A Chance at New Life for an LES Community Hub

Issue 230

Steven Wishnia Nov 13, 2017

After fighting for almost 20 years to save and regain a beloved neighborhood community space, Lower East Side activists finally heard encouraging words from City Hall in October — but the promise is still a way from becoming reality.

At a town meeting Oct. 12, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city had an “interest in reacquiring” the former Charas community center, that Rudolph Giuliani’s administration selling it to a private developer in 1998 was a “mistake” and it was time to “right the wrongs of the past.”

“We’re ecstatic,” City Councilmember Rosie Mendez told The Indypendent before a rally at City Hall on Nov. 6 — but Charas supporters are still waiting for more details.

The building, a former public school at 605 East Ninth Street, has been vacant since 2001, when developer Gregg Singer was finally able to evict Charas. Singer has been trying for years to convert the space into student housing, but has been stymied by neighborhood opposition and his inability to satisfy restrictions in the building’s deed that say it must be used exclusively as a “community facility.”

Most recently, the city Department of Buildings denied him a permit to convert part of the building into a dormitory for Adelphi University, on the grounds that to qualify as a bona fide dorm, it had to be entirely for full-time students at an institution with at least a 10-year lease. Under Singer’s plan, says longtime Save Charas Committee organizer Susan Howard, anyone with a student ID could rent a room there, so it could be a for-profit hostel. Singer appealed the denial to the city Board of Standards and Appeals last month.

The abandoned P.S. 64 was taken over in 1979 by a group of neighborhood activists that included Armando Perez, Chino Garcia and the late poet Bimbo Rivas, who coined “Loisaida” as a Spanglish name for the neighborhood. For more than 20 years, Charas was a center for activism, arts and social services such as computer, construction-skills and English-for-immigrants classes. Its theater hosted the 1983 premiere of Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, the first full-length feature by film student Spike Lee.

But in 1996, the Giuliani administration decided to sell three city-owned Lower East Side buildings that were occupied by community arts centers: Charas, Clemente Soto Velez (CSV) and ABC No Rio. CSV worked out a deal to retain its building and ABC No Rio did too after several years of protest and litigation. But Charas was auctioned off to Singer for $3.15 million, despite protesters disrupting the proceedings by releasing 10,000 live crickets.

“Singer didn’t realize that he had a community and a body of supporters who were watchdogs.”

It was widely believed in the neighborhood that the sale was revenge for Armando Perez organizing a voter-registration drive that scared the district’s City Councilmember, pro-gentrification Giuliani Democrat Antonio Pagan, out of running for re-election. “I think Pagan was the instigator, and we all know how vindictive and brutal Giuliani was,” says Howard.

Perez was murdered in 1999, in a confrontation outside his wife’s building in Queens. The Nov. 6 rally commemorated what would have been his 70th birthday.

If the city were to reacquire the building, two likely ways would be negotiating to buy it back from Singer or seizing it by eminent domain. Either way, it would have to pay him market value, which he says would be $80-90 million.

Susan Howard says the city should void the sale, on the grounds that Singer did not show he had a viable plan to fulfill the community-facility requirement within 45 days after the sale. She believes he thought he could get away with it because of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations’ lax oversight of developers.

“He didn’t realize that he had a community and a body of supporters who were watchdogs,” she says.

Singer doesn’t want to sell it. “He remains eager to begin the lawful development of P.S. 64,” his public-relations firm, Gotham Government Relations (GGR), said in a statement. “The East Village has changed in the 20 years since P.S. 64 was sold. The original group that occupied the building has no presence in today’s community.”

GGR associate Nicole Silver said 950 people from the neighborhood had signed a petition supporting the dorm. She said she would email it to The Indy, but never did. GGR has represented Donald Trump since 2010. When he announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, it hired a subcontractor for “administrative support” — which, according to an email obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, consisted of paying actors $50 a head to cheer and wear pro-Trump T-shirts.

If the Charas people got the space back, they would like to use it in the same way it was before — a mix of artists’ studios and rehearsal spaces, community nonprofit offices, classes and as a place for meetings, performances and benefits. Rents in the neighborhood have gotten so expensive that it’s next to impossible to find space for any of these purposes, they say.

“I don’t see any reason to change,” says Garcia.

Renovating the 110,000-square-foot five-story building would be a massive job. Singer’s PR firm says it would cost $60 million. Completely rebuilding ABC No Rio, a four-story building slightly less than one-tenth as big, will cost more than $8 million.

The sad thing, says Howard, is that before Charas was sold, it was on the verge of getting city funding to renovate the building. That could have been done for less than $1 million. But with Singer having stripped its interior, she says, “now we’re looking at a complete gut renovation.”

Councilmember Mendez has asked for a meeting with the mayor’s office to discuss what to do next, but hasn’t heard back yet, says press secretary John Blasco. The mayor’s office declined to comment.

“The center has to be open to the community. The sooner the better,” says Garcia. “We’ve got people who’ve been involved with the project for 40 to 50 years and people who are fresh. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Steven Wishnia performed at Charas with the rock’n’roll bands False Prophets and Gateria.

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Photo:City Councilmember Rosie Mendez (D-Lower East Side) speaks as supporters of reestablishing Charas community center rally at City Hall on Nov. 6. Standing immediately behind Mendez from left to right are State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, Charas co-founder Chino Garcia, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and State Senator Brad Hoylman. Credit: Steven Wishnia. 

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