ABC No Rio is falling apart, as it has been for decades. But it sort of comes with the territory– as a (now former) squat house, punk venue, and art-making community space since the late 1970s, the building has leveled some expected wear. Minor repairs, such as patching up a massive hole in the wall that read “rat poison” back in 1989 and the roof encapsulation twenty years later in 2009, haven’t done much to seriously improve the conditions of what, deep down, is an ailing tenement house.
During my visit to ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side on Thursday, Steven Englander apologized for the uncomfortable temperature. “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” he explained. We both sat sweaty on crackled and torn leather stools below a crumbling ceiling, adjacent to a window boarded up with exposed insulation.
Steven is hopeful that, come October, when No Rio will pitch a renovation to the city’s new officials, all this decay might finally be on the road out. But first, the project bid will finally have to match the budget.
Grand plans to renovate ABC No Rio have been stalled for years. In 2008 the organizers agreed on a design that outlines plans for a LEED-certified building, as well as a roof garden, soundproofing, an elevator, and a significant expansion of the performance and gallery space, among other things. The project was put out to bid in the spring of 2012 in front of the Department of Design and Construction for the first time, after No Rio had been working with the city for four years on the project. The first bid was turned down for being too costly, and No Rio has returned to the DDC several times since with revised plans.
“We’re fortunate in that we got a pretty substantial amount of city funding for the project last year, about $3.4 million,” Englander explained. “But that means we’re sort of required to work with them through their procurement and contracting process.”
Of course, this means things are moving at a snail’s pace. “Right now we’re in this position of uncertainty. We don’t know how we’re going to proceed or when,” Steven said. “And sadly the longer it takes, the more it costs because of inflation in construction costs. But we wouldn’t be here if there weren’t people who actually worked in city government who support the project.”
But now No Rio is mapping out what could be a new route to approval via the New York City Economic Development Corporation, another city agency which Englander and the rest of No Rio feel is a better fit. Despite the bureaucratic congestion, Steven said he’s confident the city will continue to support the project and this new route will expedite the process.
ABC No Rio has also raised $2 million in private donations on their own. Though unless the city allocates more money to the project, No Rio will need to double that, either by way of government support or more of the same solo fundraising, in order to meet the estimated project costs.
It might seem strange that a place that, according to its website, promotes “oppositional culture” and “anti-authoritarianism,” is working so closely with city government. But ABC does draw the line somewhere. “We don’t ask the politicians for funding for content-based activity because we don’t think it’s appropriate for them to fund speech,” Steven explained. “But funding the infrastructure of the building to provide the services, we do think is appropriate.”
Overall, the redesign will make for a vastly improved space and one that will be more welcoming. “There’s a lot of inefficient space in the building right now, because it’s just an ad-hoc repurposing of an old tenement building,” Steven said. The new plan actually takes into account what the individual rooms will be used for specifically. “There was a good interplay between the architect and the No Rio folk,” Englander said. “So he was able to design it with input from the people who are actually running the facilities.”
Blueprints for a revamp are exciting, and the fact that No Rio is committed to making an eco-friendly building is another much-needed improvement. Yet, it’s hard not to romanticize ABC No Rio as it is now. The chairs are ripped to shreds, the corners collect dust and paint chips, and the walls are covered in graffiti, stickers, and grime. The place smells as though it’s been lived in by a thousand bodies for a thousand years. And there’s even a ghost that haunts the building– it appears as a variety of black-and-white images of No Rio’s now deceased house cat. The photos are scattered throughout the building: the cat sits serenely in a spot below the window, and a few cats fill a basket in the corner.
Having been to my fair share of filthy nasty punk houses, I quickly grew fond of this strange holdout from an era when New York City was really New York City. Walking into ABC is like walking into a museum for the Lower East Side of the ’80s. It’s a wonder that No Rio has survived, which is certainly a testament to the people that have worked here, particularly those who were around before the place went legit in the late ’90s. Surely, I thought, the people of No Rio have mixed feelings about the renovation.
But Englander doesn’t see ABC No Rio as a museum. Rather, ABC is an active community space where people are working to ensure it remains useful for future generations. “Some people are wistful, nostalgic, and a little bit sad,” Steven said of the construction project. “I’m not. I’m the one who has to deal with all the hassles of this decrepit building. So I’m actually eagerly looking forward to taking it down and building a new one.”
