Judge holds off on ruling on Tribes gallery dispute

http://www.thevillager.com/?p=3353 by Gerard Flynn

An East Village arts organization’s future continues to hang in the balance, following a Housing Court judge’s recent decision to hold off on a ruling that could see the bohemian hangout close after 20 years.

Since 1991, A Gathering of the Tribes has been run as an alternative arts and literary scene at the home of its executive director, Steve Cannon. In that time, the retired professor of the humanities, who went blind from glaucoma 20 years ago, has been showcasing emerging talents while hosting bacchanalian festivities that have become the stuff of local lore.

However, this may all end soon, following recent legal maneuvers by the building’s owner, Lorraine Zhang, to have the 77-year-old bounced from his couch, just inside the door at 285 E. Third St.

Zhang charges that Cannon is running an illegal commercial operation in a building zoned for residential use only.

“Steve has no right for anything else other than primary residence use only,” Zhang said in a text message to this reporter.

Cannon counters that as a 501(c) nonprofit organization, A Gathering of the Tribes is legal. Research done by his lawyer, Cannon said, can prove that he is in compliance with existing zoning laws.

Cannon added that when he sold the three-story townhouse to Zhang in 2004 for $950,000, she clearly agreed to Tribes’ presence. He said that Zhang knew about the gallery and arts space when she signed, and had been a visitor there on many occasions.

He said that he only sold the 174-year-old building where he has been living since 1970 because of financial difficulties.

But promises received from Zhang were paramount in deciding to part with the building.

“I would never have sold the building to her unless she agreed that I could continue Tribes,” he said. “Otherwise I would never have sold it to her,” he said.

A copy of the 10-year lease appears to bear out Cannon’s claim. The agreement states that the “seller is using the 2nd floor apartment for his non-profit activities, which seller represents are private art and cultural gatherings and poetry readings.”

Cannon did not renew the lease in 2009, he said, because he never received a copy from Zhang. However, Zhang’s decision to accept rent checks until January of this year confirms that she agreed with Tribes’ mission, Cannon maintained.

Demands by Zhang since last August to shut down Tribes follow her decision in January of the same year to put the building on the market for $2.95 million.

That decision spawned a movement among a multitude of East Village and Lower East Side artists to save Tribes. It also saw attempts to get rich benefactors to buy back the building. However, that bid was unsuccessful, raising less than $15,000.

Zhang denied that she wanted Cannon evicted when interviewed by this reporter in December 2009.

Back then, she said that if Cannon discontinued “commercial activities” at Tribes, he could stay in the two-bedroom apartment, for which he pays $2,500 per month.

As both parties await the judge’s ruling, Cannon said that his lawyer is trying to get the case moved to the New York State Supreme Court, where he said he has a better chance at getting Zhang’s case dismissed.

He is also asking for almost $9,000 from the building owner for overpayment of rent.

Despite an uncertain future, Cannon said that he expects the gallery’s annual Charlie Parker Festival to go on in August. Tribes has been holding the month-long event in honor of The Bird for 20 years.

When asked about the worst possible outcome of the case — eviction — the New Orleans native was philosophical.

“When I get to that bridge, I’ll worry about it,” he growled. “Everything is on hold until the judge makes a decision.