Street scene of people at small shops in Spanish Harlem “El Barrio” in New York in the 1970’s. (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

New app teaches history on a stroll through NYC’s “El Barrio”

Did you ever want to walk through a neighborhood and learn about its history without a tour guide?

Well, soon you’ll be able to walk around El Barrio in New York City and learn about the people who used to live there; people like jazz legend Tito Puente. When you pass by his former address, an app for your smartphone called “Mi Querido Barrio” comes alive with information.

Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez is one of the nine artists selected to develop this app, which incorporates both physical and virtual components, to map a historic and cultural tour of New York City’s El Barrio community. It will take two years to complete, but Miranda has already started drawing illustrations to recreate the community where he and his family immigrated to from Puerto Rico in the 1950s.

Miranda-Rodriguez explains the artists have been trained in the technology of augmented reality by Tamiko Thiel, a German-based visual artist.

“Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, the founder of The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, brought Thiel to El Barrio, and thanks to a grant they received from The Rockefeller Foundation, we are able to do this,” says Miranda-Rodriguez. “I was asked to participate in this project by Dr. Vega.”

He says Thiel taught him, and the other artists involved in the project, how to do a 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional image and then map an image on a poster.

“I take a picture of a doorknob, and I can program the phone so that when you point it at the doorknob, other images can pop up,” says Miranda-Rodriguez, who has been working with the Center for close to 20 years now and also runs two of his own studios.

He says Dr. Vega, one of his long-time mentors, is breaking ground for having the idea to bring artists on board.

“History is usually confined to text books and libraries, but like this you can make it exciting,” says Miranda-Rodriguez, who is currently working on an illustration of the Young Lords Party for the project.

In the 1990’s, he says he was the art director for the documentary about this civil rights group who raised a voice for the empowerment of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the United States.

“In the summer of 1969, East Harlem [El Barrio] was inundated with all of this trash that the sanitation department wasn’t picking up and everyone got together and set it on fire as an act of protest,” says the Nuyorican art director. “They were trying to make a point to pick up the trash — basic rights to our community. I said to myself, ‘That is such a visual moment in our history,’ and I started to draw.”

He says this is a new way we can document history. He’s looking forward to educating people about the cultural riches of his hometown, from Tito Puente, to the African burial grounds, to the Pentecostal movement by Puerto Ricans.

“I think this is the best way and easiest way to do it,” says Miranda-Rodriguez about embarking on his new artistic journey. “It’s just revolutionary.”

RELATED: Remembering Tito Puente, 13 years after his death

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