Volume 76, Number 25 | November 8 - 14, 2006

Villager photos by Clayton Patterson

After the street sign dedication, Miriam Friedlander, center, in La Plaza Cultural garden with Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado, left, and Rocky Chin, right. Actor Luis Guzman remembers Armando Perez, below.

Armando Perez Place street sign will point the way

By Lincoln Anderson

Friends and family of Armando Perez gathered at the corner of Ninth St. and Avenue B on a chilly morning last Saturday to dedicate a new sign co-naming the street for the late Loisaida Puerto Rican leader.

It was a day to remember Perez — but also to honor and renew the spirit of the struggle that he lived and led.

And it was a day for Puerto Rican pride.

Perez was born in Puerto Rico and, at age 3, came to the Lower East Side with his family, where he grew up in the Baruch Houses. At the time of his death at age 51, he was male Democratic district leader for the East Village. He was also artistic director of CHARAS/El Bohio, the former cultural and community center in the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. In 1979, a group including Perez and Chino Garcia squatted in the abandoned school building, chasing out drug dealers and hookers, and turning it into a community hub.

Perez — who vowed he would die before he saw El Bohio fall under developer Gregg Singer’s control — was killed in April 1999 when he was fatally beaten by two young thugs as he was moving his car in front of his estranged wife’s building in Long Island City.

The street co-naming ceremony was held in front of the Christodora House condo tower. Next door, the old P.S. 64 stood ringed by scaffolding and sidewalk sheds — its historic exterior stone details only just recently chiseled off in Singer’s bizarre bid to undo the building’s new landmark status so he can build a 24-story megadorm on the site.

Perez was political mentor and inspiration to the current generation of East Village politicians. Fittingly, the ceremony’s opening remarks were given by the area’s two young district co-leaders, Katrina Monzon and Anthony Feliciano. They both grew up on E. Ninth St. between Avenues B and C, and had felt the positive influence — especially Feliciano — of Perez and CHARAS/El Bohio.

“I could have been in the street doing a lot of stuff,” Feliciano said, recalling how Perez helped steer him away from trouble. “Ironically, Armando told me, ‘One day, you could be in my position.’ ”

Feliciano and other speakers said that, although Perez is gone, it’s up to them now to keep fighting for what he stood for, like affordable housing and stopping gentrification from overwhelming the neighborhood.

“What we will do will be to continue to fight for this community — to make sure that we will not be displaced,” Feliciano said.

“Viva Loisaida!” shouted someone as the crowd of close to 200 people cheered.

Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez said it was Perez who convinced her to run for City Council in 1997 — when, she recalled, she had been “talking out of both sides” of her mouth about whether she would do it.

As a Warhol-esque multipaneled mural of Perez (painted by artist David Leslie) hung behind her, Lopez said Perez was a true community hero. She gave the example of a portrait that Napoleon had commissioned of himself — the artist didn’t have a choice but to do it. The mural of Perez, on the other hand, wasn’t commissioned, she said, but painted out of respect.

“Every community must have a symbol to follow,” Lopez said. “And that’s what makes a hero be born. A hero is one who sees an injustice in front of them and doesn’t walk away. That hero grows in the eyes of people to a legend — because of the recognition of the people. I believe that Armando is a hero.

“Armando was an artist; he was a lot of things,” Lopez said. “Armando, over everything, was a Puerto Rican man that I’m very proud of.”

Councilmember Rosie Mendez said it was Perez and Lopez who brought her into politics. She succeeded Lopez as district leader after Lopez won election to the City Council, then succeeded Lopez in the Council after Lopez was term-limited out of office.

“Armando used to say, ‘Wake up Lower East Side, defend what’s yours,’” Mendez recalled. “Today this community is under attack. The archdiocese is trying to demolish St. Brigid’s, where Armando’s aunt used to pray. Today developers are chipping away at the building that Armando fought to restore. You want to live up to Armando’s legacy,” Mendez exhorted the crowd, “join the struggle to save these buildings and this community.”

City Council Speaker Chris Quinn remembered rooting wholeheartedly for Perez and Lopez to defeat the incumbent district leaders, who were part of former Councilmember Antonio Pagan’s political organization.

“Sometimes people make fun of people for renaming streets,” Quinn said. But this street co-naming, like others, she said, will make people ask the question, ‘Who was Armando Perez?’” Someone among the many in the neighborhood who knew him will supply the answer, she said.

“And by finding out who Armando Perez was, that, I know, will plant a seed in people’s mind,” Quinn said. “This street renaming will keep him even more alive and well. It will move people closer to joining the struggle for social justice and change on the Lower East Side.”

Marianne Perez, his wife, read a poem that had been written in his honor right after his death, before giving her own comments.

“Armando was a fierce advocate for affordable housing, a cultural warrior,” she said. “He fought with his whole heart and soul to save that building,” she said of the old P.S. 64. “My dream is to see P.S. 64 come back as the Armando Perez Community and Cultural Center to carry on the legacy of my husband’s work — to preserve the rich culture and social history of this community.”

A prerecorded speech by Congress­member Nydia Velazquez — who was campaigning for Democratic candidates in Florida — was played. She called Perez “a true campeon [champion] of the Lower East Side,” and listed the causes he advocated for: “gardens, housing, la salud [health] or his biggest fight, CHARAS.”

As for why she couldn’t make the event, she said, “I know that Armando would have wanted me to try to make a difference in recapturing Congress for the Democrats.”

Wearing a “Banish Bush” sign on her back, housing activist Frances Goldin recalled Perez as both tough and street smart, yet unfailingly “classy.”

Goldin and others then circulated through the crowd, handing out postcards addressed to Mayor Bloomberg, asking him to support the construction of affordable housing on the undeveloped parts of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone.

Ali Armando Perez, Perez’s only child, spoke about how his father, despite having the deck stacked against him, had made a difference in life.

“He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” he said, adding that Armando Perez’s father had been an abusive alcoholic. “He grew up in the streets and he had his youthful indiscretions…. He was an ordinary guy who started with nothing. He managed to make his life significant and meaningful.

“I truly wish that CHARAS be liberated from its real estate developer overlord,” he added. “Get it back. Name that after him. That would really honor his beliefs.”

Also speaking at the ceremony, Assemblymember Syliva Friedman said, “‘District leader’ was a wonderful title for Armando — because he was truly a leader.”

The new street sign was then unveiled, but it didn’t come easy with one pull of the string. When the paper covering wouldn’t slide off, Mario Carreaga, of Tucasa Sound Studio, climbed up and removed it, as cheers resounded through the block.

“Armando vive! CHARAS vive!” shouted Councilmember Mendez, as she hoisted one of the commemorative signs given out to family members.

A brass band then led everyone to La Plaza Cultural down the block, where Perez and others involved with CHARAS, like actor Luis Guzman, had once planted trees.

“I was a member of CHARAS right before I graduated from Seward Park High School,” Guzman recalled. He said his new film, “Fast Food Nation,” is coming out soon.

In the garden, there was free food from local restaurants and hips were swiveling as a Latin band played.

Rounding out the generational political continuum was former City Councilmember Miriam Friedlander, 92.

She spoke into the microphone at the garden as most were busy eating, schmoozing and dancing.

“I have faith,” she said. “I always have had faith. And here I am…. Are you helping make other people active? That is the important thing.”

Ali Armando Perez was holding his son, Ali Armando Perez Jr., and, wrapped in a cardboard box, one of the commemorative Armando Perez Place street signs given out to family members. After his father’s death, Ali — who was named for Muhammad Ali — moved to Daytona, Fla., wanting a fresh start. He’s a carpenter.

“I’m going to have more kids,” he said. “They’re all going to have his name.”

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