Listening to reasons: The unlikely saga of a DIY art space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side

By on February 24, 2016

If, as Nietzsche said, success is the world’s great liar, then perhaps ABC No Rio is telling the truth. Indeed, for most of its 30 year existence — as art space, community center, and hardcore-punk club — the collective has subsisted on a mixture of principle, wit, and sheer good luck. Drastic changes, however, may soon be afoot.

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Several little birds this past summer chirped about a complete closure of the non-profit enterprise, which, according to real insiders, is untrue. Official news has ABC No Rio continuing on, though unlikely at its current location on the Lower East Side. Few in the know, however, are willing to talk on the record.

As such, gossip has become a constant over the past decade — especially where efforts for the collective to legitimize are concerned. From its very beginning, ABC No Rio has toed the line between anarchism and professionalism; its staff and volunteers have fought the law, used the law’s irregularities to bide time, even appealed to city hall and the occasional sympathetic politician.

Yet never to corporations; which is probably why regulars like Freddy Alva say that “nothing has really changed since 1990” (the year he began booking shows there).

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In fact, ABC No Rio is one of those rare local orgs that hasn’t sold out and yet still survives. How’d they do it? For one, the collective fought off eviction attempts by the city for nearly 20 years before winning the right to purchase its building at the end of the ’90s.

The one provo was that they had to raise their own renovation funds and get a land-use proposal approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) within a few years.

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That happened in 2006, after which the collective bought the building at 156 Rivington Street from the city for $1. Money to bring it up to code yet lingers, as does the practicality of ever fixing the edifice’s deep structural damage. (Original construction goes back to 1820.).

In some newer versions, ABC’s board of directors has called for a complete demolition and rebuilding. For the time being, additional fundraising and architectural reviews hold off the wrecking ball.

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Mike Estabrook

In the beginning, ABC No Rio was conceived as an alternative to the gallery scene and, like many eventual success stories, was built upon a healthy dose pie-in-the-sky idealism. Artists/volunteers like Mike Estabrook and Vikki Law laud things like the continued lack of wannabe art-world superstars there; also the ability artists have to conceive and execute new shows within a few weeks.

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Vikki Law

Current venue director Steve Englander called the original founders’ DIY ethos “by hook or by crook-style, low-budget.” As ABC’s sole paid staff member, he told the New York Times last year that the group’s purpose remains to “provide a venue for artists to self-organize and put on shows with their colleague artists without a lot of bureaucracy.”

Like many involved with ABC No Rio, Englander is both handy with a toolbox and broadly-educated in social activism. (The Times article claimed he was editing a collection of essays on the history of squatting.)

Hard as it is to imagine today, the 1970s was a period when New York City fell into serious disrepair — especially in Manhattan. A massive disinvestment by absentee landlords, which coincided with 1975’s city petition for bankruptcy, led to a seizure of 80% of the area’s housing stock by city government for non-payment of taxes.

The squatter movement reached a fevered pitch by the late ’70s in neighborhoods like the pre-gentrification Lower East Side (then largely a Puerto Rican community). ABC No Rio itself grew out of this environment.

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A local artists’ group known as Colab (short for “Collaborative Projects”) hosted a group exhibition in effort to foster connections between the locals, squatters, and artists; dubbed the “Real Estate Show,” it turned out to be more a critique of the city’s land use policies—policies that in essence kept buildings empty until the area again attracted investment from developers—than anything else.

Calling for “no rights,” the show opened on New Year’s 1980 and was shut down the next day by the HPD. Instead of walking away, however, Colab decided to negotiate with HPD; the result was a temporary grant of use for the building at 156 Rivington Street.

An effaced sign on the building once read: “Abogado Con Notario.” By 1980, the only letters left spelled “Ab C No rio.”

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Today the center maintains its older gallery space, to which has been added over the years a zine library, a darkroom, a silkscreening studio, and a public computer lab. Much of the zine collection came from the now-defunct LES radical lit-shop Blackout Books; the NYC chapter of Food Not Bombs cooks on a second-floor kitchen every Sunday; a Books Through Bars collective used to send free paperbacks to persons incarcerated through ABC No Rio, though anticipation of the building being closed for renovation has recently relocated their efforts.

