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Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004

Feuding artists paint different stories, then rumble

By Lincoln Anderson

To the beat of bongos, Clemente Soto Velez members danced and chanted “Pay your rent!”

Tensions over the future of the Clemente Soto Velez Center came to a boil last Thursday at a meeting of Community Board 3’s Housing Committee, as members of the building’s two feuding artists factions came to blows.

“Pay your rent! A.A.I., stop the lies!” members of Clemente Soto Velez, the building’s founding arts group, chanted as a bongo drum played and a woman in a blue spirit mask danced under their banner. “El-e-va-tor!” shouted back Artists Alliance, Inc., a group of artists who organized in the building five years ago, who have been paying their rent into an escrow account while the building’s fate remains up in the air. Making the dispute racially charged, the C.S.V. group is mostly Puerto Rican, the A.A.I. group largely white.

As might be expected, the two sides gave differing accounts of what happened in the fight. After representatives of both groups had had their say at the Housing Committee meeting, most went outside and were milling around in front of the meeting venue, Kenton Hall, at 333 Bowery. Tine Kindermann, chairperson of Artists Alliance, was being interviewed in a vestibule by a New York 1 cameraman and was displaying for the camera the $260,000 in checks from A.A.I. members that had been deposited into the escrow account.

At this point, Richard Marino, managing director of the Los Kabayitos Children’s Puppet Theater at C.S.V., depending on the version of events, either aggressively snatched or was handed the checks, after which Thiago Szmrecsanyi, an A.A.I. artist, intervened, and a scuffle broke out. A few people from each side jumped into the fray, which ended quickly.

Afterwards, it looked like Szmrecsanyi had gotten the worst of it, as his wife, Natalia Campos, who shares a studio with him at C.S.V., was pressing a cold can of Coke to the side of his face where there was a large bright-red welt.

“He was aggressive and I tried to stop him,” said Szmrecsanyi, who is Brazilian.

Kindermann, who also said Marino had been “aggressive,” said Marino did get the checks, but they were just copies and they have the originals.

Rafael Tufinyo, an artist with C.S.V., was also involved in the melee.

“When [Marino] grabbed the checks, the guy jumped him,” said Tufinyo. Norma Ramirez, a former Lower East Side Democratic district leader, similarly pointed the blame at Szmrecsanyi.

“I helped push [Marino] out [of the door]. I thought they were going to kill him,” Ramirez said. “They had him by the neck, the man and the woman.”

Police arrived and questioned Marino and Szmrecsanyi but neither filed a complaint.

Manuel Moran, executive director of S.E.A., which includes Los Kabayitos, said of Marino, “He’s a very peaceful person. He’s not even Latino — and he was attacked by a Latino from the other side — which is the crazy thing. They have been hostile for years,” he said of A.A.I.

Asked what happened, Marino waved his hand and said, “Nah…. It was just a misunderstanding,” and walked off.

At the meeting, members of C.S.V. charged that A.A.I. formed a new management corporation for the building a week ago without including C.S.V..

“They served us with a bill, so it’s like reversed. So we expect next they’ll give us an eviction notice,” said Miguel Trelles, an artist with C.S.V. “Now they’re trying to take over this whole building.” Trelles used to be with A.A.I. before switching to C.S.V. and now says he just wants to paint in peace and avoid the center’s contentious politics.

Barden Prisant, the Housing Committee’s chairperson, prefaced the meeting with advice to both sides, saying, “You cannot continue to keep shooting yourself in the foot — or it will lead to the building being auctioned.”

The city owns the former public school on Suffolk and Rivington Sts. A.A.I. operates the studios on the top two floors. C.S.V. operates the rest of the building, which includes several performing-arts spaces.

However, at the meeting, Luis Reyes, a representative from Councilmember Alan Gerson’s office, said that as far as they know, the center doesn’t face imminent auction. However, Reyes said Gerson is “very concerned about the situation and has spent many, many months” trying to get the two sides to work out the problem.

The city had reportedly imposed a deadline of earlier this month for the two sides to form a new corporation to run the building. Although there had been mediation between the two sides, A.A.I. claims C.S.V. recently stopped communications and shut them out.

Luis Cancel, C.S.V.’s chairperson, blasted the five-year rent strike by A.A.I. and accused them of “Nixon dirty tricks.”

“What happened to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that was got a hold of by A.A.I. and supposed to be in escrow?” he asked. “The name of Clemente Soto Velez will not disappear from this city!” he vowed, as C.S.V. members cheered.

C.S.V. also objects that Shelly McGuinness of A.A.I. is being paid a salary alleged to be $36,000 a year from the A.A.I. escrow account. But A.A.I. members later said that C.S.V. pays at least two administrators, so why can’t they pay McGuinness?

Artist Tufinyo said A.A.I. represents gentrification and “the removal project — to remove specifically Puerto Rican people” from the Lower East Side.

Kindermann said A.A.I. will open its books to an audit. She told the meeting she had copies of $260,000 worth of checks that went directly to CSVCECI — Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, Inc.

“It’s C.S.V.!” came shouts from the audience. “CSVCECI’s a construction you made! — Squatters!”

Kindermann claimed the city has allocated $2 million for repairs of the facade and the building but because of the disagreement between the two artists’ groups, won’t release it.

She said the new joint management corporation to equally represent both anchor tenants in the building is what the two sides agreed to in November 2001 in mediation that was urged by the city.

“This is a corporation that splits power smack down the middle,” she said. “This is what we agreed to in writing — it exists. Time is running out. Too many spaces for the community have been lost.”

Kindermann added that members of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the federal agency disbursing post-9/11 aid around Downtown, have toured the building and that the L.M.D.C. is “very interested” in allocating funds for the center, “but not while the situation is so — let’s say — fluid.”

Herman Hewitt, a veteran Board 3 member on the Housing Committee, asked her why they didn’t reach out to C.S.V. regarding the incorporation of the new management corporation, to which Kindermann said, “There was a deadline — there was no communication from the other side.”

Artist Sherman Sussman said that once he started working with A.A.I. the flooding problem in his studio ended. But when he had tried to get C.S.V. to help, there was no response, he said.

Kindermann later said the chant of “elevator” referred to the center’s lack of an one, which artists on the fifth floor say they need.

However, C.S.V. members said that was in the past. Ed Vega, C.S.V.’s former director, was ousted about five years ago after his living in the center in a lavish, sun-filled apartment became an issue and a symbol of the center’s mismanagement.

Hewitt expressed concern about the loss of community centers in general, and noted that C.S.V. was given a chance CHARAS/El Bohio, the former arts center on E. Ninth St., never got. He said he was troubled by what seemed to be a takeover of the center by A.A.I.

“It should not be a taking over,” Hewitt said. “It should not be a power play. That is the only building that is left in the neighborhood. I’m saying to myself, ‘This is something I don’t like.’ ”

However, Carlos Gonzalez, a public member of the committee who helped run CHARAS/El Bohio, said afterwards that there were always questions about where the money was going when C.S.V. was running the center.