Lower East Side activists shouted, threw chairs, made phony bids and, in one surprise tactic, released thousands of crickets in One Police Plaza's auditorium. But in the end, they failed to save Charas/El Bohio cultural and community center and five community gardens on city-owned vacant lots from being sold at Monday's city auction.
Charas's building, a former public school, located just east of Tompkins Sq. Pk. on E. Ninth St., was bought for $3.15 million by a man who declined to identify himself to the press or describe his plan for the property, which carries a restriction for community-facility use. The restriction would allow senior housing or medical, school or church uses, among others.
The property could be conveyed to the new owners in as soon as 30 days, and probably not later than 45 days, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. DCAS said it will reveal the buyer's name in a few days, once the sale is verified.
More than half of the 35 Manhattan properties in the auction were on the Lower East Side/East Village, most of them vacant lots. Tenement-sized lots in the East Village fetched as much as half a million dollars, while some small lots on E. Houston St. sold for more than $300,000. However, the Clemente Soto Velez cultural center -- also located in a former public school -- was pulled from the auction at the last minute.
Despite warnings of arrest if they disrupted the meeting or made phony bids, there were numerous outbursts by the activists, who included a mix of gardeners, squatters, artists and Charas supporters. They arrived early and probably had over 200 people of the roughly 700 in the auditorium.
"Stop this process right now!" yelled one squatter repeatedly, as a garden at Fifth St. and Avenue D was being auctioned, before being escorted out by police to the activists' cheers. A woman who made a false $300,000 bid for the same garden and unfurled a "Free the Land" banner was also evicted.
"Seventy thousand dollars! Shove it!" yelled squatter Michael Shenker, calling out a fake bid. "People of the Lower East Side stand your ground!" he screamed, then fell to the floor, forcing cops to drag him out. Although most of the protesters were merely ejected, five were arrested, including East Village video artist Clayton Patterson, who was charged with assaulting three officers after they removed him from the building and he tried to re-enter.
"They attacked him. We have it on tape," said Elsa Rensaa, Patterson's wife. "One cop, you can clearly see, tripped him. And six rookies and two undercover cops jumped on him. He's okay. He's quite angry."
As Charas's auction approached, commotion broke out, as 10,000 inch-long brown house crickets were released from envelopes around the room. Some women -- apparently activists trying to foment chaos -- stood on chairs and shrieked.
"Get spray or something," said a man there to bid on Bronz properties, standing on his chair. "These things can get up your pants, forget it."
"Everybody remain calm. Stay seated," said the auctioneer, trying to keep order.
However, in a major glitch, the crickers did not hop about -- which would have increased the pandemonium -- but just crawled around listlessly, hardly able to chirp. "I think mayber they were in the envelopes too long," said Todd Edelman, a publicist for the gardeners, only saying that "individuals" had let out the bugs.
As people wondered if the auction was over, teenage summer custodians eventually came in with brooms and started amusedly stomping and sweeping up the hapless insects.
As opening bids were made for Charas, Armando Perez, Charas' artistic director and East Village Democratic district leader, shouted, "How can you do that? Do you know we have been there 19 years? . . ." before he, too was marched out by police. Charas started squatting in the building 19 years ago, when it was overrun by hookers and drug dealers and its copper roof had been stolen by scavengers.
The winning bidder for Charas, with a bid of $3.15 million -- one of the day's highest bids -- was a dark-haired man in his 30s or 40s wearing a green polo shirt and khaki shorts, who declined comment.
"When the time's right, I'll contact you," the buyer said. "It depends on the legal process." Perez's group is appealing a decision on a lawsuit that charges the city did not conduct an adequate review of the property's use prior to the sale.
"We want to find out who this bidder is," said Perez. "I want to expose the organization that decided to bid on this property knowing what it means to the Lower East Side. We view them as the enemy, like Giuliani. Senior services, a church, it doesn't matter to me what they're going to provide. It matters to me what they're going to destroy."
"We're going to put up a fight," said Carlos "Chino" Garcia, Charas's president, adding that Charas will be discussing legal options with its lawyers. However, he added, Charas can't afford costly legal fees.
Charas rents out rehearsal space to artists, and provides space for many community groups and programs.
Severy years ago, another former Lower East Side public school, at Forsyth and Rivington Sts., was sold and converted to an AIDS residence.
A number of East Village vacant lots fetched surprisngly high prices, including a two-lot parcel on E. Eighth St. and Avenue D, which sold for $510,000; and a lot at E. 13th St. and Avenue B, sold for $550,000. A lot at E. 12th St. and Avenue A went for $385,000; while two lots on E. Eighth St. between avenues B and C, went for $350,000 and $370,000. Two lots on E. Houston St. sold for around $300,000 each.
A buyer of one of the lots on E. Housing St between Avenues B and C, who did not give his name, said he plans to build condominiums, "for people who work in the Wall St. area and people from Silicon Alley."
Ed Vega, Soto Velez's director, said they worked with Hispanic politicians, particularly Bronx Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo -- who supported Mayor Giuliani in the last election -- and Giuliani ally Herman Badillo.
"A lot of people pulled for us," said Vega. "Our strategy was to be very respectful of the city. Mr. Badillo was probably involved. We called some people who have his [Badillo's] ear, for help." Vega said Soto Velez's board of directors must now try to convince the Giuliani administration that they have a viable plan for the cultural center's future.
As to why Charas was sold and not Soto Velez, some thought it was "political suicide" for Charas to have allowed the Latin Kings to use the facility as a weekend meeting place, and that Charas had too much "political baggage."
The Bread and Puppet Theater brought a busload of people from Vermont, who performed skits and music outside One Police Plaza, where there was a lively pro-Charas demonstration.