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The best-known program, by far, remains the center’s weekly punk/hardcore shows each Saturday, which began in 1989 when the scene surrounding CBGB’s, in Greenwich Village, had devolved into a bloodbath of gang violence, homophobia, and machismo. Previous hotspots also included the A7 Club and nearby Pyramid Club in the East Village, though by November ’89, all three—including CBGB’s—stopped hosting hardcore.

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Mike Bullshit with Go!, circa 1990, at ABC No Rio

By that time, however, ABC No Rio’s Saturday matinees had solidified. There was one difference: volunteer/director Mike Bullshit (née Bromberg) set up a careful policy of no violence, homophobia, or sexism, and a precedent of booking only independent bands. Even still, acts like Rorschach, Citizens Arrest, SFA, Go!, and Born Against eventually became doyens of hardcore music the world over.

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Last year, Bromberg, along with founding members of the hardcore program Freddy Alva and John Woods, curated an exhibition titled “The Saturday Matinee at ABC No Rio 1990-91,” featuring B&W photos, old xerox’d flyers, and other assorted ephemera in the first-floor gallery.

Alva told Vice magazine that he’d learned to codify his values and “take the ideas expressed in the punk and hardcore ethos to find some practical, real life applications.”

For some, the professionalism displayed at ABC No Rio has threatened to undermine the rawness of its more extreme elements. To the extant that adults want to take something they love and make a living out of it, mainstays like Alva and Bromberg insist that defining hardcore and what it stands for often means abdicating where personal career desires are concerned.

More than a quarter century after its inception, the Saturday matinee continues to thrive.

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It is one of the few places in New York City, for instance, that still hosts all-ages shows. Die-hard volunteers—of which there were originally 25—show up early each Saturday and divvy up responsibilities. Nu-punks—of which there seems no end in sight—now consider ABC sacred ground. Entry cost remains $8.

Some things have changed, however. For one, the scope of the music has expanded, as tastes in NYC in general have. Many of the venue’s bookings these days are mirrored by the Brooklyn metal club St. Vitus (in Greenpoint), where dark-metallers such as So Hideous and the Body play alongside dronier shoegaze acts like Philly’s Planning for Burial and Black Table. Nu-hardcore bands Full of Hell and Hard Left (from California) ensure a modicum of traditional programming. It’d be hard to call the matinee a strictly “hardcore” anymore though.

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Elsewhere, the Visual Arts Collective continues to co-ordinate exhibitions in the main gallery, which are free and strive to be spontaneous, though a number of breakout artists — Vandana Jain, Kenny Scharf, Alan W. Moore — have assured the venue both a modicum of attention as well as a whiff of legitimacy from the larger art establishment.

“X Magazine Benefit” documents the punk rock performances of DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, and Boris Policeband in NYC in 1978. Shot in black and white super 8 and edited on video the film captures the gritty look and sound of the music scene during that era. The black & white film/video was made by Coleen Fitzgibbon and Alan W. Moore and finished in 2009.

Moore, who currently lives in Madrid, took part in the original “Real Estate Show,” wrote the book Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City (2011), and shot a 1978-79 documentary about the NYC no-wave scene (with performances by Boris Policeband, DNA, and James Chance, among others).

Multimedia artist Joseph Nechvatal — today a Paris correspondent for Hyperallergic — also came to maturity during the no-wave era. In the mid-’70s, he was an archivist for minimalist composer La Monte Young; he rented a storefront studio that cost sixty dollars a month from Fluxus artist Joe Jones in Tribeca, and frequented the Mudd Club and Tier 3, two centers of no-wave music.

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“At the time,” Nechvatal recently told the Brooklyn Rail, “I remember thinking that the disco mid-’70s really sucked compared to the rocking Woodstock non-profit head space of the late ’60s.” But, he recalls, rents were cheap, which was key to their freedom.

“Artistically,” Nechvatal continues, “the scene was poised at the end of Conceptualism, at the end of modernism, with artists such as Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, and Donald Judd at their reductive zenith.” Modern art, he recalls, reached the end-of-the-line.

