Walk through the yellow welded gate and painted rebar at 156 Rivington Street and you may feel you've stumbled onto the set of a 1980's East Village scene. A checkered sneaker dangles from iron gears. Layers of paint and graffiti murals color the exterior, depicting the burgeoning of high rises as locals flee destruction.
Inside the walls of this slumping former tenement, ABC No Rio, a collectively run community arts organization, is one of the city's remaining combatants against the artistic mainstream of the Upper East Side's museum mile and the Chelsea gallery complex. This emblematic — albeit crumbling — space is now poised for massive development.
"Now we can design a space in order to suit all our needs," says Steve Englander, ABC's director and sole staffer. Plans for a new space are nearly complete, but the organization needs to raise $2.7 million to pay for the project. Not a small feat for a community art space, but the all-volunteer collective is committed — after all, ABC No Rio is no stranger to uphill battles.
Founded in 1980, ABC became closely associated with the squatters movement when a group of over 30 artists occupied an abandoned building and mounted an art exhibition. Although the police quickly shut down "The Real Estate Show," which addressed the city's housing and land use policies, it forced the city into negotiations with the artists, who eventually won a month-to-month lease. ABC fought on for years, dodging the city's attempts at eviction until 2006, when the city officially sold the building to ABC No Rio for one dollar, on the condition that they raise the money to rehabilitate the building for community use.
ABC has certainly upheld their end of the bargain of commitment to the community. Inside the front gate, flyers plastered on the walls of the stairway announce daily events and programs, from art exhibitions, punk rock and experimental music concerts, to a weekly poetry series. The facility also houses a community darkroom, computer lab and one of the largest zine libraries in the country. ABC No Rio has something for everyone.
"It's hard to define our constituency," says Englander, who has watched the neighborhood transform. Boutique hotels and sidewalk cafes have replaced affordable housing and mom-and-pop bodegas. According to Englander, ABC's programs now service people all over New York. "Some borough teenager might come in for a punk rock show one day, and the next, a retired schoolteacher shows up for a Sunday poetry reading."
When ABC No Rio took ownership of the building it had become clear to ABC's board of directors that, given the structure's current state, renovation may not be a practical solution. "If we want to do it right, responsibly and well," explains Englander. "It makes sense to begin anew."
If the mission of ABC No Rio is to provide a space where the community can engage in artistic and organizing resources, than surely the new building — larger, cleaner, more accessible, and ecologically sustainable — will advance this goal. But it is worth noting the current building's iconic testament to the years of political and artistic expression in the Lower East Side, preserved and plastered in layers of paint on its weathered mural walls. Even its name is a daily toast to the ABC's legacy.
Derived from a badly worn sign across the street that was missing most of its letters, what originally read ABOGADO CON NOTARIO ("Lawyer and notary public"), was worn down to AB… C… NO…RIO. Thus the name ABC No Rio, symbolically reclaimed amidst its urban decay, like the building, is itself an enduring reminder of the collective's history.
Yet as Englander explains, "ABC No Rio isn't the building. The building is only a representation of what happens inside."