The ABC No Rio Interviews: Steven Englander

by Whitney Kimball on December 20, 2012 Interview

New plans for ABC No Rio, image courtesy of

In the last ABC No Rio interview leading up to the building’s renovation, I talk with Steven Englander, the current director and sole paid employee. After studying film in New York in the early eighties, Englander became involved with anarchist groups like the Libertarian Book Club and helped run the Anarchist Switchboard in the Lower East Side. He was drawn to ABC No Rio for the big event at the time, Matthew Courtney’s Wide-Open Cabaret, basically an open mic for performance poetry. A few years later, he moved into the building, and he became the official director in 1990.

In a period between ‘86 and ‘92, Englander described a “good amount of ferment” and urban blight in a neighborhood filled up with squatters and artists. This was around the time of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot, where hundreds of police reportedly assaulted a demonstration of squatters and punks. When Englander first moved in, there was no lease, but upstairs tenants like short-term director Lou Acierno had an informal understanding with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It wasn’t until 1994, Englander said in a 2007 interview with Liza Kirwin, that people who self-identified as squatters moved in.

For years, No Rio fought for the right to acquire the space, which they eventually won in exchange for squatters moving out of the building in 1998 (see: last-ditch light bulb). It took eight more years to finally buy the building (which they famously did, for one dollar). The members are now fundraising for a five million dollar renovation,$3.15 million of which has come from the city itself. While some see this as a departure from No Rio’s roots, no longer holding down a crusty old fort amongst the Lower East Side boutiques, Englander says the fighting is the easy part. He asks, “What do you do if you win?”

WK: So it seems that at one point, there had been a more anarchist mission…is that going to carry over to the new space?

SE: Well, No Rio has always been anarchistic. While there’s never been any sort of litmus test here to get involved, because of the way it’s been structured and run, No Rio does attract people who do call themselves anarchists. But nowhere in any of No Rio’s documentation, whether it’s the founders or the people in the 80s, were they ever explicitly anarchist. In the early days they’d sort of established a sense of working collectively and having a high degree of spontaneity, which, years later, attracted a certain kind of person. And then, during the late 80s and early 90s, No Rio got more closely involved with the squatters scene on the Lower East Side, and that probably added to this veneer of its anarchistic quality. But there’s no political litmus test, and it’s actually pretty ecumenical in terms of people getting involved. I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d be horrified to be called an anarchist. There’s all sorts here, but pretty much generally on the left.

In some ways, though, we are open to people who you might say are right-wing. Not right-wing authoritarians, but…I use the term “communitarian” to describe them. It’s the place where self-reliance, DIY culture, sharing and mutual aid intersect. Like an early 19th-century New England transcendentalism. Communities formed from free and independent individuals. Almost the same thing that some of these teabaggers seem to be yearning for, harking back to an absurd nostalgia for a nonexistent small-town America… There is a communitarian ethos here. So for people with an attraction for that sensibility, even if they’re not explicitly anarchist, they may still find themselves comfortable at ABC No Rio.

I think that what’s interesting about ABC No Rio, is not whether it gets any particular label. It’s if we’re able to demonstrate that a collectively-run project can be successful, and people can draw their own conclusions based on that. I see that as the important thing that we’re doing. If we can pull this project off, and I think that we can, we’ll have demonstrated that a collectively-run project can do a five million dollar project. I don’t think anybody in the United States can point to any other collectively-run project that successfully did something at that scale.

WK: In an interview with Liza Kerwin, you said that Paul [Castrucci, the architect] was part of the squatters’ movement, and I was wondering if he ever lived at No Rio…

SE: No, he never lived at No Rio. But he founded this building, Bullet Space, with his brother Andrew back in ’84.

WK: So would you say that Paul is uniquely able to look at the needs of the space?

Rendering of the planted facade, photo courtesy of Paul Castrucci

SE: I think he gets us. He’d been with squatters and the interminable meetings and things like that, so I think he wasn’t surprised by the process that we asked him to go through. And I think the aesthetics of the design that he came up with are well-suited to us.

He did have one concept that was a small glass curtain building. But I think he knew that people weren’t going to respond warmly to it.

WK: Why?