“The question was where to go after that.” Nechvatal joined Colab. So did the seraphic Chinese-American painter Martin Wong (1946-1999).

Wong was a hippie, DIY theater designer, and sometimes transvestite; he relocated to NYC (from San Francisco) in 1978 and quickly landed in a sixth floor walk-up on Ridge Street, near Avenue B, and just around the corner from ABC No Rio. Wong’s collaborations with Miguel Piñero — the late poet, activist, erstwhile armed robber, and one of the founders of ABC — remain some of the most inspired expressions of that community’s apocalyptic vibrancy.

What the pair embodied most was the sense that their impoverished world held inherent value. (The works are currently on display at the Bronx Museum of Art.)

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In 1980, artist Christy Rupp mounted an exhibition at ABC No Rio titled “Animals Living in Cities.” She told the NY Post then that “rats should be seen not as filthy little things…. [but] as a symptom [of] garbage,” which is the real cause.

Rupp went on to photograph the work of Dr. Betty Faber, a behavioral entomologist of cockroaches, and eventually landed a job at the Museum of Natural History.

As the years have passed, success stories like Rupp’s abound from ABC No Rio’s historical annals. Yet where more than a few successful artists launched careers there, the venue’s operating budget remains a meager $80,000 per year. Even the most economical plan for renovation, or for a new structure, are priced at around two million bucks.

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“Animals Living in Cities,” 1981. Dog stencils and photo by Anton Van Dalen

During the ’90s, the collective put concerted effort into getting itself out of legal limbo. By 1994, the city had very nearly pulled the plug, having stopped accepting rent checks from ABC, which were only ever paid intermittently since its inception.

An attempted eviction was met with another activist squatting situation, which stalled proceedings temporarily. It turned out to be enough time for the ABC No Rio organization to pull itself together and embark on a serious fund-raising venture.

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Since that time, its radicalism has been tempered by a growing reputation within official circles as a legitimate community organization.

In 2009, the city awarded ABC No Rio $1,650,000 to develop the Rivington Street site as a permanent community center. A pair of art auctions, held at Deitch Projects in Soho, brought in over half a million dollars.

Architect Paul Castrucci — whose R-951 solar-powered townhouses are the first certified with a net-zero carbon imprint — was commissioned to design the new community space. So far, however, the group has shown more ability to make do than to make money.

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Steve Englander

In late 2014, Englander wrote a letter that starts out: “Friends, Comrades and Supporters”; it reports a few bids that were “higher than our available funding.” Englander then says there is a new influx of city capital funding —t o the tune of $1.5 million — which will help implement the first phases of new construction as of spring 2015 — a date which has come and gone.

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There has been other talk of an “ABC No Rio in Exile” program, which would keep current programs running at satellite venues, while construction ensues. Englander’s letter offered limited-edition photographs by Jade Doskow for donations of $250 or more. (Doskow, said Englander, was one of several photographers invited to document the building in advance of demolition.)

“We trust that you will join us,” the director concludes. Others, however, who wish to remain anonymous, told me that a lobby has been reignited to keep the current building intact, with renewed efforts to get it to pass code.

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For now, both building and programming remain intact. Though how long that can last, when just about everything else having to do with punk’s origins has either closed shop or been repurposed for corporate purposes, is difficult to predict. It is doubtful ABC No Rio would ever become the commercial cash-cow that CBGB has.

For one, it doesn’t have the big-name cache of acts like Patti Smith, the Ramones, or Blondie. For another, the collective seems much more likely to collaborate with the political establishment than the corporate establishment.

Regardless, the effects of gentrification on Manhattan have left none unscathed; one need only view those paintings that artists like Martin Wong left behind to see how removed we are from the recent past.

But life is not a work of art, and those moments could not last. Things must adapt, lest they lapse into memory.

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About Brian Chidester

Brian Chidester is a regular contributor to "The American Prospect," "L.A. Weekly," and the "Village Voice." He was a former editor with Yahoo.com and the author of "Pop Surf Culture" (Santa Monica Press). Chidester lives in New York City.