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March 2006
The ABCs of ABC No Rio
The Satya Interview with Steve Englander

 

ABC No Rio’s Director, Steve Englander, in his office.
Photo by Kevin Lysaght

Books Wanted!
Books Through Bars of NYC

Everyone has old books, and let’s face it, you may never read them again. Well, someone should. So instead of letting them collect dust til the end of your lease, how about putting them to good use? Stationed out of ABC No Rio, Books Through Bars is an excellent program that sends books to prisoners who greatly appreciate the reading materials. There are over two million people in U.S. prisons and over 20,000 are confined in maximum security facilities with little to no access to educational and recreational materials. Books Through Bars comes to the rescue, bringing to some prisoners their only source of reading materials.

Books Through Bars is especially looking for dictionaries, thesauruses and new or used paperback books in good condition. They also search out books on history, radical politics, languages, and more (for a guide to what they need, see www.abcnorio.org). It’s a great way to donate your time, books, money, postage stamps, envelopes and mailing supplies. Please visit ABC No Rio or contact BTB and make a difference in the lives of prisoners.

Books Through Bars NYC meets every Sunday from 5-8 p.m. and Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. at the 2nd Floor Zine Library. Contact btb@abcnorio.org or (212) 254-3697, ext. 322.—M.W.

Anarchists Feed Those In Need
Food Not Bombs of NYC

Rain, shine or snow, every Friday and Sunday local activists get together and cook. ABC No Rio, home of the anarchist, collective-run group, Food Not Bombs NYC, lends its kitchen for the creation of a vegan feast for those in need. Using donated food from local health food stores and area dumpsters, these activists chop, stir and cook from one to three. They then load up a shopping cart with food, bowls and utensils, and walk the 11 blocks to the southeast corner of Tompkins Square Park where they feed anywhere from 30-50 people.

Founded in the early 80s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Food Not Bombs chapters span the globe grounded in the belief that if resources were spent on food rather than weapons, there would be enough to cover every single person’s basic needs. Because FNB understands that irresponsible decisions are made in the allocation of resources, they try to form an alternative institution for the society they wish to see. Also, by gathering food that stores are not cosmetically able to sell—with bruises, dents, etc.—FNB creates delicious meals out of what otherwise would have gone to waste. Food Not Bombs is non-hierarchical and operates collectively with decisions made by consensus. And the best part? Anyone can volunteer. Another reason to love ABC No Rio and the community of NY activists who care.

Contact Food Not Bombs NYC at fnb@abcnorio.org or (212) 254-3697, ext. 395.
—M.W.

ABC No Rio is a true New York City success story. For over 25 years, this old building at 156 Rivington Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been alive with everything from music, art and poetry, to photography, readings and performance art.

I still remember the first time I went to ABC No Rio. I was a teenager and had won tickets to one of their Saturday afternoon hardcore punk matinees on a college radio station. As I walked from the subway to the old building, I was nervous. I was by myself and intimidated by the neighborhood. After all, the Lower East Side of the late 80s and early 90s was not yet a place filled with bar-hopping tourists and wealthy college kids. No, at this time, it was still a neighborhood, not a destination.

As I remember it, the neighborhood, like ABC itself, was alive. Old men and women sat outside their apartments gossiping while kids ran recklessly through the streets in the summer heat, somehow ignoring the studded and mohawked punks gathered outside.

Sure, there was a decent amount of street crime in the area. The neighborhood was poor, and as we all know, with poverty comes crime, just like with yuppies comes soy lattes. And, while I was probably never in any real danger, I felt out of my element…vulnerable, and glad to have half my allowance money stuffed into my socks.
As for the show itself, I barely remember it. What I do remember is a feeling of discovery. I had found a “secret” place in a neighborhood my mom wouldn’t want me to go to, and I saw loud, obnoxious, politically minded punk bands that were as intelligent as they were dirty and smelly. I had found a place that was my own. Like many before and after me, the lure of the building was strong, especially for a young kid just discovering radical politics and music.

Since that original trip I’ve been back to ABC countless times. In addition to seeing (and at times, taking part in) everything from book and zine readings, prisoner art exhibitions, documentary film screenings, and even a sword swallowing performance, I’ve also seen the neighborhood change. Gentrification has set in. What used to be neighborhood stores and tenements are now overpriced boutiques and co-ops.

Though it hasn’t been easy—with funding issues, a building in disrepair and an oftentimes tenuous relationship with the city—somehow ABC has persevered. From the aforementioned weekly punk rock matinees and gallery exhibits to a darkroom and zine library, ABC No Rio is a true testament to the independent, do it yourself spirit that ABC’s community of artists, musicians, activists and volunteers embody.

And, after years of negotiation and legal-wrangling with the building’s owner—the City of New York—a deal was reached in which the building will be turned over to ABC for the sum of only one dollar…as soon as ABC can raise enough money to begin renovating the aging building. Fortunately, as of this writing, they have raised enough funds to begin phase one of the renovations, and if all goes as planned, ABC’s lawyers should be closing on the building by the time you read this. Of course, ABC’s fundraising efforts have really just begun, as many more dollars are needed to complete the building’s overhaul. However, a hard fought victory has been won and the good news, no, make that great news, is that ABC No Rio is poised to survive and thrive well into the future.

