On New Year’s Eve, 1979, on the Lower East Side of New York City, a group calling itself the Committee for the Real Estate Show broke into a city-owned commercial building at 123 Delancey Street and, in a self-described insurrectionary act, installed an art exhibition in solidarity with Elizabeth Mangum, a 35-year-old black woman killed by a police officer during an eviction in Flatbush, Brooklyn, earlier that year.
The break-in came at a pivotal point in New York history, as a generation of downtown artists confronted the turbulent flows of capital and real estate that reshaped the city in the 1970s. Behind the faux colonnades of the Cast Iron District that became SoHo, a utopian colony had temporarily thrived; its residents organized themselves politically against powerful banks and business associations, won preservation battles, changed the zoning code, and acquired historic district status, only to find that their success changed the community beyond recognition. The legalization of SoHo lofts propelled a rapid quadrupling of rents. Alongside the 69 commercial galleries, 12 alternative art spaces, 13 screening rooms, 22 performance spaces, and 14 printmaking repositories, there were now some 75 food stores, clothing shops, and sundry merchants selling bikes, fabrics, plants, and kites. The pioneer days were over.
The Real Estate Show was an early instance in the formation of a vexed discourse about race, economic disparity, and neighborhood change that resonates today.
The Real Estate Show was a response to what came to be understood as the gentrification of neighborhoods across New York City, and to the complicity of artists “used as pawns by greedy white developers” in the revaluation of property. It was an exhibition of politically motivated conceptual paintings, installations, drawings, posters, and ephemera by a group of young artists including Alan Moore, Becky Howland, Peter Moennig, Ann Messner, Bobby G., Christof Kohlhofer, Cara Perlman, Matthew Geller, Jenny Holzer, Robin Winters, Stefan Eins, Joe Lewis, Walter Robinson, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Peter Fend, Robert Cooney, Teri Slotkin, Scott Pfaffman, John Morton, Mike Glier, and Jane Dickson. After a period dominated by minimalism and abstraction, these artists were associated with a return to reference, figuration, and content in contemporary art. Many went on to notable careers, but their occupation of that vacant building resonates loudest in New York’s cultural history. In its urging for an activist position in alliance with oppressed people (in the vernacular of the time), the Real Estate Show was an early instance in the formation of a vexed discourse about race, economic disparity, and neighborhood change that resonates today.
The week before New Year’s, the artists had put their own lock on the door. Boat-sized GMs, Fords, and Chryslers sped down Delancey Street onto the Williamsburg Bridge. Tom Otterness stood on the corner of Essex Street, watching for police. Halfway down the block, Alan Moore and Peter Moennig huddled at the doorstep of a vacant furniture showroom. Moore took the firefighter boltcutters from Becky Howland’s guitar case, clasped the metal ring of the padlock, tightened his grip, and leaned forward, squeezing the long steel handles.
Moore was a tall, skinny man in his late twenties who had moved to New York from suburban Los Angeles in 1974. He settled near the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery, arriving just in time to witness the heyday of SoHo and the birth of punk. Ephemeral open-air artworks were being created all around him; quirky galleries filled ground-floor commercial spaces deserted by old-world ragmen; hipsters tripped to avant-garde sounds in jazz lofts; and malnourished young men with ripped shirts menaced passersby in front of CBGB.
There was a real feeling of freedom. You would go out at night and you just felt like the city was yours.
He peered into the cavernous Navy Pier building after Gordon Matta took a cutting torch to its side, slitting a half-moon opening to create an improvised park on the Hudson River; he discovered the 3 Mercer Store near Canal Street, where Stefan Eins sat in a room next to a radio repair shop, displaying odd science experiments as art; and he attended the 1976 opening of P.S.1, a shuttered primary school in Long Island City, Queens, liberated from the city by Alanna Heiss, who had filled one hundred rooms with studios and installations of post-minimalist art.
New York was on the brink of collapse. Abandoned by the federal government and thrown into upheaval by the protests and migrations of the Civil Rights era, the city succumbed to an atmosphere of neglect and lawlessness which offered (to those able to grasp it) an anarchic freedom that ushered in a period of unsurpassed urban reinvention and creativity.
