Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces

The MoRUS was completely unexpected. Last February I saw the space these squatter museum-makers had to work with. It seemed like a broom closet or a large bathroom. But their landlords, the legalized housing co-op known as C Squat, finally ponied up their entire common space. On opening day, the MoRUS had a storefront, a basement, and a two-story high performance area which was used in the past for squatter punk music shows. They survived a fund drive to a poor community and NYC's most devastating storm in memory – the place was totally flooded – to open with a new-fashioned LES flair. Local businesses pitched in a steady stream of food platters – Barnyard, the locavor food place nearby, and sweets from the 4th Street Food Co-op (not a commercial business, but hey). You could tell times had changed deciseively from when those LES squats fought the law, because the food did not instantly evaporate to the hungry crowd. Left they may be, but this crowd is now well-fed.
So many things have changed since the times this museum commemorates. The East Villager community newspaper reported that a landlord notorious for evicting all his tenants so he could live in their building is a frequent visitor to the museum. He has integrated into the neighborhood quite well. And why not? The rents on the LES are some of the highest in the city. It is now a rich person's district, like it or lump it. Instead of diverse ethnic poor, immigrants from often hostile countries living together, it is now radically different income and class strata which must mix.
I was in town for the opening, but I almost didn't make it. In a very East Villagey sort of way, I had spent the night before drinking with Michael Carter at the 11th Street bar. Michael is an old friend, living in a formerly squatted building. Back in the day, he edited Redtape magazine and used a Basquiat painting as a bedsheet. The bar is a great old Irish family joint. Near the bar in front hangs a stone carved by sculptor Ken Hiratsuka, a stalwart of the late Rivington School which occupied numerous vacant lots with their assemblages. Ken's stone commemorates the Chico Mendez Mural Garden which once stood opposite the bar. (Michael's story about Ken's stone and a picture of it appears in House Magic #4.)
I spent the next morning in Brooklyn talking with my host Marc Miller, who a few years ago posted most of the ABC No Rio book we edited together in '85 online. Suddenly it was too late to get to the museum opening on time. Even so, I had incredible good luck with the subway trains, which are notoriously unreliable on weekends. The train in Manhattan was packed with weekend people going places. A homeless guy was stretched out on the bench, taking up four places. No one bothered him. In other parts of the city they would wake him and make him get up. Not in genteel Manhattan. At last he awoke and started to shout and howl. It was a good reminder of what things in NYC used to be like.
Finally, I only missed the opening remarks by Councilwoman Rosie Méndez. For three hours I roamed amongst the jolly crowds in the big storefront, down the twisty stairs to the basement (coat check and bar), then into the grand two-story theater-like space. Much of the floor is painted with designs commemorating the LES squatting movement, as are the walls. Displays are well organized into different sections – squatter tech (videos and cel phones), community gardens, the Critical Mass bicycle wars – and enlivened by photos contributed by people in the community. The museum is staffed by young enthusiastic volunteers.
I know a lot of these folks. Marlis Momber, the longtime Loisaida photograher and veteran of the '70s drug wars was photographing on the scene. Jeff Wright showed up, a poet and ex-publisher of Cover magazine ( my former client; I typeset it for years). While Jeff was not acttve in the squats, he has been a strong advocate for the community gardens, a vital part of this museum. I talked with Ben Shepard, the activist, writer and teacher. While Ben was talking to me, he was scheduled to be making an audience presentation downstairs, so clearly the schedule was kind of loose. I saw the venerable Adam Purple, whose amazing garden was destroyed in 1986, a victim of an early push by Rudolph Giuliani to eliminate the Lower East Side counterculture. Adam talked only occasionally, doing inserts and glosses on a prerecorded talk about the garden.
I chatted with Frank Morales after his rousing short talk. He's working now with Picture the Homeless and Organizing for Occupation (O4O), bringing the squatter movement politics into the present day crisis.
Seth Tobocman, artist and author of the epochal graphic work War in the Neighborhood gave his talk accompanied by jazz musicians. Fly Orr also talked. She's the original zine-making, “cement-mixing squatter bitch” (the title of one of her zines). Fly contributed a lot of material to the “Squatter Rights Archive” at the Tamiment Library of labor history at NYU. The late Michael Nash mentored the group of LES activists like Matt Metzgar who worked on this project. MoRUS is the final result of a long series of moves by LES squatters to preserve their histories and disseminate their stories.
The MoRUS opening was full of fun characters. I talked quite a while with Paul Garrin, a computer programmer, ex-video artist, who has a company delivering wireless internet service on the Lower East Side. Garrin chucked a fast track media arts career to become a free information activist. He's also very much a business man, with little patience for left political people. Lisa Kahane was there, taking pictures of course. She was the chief photographer for the innovative '80s art venue Fashion Moda, and an important documenter of many activist art actions.
I had planned to interview the peripatetic Peter Missing, whose band Missing Foundation terrorized the bourgeoisie moving into the LES during the '80s and '90s. Squatter researcher Amy Starcheski was going to sit in. But it just wasn't an interview kind of day. Since those days, Missing has spent years in the German squat scene, and was among the last artists evicted from the famed Berlin squat Tacheles. I talked to Andre, the French-born squatter who supported the House Magic project when it first opened at ABC No Rio. I also sat with Sarah Ferguson, who wrote the best text on the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, published in Clayton Patterson's book Resistance. She's now very active with the community gardens movement. She told me how she had salvaged copies of the 1985 ABC No Rio catalogue from a hurricane-flooded basement and dried them out in a microwave. As formerly rare books they're worthless, but she wanted people to be able to still read them.
