In 2015, Village Preservation conducted an oral history with community organizer Carlos “Chino” García, one of the co-founders of the legendary community organization CHARAS. CHARAS for many years occupied the landmarked former P.S. 64 building on East 9th Street in the East Village. That interview gave some unique, first person insights into one of the great stories and ongoing controversies of the East Village of the last fifty years.
García (b.1946) arrived in New York from Puerto Rico as a small child with his parents, who came looking for work. His family moved first to East Harlem and then to Chelsea, neighborhoods that both had large Puerto Rican communities at the time, before settling in the Lower East Side in 1959. García recalls fondly his early experiences in New York: his first encounters with snow; the rumble in movie theaters of audiences translating into Spanish for non-English speakers. He also recalls, however, experiencing prejudice first hand even then, and describes youth gangs as a defense against racial violence from other youth groups. By age 10, he had joined the Assassins, a Puerto Rican gang in Chelsea.
In order to keep García out of trouble, his parents sent him back to Puerto Rico to live with relatives. There, he was exposed to socialist and nationalist politics. Upon his return, he developed a greater awareness of racism as a systemic issue and became concerned with issues affecting the Puerto Rican community in the neighborhood. In response, he and several like-minded friends formed the Real Great Society, a volunteer organization focused on education, job training, and after-school programs that, according to García, would eventually claim a membership of a thousand young people throughout New York City and northern New Jersey.
CHARAS, which was named after the initials of its co-founders–Chino García, Humberto Crespo, Angelo Gonzáles, Roy Battiste, Moses Figueroa, and Sal Becker–was formed in the early 1970s as a division of the Real Great Society, to address issues that were beyond the larger organization’s primary focus. These included housing, the arts, and environmentalism, among others. Initially, CHARAS occupied the Christodora House, a high-rise former Settlement House located next to Tompkins Square Park and the old P.S. 64. Early on, they sought out the advice of Buckminster Fuller and got him to do a presentation for the community. Fuller would subsequently establish an ongoing relationship with the group, offering counsel over the years on matters ranging from alternative technologies to the construction of inexpensive housing using geodesic domes (you can read more about CHARAS’ relationship with Fuller and about the group’s experience building domes here).
In 1979, CHARAS moved into the dilapidated P.S. 64 building and founded El Bohio Community Center (“Bohio” being the name for the huts inhabited by Taíno Indians in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean). The center became wildly popular and served as an invaluable resource for local residents in all manner of pursuit. At its peak, it was used by thousands each year, and hosted a wide array of activity: community meetings, children’s programming, art exhibits, music concerts, film screenings, plays, dance recitals, bicycle recycling, construction training, a substance abuse treatment, and political organizing.
A few years into their tenure, the City approved the local community board’s recommendation that CHARAS be granted a lease of the building. During the Giuliani Administration, however, the City set out to dispose of numerous city properties, and the P.S. 64 building was among them. CHARAS’ efforts to purchase the property were rebuffed by Giuliani’s Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro. Eventually, the City listed the building for auction in 1998. Although the proceedings were famously disrupted by the pre-arranged release of 10,000 crickets, the property was sold to Gregg Singer, a campaign contributor of Giuliani. Singer served the group with an eviction order, which was not enforced until 2001.
More than twenty years later, the building remains empty and abandoned, as Singer has tried consistently to destroy the building (now landmarked) and site illegal uses there. CHARAS still does not have a home. Village Preservation is working with a coalition of local groups to seek the return of the former CHARAS/old P.S. 64 to the community and to see the building restored and preserved.