CHARAS' Last Stand

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Christmas did not come for Charas/El Bohio this past year. On December 18, Civil Court Judge Saralee Evans denied the East Village cultural and community center a second stay of eviction from the former elementary school building on East 9th Street it has occupied for the last 22 years. Evans says she was bound by an earlier appellate ruling.

At press time, CHARAS' lawyers were appealing the ruling. But an eviction notice had already been served, and CHARAS founder Chino Garcia conceded the center could be out by as early as Christmas Eve. Evans' ruling culminates a six-year legal struggle by the Latino-run center, which was sold to developer Gregg Singer for $3.15 million in 1998. CHARAS' plight has become symbolic of the fate of progressive politics on the Lower East Side. Like the community gardens and homesteads that grew up around it, CHARAS embodied an ideal of neighborhood self-empowerment that put it at odds with the market-driven philosophy of the Giuliani administration.

In 1979, Garcia and other former gang members rescued the then-abandoned school, clearing out its ramshackle classrooms to provide cheap space for local artists and activists. Over the years, the center nurtured new talents that included actors Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo and Spike Lee, who screened his first film there. The building has housed 12-step programs, martial arts, dance, and English classes, and a bike repair workshop for troubled teens; it has also long offered free meeting space to activists.

“This place was unique in the way it tried to bring politics and arts together under one roof,” says local resident Eddie Cruz. Indeed, CHARAS' former executive director, Armando Perez, who was murdered in 1999, was a district leader who helped elect City Councilmember Margarita Lopez over Giuliani ally Antonio Pagan. Many believe CHARAS' oppositional politics made it a target of Giuliani's push to privatize city property. While the city has sold buildings to nonprofits for $1, it rejected CHARAS's proposal to purchase the school for $365,000, selling it instead to the highest bidder.

Singer says he plans to invest $12 million in renovations, and insists he will abide by the deed restriction, which requires that the building house groups serving the community. He has yet to name any prospective tenants, but acknowledges that he will probably gut the 400-seat basement theater because he can't find a nonprofit arts group that wants to lease such a large space.

Meanwhile, the community that thrived at CHARAS is unraveling. So far the only affordable space it has found is a small basement on Avenue C, and that won't be available until March. Longtime tenants like the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre have moved to Brooklyn. Others don't know where to go. But Garcia says CHARAS' mission will not die with the loss of its headquarters. “CHARAS is more than a building. It's a community spirit, and we will continue to provide programming at other venues.”

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