On Valentines Day, approximately 50 activists, politicians and members of community organizations from Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood gathered on the steps of City Hall to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to save their beloved landmark community space CHARAS El Bohio.
Community members and District leaders held a press conference asking de Blasio “to be our Valentine,” as activists stood behind with myriad heart-shaped protest signs.
CHARAS El Bohio, an innovative and creative community activist group, so named as an acronym of the group’s founders, moved into the building in question at 605 East 9th Street in the early 1980s and turned the abandoned P.S. 64 into a vibrant community space.
CHARAS was the extension of a group known as the Real Great Society, formed in 1964 by five young Puerto Rican men who decided to leave behind their gang affiliations and pursue active community organizing roles.
Chino Garcia, one of the group’s founders and a de-facto Lower East Side celebrity, spoke at the rally about the progress his community had made since the early days of their organizing. “The Lower East Side was a nightmare” in the 1970s and ‘80s, Garcia said. “But the community still exported its culture everywhere.”
The Lower East Side of that era exuded a distinctly New York attitude and culture of creativity, serving as a hotbed of radical organizing, experimental art and music—a haven for anti-capitalists who strived for a more cooperative and just society.
Garcia lamented that it was thanks to the tireless efforts of the community that the Lower East Side became legendary. After the hard work was done, developers sought to capture the spirit of the neighborhood itself and sell it as a brand.
CHARAS El Bohio served the community until the late 1990s, when Mayor Guiliani, in his bid to sell out the city to high-end developers (his administration’s broken windows policies still inform NYPD policy), sold the property at East 9th to millionaire developer Robert Singer.
Councilmember Rosie Mendez—who could not be at the rally because of a family obligation but has been leveraging her position on the city council to return the space to the community—issued a statement: “I love my district. I love that building. It represents the hopes and dreams of so many in our neighborhood.”
The group of activists have sent two letters in the past few months to city officials; the first in October 2016 to the Rick D. Chandler, Commissioner of the buildings department and the second in January 2017 to Mayor de Blasio. As yet, they have not received a response to either letter.
Despite leaving it dormant for over a decade, Robert Singer, the developer who owns the property had indicated his latest plan was to lease the property as dormitory housing, first for Cooper Union and now Adelphi students. But activists cringe at the idea that their beloved community space will house college students instead of being open to their community.
“Why is a dorm community use?” Gail Brewer, Manhattan Borough President asked at the rally. Adding that “developers have every right to find loopholes, but it is the government’s job to stop it.”
Just as the rally began, Mayor de Blasio entered City Hall, walking right past the protestors, to which activists yelled “Who do you stand with? Do you stand with us or do you stand with the lobbyists?”
“CHARAS is the embodiment of Lower East Side culture and CHARAS is a showcase of indigenous culture,” Ryan Gilliam, Artistic/Executive Director of Downtown Art, a landmark youth theater on the Lower East Side said. “Gentrification is much more than rising rents. It is truly the destruction of culture.”
“As we enter the Trump-era, CHARAS is more important than ever as a safe space from Trump and his cronies,” added Gilliam.
Gentrification has always been a particularly contentious issue in Lower Manhattan, but the past decade has seen flashpoints across the city, with high-end development and high-income residents pushing out longtime New Yorkers in the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Anthony Feliciano, a District Leader in Lower Manhattan, told The Indypendent that this fight around CHARAS “can set a precedent for other neighborhoods,” either in a positive way if the community defeats the developer or in a negative way if the developer wins.
“If we’re going to say [de Blasio is] our mayor, he has to have our backs,” Feliciano added.
Community activists intend to set a meeting with the mayor soon and demand that he return the community space to the community.
Amy Velez, a nurse who came from Colombia to the Lower East Side in 1977 told The Indypendent that she used run a group for single mothers out of CHARAS.
It was a place where people without homes could take refuge from the cold; participate in alternative living like squats; community members could access all sorts of educational opportunities and know your rights trainings; as well as organize. Velez said activists met at CHARAS weekly to organize for the release of political prisoners.
“CHARAS was a great loss, it was the heart of the community,” Velez said. Nowadays, “we feel like we don’t really have a place to organize.”
“Since we lost CHARAS we feel homeless.”
Student Residence on CHARAS Site Nixed
By Sarah Stuteville