“There was a real feeling of freedom,” recalled Michael McClard, a founder of the Colab art collective. “You would go out at night and you just felt like the city was yours.” 1
Nothing in Moore’s background predicted a descent into petty crime. His college professor had connected him with influential people in New York, and his prize was an internship at the magazine Artforum, a perfect cipher for the art world’s predilections and preoccupations. He arrived in the midst of an epochal rift: a group of associate editors and critics vehemently objected to an advertisement showing Lynda Benglis tanned and oiled, naked except for a pair of sunglasses, striking a macho pose as she grasped a dildo at her crotch. Was it a debased pornographic image or a feminist challenge to the patriarchy? The dissenters resigned and founded the theory-driven journal October. Moore stepped into the void and was writing art criticism as an intern straight out of college.
“I didn’t really know what in the hell was going on, but I was in the middle of it,” he would tell me, many years later. “These were high-powered people in full tilt on their various crusades. It also gave me a glimpse inside the sausage-factory of contemporary art valorization. I didn’t get too close, but I saw enough to make me a little disgusted.” 2
Now he was holding the boltcutters on a desolate block of the Lower East Side, better known for its heroin shooting galleries and blocks of wasted tenements than for its artistic potential. The vacant showroom on Delancey Street had been an office of the New York Housing and Development Administration: a superagency that combined the city’s property, management, and development functions under Mayor John Lindsay. The HDA administered the federal Model Cities program, President Lyndon Johnson’s initiative to remake cities through competitive block grants. In 1967, the agency had cleared fourteen blocks of tenements for an extension of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Some 2,200 displaced families were promised a chance to return to 1,600 higher-quality units in subsidized towers, but the new buildings never materialized; bids came in too high to meet the federal guidelines. 3 (The area is finally being redeveloped, nearly 50 years later, as Essex Crossing.)
For more than a decade, New York City properties had suffered high rates of arson, tax foreclosure, abandonment, and condemnation. By 1982, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development — successor to the HDA — would own 60 percent of the Lower East Side. 4 The real estate market was broken, and the city was conspicuously unable to manage all the vacant properties coming into its hands. Many buildings deteriorated further under city ownership. Habitable rent-controlled units were hardly ever vacant, and so rent pressures escalated on the few market-rate apartments that became available through redevelopment. Whenever a formerly derelict section of the city began to recover, rents exploded. Artists had seen it happen in SoHo and then Tribeca. This time, they hoped things would be different.
The lock barely budged for Moore, so Peter Moennig grabbed the boltcutters. A strapping fellow in a black trench coat, he snapped it easily. They placed a new lock on the door and walked away.
Moennig was one of a few artists in the group whose exploits had prepared them for careers in art crime. In Cologne, West Germany, he had conducted illegal actions at night: clandestinely changing the names of streets, placing sculptures in the way of pedestrians, pushing the boundaries of public behavior to provoke reactions. “I didn’t believe in the museum system or the gallery system,” he told me. “I got arrested in five different countries.” 5
He had come to New York in 1977 with a fellowship to the P.S.1 studio program. At the newly opened World Trade Center, he posted fake newspaper headlines on streetlamps announcing the towers’ sale to Puerto Rico — a reference to the militant Puerto Rican separatist group that had bombed financial and government buildings in Manhattan that summer. He placed vinyl screens with the words CHURCH OF COMMERCE on windows near the top of the towers and staged interventions in the flood of pedestrians at rush hour. His exhibition Workday Show of Street Polaroids opened at 3 Mercer Store in March 1978.
The World Trade Center fascinated Moennig: “There was an artificial climate. It was completely air-conditioned inside. You could not open the windows. They had a network of helicopters on top. They had a hospital there. They had five rail stations. They had a jail. … They were the postmodern artificial world.”
He had studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf with Joseph Beuys, whose retrospective at the Guggenheim in November 1979 provoked debate at Manhattan dinner parties about the expanding definition of art. Beuys had been drafted as an 18-year-old Nazi pilot during World War II and was shot down five years later in the Russian Crimea; after his rescue and recovery, he reinvented his identity and fashioned a personal mythology meant to open up progressive possibilities forestalled by the war. The Guggenheim show featured artifacts from his fictionalized biography — symbolic installations of felt, animal fat, and wooden sleds — and documentation of shamanistic performances in which he wore his customary uniform: tan vest and pants, gray felt suit and hat, and a fur coat. Beuys called his métier “social sculpture,” a dematerialized utopian art form that sought to reshape society through actions evoking a larger, inchoate transformation of the prevailing social and political order. Among his projects were the founding of the Free International University and the German Green Party.