When asked whether moves were being made to preserve the unique character of the building, Steven responded, “For the most part people are over it, they’ve reconciled themselves to that. We’re pretty confident we’re going to be able to create a structure that will last beyond those of us who are involved now, and that it will be up to future generations to imprint their own cultural personality on it.”
He added, “It’s not likely they’re going to recreate the ‘80s era sense of New York urban life with the graffiti and all that, but who knows?”
Steven’s response momentarily elicited nightmarish visions of glass walls and all-white laboratories, a sanitary, white-washed future where everyone moves as little as possible, shuffling around the new building in scrubs and face masks.
But on second thought, there’s no way ABC No Rio would ever spiral downward into some Brave New World and become a community space that looks more like Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Houston than a former squat house.
The thriving zine library will calm the wistful type. With its massive collection of over 13,000 catalogued items jam-packed into a room the size of a generous bedroom, the library evokes remnants of the same bygone era as the rest of the building. Yet it also demonstrates a continuity from the ’80s to now. The collection includes old zines as well as newer ones, and everything in between.
Steven estimated there are about 1,000 uncatalogued zines in the room. “The material comes in faster than they are able to catalogue it, eventually at this rate the uncatalogued stuff will be greater than the catalogued stuff,” he said. Piles of paper and pamphlets lay on chairs, and boxes of unsorted materials were stacked high.
The library has acquired most of its collection via donations, but it started out as a massive inheritance from an existing library. “It started back in 1999. At the time it was almost serendipity,” Steven explained. “We had worked out this deal with the city where they basically stopped trying to evict us and they gave us the opportunity to buy the building for $1 and expand our facilities and use the whole site for projects and programs.”
At the same time, a squat house in the Bronx was being evicted. “There was a zine library there and they wanted to put it somewhere safe,” Englander recalled.
Jack Bratich, a staffer at the library since 2005, described a broad collection of zines related to social movements, the punk scene, music, and anarchist/ anti-authoritarian practices and communities, as well as personal zines (per-zines) that relate the micro-experience to broader social and political issues. “But over time we’ve developed a reputation for a collection that primarily includes things related to Downtown New York City, and Lower East Side oriented zines,” Bratich explained.
It’s strange looking out the windows of No Rio’s library and finding slick new restaurants and sanitized boutiques below. The feeling is something like being a kid up in a treehouse looking down at the rest of the world. Something about your hiding place is magical, whereas everything down below is nothing more than boring reality.
Bratich acknowledged the historical importance of No Rio. “The building itself is a kind of archive– it has traces of all these different moments from the last 30 years,” he said. “So it’s sad to see it go.” Bratich pointed out that the walls are filled with leftovers from art exhibitions, and said he hopes some of that can be preserved.
But Bratich agreed that the building’s poor conditions make things difficult: “It’s a living museum at this point, but it’s hardly functional for us.”
Englander says ABC No Rio’s renovation plan will triple the shelving, which is ideal for this rapidly expanding collection, and will allow for better use of the space. “And it will also be a more comfortable place for people to visit,” he said, which is something that’s imperative for a non-lending library that functions more as a reading room. Jack Bratich suggested that a more welcoming setting might also attract more much-needed volunteers.
As the era of a more “authentic” downtown culture recedes farther into the past, it seems as though buildings and the spaces inside of them are the most tangible relics we have left. But with crumbling infrastructure and the soaring cost of real estate in Manhattan, these spaces are becoming more difficult to preserve. It seems that the inevitable passing of the ABC No Rio building as we know it means that objects such as zines will have to shoulder the responsibility of being artifacts of this particular past. But for a place like No Rio, which is clearly embracing change, both the renovation and the library filled with zines from the past and the present, will do a better job of demonstrating some sort of historical continuity for punk, as opposed to it being frozen in time.
“Zines are inspirational [for the library’s visitors], and the content of the zines resonates even now,” Bratich explained. “They are transmissions from the past, but they also get people thinking about how they can send out their own transmission.”
While No Rio waits to hear from the City about the next steps, regular activities, including fundraising for the zine library, will continue. The annual-ish Punk Rock Karaoke event is coming up next week on Friday, September 12 at 8 pm and proceeds will benefit the library, which is free and open to the public.