THE EAST VILLAGE EYE
'The Real Estate Show'
by Lehmann Weichselbaum
Most of us missed the New Year's Eve party at 123 Delancey Street hard
by the Williamsburg Bridge, where 35 artists as the Committee for the
Real Estate Show (CRES) were sneaking a preview for the New Year's
opening of what was to be a two-week exhibit. The Real Estate Show was
all about the way money controls where and how people live in New York
City in general, and the Lower East Side in particular. Artworks in
every conceivable medium dealt with facts such as arson in the
neighborhood, local alternate energy proposals, and the media blackout
on what exactly the city is doing to low-income neighborhoods.
The show, several weeks in the planning, was consciously geared to the
space that was to contain it. The city-owned storefront at 123
Delancey -- built as a factory showroom in 1916, last used as a
federal Model Cities office but having lain vacant for over a year --
had been invaded and commandeered by CRES on December 30 after what
they claim to be a year of long and frustrating campaigning to rent
the property for an exhibition space from officials of the Department
of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
The squatter artists spent the next couple of days cleaning the
windows, clearing the trash, fixing the plumbing, turning the heat on
and putting up the show in preparation for the New Year's Eve preview.
On New Year's Day the show was officially opened to the public, even
as artists continued bringing in their work.
On the morning of January 2, artists discovered the storefront
padlocked from the inside, their work locked within. Phone calls
revealed it to be the doing of HPD. The Real Estate Show had been open
exactly one day. Its basic ideological premise -- that artists,
working people, and the poor are systematically screwed out of decent
places to exist in -- could not have been brought home with more
The artists were experiencing firsthand an involuntary pastime
neighborhood folk have been long familiar with: being cast out onto
the street by indifferent interests, whether from private or public
sectors. "We're nomads," says video artist Mitch Corber. "We've got
nowhere to go. We deserve a place. We spotted it. No one was there."
For their part, HPD officials -- fronted by Assistant to the
Commissioner Edgar Kulkin and Executive Administrator for the Deputy
Commissioner to the Office of Property Management Denny Kelly --
insisted they had other, bigger plans for the site. First, they said,
three merchants had a prior claim on it (even though it had been
allowed to stand empty for so long). Then, they said, it was part of a
wide swath of neighborhood slated for demolition in nine months to
make way for an ambitious combination of low-income housing project,
shopping mall and senior-citizen center.
But what seemed to irk the bureaucrats most was that the artists
finally broke the rules they'd been playing by, patiently and
unsuccessfully, for months. "You blew it," charged Kelly at one of the
many meetings between both sides. "You illegally entered a city
Yet even here, the artists tilted closer to conciliation than
confrontation. They offered to rent the place for just two weeks,
promising to close the show and be out by January 22. "We had hoped
they would go on with reopening the space, helping us, joining us to
present an informational display about their plans in the area," says
Alan Moore. "They saw it as a challenge not an invitation."
HPD did give artist representatives a list of other city-managed
property in the area, all of which proved to be too small, decrepit or
both. The artists still had hopes that HPD would let them back into
123 Delancey in time for a press conference CRES had called for noon,
At the appointed hour, the artists, accompanied by German artist
Joseph Beuys, found reporters from the New York Times, Soho News, and
the Eye, HPD officials -- scurrying from street to their heated city
car and back again -- and a handful of cops guarding the doors. Nobody
was getting in (except for two artists who somehow managed to sneak in
before being gently escorted out by police). The press conference was
called off in favor of standing around in the cold, pondering the next
step. The notion of storming the building to invite arrest was
ultimately shrugged off. The confrontation fizzled, at least for that
But HPD was losing face while it was scoring points. Less than
flattering reports began to appear in the local papers. Lower East
Side residents plainly liked what the artists were up to. "The
merchants got everything else down here," said one young woman.
"Instead of it just standing here, it would be a tribute to the
block." Even the cops charged with defending the storefront from
possible artistic wrath were outspoken --in favor of the artists.
"In my opinion, I would say that they should have this building to
rent from the city," said one officer from the local beat. "The city
seems to have forgotten this area. This area hasn't been built up in
the past ten years. Anywhere the artists have come, they've up-graded
the community. They seem to bring a resurgence."
But HPD had yet to play its last hand. Sculptor Peter Moening believes
the agency to be afflicted with a collective "forked tongue." "They
promised everything, but never tried to be honest and helpful in a
real sense," he charges. But the artists' feelings of betrayal were
not quite complete until January 11.
On that day, city workers swept into 123 Delancey, cleared out the
exhibited work and trucked it to an uptown warehouse. It was not until
a few days later that artists were granted entry into the warehouse to
take their stuff home.
Rebecca Howland, a sculptor, admits with some relief that half the
work was original, half reproducible. Plainly, one half was luckier
than the other. "Pieces were hastily ripped off the wall and shoved
into a box," she reports. "There are things missing. It was a real
fast hatchet job."
The battle for 123 Delancey Street can be seen from two different,
though related perspectives. First, the besieged empty storefront is
typical of countless such properties throughout the city standing
abandoned eminently habitable, as officials wave never-to-be-realized
"renewal" plans in one hand and the wrecking ball in the other. It is
precisely this problem that CRES addressed. Explains Alan Moore: "A
lot of people are tired of getting the short end of the stick in the
real estate world because of forces they don't understand but that
always amount to money."
Second, the dispute reflects the city's deep-rooted ambivalence
towards its artists. On the one hand, an artist can now take over a
commercial loft and not feel like an outlaw. After all, it was those
illegal loft people who made Soho such a fun upper-middle-class place
to live, wasn't it? And, on the other hand, artists who, like those of
CRES, refuse to act as shock troops for gentrification and play the
art-commodity game, find their needs, at best, simply not taken
Rebecca Howland considers herself and her friends part of a
"post-gallery movement." What they're after ultimately is not just
another art space, but a "citizen's center," where the line between
the esthetic and the social blurs into meaninglessness. Issues to take
up, according to a recent manifesto, include "landlord speculation,
tenant's rights, property misuses, projected housing developments and
arbitrary urban planning."
On January 16, a compromise finally reached with the city brought the
Real Estate Show artists a little closer to that goal. HPD's Denny
Kelly -- herself a painter and resident of nearby Tribeca -- worked
out an arrangement to take over 172 Delancey Street down the road,
Vivian's House of Beauty, until the end of February.
The solution is far from ideal. 172 Delancey -- one of the alternative
sites rejected earlier by the artists -- is far more cramped than 123.
It is completely unsuited to the exhibitions, musical performances and
community meetings they envision. For now, it remains a base of
operations from which to find what they're after. Says Peter Moening:
"Now the work begins."
Back to Index of ABC No Rio History