The story of Chino and CHARAS; Activist hopeful for old P.S. 64’s return

Carlos “Chino” Garcia at a celebratory rally at City Hall last November after the mayor announced that the city wants to reacquire the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. from developer Gregg Singer. Garcia’s first name is the “C” in the acronym CHARAS, the name of the community and cultural group that formerly occupied the building. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Back in October, Mayor de Blasio made a stunning announcement at a Lower East Side town hall, when he said the city was “interested in reacquiring” the old P.S. 64.

“Decisions made a long time ago were a mistake,” he declared. “To place that building in the hands of a private owner was a failed mistake. So I’m announcing tonight, the city’s interest in reacquiring that building. We are ready to right the wrongs of the past and will work with Councilmember [Rosie] Mendez and her successor to get that done.”

A month later, de Blasio went on to win re-election easily in a historically low-turnout race — with only 14 percent of registered voters supporting him; while Carlina Rivera was elected to succeed Mendez, who was term-limited in the City Council.

Meanwhile, in January, clearly in reaction to de Blasio’s announcement, Gregg Singer and his associates sued. Singer bought the former school building, at E. Ninth St. near Avenue B, in 1998 for $3.2 million. Scheme after scheme of his to redevelop the property — ranging from a full demolition and adding a high-rise tower to a partial demolition to, finally, a restoration of the existing building — have been repeatedly blocked. The most crushing blow for him came in 2006 when the city, under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, landmarked the building right underneath Singer.

‘Pattern of obstruction’

His lawsuit charges “a pattern of obstruction” against the mayor and others to block Singer and Co. from redeveloping the property. The defendants include the city, the Department of Buildings, de Blasio, Mendez, Rivera, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Andrew Berman, its executive director, hedge-funder / East Village Community Coalition activist Aaron Sosnick and “John and Jane Doe 1 — 100, whose identities are unknown at present.”

Due to the lawsuit, the defendants have been advised not to talk to the media, according to both Rivera and John Blasco, the councilmember’s community outreach director. Blasco recently said there had been no updates about the old P.S. 64, nor have there been any follow-up meetings with the de Blasio administration regarding the building.

A few weeks after the mayor’s announcement, The Villager sat down for an interview with Carlos “Chino” Garcia, the executive director of CHARAS, at The Bean, at Third Ave. and Stuyvesant St., in the former St. Mark’s Bookshop space. CHARAS operated a community and cultural center in the old P.S. 64 for 23 years, until being evicted by Singer in 2001.

Massive eviction force

On the morning of the eviction, a veritable army of about 200 police, all in riot helmets and wielding black batons, were lined up in formation along E. Ninth outside the place, ready to quash any resistance. Inside, protesters, seated in a circle on the ground, had handcuffed their arms to each other inside PVC tubes; it took a while for cops to saw the tubes open without injuring the activists, before arresting them. For his part, Garcia walked out of the building peacefully, and, standing on a stoop across the street, stoically watched the eviction unfold.

Garcia and CHARAS are not named as defendants in Singer’s lawsuit.

Although CHARAS ran the old school building for more than two decades, it’s not exactly clear what role — if any — it might have with it moving forward, in the case that the city actually is somehow able to wrest it away from Singer, who has said he does not want to sell.

Beth Sopkow, at the November City Hall rally, is among the many CHARAS supporters who were arrested for protesting against the building being sold. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Returning the building to the community would most likely involve eminent domain, in which the owner would have to be paid fair-market value, which could be as much as $40 million or more. The city would also be required to show a clear plan for the building’s future use to regain possession of it.

Path to activism

During a wide-ranging two-hour interview, Garcia talked about his longtime partner in leading CHARAS — the late Armando Perez — his own roots growing up in Chelsea, and as a young gang member with a social conscience and activist bent, and how he and a group of young Puerto Ricans took over the abandoned E. Ninth St. school, and resurrected it as a hub of community empowerment, only to see it eventually sold away from them under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Garcia, 71, was born in Rio Pedras, Puerto Rico, near San Juan, the second youngest of five children. He and his family came to New York City in 1951 when he was 5, settling in Chelsea. He grew up right next to the Empire Diner, at 22nd St. and Tenth Ave.

“Chelsea at the time was a very strong Puerto Rican neighborhood,” he said, “and a very strong dockworker neighborhood. Before the containers, you had ships all the way from Downtown, where the World Trade Center was, to 59th St.

“My father was a waiter and my mother was a seamstress. Mostly, a lot of women in my family, they were all garment workers.”

He attended P.S. 11, on W. 21st St., for elementary school.

Move to Lower East Side

In 1958, Garcia’s family moved to the Baruch Houses public housing on the Lower East Side. Perez, his former CHARAS co-leader, had moved there three years earlier.

“Armando and me, we knew each other since 1958,” Garcia recalled.

He also had cousins living just south of the Williamsburg Bridge in tenements on Willets St. who he used to hang out with.

Garcia attended junior high school at the building currently home to P.S. 188, The Island School, at E. Houston near Avenue D, coincidentally, the same school where de Blasio announced that the city was interested in getting back the old P.S. 64.

