Stepping Off

Fifteen Minutes of Fame Are Up for East Village Rehab

Since the buildings at 19-25 St. Marks Place were constructed more than 150 years ago, they've housed a German singing society, Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Electric Circus Disco, and the Dom nightclub. During the past 24 years, they've been used as a community center, most recently for recovering substance abusers. Now, that too is changing. As of September 5, the massive complex that has so dominated the famous East Village strip is about to become something else, though exactly what remains a secret. Its new owner, developer Charles Yassky, who got the buildings in a bankruptcy proceeding, refuses to say.

What is known is that the All Craft Center, a "resource for people in recovery," as its founder, Joyce Hartwell, calls it, is gone, the casualty of a complicated combination of naïveté, financial decline, idiosyncratic real estate laws, and, according to Hartwell, greed. This week, she and a handful of clients who lived and worked at the center moved out. Left stranded are hundreds of people who relied daily on the center for sobriety meetings, support, and community. Among them are an impressive blend of punk-rock stylists and senior citizens, Wall Street risers, and down-on-their-luck drifters.

Until the All Craft Center moved out, it averaged 43,000 visits a year to the 50 sobriety meetings it offered each week; 49 were for Narcotics Anonymous, and one for Alcoholics Anonymous. Weekly, about 650 people visited the Imami Café, a club for those in 12-step programs. About a dozen people lived at the center while learning construction skills; from June 1998 until July 1999, 435 people were sheltered there, says Hartwell, an interfaith minister who began the center as the Lady Carpenter Institute, teaching women construction skills.

While Yassky may be silent about his plans for the property (rumors include opening a theater, a restaurant, dorms, a club, or even razing the site entirely), Hartwell has much to say about its demise. She says her troubles began when three tenants, already living at 25 St. Marks when she bought it in 1979, went on rent strike in 1987. Litigation ensued, and Hartwell spent 30 days in jail for failing to follow a judge's order to install risers to bring the tenants their own electricity. Hartwell says she couldn't afford that, noting that the center had always paid tenants' utility bills. When Con Ed cut off the building for nonpayment in 1995, the strike had already cost the center $45,600, with the three tenants' rent totaling $475 a month. Rent is still not paid.

The center also suffered a blow in 1993, when it lost state funding because of budget cuts and concerns about the center's finances. In November 1995, the center filed for bankruptcy protection after a contractor won a lien against the building because of an outstanding balance. Hartwell blames the loss of state money.

In 1998, the city's Economic Development Corporation, one of Hartwell's original mortgagors, assigned the mortgage to Yassky's group. Hartwell tried to resurrect the center by installing the New Age Cabaret, an alcohol-free café and performance center, and drawing up plans for a 44-bed hotel. The café made money, but not enough, and the hotel never got off the ground. Hartwell could not pay the mortgage, and finally turned the building over to Yassky, who agreed to pay her $175,000 to leave by September 5. The only ones who can remain are the loft tenants, who may be bought out by Yassky. "I'm still traumatized by 45 days of living in the dark with no electricity," says tenant Ellyce di Paola.

Now Hartwell and about a dozen live-in clients plan to move to Albany, find property, and restart the program. "I very much wanted to stay in New York," says Hartwell, "but what would cost us $2 million here costs $130,000 there."

The popularity of the center is obvious. On a recent evening, even before six o'clock, the place is abuzz. On generous stoops, people in suits or cutoffs hang out, greeting and gabbing as if it were the first day of school. Inside, a Narcotics Anonymous meeting is in full force, punctuated by applause and cheers. In the cabaret, a disco ball glimmers, reminiscent of the building's past, and a guitarist accompanies a woman playing "Summertime" on a violin. The only quiet place is the Imami Club, where card players, deep in concentration, are obviously annoyed by any intrusion.

"This is the place where I learned how to behave myself," says 20-year-old Tomas Santiago, who has lived at the center for a year. Another resident, John, now 23, has lived at the center off and on since he was 12. "My mom and dad were always high; my mom was always drunk. . . .What I've learned here about the world, about myself, my God, I can't even put into words," says John. "All I can say is, being clean is the best. Nothing else compares."

Both John and Santiago will follow Hartwell to Albany. She, too, has learned a lesson, less profound than the ones her clients recite, but very New York just the same. "I'll never buy a house with a tenant in it," she says. "Not over my dead body. This is all about greed. Real estate and greed."

 
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