Later in the afternoon, the event got crowded as students involved in the demonstrations against tuition at the Cooper Union came pouring in. I didn't stay for the dancing. Sill I saw many other friends and had many other fun chats. Finally Michael Carter showed up. A few people who didn't surprised me. Clayton Patterson didn't show, but he has issues with many squatters. Andrew Castrucci of Bullet Space, and Steven Englander, director of ABC No Rio and a squatter deeply involved with this movement did not come. That was surprising, given Steven's deep involvement with the movement. He sort of dances around his positions on the issue in a recent interview with Whitney Kimball, yet he does talk extensively about squatting. His thumbnail account of how the squatters of LES got their buildings is succinct:
“Because the city had a policy of not negotiating directly with squatters, a non-profit community development corporation called the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board sort of mediated it. The properties were turned over to UHAB, and UHAB, working with the squatters, did the required renovations to get them up to code. Then they were converted into low-income limited equity co-ops. The official name is a housing development fund corporation. There are income restrictions on who can live in the buildings, and there are resale restrictions on what people can sell the units for. So we can’t sell apartments at market rate. In my building sale is restricted to families at or below one hundred percent of the area median income. So the sale price is set at being affordable for somebody who is right in the middle of median in this census tract, assuming someone spends about a third of their income on housing. Once the renovations were completed the former squatters became shareholders in their building and self-manage them.”
Ben Shepard blogged the event fast and well, putting it in the context of other talks and events he'd attended this month. He stuck in a long account from his recent book, describing the notorious insect release which disrupted a city auction of community garden properties during the Giuliani years.
Later that week, I woke up in Queens, and took the subway into the city to recover my bike, parked at Lafayette and Bleecker. On the way to the East Village, I stopped off in the onetime Yippie! Café, where there was an installation of some 30 odd documents from the Yippie archives. This long-time venue of the counterculture movement linked to the late legendary activist Abbie Hoffman has reconstituted itself as a museum of resistance. I recall the place from when I used to live around there in the 1970s. It was the last citadel of hippie culture in New York City, the brain center of the marijuana smoke-ins. Always littered with young hitchhiking backpackers with rainbow-colored t-shirts, the place hosted music concerts and informal cultural events, in the Bleecker street storefront and the larger city-owned space they had use of around the corner. At that time, the age difference – and the thick fog of reefer smoke – did not make me a regular of the place. But I recognized their mission, and helped out a little from time to time on their newspaper(s), Yipster Times and Overthrow. (I was working as a typesetter.) The pater familias of the Yippie family is Dana Beal, a hard-bitten longhair and drug treatment activist who is currently serving time in a Wisconsin jail for pot possession. After decades of operating more or less openly as a pot-smoking countercultural hippie leader, it is simply sad that the law finally caught up with Beal. Especially since now the laws seem to be changing – if not nationally, then at least in a couple of western states.
For me, this trip to NYC has been a lot about recalling those old sites of – well, I can’t even call it a flourishing counterculture in lower Manhattan, but the remnants of a once almost general culture, a libertarian anything-goes culture which grew up amidst a brutal colonial war in Vietnam, and continued after the fall of Nixon. The end came with the ascension of Reagan and Bush. It is odd that under Mayor Bloomberg, who has done all he could to hyper-gentrify the city and make it like Singapore, there should be this resurgence of a memory of resistance. Maybe Occupy Wall Street put it back on the table.
Michael McKenzie is running the Yippie! Museum, “the museum of dissent.” He told me some of the OWS “kids” were meeting there, and read the Yippie manifesto. One young man said in amazement, “This has all happened before!” Meaning the arising of a U.S. movement aimed at liberation and against capitalism. Yes indeed, indeed it did. And there’s a lot of interest in the course of it.
McKenzie said that people had been bringing things over to add to the Yippie museum, old folks who’d been active in the ‘60s slipping envelopes through the door and delivering shopping bags full of stuff. They also have a large uninventoried collection of videotapes documenting all sorts of Yippie-ish activities over the years, including Beal’s own long running campaign for the plant-derived drug ibogaine as a cure for heroin addiction.
Finally, the opening of the MoRUS is very promising. I look forward as always to some sort of connection between the U.S. and European movements. The links exist, but the consciousness of squatters is always very local. Connecting with the long-lived deepset movements in Europe is only the first step. Linking with the Global South is the next.

Poster image by Eric Drooker
Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces

EV Grieve blog
(includes a lively comment section about the alleged sexism of Drooker's image above)

“Squatters museum opens with chain-cutting celebration”; photos by Lincoln Anderson

“Landlord who ‘reclaimed’ building a ‘big fan’ of new museum,” by Lincoln Anderson

Chico Mendez Mural Garden

The ABC No Rio Interviews: Steven Englander

“From the Tenement Museum to Bluestockings, MoRUS and the Lower East Side's Radical History,” from Ben Shepard's blog Play and Ideas,

“Art of Activism” through February 9, 2013 at Yippie! Museum Café