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Mott Haven Center for Women of Color Faces Eviction

By Patrick Wall | April 24, 2013 12:50pm

MOTT HAVEN — When Alizette Sidibe was still too young to join the discussion groups at Casa Atabex Achè, a community center for women of color, she sat off to the side and played with dolls.

As she grew older, she ran straight from the elementary school across the street to Casa, as it’s known, and asked for homework help.

In middle school, she turned to Casa to guide her through the physical and emotional maze of puberty.

And once, before she was to have back surgery, she sat inside a Casa healing circle and cried, and it gave her courage.

Now in high school, she finds herself campaigning to keep Casa alive, since its landlord ordered the group to vacate its rent-free unit by the end of the month.

“If it wasn’t for Casa I wouldn’t be the young lady I am today,” Alizette, 15, wrote in a letter of support for Casa, which has occupied the same basement space in an apartment building at 471 E. 140th St. for the past 15 years.

“You go depressed,” she added, “and you leave a new person that you thought you’ll never be.”

Casa Atabex Achè, which can be translated as “House of Women Power,” began in East Harlem but moved to Mott Haven in 1998.

The center combines African and Latin American healing practices, reproductive-health education, counseling and the arts to serve women of all ages who confront poverty, violence, abuse and addiction.

It also provides space to other like-minded women, including one who practices ancient Chinese healing, a candle maker and a cooperative of Mexican women who make a living as street vendors.

“There is no other organization in this district that does the work we do,” said Casa’s executive director, Sharim Algarin-Morris. "If you have healthy women in your community, you have a healthy community."

When Casa relocated to Mott Haven, Josue Velazquez, a property owner, allowed the group to settle in the basement space without paying rent or signing a lease, according to Algarin-Morris.

In 1996, Velazquez had enrolled in a program through the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development that helps neighborhood-based property managers fix up and buy city-owned buildings.

In exchange for substantial city loans, Velazquez agreed to rent his more than 100 units in a cluster of buildings on 140th Street to low-income tenants, property records show.

Casa assumed Velazquez offered it the free space as part of the subsidy program.

However, an HPD official said the agency’s agreement with Velazquez did not require him to lease to a nonprofit or provide community space.

In any case, Velazquez sent the center a letter on April 1 demanding that it vacate the building by the end of the month, according to Algarin-Morris.

The letter did not provide any explanation and Velazquez has refused to discuss the matter with the group, according to Algarin-Morris.

Velazquez, who records list as the president Claremont Village-based J. & Kris Corp., did not respond to phone or email messages. An employee at his office referred questions to a lawyer, who did not immediately respond to a message Wednesday.

On Monday evening, about a dozen supporters converged at Casa to discuss the imminent eviction, pulling their chairs into a circle beside an African statue wrapped in a pink scarf on an altar shrouded in pink lace.

The group split into small teams and discussed outreach, fundraising and legal strategies that might help Casa remain at least temporarily in the space, since it has barely enough funds to operate, much less relocate.

Members also explained why the community needs this modest gathering place.

Daniel Chervoni, 56, who has two daughters, called Casa a “peaceful, happy place” where young women can discuss “the birds and the bees” and other issues without fear of gossip or judgment.

Gail Brown, a special education teacher at a local high school, said this year’s class of incoming freshmen included eight pregnant girls. For such teens, Casa’s workshops and support groups provide “preventative care,” Brown said.

Adelphine Manfredi, 20, who gave birth three years ago, said Casa connected her with older mentors and other young mothers who now attend one another’s baby showers and children’s birthday parties.

“Once you become a part of Casa,” she said, “you’re family from that day on.”

As the meeting ended, the group passed around a candle and each person offered one word of blessing from the universe to the community and Casa.

“Perseverance,” someone said.