Over 100 people rallied in front of the embattled home of CHARAS/El Bohio Community & Cultural Center on Monday morning waiting for the deputy sheriff, who had posted a 72-hour notice of eviction on the front doors last Friday. A Christmas tree was placed at the entrance of the former public school building, which has for 21 years provided a space for artists, activists, and performers on East 9th Street. Nearly 30 people, “the arrestables,” spent Sunday night at CHARAS in preparation for a civil disobedience action. The outside murals that new owner Gregg Singer had whitewashed were repainted with images depicting his greed. But the planned civil disobedience action never took place. Jamie Hernandez, a community affairs officer with the Ninth Precinct, assured people there would be no eviction that day. Supporters were told that on Tuesday Judge Saralee Evans would rule on extending CHARAS’s stay.
While this is still likely the end of the eviction struggle, CHARAS supporters have been fighting to remain on 9th Street since the city sold the building in 1998 to the developer Singer for $3.15 million. Singer seemed eager to turn the rundown building into profitable real estate, and in repeated trips to court, activists tried to block the sale. They succeeded in delaying the eviction earlier this year when Singer was unable to specify how he would comply with the deed’s community-use requirement. Last summer they won a temporary stay of eviction until December 12—granted so that they might find a new home.
CHARAS has stayed this long in no small part because it is well loved. “It is the only place where all different types of people could come together and meet, white bohos, Latinos, working class, the homeless, artists, activists, alcoholics, ex-alcoholics,” says Stephen Duncombe, a New York University professor. While the group has found a basement space on Avenue C—not really adequate, they say—it won’t be available until March. Save CHARAS Committee organizers want to stay put until then.
Supporters claim that the aftermath of the 9-11 disaster has made their search for affordable space more difficult. But just as important, they are also trying to hold off until Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg takes office, hoping his administration will provide the reprieve that the Giuliani administration would not. At the time that CHARAS got this stay, they sought to hold out until then frontrunner Mark Green came into office. They had gotten support from the Public Advocate, as well as from Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Councilmember Margarita López, and others.
What is most infuriating now to the people of CHARAS is how the evacuation is being called for at a time when community centers are even more needed than ever. After September 11, CHARAS opened its doors for donations, volunteer space, community meetings, and support groups.
Sunday night, in the midst of moving, J.C. Islander, who started the in-house theater at CHARAS, says, “Today it’s us, tomorrow it is the people who are reading this article.” Save CHARAS coordinator Susan Howard says, “Everything is set for people like Singer, not for people like us. And despite 20 years of commitment, it can be sold in an instant.” Performer Reverend Billy came to CHARAS when there was nowhere else for him to work. “This community made it on its own,” he says. “Then property values went up. They shouldn’t be victimized by that. They should be rewarded.”