“I wrote my thesis in art history on Dadaism and the different Dadaist groups,” Moennig said. “Being a conceptual artist, the political, social, and historical circumstances that provoke art and out of which art is developed [were more important] to me than the aesthetic part that is later seen in a museum.”
He frequently worked alongside Ann Messner, a native New Yorker who grew up in Venezuela and Germany and then studied at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. She performed public actions in the subway system, interrupting the flow of movement with physical objects and interacting with people by scripting unexpected situations. One day she came home to find that Moennig and another German artist had moved into her loft. Her roommate had sublet his room without telling her. “What started out being shocking and ‘How dare he?’ ended up being very fortuitous,” she told me. 6
Moennig and Messner accompanied each other during performances, one shooting film and stills while the other undertook an action. Below the World Trade Center escalators, Messner dumped powdered charcoal so that the office workers’ footsteps would form patterns as they exited to the PATH train. She and Moennig were arrested and charged with littering.
After leaving Artforum, Moore immersed himself in the downtown scene and worked part-time on Avenue B as a phototypesetter for the East Village Eye, which launched that May with a full-bleed portrait of No Wave singer James Siegfried on the cover. The release of a local newspaper was the definitive sign of an emerging artist community. As the tabloids circulated through coffee shops, bars, small businesses, and performance spaces, they strengthened the identity of a new contingent and predicted a coming wave of property inflation. Yet even after the transformation of SoHo and Tribeca, rapid redevelopment seemed unlikely in the despoiled neighborhoods east of the Bowery.
Lisa Zinna wrote in that inaugural issue of the East Village Eye:
On a bright Thursday morning on Avenue B, three poorly dressed little boys play with an old battered basketball in a rubble-strewn lot. Off in a corner, a wino in a tattered gray overcoat sits on the ground amid broken glass and guzzles down a bottle of Night Train. Surrounding the lot are empty shells of burnt out tenement buildings. In some, brick walls are peeled away, revealing the blackened interiors that are now filled with rotting garbage and piles of debris. … Last year, according to figures from Community Board Three, there were 354 suspicious fires here. Of those, 290 were in occupied buildings. 7
North of Delancey and east of Essex, the five- and six-story brown-brick Old Law tenements remained. They were built between 1830 and 1880, before city code required dwellings to contain windows, airshafts, and a minimum number of bathrooms for each tenant. Many of the buildings held cold-water flats, with no hot water, minimal electricity, and only a gas stove for heat. Half of all dwellings were characterized as dilapidated or deteriorating in 1960; more than half remained unrenovated ten years later. 8
Architectural consultants Abeles, Schwartz and Associates prepared a building-by-building survey for the City Planning Commission in 1970. They wrote:
Since 1910 the area has been virtually abandoned by private real estate. There has been a parallel departure of population, commerce, and industry, leaving a large scattering of abandoned buildings and vacant sites. Three out of ten tenement buildings were found delinquent in real estate tax payments, a sign of landlords’ difficulty in making tenements profitable. 9
By the end of the decade, that number had doubled. Yet the Lower East Side maintained an old-world charm. The area had gained a reputation for squalor since its time as the first landing place for the nation’s poorest immigrants. Jews, Irish, and Italians scraped their way out of poverty in its sweatshops, earned an education, and emigrated to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and the suburbs. Ground-floor shops lined the avenues: hatmakers, matzo factories, winemakers, delis, Puerto Rican bodegas. Long a refuge of the radical left, the neighborhood attracted Beat poets, leaders of the 1970s counterculture, and college-educated bohemians who clustered around St. Mark’s Place. Club 57, a members-only bar in the basement of a Polish church, became the center of a retro-futuristic sexually experimental performance and party scene.
The artists needed more room. They looked around the Lower East Side and saw that property was essentially free for the taking.
