Volume 19 • Issue 7 | July 7-13, 2006

Art of the deal; group buys building for $1

By Lincoln Anderson

While the Lower East Side is, day by day, undergoing rapid transformation, an agreement reached last week between the city and a nonprofit arts organization will insure that a center of the neighborhood’s alternative arts and radical political activist scene remains.

On June 29, the city officially sold the four-story tenement building at 156 Rivington St. between Clinton and Suffolk Sts. to its tenant, ABC No Rio, for $1. News of the impending sale had trickled out into the community at least two weeks earlier, but some forms still needed to be properly filled out; as a result, Steve Englander, the center’s director, said they withheld making the announcement until last Thursday.

Carmen Boon, a Department of Housing Preservation and Development spokesperson, confirmed that the building had been sold to ABC No Rio for $1 under the department’s Community Works Program. Under this program, city-owned buildings are sold to nonprofit organizations, which, so far, have tended to be arts-related organizations.

“They have to continue to maintain the building in good shape,” Boon said.

ABC No Rio has existed for 26 years. The city gave the artists group the tenement in 1980 after a show they had staged in an abandoned Delancey St. building to highlight rising rents and gentrification was broken up by police, generating bad publicity for City Hall. But the situation was tenuous, and in the mid-1990s ABC No Rio fought off an eviction a

Although the small Rivington St. building — about 4,500 square feet — at one point had seven or eight squatters living on its two upper floors, in 1999 these squatters voluntarily vacated after ABC No Rio reached a use and occupancy agreement with the city.

In addition to its one paid staff member, Englander — who himself was a squatter at ABC No Rio in the mid-1990s — a group of about 50 volunteers runs the building and its programs and facilities. The organization’s annual operating budget is $75,000.

There is a darkroom, silkscreen print shop and computer center. A ’zine library of alternative publications features the likes of Punk Planet, Maximum Rock & Roll, Temp Slave and World War III. On the ground floor is an exhibition and performance space.

Everything is either no cost or low cost, at rates of just a few dollars an hour. Punk bands and protesters use the print shop to burn screens to make T-shirts. The group Food Not Bombs cooks at ABC No Rio twice a week for its Tompkins Square Park feeding program. Books Through Bars receives their mail there from prisoners to whom they send reading matter. Activists and the community at large use the building to hold workshops, meet and organize.

In an interview on Monday, Englander said the blueprint for the deal was reached under the Giuliani administration, which sought to privatize city-owned properties to get them back on the tax rolls.

“Nonprofit is privatization too,” he noted. However, he said, ABC No Rio was put in a “Catch-22” because the Giuliani administration conditioned the $1 sale on the organization first raising the needed money to renovate the dilapidated building. Getting foundations or government sources to commit cash was virtually impossible when ABC No Rio couldn’t say it owned the building, Englander noted.

“If you were a foundation, would you give $100,000 or $200,000 to a project that might not happen?” he said.

Things were at an impasse until, under Mayor Bloomberg, ABC No Rio was offered the option of raising the renovation funds in phases.

“That broke us out and allowed us to do it,” Englander said. Bloomberg, as a businessman, was able to work something out, since he’s “more sophisticated,” Englander noted. “He’s also got a bigger commitment to the arts,” he added. “Giuliani’s a bit of a philistine.”

The city uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, was then completed to allow the transfer of the property from the city.

The plan is to do a complete gut renovation in two phases, with the first phase including the performance and exhibition space. Through benefits and fundraising, ABC No Rio has cobbled together $270,000 for the first phase. The upper floors will be done in phase two. What Englander calls a “barebones” renovation of the entire building would cost $725,000.

A new roof and new stairs will be added. Floor joists will be replaced and the building will be made wheelchair accessible. They hope to expand horizontally on the first floor into part of the backyard garden. An interior steel structure will be installed allowing the option of adding another floor at a future date, though Englander said they won’t be expanding vertically anytime soon.

“We don’t plan to do it,” he said. “We just want to make it possible to do without tearing up the whole building.”

Another option, a more ambitious plan — making it a green building by using nontoxic paints and building materials and installing a green roof — would cost $960,000.

Englander said they’d like to start the first-phase work in nine months and hopefully finish phase one nine months after that, allowing the reopening of the performance space.

In January, in a similar transaction, the city sold six buildings on E. Fourth St. for $1 each to the Fourth Arts Block organization, an association of 13 nonprofit cultural and community service organizations, including La MaMa Theater. The city has invested $3 million to help with those buildings’ renovations and has pledged to kick in another $1 million.

Englander said ABC No Rio would like city participation too.

“It’s a bit splashier, like a dozen [arts groups and organizations],” he said of Fourth Arts Block. “I think from the politicians’ view, it’s a bit sexier. We’re like a little buildin

While ABC No Rio will be staying, the neighborhood has been changing. Today, the area now has a lively young bar scene at night.

“It used to be quiet here,” Englander said. “They didn’t want attention; they were selling drugs until seven years ago.” Whereas the dealers used to sell “dope” — heroin — Englander said, they now seem to be selling cocaine, at least judging by two dealers who recently propositioned him. He assumes the pushers are catering to the new bar crowd.

On Monday afternoon, the day before the Fourth of July, on the downswing of a long holiday weekend, things were expectedly quiet at ABC No Rio. Yet, in the space of an hour, one man popped in to inquire about silkscreening, while a group of three young women came just to look around the place. Another woman dressed semi-Goth style dropped by to see if her friend was working at the ’zine library.

Seth Tobocman, a Lower East Side comic strip artist who chronicled the squatter movement, came walking down the stairs. He had just met with an Israeli, one of the three curators, along with Tobocman, of the “Three Cities Against the Wall” show, about the Israeli security wall, at ABC No Rio last November. They’d met to discuss doing a traveling show. Tobocman passed a recent mural he’d done on the stairwell wall depicting a hybrid scene part post-Katrina New Orleans, part Iraq war. Once a year, the building’s stairwell is festooned with an array of new paintings and sculptures by different artists.

“It was a very controversial show,” Tobocman said later of “Three Cities Against the Wall.” “ABC No Rio is a very free-speech kind of place.

“I’m glad we’ve still got ABC No Rio,” he said. “We’ve lost too many things. I’m glad something remains of what the neighborhood was for a long time. I’m glad there’s a place where someone can go and work and do things without being a big shot. That’s where creativity comes from. Art comes from a chance of trying to do things differently — and ABC No Rio gives people that chance.”



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