SE: I think people tend to associate it with the worst aspects of the kind of development that’s going on in New York City now. The interesting thing about the glass curtain building we briefly considered is that the glass curtain was going to be solar panels. Turns out it wouldn’t have been feasible in terms of solar power, and it still would have been a glass curtain. I think people just have this knee-jerk reaction against glass curtain buildings, especially in this neighborhood, when they’re not office buildings.

I do think he came up with a design for the building that people responded well to. I think it’s the right design for the organization, it has this organic quality to it. Because it has the planted facade, it has this living, breathing aspect to it. It’s got a contemporary feel, and we’re an art center…we did feel we needed a building that had a contemporary feel to it. We didn’t wanna do a reproduction.

I think it made it easier for people who had a hard time with the idea that we were going to remove the existing building to put up another one. The planted facade suggests that the next one’s gonna stay for some time. If it’s growing, it has this sense of rootedness to the neighborhood and the place that it’s at. So it has these sort softer things that sort of mitigates the shock people felt when they heard we were going to tear down the building.

Everybody has these nostalgic ideas that they hold onto, but the building is actually just a talisman or symbol for the activities they remember and the experiences they had. It’s the people and the events that happened here that are important, not the physical structure itself.

And there is no special architectural significance to the building. Even as far as throw-em-up fast crappy tenement buildings on the Lower East Side [go], this one was especially poorly-made.

WK: What have been, looking back, some of your toughest battles, keeping things going? I know you guys had some issues with Asian Americans for Equality a while back– it seems like you’ve been fighting for a lot of things for a long time.

SE: I think the toughest thing was not all the fighting – it was making the psychological shift from fighting to working with. After the period in the 90s when the city was trying to evict us, we had to make that change which then resulted with “if you do these things, we’ll work towards giving you the property.” It was almost harder to actually make that transition than all the fights previous. Almost half of No Rio’s history now is not fighting. It’s almost ancient history to look back at that.

People called us sell-outs for making that compromise. To work with the city, it was a compromise. The people, including myself, who were squatting that building had to willingly vacate. The city wasn’t going to unconditionally surrender. Some of us got jeered at even five years after that, by people who thought we sold out.

Some people understood it—people who were older, people who were my age. If you get involved in political activism, you’re always losing. Here was something where, alright, we have to make the compromise, but we could actually claim this as a victory. So for those of us who’ve been at this stuff for years, victory is something we wanna seize on. Whereas the younger people maybe, well, would rather go down as martyrs for the cause. We’re activists, so that’s what we’re accustomed to, so it’s almost not a big deal. Well, what do you do if you win?

That’s a bigger challenge. Shifting gears, getting people to be less suspicious of the city agencies we had to work with, that was probably a bigger challenge than fighting all the time.

WK: Just with your experience with the city, do you think it would be possible for a small collective to squat a space and make the same thing happen again?

SE: It would probably depend on the circumstances. The thing is, with No Rio, by the time we worked things out with the city, the space had been around for almost 20 years. There was a long track record. In theory, I think anything’s possible, but it actually would be highly unlikely that it would get replicated. Within a five year horizon, no.

If people are taking over buildings now, I don’t know about it. I’m sort of out of the loop. But in this neighborhood, this building and all the other buildings that were squatted were legalized. The one I live in around the corner got legalized…

WK: So what happens when it gets legalized? They just recognize that people have a right to live here?

SE: No, not exactly. 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.

There’s been so much development in New York City in general in the past 30 years… it seems like there was some talk about people squatting or occupying foreclosed places… either it’s happening very quietly or it’s not happening. I don’t know…

WK: I heard of Occupy Wall Street moving a homeless family into an abandoned building in Bushwick…

SE: Yea, that was just one thing, though, and I don’t know how ultimately it played out. It seemed more like an action that was done in order to talk about issues rather than quietly going off and taking over a building. I mean, the problem I had was people coming up and asking me [for advice]… First, I really don’t know if there were many buildings available for people to take over, but I also got the feeling that, at least some of the people who approached me, didn’t realize the seriousness of what they were actually considering. If it actually is an abandoned building, one, you’re breaking the law by going in there. Two, it can be dangerous, you could get hurt. If it’s a city-owned building or a building owned by a bank, maybe you’ll get lucky, and the cops will just arrest you or maybe just clear you out. If it’s privately-owned, you might be unlucky and the landlord hires goons to clock you on the head and drag you out. That happened on the Lower East Side. People would take over a building, and maybe others thought you shouldn’t be there. What if you take over a building that’s “owned” by drug dealers?… so there’s a lot of seriousness about it.

