East Village Shrine to Riots and Radicals
The New York Times
December 8th, 2012
By John Leland
FOUR days before the opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on Avenue C, near 10th Street, Bill DiPaola told the volunteer staff about the suggestion box. Though the group was supposed to make all decisions collectively, on this he acted alone.
“I put the suggestion box up thinking everybody’s going to be unhappy about everything,” he said of the visitors he expected at the museum’s opening, which was scheduled for Saturday. With a box, he told the staff members, if anyone became abusive, they could say: “That’s awesome. Could you write it down and put it in the box?”
He paused for a response, then continued: “Anything to let them leave here without cursing or spitting.”
Sheila Jamison, one of the volunteers, eyed him sideways. “Good luck with that,” she said.
The museum, conceived by Mr. DiPaola and Laurie Mittelmann, who has studied squats in Denmark and Spain, is a shrine to the recent radical history of the East Village: the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park, the standoffs with the police and developers over community gardens, the formation of squats, the civil disobedience actions waged by bicyclists for more bike-friendly streets. Mr. DiPaola, who declined to give his age, lived through many of those battles; Ms. Mittelmann, 24, was, like most of the volunteers, too young.
Around the room were photographs of demonstrations and a rack of zines with titles like Profiles of Provocateurs and Under Attack, along with pamphlets of the United States Constitution ($2 each). Blue wooden police barriers decorated the front desk, and a sticker on the telephone read, “THIS PHONE IS TAPPED.” Entrance to the museum will be free, but people can request paid tours of community gardens and squats. It is a homey place, if people in your home use the words “sustainable” and “community” a lot.
But for Mr. DiPaola, who is also the director of Time’s Up!, an environmental activist group, the museum involves a battle of ideas. Much of the history has survived only in people’s memories and photographs, each harboring its own version of the truth. How, he wondered, do you turn that into a museum exhibition with a single story line?
“What is history?” he asked the group. “There’s corporate history, and there’s our history. Most history museums are history from the past. This isn’t. There’s people who got beat up by police in the park who are going to walk in here. They lost their gardens. They lost their homes. A lot of people didn’t do too well during gentrification.”
Around the table, people drank blueberry herbal tea and ate Newman’s Own Organics cookies. “We really like making tea for the meeting because it’s the most communal way of drinking,” Ms. Mittelmann said, sounding a theme for the evening. Later, when someone proposed asking visitors for a suggested donation of $5, Willa Jones, an urban planning intern, thought this was too high. “Three makes it seem like we’re more for the people,” she said.
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is an attempt to put this communal spirit and fractious history on display — a successor, of sorts, to the Tenement Museum, which enshrines an earlier piece of neighborhood history. The location, in the long-unused storefront of C-Squat (also See Squat), is significant. C-Squat, home to numerous punk-rock bands and impromptu gigs, was the loudest and most notorious of the East Village squats. (In 2002, it was one of 11 illegally occupied apartment buildings that the city sold for $1 to a nonprofit organization, which is still in the process of turning the buildings over to the residents.) During Hurricane Sandy, when the East Village lost power, residents of C-Squat grilled food for the neighborhood and gave it out free.
In the museum’s lower level, one exhibit is a bicycle-powered generator, which was used to generate electricity during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Zuccotti Park. When the power went out after the storm, volunteers put the exhibit on the sidewalk as a neighborhood charging station for cellphones.
The history chronicled here, to the extent it has reached the public record, has become mainly one of victories for the activists, visible in the community gardens that adorn every other block in the neighborhood and the squats that are now comfortable residences. But lost are the numerous setbacks and defeats along the way, Mr. DiPaola said — the gardens that were bulldozed for development, the squats whose residents were evicted, the bicycle demonstrations that ended only in mass arrests, not in bicycle lanes.
As opening day approached, Mr. DiPaola fretted over tone. He asked that the word “protest” be removed from photo displays. “Protest is a little negative,” he said. “This is a celebration.”
At a photograph of El Jardin de la Esperanza on East Seventh Street, where the police forcibly removed protesters and brought in bulldozers in 2000, Mr. DiPaola objected to wording that suggested that a subsequent lawsuit by the state attorney general halted destruction of other gardens.
“If you talk to people, they say Eliot Spitzer saved the gardens,” Mr. DiPaola said. “Really, it was the demonstrators who went to court and got a temporary restraining order that saved the gardens. So direct action saves the day, and Spitzer comes in later.
“So many of the things I worked on — saving community gardens, getting better infrastructure for bicycling — the history of how it happened seems to get washed out. I have it on film; I was there. So we want to show the true history.”
As they do so, though, the museum itself risks becoming history. Start-up costs ran $50,000 to $70,000, much more than expected; rent to C-Squat is $1,681 a month. A campaign to raise $18,500 on the crowd-funding Web site Crowdrise stalled recently at $14,265, and two grant checks for $2,000 were momentarily lost because of problems with mail delivery.
“We’re down to our last $200,” Ms. Mittelmann said on Wednesday.
They had ideas. Mr. DiPaola said he wanted to sell copies of a T-shirt for a community garden that asked, “What type of worm would you like to have in your neighborhood?” with pictures of an earthworm and a real estate developer talking on a cellphone.
The thought of the T-shirt buoyed his spirits. Ms. Mittelmann mentioned a tour they ran last year for a group of European academics studying squatting — the sweet spot of their target market, both said.
“We talked about, one time, a protest fashion exhibit,” Ms. Mittelmann said.
But as a longtime community activist, Mr. DiPaola seemed reflexively to prefer to talk about adversity.
The location was inconvenient for European tourists, he said, the neighbors fractious; visitors might steal T-shirts at the opening party. The heat — finally restored after damage from Hurricane Sandy — was too high.
Mr. DiPaola said he was not really sure how the museum would meet its expenses. “People can come into the museum for free,” he said. “Maybe they’ll buy a T-shirt.” He paused and looked around at all the work still to be done.
“It’s going to be tough to get people interested in history,” he said.