Since the city began undergoing intense gentrification in the late 1970s, many artists have stepped up and to occupy and sometimes even reclaim places to both preserve the city’s history, but also to highlight the negative implications of gentrification, and showcase their unique artistry. The city is known for its heralded art museums, but to be showcased is a difficult feat in itself.
Take a look at 10 places in New York City that artists and musicians have occupied to showcase their skills, and preserve ideals of community building by fighting gentrification.
10. 123 Delancey Street
In 1979, a group of artists who called themselves the Committee for the Real Estate Show, broke into an vacant, city-owned commercial building on the Lower East Side and installed an art exhibit in a response to the gentrification happening all across New York City, which consequently evicted many people from their homes.
The exhibit, titled, the Real Estate Show not only commented on the increasing gentrification, but also the artists who were complicit “pawns” in allowing “greedy white developers” revalue property. The exhibit had also been installed in solidarity with the death of Elizabeth Mangum, a 35-year-old woman who was killed during her eviction in Flatbush earlier that year by a policeman.
The exhibit featured politically motivated paintings, installations, drawings, posters and such by young artists, some of which would move on to have notable careers, such as Alan Moore, Ann Messner, Peter Moenning, Becky Howland, Bobby G., and Christof Kohlhofer. After unsuccessfully trying to reach out to city administrators for permission to use its unused spaces, the group decided they would break in on their own.
As Becky Howland explained in Places Journal, “We were like packs of artists with no place to go. Where can we show next? Where can I live? What can I do? Where can I be?” They replaced the city’s lock with their own and set to work on putting together the exhibit.
The show was not something that was calling for “rights,” since there was no legal problem. The artists explicitly called their exhibit “insurrectionary urban development” on posters put up around the city which expressed very clearly their goals. One of them states, “It is important to show that people are not helpless – they can express their resentment with things-as-they-are in a way that is constructive, exemplary, and interesting.”
On January 2nd, 1980, just two days after opening, the artists returned to the space to find the NYC Department of Housing & Development had locked them out, shutting down the exhibit. They tried to contact the HPD and with no success were able to get the space reopened. They sent a letter to the office announcing they would be there on January 8th to reopen the show, and that they’d be waiting for the HPD to come and unlock the doors.
The doors remained locked, the works brutally and without care moved to a warehouse. The ejection was covered by many major new outlets, including the New York Times, which quoted Alan Moore stating “Our ideas are behind bars. And this is a statement made by the city, not by the artists.”
9. ABC No Rio
After the Real Estate Show was shut down by police in 1980, city officials struck a deal with the artists of the Committee for the Real Estate Show. They let the group choose a store front from any one of the city’s tax-defaulted properties, which was thousands. For $1, they chose a venue not far from 123 Delancey Street, named it ABC No Rio, where they held art shows with performance nights, music events, and all kinds of “frenetic kinds of cultural activity such self-organized places run by young people are known for,” often with themed nights.
As to who could participate? Alan Moore explained that “if people could handle the poor Caribbean neighborhood, and the anarchist assembly that decided our programming, they could work with us.” The venue became one of the view places in the artworld to show works and allow productions by artists of color. ABC No Rio sparked important collaborations and became a political center of art and culture.
As the ’80s chugged on and the situation in the city grew worse, the ABC No Rio became a center for to create props for demonstrations against the dirty war in El Salvador. Today, ABC No Rio continues to be a “collectively-run center for art and activism” in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It can be found at 156 Rivington Street. A forthcoming renovation, however, is in the works.
8. Death By Audio
From 2002 to 2014, Death By Audio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the site of a small, handmade effects pedal company founded by Oliver Ackerman, that sold its product to many famous bands, like U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Beginning in 2007, the space began to be used as a venue for underground music and art events, hosting some of the best underground music names.
Death By Audio was one of New York City’s most well known DIY places offering a place for artists and musicians’ work to be shown and developed. The recording studio and artists spaces allowed for work to be done, and the creation of small, effects pedals was also pretty unique. Although it was only around for a short 12 years all together, the venue did reach non-profit status in January of 2009.
7. Surplus Candy
In December 2013, New York City graffiti artist and parodist Hanksy had a “building destruction party” illegally inside an abandoned tenement in the East Village. Hanksy, along with over 35 different artists temporarily took over the place putting their art on the walls. A few weeks later, through word of mouth, Hanksy held another, this time much larger party inside the same tenement to show the work that had been done. The show was called Surplus Candy.
The invitation-only show featured works by other notable graffiti and street artists like Russell King, NDA, and Tony DePew along with Hanksy’s work. Though he doesn’t have any plans for a Surplus Two right now, he did tell Gothamist “hopefully this inspires other artists to look beyond the gallery for exhibiting work. Get creative and get inspired. And then when it’s all over, get drunk.
