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P.S. 64/El Bohio (former)

About this listing

A historic school building turned into a cultural center

Place Details

Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : East Village
Institution, Education

Place Matters Profile

Built in the early part of the 20th century, the former P.S. 64 has seen wave upon wave of new New Yorkers. Beginning in 1977, led by a pair of community-based organizations, Adopt-A-Building and CHARAS, the building was transformed into a community center known as El Bohio. The grass-roots initiative mirrored a local and nationwide citizen-led rebirth of urban centers and helped to catalyze the revitalization of the surrounding "Loisaida." P.S. 64/El Bohio was not the only building that New Yorkers saved from destruction in the 1970s and returned to productive use. Its special significance is in its identity as a public building, dedicated to the revival of community and of cultural survival. As such, P.S. 64/El Bohio long has been recognized by many as one of the principal places to embody these historical events.

The occupation and revitalization of P.S. 64/El Bohio took place in the context of widespread...

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Roger Vaughan, "The Real Great Society," Life (September 1967).

Syeus Mottel, The Improbable Dome Builders. (New York: Drake Publishing, 1973).

Liz Sevcenko, "The Making of Loisaida," in Augustin Lao-Montes and Arlene Davila, ed., Mambo Montage. (Columbia University Press, 2001).

Ruth Nazario and Sally Tully, eds., A Portrait of Loisaida. (Interfaith Adopt-A-Building, 1978).

Christopher Mele, Selling the Lower East Side. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Mario Maffi, "Culture in Loisaida," in Janet Abu-Lughod, ed., From Urban Village to East Village. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

The following people provided information to Place Matters about P.S. 64/El Bohio: Miguel Algarin; Dan Chodorkoff; Harriet Cohen; Linda Cohen; Maria Dominguez; Chino Garcia; Herman Hewitt; Doris Kornish; Tato Laviera; Lenny Lebreezi; Roland Legiardi-Laura; Maryanne Momforton; Ruth Nazario; Michael Rosen; Andy Stone and Joanne Morse; Marianne Perez; Edgardo Vega; and Jane Weissman.

On The Web

East Village Community Coalition "P.S. 64 - CHARAS, El Bohio: A History "


Roland Legiardi-Laura

Ground was broken on June 12, 1904, for the city's newest public school construction project, just three days before the worst civilian disaster in American history (prior to 9/11). More than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, died when the General Slocum, a ferry boat on holiday duty, burned and ran aground on North Brother Island in the East River. Despairing remnants of families moved away by the hundreds, and by the time P.S. 64 opened its doors in the fall of 1906, the churning Lower East Side had ceded this plot of land to the latest wave of immigration, Jews from Eastern Europe.

C.B.J. Snyder, New York City's brilliant and prolific master designer of public schools, was in his prime. With each new building, Snyder refined his vision and added important innovations. P.S. 64 would be no exception. Rendered in the popular Beaux Arts style of the day, the school was laid out according to Snyder's recently developed H-plan.

With P.S. 64, Snyder introduced yet another jewel in his crown of educational innovation: The ground floor auditorium. The problem he addressed with this simple and elegant stroke of design was assimilation. By providing free public assembly space, not just the children but the parents, as well, could enjoy the fruits of our society and learn its meaning.

The first time we read about P.S. 64 is in December 1907. The barely year-old school had become one of the hosts for a myriad of free lectures offered around the city. On a given night on East 9th street you might find yourself sharing a packed auditorium listening to speakers like A. V. Williams Jackson recite Persian mystic poetry, or Dr. Edwin E. Slossen expound on the Panama Canal.

During the summer of 1911, P.S. 64 became the first public school in the city to offer free open-air professional theater to the public. One of the reasons the school was chosen to premiere the series is because it was the first school in the city to have electric lights in its yard.

n the 1920's, P.S. 64 was a required stop for politicians campaigning in New York City. Governor Alfred E. Smith, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all recognized how important it was to make time to speak in the school's auditorium. Walker railed against his opponent, then-Mayor Hylan, Governor Smith confronted the Hearst news empire, and Roosevelt assessed his strength with Jewish voters by the neighborhood turnout for his speech at P.S. 64.

Beginning with the school's second principal, William E. Grady, P.S. 64 became known as a place of educational innovation and experimentation. Grady, who rose to the post of associate superintendent of the city school system, used P.S. 64 to develop and test what became known as the Ettinger Plan. In the years just prior to WWI there was a fierce battle to make schooling mimic a model of corporate efficiency and productivity.

From the school efficiency battles of the pre-war years grew the psychological and intelligence testing movement of the early '20s. A young educational innovator, Elizabeth Irwin (the founder of the famous Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan), worked at P.S. 64 from 1912 until 1921. While there, she devised a classification system for students predicated on the scores of their IQ tests. The controversial program won acceptance based on its success at P.S. 64.

P.S. 64 burst into the newspapers again in 1950. This time, two teachers from 64 out of a group of eight citywide were accused by the Board of Education of being Communists. The superintendent of schools, Dr. William Jensen, began the spectacle by suspending the teachers without pay. The hearings, complete with secret witnesses, noisy protests, a gaggle of lawyers, and culminating administrative trials, stretched into early 1951, when all eight were judged culpable and dismissed from their positions.

Throughout its significant history as a school, P.S. 64 was consistently turning out wonderful young students. Perhaps no public grade school played a greater role in guiding and shaping the creative dreams of immigrant children. Yip Harburg, the man who wrote the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz and such classic songs as Brother Can You Spare a Dime and April in Paris; Sam Levene, the great comic actor; Morris Green, who produced Cole Porter's Greenwich Village Follies and the Broadway version of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms; and Joseph Mankiewicz, Oscar-winning screenwriter, producer, and director who made such films as All About Eve and The Philadelphia Story, all went to P.S. 64.

Finally, in the late 1970s, when the population of the neighborhood could no longer support the school, it closed. But shortly after its doors shut, they were reopened, and the cultural work of the building continued. For the next 20 years, the old school building was known as CHARAS/El Bohio, a vibrant community arts and education center. Spike Lee screened his first student film in the auditorium, Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo performed on the stage, choreographers rehearsed in the classrooms, painters created studios out of the empty spaces, children studied poetry and martial arts, and everyone still felt as they had almost 100 years earlier: that this building, this space, welcomed and nurtured them.

Even now, as the building has become an object of sharp contention and controversy since it passed from the hands of the community to a developer in 2001, it still accurately reflects the struggles of the neighborhood people to determine and to enrich the direction of their lives.

Visit for a more full history.

Ruth Silber

A center offering affordable rehearsal, performance and exhibit space for artists, with a long history of social activism. Founded by a Latino gang, The Dragons, it was a key player in the anti-poverty movement through its "Real Great Society."

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