Charas. The Improbable Dome Builders

“This book is dedicated to everything that is.” This simple dedication begins Charas, the Improbable Dome Builders. The book is a document of a Lower East Side community and their struggle to build a geodesic dome, beginning in the early 1960s with struggling New York City street life and systemic racism. Several men who would become CHARAS members led or were involved in gangs and moved in and out of prison while watching friends and loved ones succumb to drugs and violence. Carlos “Chino” Garcia and Angelo Gonzalez, Jr. two friends from the Lower East Side and involved in gang life from an early age, start the CHARAS story. Angelo, after serving a long jail sentence and Chino, after spending a year in Puerto Rico at the request of the NYPD, meet up again in their old neighborhood with the idea to do something for their community. The two men were inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society plan which sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in America. Talking at a party they joked that they would start the “Real Great Society” in their neighborhood. The joking led to long discussions drawing in friends and neighbors in an apartment space on East 6th Street. Finally, the group was able to obtain the entire building as a meeting and organizing place to launch the Real Great Society in earnest. Much of what the Real Great Society project was about was developing community autonomy through self-directed economic and education projects. The project managed to do a lot for the neighborhood forming several businesses and setting up several storefront schools for teaching reading and basic math in East Harlem and the Lower East Side. This project brought national attention to the Lower East Side. Despite its initial successes the group continued to do research and work toward finding the answer to affordable housing. This led them to contact R. Buckminster Fuller, after Chino learned of his design work. Fuller came and spoke at the Real Great Society loft to a rapt audience. This meeting led to the formation of CHARAS, an acronym of the first names of the original six members of the group, committed to implementing Fuller’s ideas for housing in their community. The original idea was to build a dome in upstate New York so that city dwellers could experience fresh air. Budgetary constraints forced the group to begin building on an abandoned lot in the city. The group worked closely with Fuller’s assistant Michael Ben Eli, a PhD student in London at the time who often traveled with Fuller. In a strange collapsing of scale, Ben Eli commuted from London to the Lower East Side to teach the CHARAS members and friends about the applied geometry of dome building. Several CHARAS members had not graduated from high school and had a skeptical attitude to teacher student relationships. According to the book, there was a long period for CHARAS members and Ben Eli as the learned to communicate with each other. The commitment to the idea finally led to the building of a dome. Marriage, childbirth, death, and the need to work to support families form the backdrop of the CHARAS story to build a dome house. The process as described in the book is long and arduous and the dome house does not clearly produce lasting change in the community. Rather the process initiated by the former gang members of creating alternatives to poverty and the violence of street life through collective work is the most salient aspect of the book. The book includes an introduction by Fuller and plans for dome building in appendix. Domes were a touchstone for liberation through design, and captured the imagination of many people; this is one of the more interesting stories of their impact on radical culture.

Text: Mottel Syeus. pp. 192; BW ills.; hardcover with dust jacket. Publisher: Drake Publishers, New York, 1973.

ISBN: 9780877494904| 0877494908

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ID: 14972

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“This book is dedicated to everything that is.” This simple dedication begins Charas, the Improbable Dome Builders. The book is a document of a Lower East Side community and their struggle to build a geodesic dome, beginning in the early 1960s with struggling New York City street life and systemic racism. Several men who would become CHARAS members led or were involved in gangs and moved in and out of prison while watching friends and loved ones succumb to drugs and violence. Carlos “Chino” Garcia and Angelo Gonzalez, Jr. two friends from the Lower East Side and involved in gang life from an early age, start the CHARAS story. Angelo, after serving a long jail sentence and Chino, after spending a year in Puerto Rico at the request of the NYPD, meet up again in their old neighborhood with the idea to do something for their community. The two men were inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society plan which sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in America. Talking at a party they joked that they would start the “Real Great Society” in their neighborhood. The joking led to long discussions drawing in friends and neighbors in an apartment space on East 6th Street. Finally, the group was able to obtain the entire building as a meeting and organizing place to launch the Real Great Society in earnest. Much of what the Real Great Society project was about was developing community autonomy through self-directed economic and education projects. The project managed to do a lot for the neighborhood forming several businesses and setting up several storefront schools for teaching reading and basic math in East Harlem and the Lower East Side. This project brought national attention to the Lower East Side. Despite its initial successes the group continued to do research and work toward finding the answer to affordable housing. This led them to contact R. Buckminster Fuller, after Chino learned of his design work. Fuller came and spoke at the Real Great Society loft to a rapt audience. This meeting led to the formation of CHARAS, an acronym of the first names of the original six members of the group, committed to implementing Fuller’s ideas for housing in their community. The original idea was to build a dome in upstate New York so that city dwellers could experience fresh air. Budgetary constraints forced the group to begin building on an abandoned lot in the city. The group worked closely with Fuller’s assistant Michael Ben Eli, a PhD student in London at the time who often traveled with Fuller. In a strange collapsing of scale, Ben Eli commuted from London to the Lower East Side to teach the CHARAS members and friends about the applied geometry of dome building. Several CHARAS members had not graduated from high school and had a skeptical attitude to teacher student relationships. According to the book, there was a long period for CHARAS members and Ben Eli as the learned to communicate with each other. The commitment to the idea finally led to the building of a dome. Marriage, childbirth, death, and the need to work to support families form the backdrop of the CHARAS story to build a dome house. The process as described in the book is long and arduous and the dome house does not clearly produce lasting change in the community. Rather the process initiated by the former gang members of creating alternatives to poverty and the violence of street life through collective work is the most salient aspect of the book. The book includes an introduction by Fuller and plans for dome building in appendix. Domes were a touchstone for liberation through design, and captured the imagination of many people; this is one of the more interesting stories of their impact on radical culture.

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