January, 1980

'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 brutal irony.

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 building."

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, January 8.

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 day.

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 seriously.

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."

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