October 8, 1996

by Sarah Ferguson

ABC No Rio was born out of an eviction battle: the infamous "Real Estate" show in 1980, when 35 artists took over an abandoned city building on Delancey Street to protest skyrocketing rents in Soho and Tribeca. Faced with a barrage of publicity and protests, the city awarded the feisty arts collective, a dilapidated storefront at 156 Rivington Street. Ever since then, New York's most underground gallery and performance space has maintained its stance of heady resistance, staving off numerous eviction efforts--not to mention junkies and thieves--while staging the kind of raucous performances and shows that gave the East Village its countercultural cachet.

But now the fate of No Rio is hanging, quite literally by a lightbulb. Two years ago, the city terminated the group's monthly commercial lease, then moved to sell the building for $4000 to the nonprofit, Asian Americans for Equality. AAFE plans to build four units of low-income housing there, part of a $2.4 million development scheme funded by the city and corporate tax credits. While NO Rio has managed to hang up the deal in court, it's down to its last technicality: the fact that, during its tenancy, the city cut the juice to the light in the front doorway.

"We're on the mat," acknowledges No Rio board member Steve Englander, one of eight people who've been squatting in the upper three floors of the tenement since the city stopped accepting rent payments two years ago. No Rio's offers to purchase and develop the building have been ignored by the city. "This isn't about housing," Englander maintains. "If it was, the city would have found another site for [AAFE's] project. This is about getting us out of here because we've been a constant thorn in their side. They're trying to cleanse this neighborhood of alternative spaces," he adds, pointing to the recent evictions of the East 13th Street squats and the threat to community groups like the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Suffolk Street and Charas/El Bohio on East 9th.

City officials deny the eviction is politically motivated. "This is part of the city's plan to return buildings to responsible private ownership," says HPD's Cassandra Vernon. "ABC No Rio does not have a track record. They're not developers. We offered them alternative spaces, and they turned them down."

But, according to Englander, the city only offered to relocate the group temporarily to spaces in Brooklyn, far from public transport, not to mention No Rio's core constituency on the Lower East Side. For a time, AAFE was negotiating with No Rio to share the building. But No Rio members broke off talks, saying there was no way they could afford the market-rate rent that AAFE wanted for the commercial space. No Rio has since filed a lawsuit charging that the eviction is an attempt by the city to silence free speech.

No doubt the gritty, graffiti-scarred ambience of the place runs counter to mayor Giuliani's notions of "quality of life." But in ousting No Rio, the city is overlooking the vital role this hole-in-the-wall storefront has played in nurturing new and emerging artists. "It was essential--a sounding board, a place where you could do anything you wanted with no rules, no limits," says Jack Waters, a former Alvin Ailey choreographer who directed the space from 1983 to 1989. "Jane Dixon, Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, David Wojnarowicz, Phoebe Leger, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, just about everybody in the East Village arts scene passed through here, at least for a minute."

For now, No Rio-ites are hoping to use their lawsuit against the city to stay the eviction proceedings. The city is pushing for a summary judgment at the next eviction hearing on October 17. With so many young punks in its corner, one thing's for sure: No Rio won't go quietly. "It's going to be another 13th Street," vows music coordinator Dave Powell, referring to the fiery confrontations over the squats there. "Except with narrower streets and a much bigger mess."

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ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980