He was keen on architecture, but because he couldn’t find a local high school offering a course in it, Garcia instead attended a vocational high school in Brooklyn, where he studied drafting.

“I never became an architect,” he reflected, “but I got involved in urban planning.”

Young gang leader

A young Garcia also joined the Assassins, a gang whose members mostly hailed from Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. He was a leader in the gang; Perez was also a member, but not a leader of it.

Garcia said he generally discouraged the gang from wearing their “colors” — their jackets with the gang’s name on them — around too much.

“Only at parties, not in public,” he said.

Asked why he decided to be in the gang in the first place, he said, “We joined to protect ourselves as a race from other groups. That was the purpose. … But then, little by little, criminal activity took over. It was typical gang stuff, drugs. At that time, the ’50s and ’60s, heroin became the used drug.”

Garcia noted that, back then, heroin “buried a lot of people.”

“People like Armando and I didn’t join to become criminals,” he said of the gang. He and Perez instead wanted to form it as a “social movement.”

“So the gang split in the ’60s,” Garcia recalled.

The Real Great Society

In 1965, when he was 18, he and a group of Latino friends formed the Real Great Society, a riff on President Lyndon Johnson’s concept of creating the Great Society.

“Around 1969, we decided to get a more Latin name,” he said.

CHARAS was an acronym of its founding members’ first names: Chino, Humberto, Angelo, Roy, Anthony and Salvador.

“These were the people at the meeting,” he said. “Everyone liked the name because it was easier to say than the Real Great Society.

The old P.S. 64, the former CHARAS / El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, has sat vacant for nearly 20 years while owned by developer Gregg Singer. Completed in 1906, the historic “H”-style building was designed by legendary schools architect / administrator Charles B.J. Snyder. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

“We become more politically minded,” he recalled of their new group’s early years. “We became housing advocates. We created the first Adopt-a-Building, and CHARAS did the first sweat-equity building.”

Rehabbing a building

Regarding the latter, as Garcia tells it, in 1972, CHARAS convinced Mayor John Lindsay’s administration to let them rehab a building at 519 E. 11th St. Other renovations in the neighborhood had been done cheaply and shoddily, he said.

“One thing good about Lindsay and his people, they listened — because they were looking for a solution to the housing problem,” Garcia recalled. “We knew sweat equity could work because groups like Habitat for Humanity were doing it with small homes in rural areas.”
Under sweat equity, people could repair buildings with their own labor, then get ownership of them in return.

Solar pioneers

In a novel approach, they tried to incorporate solar power for hot water in the E. 11th St. project.

“In 1965, hardly anyone was talking about that,” Garcia noted. “A young guy came to us and described solar energy. He got us thinking about the possibility.”

In the end, the alternative-energy idea didn’t quite pan out, though it was the effort that counted, in his view.

“But it doesn’t matter — you got to start,” Garcia said. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of Latinos involved in solar energy and green power. Hopefully, in another 50 or 100 years, it will become the main source of energy in the world.”

City closes buildings

Then, at the end of the Lindsay administration, P.S. 64 was closed “for budget reasons,” Garcia recalled.

Similarly, P.S. 122, at First Ave. and E. Ninth St., was also closed, and in 1980 became Performance Space 122 and later Performance Space New York. And P.S. 160, at Suffolk and Rivington Sts., was shuttered, and later became the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center.

“They closed around 10 buildings on the Lower East Side,” Garcia recalled, “mostly school buildings and a couple of hospitals.

“I started being concerned about landmarks,” he said of this period. “I used to go to the South St. Seaport landmark meetings. If they didn’t landmark that [area], all those buildings were going to be knocked down. At one time, when I was kid, all of South St. was like that. They only left three blocks.

“I went to some of those meetings, and a lot of people said, ‘That doesn’t matter.’ … History does matter.”

Getting the old P.S. 64

Meanwhile, the old P.S. 64, now closed, was hurting.

“It was being vandalized,” Garcia said, “stripped of every metal. The building was empty and vandalized. Then, the people started using it for drug use. Then, groups like CHARAS started going into the building and cleaning it without permission.”

Under Mayor Ed Koch, the city leased the building to CHARAS under the Adopt-a-Building program.

“I think it was a dollar a year,” Garcia said.

And so, they occupied the old school from 1978 to 2001. They dubbed it CHARAS / El Bohio — El Bohio meaning “the hut” in Taino, Puerto Rico’s indigenous language.

They transformed the place into artists’ studios and rehearsal rooms for drama and dance groups — including the likes of Reverend Billy and his choir — and leased space to groups like Recycle-a-Bike. For a while, it hosted a movie series. (Singer has always charged, however, that, under their lease, CHARAS actually did not have the right to lease space to anyone.)

Infrastructure challenges

For the first 10 years, CHARAS had use of the whole building. But the Department of General Services became concerned about fire safety on the fourth and fifth floors because of low water pressure, and so those areas became off limits.

“The city kept their word and they put in lighting and sprinklers on those floors in the last two years,” Garcia recalled.

