2006_08_abcnorio.jpgIn 1979 a collective of artists occupied a vacant city- owned building on Delancey Street and mounted an exhibition. The police padlocked the show but after community and media support of the artists the city offered use of a building at 156 Rivington Street as a compromise.

Over the ensuing years, the collective that runs the center – which is home to weekly punk and jazz/improv concerts as well as a computer center and silk screening facility available to the public – has had its share of head-butting with its government landlord. The 1990s saw protests, arrests and a number of eviction attempts, the last of which was met with an 11th hour sit-in at the headquarters of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. To the surprise of organizers, the eviction was halted and ABC No Rio was offered 156 Rivington Street for $1 if they could show that it was a viable community center and that they could raise the funds to renovate the facility. On June 29, 2006 the check was written and accepted by the city in exchange for the deed.

They have already begun extensive renovations, and are in the process of raising money to complete the job. Most of the money raised wasn’t from grants or foundations but from benefits and small, individual contributions. ABC No Rio Director (and sole paid staff member) Steven Englander agreed to answer some questions about ABC No Rio’s history and plans for the future.

How did you get involved with ABC No Rio? How long have you been there?
I first started coming by No Rio in the late '80s. 1987 or '88, for Matthew Courtney's Wide Open Cabaret event. I was briefly co-director (with Lou Acierno) in 1990 and '91, and then went on to do other things. I was invited back to help to defend No Rio in late 1994 when those involved in running the place began to fear the City was not going to honor a stipulation agreement that had been signed, and would try to evict again.

That indeed did happen in Spring, 1995, and I ran the 'defense' campaign, seeking public and political support, coordinating our legal response with our attorneys, and facilitating protest and direct action. Over time I got more involved in programming.

Once the City called off the eviction and opened the door to No Rio's possible acquisition of the building, providing us the opportunity to develop new facilities and programs on the upper floors, I was hired a full-time director. That was in 1998.

Where does the name come from?
When the founders came to 156 Rivington Street there was a lawyer's office across the street. The sign read, in Spanish, "Abogado Con Notario" (Lawyer-Notary Public), but the letters had weathered and worn-off, and all that was left to be read was Ab C No rio.

Is this the first time you've tried to buy the building?
In both 1988 and 1995 overtures were made to the City's Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), the agency that owned the building, but neither were seriously considered.

During Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tenure, a number of occupied buildings were forcibly emptied, and there was a notorious stand-off in the East Village with days of armed sentries and even a tank on the street. How did ABC No Rio survive the “war on squats”?
ABC No Rio was a legal tenant and did have a month-to-month lease for the storefront and basement spaces; No Rio was and remains a 'legal' organization, incorporated as a nonprofit in New York State and tax exempt; we had broad support among the many thousands that were sympathetic and familiar with No Rio and its history, as well as recognition and support from elements within the mainstream worlds of art and culture, and that support was obvious and visible to elected representatives and government officials; and finally, the Commissioner of HPD at the time, after meeting with some of our supporters, turned out to be sympathetic and ultimately called off the eviction and gave us the opportunity to acquire the building.

Giuliani advocated privatization and disposing of city-owned property. Transferring such properties to nonprofits (such as No Rio and arts organizations) IS privatization. Also, the legalization of the eleven remaining squats on the Lower East Side now underway was initiated at the tail-end of the Giuliani administration.

What does owning the building mean? Are there things you've wanted to do that you'll know be able to?
First off, we'll be renovating the building and the work will be substantial, so the new facilities will certainly be a more comfortable and attractive environment in which to work, perform and attend events. We've made a commitment that all existing projects and programs will return after renovation, but we won't have the space for new on-going initiatives. The gallery/performance space will have sound-proofing and sound attenuation, so musicians can expect the room to be a little less 'bright.' On the down-side, insur ance and maintenance and other overhead expenses will be rising (already are, in fact).

While the building was purchased for $1, you've raised $290,000 for renovations. How much more do you need and how are you raising the money?
At present we are moving forward with two development budgets: one bare-bones, which was approved by the City, of about $700,000; the other more ambitious, about $1,000,000, and includes enlarging the first floor gallery/performance space and making a greater commitment to green and sustainable design (green materials, alternative energy, green roof, etc.) Now that we own the building it will be easier to approach institutional sources for funding, such as the New York State Council on the Arts and larger private foundations which generally require applicants to either own their properties or have long-term leases (7 to 20 years). We'll also continue to organize benefits, as well as appeal to individuals for direct financial support.

What can people expect to see at 156 Rivington once the renovations are complete? How long will it take and how long will you be closed?
This will be determined as we move forward with the architect, and will determined also by the pace of the fundraising. If we had all the funds in place right now. completely renovating the building would take from 14 to 18 months. Alternatively, we are more likely to move forward in phases. Phase 1 would take about nine months, and bring us to the point where we'd get a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy for the first floor and basement spaces. We'd resume public events programming there (music, exhibitions, readings, etc.) while we continue renovations upstairs. Our agreement with the City requires us to begin construction by June 29, 2007, and all work must be completed by June 29, 2012. Of course we expect to begin sooner than that, and certainly hope to complete the reno long before that deadline!!!

The immediate area around ABC No Rio has changed a lot in the last few years. Do the tony restaurants and bars effect your space in any way?
No, I do not believe so and we do not expect continuing neighborhood changes to impact our programming.

What makes ABC No Rio important? Why does New York City need you, and should there - or could there - be others?
I think what makes ABC No Rio especially unique and important is a sort of working atmosphere of openness, informality and spontaneity that we've created, or more accurately, that has emerged over the years, in which artists, musicians, performers, as well as activists and the public at large can meet, collaborate, and "educate" one another. While there are of course other places that do have some similarities to some of No Rio's projects and programs, I know of no other place like it in the U.S.that is similar to No Rio in its totality.

I think ABC No Rio and other grass-roots arts organizations are important to maintaining the cultural vitality of New York City, and our commitment to political and social engagement makes us, again, especially unique and important.

While I think it's unlikely for a project to emerge that replicates No Rio in terms of our projects and programs, I do believe there can be and should be similar projects that share the same spirit, values mission and purpose that animate ABC No Rio. I do frequently receive queries from others, primarily young people, asking for advice on how to initiate similar projects and I'm always happy to share with them the knowledge I've gained working here.

For more information, visit ABCNoRio.org