One of the Lower East Side's best-known incubators of theatrical talent, CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, has apparently reached the end of its life. A ruling by Judge Saralee Evans has allowed the eviction of the beloved neighborhood institution at the corner of 9th St. and Ave. C.
Although Evans wrote in her ruling that CHARAS "is a community organization that has been serving as a cultural, educational, and social center for the Lower East Side for over 20 years, providing vital services that should not be interrupted," in the end she came to bury it, not to praise it.
By July 31, the last day CHARAS was allowed to stay in the building, two appeals courts had refused to stay the judge's eviction order. After 22 years, the institution ran out of legal options.
The story began more than two decades ago, before the area around Tompkins Square Park was gentrified or pronounced cool by tastemakers. In 1979, a group of squatters moved into the derelict building, which was missing the front doors, windows, and its roof, which vandals had literally ripped off because of its copper content. They gave the building the name CHARAS (ostensibly as an acronym of the founders' first names, although its other meaning as an Indian hashish product may have had something to do with it) and gave it dignity.
Bit by bit, paint went on the walls, inside and out; stairs were fixed; walls were stabilized; seats were added; and the Lower East Side got what the city would not pay for: a functioning performance space, including the Bimbo Rivas Theatre, named for a poet and playwright of the neighborhood. A list of the performers who have worked there over the years includes Miguel Pi?ero, John Leguizamo, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, the Living Theater, The Ontological Theater, Robert Altman, Allen Ginsburg, and John Sayles.
As the building improved, so did the neighborhood, making CHARAS an attractive target for developers. In October 1996, the Giuliani administration put the building up for auction, but withdrew it when the community rose up in opposition. The founders, including well-known community activist Armando Perez, were given a month to present a plan to obtain the building and renovate it. Perez, who was subsequently murdered in a still-unsolved case, claimed before his death that the city refused to take any proposal seriously, even with the backing of Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Field.
The struggle over the control of the building continued for years until, for reasons that remain unclear, the administration auctioned the property with several neighborhood gardens in July 1998. The auction at Police Plaza garnered widespread attention in the media because angry Lower East Side residents unleashed thousands of crickets throughout the room in an attempt to scare potential bidders away.
The building was bought for $3.15 million by Gregg Singer, a developer. Exactly one year after he bought the building, he served an eviction notice to the CHARAS squatters. He has also filed a lawsuit to recover what he claims is $600,000 in lost revenue.
CHARAS continued to fight for control of the building its volunteers had rehabbed, and supporters were thrilled when a Manhattan Civil Court jury ruled in December 2000 that Singer gave no evidence he intended to maintain the building as a community center, as required by a covenant on the property. However, shortly after the jury's decision, the Appellate Term of State Supreme Court ruled that the jury trial was moot and that Singer did not have to prove he intended to maintain the building as a community center.
Evans' decision on July 12 upheld that ruling, clearing the way for eviction.
Community activists continue to meet and plan strategies to prevent Singer from occupying the building, and to consider how best to show their displeasure with Evans, who (inadvertently or not) allowed the Supreme Court ruling because she failed to enter the jury verdict in a timely manner. She is married to Norman Siegel, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union and current candidate for public advocate in New York City's forthcoming election. Although newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin calls Siegel "the man who beats Giuliani and leaves him whining," it seems unlikely he will get many votes from heartbroken and frustrated CHARAS supporters.