BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Nov. 1, 5 p.m.: For more than 20 years, East Village activists have battled a developer’s designs on the old P.S. 64, the former home of CHARAS/El Bohio. Now, though, with the building in foreclosure and CHARAS’s director in a rehab facility, a fight is flaring between the activists themselves, in terms of who should be leading the struggle and also what form that struggle should take — behind-closed-doors negotiations or activism in the streets.
Gregg Singer bought the decommissioned public school at city auction in 1998 for $3.15 million, and then went on to evict CHARAS at the end of 2001. Today, the historic, 120,000-square-foot structure, at 605 E. Ninth St., just east of Tompkins Square Park, is more than 30 times more valuable than back then, worth a whopping $100 million — yet it sits empty and dilapidated, with pigeons swooping in and out of its broken windows.
Frustrating Singer’s efforts to develop the property, Mayor Bloomberg landmarked it right under him. Bloomberg and, after him, Bill de Blasio, also repeatedly found fault with Singer’s plans to convert the site into a college dormitory, declining every scheme he proposed. As a result, Singer is currently suing the city for “tortious,” as in wrongful, interference.
(Bizarrely — or perhaps in a case of wishful thinking or testing the waters? — Corcoran real estate has the property listed for sale as an 89-unit “pre-war co-op,” despite a deed restriction limiting the building’s use to “community facilities,” such as schools, medical offices, social-service day centers, dormitories and the like.)
Global private equity firm
Meanwhile, Madison Capital Realty, Singer’s lender and a heavy hitter in real estate, has either foreclosed on the old school, or is in the process of doing so. Madison Realty is described as “a vertically integrated real estate private equity firm” that reportedly manages $9.5 billion in total assets for global investors.
In a perfect storm, at the same time as the building’s foreclosure, Carlos “Chino” Garcia, CHARAS’s 76-year-old executive director, is currently in the Gouverneur rehab facility, on Madison Street, on the Lower East Side.
A Singer spokesperson did not respond to The Village Sun’s requests for comment about who now owns the old P.S. 64 — other than to sarcastically ask “who is protecting” the vacant Boys Club building on Avenue A, which Aaron Soskin, an East Village financial tycoon / angel investor, reportedly purchased for $32 million two years ago to keep out of developers’ hands.
Amid all this, as first reported by The Village Sun, a group of veteran East Village activists calling themselves the Guardians of CHARAS recently formed, saying they are defending the old P.S. 64, particularly against the threat of potential arson.
Former squatter was concerned
One of them, Frank Morales, a retired radical priest and former East Village squatter activist who lives nearby in a former squat, said he was compelled to get involved due to the sorry and, what he deems, dangerous state of the building. The old P.S. 64 extends through the block from Ninth Street to 10th Street.
“I live on 10th Street,” he said. “My front door is literally 50 feet away. I walk by there every morning on my way to get coffee, and I saw the door was kicked in from the hinges. Kids are having raves in there. …They shut down the Boys Club. They shut down East River Park. The kids have nowhere else to go.”
Morales said, even though that 10th St. door has now been “bolted shut,” there are still “three or four ways” people can get into the building.
“It’s about guarding the place against bad actors — by real estate as well as drug users,” he said of the Guardians’ motivation. “I’m pretty grassroots oriented. I’m about defending the place.”
As a former squatter, Morales said he’s familiar with how fast buildings can come down once the city or developers decide they want it to happen. The old P.S. 64 already has a “full vacate” order slapped on it by the Department of Buildings, after a large facade crack was spotted on its 10th Street side a few years ago.
In a dangerous limbo
“We’re in this limbo space,” Morales warned of the building’s current murky ownership situation.
“We’ve seen this,” he said. “I’ve been in two arson attempts [of squats] — I was living in ’em. Some other real estate operator could come in there and knock out some load-bearing walls and — bang, bang, bang! It won’t take much for there to be some kind of activity there that causes the chain reaction where there’s the demolition of the building.”
The Guardians, a loose-knit group co-led by Morales and another former squatter, Ken Toglia, have a range of individual visions of how the building should be reused. One of them, Dana Beal, the Yippie “godfather” of the pot-legalization movement, is currently focused on a plan to manufacture Ibogaine pills as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease and stroke recovery. Not surprisingly, Beal would like to see the old school contain, as he described it, an “Ibogaine room.”
Sifu Jai, a martial-arts master who had a Taoist temple in the since-demolished C.U.A.N.D.O. building on E. Houston Street, wants to create something similar at the old E. Ninth Street school, which, according to Toglia, was recently consecrated as “a kung fu temple.”
Other ideas include acupuncture and a harm-reduction center stocked with Narcan, used to revive heroin overdose victims. John Penley, a former East Village activist who now lives in Las Vegas but is involved in the effort remotely, wants the building to include affordable housing; but Toglia, for one, has not endorsed that.
