the end of World War II.

By 1960 any positive view of the Bronx had completely eroded explains The Bronx author Evelyn Gonzalez:

“Population shifts, racial change, housing deterioration, and residents’ search for better housing were exacerbated by housing shortages, suburbanization, erection of public housing and Mitchell-Lama co-ops, and a changing economy. In addition, federal highway construction and urban renewal programs coincided with an outbreak of drug-related street crime, leading to abandoned and burned buildings and white flight. Most assessments of the devastation of the 1960s and 1970s emphasize race, crime, poverty, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and Co-op City and ignore a century of urban growth in the Bronx. Yet it is this ongoing urbanization and neighborhood change that helps explain the devastation and consequent revival that occurred” (Gonzalez 5).

Redlining by financial institutions and the fact that apartment buildings were worth more to landlords if they burned down rather than being occupied by tenants exacerbated the housing shortage. Since private insurance companies wouldn’t insure buildings in redlined areas, landlords were able to obtain insurance from the federal government and then submit claims after their buildings mysteriously burned, many times after the owner paid neighborhood children to torch them.

The story of Hostos is one of survival and resurgence, and one that must be preserved and told repeatedly for future generations. Hostos’s very existence was a counternarrative to sensational headlines about the Bronx in the years preceding the City of New York’s imminent fiscal crisis.

Save Hostos

Dr. Gerald J. Meyer, born in Hoboken, New Jersey, is now a longtime resident of Brooklyn. Progressive politics engaged him from a young age, and upon entering the history program at Rutgers University, he organized the Liberal Club, which worked to support civil rights and liberties. He earned a B.A. with a major in History from Rutgers in 1965; an M.A. from City College, CUNY, with a major in Russian and Modern European History in 1968; and in 1984, a Ph.D from CUNY.

Meyer joined the Hostos faculty in 1972 and immediately became active in the political life of the college. Recognizing the school’s significance, he began saving newsletters, articles and correspondence that documented the fledgling college’s existence. He would not have to wait long before being given the chance to put his political organizing skills and charismatic manner to work.

In the fall of 1975, New York City had run out of money and was on the verge of defaulting on its debts. On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News printed what is probably the most infamous headline in its history: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” With bankruptcy looming, President Gerald Ford had delivered a speech asserting that the federal government would not help New York City (Phillips-Fein 1).

Many measures were taken to control spending, including increasing subway fares and cutting the budget of CUNY. One proposal to reduce spending at CUNY was to merge several smaller campuses with larger ones: John Jay with Baruch, and Hostos with Bronx Community College. Hostos was the newest campus in the system, founded to meet the workforce and educational needs of the economically struggling area residents. In its first five years, Hostos had already become–and remains to this day–a symbol of the vitality and potential of the community. In response to the proposed merger, the South Bronx and campus community launched a campaign to save Hostos as an independent campus within CUNY.

By November, the Hostos faculty senate had moved to create a Save Hostos Committee to “mobilize the forces of the students, faculty, staff and community” (Phillips-Fein 246). Meyer led this committee working with the college administration. Newspaper articles, photographs and reports from the press describe the “Save Hostos” movement. They attest to the determination and dedication of various groups — from campus administration to students and community organizations — as they worked in the winter of 1975 through the spring of 1976 to keep Hostos alive.

The Community Coalition to Save Hostos (CCSH) created this flier for its May 10, 1976 march from El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) to the headquarters of the Emergency Financial Control Board. Courtesy Ramón Jiménez/Gerald J. Meyer Collection, Hostos Community College Archives and Special Collections/City University of New York. For more information on this image, see: CUNY Digital History Archive

As Chair of the Hostos Chapter of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) from 1973 until 1978, Meyer helped lead three campaigns that supported the fledgling college and caused the City University of New York to rescind its resolution to close Hostos. The first campaign resulted in the Board of Higher Education (the precursor to CUNY) buying the 500 Grand Concourse building for Hostos, however no money for renovation was allocated and it sat empty for years during a chronic space shortage. The second campaign prevented the college from closing and the third successful movement obtained funding for the renovation of the 500 building which had been newly built around 1965 as the headquarters for Security Mutual Insurance. For unknown reasons the company had abandoned the structure in the late 1960s.

The Save Hostos Committee (SHC) worked primarily within the established administration of the college and had several sub-committees, including ones for letter-writing, petitioning, voter registration, and community outreach (Phillips-Fein 246). Meyer, along with Ramón J. Jiménez, a fellow professor and colleague for a short time in the 1970s, would later detail The Save Hostos movement in two articles in the Centro Journal.

Community Coalition to Save Hostos

By contrast, the Community Coalition to Save Hostos (CCSH), led by Ramón Jiménez, focused on direct actions, such as rallies, demonstrations at banks, and, at one point, “convinced hundreds of Hostos students, staff and even faculty to carry chairs onto the Grand Concourse where traffic on this major thoroughfare was halted for over one hour” (Meyer 84).

Jiménez described himself this way: “I was 25 years old — an underpaid, overworked adjunct professor teaching two courses in the CUNY system. Upon graduation from Harvard Law School, I received a John Whitney Fellowship to conduct a first amendment prison project during the day. The South Bronx was now my working base (Jiménez 100).

