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To mark 10 years since the community center was evicted by developer Gregg Singer, more than 100 people braved below-freezing weather on Sunday for a demonstration. They first gathered in Tompkins Square Park, then marched to the E. Ninth St. entrance of the former P.S. 64 building, where they set up tables to create a “Curbside Community Center.”
With musical accompaniment by the Hungry March Band, the Great Small Works players presented an illustrated history of CHARAS. Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping warmed up the crowd with a sermon.
Participants wrapped yellow tape emblazoned with the word “Occupy” across the length of the blue plywood construction fence in front of the former school building, as others hung banners proclaiming, “Mr. Bloomberg Tear Down This Wall,” and “Liberate Space.”
The coda to the day’s events was a symbolic drumming on the wooden fence, as participants put it, to send a message loud enough to be heard by City Hall. However, after several minutes, police arrived and ordered the tables be removed from the street. Tempers flared, a scuffle ensued and four people were arrested.
The community center, created in 1979, offered after-school programs and meetings on Puerto Rican culture and tenants’ rights, as well as numerous cultural offerings. Real estate developer Singer bought the building at auction in 1998. After several legal challenges to try to stay in the building, CHARAS was forced out at the end of 2001; The eviction saw a heavy police presence remove a group of CHARAS supporters who had locked themselves to each other inside the building.
“My daughter attended her first dance workshop there,” said East Villager Barbara Caporale, lamenting the loss of the space.
In following years, plans were proposed for condos, a school dormitory and a youth hostel. Singer even threatened to convert the building to a drug-treatment facility. None of these plans came to fruition.
Complicating any development plans was the landmarking of the structure four years ago.
“CHARAS ran a vibrant center that gave to the community for over 20 years,” said Carlos “Chino” Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS. “Gregg Singer has had 10 years and has done nothing for the community. It’s time we get the building back.”
Asked if CHARAS would consider relocating to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a.k.a. SPURA, Garcia laughed.
“SPURA? That’s another 10 years,” he said. “I might be dead by then.”
The letters spelling “CHARAS” stand for “CH” for Chino Garcia, “AR” for former District Leader Armando Perez and “AS” for poet and playwright Bimbo Rivas. Of the three neighborhood activists, Garcia is the only surviving member.
From Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino language, “bohio” means “the hut.”