The Lower East Side was also home to several members of the artist collective Colab — short for Collaborative Projects, Inc. — which had been founded in 1978 as a way for activist outsiders to sidestep the exclusive SoHo gallery system and the alternative art scene in Tribeca, which had coalesced into yet another set of cliques. Colab was open to anyone who could make it through three consecutive meetings —a durational feat filled with tense arguments and combative personalities, as well as exciting ideas and flirtations. The group redistributed state and federal arts grants directly to members, as a reaction against organizations that employed administrative staff but gave little financial support to artists.
As Gerry (“G.H.”) Hovagimyan explained it: “Look. Artists Space: they’re funded. They got a board of directors. Everybody’s getting salaries. Artists aren’t getting anything. 112 Greene street: funded. Salaries. Artists don’t get shit. P.S.1: bureaucrats, funded. Artists don’t get anything. So our position was, ‘OK, in that case, why don’t we set up a group, be the administrators, and we get the salaries.’ Right? That was the position, so we did that. That was the beginning of what Colab was about.” 10
Colab began organizing theme shows in Robin Winters’s loft at 591 Broadway and Coleen Fitzgibbon’s studio at 5 Bleecker Street. Members invited anyone they knew to bring work. By May 1979, after the first four shows — Batman, Income and Wealth, Doctors and Dentists, and the Manifesto Show — Fitzgibbon’s studio was overwhelmed by conceptual paintings, drawings, posters, and installations. The artists needed more room. They looked around the Lower East Side and saw that property was essentially free for the taking.
Buildings were being reclaimed by neighborhood artists and activists. The nonprofit organization Adopt-a-Building, working with reformed Puerto Rican gang members known as CHARAS, took over P.S. 64, a decommissioned school in Alphabet City, and transformed it into El Bohio (”the Hut”), a community center providing studio, meeting, office, rehearsal, and performance spaces. Since 1975, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe had held standing-room-only readings in the former Sunshine Cafe at 505 East 6th Street; with a group of twenty Puerto Rican poets and writers including Miguel Piñero, Lucky CienFuegos, Bimbo Rivas, and Miguel Algarín, they eventually purchased a five-story tenement building at 236 East 3rd Street, turning their readings into a neighborhood institution.
Moore began scouting buildings east of the Bowery, where a group of Colabbers lived in three or four tenements around Eldridge, Stanton, and Ludlow Street. The open-air drug market on Avenue B below Tompkins Square Park made the neighborhood one of the most dangerous places in New York. Heroin was smuggled by the Corsican mob through Southeast Asia and Turkey via the port of Marseille, and later by the Gambino family through Florida, and distributed by black and Puerto Rican gangs in vacant buildings of the East Village and Lower East Side. “There were people on the street waiting, just waiting,” Becky Howland said. “I learned later they were waiting for drugs. There were bottle caps all over the street. Just glittering. It was really frightening to me.” 11
Howland was from a small town outside of Buffalo. She had graduated from Syracuse University and moved to New York in 1974, working as a studio assistant for sculptor and filmmaker Nancy Graves, and as a plumber ripping through the walls of loft buildings to install illegal utilities. She admired Robert Smithson and Isamu Noguchi and aspired to make public sculpture; on Canal and West Broadway, she cast a small guerrilla sculpture that mirrored the gas station on the corner, digging up the pavement to pour a reinforced steel foundation. At Graves’s suggestion, she had attended the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, where many Colab artists met; afterward, with help from an NYSCA Community Arts Partnership grant, she rented part of John Ahearn’s basement loft on Franklin Street between Varick and Hudson. “I needed a studio space after the Whitney was finished, so Steve Miller said, ‘Call John Ahearn,’” Howland said. “John introduced me to Tom [Otterness], Tom introduced me to Alan [Moore], one of them introduced me to Coleen [Fitzgibbon], and John introduced me to Robin [Winters].” She became a de facto part of the group, and later an official member.
