Thursday, December 02, 2004

Housing Developers Burn Down Community Center
Bronx, NY December 2, 2004 - Thirty residents of Casa Del Sol, a community center in the South Bronx, are homeless after a fire partially destroyed their building and sent 16 firefighters to the hospital. Residents blame ACORN, a development group, for allowing the fire to burn five hours after police evicted the building's residents.

"The circumstances are incredibly suspicious," says former Casa Del Sol resident Joleene Martin. "The fire happened under their watch. I blame them for either negligence or malice. Either way, it's their fault."

Police ejected residents on Tuesday, November 30, after a contentious Buildings Department order. Police cleared residents in 10 minutes and welded the doors of the building. Shortly thereafter, a fire started on the third floor of the building. Residents were prepared to challenge the order in court on January 7.

"We kept this building up for 20 years," says community center volunteer and resident Jacques Aboaf, 24 "The police were in charge of it for a couple hours and managed to burn it down."

The Casa Del Sol building was abandoned 20 years ago by its owner and claimed by its residents. The city has tried to clear out the building several times throughout the years, using helicopters and riot police. Still, the building remained more or less continuously occupied and a source of great frustration for the police.

Two years ago, a battle began between building residents and the developers ACORN, which wanted to take over the property. ACORN also wanted access to the adjacent Cherry Tree Garden, a space granted to the Trust for Public land after Elliott Spitzer's 1999 landmark garden case.

"We're trying to impact this community in a positive way," says former Casa resident Mark Shenson. "Acorn is just looking to profit off of an already impoverished community."

Casa Del Sol's most recent projects included a silkscreen shop, a community garden, an after school program, the Adverse Possession art gallery, and weekly concerts. Casa Del Sol also hosted an annual street fair and Halloween party, and houses the offices of the Cherry Tree Association and the Mutual Aid Project, which produces the New York City Free Events Calendar.

Residents of the building are staying for three days in a motel room provided by the Red Cross. Residents will be homeless afterward.

None of the firefighters were seriously injured, and were quickly released from the hospital.