By Albert Samaha
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New York City is spiritually electric, the Lower East Side especially so, and Tompkins Square Park, well, Tompkins Square Park is off the map it's so frigging spiritual, and that's why, Kapindra Swami says, the Hare Krishnas are there. Wearing their saffron robes and clay from the Yamuna river, they serve free farina, vegetables, and apricot juice, and spread Krishna's energy to passersby on Avenue A. They have done this since 1988 and are arguably one of the few old faces left in the thoroughly gentrified neighborhood known as the East Village.
The Hare Krishnas cook their food in a storefront on Avenue B, once occupied by Blackout Books. They also inhabit the space next door, as they have for eight years. But the landlord, Howard Lifshitz, is now trying to evict themtwo years before their lease expires. "He is unnecessarily causing a disturbance for us and for everyone else," says Kapindra, his green eyes flashing. "For him, it's just the money idea. He's not a bad person. But being a landlord, he just gets into that money, greed thing. And while other landlords are raking it in, Hare Krishna is not giving him his full dose of money."
The conflict centers around an interior staircase and the kitchen the Krishnas installed when they moved into Blackout's old space at 50 Avenue B in fall 2000, after Lifshitz priced out the anarchist bookstore. Kapindra says that although their written lease said no cooking was allowed in the space, he secured verbal agreements from Lifshitz that doing the work was OK. He says that he and Lifshitz, who has acquired a number of buildings in the East Village since 1988, have made verbal agreements about changes to the building for years, in the old Lower East Side style.
Lifshitz counters that the written lease is the law. "I have been a friend to the Hare Krishnas," Lifshitz says. "But the illegal work they've done is jeopardizing the health and safety of the tenants in that building. This action does not have to do with rent. I gave them discounts on rent for years." The rent is $1872 for the former Blackout space, and $844 for their original space, Kapindra says. New commercial rents for similar spaces in the neighborhood are running from about $1800 to $2800 these days. While the landlord says the Krishnas have failed to pay rent in "five or six months," Kapindra says only a month or so was unpaid before the dispute started but that after Lifshitz tried to kick them out, they stopped paying altogether.
Kapindra says they put in the interior staircase in October 2001 to have easy access to their supplies in the basement. His arthritis makes it hard from him to lift the grate outside. They need the kitchen to continue their lauded food-service work, and because, Kapindra says, theirs is a "kitchen religion." "For us, having no stove is like having no legs," he explains.
The Hare Krishnas wrote Lifshitz many letters asking him to reconsider. Some counter his charges point by point; others try to show him the error of his ways, using allegories from ancient scripture and descriptions of the inner workings of karma.
Immune to these appeals, Lifshitz went ahead with the eviction, and last Friday morning, all the Hare Krishnas went down to the housing court, in their robes and sandals, to fend him off. They were accompanied by indefatigable East Village habitué Hyman Silverglad, a fifth-generation Lower East Sider also found at the side of the Rabbi Isaac Fried when he was brought up on charges for selling medical marijuana in 2000. Silverglad spoke to the judge on their behalf with his characteristic grandiloquence.
"They live a Spartan existence," he said. "Sometimes they spend eight to nine hours a day cooking for the masses. These devotees did not spend hour after hour doing this so the landlord could rent their space to a chic restaurant for five times what they were paying."
But in a severe blow, Judge Cynthia Kern threw out the group's defenses and said the eviction can go forward. If the Krishnas appeal Kern's decision, which they may, it could take months to turn them out. Even without a stay, they could hold the space for a month or more, as the eviction processes.
Barring a brief breakdown of leadership in the mid 1980s, the Hare Krishnas have made drumming and chanting a fixture on the Lower East Side since 1966, the year their spiritual messenger, Prabhupada, arrived from India, took up a residency under a tree in Tompkins Square Park, and began chanting and chatting with receptive local folks. In that tradition, Kapindra says that he, Madhavananda, Nimai Pandit, Bhakta Alex and Bhakta Wilfried, visiting from Austria, and Steven from Long Island, will try to continue to spread Krishna's word from the park, no matter what Lifshitz does to them. But the eviction would seriously damage their efforts.
"If he disrupts this program, the whole Lower East Side will be disrupted," Kapindra says. "The landlord is under an illusion. As we transcend it, we can understand that it's an illusion. Under the illusion, we think we're the master. He thinks he's still the master." Kapindra pauses and then adds, "He's just not being very nice." Sitting in a back pew, as he heard the judge's decision, Nimai lowered his head and added, perhaps more pragmatically, "Time to chant."