In early 1979, as Colab was growing, Ahearn moved into underground film star Patti Astor’s apartment on East 3rd Street and began daily pilgrimages to a new gallery opened by Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis in the South Bronx. Eager to escape the elitism of SoHo, Eins and Lewis had started Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА — fashion in English, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian — as a gesture of openness to the global community. Nobody could read the international characters, so it became known as Fashion Moda. Ahearn was plaster-casting local characters with Rigoberto Torres, a Puerto Rican teenager he met there, and their exhibition South Bronx Hall of Fame opened that fall. Neighborhood figures were elevated into icons of vernacular street style, modern-day mythological heroes. The show was wildly popular. “For a lot of people this kind of art was new and special,” Torres told me. “For someone like me from Puerto Rico to have doors open, and be able to feel good about doing work and accomplishing something — you feel different when you have nothing, and then you make something, and you go, ‘Wow, I did that!’” 12
Moore and Howland hooked up, and Moennig moved into Ahearn’s old living quarters behind Howland’s studio. With Messner they quickly formed a small tribe: Tribeca pub crawls took them to Magoo’s (whose owner traded art for food); the artist bars Puffy’s, Barnabas Rex, and McGovern’s; old men bars on Broadway, with pickled eggs, beef jerky, and steam tables; and Horn & Hardart, an automat cafeteria on 34th Street with little doors you could open up for a piece of pie. “We were like packs of artists with no place to go,” Howland told me. “’Where can we show next? Where can I live? What can I do? Where can I be?’”
We were like packs of artists with no place to go. Where can we show next? Where can I live? What can I do? Where can I be?
Moore knew it was possible to pry property from city agencies. Alanna Heiss had done it with the Clocktower, the Idea Warehouse, P.S.1, and other projects. In July, he went to survey the furniture showroom on Delancey Street with Howland and Otterness. A subway entrance on the corner meant pedestrians would be streaming by all day. “It was such a beautiful building,” Howland said. “It was light blue, it had windows on the whole length of the side on Delancey Street. I could really see it as an exhibition space.”
Two blocks south stood the 20-story Seward Park Houses, completed in 1960 in the first phase of urban renewal. Under the slum clearance provision of the Federal Housing Act of 1949, nearly 1,500 dwellings were demolished and replaced by some 1,700 cooperative apartments in brick high-rises surrounded by grassy lawns and trees. The Seward Park Houses were sponsored by a handful of powerful labor unions; they joined the East River Housing, Amalgamated Dwellings, and Hillman Houses to form a landscape of nondescript brown-brick, high-rise cooperatives that masked a successful, well-designed, middle-income Jewish neighborhood.
Moore wrote a letter to Annette Kuhn, a friend of a friend who worked in Mayor Koch’s office at City Hall, asking to use the vacant building. No one responded. The artists tended toward confrontation in any case; it was a mistrustful, post-Watergate time, and none of them knew how to work the administrative channels. Entrepreneurs like Alanna Heiss had “friends in city government,” Moore reminded me. “A lot of these people are really specific people, administrators with a lot of power who exercised it on behalf of the arts. We were just dirty little artists on the street. We really didn’t have entree into that world.”
A strain of terrorist romanticism circulated in the culture: domestic bombings by radical groups had been practically routine in the previous decade, and earlier in the year, leftists celebrated when Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Western-backed monarchy, disrupting the supply of crude and causing a second oil crisis. That fall, Ronald Reagan had launched his presidential campaign, announcing a mission to restore the American spirit and revive the economy by reducing the reach of the federal government. “The people have not created this disaster in our economy,” he said, “the federal government has.”
HPD policy was to pool vacant property in anticipation of future redevelopment. The artists thought that was a waste.
Moore and his friends shared that opinion of government, if nothing else. Since the late 1950s, the city had been trying to demolish the Bowery and rezone most of the East Village for middle-income housing. HPD policy was to pool vacant property in anticipation of future redevelopment. The artists thought that was a waste. During one of their bar crawls, they commiserated about the difficulty of finding space to work and exhibit, and about the lack of response to their letter. “Let’s break in!” said Moennig.
Moore brought the idea to Colab but Fitzgibbon and Winters were set against it. They didn’t want to compromise Colab’s public funding. Fitzgibbon feared retribution; she was researching a plot by the Trilateral Commission, a foreign policy advocacy group started by David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan Bank and heir to the Standard Oil fortune, to raze the Lower East Side and replace it with modernist high-rises.
