This is the first in a series of interviews with people who have been involved with the running of ABC No Rio. Over the course of thirty-two years, the collapsing tenement building– gallery, workspace, zine library, and punk venue– has survived on a shoestring, only because of a long fight by a dedicated series of caretakers. This week, I interview Alan Moore, an original member of Colab, a No Rio founder, and one of its most diligent historians. He co-ran the space from around 1980-1983 with Becky Howland and Robert Goldman.
The story begins on New Year’s Eve, 1979. In response to the city’s ghettoizing real estate tactics, the artist collective Colab staged an exhibition in an abandoned building on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side. The following day, police padlocked the artists out of the space, drawing protests and unfavorable attention from an already-charged press. The city hoped to quell the noise by leasing out the first floor space at 156 Rivington Street for use as a community art center.
Whitney Kimball: What did the space look like when you got there?
Alan Moore: It was a beauty parlor. The owner had abandoned it because there was a monstrous leak from the apartment above, and the water was pouring down right where they had located the chairs for the customers. I’m sure they battled with it for some time, but the place just became unusable. When we got there, there was a certain amount of material from the beauty parlor that was still remaining, but basically, [the owners] just walked.
WK: So were people squatting it when you arrived?
AM: No, we were given commercial space, which was the storefront. I believe it had very recently been abandoned. There was another business in the basement, where the Time’s Up Bicycle people now are.
WK: And that was active?
AM: It was an upholstery shop, run by a guy named Badillo. We saw him once or twice looking over his store, and then he just disappeared. And he never came back. So when we finally realized he was gone, we just kind of oozed into the basement. We didn’t have any permission, but no one was gonna use it.
WK: Do you think he didn’t come back because artists moved in, or because it was in such disrepair?
AM: No, I think it was because water was coming into his place [laughs]. He just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. It’s a marginal business, the storefront owned by the city is not very expensive…a building with a lot of problems.
WK: In the book [ABC No Rio Dinero, co-authored with Marc Miller], you described ABC No Rio as frequently being broken into and robbed. Were there any cases where you felt really unsafe? Did people ever think about giving up on it?
AM: The way it was in the Lower East Side and the East Village at this time, people got robbed all the time. It was really normal. I’m talking about apartment break-ins, where they come in and take all your stuff. If you look at the movies from this period, like Batteries Not Included or Joe’s Apartment, you’ll see this kind of thing. I just saw one the other day, Martin Scorcese’s After Hours, [a 1985 film set in Manhattan]…there’s a running gag where Cheech Marin and some other guy are playing robbers who are just driving around, breaking into places, and loading up their truck.
So this was going on all the time, and people were breaking into the gallery and taking whatever they could. It was a drag, but you had to deal with it. At one point, we fortified the doors, and they broke through the walls. [laughs] What is there to get, a radio? After a while, they realized we’re not going to keep anything there.
We had a lot of [neighborhood] kids come into the place, and we had to warn everybody, particularly the women, don’t put your purses down, because the children will steal your stuff. They were very charming children, but that’s what they did.
And then after a while, Bobby G (Robert Goldman), who still lives in the neighborhood, was getting evicted from his Brooklyn loft, so he didn’t have a place to stay. He moved into the basement. At that point, our security problems cleared up because Bobby’s a very– I don’t wanna say aggressive– but he’s in your face, you know. Hey, what are you doing here?? kind of guy. He’s not physically aggressive, but he’s right in your face. So he paid attention, people got the message that somebody was paying attention to the space, and things cooled down.
WK: Obviously you probably had to fix that leak, but were there any major maintenance issues that you had to deal with?
AM: There was no heat!
WK: What did you guys do?
AM: It was an issue, for quite some time. So we had to put up a wood stove.
WK: Where’d you get a wood stove?
AM: Matthew Geller made it, out of two oil drums. I dunno how long that lasted, but at some point the boiler got fixed. The city did do some maintenance, it was their building after all.
But El Diario, the Spanish-language newspaper ran a feature on the building, because it had been without heat for an extended period of time, and there were these gigantic rats that were coming out of the building and terrorizing children. There was a feature, and I never saw it, but Bobby told me about it, where one of the tenants was holding up this giant rat for the El Diario photographers: “This is what’s happening in the city building!” So they came and did a little work.
WK: So there were separate tenants living in the upstairs at that point…
AM: Yea, the whole building was tenanted, and everybody was trying to get out. Because it’s a miserable, run-down building.
WK: So did they have a more positive view of ABC No Rio coming in?
AM: Not really. They didn’t much care. The children who lived upstairs were paid a lot of attention by all of us. So they were hanging around after school and whatnot, but mostly, the people in the building ignored us.
I mean, you know, really it’s difficult to understand perhaps, but a lot of working people don’t give a shit about art. It’s not a matter of ethnicity. In the year 2000, I had a friend who had a gallery on second street. And second street had one of the hottest restaurants in Lower Manhattan at the time. And a lot of well-to-do people would come bustling by the place. We had a whole lot of interactive video stuff, this was 2000– all new, really kind of hot art shit happening, running– and people just walked by. Did not even look in the window.
AM: I realized that New York had really changed. They were going to the restaurant, they just don’t give a shit. And, you know, it’s not so unusual that hard-pressed, lower income wage workers don’t pay any attention to cultural offerings. They’re too tired, don’t have the time, they don’t relate– they’re not curious. That’s why artists do so much work with kids, because they’re still curious.
[As a backdrop: Richard Goldstein, writing for the Village Voice, described a piece in No Rio's 1980 show "Murder, Suicide, and Junk":
"On a wall papered with contributions...is a crayoned drawing of a tall man plunging a knife into the heart of a small woman. The drawing is based on an incident witnessed by the nine-year-old daughter of the woman killed. She lives in the building above."]
WK: So what was the process of writing about this like? Have you found anything you’ve forgotten in particular…
AM: [Often, when you have collective meetings], you’re not listening to any one else, just waiting for your moment to say what you have to say. That’s kind of an instant forgetting process, and what I discovered in writing about the Real Estate Show is that that process operates long-term. I don’t remember the meetings.
The whole thing was such a collective process. And one thing that happens in New York, (maybe it happens everywhere, but particularly in New York), is what I call “jefe-ism”, “jefeismo.” I used to think it was really characteristic of the Lower East Side, but somebody would show up to ABC No Rio: Where’s the boss? Who’s in charge? Well, you know, this is a collective. You’re kind of being pushed…I thought it was an artifact of Hispanic macho culture, but no. In New York, everybody wants to find the person who they can do the deal with. And there’s a continual pressure to be the man. In our period, it was “The Man,” or to be the leader. The more people identify themselves as experts in collective work, the more you deaden collective work. Unless you pull back and anonymize yourself, people don’t have any reason to get invested. They’re just helping you in your career.