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A Victory for a Once (And Future?) Community Center, an Embattled Landmark

City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, right, and Ayo Harrington, a neighborhood activist who wears many hats, lead the group in “Stop Work Order,” a song to the tune of the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” (with lyrics by Harrington and Mendez).

When you’ve been involved in a struggle since last century – 16 long years – you don’t let an opportunity to celebrate pass by.

Some 200 East Villagers, elected officials and others did just that yesterday, on a sunny street in front of a dilapidated building. The building – a grand public school opened in 1906, then converted into a community center in 1977 – has been encouraged to decay by developer Gregg Singer, who has owned the property since 1998. He has not realized his goal of converting the building into a dorm, and the community has never stopped wanting to get its community center back.

“We will continue to fight … and we will walk into that building one day,” vowed City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, whose Sept. 3 letter to the Department of Buildings prompted DOB to rescind recently issued permits that would have allowed dormitory construction work to begin. As the letter points out, Singer’s latest proposal does not meet the legal requirements of a dorm – which must be officially connected to a university, or else it’s just an apartment building or youth hostel – so DOB issued a Stop Work order. (Why it issued the permits in the first place is a mystery.)

The crowd gathered on East Ninth Street, with the broken windows and permanent scaffolding of P.S. 64 behind them.

CHARAS/El Bohio is remembered by those who experienced it as a dynamic place that fostered all kinds of arts, learning, activism and community-building. Following a community-led campaign, it was designated a city landmark in 2006. Its history is recounted in this December 2013 Community Board 3 resolution (see p. 5), which “requests that the new mayoral administration return the former P.S. 64 school building to the community by legally retrieving and then selling or giving it to a well-established not-for-profit organization(s) with a long history of serving the people of the Lower East Side/East Village including, but not limited to restoring the not-for-profit organization known as CHARAS /El Bohio to the building located at 605 East 9th Street.”

Seems like Mayor de Blasio must be getting the message, with nearly 300 letters sent to him via GVSHP and the East Village Community Coalition, and the visible, vocal support yesterday from a bevy of elected officials: State Senator Brad Hoylman, State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (who was redistricted, but represented the area through last year), as well as former Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, Democratic district leaders Carlina Rivera and Anthony Feliciano, and many more.

“This is a space that helped me become who I am today,” GOLES executive director Damaris Reyes told the crowd.

“Every neighborhood needs a strong, vibrant community center. Every neighborhood does not need a dorm,” said Brewer. “If we don’t have the art and culture that this community is known for, we do not have our mental health.” Hoylman added that he hopes a CHARAS win will serve as an example for everyone fighting developers citywide.

State Senator Brad Hoylman speaks, as a young activist holds a sign reading, “Long Live CHARAS, the Heart of Loisaida.” In front of her are Mendez, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh.  Photos by Karen Loew.

So what’s next? According to Mendez’s office:

“Some of the next steps include building up the membership of SOCCC 64 [a working group on the building] and having people attend the general meetings so that together as a coalition, next steps can be determined and a plan for purchasing the building can be developed. The coalition needs to focus on how to move forward with purchasing the building. One of the other areas of action is to develop an online petition so that people can sign and share with their networks in order to call on the Mayor to assist. Details on the online petition will be sent out at a later date.”

See additional photos here.

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