Volume 74, Number 14 | August 04 - 10 , 2004

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Above, from left, State Senator Martin Connor, Councilmember Alan Gerson, Maggi Peyton of the Manhattan borough president’s office and Michael Rosen of East Village Community Coalition.

Hold the frappucinos, give back community center

By Lincoln Anderson

Artists, politicians and activists, some still new to their activism, gathered on a rooftop high above Tompkins Sq. last Thursday evening to raise funds for the Federation of East Village Artists — and to proclaim the time has come to make a united stand to protect the special character of the East Village.

The benefit was hosted by Leslie and Michael Rosen at their penthouse apartment in the Christodora House. Michael Rosen has been a leader of Stop the Dorm/Save Our School, a group formed in March to fight developer Gregg Singer’s plan to build a 23-story dormitory on the site of the former P.S. 64 building, most recently home to CHARAS/El Bohio. A 17-story former settlement house built in the 1920s and converted to condos in 1986, Christodora House is adjacent to the old school building, so its eastern views would be blocked by Singer’s towering dorm.

Stop the Dorm recently formed East Village Community Coalition, a new nonprofit organization with the same mission: to landmark the old P.S. 64 and return it to use as a community arts and education center.

Giving the evening’s benediction, Reverend Billy Talen noted that while artists in the East Village are not known for working well together, they must do so now or face homogenization.

“We find ourselves in the unusual position of calling ourselves East Village artists,” Reverend Billy said. “We didn’t brand ourselves as such. Now we’re in this position of having to band together to save this place. We know that there is not a Starbucks east of Second Ave. We know that is a sure sign that this is a special place. If there were Starbucks all the way to the East River, Gregg Singer would have built his dorm by now — these things are tied together. Let’s save the East Village from the eradication of difference.”

Reverend Billy recalled that CHARAS/El Bohio was the departure point when he led his marches against the Astor Pl. Starbucks.

Phil Hartman, executive director of FEVA and the HOWL! Festival of East Village Arts, which takes place Aug. 17-24 this year, spoke of the genesis of FEVA and HOWL!

“In the beginning was the simple question: ‘Was the East Village dead?’ ” Hartman said. “I think the answer was, yes. There was a sense of ennui. There was a sense that the East Village would become just like, I hate to say it — the West Village.”

He recalled sitting one day in front of the Duane Reade store at Second St. and Avenue B, once home to the Gas Station, a former filling station that had been turned into a club with lots of junkyard art strewn about. “I started thinking about all the things that used to be here that we lost,” Hartman said, “Wigstock, Art Around the Park, the Japanese Cultural Festival — the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival also was about to be lost.”

Thanks to FEVA and HOWL! there’s renewed energy in the East Village, Hartman said. Last year’s inaugural HOWL! Festival, offering 262 events, including film, poetry, theater, dance, arts and children’s events, drew 100,000 people to the neighborhood, he said. The number of events at this year’s festival has increased to 441.

In addition to three events in Tompkins Sq. Park — Wigstock, Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and Way the F- Off-Broadway — this year the Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C is being added as a performance space for an all-day event, the Viva CHARAS Latin Music and Art Festival and Bluegrass Ball. There will also be events on St. Mark’s Pl. and in numerous East Village and Downtown venues.

Saving the old P.S. 64 is also a part of FEVA’s mission, Hartman said, noting, “We really have to bind together and save the building and make sure that it remains a resource for the community.”

State Senator Martin Connor spoke forcefully about saving the former P.S. 64 for the community.
“The people should decide what is property available to the public,” he said. “The market didn’t decide 100 years ago to have Tompkins Sq. Park there — the people did. If the artists can come together and agree on anything, then the whole community has to come together on this.”

Although E. Ninth St. is north of his district, Councilmember Alan Gerson attended the benefit.

Carol Irving of E.V.C.C., left, and poet Michael Stanley

“We’re all determined and we’re all going to work together to save our community and keep its edge intact,” Gerson said, pledging to save Clemente Soto Velez arts center on Suffolk St. from auction and preserve the former CHARAS building.

Via cellphone, Councilmember Margarita Lopez’s chief of staff, Eric Lugo, patched through Lopez, who was in Boston at the Democratic National Convention. “I want to make clear,” Lopez said, “that my commitment to get CHARAS/El Bohio back into the hands of the people is unquestionable — whether I do it before my term is up or after I become elected borough president of Manhattan.”

Performance artist Karen Finley was among the 200 or so attendees. She said she believes legal action is needed to get the old P.S. 64 back into the hands of the community.

“I think it was a travesty that the Giuliani administration and the city sold CHARAS,” she said. “I think it was an illegal sale. I don’t think artists are going to be enough; I think it’s going to need to be a legal consortium to look at all the options.”

E.V.C.C. has retained George Arzt public relations. Jane Crotty, from George Arzt, said Arzt is friends with Marty McLaughlin of Connelly & McLaughlin public relations, the P.R. firm representing Singer, which could help any potential negotiations.

Also attending the event were the Reverend Thomas Pike, a commissioner on the Landmarks Preservation Commission; Maggi Peyton, senior assistant to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields; and representatives of Assemblymember Steve Sanders and City Comptroller Bill Thompson. Fields has written letters to L.P.C. in support of landmarking the old P.S. 64 and to the Buildings Department, calling for the department to revoke permits Singer obtained to remove most of the building’s Beaux Arts exterior details.

Told about the benefit, Singer, said, “Tell them, I’ll see them in court. You know what’s that about — they’re raising money for a lawsuit.”

But Rosen said 50 percent of the money is going to FEVA and that otherwise E.V.C.C. is focusing its efforts on landmarking the old P.S. 64, not on filing a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Rosen and Singer both denied rumors that E.V.C.C. has been talking to Singer about helping find tenants for the existing building.

“Nobody’s talking to Singer,” Rosen said. “Look, I think it’s like Begin and Arafat. It would be wrong to say we would never talk to Singer, because he owns the building.”

Susan Howard of the Save CHARAS group feels that there should be no discussions with Singer. David McWater, new chairperson of Community Board 3, agreed.

“I would say that I’m very hardline, a CHARAS supporter,” McWater said. “What Giuliani did was wrong. What community in America would take away a community and arts center and auction it off? I think it’s probably the greatest disservice that’s been done to the East Village in the last 10 years.”

However, David Leslie, former artistic director of the HOWL! Festival, said the opposition would be better off uniting. He held his hands up to denote the sides of a scale. “Right now, we’re up here,” he said, holding one hand above his head. “The idea is the more people you add, the lower this comes down. Whether it’s because your apartment view is blocked or you wanted to save CHARAS, it’s more people.”

For his part, Hartman said he is trying to work to bring Save CHARAS and E.V.C.C. together to fight for common cause and save the old school building.

Carol Irving a member of E.V.C.C.’s Steering Committee, said the organization may get involved in other ways to protect the neighborhood, such as trying to create a historic district and zoning issues.

“The fundraiser was a wonderful evening that hopefully raised awareness and bridged differences,” said Irving. “It was under a blue moon. Maybe once in a blue moon, the East Village can come together.”

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