N.J. Architect Unveils Puerto Rican Community Center

July 14, 2009

Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Matt Katz, Inquirer Staff Writer

Carlos Castro, AIA, arrived in Camden from Puerto Rico a quarter-century ago, unable to muster a word of English as a student at East Camden Middle School.

But he kept a notepad in his pocket and wrote down everything he saw on the street. At the end of each day, he looked up his observations in a Spanish-English dictionary, memorizing the new words.

So, yesterday morning, when Castro’s father looked into his eyes and pulled him close, Castro was able to swiftly – and emotionally – translate his father’s words into English. He said: “I am very proud of you, my son.”

Castro, 39, was marking his biggest gig as an architect. With artistic nods to both his native island and his adopted city, Castro has designed the new 9,000-square-foot Puerto Rican Unity for Progress community center on Broadway.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held yesterday morning for the $3.1 million building off Ramona Gonzalez Street (formerly Division Street), and political dignitaries heaped praise.

“He’s come to be a part of Camden’s renaissance and revitalization, and his heart is in this project,” said State Sen. Dana Redd (D., Camden).

Castro looked on humbly in a dark green suit; his father, Florentino, watched proudly in short sleeves and work pants.

“When I was 5 years old, I told my dad I wanted to be a carpenter,” Castro said. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you be an architect?’ ”

Florentino Castro is an electrician, and his son said his father “knew I was creative with my hands, so he wanted to me to take it a step further.”

He also wanted his son to be wearing suits instead of hard hats.

And besides, remembered Castro’s laughing mother, Nelida, also in attendance yesterday: “He was always drawing!”

In front of a large “future site of PRUP” sign that bears his name, his sister snapped photos of Castro with his wife, Minerva, a guidance counselor at a Camden elementary school, and his 8-year-old son, Jared.

Castro graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1988, joined the Army as a reservist, and later got a master’s degree in architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He only recently created his own firm, Archi-Tecto Studio, out of his home in Blackwood.

He is now looking to expand the firm into downtown Camden.

“My heart and my feelings are in the city,” he said.

The design of the PRUP building is architecturally “respectful” of Camden’s Broadway corridor – once South Jersey’s commercial and entertainment jewel – with a footprint close to the street and a style of brick commonly used in the city.

But Castro said it also has “a flare” of Spanish colonial architecture, reminiscent of Castro’s native San Juan, with varied roof lines and arches around the windows.

PRUP, a Camden institution for 33 years, works mostly with Latinos but serves all ethnicities in job placement, computer and literacy training, counseling, health services, legal aid, and housing assistance.

Its facility in the 400 block of Broadway was already in need of expansion when Cooper University Hospital announced plans to open a medical school on the block, forcing PRUP elsewhere.

With Cooper’s support and funding from both the city and the state’s $175 million recovery fund, the 13-room building became a reality, said Carmen Perez, the mastermind of the project and the PRUP executive director.

Perez chose Castro from among several architects for the job.

A few years ago, Castro was working for the Camden Redevelopment Agency when he took an entrepreneurial course with another grassroots Latino organization in Camden, the Latin American Economic Development Association.

He then set off on his own, and this year he was named the group’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

Before PRUP, his only other solo project was the renovation of a convent in Glassboro.

“I told him that the building would be a reality,” said Minerva, who helped Castro pick out the colors for PRUP. “He’s easy to motivate. He motivates himself.”

Perez said Castro had been dedicated from the start.

“We like to empower our people,” she said. “Somebody had to give him the opportunity.”

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