October 10, 1996


'Blame it on Rio'
Two Lower East Side arts centers join ABC No Rio's war of inches against gentrification
by Steve Ellman

The coming court battle for ABC No Rio may just be another chapter in a Bleak House-like litany of legal action over the Lower East Side hangout for teen-age punks and aging anarchists. But what makes the guerilla struggle of bohemians versus bureaucrats more serious this time is the fact that other downtown arts centers are facing similar fates.

Since it won its first legal fight 16 years ago and planted roots on Rivington Street, ABC No Rio has been a playground and sanctuary for high-profile East Village artists and low-profile antiestablishment types. The latest troubles started in 1994, when the city refused to accept the club's rent payments. "We were given no reason for the change," says Jackie Bukowsky, the club's attorney. "We haven't been cited for any code violations. We came up with a proposal to buy the building ourselves, but [the city] never looked at it."

The city plans to turn the building over to Asian Americans for Equality, a low-income housing developer. ABC No Rio has filed a motion in State Supreme Court to overturn the plan on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the city is using AAFE as a smokescreen to suppress ABC No Rio's inconvenient politics. If that doesn't work, an eviction hearing in housing court is likely this month.

In a neighborhood where gentrification (prohibitive rent increases and landlord buyouts) has already driven out many artists, it's no surprise that a club born from a squatter ethos and aesthetic has fought eviction longer than some members of its multi-pierced clientele have been alive. Drawing stronger local outcry these days is the city's recent decision to put two other Lower East Side arts centers out of business. The Charas/El Bohio Cultural Center, in what used to be P.S. 64 on East 9th Street, has been around for more than 30 years, and provides work and rehearsal space for, among other tenants, the P.S. 122 arts organization. The CSV Cultural Center, at the former P.S. 160 on Suffolk Street, is home to several theater companies and rents inexpensive studio space to some 80 artists.

Protests from neighbors, politicians and the arts community have convinced deputy mayor Randy Mastro's office to put off the auctions of both school buildings until January. "They give important services and have important roles in the community, and deserve a chance," says Lisa Daglian, a spokeperson for borough president Ruth Messinger.

ABC No Rio's fate, however, seems less secure. Even local pols have expressed ambivalence about the club's standing in the community. City councilmember Kathryn Freed says she tried to broker a compromise and have ABC No Rio rent space from AAFE, but concluded that ABC No Rio wouldn't settle for that. "That's sort of a jaundiced view of what happened," counters ABC No Rio board member Steve Englander. "The rent that AAFE demanded was exorbitant, and there were no plans for what ABC would do during the 18 months the building will be rehabbed." Still, he admits that "technically, maybe, the city did nothing corrupt" in trying to take the building.

Letters of support for ABC No Rio have comve from as far off as Eastern Europe. But if the ax does fall, it could be due to the club's isolation within its largely Hispanic neighborhood. When scads of ABC No Rio alumni turned out for "Endangered Spaces," a recent weekend of art, music, and open mikes, a support rally was held not in Loisaida but the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Members cite efforts to involve local kids in ABC No Rio programs, but admit to mostly sketchy results.

In the long run, it's hard to believe that any of these three groups or their neighbors will survive the Lower East Side makeover. Soon enough, they may not even recognize the neighborhood they're fighting to stay in.

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ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980