ABC No Rioby James Trimarco
New space in the works for LES artist’s community
When the community art space ABC No Rio was founded in 1980, its dilapidated building fit in well on the Lower East Side. But the neighborhood has changed around it, and No Rio’s entrance, with its crumbling plaster, rusty gates, and quasi-geological layers of graffiti, no longer has much in common with the chi-chi boutiques, cafes, and art galleries that occupy many of the nearby storefronts today.
But there’s something else that distinguishes this building, an intangible air of politics and community in pungent combination. In concrete terms, the art probably says it best. Two murals wheat-pasted to the façade decry the proliferation of luxury condos in the area, while the silhouette of a goose in flight painted on corrugated metal suggests escape: from the material world, from quotidian oppressions, and from the seemingly ironclad rules of money and real estate in New York City.
No Rio is one of few organizations to defy those rules and come out alive. Created out of direct and extralegal confrontation with the city in 1980, the group fought off the city’s eviction attempts for nearly 20 years before finally winning the right to purchase its building in 1998, provided it raises the funds for renovation and submits a land use proposal. That proposal was completed in 2004 and approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 2006.
By the time No Rio officially acquired the building a few months later, it was already becoming clear that renovation might not be practical. The wooden side-walls of the current construction could have been constructed as early as 1820 and were in poor condition. Likewise, the brick walls at the front and back were damaged and cheaply built to begin with. In that context, the board of directors decided to demolish the current building and erect a new one.
The plans for the new space are near completion, but the organization needs to raise about two million dollars to pay for it—a huge sum for a DIY art space with a yearly budget of only $80,000. Grants, donations, benefits and an art auction held at Deitch Projects in 2005 have already brought in $400,000, however, and a second major art auction is planned for early June.
The fundraising will not be easy, especially for a group of people more experienced at making do than making money. But No Rio’s volunteers are prepared for the long haul.
In the beginning, says Steven Englander, No Rio’s director and sole paid staff member, ABC No Rio’s purpose was to “provide a venue for artists to self-organize and put on shows with their colleague artists without a lot of bureaucracy.” A long-time activist who’s as comfortable draining oil out of a radiator as he is editing a collection of essays on the history of squatting, Englander, 46, speaks with a combination of precision and gruffness. The organization’s founders did it “by hook or by crook-style, low-budget,” he adds.
That attitude is recognizable today, although the people running the space and the kind of work they encourage have changed over the years. Mike Estabrook, an artist who exhibited frequently at No Rio from 1998 to 2004, describes the gallery as a place where “the spark of inspiration had nothing to prevent it from becoming reality.” It might take only a few weeks between the conception of a group show and its exhibition, he explains, a process that often takes years at other galleries. “No Rio doesn’t play that art-world game where you try to become a superstar,” adds Vikki Law, a volunteer with the darkroom and visual arts collective. Instead the gallery looks for work with themes of community and collaboration, or which might be too pointedly political for other venues.
But the gallery is only part of what No Rio is about today, as a more diverse assortment of collectives has developed over the years. “The space has different significance to different people,” Englander explains. “It’s one thing to some 15-year-old borough kid who comes to a punk show and something else to a retired schoolteacher who comes to the Sunday afternoon poetry reading, and that’s different from some 25-year-old artist who moved to New York and ends up in a show.” With that caveat, he says No Rio’s purpose is to provide a space where the community can access a variety of artistic and organizing resources in an atmosphere of mutual collegiality, openness, and spontaneity.
The new building will advance this goal in more ways than a renovation could. It will be bigger, cleaner and easier to work in, widening the circle of people who want to get involved and allowing them to use the space for more hours of the day. And it will be ecologically sustainable, bringing No Rio’s energy consumption in line with the politics of its community for the first time.
Yet, it is worth taking a moment to consider what will be lost when the current building is torn down. Like a canyon wall carved by many years of flowing water, its physical presence has been shaped by successive waves of political and artistic practice in the Lower East Side, all of which have left traces in the crumbling layers of paint and plaster at 156 Rivington Street.
No Rio’s story begins in the winter of 1979, when a group of artists cut the padlocks on an abandoned furniture showroom on Delancey Street and spent a day cleaning it up and mounting work. They called their exhibit “The Real Estate Show” and held the opening on New Year’s Eve. The themes in the show included the role of artists in gentrification and the City’s mismanagement of its many properties in the neighborhood.
They returned on January 2 to find the building locked up and their work missing. The press conference they organized that day attracted reporters from The New York Times and the now-defunct SoHo Weekly News, as well as famed German artist Joseph Beuys. The next morning City administrators contacted the artists and invited them to a meeting, where the two sides eventually worked out a deal. The city would grant the artists their pick from a list of nearby available spaces as a monthly rental, and in return the artists agreed not to re-open “The Real Estate Show.”
The founders picked the building at 156 Rivington Street and took the organization’s name from a beat-up sign that had once read “Abogado Con Notario” but was missing so many letters that it seemed to spell out “ABC No Rio.” In the beginning, the artists rented out the ground floor and families lived in apartments above. The rooms that house the printshop, darkroom, computer center and zine library still bear the imprint of those days. All the chemical trays and washing areas in the darkroom are set up around existing tenement-style plumbing, for instance, and a paint-spattered bathtub in the printshop serves as a light-proof area for coating screens with emulsion.