6. Washington Square Arch
One of the city’s most notable “off-limits” spaces is the inside of the Washington Square Arch. But in 1917, artists Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and poet Gertrude Drick broke into the arch and declared the area of Greenwich Village the new independent republic of New Bohemia. To celebrate, they threw an all-night picnic complete with Japanese lanterns, cooking, firing cap pistols, and launching balloons.
They drank “tea” all night (though one could easily suspect it was something stronger), while Gertrude Drick read a declaration of her own writing claiming the areas independence and John Sloan created an etching of the event. The group became known as “The Arch Conspirators.”
5. The Living Gallery
Founded in April 2012 by Nyssa Frank, the Living Gallery is not exactly like the artist occupations described above, in wholly abandoned places. But this is a place where artists and musicians believe in the same message: artists don’t need to be depend on traditional institutions to showcase their work.
Located at 1094 Broadway in Brooklyn, the Living Gallery offers “emerging artists and teachers a platform for dreams to manifest.” There is an emphasis on collaboration instead of competition, reminiscent of the earlier days of ABC No Rio. The space is available for rent for events when art workshops or community outreach programs are being held for local residents. At night it serves as a concert venue giving up and coming musicians the chance to perform, with tickets coming at a generous price. The Living Gallery moved to its Broadway location in 2013.
The East Village is famous for its squatter history in the multiple abandoned buildings. One of those buildings evolved into a squatting residence for artists and musicians involved in the ’90s punk movement. The building, a brick walk-up abandoned after being ruined by a fire in Alphabet City at 155 Avenue C, began to be occupied in the late 1980s. Known as the C-Squat, it was not only a place for squatters to stay, but it also held punk rock shows in the basement.
Around 2005, the city allowed C-Squat to remain instead of forcing the residents out. After surviving over the years, the building has become a space for punks to “live their ideals.” Photographer and long-time visitor of C-Squat, Konstantin Sergeyev, told the New York Times that these artists and musicians “took this space which was wasted, useless, and tried to save it, and use it productively.”
The walls of C-Squat are covered in graffiti and art marking its short history as a kind of safe-haven for punks. Other residents include members of notable bands Morning Glory, Choking Victim, and Banji.
3. Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS)
Today, the squatter residence and punk venue of C-Squat houses the Museum of Reclaimed Space (MoRUS). The museum celebrates the history grassroots activism in New York by showcasing efforts of citizens to “reclaim” abandoned spaces owned by large corporations in an effort to build community.
It goes also explains to visitors to social and political implications behind reclaiming these spaces, but also how the cycles of urban landscapes, how they change and adapt to the times, and how it was the rebels of society, the artists and ecologically conscious that sought to change the fate of the commercial neglect.
The MoRUS may be just a small, volunteer-run museum, but it sets out to highlight this important history as well as the continuing activism continuing to happen in the city today. It serves as a reminder that the grassroots activism days of New York City are not over.
For a more in-depth look, check out our coverage of the museum in Living Activism at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in NYC’s East Village.
2. The Market Hotel
In New York, we’re all pretty familiar with concerts. There’s a certain kind of schedule and expectation that follows performing at some of the big famous halls. But in Queens and Brooklyn, there are DIY venues that pepper the borough’s abandoned spaces that have been part of the music scene for decades. One such venue is the Market Hotel on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick.
Typically, DIY venues are not meant to be fancy, cleaned up, but Market Hotel, with its makeshift bar and unisex bathroom still offers a space for an musicians from across all genres to perform. After being shut down in 2010 for serving alcohol without a license, Market Place reopened this past January.
For more, check out BROOKLYN: DIY Music Shows.
1. Rooms, Later P.S.1
Founded in 1971 by Alanna Heiss as the Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc.. The project utilizes abandoned or underused buildings around New York City and converts them into temporary artist spaces for exhibitions. The first major project was at an abandoned public school in Long Island City, Queens. Titled Rooms, many artists were invited to come in and use the space as they wanted to show their work. That space would become the permanent location for P.S.1.
Before P.S.1 was officially established, Heiss worked to get artists space across the city using many abandoned places since she was unhappy with the difficulties artists were having with showing work. Her first alternative exhibition was underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in 1971, and her first indoor exhibition was at at the dusty ground-floor of 10 Bleecker Street.
P.S.1 ran successfully for 20 years, taking in artists work from all over the world and showcasing it. In 1997 it reopened but remained just as strong and important. In 2000, P.S.1 became affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art to strengthen both institutions. Not only that, but the combination of P.S.1’s unorthodox contemporary mission with the power of the MoMa makes this one of the most extensive collections of modern art in a museum.
In 2010, P.S.1 and the MoMa completely merged and has since been known as MoMa P.S.1.
Next, check out Warm Up to Cool Down: The Warm Up Series at MoMa PS1 and the Top 1o Best DIY Indie Music Venues in NYC.