The plan moved forward anyway. Moore paid a visit to Nick the Fence, who sold used clothing on the ground floor of his building on Houston Street. Hidden beneath the clothes, Nick kept a collection of guns and stolen goods. “He would just slide his hand under a pile of blankets, and there’d be a movie camera or a bolt cutter,” Howland said.
The first phase — to snip the city’s lock and install their own — was executed smoothly. On the freezing afternoon of December 30, Moore, Howland, Moennig and Messner, with Robert “Bobby G.” Goldman, returned, unlocked their padlock and walked in. Friends arrived to prepare the space for the opening: Christy Rupp, Fred Krughoff, Teri Slotkin, Dick Miller, Mitch Corber, Sandi Seymour, Scott Miller, Peggy Katz, and Scott Pfaffman. They sprayed an opaque glass cleaner on the floor-to-ceiling windows to avoid drawing attention. The showroom was filled with large boxes — it hadn’t been used for anything but storage in over a year — but the electricity worked. Krughoff turned on the gas line, found a switch for the heater, and lit it up. They hauled out trash and threw it in whatever dumpsters they could find. Some curious kids came in and began play-acting in a corner of the space with a flashlight and a shower curtain for a stage. Howland cut out stencils: a landlord octopus with its tentacles wrapped around buildings. She spray-painted the image onto newsprint with the time and location of the event, and distributed flyers inviting the public to the New Year’s Day opening of an exhibition celebrating “insurrectionary urban development.”
For two days people drifted in and out, installing artwork: perspectives of rooms painted on black garbage bags (Dickson); a bundle of wood painted with the values “Power,” “Riches,” “Glory,” and “Wisdom” (Glier); wall drawings of faces with tails (Scott Miller); blank housing application forms beside photographs of homeless men from the area (Messner). Bobby G. carried in a sackful of discarded cigarette packs collected on nearby streets and dumped them on the floor. He called it Dead Packs. If all the smokers on the Lower East Side pooled their cigarette money for one day, they could buy a building, he declared. Jenny Holzer translated her Truisms into Spanish: UNA ACTITUD POSITIVA HACE TODAS LAS DIFERENCIAS EN EL MUNDO. Peter Fend hung sketches of a proposal to replace the nearby Con Edison electric supply with a community-owned sea algae facility generating power from methane gas. Christy Rupp installed a small enclosure with live rats and copies of the rat-eaten lease for the loft where she lived, which was owned by a notorious slumlord. Mitch Corber brought his Portapak to videotape the proceedings.
Coleen Fitzgibbon and Robin Winters arrived surreptitiously and cleared rectangles in the opaque glass to hang their work in the windows. Fitzgibbon painted a man in a barrel on a red background with bills fluttering in the air, walking a plank beneath the words LANDLORD EXTORTION. Winters brought a small canvas painted with a stick figure who cried “Broke” and an ink drawing of a landlord demanding, “Pay or Get Out,” along with xeroxed copies of an anonymous street poster he’d found:
LANDLORDS DO NOT SUPPLY ADEQUATE SERVICES & MAINTENANCE. THEY ARE ARROGANT, UNSCRUPULOUS AND DECEITFUL SCOUNDRELS WHO THREATEN COMPLAINING TENANTS WITH VIOLENCE.
The group identified itself as the Committee for the Real Estate Show, which sounded like a secret cabal of the Communist Party. They had a manifesto, of course. “Alan was the only one with a typewriter and often we would gather at his little room,” Howland said. “We’d be sitting around talking and Alan would be sitting at the typewriter like a scribe. It was a collaborative form of writing.”
At Todd’s Copy Shop on Mott Street, they made photocopies to hand out and post on the wall:
This is a short-term occupation of vacant city-managed property.
The action is extra-legal — it illuminates no legal issues, calls for no “rights.” It is pre-emptive and insurrectionary.
The action is dedicated to Elizabeth Mangum, a middle-aged Black American killed by police and marshals as she resisted eviction in Flatbush last year.
The intention of this action is to show that artists are willing and able to place themselves and their work squarely in a context which shows solidarity with oppressed people, a recognition that mercantile and institutional structures oppress and distort artists’ lives and works, and a recognition that artists, living and working in depressed communities, are compradors in the re-valuation of property and the “whitening” of neighborhoods.
