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BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL | Three cars were gutted by fire early Saturday morning on Ninth Street near Avenue B. The blaze, which apparently started on the tire of one car and quickly spread to the two surrounding cars, was extinguished within minutes of firefighters’ arrival on the scene.
A Fire Department spokesperson said a call reporting the fire was received at 1:25 a.m. The smoke eaters had control of the situation at 2:10 a.m. The spokesperson said the fire’s cause is under investigation.
On Friday evening, activist John Penley led a campout protest in front of 605 E. Ninth St., the old P.S. 64, formerly home to the CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center.
According to a witness and a blog comment, a group of young people were throwing firecrackers several hours before the fire and left, then returned to detonate another firecracker near one of the cars just before the blaze started.
Ninth Street resident Jon Conklin reported seeing a group of eight to 10 people eating pizza in front of the old P.S. 64 early Friday evening as he walked to Webster Hall. He saw the aftermath on his way home at 2 a.m.
Maureen Cantar lives across the street from the location. She said when she went to bed just after 11 p.m., she heard the crowd talking and playing music. The fire woke her several hours later.
“I heard a car alarm at 1:30, then I saw a big burst of light. The fire trucks came almost immediately,” she recounted.
A week earlier, Penley had been planning a protest in front of the lower Broadway office of real estate developer Benjamin Shaoul. Penley was angry that Shaoul — who the activist brands as one of the East Village’s worst gentrifiers — has been doing a gut renovation of 163 Ludlow St., where former Andy Warhol star Taylor Mead, 88, is still living in place. Penley is concerned that Mead, a 34-year resident of the address, will be forced out as the building is renovated around him.
In March, Penley held a two-week long campout in front of N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library to protest homelessness and gentrification in the neighborhood. However, after an item appeared in last Thursday’s Villager revealing a possible deal with new landlord Jared Kushner to buy out Mead, Penley decided to move the campout to another target of gentrification, the old P.S. 64.
Neighborhood animosity has boiled for years over owner Gregg Singer’s attempts to develop the location for various uses, including as a 27-story university dormitory. At one point, angered by the opposition, Singer threatened to turn the building into a drug rehab center. The old school was eventually landmarked and now Singer and his partners are trying to retrofit it as a student dorm once again, according to plans filed with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Penley and about a dozen others arrived at CHARAS around 9 p.m. Friday evening.
“It was very lively, music, the typical sound of people engaging in New York City at night,” recalled neighbor Kirsten Gresko.
Gresko fell asleep around 1 a.m. She said that, shortly thereafter, “I heard what sounded like a car backfiring multiple times, three of them. Then I heard fire trucks. I was terrified.”
Angel Velez, who also lives across the street, tried to go to sleep about 10:45 p.m. but, hearing an accordion playing, was kept awake and called the police about the noise. He recalled seeing “about 100 demonstrators.” Velez looked out the window after 1 a.m. and saw a small red car in flames.
Velez lives in the same building as retired priest Pat Moloney of Trinity Lutheran Parish. The small red car belonged to Moloney.
On Sunday Penley told The Villager what happened after they arrived outside the old school building.
“There were about 25 people but more came and went. That dwindled to about 15,” he said. Penley said that sometime after midnight he left to use the bathroom. While he was away, two police officers arrived and told the remaining group to leave or they would be arrested.
Penley said that as he returned, he met up with the group a short distance away from the CHARAS site and everyone went their own way, with Penley heading to a friend’s house to spend the night.
“Somebody woke me up the next morning and told me what happened,” he said. “I’m not happy about what happened,” he added. “I have to wonder why Gregg Singer’s security guards didn’t notice the fire or use fire extinguishers to put the fire out.”
Penley also vowed no more East Village protests for the time being.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility at stopping hypergentrification,” he said. “I think it’s a lost cause. The majority of the people I’ve encountered in the East Village just don’t care. Community Board 3 seems much more worried about five crusties sitting on the sidewalk than they do about the complete destruction of the neighborhood.”