And they kept having these big, huge meetings, whereas taking over a building should be a clandestine act [Laughs]. Don’t have a meeting with twenty people where you’re talking about taking over a building. Put together three to five very, very trusted people and take over a building and stay there for a while. Your first goal is to just stay there one night. And then two nights. And then a week, and then two weeks, and then three weeks, and then a month… That’s how you’re supposed to do it. I just had a somewhat jaundiced view of the people who approached me about the nuts and bolts of it.

And sadly, the guy who was the Johnny Appleseed of squats in New York City from the early 80s on passed away a few years ago. He had a lot more patience than I have. And he had done it. I helped take over a couple buildings, but this guy, almost every squatted building in this neighborhood he helped in some way. If you can find Seth Tobocman’s graphic novel “War in the Neighborhood,” he’s the character El Maestro. He was a musician. His name was Michael Shenker.

WK: So what are some works in the building that you think people should see before it goes down?

SE: Well, we’re documenting the hell out of it. Jade Doskow, an architectural photographer and former volunteer is shooting in 4 x 5 negative, and a number of others have also been asked to shoot the building. There are a couple of things we plan to save, like the grillwork above the entry at the front of the building – we’ll probably cut that out and save it and use it in the rooftop garden. And there’s graffiti by Sane Smith in the backyard. The rear wall of the new building goes right up against it, and the architect designed an aperture there so we’ll be able to see the Sane Smith piece from inside the building.

More than anything else I guess, just get some familiarity with the space, just to walk through and get that vibe. At this point though, I think some of us are sort of tired of it. A lot of people now, I think. People in my generation had this sort of apocalyptic sense about things. Some who were young in the 80s during the Reagan era had a grimmer view of things, and saw “Morning in America” as “Mourning in America.”

People now, it seems, are looking back fondly on this sense of urban decay from the late 70s and 80s. It wasn’t all like people remember before the Disneyfication of Times Square. But it was different for a lot of people. There was a great degree of crime in the city. I don’t understand why it has to be Disneyfication or massive amounts of crime, but that seems to be the two binary things… I don’t understand why New York City can’t be a comfortable place to live without turning it into a mall. There’s gotta be some sort of balance.

But I actually think that the sense of nostalgia for that period is one of the reasons we got as much public and political support that we did. So much has disappeared… And even though we’re building this new building, the organization itself was founded here. I don’t wanna say it’s a throwback, but we got roots to that period that we can hold onto.

Sometimes I’m just sort of stunned – like how did we get all the public support that convinced the politicians to support us? How did it happen? What were the motivations of the people supporting us? I guess that’s one of my explanations. Things are disappearing from New York City. It’s disconcerting, it’s sad. And even though we’re talking about putting in a new building, ABC No Rio was founded in that period that seems to be vanishing into history. Our project is a sort of a way to hold onto that. I dunno. It surprises me. Sometimes I’m like, “How the Hell did we pull this off?”

[Addendum, December 21, 2012: Steven Englander sent us the latest updates on No Rio’s construction progress. The excerpt, below.]

After our Spring 2011 Gala + Benefit Auction we received additional City support in the 2012 budget as well as funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. We thought we now had the funds in place to proceed with construction as one single project rather than in two distinct phases, and the project was put out to bid through the City’s competitive bidding process. The bid opening was last May.

Unfortunately, the bids came in substantially higher than our own cost estimate.

We did spend a couple months trying to raise in short order the substantial amount needed to proceed     with the bids received. However, we knew that was a long-shot and by late summer recognized that we would have to return to a phased approach for the project, with a first phase that matched our available funding.

We’re now preparing revised construction and bid documents, and hope to put the project out to bid again by March 2013.

Although we have in place the funds to proceed with the first phase in a bare-bones approach, to fully complete this phase with all finishes, furnishings and outfitting, we need an additional $250,000. And to complete the entire project, an additional $850,000.



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