Love It or Level It

The saga of old P.S. 64 is a real education

Members of EVCC are also mum when asked what the building should be. At one point a couple of its members explored creating a Fame-type performance high school there. But Charas allies attacked the notion of a private school as "elitist," and the not-for-profit group pitching the idea couldn't meet Singer's terms anyway.

"It's not the mission of the EVCC to figure out what to do with the building," says Michael Rosen. "This is about preserving the very fabric and soul of our community. The point of landmarking it is to rescue a part of our history. Even if [Singer] chooses to let it stand empty, it's important to stop the building from being destroyed. I hope it can be a community center again. But as long as there is a plaque on the wall that says this school was a portal to the immigrant community, that's what this battle is about."

Rosen is himself a former developer of the Red Square apartment complex on Houston Street. His reluctance to voice a plan for the building may be understandable given the accusations from both Singer and Charas activists that he and others are looking to develop the old P.S. 64 themselves.

"I have no interest in buying the building," Rosen says, "but I'm sure that if Mr. Singer wants to sell it, there are enough resources in this community to find a way to finance it."


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photo: Nicholas Burnham
Even if it's preserved,old P.S. 64 may never be redeveloped as long as its defenders cling to nostalgia over Charas.

Charas should be celebrated for rescuing the building from the junkies who might have burned the place down after the city abandoned it, and for creating a hub where people could gather to make art and activism. Over the years, it helped nurture some prodigious talents, including Spike Lee, Luis Guzmán, Todd Haynes, and John Leguizamo. Numerous neighborhood not-for-profits were incubated in its cavernous classrooms.

Yes, there were many vital programs, including ESL and computer classes; Latin dance and martial arts; Recycle-a-Bike; artist studios; cheap meeting rooms for Little League, housing groups, and AA; and rehearsal space for scores of performance groups. But the top two floors were never occupied, and the bulk of the space was rented out intermittently. The place never reached anything near its potential.


That's partly because Charas's founders were former gang leaders turned community activists, not CFOs, and they took over the old school at a time when the neighborhood was still reeling from the city's fiscal crisis and the Koch administration's efforts to demolish abandoned properties. Charas turned aside—until it was too late—offers from not-for-profits to help anchor the building. Its leaders spent years applying and waiting for government funds for renovations—and won a fair share. But given all the backing it got (both Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere were "honorary" board members) it's fair to ask why the group didn't try sooner to buy the building itself.

Charas director Chino Garcia says the city kept the group on a month-to-month lease, with the expectation that the city would transfer the title to Charas once the property was fixed up.

Then along came Giuliani with his campaign to privatize city resources and his administration's "broken-window theory"—the belief that broken windows and neighborhood "decay" lead to crime. And there was Charas, with no central heat, a leaky roof, and all those cracked windowpanes in the empty upper floors.

When Singer first bought the old school, he took a reporter up to the fifth floor to show all the dead pigeons, droppings, feathers, and detritus that had collected there, literally a foot high from wall to wall.

"You can't tell me this is a responsible owner," Singer charged at the time.

But Singer hasn't fixed those windows either. He has ripped out all the asbestos tiling on the floors and says he carted away 15 truckloads of garbage. But plenty more dead birds and droppings have accumulated because Singer never sealed the place from the elements.

Singer has also whitewashed the colorful murals that graced the entrance hall and ripped out all the wooden seats in the basement auditorium where FDR and Al Smith once campaigned, where Nuyoricans like Bimbo Rivas and Miguel Piñero recited poetry and plays, and where in 2001, the Fringe Festival found a home.

But you can still find fragments of what was: a blackboard scrawled with notations about Shakespeare; fat bubble letters that spell out "Youth at Work! Workshop"; and in the old boiler room, where the coal furnaces are still in place, a fanciful mural of a globe breaking free of its chains.

Singer hasn't tossed out everything. Downstairs he saved a couple of paintings left behind, including a haunting portrait of a young Rosario Dawson, who grew up in a squat in the neighborhood and took part in many Charas events.

Singer says he didn't know who it was or who painted it. He just didn't have the heart to throw it out, he says, because it was "so nice."

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