The Lower East Side's CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, for decades a vital resource for the Downtown theatre world, was sold at a July 20 auction to an unknown bidder for $3,150,000. The action came after months of unsuccessful negotiations between El Bohio and the city, which owns the building the center occupies.
El Bohio's Chino Garcia said he intends to continue fighting the sale by pressing ahead with a law suit filed in March and scheduled for hearing in September. Arts groups will be permitted to stay in the building until the resolution of the suit. No shows were performing there this week.
El Bohio has been in existence for 30 years, the last 19 at the old P.S. 64 at E. 9th Street between avenues B and C. In that time, it has become a training ground for theatre, dance, performance, and film artists, who rent space in the building for rehearsals and performances. Among the theatre groups to have used the center over the years are the Bread and Puppet Theatre, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre Company, and the Living Theatre.
Calls to the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services, under the jurisdiction of which El Bohio falls, were not returned as of press time.
"The city has figured out a way to stop us and they have been very negative in the way they negotiated," Garcia told PBOL. Garcia and Armando Perez, another center official, said they filed a law suit last March in response to what they feel have been bad-faith negotiations on the part of the city. According to Perez, Mayor Giuliani's administration had promised to work with the center and asked El Bohio to submit a plan for the renovation and eventual purchase of the site. The center produced a proposal in three weeks time, said Perez, and met with city officials a week later. "It was obvious that they had not read the proposals by the questions they were asking us," said Perez, adding that city officials admitted as much. Asked by the city how they wished to buy the building, the center first suggested they purchase their home for $1, citing similar city-sponsored deals in the past. "They said that was out of question," said Perez. "We then asked them to take us out of the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services and place us under the Dept. of Cultural Affairs. They said no to that, too. They said the city wanted to get out of the landlord business." The law suit was filed soon afterwards. Garcia said El Bohio and the city have a date in court in September. In the meantime, the center will stay put.
"I'm saddened by [the sale]," said Ed Vega, who runs the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, another Lower East Side arts mecca. The Velez Center was also in danger of being sold on July 20, but was taken off the block at the last moment. Vega said he expected to meet with the city sometime this month about the possibility of buying the structure, which is home to several Off-Off-Broadway theatre troupes including the Ground Floor Theatre Lab and L.A.T.E.A. "I'd like to try to resolve the situation because it's very nerve-wracking for the artists and for everybody," said Vega.
-- By Robert Simonson