A mural of a woman’s face holding up a chain with the word “LOISAIDA” and a gold cityscape. The words “el bohio murals” and “#BRINGARTBACK” are next to the woman alongside the words “CURATED BY … THRIVECOLLECTIVE.ORG.”
A mural on the exterior of the squatted PS 64 building at 605 E. Ninth St. (Naomi Mwai for WSN)
Naomi Mwai

Activists’ 25-year fight to revive an East Village community center

The Charas Community Center served East Village residents for years before a new owner emptied the space. But the building’s recent purchase has locals hopeful the center will make a return.

After Seth Tobocman dropped out of art school in the 1980s, he began spending his time as an art instructor at the Charas Community Center in the East Village. Worried children in the area might become involved with a nearby drug operation, Tobocman spent hours teaching them to paint and draw in an effort to keep them away. However, the community center’s mission of promoting the arts, education and social welfare was cut short only 20 years later, when a change in ownership left the space vacant and covered in graffiti.

But in January, the building saw another change in ownership that left locals hopeful the center would return to its former state. After several lawsuits and real-estate battles over the course of 25 years, owner Greg Singer lost ownership of Charas to an anonymous entity known as “605 E. Ninth Community Holdings LLC,” which purchased the building for $57.3 million. While plans for the space have yet to be formalized, the corporation has suggested it will turn the building back into a community center.

“Like a lot of people, I’m waiting to find out what the next stage is with Charas and whether it will return to community use,” Tobocman said.

Local residents’ had long criticized Singer’s treatment of the property, with protests over the building’s vacancy going back over two decades. While it was open, the center hosted arts programs, food pantries and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“It was like the heart and soul of the Lower East Side,” said Barbara Caporale, an activist and close assistant to the Charas organization, in an interview with WSN. “When Singer bought it, he just ripped the heart out.” 

The anonymous purchasing entity — which close affiliates to the Charas organization, including Corporland, referred to as “angel investor” — has strong ties to hedge fund billionaire Aaron Sosnick, who owns real estate in several parts of the East Village. Charas — named after founders Chino Garcia, Humberto Crespo, Angelo González, Roy Battiste, Anthony Figueroa and Sal Becker — began as a grassroots organization in 1965. 

“The community appreciated a lot of the work that we’ve done throughout the years, and they decided they wanted to help us fight for the building,” Garcia told WSN. “We felt it had to stay a community center, and we hope that it will still be a community center.”

‘Give us back our community center’

Singer bought the center for $3.15 million — after thinking it would cost him $12 million — in 1998 at an auction of New York City property held by former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani. In response, activists released 10,000 crickets at 1 Police Plaza, where the auction was taking place, in protest. Singer evicted the Charas organization from the space immediately, but the building was only vacated in December 2001, after approval from a judge. Some activists and artists chained themselves together, with police having to forcefully remove them. 

“The other people who were there the day of the auction walked away from the building because they saw hundreds of young people outside protesting the auction,” Caporale told WSN. “The people who were going to bid said, ‘These kids aren’t going to go away any time soon.’”

Local advocates continued to protest Singer’s ownership for two decades, writing letters to former mayor Bill de Blasio and organizing demonstrations calling for the building’s rehabilitation. Protesters directed their efforts to Madison Realty Capital, which provided Singer with a $44 million mortgage loan in 2016, as well as other real-estate firms who they felt had inaccurately listed the building as open for individual use. 

“The whole place was like a war zone,” Kenny Toglia, a longtime activist and squatter in the Lower East Side, said in an interview with WSN. “It was 20 years of people fighting over it.”

Singer’s legal battle with New York City

During his ownership of the community center, Singer continuously created proposals to occupy the space but faced constant rejection from New York City judges. Singer told WSN that he initially purchased the building to rent to community organizations in the East Village at an affordable price. He said the city rejected the suggestion, so he proposed the building to be used as dorming for students at Adelphi University and Joffrey Ballet School. The city eventually landmarked the building, halting any further renovations.

Singer sued the city in 2018, alleging that Sosnick, the billionaire, paid lobbyists and city officials to advocate against his proposals to fill the building’s space and block him from attaining any permits. Singer said that prior to the anonymous purchase of the building, he was suspicious that Sosnick would attempt to seize the property and filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see emails between Sosnick and city officials. 

“We didn’t have people against it, except the people that are in Sosnick’s paywall,” Singer told WSN. “He has all of the politicians in his pocket.”

In June 2022, the building’s mortgage from Madison Realty Capital was foreclosed after the New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the real-estate firm in a lawsuit over Singer’s inability to pay back the loan. Singer filed for bankruptcy in March 2023, and lost the building in a Jan. 9 transaction. Singer now owes over $100 million in debt, and is suing the New York City Department of Buildings, de Blasio, Sosnick and four other entities for intentionally interfering with his permit denials.

Charas’ beginnings as a public school

The Charas building first opened in 1906 as Public School 64, which was created to meet the growing need for schools in the neighborhood amid an increase in immigration. The school closed due to the 1970s’ financial crisis and lost its city sponsorship, eventually becoming a hub for drug rings. After the Charas organization cleaned and restored the building in 1979, it secured a lease with the city to use it for purposes related to the arts, education and community meetings.

Tobocman, the art teacher, said he formed a network of New York City artists through programming at the center, such as galleries and theater initiatives. After Singer evicted the Charas organization from the building, Tobocman worked with several other artists to design and create murals covering the building’s Ninth Street side.

“I was very influenced by the community around me,” Tobocman said in an interview with WSN. “That whole movement of people definitely encouraged me to work with a place like Charas and make my art more community-oriented.” 

Now, activists are pushing for the building to return to its origins as a community center under the new ownership. Paul Wolf, a representative for the corporation that recently purchased the building, said it plans to “return the property to use as a community center” in a statement to WSN. 

“We were determined to keep the building’s services available,” Garcia said. “We believe the entity is going to work with the community to restore the space.”


Contact Dharma Niles at [email protected]

Developed for web by Manasa Gudavalli.

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