Beginning in the late 1960s, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was facing massive disinvestment by absentee landlords—by the late 1970s up to 80% of the area's housing stock was abandoned and in rem (seized by the city's government for non-payment of taxes). By the late 1970s and 1980s, a growing squatter movement and a small but visible “downtown” arts scene developed from within the burgeoning gentrification of the largely Puerto Rican community in the Lower East Side.
ABC No Rio itself grew out of the 1979 The Real Estate Show, organized by the artists' group Colab (Collaborative Projects), in which a large group of artists seeking to foster connections between these communities occupied an abandoned building at 123 Delancey St. and turned it into a gallery to show solidarity with working people in a critique of the city's land use policies—policies that in essence kept buildings empty until the area again attracted investment from developers—and a demonstration of what can be achieved through solidarity. The show was to explicitly "illuminate no legal issues" and it called for "no rights"; instead, it was "preemptive and insurrectionary." The show opened to the public on January 1, 1980; it was promptly shut down before the morning of January 2 by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). In the following negotiations with HPD, the organizers of The Real Estate show were granted the use of the building at 156 Rivington Street. That space became ABC No Rio. The name derives from the remaining letters of a mostly effaced sign that was on the building: "Abogado Con Notario."
ABC No Rio was conceived of as an "art-making center," a community-oriented alternative to what its founders perceived as an overly hierarchical art world and gallery scene. It was to be "a place where you could do things that wouldn’t even cross your mind to do in a gallery."
In the negotiations following the occupation of 123 Delancey St, ABC No Rio was given tacit permission to use its current building, located at 156 Rivington Street. ABC No Rio was in legal limbo for decades, sometimes a squat, sometimes paying a small rent to the city. In 1994, the city revoked ABC No Rio's commercial lease and stopped accepting their rent checks. The city planned on selling the building to Asian Americans for Equality for only $4,000. In October 1994, in response to the attempted eviction, a few activists began squatting the upper floors of the building, which had been unused for several years. The squatters' presence stalled the eviction proceedings for several years, along with the community-based protests, which resulted in several arrests. ABC No Rio refused to give up the space and embarked on a project of raising money and reforming their image, to appear to be a more legitimate organization in the eyes of the city.
In 1997, the city agreed to sell the building to ABC No Rio for $1 provided ABC could raise the money to renovate the building and bring it up to code, and that the squatters living in the upper floors of the building vacate to free the space for public use. After three years, the squatters, numbering around 10 and including a young family, left their apartments, which were converted to a zine library, a "Food Not Bombs" kitchen, a silk screening studio, a computer lab, and other artist spaces. Over the years the city changed the scope and price of renovation several times, until 2004 when it was agreed that renovation could be broken into three phases and that the property would be sold when the collective had the funds for phase one in place. On June 29, 2006, the city completed the proposed sale, selling 156 Rivington St. to ABC No Rio for $1, still including the provision that the organization must raise the rest of the money to renovate the building.
ABC No Rio is a collective of collectives; the individual projects enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their day-to-day affairs. Building-wide matters are addressed at building collective meetings. Some of the current projects are:
In June 2009, ABC No Rio was awarded $1,650,000 in capital funding from New York City for a development project of the Rivington Street site.
Perhaps ABC No Rio's best known project is the Punk/Hardcore Collective. Since December 1989, ABC No Rio has hosted weekly punk/hardcore matinees on Saturday afternoons. For most of the 1980s, the NYC punk/hardcore scene had been focused around the Sunday matinees at CBGB's. These shows devolved into weekly bloodbaths due to gang violence and, therefore, in November 1989, CBGB's stopped hosting them. The new shows at ABC No Rio were carefully set up to be devoid of the violence, homophobia, sexism, and machismo that took over the CBGB's matinees, and to this day follows a policy of booking only independent (i.e., non-major label) bands that do not in any way promote sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. ABC No Rio is also one of the few places in New York City to host regular punk/hardcore shows that are all-ages. It is often considered the Gilman Street of the East Coast, having hosted and nurtured many of the bands in today's punk scene. The weekly hardcore/punk matinee opens between 3 and 3:30 on Saturdays, bands start at 4, the entry cost is US $8. More information can be found at http://www.abcnorio.org/punk and http://www.myspace.com/abcnoriopunk.
ABC No Rio holds a large collection of zines formerly hosted by the now-defunct Lower East Side radical bookstore and infoshop Blackout! Books. The collection spans over two decades, and features many zines with a radical political perspective, or a focus on punk and other DIY art forms. Some titles include: Love & Rage, Maximum RocknRoll, Profane Existence, Slug and Lettuce, Retard Riot as well as many other less regularly printed or single-issue titles.
ABC No Rio hosts a monthly variety show featuring stand-up, storytelling, improvisation, and sketch comedy. Don't You Find Us Charming? is hosted by the comedy team CHESTER. Details and showtimes are on the site's calendar each month.
The New York chapter of Food Not Bombs cooks on the second-floor kitchen of ABC No Rio every Sunday, and serves free food in nearby Tompkins Square Park.
The Darkroom Collective runs a public darkroom on the third floor of ABC No Rio that is open 3 days a week.
The Computer Center on the fourth floor of ABC No Rio seeks to close the digital divide by providing a public computer lab to the underserved Lower East Side. The computer lab is made up only of donated computers, and runs almost exclusively free or open source software.
The Silkscreening Collective runs a public screen-printing studio, also located on the fourth floor.
The Books Through Bars Collective sends free donated books to persons incarcerated in U.S. prisons. BTB used to meet regularly at No Rio, but in anticipation of the building being closed for renovation have relocated their efforts temporarily. Information on the project can still be obtained at ABC No Rio. (see also: Books to Prisoners)
The Citizens Ontological Music Agenda is a project that hosts experimental music, poetry, and other forms of performance on Sunday Evenings.
The Visual Arts Collective co-ordinates shows and exhibitions in the main gallery, as well as the bi-annual building-wide Ides of March group exhibit.
The purpose that drives this collective is to maintain a free and spontaneous environment for displaying art, as well as providing a venue for art which may be excluded from the mainstream due to its radical political content.
The visual arts committee has included Amy Westpfahl, Victoria Law, Steven Englander, Mike Estabrook, Vandana Jain, Julie Hair, Alan W. Moore, Brian George, Kelly Savage, Michael Cataldi, Joyce Manalo, and many others.Video of ABC no Rio's January 2007 art show