Police may have shed light late last month when they arrested two Long Island City men in connection with the mysterious death of Armando Perez, the 51-year-old Lower East Side activist who was found bleeding on a Queens sidewalk in April. But the cause to which Perez dedicated himself—a cause some friends say might have cost the activist his life—remains mired in controversy.
Last week, Lower East Side supporters of Charas/El Bohio, a vibrant community and arts center founded by Perez 20 years ago and housed in a former city school building on East 9th Street, rallied uptown. On June 29, about 30 Charas supporters protested at 77th and Broadway, the site of the Hotel Belleclaire, which Charas backers worry has become a misguided model for the old schoolhouse’s future. They say that Gregg Singer, a businessman who bought the Charas building in a city auction last year, plans to turn the 120,740-square-foot community center into an international hostel much like the one run in the Hotel Belleclaire by a group called Banana Bungalow.
“People from Banana Bungalow came here and toured the building, and we think he’s planning to make a hostel here,” says Susan Howard of Charas. “He doesn’t seem to care whether it fits the city’s standard that this building remain a community facility.”
Singer told the Voice he has made no deal with Banana Bungalow. But he did say he would “talk to anyone” whose plan for the building complies with a city requirement that the Charas building be used as a community facility. But critics say that even that limit offers small comfort. “Singer simply says, ‘I reserve the right to make this building anything the zoning allows,’ but there’s a tremendous range of things he can do with it,” says Foster Maer, an attorney with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is challenging the sale of the Charas building in federal court. “It could be a medical facility, a nonprofit group, a nursing home….”
According to a Singer affidavit, one scenario calls for renting part of the Charas building to a “nonprofit institution with sleeping accomodations [sic]” for up to 130 rooms. Singer himself refused to elaborate on that scheme, attributing the Charas protesters to the fact that “they pay $874 a month to use most of that building, and that kind of tells the whole story.” He complained that community members “want me to give them a plan on a silver platter, and they’re not going to get it.”
The fear that Singer might convert the Charas building to a hostel stems from an overheard conversation that occurred in a St. Marks Place bistro. According to two affidavits filed in the federal case, representatives from Banana Bungalow toured the building on March 4, then went with representatives of Singer to a restaurant, where Singer’s reps urged the Bungalow affiliates to consider moving into the building, saying “you’re Singer’s best game in town right now.” A Singer affidavit claims that none of his representatives were at such a meeting, but a sign-in sheet shows that Banana Bungalow founder Keith Schwebel did tour the building that day. Schwebel did not return calls.
Tim Becker, one of the two eavesdroppers who filed an affidavit, says the men “talked about Gregg Singer by name, and the entire conversation was pointing to the one fellow from Banana Bungalow.” Noting that the hostel chain—with branches in Hollywood, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Miami, and Waikiki Beach—allows only international travelers, Becker says, “Here’s a building zoned for community use only, but you can’t stay there if you’re from the community, or even this country.”
Perez and several other Lower East Siders founded Charas/El Bohio in 1979, occupying the abandoned school building and ridding it of drug dealers. Over the years, the building housed after-school programs, art studios, community meeting rooms, and rehearsal space. Eventually, Charas leased the site from the city, but Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided it should be auctioned. On July 20, 1998, Singer bought it for $3.1 million.
The sale drew intense community ire, and typical Lower East Side conspiracy-thinking was fueled by the city’s refusal to reveal the buyer’s identity until forced to do so by a Freedom of Information Act request. Charas’s plight earned media attention not just because of the intensity of the battle—court papers filed on behalf of Charas charge that the sale was orchestrated by former city councilman, Giuliani pal, and all-around enemy of Lower East Side progressives Antonio Pagan—but also because actress and Charas board member Susan Sarandon protested the sale.
Perez himself vowed to go on a hunger strike in protest.When he was found gravely injured outside his wife’s Long Island City apartment on April 3, friends speculated that Perez’s political enemies might have played a role. With last month’s arrest, however, police say it is likely that Perez was killed by members of a drug ring in retaliation for his efforts to get drugs out of the neighborhood.
If Singer intends to house a Banana
Bungalow–style hostel in the Charas building, he’ll have to chop its spacious rooms into cubbyholes. Banana Bungalow’s uptown digs accommodate four to 10 travelers in rooms outfitted with bunk beds and scrappy furniture. On a recent tour of some of the Bungalow rooms, which are spread throughout the hotel, some smelled dank; uneven floors were covered with thin, worn carpet; ill-fitting kitchen sinks dripped constantly.
The rooms are cheap—ranging from $24 to $30 per person, depending on the number of occupants—but Banana Bungalow’s existence has come at a price dear to city tenants. The Hotel Belleclaire, which rents the rooms to the Bungalow, is a single-room occupancy hotel, and for years provided affordable housing for poor tenants, who rented rooms with shared baths and kitchens. With tourism booming, however, many SROs have pushed out longtime tenants in favor of higher-paying tourists.
Now, entire floors of the Belleclaire that once housed long-term renters have been demolished, and the few who remain endure hardship. “We have these constant power cuts and no electricity, and disruptions in water,” says one long-term tenant. “My worry is, are they going to try to get us out?”
Stephen De Fazio, who began working as a Belleclaire manager in September, says since he started, no tenant has been evicted and that renovation was being done “around the permanent tenants,” only a few of whom remain. Indeed, it’s not just long-term SRO tenants who are at risk. De Fazio says Banana Bungalow itself will “eventually” move as the Belleclaire seeks to increase its own share of rooms dedicated to higher-end tourists. Right now, rooms range from $69 a night to $209, depending on whether they have views and private baths.
Which means the hostel could well be looking for another home. At $30 a person a night, a month’s stay would come to about $900. Does that pass as affordable housing on the Lower East Side?