Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, two legendary Latin musicians, may not have had superpowers, but an artist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, plans to tap the popularity of comic book heroes to celebrate the significance of these and other figures in the cultural history of East Harlem.
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, an artist specializing in comic-book-style graphics, is working with other comic book artists to depict, among other spots, Park Palace, a former Latin dance club in East Harlem that welcomed artists like Ms. Cruz and Mr. Puente when downtown clubs would not welcome Latinos.
“They were like the Superman and Wonder Woman of the Latin music world,” he said.
Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez’s work will be part of an app that a nonprofit organization, the Caribbean Cultural Center in East Harlem, hopes will help preserve the history and culture of a neighborhood undergoing gentrification and that those participating in the project say history books often overlook.
The center will use art to depict significant people, places and events to give the app’s users a virtual walking tour of East Harlem. The app will superimpose original artwork onto images of the neighborhood on the screens of smartphones and tablets.
“The importance of this project is the sustainability of community in a period of gentrification,” said Marta Moreno Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center’s African Diaspora Institute.
Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez and seven other artists from East Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens and Puerto Rico are each developing several works for the app component of the “Mi Querido Barrio” project, which means “my beloved neighborhood.” The virtual tour will include tributes to Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian, Mexican and African history and culture in East Harlem, Dr. Vega said.
The project plans to include artwork about the historic La Marqueta marketplace on Park Avenue, for example, and an African burial ground on First Avenue. Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez also plans to sketch a tribute to the game of stickball, which East Harlem residents of various ages and ethnicities have played in the streets for decades.
“The artists are looking broadly at events and people that have created what we understand as East Harlem,” Dr. Vega said.
The debut of the app will coincide with the planned opening in early 2015 of the Caribbean Cultural Center’s new location at a vacant firehouse at 120 East 125th Street. The app will direct users from the firehouse to different locations in an area encompassing 103rd Street to 128th Streets and Fifth Avenue to the East River. When users reach specific destinations, artwork related to their current location and its history will appear on their devices’ screens.
The neighborhood’s history is not traditionally easy to find, said Yasmin Ramirez of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, who has studied Puerto Rican art history in the city and researched East Harlem’s cultural history for the project.
“We’re trying to really preserve a history that if we don’t do it would never be seen, because it was marginalized when it was happening,” she said.
One of Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez’s works depicts a 1969 demonstration in which the Young Lords, a group of community activists, piled up and burned trash to spur the city’s sanitation department to pick up garbage more often in East Harlem.
“You look at the Young Lords. Those were our Avengers,” he said. He calls his work on the project a tribute to “actual amazing heroes from our community.”
Carlos Pacheco, a comic book artist from Spain whose work includes Superman, X-Men and Captain America comics, drew the Young Lords piece from sketches that Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez provided.
Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez plans to animate the graphic and pair it with a spoken word piece from a musical, “Party People,” based on the Young Lords Party and Black Panthers Party. Clickable bilingual text on the protesters’ signs and links to stories about the Young Lords will make it interactive, he said.
“It’s better than some tour guide saying, ‘Visualize here there was all this garbage that was set on fire,’” said Mr. Miranda-Rodriguez, who hopes pairing technology and comics draws a wide audience to the app. “We’re in an era now where geek is chic.”