Volume 79, Number 5 | July 8 - 14, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

A cross-section rendering of how ABC No Rio is expected to look and what uses it will contain after the two-phase rebuilding project is completed.

Grassroots arts center is rebuilding ‘green,’ from ground up on the L.E.S.

By Lincoln Anderson
In what’s being hailed as a sea change in City Hall’s attitude toward community-based arts groups, ABC No Rio recently received $1.65 million in government funding to rebuild its crumbling Lower East Side building.

Steve Englander, ABC No Rio’s executive director and sole paid employee, said Borough President Scott Stringer had allocated $750,000 to ABC No Rio, while City Councilmember Alan Gerson and the Manhattan Council delegation each gave $450,000.

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Julie Hair of the band 3 Teens Kill 4 is a board member of ABC No Rio.

“Hopefully, it’s a promising sign of robust support by city government for small- and mid-sized arts organizations,” said Englander, speaking to The Villager two weeks ago, the day after the government funding had been made official.

The project’s first phase is budgeted at $2.4 million.

“We’ve raised about half a million dollars, and we’ve got a couple hundred thousand to go,” Englander said of the center’s own fundraising efforts.

The project was broken down into two parts to make it more feasible, he said. The first phase will involve demolishing the building, then constructing a deeper basement level and a longer first floor, which will completely fill the property’s current backyard. The new two-level space will equal the space ABC No Rio currently has. Work is planned to start in spring 2010 and take a year to complete.

Phase two will see three more stories added, and is expected to take nine months to finish. The entire project is slated at $4.2 million. 

Initially, the plan was to construct a new building right inside the shell of the tenement building; but the old exterior would have needed repairs and ongoing maintenance, so it wasn’t worth keeping, Englander said. 

The front of the new ABC No Rio will resemble a “green waterfall,” with plantings covering a special screen.

“There’s not enough there there to do a renovation,” he explained. “It’s a timber-frame building with brick infill. With the existing building, it would have been hard to put in an elevator. And the front stoop is up five steps — a community facility should be handicapped accessible. It was difficult for people to come to terms with our having to build new; people are attached to it. But ultimately, what’s important is what goes on in the building.”

The new basement and first floor will host the public events that occur now at ABC No Rio: literary readings, art exhibits, punk music shows, forums, workshops and presentations, as well as, probably, the ’zine library and silk-screen-printing shop, Englander said.

Originally a squatter building, 156 Rivington St. was sold to ABC No Rio by the city for $1 in 2006. 

The new arts center will be “green,” and quite recognizably so, since foliage will be growing like a leafy waterfall on its front wall.

“It is literally a planted facade,” Englander said. “The way it works is the flora grow on screens.”

Also, a graffiti work that the late Sane Smith painted on an abutting building’s wall will be incorporated into ABC No Rio’s new building; since ABC No Rio doesn’t own the wall, an aperture will be built through which the graffiti will be visible.

The day after Englander told The Villager the news of the city funding, there was a Friday night open-house party at ABC No Rio. A largely young crowd checked out art displayed on the space’s ground-floor walls; next to tacked-up architectural renderings of the new building, there were thank-you cards — overflowing with penned notes of gratitude — to the politicians who allocated the dollars.

“The heart and soul of this neighborhood is the tradition of arts that come from the bottom up,” said Paul Bartlett, chairperson of Community Board 3’s Arts Task Force, at the open house. Bartlett recalled, three years ago, when he heard the project’s then-projected cost had risen from $1 million to $2.7 million, “I got sticker shock — I didn’t think it was possible.”

Bartlett said, at first, politicians doubted ABC No Rio could handle such large funds because it has a tiny annual operating budget — only $75,000.

“But the thing is, there are so many volunteers,” he stressed.

He added that Paul Nagle in Councilmember Gerson’s office, was “huge” in helping secure the funding. Nagle knows the neighborhood’s arts scene intimately from having been director of Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, Bartlett noted. 

Julie Hair, an ABC No Rio board member, played bass in two bands that performed there in the 1980s,  Bite Like a Kitty and 3 Teens Kill 4, the latter which she noted is “actually thinking of regrouping.” She said she was “ecstatic” that the city funding had been secured.

“I think it’s what had to be done,” Hair, also a sculptor, said of rebuilding from scratch. “I’m really excited about it. The building is falling apart. ... It’s going to be like a newer, cleaner space.”

Asked if the new ABC No Rio would lose some of what made the old place special, Hair said, “You’re not going to be able to throw up wallpaper on the wall that you silk-screened that day. It’s scary that it’s going to lose the persona — or whatever you’d call the persona of a place like this. It’s going to be different.”

Asked if the made-over ABC No Rio would allow graffiti, like that which abounds by the ground-floor bathroom, she answered, “I don’t know — I’ve wondered about that myself.”

The current building has leaks in the fourth-floor silk-screen shop and is drafty in winter, she said.

“But there’s no other place like it,” she added, smiling. “It’s our drafty building.”

After getting out of art school, Hair worked at Printed Matter bookstore, where a co-worker advised her that the Lower East Side was affordable. Nowadays, though, many musicians and artists live in Brooklyn, instead of the Lower East Side, which has gotten too expensive.

“Twenty years ago, this was a really cheap place to live,” she reflected. “It’s not like that anymore. We can’t really preserve what it used to be like. But it would be nice to preserve a little part of it.”

Thanks to the funding from Stringer, Gerson and the Council, at least “a little part” of that Lower East Side arts scene will indeed be saved.

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