The Director (and only paid staff member) of ABC No Rio, Steven Englander jokingly describes his work as “more coaxing and cajoling” than directing. Joking aside, it is obvious that he is serious about ABC’s remarkable history and its vibrant unfolding future. Satya’s Eric Weiss recently talked with Steven Englander about ABC’s programs, and the efforts to renovate and save ABC No Rio itself.

Where did the name ABC No Rio come from?
When the founders came there was a sign across the street that said abogado notario and the letters had worn off, so all that was left to be read was abc no rio.

Can you give me a brief history of ABC…how and why it was founded?
ABC No Rio was founded in 1980 following an action by an artists’ group called Collab. On New Year’s Day they did an exhibition called “The Real Estate Show” in an abandoned building on Delancey [Street]. We actually got a lot of press and the city came in and confiscated the art and locked it up. There was a little furor about it and the city was forced to negotiate with the show’s organizing committee. The end result was they were given a storefront and basement at 156 Rivington Street a few months later. That place turned into ABC No Rio.

It started out as an exhibition place because it was founded by artists, but over the course of 25 years, more and more stuff happened and different groups of people [became involved]. So it was sort of like an onion, more and more layers got added. There was a crew of people involved in running punk shows, and in the mid-80s there was more of a performance focus. In the mid-90s we ended up closely associated with the squatters movement and started moving through the rest of the building—developing the public facilities that are upstairs, the print shop, the computer center and the silkscreen shop.

One of the great things about ABC No Rio is there are so many people coming through it all the time, which gives the building so much life and energy. As it currently stands, what is the run down on the main programs ABC is offering?
The place is different to the different people who come in. There are public events—public exhibitions, poetry readings and music, which is the hardcore punk matinee, and our experimental and improvisational music series. There are facilities and resources—the computer center, the dark room, the print shop and the zine library—that we make available to artists and the community. There’s the web technology that we make available to activist and community organizations in the neighborhood. And then there are resources we make available to independent projects, like Food Not Bombs and Books Through Bars, where we provide ongoing material and financial support for them to continue working. Then of course, all sorts of other organizations over the course of the year might use the space for meetings or workshops or things like that.

Shifting gears and getting back to the hardcore punk matinees, NYC is interesting because in most cases, venues that house hardcore punk music generally don’t last long. They get shut down in a couple years, or so. ABC has been doing matinees consistently for 15 years. Has it been a struggle dealing with young people?
No. When a problem comes up it is pretty obvious, so they’ve always been pretty responsive in addressing it in my point of view. It has probably been a year and half [since] something happened at a punk show that actually required my attention. For a while it seemed like there was a little less active involvement, there was more of a consumer mentality among the attendees. When it started there were all sorts of people doing things. If you weren’t in a band, you were doing a zine, if you weren’t doing a zine, you had a label. I could be wrong, but I think there’s more consumers than people doing things in the scene now. Which is the only change that I could really acknowledge.

Anything else you want to add?
I think everyone is excited about the turn over [of the building to ABC]. Although there is a bit of worry about the period when we’re under construction, losing touch with people. We’re planning on at least making the public programs go into exile, like the exhibitions, the punk shows [are] looking for places so they can continue booking and doing shows. If not weekly, but hopefully at least monthly. The poets are looking for alternative venues to do the readings. So we’re hoping that we’ll generate enough activity so things don’t grind to a close during that construction period.

To learn more about ABC No Rio’s public facilities and volunteer opportunities, view a schedule of upcoming events, or make a much-needed donation to the Building Renovation Fund, visit www.abcnorio.org. ABC No Rio also accepts donations sent to 156 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002.

 

Anarchists Feed Those In Need
Food Not Bombs of NYC

Rain, shine or snow, every Friday and Sunday local activists get together and cook. ABC No Rio, home of the anarchist, collective-run group, Food Not Bombs NYC, lends its kitchen for the creation of a vegan feast for those in need. Using donated food from local health food stores and area dumpsters, these activists chop, stir and cook from one to three. They then load up a shopping cart with food, bowls and utensils, and walk the 11 blocks to the southeast corner of Tompkins Square Park where they feed anywhere from 30-50 people.

Founded in the early 80s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Food Not Bombs chapters span the globe grounded in the belief that if resources were spent on food rather than weapons, there would be enough to cover every single person’s basic needs. Because FNB understands that irresponsible decisions are made in the allocation of resources, they try to form an alternative institution for the society they wish to see. Also, by gathering food that stores are not cosmetically able to sell—with bruises, dents, etc.—FNB creates delicious meals out of what otherwise would have gone to waste. Food Not Bombs is non-hierarchical and operates collectively with decisions made by consensus. And the best part? Anyone can volunteer. Another reason to love ABC No Rio and the community of NY activists who care.

Contact Food Not Bombs NYC at fnb@abcnorio.org or (212) 254-3697, ext. 395.—M.W.

 

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