Seeking community ideas
Morales, though, said nothing is set in stone at this point.
“You gotta take it with a grain of salt,” he said of the Guardians’ various and sundry reuse ideas, as the members each champion their own pet projects and interests. The overall approach, he said, is to involve the community and solicit ideas for what people would like to see in the building’s reuse — then harness community power to do the actual work of whipping the landmark back into shape.
“As squatters, we’re very familiar with this,” he assured. “Go in there, enact a sweat-equity approach. Use the community — unleash the creative potential of artists and workers and youth. We could create a gem.”
On the other hand, Morales is wary of any negotiations that may be ongoing with the property owners, fearing they could easily just result in a “sellout” to luxury redevelopment, with only a small ground-floor space set aside for the return of CHARAS, which operated the building as a Puerto Rican-led cultural and community space for decades.
“We saw the Charles Street Theater deal,” he recalled, referring to a former Avenue B movie house-turned-church that was ultimately demolished in 2012 and rebuilt with high-end apartments and just a ground-floor space for the church. According to Morales, the pastor initially assured him the original building would remain, but then cut a deal with a developer.
‘What’s the plan?’
Morales stressed he and his allies just want to help save the old P.S. 64 as a community space. But he said he’s not hearing enough from CHARAS and others so far.
“What’s the plan?” he said. “Particularly when the place has been foreclosed. It seems dormant — that no one’s really concerned. And most importantly, where do we need to put our shoulders? The Mayor’s Office? Claim the building by eminent domain?”
In terms of concrete steps the Guardians are taking, they plan a protest rally outside the East Midtown office of Madison Capital Realty, at 520 Madison Ave. (between 53rd and 54th Streets) on Mon., Nov. 14, from noon to 2 p.m., to demand that the building be returned for community use.
The Guardians also recently did a weekend afternoon of public programming on the Open Street on Avenue B.
‘Uncle Chino’ poster uproar
However, some of their other actions have decidedly brushed others the wrong way. Among these were using Garcia’s image in an Uncle Sam-style poster. The illustration featured him sporting a Puerto Rican flag top hat with the slogan below it in Spanish, “Te necesito para nuestro comunidad” (“I need you for our community”).
Other objectionable actions included circulating a photo of Garcia sitting up in bed — in a seeming endorsement — holding up a Guardians of CHARAS logo poster; merely using the name CHARAS in the Guardians of CHARAS’s name; and, more recently, starting a GoFundMe in CHARAS’s name to raise money for security cameras for the property.
Garcia’s daughter, Taina, who lives on the West Coast and is the point person for him in rehab, was reportedly particularly upset about the poster with his likeness. These “Uncle Chino” posters — which were created by R.J. Kikuchiyo, a friend of Toglia — were plastered on the fence outside the old P.S. 64, according to Morales.
Cease and desist
On Oct. 12, one of CHARAS’s board members, Herman Hewitt, sent a “cease and desist” letter to Morales co-signed by Garcia, Hewitt and Valerio Orselli, telling the Guardians to stop using Garcia’s photo and image, plus the CHARAS name in their communications or indicating they speak for CHARAS. Hewitt is the longtime board president of Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association and a former vice chairperson of Community Board 3.
“The recent demonstration of the [Guardians logo] poster, which was shown to be approved by Mr. Garcia in his convalescent home, if nothing else, is considered by the organization in poor taste,” the letter said, in part. “Mr. Garcia would like to inform you that he is in no way endorsing that poster as representative of CHARAS, Inc.
“We wish to say however we do accept your support…as a community member interested in the continuous work of the Organization, and other groups such as SOCCC-64 that [are] leading efforts to support the restoration of El Bohio/Old PS 64 building to community control.”
Hewitt’s cover letter additionally noted, “We hope there is an understanding that at this time of delicate negotiation regarding Old PS 64/El Bohio, we have to be mindful that there may be harm, intentional or unintentional, which may arise.”
‘Not speaking for CHARAS’
Morales responded to Hewitt in a letter of his own, saying, in part, “I nor anyone else associated with the ‘Defenders of Charas’ presume to speak for anyone other than ourselves; certainly not your corporation. We are local LES residents (myself born and raised in the Jacob Riis projects) who are afraid that the former PS 64 is sitting unprotected by you or anyone else at this time, and that given the present circumstances we are afraid that the structure is and will continue to suffer greater and greater harm, possibly even arson as an excuse to demolish it.”
Regarding Garcia, Morales wrote to Hewitt that, initially, he had merely visited the legendary activist “to bring him Holy Communion.” Subsequently, though, after learning that the old P.S. 64 “was wide open” and at risk of vandalism, Morales wrote that he “felt the need to advocate for its defense.”