The money for that was allocated under Mayor David Dinkins but it took a few years, until Giuliani’s tenure, to implement the repairs. Similarly, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez allocated funds for elevators and bathroom repairs on the fourth and fifth floors, but it took two to three years “to process,” Garcia recalled.

Giuliani vs. CHARAS

“But by that time, we were fighting to save the building,” he said. “Giuliani wanted to get rid of us. They evicted us three days before Bloomberg [became mayor].”

As for why Giuliani was so hostile to CHARAS, some have speculated it was because they were political foes of former East Village Councilmember Antonio Pagan, who went on to land a commissioner post in Giuliani’s administration. CHARAS’s Perez was elected a Democratic district leader out of the CoDA (Coalition for a District Alternative) political organization, which was the mortal enemy of Pagan’s Democratic club.

However, Garcia said of Giuliani, “We never were against him. We were against policies that he had. Our job is to protect the working class. Conservative politicians are never friendly to progressives.”

Let in Latin Kings

Others think the building was sold because CHARAS, at one point, let young members of the Latin Kings gang come inside after police had been hassling them in Tompkins Square Park. At CHARAS, the Latin Kings led workshops at which their members filled out job applications. But Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under Giuliani, wasn’t buying it and reportedly was the point person pushing for CHARAS’s ouster.

“We’re down with every gang in New York because we come from that,” Garcia explained, unapologetically, when asked about letting the Latin Kings into El Bohio. “We tried to get them to change. They’re all part of the neighborhood. You got to talk to them. You got to work with them, negotiate. Whatever was happening between them and the police, we became the mediator.”

El Bohio is auctioned

The city made two efforts to auction the building, but each time was stopped due to legal arguments. In 1998, CHARAS supporters made a last-ditch effort to disrupt the building’s sale by releasing live crickets during the auction at One Police Plaza. Per the plan, women hopped up on chairs and started shrieking in mock panic. Ultimately, a team of summer interns were brought in to sweep up the lethargic bugs, who were already half-dead after having been smuggled through the metal detectors in sealed manila envelopes. The auction recommenced, and the old school was finally sold.

At the time, Ed Vega, Clemente Soto Velez’s director, said his group’s cultural center wasn’t being auctioned because — as opposed to CHARAS — they knew how to get along with City Hall.

After CHARAS was evicted a few years later, the group became more low profile.

“We have places in East Harlem, New Jersey, Brooklyn,” Garcia said. “Mostly, people went to other agencies and groups. We stopped a lot of our fundraising.”

Remembering the late Armando Perez at last November’s rally on his birthday. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Death of Armando Perez

And, tragically, Garcia’s partner Perez was killed in 1999, one year after the building’s auction, after having vowed he would die before seeing it sold. Perez, 51, who had distributed fliers inside his wife’s Queens building condemning drug dealing inside of it, was beaten to death by thugs in front of the place early one morning.

While Garcia was executive director of CHARAS, Perez was its artistic director and chairperson of its board.

“One of my best friends,” Garcia said of Perez. “I grew up in a neighborhood where you have a lot of friends. And then you have special friends.”

Throughout the years, both he and Perez had jobs other than just running CHARAS. Perez was an ambulance driver, although was on disability after injuring his back. Garcia, whose family has always been involved in construction, worked in that field and others, as well.

“I’ve been everything you can think of,” he said, “Hertz rent-a-car, taxi driver, a lot of construction, truck driver. I was always working construction on the side.”

Glad to have Rivera

Garcia is happy to see Carlina Rivera as the district’s new city councilmember.

“I know her since she was young,” he said. “She’s always been active. She’s a neighborhood kid. It’s really good to have a neighborhood kid as our politician. She’s very clear. She’s very aware of what’s going on locally, and she’s concerned. One thing about CoDA, they’ve been very successful so far about bringing up three neighborhood women — Margarita, Rosie and Carlina — and they’ve all been dynamite.”

Always art

After the interview had ended, Garcia wanted to show off the work of artist Juan Carlos Pinto — some mosaic murals that had been commissioned for the outside of The Bean.

Garcia works with Pinto nowadays, helping him with his mural projects.

Speaking of artists, Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for all the songs in “The Wizard of Oz,” including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is one of the most famous alumni of P.S. 64.

What the future holds

As for a possible role for himself and CHARAS in the old P.S. 64, assuming the city ever manages to get the old school back, Garcia is just humbly hoping, first and foremost, that it is returned to a good community use.

Speaking to The Villager back in October after the mayor’s announcement, he said de Blasio had assigned several assistants to sit down with CHARAS and “start working out details.”

“The mayor would not make an announcement without a plan,” Garcia said, assuredly, speaking then. “It’s sad to see that building empty. It’s a resource that the community could really use — especially given that everything in Lower Manhattan is so expensive. Most of the artists that used to be on the Lower East Side, they went to Brooklyn…to New Jersey.”

Again, however, there reportedly have been no meetings with the city, so far, about any strategy on regaining possession of the building, or what might be done with it if that ever does happen.

Yet, speaking in October, when the excitement around the mayor’s statement was still fresh, Garcia was nothing short of optimistic.

“I feel very strongly something good’s going to happen with that building,” he said.

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