Sharing a Part of Activist History in the East Village
The New York Times
March 4th, 2012
By Colin Moynihan
From the street, the brick tenement on Avenue C looked like any other building. But inside on Saturday afternoon, about 30 people gathered to look at a storefront space covered with graffiti and murals.
“This is C-Squat,” Laurie Mittelmann explained to one of the spectators, “soon to be home to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.”
That museum, Ms. Mittelmann said, was being established to, among other things, tell the story of how activists in the East Village took over abandoned properties and over the years transformed them into permanent housing or community gardens.
She said that she came up with the idea for the museum with Bill DiPaola, the executive director of an environmental group, Time’s Up, whose members participated in demonstrations to preserve community gardens and squats.
Some of those efforts were effective. Most of the East Village gardens became permanent parts of the neighborhood in 2002 after Eliot Spitzer, then the state’s attorney general, and the Bloomberg administration resolved a lawsuit Mr. Spitzer had filed against the Giuliani administration to prevent their sale to developers.
Although the police evicted many squatters, the city called a truce about a decade ago and about a dozen squatter buildings remained. The resulting agreement cleared the way for residents of those buildings, including C-Squat, at 155 Avenue C, to become legal owners.
Still, the neighborhood has undergone startling changes over the last three decades, and Ms. Mittelmann said the goal of the museum was to preserve the memory of its recent history.
Mr. DiPaola said that he was enthusiastic about opening the museum in C-Squat, perhaps the most anarchic of the squats, and home to members of local bands like Choking Victim, Banji and Dog That Bites Everyone.
Opinion about the museum idea varied among C-Squat residents. Ultimately, a majority decided that the project made sense, said Brett Lebowitz, who has lived in the building for 20 years. Residents said the museum would provide monthly income from a tenant that promised to reflect the philosophy that was an important part of the building and the East Village itself.
Last week, Ms. Mittelmann, a neighborhood activist who lives nearby, and Mr. DiPaola signed a lease to rent the storefront for about $1,700 per month. (Up to now, the space had been used mostly as a community room.) Over the past several weeks, they have been renovating the space and assembling photographs, artworks and other materials to exhibit there.
Among the displays are old issues of The Shadow, an underground newspaper published from 1989 to 2008, which reported on the evictions of squatters, the bulldozing of gardens, and battles over a curfew in Tompkins Square Park.
And Ms. Mittelmann and Mr. DiPaola recently looked at back issues of The East Villager, a free monthly newspaper published in the mid- and late 1980s, while sitting in the kitchen of a former editor in chief of that newspaper, Heidi Boghosian.
The issues contained photographs of the Gas Station, a performance space on Avenue B created by members of an art collective called the Rivington School; an article about a rally against the eviction of squatters from a building on East Eighth Street; and an interview with a resident at the Christodora House on Avenue B, a doorman building that some demonstrators pelted with pieces of concrete after the eviction. A Christodora resident, identified as Mr. X, is quoted as saying, “I was quite irritated.”
Ms. Boghosian said she would also make letters to the newspaper available to the museum. One of the letters was from the writer Luc Sante, who in 1988 called those campaigning against sidewalk peddlers “pea brains” and suggested that they might need to “take lessons in urban ambulation.”
In addition to displaying artifacts and pieces of art, Mr. DiPaola said, the museum will organize tours like the one on Saturday, which was led by several longtime neighborhood residents.
After leaving C-Squat, the group made stops at a squat on East Seventh Street and two community gardens before ending at Bullet Space, a squatter building on East Third Street, where they looked at a display of bottles, clay pipes and coins believed to date to the 1800s and unearthed in a backyard dig two years ago.
Later, a C-Squat resident, Bill Cashman, said the museum’s examination of the recent past had motivated him to research the more distant days of his building using tax records and other resources. The tenement was built in 1872, he said, housed a pickle store, and went through various other permutations before squatters moved in more than 100 years later.
“I’ve always wondered what was in this building before us,” he said. “Who was walking these halls?”