Nettime –ABC No Rio: we fought the law, and we won!

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ABC No Rio: we fought the law, and we won!
26 years ago, a small group of artists occupied an abandoned building
on Delancy Street. They put up an art show commenting on the housing
crisis in New York, focused by their actions on the quantity of
abandoned properties on the Lower East Side owned by the city itself.
The art show was immediately shut down; the artwork confiscated. The
city, by its over reaction, turned a minor event into a large
scandal. To end the scandal, the city agreed to rent the first floor
and basement of a building the city owned on Rivington street to the
group of artists.
The space became know as ABC No Rio, taking its name from the
reflection of a decayed sign across the street that once said Abagado
Notorio and looked as if it said Abc No rio.
What ABC No Rio is can best be summed up by the following quote from
the ABC No Rio website .
“We seek to facilitate cross-pollination between artists and
activists. ABC No Rio is a place where people share resources and
ideas to impact society, culture and community. We believe that art
and activism should be for everyone, not just the professionals,
experts, and cognoscenti. Our dream is cadres of actively aware
artists and artfully aware activists.”
The artists running the space eventually took over the abandoned
floors above and converted them into usable studios and living space.
The city made numerous attempts to evict ABC No Rio. Time and time
again the city lost. The city’s last attempt was giving ownership of
the building to a non-profit housing organization, Asian Americans
for Equality. AAFE, responding to the public pressure No Rio
organized, asked the City to withdraw the building from their
In February 1997, a protest converged on the offices of the New York
City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), one of
the agencies responsible for city owned property.
A crowd was marching towards the office of the Commissioner of HPD.
She heard the protest coming down the hall and as she said later,
realized she had a choice. She could call in the police and escalate
the situation, or she could sit down and talk. She opted to talk and
eventually offered a deal.
I was at home that day, waiting to do legal support for those
arrested. When the phone rang, and I was told of the day’s events I
thought it was a joke. Later someone framed it for me with this
rumor: The Head of HPD at the time had been an exchange student in
Mexico in 1968 when a large student demonstration turned into a
massacre because of the stubbornness of a bureaucrat; this was her
chance to learn from that and do the right thing.
9 and a half years ago, as a result of that day, the City and ABC No
Rio entered into an agreement. All people living in the building
would move out; all the space would be converted to various community
uses. ABC would have to hire architects and structural engineers;
come up with plans to renovate the building and bring it back up to
code. ABC No Rio would also have to raise enough money to renovate
the building.
If these conditions were met, the city promised to start the
procedure to transfer ownership of and rezone the building.
That process would require review and approval of: the department of
Housing Preservation and Development; the land use committee of the
local Community Board; the full Community Board; the City Planning
Commission; the Borough President; the City Council; and the Mayor.
We kept our end of the deal. Everyone voluntarily moved out (no
evictions) and most continued to participate in the project. The
upper floors of the building were fixed up, which supplemented the
first floor art gallery and performance space with a kitchen used to
feed people in Tompkins Square by the local chapter of Food Not
Bombs; a library of marginal publications and zines; a books to
prisoners program, Books through Bars; a meeting room/classroom
available to community groups; a fully equipped darkroom; a
silkscreen printshop; video editing; and a public access computer
Much to our shock and surprise, the city held to its end of the deal.
Even more shocking, ABC No Rio was able to raise enough money for
phase one of renovation, the major structural repair.
In December, the folks from HPD called. They needed us to send a
couple people to an important meeting. It seems that the process was
over. They wanted us to submit revised architects plans and numbers;
bank account statement; and get a lawyer so they could finalize the
transfer of the building by the end of January.
As these things go, there were delays and more delays. But, it is now
reality. This past week, on Thursday June 29th 2006, the City of New
York transferred ownership of 156 Rivington to ABC No Rio in exchange
for a check for $1. I’m a bit sad that they would not let us give
them the money in dimes and nickles (or even some glass beads and
Yes folks. It looks like we won.
Three or four generations of artists and activists went head to head
with city hall for 26 years and won. We forced them to the table;
demanded they take us seriously, on our terms. As a result, we have
created a permanent home for the culture of opposition.
Renovation starts in the fall.
To date, we have raised over $290,000 [2]. The majority of the
donations are below $100. That’s a lot of love from a lot of people.
To everyone that provided support, money, art for auction, talent,
beer, etc to aid our efforts, I send my thanks and respect. We could
not have done this without the thousands of you that had our backs.
I’m still in shock. Slowly the reality is sinking in. Over 9 years
ago when ABC No Rio started on the fundraising push, as a joke I bet
someone $10 that it would never happen.
It was my way of saying that I was going to help and I did not care
how impossible our goal seemed. I can’t remember who the bet is with,
but I’m eager to pay up.
[1] Some have sugested that I point out the fact that 8 years later,
AAFE Exec. Dir. Chris Kui had been appointed to the City Planning
Commission — one of the groups that had to approve the transfer of
the building. At that City Planning Commission hearing Mr Kui was
extraordinarily gracious and magnanimous, and spoke favorably of ABC
No Rio to his colleagues on the commission.
[2] Total renovation costs will end up somewhere between 500,000 and
900,000 depending on labor costs, material costs and other factors
beyond our control. We still need to raise the rest of that money,
but now that we own the building new sources of grant funding are
open to us.