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A Haven For The Arts, Divided By Genre


July 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: James Estrin/The New York Times

Mateo Gomez, who runs La Tea Theater, in his office at the center. The city, which owns the building, says it will evict everyone unless a deal is reached.

Put a bunch of actors and artists under one roof, and there is bound to be lots of drama and works on paper. Unfortunately for those battling over the fate of a graffiti-covered city-owned building on the Lower East Side, none of it is the kind they would want on their résumés. A bitter dispute over the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center has had them fighting for years, with memos, letters and histrionics, over who should run the place and how.

On one side is a group, mostly theater types, who started the center in 1993, paying the city about $2,000 a month for use of the 80,000-square-foot former public school at 107 Suffolk Street. Opposing them is a group, mostly visual artists, whom the theater types enlisted as tenants but whose complaints over lack of heat and other services in the past led them first to organize a rent strike and later to become de facto managers of their half of the building.

If this were only about real estate, life would be simple. But what turns this spat into an emotionally charged saga along the lines of "Rent" meets "Bonfire of the Vanities" is that the theater types are mostly Latino, while the visual artists are mostly white. The center's Latino founders accuse the artists of not only wanting control of the building, but also of whitewashing its ethnic soul. The artists deny such designs, saying that they are dedicated to keeping the Latino presence but that the building needs to be properly run.

The uncomfortable upshot is that actors and artists - two groups who have traditionally been allies in the increasingly difficult search for affordable creative space - have turned on each other. Each side accuses the other of acting in bad faith, hiding the books or wanting to run the place as it pleases - and perhaps even exclusively. Each insists it has no secret agendas, will show the books to an auditor and just wants the place to run efficiently.

The city - which recently said the center's founders were the building's only legitimate managers - appears to be tiring of the impasse and has told both groups to find a resolution or find themselves a new space. A compromise was floated by the City Council member representing the district to see if peace could be reached, which in turn would allow the Department of Cultural Affairs to oversee the building and provide much-needed financing for repairs and programs.

"We have to save this as a community cultural and artistic center with Latino programming," said the councilman, Alan Gerson. "I have seldom seen anything so vitriolic as this fight between these two groups. All their energies have been drawn from their art to this internecine struggle when they share common needs and a building."

What they especially share right now is distrust. The center's Latino founders feel they are being edged out by a group of artists who they say are interested only in cheap studio space. Their fear is tinged with outrage, given the center's namesake. Clemente Soto Velez was a Puerto Rican poet and activist who spent part of his life in New York. He spent another part in federal prison as an ardent nationalist dedicated to getting the United States government out of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps that was why the center's founders were galled when the artists recently announced the formation of the Soto Velez Management Corporation, ostensibly to manage the building jointly as per a 2001 agreement. The problem is that the agreement was never completed, and the name was taken without the other group's approval.

"There is a little bit of ignorance with the artists," said Mateo Gomez, one of the founders, who is also the artistic director of La Tea Theater. "These people do not understand our culture or choose not to understand it. I'm talking about respect. They do not respect the Latino community."

The artists - about 40 of them, who go by the name the Artists Alliance - occupy a group of studios on the top two floors of the five-story building. Each of them pays about $500 a month for their classroom-size studios. Originally brought in by one of the center's founders, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, they soon were at odds with him. They organized themselves in the late 1990's to complain about lack of heat, leaking ceilings and overflowing toilets.

"It's affordable space," said Shelly McGuinness, the alliance's executive director. "But it isn't affordable if you can't use it."

The group withheld rent, then went on to pay a reduced amount, sometimes as little as $3,500. Ms. McGuinness, who receives a salary of $36,000 from the studio fees her group collects, said her group also directly paid for some repairs.

But the center's founders and their supporters have said the rent strike and reduced payments amounted to a sort of economic sabotage that has crippled it. They said that the Artists Alliance should be paying $11,000 a month, and that they owe at least $390,000 since 1999. They said there is also uncollected rent on two other spaces she said the alliance improperly acquired.

Manny Alfaro, who runs a Latino actors' group in the building, said the artists are "pushing out Latinos to make room for their own.

"They're looking at any little space, especially in New York City,'' he said. "This isn't Paris, where you can go paint on the Left Bank. That's why they're here."

He said he fears the artists are the first wave that will eventually displace longtime tenants. That is what he saw on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the arrival of artists was followed by the development of lofts and cafes that transformed the once gritty - and predominately Latino - neighborhood. Eventually, many artists were forced out, too.

On the Lower East Side, the artists say they do not want to control the building or eliminate its Latino identity. But they, too, are intent on staying. They see themselves as helping to preserve the area, not only with their work but also with educational programs for the community.

"Artists keep neighborhoods from gentrifying," Ms. McGuinness said. "If we continue to fight, who's to say the city won't take this building and turn it over to condos? Is getting rid of a solid creative base in the community going to halt the spread of gentrification?"

But some old friends turned foes have taken a radically different line. Mr. Vega Yunqué, who has since gone on to publish one well-received novel and has two more on the way, scoffs at the notion of art and community

"It's ironic that they call it community since there's not a lot of communing going on," he said. "True art is for the future. It's not so the people can do little educational programs for the poor, downtrodden, fuzzy-wuzzy children. That's just playing into the hands of the man who doesn't care about the people. A community's last priority should be art."

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