As the founders gradually moved on to other projects, new volunteers stepped in, and No Rio’s signature activities changed along with them. In the early ’80s No Rio spotlighted visual artists, then performance in the mid-’80s, and later a “rambunctious open-mic,” as Englander describes it, called Matthew Courtney’s Wide-Open Cabaret. In the early 1990s a group of punk show organizers began renting the gallery space for a weekly concert intended to provide an anti-racist, anti-homophobic alternative to the scene at the now-defunct CBGB’s. No Rio became known primarily as a punk rock venue, and within a few years the punks had control of the board.
In this period, the city’s insistent attempts to evict the organization grew stronger, and in 1994 the city stopped accepting No Rio’s rent checks. The board decided it would be more difficult to evict the organization if there were people living on the upper floors to defend the building and prevent eviction by lock-out. Dave Powell, a housing advocate who got involved with the hardcore collective in 1990 and now serves on the board, remembers breaking into the upstairs apartments, which the city had padlocked shut. “It might have been the third or fourth campaign the city was waging to get us out,” he told me. “So we took a sledgehammer and beat in the doors. Some of those doors you can still see where we knocked them in. Shortly thereafter we began squatting those apartments.”
For the next four years No Rio’s pro bono legal team fought the city in court. The struggle came to a head in 1997 when No Rio’s supporters snuck into the office of then-HPD commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and staged a sit-in. To their surprise, Barrios-Paoli did not call the police. She invited the protesters in and listened to their concerns, then offered to sell them the property for a dollar if they raised the money for renovation, got rid of the squatters, and dedicated the entire building to community use. Englander, who had been living on the top floor for four years when that decision was made, can point to the places where his living room and kitchen used to be, separated by a wall whose remains are still visible. After the stipulation agreement, he told me, “We immediately took down that wall and made a lot of noise doing it, because we wanted to make it clear that we were actually going to do what we’d said we’d do.”
Relations with HPD have been cordial ever since and newer volunteers see the building’s significance from other perspectives. Garry Boake, an artist who has volunteered in the printshop for five years, tells me he loves the building the way it is, even as the cold air in the printshop fogs our breath and we take turns huddling against the radiator for warmth. “I hate how it leaks,” he acknowledges, “but it’s also amusing because sometimes I’ll be up here when it’s pouring and I’ll be running around with buckets trying to get all the water.” He shows me a place where rain flows through a hole in the ceiling into a funnel, then down through a clear tube that leads into the sink.
“It’s almost an art installation itself,” says Mike Estabrook, “but it’s totally impractical.” Vandana Jain, another artist who showed her first work at No Rio, comments on the artwork on the walls, which includes a striking painting of falling leaves forming into a human face by Mac McGill, and a piece in the backyard by the legendary graffiti artist Sane. “There are places where someone has come back and added some work up around something that’s already there. It’s this really amazing conversation that’s been recorded, so that’s something I’m really gonna miss.”
This legacy makes the process of designing a new building for No Rio more politically complex than it might be for other arts groups. Luckily, No Rio’s architect, Paul Castrucci, understands its history. A founder and one-time resident of the gallery and former squat Bullet Space, Castrucci has lived in the neighborhood for more than 25 years. He exhibited sculpture at No Rio during the mid-’80s, and in 1988, when a bulldozer hit the building and the city issued a vacate order, Castrucci demonstrated that the structure was sound and got the vacate order rescinded.
Castrucci rattles off the new building’s advantages: it will be wheelchair accessible, much larger and 90 percent more energy efficient compared to the outrageously drafty current building. There will a planted green roof, an array of solar panels, a terraced sculpture garden over the second floor and an additional exhibition space in the basement that won’t have to share a room with the punks. And artists won’t have their projects rained on during the night.
But Castrucci is also sensitive to what might be called the political aesthetics of No Rio. He’s tried to build in “a number of intimate spaces at every level of the building,” and that the interiors “will take a bit of getting to know so it’ll be an adventure to go there and see all the places.” Some volunteers felt that a glass storefront might look too commercial, so he has designed a façade with a narrow horizontal window that simultaneously preserves privacy and welcomes passers-by to peer inside, surrounded by metal walls that will acquire a “patina” of rust and texture as they age. Higher up, the plans feature an undulating pattern of screens that will shape the building’s profile, and will probably be covered with vines or weeds.
It’s perhaps a paradox that, on the visual level, No Rio’s renovation will make it fit in somewhat better with the surrounding boutiques and overpriced restaurants. It will no longer be a monument to the days when urban decay was in style. But that doesn’t bother No Rio’s community. “It’s not like we’re watching some developer take a building and smash the hell out of it and turn it into luxury condos,” Powell says. “We’re surviving that fucking shit. We’re going to come out of it alive as an institution, alive as a cultural force, and with a piece of real estate that nobody can take away from us.”
ABC No Rio, as an organization and a building, is a monument to the power of the artist as political organizer. The tenement where a community made its stand will be demolished, but the organization will live on. There is no way to know what volunteers will make of the new ABC No Rio space in 25 or 50 years, but the priority for today’s supporters is to fundraise and organize so that future volunteers will have that choice. And, given No Rio’s perseverance thus far, there’s no reason to doubt they will succeed.
James Trimarco's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair magazine.