“It was in that instance that I sought through obligation to engage with Chino on the subject,” Morales told Hewitt. “My impression was that he was uplifted by our efforts (he loved the poster) but maybe I was mistaken, and I do want to express my sincere apologies for any discomfort that our use of his image may have caused.”
Calls for transparency, DIY action
Morales further asked, in his letter, that CHARAS make its “deliberations” public and “recognize that it may be time for a more grassroots and robust direct action approach to reclaiming the former PS 64. The former PS 64 was created through squatting,” he noted, “and it may be that it will only be reclaimed that way.”
Indeed, Garcia and other former gang members who founded CHARAS, squatted the vacant old P.S. 64 in the 1970s. They kicked out the drug users and sex workers who were inside and then renovated the space.
The Village Sun visited Garcia at the Gouverneur rehab facility on Oct. 26. He previously was staying up at a Washington Heights facility, so was happy he could move back to the neighborhood where he grew up and where it’s easier for his friends to visit him.
When a reporter arrived, local singer Gina Fuego, whose father was close friends with Garcia and who has known him since she was a kid, was taking good care of him. She was helping him slowly settle into a wheelchair so that he could eat his dinner. Because Garcia’s hand shakes, she was feeding him, though at one point she had to duck out of the room and then he fed himself. On the wall, a large, handwritten poster listed basic personal tasks that Garcia needs people’s help to do.
The Village Sun asked Garcia several times what he thought of the Guardians and their efforts but he did not respond. As soon as the conversation turned to local news, though — like the hotly disputed East Side Coastal Resiliency project and local politico John Blasco being named district director for congressmember-in-waiting Dan Goldman — Garcia perked up.
Keep it simple: A community center
He said that while Morales had come by and given him materials, they have not yet had an “official meeting.” Asked if he supported the Guardians’ tactics, he bluntly said no. From the sound of it, Garcia might be wary of all the various uses the individual Guardians are proposing for inside the space.
“No, because, I mean, basically, we support turning the building into a [community] center, and that’s our main cause,” Garcia said. “It should be a community center, in general. I mean, there are a lot of things you can do in a community center.”
More to the point, he charged, “Frank’s taking advantage of everything he can, of course: ‘Chino doesn’t have the time to go around dealing with this anymore — for now, at least.’”
Regarding the “Uncle Chino” poster, he said of Morales, “He came by and he just showed me stuff and I looked at it. But we didn’t discuss it. He shouldn’t do that without my permission.
“In general, he is taking advantage of the situation that the community is in,” he said of Morales, though adding, “He’s not stupid [in trying] to take advantage of the situation. He’s trying to get himself in a negotiating position with the city and the whole legal question. He’s trying to make himself the leader of it now. He’s trying to get himself into the whole discussion — and see what happens.”
However, Garcia chided, “Frank should have worked with the community a long time ago when this happened, and he had the opportunity then. There’s been plenty of time for him to do this in the past. There’s been an official negotiating team for 20 years.”
Garcia stressed, “I hope he doesn’t end up doing anything to hurt the process that’s going on — that he doesn’t hurt us.
“Gregg Singer, we hope he loses the property,” he said. “We hope they’ll be able to sign it over to us as a group that’s wanting to take care of it. I mean, he completely abandoned that building.”
As for what the governmental powers that be — like Councilmember Carlina Rivera or Mayor Adams — may be trying to do to return the building to the community, Garcia said, “They’re trying the best they can. This case is legal. It’s a legal situation,” he noted, referring to Singer’s lawsuits.
Orselli, one of the CHARAS board members, formerly headed the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and currently leads the This Land Is Ours Community Land Trust.
CHARAS leader ‘ambushed’
“They went over to see Chino without a guardian, without a family member,” he said of Morales, disapprovingly. “You don’t go and take a picture of a guy who is disabled.
“Chino has been working for many years with SOCCC64,” Orselli said, referring to Save Our Community Center CHARAS 64. “They have been instrumental in keeping the building in play. SOCCC64 has been trying to meet with the new owner. And then you get this new guy [Morales] saying he speaks for CHARAS, when in fact he never was involved with CHARAS.
“Where are you going to put the cameras?” he scoffed of the aborted GoFundMe effort. “Who’s going to monitor the cameras?”
Responding to complaints about the cameras GoFundMe being done under the Guardians of CHARAS’s name but without CHARAS’s authorization, Morales has shut down the fundraiser.
In addition, beyond SOCCC64, certainly deserving much credit in terms of getting the building landmarked are Michael Rosen and the East Village Community Coalition, plus former Councilmember Margarita Lopez.
