'ABC Community Center Fights for Survival'
by Steven Wishnia
ABC No Rio--the Lower East Side's unique do-it-yourself space for punk rock, painting, and poetry--is facing eviction under a low-income housing scheme similar to the one selected for the East 13th Street squats.
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which rented the four-story building at 156 Rivington Street to an artists' collective in 1980, has terminated their lease and moved to turn the building over to Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), a local nonprofit organization, to be renovated for three low-income apartments. ABC supporters believe that HPD wants to evict them in retaliation for their ties to local squatters and that the city pressured AAFE to take the building.
HPD is trying to expedite the plan by having the City Council declare it an accelerated "Urban Development Action Area Project" (UDAAP). That designation--also used to take the 13th Street squats in 1994--would allow the city to bypass normal public hearings on the grounds that ABC No rio is "blighted," impairing property values in the area and contributing "to the spread of crime, juvenile delinquency and disease." In November, a City Council land-use subcommittee delayed its decision on the measure until December 6 after hearing testimony from ABC workers and supporters.
"To kick out a world-renowned arts collective for three units of low-income housing is ridiculous," ABC volunteer Shawnee Alexandri told the committee.
Negotiations between ABC and AAFE are still going on, mediated by Borough President Ruth Messinger's office, but have been stalled by the issue of rent. AAFE wants $1,400 a month for the space, more than four times what ABC is paying now. It also wants ABC to relocate for 12 to 18 months while the building is being renovated, to pay for the renovatons on its space, and AAFE is demanding that the ABC-related homesteaders living in the building's three apartments leave. A 1992 HPD survey found that standard rents for similar storefronts in the area were $600 to $650, according to ABC's lawyer, Jackie Bukowski; ABC offered to pay $500.
An AAFE spokesperson said their group was "very interested in getting our side of the story out," but director Christopher Kui did not return phone calls from the SHADOW.
ABC was born in 1980, after a group of artists occupied an abandoned building on Delancey Street for an exhibit called the "Real Estate Show," protesting the impending tide of gentrification and homelessness. HPD leased them 156 Rivington Street in exchange for their leaving the Delancey Street building. Through the '80s, ABC was an alternative to the yuppie-gallery hustle for local artists such as Jenny Holzer. As a newer group took it over in the early '90s, ABC became one of the country's foremost do-it-yourself punk spaces--perhaps second only to Gilman Street in Berkeley--presenting touring punk bands like Bikini Kill and Jawbreaker and local favorites like Huasipungo, Black Rain, and Ricanstruction. ABC refuses to book racist, sexist or homophobic bands and is the only regular, nonprofit, genuinely all-ages punk venue in the city.
The space also hosts weekly poetry readings, children's art classes, and the New York branch of Food Not Bombs, which ABC secretary Amanda Trevins says provides food to 50-70 people every Saturday and Sunday. In the last six months, it has put on two big art exhibits ("The Art of Eviction," featuring squatters' works, and "Under Siege"), a performance by jazz bassist Eddie Gomez, and a reading by Allen Ginsberg.
The group's relationship with HPD has been "stormy," says former director Steve Englander. It was on rent strike for nearly five years, he says, with a tentative out-of-court settlement reached in late 1993. Under those stipulations, which neither party ever signed, ABC members agreed to move out of the apartments and pay $2,000 in back rent; HPD agreed to make repairs and forgive about $10,000 in back rent. ABC members say HPD never made the repairs and stopped depositing their rent checks in October 1994--just when it was starting arrangements to sell AAFE the building. HPD spokesperson Cassandra Vernon told the SHADOW she couldn't comment on the case.
ABC says the city never notified them of its plans. Vernon says it didn't have to, because ABC was a commercial tenant with a month-to-month lease that could be terminated any time. HPD offered several alternative sites in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which ABC rejected on the grounds that they were too isolated. ABC also says it wrote to HPD at least three times about buying the building and never got any response.
ABC members moved back into the apartments last fall, believing that it would be harder for the city to evict an occupied building. In initial negotiations with AAFE, they agreed to move out if ABC could keep the performance space. This strategy angered some homesteaders, who after the 13th Street invasion believe that no squatter sould give up their home except at gunpoint. Jackie Bukowski--who also co-represents the 13th Street squatters--says they accepted leaving because ABC has "no case" for adverse possession. If the negotiations fail, they plan to stay.
Questions remain about whether HPD pressured AAFE to take the building. AAFE has a reputation for not wanting to get involved in projects that require evicting people. Amanda Trevins says an HPD negotiator told her in May that HPD wouldn't give AAFE 161 Allen Street, the building they wnted, unless they took 156 Rivington Street as well. Both PHPD and a source close to the negotiations discount this argument, saying that ABC's building was included because AAFE's project needed at least 15 to 20 apartments to qualify for Enterprise Foundation funding. The Allen Street building only has 13.
Steve Englander says AAFE "acted as if they didn't know ABC was here" when he first called them about the plan in April 1995, four months after HPD told them they were getting the building.
"I find it hard to believe that AAFE wouldn't walk over and look at the buildings for four or five months," he adds. "If AAFE had been honest and ABC had gotten a good deal, I would have been comfortable relating that case to the people who lived there. Now that we know they've been lying to us, I can't in good conscience ask people to give up their places."
HPD has attempted to serve eviction papers and plans to vacate the building. Vernon calls the allegation that HPD is ousting ABC for its support of squatters "unfair," saying that they've been "uncooperative" tenants. Bukowski says she has "no doubt" politics are involved. If HPD presses for an eviction, she adds, "the city using its power to shut down critical speech" would be one ground for a lawsuit to block it.
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