October 10, 1995

'ABC No Rio Fights Eviction By a Nonprofit'
Don't Blame It On Rio

by Claude Solnick

The image on the poster for ABC No Rio's last art exhibit shows a man playing a saxophone. He's standing hip-deep in a pool of water. And the image makes it look as if he's playing while the water rises. He could drown. The image was meant, presumably, to symbolize squatters on 13th Street. The art show at No Rio at the time, after all, was called "Evicted Art/The Art of Eviction." It now looks more than ever as if the image could symbolize ABC No Rio itself as the group gets closer to eviction than it's ever been.

ABC No Rio (named after the even then dilapidated sign that used to say "Notario" nearby) has never really been accepted by the city as a long-term tenant. But now apparently for the first time, another group has set its sights on the building and has successfully courted the city to get it. And they, along with the city, are trying to take over the space with a court date, and a conflict, slated for October 12 in the seemingly endless battle of No Rio.

"We're trying to avoid fighting it in court," says Steven Englander, a member of the ABC No Rio collective at 156 Rivington Street. "Negotiating kept it away from a judge."

But with a court date set (these things are never really set until they take place), it seems as if the latest chapter in the annals of ABC No Rio may be written on legal paper and not just in casual conversations. The non-profit group that wants the space, also, changes the picture from a local arts organization fending off a big city bureaucracy. Or at least it may be intended to. In an eviction struggle between the City and a downtown arts group, the David and Goliath roles have always been pretty clearly drawn. Now this becomes a struggle between housing and culture, something that ABC No Rio says is an artificial conflict orchestrated to shove out a cultural group that pays a low rent.

On the other side of this cultural and controversial coin are Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), headed by Christopher Kui, which has been lobbying to get the building. Housing Preservation and Development, under Commissioner Deborah Wright, is happy to have them. And they seem to have the resources (in grant money) to makeover the building which No Rio has never been able to afford to renovate and the City hasn't done much work on. They could turn it into a good-as-new structure. The only problem is ABC No Rio is already in the building and is having trouble negotiating an arrangement that would let them stay while AAFE would take over. So from the point of No Rio, all of this is just a step closer to the Alamo they have been trying to avoid since they arrived.

Not that an arrangement is impossible. AAFE, despite its name, focuses primarily on housing and would turn the building into housing. A special arrangement, though, could (in theory) let ABC No Rio retain its space while the rest of the building (where squatters often are right now) would be remade as housing. AAFE apparently has grant money available to do this and ABC No Rio and AAFE were negotiating to find a way to accommodate both.

The key word, though, is they "were" negotiating. Borough President Ruth Messinger's office even got involved to try to find a solution. Those negoitations, at least for now, broke down leaving the situation at a potentially dangerous standstill. It's made even more complicated by ethnic divisions that can pit the interests of the Chinese-American community and the cultural community. Diversity has always been an asset in the area, but No Rio says it's being played possibly even deliberately for divisive goals.

"This effort at compromise in order to save No Rio, and avoid an ugly, confrontational scene (such as occurred on Thirteenth Street), helped delay eviction proceedings for twelve weeks," an open letter from the ABC No Rio collective says. "It now appears to us, however, that no settlement ensuring the continued survival and viability of ABC NO Rio can be achieved through this negotiating process."

In other words, it's a no go for the compromise with No Rio--for now. On the one hand, ABC No Rio argues this is just the latest attempt by HPD to kick out a tenant who pays little if any rent. They have done some improvements which they say the City doesn't seem to care about or credit them for doing.

"HPD is using them to strike out at us," says Englander. "They're being pressured into it by HPD."

As ABC No Rio sees it, there are other sites but HPD prefers to channel the group to their building. For AAFE, though, this is a building that could provide needed (when is housing not needed?) housing. And they have been open to a compromise that would let No Rio remain. The idea, No Rio insists skeptically, is this way HPD kills two birds with one stone: It gets a building for AAFE and its gets rid of one of the gadflies that just won't go away. ABC No Rio, though, says they've been there for years and feel they have certain rights and will go to court, if they have to, to prove that.

"We don't understand why we should have to move out," Englander says, "so this organization can get several hundred thousand dollars in grant money."

Negotiations consisted largely of AAFE and No Rio discussing what would be a reasonable rent. According to No Rio, the last number they heard was $1,400 which may sound like a cheap rent for the 1,100-square-foot space. Except this is an arts organization with little income. Except it's on a block that, they say, charges rents of from $300 to $800 for commercial space. And they add that the organization would be using public, rather than private, money.

"In that neighborhood ($300 to $800)," Englander says, "that's what we'd consider reasonable."

For AAFE, though, the question is how much they could or should subsidize (if that's the right word) an arts group. Once again it's bread versus if not circuses at least performance. On the bright side, if the two groups reach an agreement, AAFE could theoretically renovate the whole building. ABC No Rio could end up with an upgraded space and a happy ending for everyone.

"It now appears to us, however, that no settlement ensuring the continued survival and viablility of ABC No Rio can be achieved through this negotiating process," the No Rio Collective writes. "We're afraid these efforts were merely an attempt to lull us into a spirit of accommodation."

They're already making plans to defend the fort, through the "courts...outreach, protest...public support and through the physical defense of the building..." What could be a solution for everyone, it seems, is heading to a very unnecessary showdown instead.

"Our goal is to convince HPD and AAFE to back off," they say. "And leave No Rio alone."

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