It is important to focus attention on the way artists get used as pawns by greedy white developers.
It is important for artists to express solidarity with Third World and oppressed people.
It is important to show that people are not helpless — they can express their resentment with things-as-they-are in a way that is constructive, exemplary, and interesting.
It is important to try to bridge the gap between artists and working people by putting artwork on a boulevard level.
It is important to do something dramatic that is neither commercially oriented nor institutionally quarantined — a groundswell of human action and participation with each other that points up currents of feeling that are neither for sale nor for morticing into the shape of an institution.
It is important to do something that people (particularly in the art community) cannot immediately identify unless they question themselves and examine their own actions for an answer.
It is important to have fun.
It is important to learn.
“That was the spirit of that time,” Moennig said. “We had a clear understanding of the system that didn’t fit our social needs, so we were very much obliged to take actions under these circumstances.”
It was planned as a two-week show. On Near Year’s Eve, they organized a preview for fellow artists. They spread the invitation by word of mouth, afraid of drawing attention before the opening. Among the visitors that day was a young curly-haired artist named Keith Haring. Still unknown to most of the Colab members, he would soon be famous for popularizing street art and graffiti. Stefan Eins, Joe Lewis, and William Scott came from the Bronx and contributed work to the show. The neighborhood kids returned and performed. The artists held a celebration that evening, then left to toast the New Year on Spring Street between Mott and Elizabeth, where artist John Halpern and a group called Art Corporation of America were digging a 10-foot deep hole where they would gather to discuss art and politics all night. 13
The show opened officially at noon the next day and remained open until late in the evening. People brought more work to put up. Rhonda Ronin and her Suffolk Street Wildlife Refuge put up a wall-size poster documenting her battle against eviction; the city had cleared her block for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Altogether, 35 people contributed. But when the artists returned on January 2, they found a new lock on the door. HPD had shut them down. 14
Moore called City Hall and organized a hasty press conference attended by a writer from the New York Post and a photographer from The Village Voice. 15 Manuel Mirabal, Associate Commissioner for Relocation Operations for the HPD, showed up to represent the city. Howland recognized his assistant, Denny Kelly, a former café waitress in Tribeca. The artists were invited to meet that night at the HPD offices on Maiden Lane, and fifteen of the exhibitors attended. Mirabal declared their action illegal and said the building was slated for urban renewal. He told them to find another space and offered a list of alternate locations.
“At one point they gave us a print-out — a list of many, many places to look through,” Howland said. “We broke up the list into teams to look into what would even be feasible.”
They spent the next day scouting tiny and decrepit buildings from the HPD list and had another fruitless meeting with city officials. On January 4, the artists called a group meeting and agreed to reject the alternatives; they would attempt to reopen the show at the same location. The group drafted a letter to the city and sent out a press release: “Tuesday, January 8 at noon, the artists will reopen the Real Estate Show at 123 Delancey Street. We hope the city will be there to unlock the front doors.” 16
This time the New York Times showed up, along with Joseph Beuys, who was in town for a lecture at Cooper Union after the closing of his Guggenheim exhibition. Wearing his signature raccoon collar coat, Beuys signed the artists’ petition and encouraged them to reoccupy the building. Two exhibitors re-entered the building through the side door and were ejected by police, who threatened to arrest anyone else who entered.
“The guys who evicted our exhibition … were thugs,” Moore said. “These were tough guys. They had absolutely no sympathy for our project. They thought that we were just full of shit and needed to get out on the street. It was a thin layer of people who had any sense that art should be respected, encouraged, even dealt with in a civil manner.”
The protest made the New York Times Metropolitan Report: “Artists Ejected in ‘Occupation’ of Storefront.” The newspaper quoted Moore: “Our ideas are behind bars. And this is a statement made by the city, not by the artists.” 17
On January 11, public workers removed the art from the building and dumped it in a warehouse. The artists were later allowed to retrieve it, but many pieces were damaged. Still, the press coverage had put the city on the defensive. The following week, the artists accepted a compromise, moving to a sanctioned location at 172 Delancey Street, next to the bridge and less visible to street traffic. In February, the organizers received $750 from Colab; they were entitled to support as long as two members were involved. For the next six weeks they exhibited, organized performances, and screened films in the cramped storefront, a former salon called Vivian’s House of Beauty.
