Charas: The Struggle Continues
by Jason Grote

In the weeks leading up to the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot, a small, manipulative group of business and political leaders exploited local division over neighborhood squalor and instituted a curfew in the park. Some insightful (if abrasive) demonstrators challenged it, claiming the curfew was real-estate valuation masquerading as community improvement. A riot broke out as police attacked the neighborhood indiscriminately. Many of their victims were bystanders, forced onto the side of the demonstrators not because they knew or cared about the curfew, but because they were assaulted by authorities.

Flash forward to 1999: Substitute the sale of Charas/El Bohio Community Center for the curfew and the local arts community for the bystanders, and you’ve got a pretty apt description of our current situation. The politicos who take credit for the triumphant disinfecting of the East Village are now after a valuable neighborhood resource. Their agenda is showing.

Charas, home to numerous community, activist, and arts groups (and rehearsal space for many Fringe Festival shows), was sold in 1998 to developer Gregg Singer for $3.15 million. The sale was mostly about profit, always a stronger motivator than politics, but the Giuliani administration—which rejected Charas’ offer to buy the building for less—certainly noted Charas leaders’ ties to anti-Giuliani and pro-tenant groups on the Lower East Side. The fight for Charas has been a rocky one: Over 30 demonstrations have taken place, involving everybody from squatters to Susan Sarandon.

Last April Charas’ executive director, Armando Perez, was beaten to death (five suspects currently await trial). The center’s latest suit against the sale was dismissed by federal Appeals Court Judge Michael Mukasey, a close friend of the Mayor. On June 21, title to the Charas building, 605 East 9th Street, was formally transferred to Singer.

Back to the riot: A popular neighborhood villain at the time was real-estate shill and rising politician Antonio Pagan, who dubiously forced the curfew vote through Community Board 3, then rode the post-riot backlash to a seat on the City Council. Currently Commissioner of Employment and a member of Giuliani’s Charter Revision Commission, the often-vindictive Pagan is a sworn enemy of Charas. (Armando Perez helped organize Margarita Lopez’s campaign for Pagan’s Council seat in 1997.) What do Pagan and Singer have against the downtown arts community? For Singer, it may be nothing personal; it just gets in the way of him making more money.

Charas is currently seeking greater federal involvement, as well as engaging Singer in landlord-tenant court. They are now arguing that the sale violated a federal law that states that any property receiving grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development cannot undergo a change of use unless affected citizens are given ample opportunity to comment on it. Charas receives HUD money. Some years ago, Pagan had a clash with current HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Think about the upcoming Senate race, and suddenly our struggle for cheap rehearsal space gets very interesting.

HUD has requested that the City rescind the sale, but the request was ignored. As the recent victory for community gardens demonstrated, real-estate interests aren’t invincible, but they won’t give up without a fight.

What can you do? One of Singer’s potential tenants is Banana Bungalow, a for-profit youth hostel. Call them at (800) 6-HOSTEL and tell them to leave Charas alone. Donations to the Charas fund can be made to SAVE Charas, 605 East 9th Street, 10009.

Jason Grote is the author of the play Pipe Bomb Sonata: The 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot.