Volume 79, Number 20 | October 21 - 27, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

East Meets East
The East Village and Lower East Side | A special Villager supplement

Villager photos by Lincoln Anderson

Reverend Carlos Torres standing in an area behind the church’s altar that the workers discovered when they tore down a sheet-rock wall.

Avenue B church, and theater, are being resurrected

By Lincoln Anderson

Frank Morales nailing down a tarp to cover holes in Elim Pentecostal Church’s fire-damaged roof.
Jeff Underwood plans to move his Continuum Cycles shop into a commercial space on the church’s ground floor.

Rising from the ashes of a devastating fire, and turning its back on a development deal that would have given it short shrift, an East Village church is rebuilding and readying to serve the community — in more ways than one. 

In addition to bringing the Elim Pentecostal Church back as an active house of worship, plans are to show movies there once again. The nondescript, two-story red building once housed the Charles Theater, and the 800 seats that its moviegoers once used are still in place.

After a fire in a heater damaged a second-floor chapel and the roof of the church in October 2006, the congregation vacated the property at 12th St. and Avenue B. In the meantime, the 100-plus worshipers have been meeting in another space on Avenue A. 

The church sought out development groups to construct a new building on the corner site and provide Elim Pentecostal with a new church within the property as part of the deal. One developer wanted to put the church on the top floor. 

The church was in negotiations with another developer — or what they thought was a developer — but discussions fell through when it was discovered that not enough space would be provided for the congregation. Also, the church wouldn’t be allowed to display any sign outside, and homeless would not be allowed.

As far as the church is now concerned, the development plan is off, and there will be no new building. A few weeks ago, the church started renovating the existing space itself.

“The developers were trying to steal the property from the church,” explained Reverend Carlos Torres, the church’s senior pastor. “Now, I’m taking them to court. E.A.S. — they were investors, not developers.” 

Torres spoke as he gave a tour of the former theater two weekends ago. Dust and bits of broken plaster covered everything; at one point, all the lights suddenly went out. 

Basically, in addition to the roof and chapel, the whole place needs a fixing-up. Old plaster work is being replaced with sheet rock; electrical wiring is being redone. A wall behind the altar with a scriptural passage that Torres discovered was written backwards has been ripped down, and the passage — worded correctly this time — will be put back up. 

In addition to the basic work, Torres hopes to add a baptismal font at the church’s front.

A 13-member work crew, all of them in the church’s rehab program, were busy ripping out old plaster ceilings.

“These guys you see working used to be drug addicts and drunks,” the pastor remarked. “This is what you call ‘occupational therapy.’”

Also showing up to pitch in was Frank Morales, a former leader of the East Village squatters and former associate pastor at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Toting his own bag of tools, dressed all in black and wearing a funky Nehru hat, Morales went directly up to the roof over the chapel, where, as rain threatened to fall, he proceeded to start nailing down a tarp to protect the exposed space below. Morales brings his construction know-how learned as a squatter fixing up dilapidated East Village tenements that, he noted, were far more severely damaged than the church.

“We could do this roof for $10,000, $12,000,” Morales figured, as he took a break from hammering. “Materials — $3,000 to $4,000, max.”

The repairs’ total estimated cost is $1.8 million, according to Torres. They had planned to do a community fundraising effort, but last week the church got word it would receive financing from a commercial lender and the religious council with which it is associated.

The young pastor’s uncle bought the old movie theater in 1975, converting it to a house of worship. Torres, 33 — who grew up in the neighborhood but now lives with his family in New Jersey — took over the pulpit five years ago.

“I was called by God to work with people who have emotional problems, mental problems,” he said, adding his forte is assisting “people with matrimonial problems who are ready to divorce.”

Torres hopes, particularly, to reach out to troubled youth.

“There’s a lot of gangs in the neighborhood,” he noted, adding he was in a gang himself for a few years in his early teens. There were a lot of battles over “weed,” he recalled.

“I used to fight against the Chinese on the Lower East Side — territorial stuff, kid stuff,” he said. “But God took me out of that, and it was good for me.”

The church is also fixing up two storefronts along Avenue B, which will bring in revenue. Jeff Underwood, owner of Continuum Cycles, a block to the north, is taking the larger, 2,500-square-foot space. The shop has been at its current spot three and a half years, selling custom-built, high-end, steel and aluminum bikes, at prices up to $10,000. Now, Underwood has two spaces — a store and a workshop — separated by another storefront and the building’s front door, so he was glad to get a single, larger space at the same rent. 

“Having two rents, two insurances is just too much,” he said. “I have to staff each space.” 

It was Morales’s idea to bring movies back to the former Charles Theater.

“I want to have Saturday morning films for the kids,” said the erstwhile squatter, who also grew up in the neighborhood. “I used to come here — there were three movies every Saturday morning.”

Although kids have cartoons and movies on TV, films on the big screen could still be a draw, Morales thinks. 

“Even now, you have it all at home — but you could have a clown and popcorn,” he said.

Morales recalled how the place used to have a marquee, and he said the pastor is considering putting it back; the sign could advertise services as well as movies, Morales noted.

 “It used to be a red marquee,” he said, smiling at the memory, as he gripped his hammer.

So much of the neighborhood’s history has been, and is being, lost, he said, so it’s satisfying to preserve a piece of it when one can.




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