March 20, 1997

by Robert Kolker

'Spare Some Change?'
How will the artists and squatters of ABC No Rio raise $100,000?
Any way they can.

The big surprise is that they won. In February, after two years of fighting near-certain eviction from their Rivington Street tenement, the punks and artists of ABC No Rio learned that the city had decided not to kick them out. But according to the fine print in the city's repreive, the Lower East Side collective has to raise $100,000 in the next year if it wants to stay open. Which, of course, begs the question: Would you give a grand to an arts group that's bent on undermining the capitalist system?

A stock trader might call what happened to ABC No Rio a "poison pill." Last month, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the outgoing commissioner of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, announced that ABC No Rio's home would not be turned over to Asian Americans for Equality, the nonprofit that had been promised the building. Instead, she asked ABC No Rio to pull off three feats it had never before attempted: raise $100,000 (to show a commitment to keeping a long-term lease), fully renovate and, perhaps most painful, kick out the 13 squatters who live upstairs in the building. At press time, Deborah Boatright, a spokesperson for HPD, had not commented on the reasoning behind the reversal.

Until now, the nonprofit meeting house for thrash rockers and rebel artists had spent 17 years succesfully staying off corporate New York's radar screen. "For me, it's a choice--I choose not to work so much and pay a landlord," says Steve Englander, an ABC No Rio board member who squats above the group's shabby gallery and graffiti-blitzed performance space. He figures he has nine months before he has to move out, but he's not worried: The city, he notes, has no shortage of vacant buildings. (A few of the famed 13th Street squatters, who were evicted from their tenements two years ago, now live at ABC No Rio while they ride out their court case with the city).

What does concern Englander and other board members is their new mission: showing the city the money by next year. Right now, ABC No Rio has no debt, but its $100,000 plan includes bringing the electricity up to code, reroofing two floors and converting the squats into offices. ABC No Rio's annual budget is $18,000; after the expansion Englander thinks that could double. In all liklihood fundraising means doing the unthinkable--asking for handouts from alumni who have embraced the commercial art scene, such as painter Kiki Smith and sculptor Tom Otterness. "We've never solicited big bucks from alumni before, but we will now," Englander admits. "I'm not comfortable doing that, so we have to find someone who can." (Otterness, for his part, pledges to give when the time comes. "That kind of anti-commercial activity counts on support from someone," he explains. "People have to eat.")

Much of the $100,000 could come from the government. But Nancy Cohn, capital program manager for the New York State Council on the Arts, says ABC No Rio is caught in a typical catch-22: It can't get a legal home until it raises money, but "very few foundations will take the chance on funding ABC No Rio when there's no guarantee they'll be their in a few years," she cautions. "I'd say about half our applicants are like them, in that they're a small, community-based organization and it will be very hard for them to raise money."

The scariest prospect may just be that change is coming--that it may be harder to fight the power when you're caught up in it. Shawnee, 20, who won't reveal his last name, is one of the group's squatters and its chief political activist. "Now we have a 'use and occupancy agreement,' which is like a lease," he says, somewhat regretfully. "As ironic as it sounds, we were probably safer in limbo."

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ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980