After a three-year legal struggle, supporters of the Lower East Side’s CHARAS/ El Bohio Cultural and Community Center may finally face eviction this morning, Monday.
On Friday, a city sheriff posted a 72-hour eviction notice on the front door of the former elementary school on East 9th Street that has served as the center’s headquarters for the last 22 years.
The notice came as a shock to CHARAS’ members, who assumed it would take more time for property owner Gregg Singer to obtain a warrant to evict them. “I was told by our lawyers that legally, it has to be a six-day notice,” said organizer Susan Howard.
Howard planned to call on supporters to mass on the steps of CHARAS at 7 am on Monday to defend the center, which has long been a haven for progressive causes and tenant rights. Her hope is that they can hang on until Tuesday morning, when CHARAS goes back to court to argue for another stay of the eviction. The last stay, granted by Supreme Court Justice Saralee Evans in July, expired on December 12.
With all other legal remedies seemingly exhausted, the center and the community that thrived there have started to unravel. So far the only affordable space that CHARAS has been able to find is a basement on Avenue C–a far cry from the 100,00-square feet it now occupies–and that won’t be available until March. Although theater and activist groups continued to take advantage of the center’s cheap rehearsal space last week, many of its long term tenants, like Recycle-A-Bike, a bicycle training program for neighborhood kids, and the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, have moved to Brooklyn. Others like Joseph Williams (a.k.a. Slima), a maintenance worker who resides at the center, don’t know where to go.
“People are desperate,” said Barbara Caporale, who’s been involved with CHARAS for the last 15 years.
They’ve even taken their case to members of mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg’s transition team in the hopes that he might be able to mediate a deal with Singer or find CHARAS an alternative site. But Singer clearly has no interest in negotiating with CHARAS: He’s suing its members for $600,000 for denying him access to the building he bought for $3.15 million at a city auction in 1998. Singer said he will comply with the building’s deed restriction, which requires that it be used by groups that serve the neighborhood.
Whatever happens today, Howard insists that the center’s defenders will remain nonviolent. “I don’t want the police or the press or Singer to be able to criminalize us,” she said. “This is a community center and it should be a community eviction.”