When actress Rosie Perez is looking for a good time in Alphabet City, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe at Third Street and Avenue C is often first on her list. The 25-year-old café’s sizzling Wednesday-night poetry slams are sometimes so packed that even bigwigs like Wesley Snipes and Gregory Hines have trouble squeezing in.
For now, they’ll have to keep on squeezing, because the café’s plan to expand its space has just hit a wall with Board 3. The board voted at its April 24 meeting not to support the café’s request to the Department of Housing and Preservation to renew control over two adjoining lots at 236-238 East Second Street. The two-year-old plan calls for an expansion of the café site to make room for a new 3,000-square-foot theater and arts space on city-owned property. The proposed expansion site is now the Peachtree Community Garden-and everyone knows how those Lower East Siders feel about their community gardens.
The garden, which started in 1995, is one of the youngest additions to Alphabet City’s contentious green scene, but it was evident at the meeting that it has plenty of support. Martha Geisler, Peachtree’s president since 1999, announced during the public session that the garden collected 33 letters of support from local businesses and residents, drawing whoops and boisterous clapping from supporters in the audience. Peachtree members also presented the board with a petition signed by 750 local residents who are none too thrilled with Nuyorican’s bid to enhance its star status on the block.
Alfredo Feliciano, who lives around the corner from the café and has even performed there once or twice, said café management is hopelessly out of touch. “Nuyorican Poets Cafe has become a yuppie den,” Mr. Feliciano said. According to Mr. Feliciano, that old Lower East Side radical pizzazz that kept the café humming in the 80’s is no longer evident. “The only heroes at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe are the ones that they serve to eat there,” he said.
Miguel Algarin, Alphabet City’s hippie statesman and the café’s founder, obviously disagrees. He bristled at garden supporters’ accusations that Nuyorican is a “yuppie” space and accused Peachtree members of “mean-heartedness.”
“My God, we still charge $5 to get into the place,” Mr. Algarin said. “It’s the difference between 100 people using the space and a coterie of maybe 20 people that are friends using the spot for basically their own private use.”
Only a handful of board members seemed to agree with Mr. Algarin. Twenty-three members voted not to support the request, but six members abstained while seven voted to endorse the plan. Some of the supporters reminded the audience that the Nuyorican had originally gone to the city’s Housing and Preservation Department with a plan to build housing for aging artists (a board committee had supported that plan, but the full board never reviewed the takeover of the garden site). In the end, though, fears that the café has become something of a Goliath on the block won out.
Board member Gregory Heller supported the garden with his vote, saying he was disappointed in Nuyorican’s plan for expansion into coveted green space. “I think it’s disgusting that one community organization has been pitted against another,” he said. “I think it’s appalling. [The café] could have found an alternative.”
Trade School Gets Help From Friends
To the state Department of Education, Harlem’s Universal Business and Media School is rife with serious violations. Among its faults, the state charges, are “using unapproved programs and courses,” conducting business in a facility “seriously lacking in general maintenance and non-conducive to student learning,” and lacking “the requisite financial viability to maintain a school license.” It has also, according to the state, played funny with the government’s money.
To members of Board 11, however, the school at 220 East 106th Street is nothing less than a gateway to the American Dream. So it was described by John Rivera, a board member who took to the microphone as a community member at the April 17 meeting of Board 11.
The board has rushed to the support of the Universal Business and Media School, which has been denied renewal of its license by the state and ordered to shut down. The for-profit school, which provides training in computer-related trades, happens to be run by Dr. Georgina Falú, a community leader-and a member of Board 11.
The school has gone to the state Supreme Court to block the closing order while it fights to remain open. A temporary injunction was issued, allowing it to continue to operate. But state officials believe they will prevail.
“We’re confident the court will rule in our favor,” said Howard Goldsmith, chief of the New York State Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision.
That would be a tragedy, said Mr. Rivera and other school supporters. According to the school’s Web site, Universal’s program of study “primarily serves the educationally disadvantaged and traditionally bypassed student,” enrolling more than 250 black and Latino students (80 percent of them women with children) who are attempting to earn a General Equivalency Diploma or brush up on skills necessary for today’s job market. It is one of 365 such licensed schools in New York, about 80 percent of which are in the metropolitan area.
Graham Rose, the attorney for the school, told The Observer that Universal had already lost its ability to participate in federal programs like student financial aid when it was ordered by the state to shut as of March 6. The state’s failure to approve its license renewal and its decision to shut the school down will harm Universal’s ability to get federal student-aid funding restored, he said. Without aid, most students can’t afford such programs-and the schools can’t stay in business.
But Mr. Goldsmith said the decision to deny renewal of the school’s four-year license was not done arbitrarily. “Our job is to make sure these schools offer what’s best for the students,” he said.
Mr. Rivera disagrees. He said he wrote a letter to Governor Pataki asking him to reconsider the closing of the school, and he urged everyone in attendance at the board meeting to sign a petition attached to his letter.
“For 12 years this school has been a nurturing force in the neighborhood,” Mr. Rivera said. He deemed the school a success. “We’re just looking for fair treatment,” he said.
Dr. Falú, his fellow board member, was not present at the meeting and did not respond to phone calls from The Observer.
May 2: Board 4, Fulton Center auditorium, 119 Ninth Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105.
May 9: Board 6, N.Y.U. Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Alumni Hall, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 679-0907.
May 10: Board 5, the Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street and Eighth Avenue, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.