Meanwhile, they continued to agitate. They lobbied at planning meetings for additional access to 123 Delancey and then staged a mock commission hearing at the Mudd Club. They scouted city-owned buildings for a permanent art space, and in March they found a storefront at 156 Rivington Street with low-income tenants upstairs and a vacant ground floor. Denny Kelly helped facilitate a month-to-month lease for the space. Across the street was the faded sign of an old notary shop, ABOGADO NOTARIO, which now appeared to read ABC No Rio. 18 The artists took it as the name of their new space.
Moennig and Messner returned to Germany to work on a project about the post-industrial Ruhr Valley and stayed abroad after the birth of their son. Other Colab artists carried on the legacy of the Real Estate Show on the Lower East Side. 156 Rivington was in rough shape and poorly maintained. The heat barely functioned, and a waterfall poured through the front of the building whenever it rained. The artists developed a good relationship with the tenants upstairs but watched them succumb to drug abuse. ABC No Rio became known as a center for rough art that mirrored the neighborhood, with shows like Murder, Suicide and Junk; Artists for Survival; and Animals Living in Cities.
As the 1980s marched on, the Real Estate Show and the establishment of ABC No Rio did not lead to the rent inflation seen in other neighborhoods colonized by artists. That alone could be counted as a success in Reagan’s America, as municipalities rushed to maximize local real-estate tax revenues to replace federal investment that was flowing away from cities. The persistence of violent drug trafficking and the large number of rent-stabilized units in Lower East Side tenements helped keep the neighborhood remarkably unchanged for another generation.
Other cultural spaces soon appeared east of SoHo, including Piezo Electric, Storefront for Art and Architecture, No Se No, the Rivington School, Casa Nada Gallery, Freddy the Dreamer, and the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, run by Puerto Rican nationalists in the former public school P.S. 160. They tended to blend in and assimilate with the local culture in Nolita and the Lower East Side. North of Houston Street, the East Village was hit hardest by the next wave of speculative real estate, which followed migrations of college-educated youth through the city. A lively East Village gallery scene, associated with post-punk and a radically experimental gay subculture, captivated the public imagination and spawned pop culture trends, even as the community was ravaged by the spread of AIDS.
It took more than two decades for rents to skyrocket on the Lower East Side. Eventually, the gradual departure of rent-stabilized tenants, relocation of the drug trade, opening of bars and clubs, and heightened cultural tourism accelerated rent pressures, and upper-middle-class culture proliferated. ABC No Rio remained an outlier connected to a community of squatters and activists scattered throughout the neighborhood, fighting off eviction threats with protests and publicity campaigns, particularly during the Giuliani years. ABC No Rio became an activist community arts center, a base for radical challenges to sexual identity, a home for adherents of a new genre of hardcore punk: speedy, short, angry songs of misfits and alienated youth. Since 1994, director Steven Englander and his partner Vikki Law have worked with the collective to create a zine library, a community darkroom and computer center, and a lively exhibition schedule.
By the time they got around to figuring out what was happening, it had happened.
ABC No Rio now plans to replace the dilapidated tenement with an $8 million eco-friendly passive energy building featuring a planted curtain-wall designed by Paul Castrucci, an architect who co-founded the A & P Gallery on East 4th Street and the Bullet Space squat on East 3rd Street between C and D. Their fundraising will be supplemented by $4.5 million in grants from the city. Last year, several New York galleries including James Fuentes revived the legacy of the Real Estate Show with concurrent art exhibitions. The insurrectionary spirit of 123 Delancey lives on in ABC No Rio: a rare outpost carrying on the legacy of the anti-institutional 1970s and ’80s subculture, now an institution in itself. The temporary occupation of a city-owned property was a rare, nearly incontestable success story: art deployed as a form of social activism to create a space for generations of newcomers with no other place to go.
“By the time they got around to figuring out what was happening, it had happened,” Moore told me. “That was enough in a way, the idea that you could open a show in an empty space and it would be visible.”
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