Once upon a time there were things called subcultures, that managed to thrive despite promotion through “social channels” or sponsorships from energy drinks. Since 1980, 156 Rivington Street has been a subculture enclave for activists, artists, counter culturists, and assorted noisemakers, providing a non-profit space to exchange ideas and physically interact. It’s not secret that the hardcore punk scene was once a magnet for such individuals, so when the storied matinee shows at CBGB became too violent in the late-’80s, punk turned off the Bowery to Rivington Street to ABC No Rio.
In the center of a largely Hispanic neighborhood, near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, ABC No Rio held more than punk shows. There were silkscreening classes, a zine library, Food Not Bombs meetings, a computer lab–all still running without corporate dollars or a big “X” for “collab.”
Queens native Freddy Alva was one the founding members who created an alternative to the scene at CBGB. Alva has also helped curated several events at ABC No Rio, including a current show celebrating the cultural center’s Saturday hardcore matinees as part of Lower East Side History Month. Alva also released a coveted cassette compilation titled The New Breed (1989) along with Chaka Malik Harris, frontman of hardcore band Burn (playing the Black N’ Blue Bowl this weekend). He continues to run Wardance Records, in addition to his day gig as an acupuncturist. He spoke to us about the impactful matinees of 1990-1999, documented in the show and a screening coming your way tonight at ABC No Rio.
I got involved at ABC No Rio by going to the first show Mike Bullshit put on in December of 1989. I knew Mike from the CBGBs hardcore matinee scene–he did a popular fanzine called BS Monthly and started booking shows at ABC. From the beginning, everything was hands on–you showed up to the show and were drafted by Mike to help out in any capacity. I loved this DIY aspect to it and slowly began to take on more responsibilities there, eventually taking over the booking once Mike left in mid-1990s.
The first year of shows is really important, as it reflects a conscious decision to create an alternative to the violence that was plaguing CBGB and the overall NYHC scene during that era. Myself, Mike, and just about everyone involved with ABC No Rio came from that scene, so we saw an opening to create something new.
People responded in kind by forming new bands and fanzines, and a different “all-inclusive” vibe started to take hold. Apart from the violence-free environment that was created, activist groups like Squat Or Rot and Food Not Bombs were invited into the space, bringing a more politically consciousness crowd. This made the club more of a community-minded resource center as opposed to just a place to hold concerts.
ABC No Rio has continued to thrive and expand into a vast array of activities long after the initial crew of volunteers, like myself, left. At any given time you can attend the zine library, gallery space, and the ongoing Saturday hardcore matinees. There is a silkscreening station, photo dark room, and computer lab available for all to use–some at a nominal fee.
Local activist groups Time’s Up still use the space for meetings/storage. During the [Occupy Wall Street] protests a couple of years ago, the place was a strategic meeting point for like-minded activists. In short, the club has mushroomed into strikingly different arenas, far more diverse than the founders could have ever imagined.
ABC No Rio is a throwback to the golden era of counter culture art spaces on the Lower East Side during the 1970s and 1980s. As the area has drastically changed and gentrified in the past two decades, the club stands as both a living museum and viable entity that reflects the past, while continuing to function in the present.
In its 30-plus years of existence, the locals’ reaction has ranged from bemused curiosity to outright indifference. I know some that came to check out the shows and subsequently went on to attend other events at the club, so it’s definitely become an institution on the Lower East Side.
As far as people from back then, individuals like Esneider Huasipungo come to mind: I took him to ABC No Rio in 1990, and he’s been actively involved ever since. Just this past Saturday I saw him working the door. Others like Steven Englander, Dave Powell, Fly Orr, have been there since the beginning and continue to function in some capacity. My hat goes off to them for their dedication.
The Citizens Arrest St. Patrick’s Day show from 1990 that we’ll be screening has a special significance, as they were one of the “house” bands for the first year and a half. Whenever a band cancelled or couldn’t make it for whatever reason, Citizens Arrest would jump in and play, since they would all be there anyway helping out with the show. There’s scant footage of them at ABC No Rio, so this is really special and as a bonus, the co-curator for the exhibit who filmed it, named John Woods, has a also dug up some random interviews filmed with the club regulars circa 1990 as well.
It’s an amazing snapshot of those times, the footage is really the closest thing to being there. Some of the members of Citizens Arrest will be in attendance, along with a good number of people up on the screen–it’s a veritable time machine to the start of the Saturday matinees.
I’ve resisted the urge to watch the whole show until Friday. I want to be transported back like everyone in attendance. It’s befitting that this screening is taking place where it all started. The demand for the screening has been overwhelming, so much so that we added a second screening on Thursday, May 21 at 7pm.