Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space
A monument to local activism takes root in the East Village.
Wed May 30 2012
For the past 25 years, Bill Di Paola, the founder and director of advocacy group Time’s Up, has fought for bikers’ rights and environmental causes. The crusader’s newest project, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space—slated to open in Alphabet City in June—builds upon his experience along picket lines and in rallies to demonstrate how activism can spark community change. “This museum will show the truth about what happened here,” says Di Paola, who cofounded the institution with Time’s Up volunteer Laurie Mittelmann. “We’re going to show how the people changed their neighborhood.”
Take, for example, the organization’s unconventional building, which is perhaps the most important part of its collection. “The museum is actually in the most famous squat in New York City right now,” says Di Paola. Known as C-Squat, the five-floor walk-up has housed activists, down-on-their luck-artists and members of several punk bands (including Leftover Crack, Old Skull and Nausea) from the 1970s through the present. “People can knock on the door and sleep there, and work there,” says Di Paola. “They play shows in the basement.”
The fight to establish and maintain spots like C-Squat has been waged in community gardens and abandoned buildings around New York City. Di Paola and Mittelmann spent the past two years gathering documents from local residents related to events such as the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, which erupted when Community Board 3 tried to impose a 1am closing time on the outdoor space. “It was an incredible battle about curfew and public spaces, the struggle between corporations and community,” explains Di Paola. Zines from art and activist center ABC No Rio and an Occupy Wall Street banner will illustrate how city residents, both past and present, created, protected and took back community spaces. Other pieces commemorate lost causes, such as a map painted on the museum’s floor that marks battlegrounds like the 5th Street Squat, which the city knocked down in 1997 with residents’ belongings and pets still inside, as well as community gardens. Volunteers will also lead daily tours to places including La Plaza Cultural (E 9th St at Ave C; laplazacultural.com; Sat, Sun noon–5pm), a once-illegal plot which is now an official community garden, and the Christodora House, a former social-services building that became a symbol of gentrification following its conversion in the ’80s into a pricey East Village co-op.
Di Paola hopes that highlighting the history of local protests and subsequent victories might inspire a new generation of activists. “A lot of people like to do the quick fix…especially with the Occupy Wall Street kids,” says Di Paola. “People can get involved in their community and make proper choices about what they buy. The solution is all around us. We don’t really need a revolution. We just need to support things that already work.”
Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, 155 Ave C between 9th and 10th Sts (morusnyc.org). Tentative June opening.