Poster incidents ‘abusive’
Meanwhile, Susan Howard, the head of SOCCC64, also was critical of Morales and the Guardians.
“To create a poster in his likeness and put it all over the neighborhood…that was outrageous,” she declared.
Howard also was aghast at the photo of Garcia holding up a poster of the Guardians of CHARAS logo, featuring a stylized image of the old P.S. 64 in the background.
“For me, personally, it was a horrendous abuse and exploitation of Chino while he’s in hospital,” she said. “There’s no quote from Chino and he’s looking bewildered in the photo. For Frank to do that to Chino, it just…” she said, her voice trailing off in frustration. “What they are doing, as if they represent CHARAS, is opportunism.”
Howard said that if the Guardians insist on going inside the building — plus, even bringing others inside with them — it would create a dangerous situation due to the existing vacate order. However, Toglia said while they might try to use the building’s Ninth Street plaza for events — although only if it’s deemed safe — they don’t currently plan to hold events inside the structure and are instead looking into using “temporary locations.”
Building will be ‘secured’
But Howard warned, if necessary, the building will need to be “secured” — even with cinder blocks.
“It’s been secured several times now, and it will continue to be secured,” she stated firmly. “The building has a vacate order.”
She noted the building “has been cracked two times,” recently, meaning opened — once after the Loisaida Festival and the other after the Anarchist Book Fair.
“They had a party on the roof,” she said of the latter, though adding “the building was secured” afterward.
As Howard explained it, Singer actually does still own the old school, adding that any transfer of the property would not go through City Hall.
“The city does not own the building. It will never own the building,” she asserted. “It will be owned by the lender once it’s foreclosed on. Right now, Singer still owns it, and he still has court cases. He has the foreclosure case, and he has the state case about the city interfering with the sale. He’s still trying to get the building. He’s been making the same argument [alleging interference] for 20 years and he’s lost every case when he made that argument.
“He wants $200 million in damages — including money he’s lost,” Howard said. “He had projected he’d make $100 million a year on the building.
‘Working with the city’
“We are working with the city in the hopes of reacquiring the building,” she said of ongoing negotiations, “and any attempt to occupy the building is just going to jeopardize those efforts.”
Morales noted he has wanted to occupy the old P.S. 64 in the past — including in 2001 to prevent CHARAS’s eviction — but has always backed off.
“Three or four times we could have squatted it,” he recalled, “even done banner drops. We always deferred to Chino and that little group.”
The former squatter leader said he, in fact, has asked to participate in the discussions about CHARAS and the building in the past and is doing so now, too, but that whenever he reaches out, he gets no response.
Says it’s not about him
As to those who claim the whole Guardians effort is about his ego, he retorted, again, it’s not about him but about saving the building.
“How much energy do I have?” he scoffed. “I’m 73 years old. What’s the plan, Stan?”
In addition to friction with Howard, Morales also differed with Orselli and Hewitt back in the 1980s and ’90s when squatters and affordable-housing groups battled over control of the East Village’s scores of vacant buildings. Orselli and Hewitt backed the “cross-subsidy plan,” which was intended to create affordable housing, a scheme Morales derided as “bulls—.” Instead, the squatters simply seized what empty buildings they could.
The poster was a hit — at first…
As for the “Uncle Chino” image, Morales said, “When I showed [Garcia] that poster, he smiled. I hadn’t seen him smile that broad a smile since I was visiting him. I’m just sad, on a personal level, they’re claiming we’re manipulating him. I went to him because, when I see the door kicked in, who’s going to be the first person I go to? Chino. … People project a lot of things on me.”
Morales said a friend of Garcia who was there when he showed the CHARAS leader the poster liked it so much, “she said she wanted to make a T-shirt out of it.”
Meanwhile, Morales’s ally Toglia said he, too, doesn’t comprehend all the pushback they’re getting from the CHARAS board and others, like SOCCC64.
“The building being in foreclosure and the increased threat of arson is what stirred us to action,” he said. “I don’t understand their objection to saving the building for Chino while he is still alive — I think he’s waited long enough.”
Morales stressed that SOCCC-64 and anyone who wants to join is welcome to attend the Nov. 14 protest outside Madison Capital Realty.
“We just want to help,” he said. “It’s been months since this foreclosure stuff happened. You want to mobilize people in the neighborhood to defend CHARAS or not?”
“The Guardians are for unity,” Toglia echoed. “We are inviting the CHARAS, Inc., people to speak at the demonstration on the 14th.”
Following this article’s initial publication, Toglia posted in a reader comment, “To avoid any further misunderstandings, I’d like to announce the Guardians of CHARAS are changing our name to the Lower East Side Guardians (LESG), and we will henceforth refer to the former CHARAS site as the future home of the East Ninth St. Community Center (E9CC).”