Mayor de Blasio received an unusual gift on Three King’s Day when picketers gathered outside City Hall to protest the loss of a beloved East Ninth Street community center. The protestors, backed by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, collected more than 500 signatures to go along with nearly 2,000 holiday cards, all addressed to the mayor and asking for just one thing this holiday season: That the former CHARAS/El Bohio building be returned to the community.
Their efforts culminated Tuesday afternoon when Mendez and likeminded community leaders addressed speeches to a crowd of about 50 demonstrators, who showed up to cheer and chant despite the snow and bitter cold. It was quite a spectacle, complete with three “kings,” bearing token gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold chocolate coins. Mendez gave an impassioned speech: “The Former PS 64 CHARAS/El Bohio was a school building and a cultural community center that cultivated the hopes and dreams of so many people in our community,” she said, and then the kings all took a turn at the podium.
“The battle between a bad private developer and the public good has been waged for far too long,” said Anthony Feliciano, district leader for The Coalition for a District Alternative, who was wearing a velvety red cape with tassels and a crown. The building needs to reclaimed by the community, agreed State Committeeman Michael Farrin and Valerio Orselli, executive director of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, who were also sporting royal finery for the occasion.
The event was briefly interrupted by an unexpected appearance from the mayor himself, perhaps returning from lunch. He did a speed walk across the courtyard and into the building without stopping to chat. The protestors chanted, “Give it back!”
Before they made the trek to City Hall, a group of about 12 locals gathered in the East Village across the street from the controversial building. Located between Avenues B and C, the landmarked former schoolhouse’s towering wrought iron front gates are obstructed from view by wooden boards plastered with graffiti, work orders and Keep Out signs.
The building has sat vacant for 13 years. “It was such a robbery, such a theft,” said Lower East Side resident Susan Howard of the city’s auction of the building for $3.8 million in 1998. Howard was deeply involved in the community center when it closed in 2001, and she remembers the eviction of the building and the arrest of seven people who refused to leave. The way the center was shut down remains a point of contention between some artists and activists who remain in the area and the developer seeking to turn the building into a dormitory.
That developer is Gregg Singer of Singer Financial Corporation and, despite the protestors’ best efforts, he’s currently working toward his goal of moving students from Cooper Union and Joffrey Ballet School into the building (dubbed University House) within the next two years. “Revitalization of this long-empty landmark building will benefit the entire neighborhood, despite the bad-faith efforts of a handful of protestors and their politician friends, none of whom has ever offered a credible source of funding for any realistic alternative,” said Singer Financial spokesperson Kenneth Fisher. “We look forward to having any outstanding concerns resolved and to moving forward with the construction as soon as possible.”