On Saturday, December 17, an intergenerational group of Lower East Side leaders came together to celebrate the ribbon cutting for a series of murals that paid homage to the CHARAS/El Bohio Community Center, which was located at 605 East 9th Street from 1979 until the beginning of this century.
The 152,000-square foot complex, once home to PS 64, was sold to a developer in 2001. And Loisaida has never been the same.
In the spirit of CHARAS—which offered artists and activists a shared space within its walls to thrive—the freshly-sprayed wall on the building’s East 10th Street side today serves as a reminder of what’s possible when a committed group of people unite their talents and passions to create something that brings life, restoration, and beauty to a neighborhood.
“It was truly epic how the community pulled together to make the murals happen. This is an outdoor educational mural that will showcase the significance of a great art space that once stood [here],” said Frank Gonzalez of Loisaida Realty and LES CommUnity Concerns. “It’s important to bring back the history and all that happened in the CHARAS/El Bohio Community Center.”
The murals on the reclaimed space on East 10th Street honor the founders and volunteers of CHARAS, including Lower East Side icons Chino Garcia and Angie Hernandez. Both were in attendance at the ribbon cutting.
The inspiration for the project came from David “Daso” Soto, a musician who owns the Piragua Art Space on the other side of East 10th Street. Daso, son of Angie Hernandez, experienced firsthand the impact of CHARAS. He practically grew up in the building and has many fond memories. After moving into his studio this spring, however, it pained him to look across the street and see the building’s facade literally crumbling before him, the sidewalks dark and cluttered with litter.
Daso and Gonzalez talked about a mural and brought the idea to Jeremy Del Rio, founder and executive director of Thrive Collective. In the last eight years, Thrive has painted over 300 murals in public schools and public spaces through its #BringArtBack mentoring program. The non-profit organization traces its roots to the Lower East Side, starting as a youth center in the Jacob Riis Houses.
The East 10th Street mural project, which quickly came together in the weeks before Thanksgiving, included collaborations with Project Yourself; Alejandro Epifanio, executive director of Loisaida, Inc.; MoRUS (Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space); The Clemente; La Plaza Cultural; and Why Not Care. The murals were curated by Christian Penn of Thrive.
Pastor Rick Del Rio, Jeremy’s father and the founder of nearby Abounding Grace Ministries, delivered a prayer of dedication at the ceremony.
It is this kind of “intergenerational community that makes this neighborhood so special,” Jeremy Del Rio said.
“For me, as the son of pastors Rick and Arlene Del Rio, I’ve experienced the generosity that flows so naturally from them,” he said. “It’s a labor of love to now be part of a peer group with guys like Frank Gonzalez and David Soto and so many incredible artists, and to be able to build on those legacies in ways that reclaim spaces.”
Daso told the Village Sun that the mix of portraits, abstract and graffiti art “beautify this whole area and bring this theme of unity to the wall of a building that has been very much abandoned and forgotten.”
While the building has been neglected and abandoned, it has remained a source of controversy for the last 20 years. It is currently in foreclosure, and over the years, many court battles have ensued. The owner, Gregg Singer, failed to repurpose it several times, and has also sued the city. Meanwhile, community activists believe it should once again stand as a proud and much-needed community center.
“This building, for a century, had a legacy of teaching young people how to manifest the best versions of themselves,” Jeremy Del Rio said. “When it stopped being a public school (1977), it became a community arts center, a place for people to come and learn how to create, how to reimagine worlds that don’t yet exist, and develop skills. And then a few decades ago, something shifted.”
“For the last 20 years plus, it has fallen into disrepair and decay and became a marker for the kinds of degradation that we don’t want our community to represent.”
At the unveiling ceremony, Gonzalez was thankful for the partnership that transformed the street, including the installation of lights on the scaffolding.
“We turned on the lights. Now this street is much safer at nighttime,” he said. “It used to be all dark and now we have light. The building has been abandoned. This block has been neglected. So what did we do? We came together, and we made it better. Thank you to our beloved community. Each and every one of you.”
“The hope of the community leaders and the neighborhood is to bring back CHARAS. We are a marginalized community and desperately in need of major resources like education, an art space, and a safe haven for our children.”
Daso, thankful for the community-led makeover on East 10th Street, agrees.
“We need spaces like this. Not only for our youth, but for adults in the arts; they need a place to mentor youth as well,” he said. “Our legacy is not only celebrating all of this wonderful diversity, but it’s also about artists that can give back to the next generation. That’s why we are all here today.”