Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ABC No Rio's Unlikely History

Only a few minutes from the tenement at 97 Orchard Street, ABC No Rio, the venue for art, activism, and raucous punk concerts, is an arresting part of the Lower East Side. Recently, I decided to go beyond the graffiti and junkyard gates of 156 Rivington Street to explore the roots of the building, how it evolved into its striking image today, and where it might go next. 

Artist's Rendering of the Current No Rio
Courtesy of abcnorio.org.
ABC No Rio began on New Year's Eve 1979 when a group of artists created "the Real Estate Show" in an abandoned showroom on 123 Delancey Street.

After months of attempts to obtain the space legally from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the group of squatters decided to enter the building, clean the space, and hold their exhibition without city permission. Hoping to show the brutal ways in which disinvestment and the city's policies regarding low-income neighborhoods had turned the Lower East Side into a ghost town, they planned for their makeshift art gallery to occupy the space for two weeks. Yet after a single day, it was shut down by the police.

Once the building was sealed and locked, the artists campaigned to retrieve their work and entered talks with the HPD to secure their own space at 156 Rivington Street. After living and working there on shaky legal grounds for decades, they became official owners of the building in 2006.

But the history of the 156 Rivington began long before No Rio.

Prior to the current tenement's construction in 1917, families lived in a more ancient building. Though records of the structure are hard to come by, we know a one-year-old infant, Feiga, died there in 1902.

In 1917, the old structure was demolished and a new tenement rose at 156 Rivington. Wittmayer Photographers, a photography business at street level, was a tenant from the beginning. Twenty-six years later, in 1943, business owner Gustave "Gus" Wittmayer purchased the three-story building at 158 Rivington (previously a bank) and expanded his business into a space next door.

Wittmayer was a well-respected photographer and took many portraits of the immigrants who flooded the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. His studio's sign could be seen in the window of the ABC No Rio building until 1978, when he left both 156 and 158 Rivington Street for Atlanta.

After Gus left and ABC No Rio moved in, 158 Rivington became a beauty supplies store, distributing goods to local hairdressers. Meanwhile, the basement of 156 Rivington housed a small upholstery shop, and all street-level rental space became a part of No Rio. During the '80s, its front window, once home to Gus' sign, was smashed by local troublemakers.

In the early '90s, No Rio became a haven for squatters and disenchanted punk rockers. Grassroots activists like Food Not Bombs began meeting there, and concerts were held in the dingy, cramped basement around exposed beams.

These advertisements for the punk shows held at No Rio during that time give you a real feel for the era - click for a larger view (the flyers feature some crude cartoons and bad language).

The worth of the building in monetary terms tells you something about neighborhood change: 156 Rivington was valued at $24,000 in 1939, and by 1998, ABC No Rio entered a deal with the city to acquire the space for $1.

It was only during the last decade, as massive redevelopment and expensive new housing took hold of Rivington Street, that the eccentric building began to look foreign in its own gentrified neighborhood.

Despite the layers upon layers of paint, artwork strewn on its walls, and melded metal decorations adorning its entrance, the old structure is not as lively as it appears. Years after providing the necessary renovation to secure the space, the city and the volunteer collective that run No Rio have both accepted that the wood and brick building is dilapidated.

Director Steven Englander says the timber walls cannot support a restoration attempt. Because the cost of another renovation would be only slightly less than starting over, he and the collective decided that it's time to rebuild.

Artist's Rendering of the New No Rio.
Courtesy of abcnorio.org.
As envisioned by architect Paul Castrucci, an expert renovator of historical buildings, the new ABC No Rio building will share little in common with its current grimy facade. Instead, it will continue the sleek aesthetic of modern structures on the Lower East Side while maintaining pieces of its tried and true character.

The stories of sloped glass topped by a wall of solar panels, all covered in vine-like greenery, will dramatically reduce the energy needed to run the concert space, art gallery, darkroom, computer lab, library, office, and other facilities on site. And according to No Rio's official website, the new plans include provisions for upgrades to one day power the building entirely from renewable resources.

Construction is set to begin this fall and be completed in just over a year.

Shedding its funky image, 156 Rivington will once again fit in with its surroundings, at least superficially, but the original structure will be lost to history. From photo store to art gallery, stoic old New York holdout to proposed energy and design trendsetter, ABC No Rio has seen incredible change even for the shape-shifting neighborhood of the Lower East Side. What do you think about the redesign?

You can discover how other landmarks on Rivington Street and the surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood have evolved through generations of renewal on Next Steps: A Neighborhood Walking Tour.

-Posted by Joe Klarl

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