Several allied groups participated in the peaceful takeover of the college, but CCSH was the most militant, as demonstrated in its flier, “Why Struggle? For Hostos and Education.”

“On March 25, 1976, after exhausting all other alternatives, Hostos Community College was taken over in order to use the resources of the college to save it, something that had been refused by the Administration CCSH’s demands included:

● Save Hostos

● Restoration of open admissions

● Assured permanence of free tuition

● No more cuts in our budget, reinstatement of funds eliminated from the college budget and, finally, no mergers of any CUNY unit (“Community Coalition”)”

The Black Students Union, along with other organizations, sponsored the April 9, 1976 demonstration at the United Nations protesting the closure and mergers of CUNY colleges that mainly served people of color. Courtesy Gerald J. Meyer Collection, Hostos Community College Archives and Special Collections/City University of New York. For more information on this image, see: CUNY Digital History Archive

Ramón Jiménez reflected on the takeover of Hostos that lasted until April 13, 1976: “The takeover became the longest in the history of the city university system, perhaps the longest in the history of New York politics. It was one of the most incredible experiences I have had as an organizer” (Jiménez 108).

Despite all the activism, letter-writing campaigns, and the eventual college takeover, the Board of Higher Education approved the merger of Hostos with Bronx Community College, with a resolution on April 4, 1976. However, the demonstrations did not stop. The Committee for the Democratic Rights of Puerto Ricans, a coalition that included the CCSH, organized a massive march (Meyer 87). The group’s stated enemy was the Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB), which it called a “conglomeration of bankers, industrialists and financiers who are, today, an unelected government controlling our lives.” (“Community Coalition”). On Saturday, May 10, 1976, they marched from Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) to the EFCB offices in Manhattan.

“…as many as three thousand people from all over the city of New York marched over sixty blocks chanting “Save Hostos.” No other event had ever so visibly demonstrated the breadth of concern for Hostos in the Latino and other communities. The takeover, despite all of its negative consequences, had forced the story of Hostos into the press, thereby creating enough publicity to bring about this unprecedented turnout for the May 10th march” (Meyer 87).

The EFCB was created to monitor the finances of New York City during the 1975 fiscal crisis when the City was essentially bankrupt, resulting in the decision to close and merge Hostos with Bronx Community College in University Heights, the former uptown campus of New York University. With the Board of Higher Education’s resolution, it appeared the fate of Hostos was sealed, yet the activism continued.

Demonstration organized by Hostos United/Hostos Unido, which blocked traffic on the Grand Concourse for two hours, demanded that funds be made available to remodel the 500 Grand Concourse building for educational use. Courtesy Gerald J. Meyer Collection, Hostos Community College Archives and Special Collections/City University of New York

One Chapter of La Lucha Ends

In late April, members of the Hostos administration traveled to Albany to lobby on behalf of the college. Freshman Assemblyman Jose E. Serrano led the fight for the restoration of the Hostos budget to the state budget. Later in June, the state legislature passed an appropriation for CUNY that included the saving of Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Hostos Community College (Meyer 87). On June 18, 1976, the legislature passed the Landes Higher Education Act that restored $3 million to the university budget for 1976–77. This is the exact amount that CUNY would have saved by closing Hostos. The Save Hostos movement had achieved its “impossible dream” (Meyer 87).

While Hostos remained open, the struggle continued for renovation funding for the 500 building and the eventual development of a master plan for the campus itself.

Future Directions

Hostos Community College thrives today with robust enrollment and many new faculty hires, but its future growth remains in question. One of the smallest units of CUNY in terms of enrollment (about 7,000 students), it also has the smallest campus footprint. Gentrification in the surrounding neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Morris has caused the value of real estate to skyrocket, with many new residential towers under construction. The lack of affordable real estate threatens to impair Hostos’s ability to expand to meet community needs.

More pressing are the ongoing issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and their disproportionate impact on marginalized communities throughout New York City, conjuring a wealth of historical parallels. While the past activism of Hostos proved successful in solidifying its presence in the South Bronx, the pandemic has revealed the disparities that fueled that activism remain painfully present. As impending budget cuts from the City of New York loom large over CUNY, the historical roots of Hostos’s founding illustrate its enduring meaning to communities of the South Bronx in the face of uncertainty. Hopefully, that history of struggle won’t repeat itself.

This paper was originally presented at the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York Symposium, “Rebellion in the Archives,” on October 17, 2019 at the Center for Jewish History, and has been adapted for the Fall 2020 issue of the Metropolitan Archivist.

Notes:

Community Coalition to Save Hostos. “Why Struggle? For Hostos and Education.” Gerald J. Meyer Archival Collection, Hostos Community College/City University of New York (1976).

Gonzalez, Evelyn. The Bronx. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Jiménez, Ramón J. “Hostos Community College; Battle of the Seventies.” Centro Journal 15, no. 1, 2003.

Matos, Jorge. “La Lucha meaning.” Email correspondence. October 28, 2020.

Meyer, Gerald J. “Save Hostos: Politics and Community Mobilization to Save a College in the Bronx.” Centro Journal 15, no. 1, 2003.

Phillips-Fein, Kim. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017.

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A publication of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).