BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Activists and elected officials rallied outside City Hall on Wed., March 15, calling for the long-vacant old P.S. 64 to be returned to its former use as a community and cultural center.
Looming over the event was the upcoming auction of the historic building on Wed., March 22. The old school, at 605 E. Ninth St., was the home of CHARAS El Bohio — a Puerto Rican-led community-empowerment group — until developer Gregg Singer evicted them at the end of 2001. He had bought the place three years earlier when the Giuliani administration put it on the auction block, along with scores of other city-owned properties. Now, fast-forward to 2023, with Singer having repeatedly failed to redevelop the property, a judge has finally forced him to sell the building at auction in order to repay his debt to his financial lender, Madison Capital Realty.
Speaking at the rally, Chino Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS and the “Godfather of the Lower East Side,” said, “It’s important to know that this building has at least 130,000 square feet that can be used for community use. And that’s what’s important. What’s important is that we’ve got creative people that want to go back to work in there in order to service our community. So, fight for the building for as much as you can, so that people could enjoy themselves in it, learn and participate in programs in that facility again. So please put up a fight for that building.”
State Committeemember Anthony Feliciano said, “At every moment, our heart’s been broken by every mayor… . They’ve made commitments and promises. In October 2017, at a forum, Mayor de Blasio said he would work with us, and that didn’t happen. This mayor needs to change that.”
(Subsequent to de Blasio’s pledge — made when he was running for reelection — that the city would try to reacquire the old P.S. 64, in the summer of 2018 he told this reporter at a reporter’s roundtable that it was Singer’s fault that a deal had not yet been worked out. In short, he accused the developer of being “exceedingly uncooperative” about trying to negotiate the sale of the building back to the city. But Singer’s spokesperson countered that it was, in fact, the Mayor’s Office that had broken off the communication.)
“I’m very upset and angry that we have been without this building for this long. I think it’s completely unacceptable,” said Aura Olavarria, a Democratic district leader representing the East Village. “We’ve been fighting for this and we will not stop fighting, Mayor Adams. Our community needs resources… . We need this for our community. We need this for our children. We need this for our future. We are suffering. And without it, I don’t know if we will survive. And we will not give up.”
Juan Rivero of Village Preservation said, “A place that effectively was the heart of the neighborhood, a wellspring of community… . And this heart was unceremoniously ripped from the chest of the community and cast lifeless aside for two decades. And the upcoming auction is going to only perpetuate this heartlessness. I say that it is high time for some cardiac intervention. I call on you, Mayor Adams, to put on your scrubs and make good on the broken promise of the city to bring us back our community center. And until that has happened, we will continue fighting to regain CHARAS. Even if we have to do it anaerobically, we will continue fighting.”
Meanwhile, separately, Kenny Toglia of the Guardians of Loisaida, has been organizing an effort to try to block Wednesday’s auction. The auction is set to happen at the DoubleTree by Hilton New York Midtown Fifth Avenue hotel, at 25 W. 51st St. A request for a stay to delay the sale was reportedly unsuccessful. As opposed to the 1998 auction, which was open to the public, this one is private.
“We must shut down the Midtown Hilton Hotel,” Toglia declared in a message to supporters. “Gather for a drum circle at 9:30 a.m. We are going to exorcise the evil spirit of Rudy Giuliani and call for a permanent boycott of the Midtown Hilton Hotels & Resorts for selling out our community. Bring drums, musical instruments, costumes, sidewalk chalk, glitter, posters, banners, paint, glue, confetti, etc.”
In 1998, CHARAS activists tried to disrupt the building’s auction by using only one thing — live crickets, which they released onto the floor of 1 Police Plaza. Actually, only a small percentage of the critters were still alive and kicking, though hardly able to hop, since they had been kept in manila envelopes too long before being smuggled in through the metal detectors. Nevertheless, in choreographed chaos, several women leaped up on chairs and started shrieking in mock terror. As a crew of summer interns swept up the insects and the pandemonium began to wane, Armando Perez, CHARAS’s artistic director, repeatedly defied an order to sit back down. He was led out of the place in handcuffs, a smile on his face at the creative spirit of the guerrilla cricket caper.
Todd Edelman, who was the communications officer for the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, on E. 11th Street between Avenues A and B, was among the protesters at the ’98 auction, though not part of the cricket plan, which he noted was hatched by a “very small cell of people.” The garden was ultimately bulldozed for condos by developer Donald Capoccia.
Edelman recalled how Bette Midler, with her New York Restoration Project land trust, along with the Trust for Public Land, in 1999 spent $4.2 million to buy 115 community gardens that Giuliani was trying to sell off. Today, Edelman advocates on transportation issues and sustainable development in Davis, California.
“It’s clearly a victory that CHARAS — as a building, and a memory site, but unfortunately not a functional cultural asset — still exists,” he said.
“At the risk of sounding facetious, New York City is a big and developed place, and there’s still some cool and wealthy people around,” he said. “I’m not clear if there’s another Bette Midler lurking in the wings, offstage or already in the green room of community equity. Hate abhors a vacuum, but love always has the greatest potential to displace it.”