In its thirty-two years of operation, ABC No Rio has beaten almost all the odds. The collectively-run (and almost entirely volunteer) organization has survived twenty years on the brink of eviction, with perennial funding and legal battles, all under a collapsing, nearly two-hundred-year-old roof. When the group officially acquired the building from the city for one dollar in 1997, it seemed doubtful that it would be able to raise the $100,000 that was required to maintain the place for five years. Now, due in part to a more reciprocal relationship with the city government and support from individual donors, it hopes to execute a $5 million rebuilding project.
Many consider the existing building a New York landmark. The formidably rusty front gates and the painted facade stand apart from what are now high-end restaurants and boutiques. Works from an original Real Estate Show poster to graffiti by Sane Smith evoke artists past, and decades of painting and sculpture encrust the walls. When I visited recently in a rainstorm, the rickety stairwells were lined with buckets.
I was there to meet Garry Boake, a longtime print shop volunteer, who had to leave the room every five minutes or so to hand-pump the water off the roof. When I asked him how he felt about the renovation, he pointed to the strips of moldy ceiling peeling down above his head. “The place is falling apart!” he said, leading me to a shallow hole in the wall where a little sculpture had sprouted up inside. “That sculpture is attached to the building next door,” he explained. “That’s how thin the walls are.” The building is a six-inch-thick eggshell of wood and brick.
I could see how the perks of the new space would far outweigh the loss of a structure which, for many, represents a final stronghold against Lower East Side gentrification. In addition to adequate ceilings, the new space will ideally double the size of their gallery, include an elevator, a rooftop garden, improved insulation, a ventilation system, solar panels, and a planted facade, and even meet LEED certification. In short, it would be a model for progressive building. Needless to say, if the community is able to execute the upcoming renovation, it will be worth celebrating, not only for artists but for anyone who’s ever been priced out of their neighborhood.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of interviews with a few of the people who made ABC No Rio possible, including co-founder Alan Moore, “Decadent Performance Era” directors Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, Books Through Bars NYC and darkroom co-founder Victoria Law, and current director Steven Englander. Their experiences span three decades of ABC No Rio’s development in a radically-transforming city.