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East Village Activist History on Display at Loisaida

Few places have made more significant contributions to civil rights and social justice struggles, artistic creativity, and freedom of expression than the East Village. Now more than ever, it’s important to remember and pay tribute to that history and to the lessons learned from it.  That is why it is important to take note of a just-opened exhibition called Activist Estates: A Radical History of Property in Loisaida. It’s an examination of participatory practices that illuminate the critical relationship between livable neighborhoods, real estate, architecture and activism.

The show is an exploration of four decades of buildings and properties in the East Village and Lower East Side that are celebrated sites of creativity, community empowerment and resistance. This exhibition was curated and designed by architect Nandini Bagchee in partnership with our friends at the Loisaida Center and produced by their director Libertad Guerra.  It uses a multiplicity of artistic forms including drawings, maps, models, photographs, manuals, posters, and video installations to visualize the diverse narratives of the specific place-based activism central to the history of the neighborhood.

As a high school student coming down from the Bronx to what my mother referred to as Alphabet City, I was inspired and informed by the many forms of wheatpasting and stickering and postering essential to get the word out about rallies, protests, events and concerts. It was the age before instagram or facebook or even cell phones and such means of communication served as a natural art form as well as an essential means of communication for community organizing.  Many such examples on display will be familiar to anyone who lived or roamed these streets in those days, from concert announcements to cartoon caricatures of whoever was Mayor at the time.

The show begins with a grand aerial view map of the many spaces explored in the exhibition.  It begins naturally enough in the 1930s with a critique of “slum clearance” and tells a tale of the birth of public housing here,  starting with the New York City Housing Authority and the Settlement Houses movement. The start of this effort can be traced to the development of First Houses in the East Village. The project, which was spearheaded with the cooperation of the Federal government and the City of New York, was the first public, low-income housing project in the nation.  It is located on Avenue A between 2nd and 3rd Streets and along 3rd Street.  It is a New York City landmark, and you can access the fascinating designation report for First Houses here.

An examination of participatory practices in New York City reveals the critical relationship between real estate, architecture and activism. In cities across the country, in the 1970s, the devaluation of property created a vacuum of ownership. Vacant lots, storefronts, schoolhouses, factories and abandoned tenements in New York City became havens for experimental, communal practices. Amid current debates about urban justice and access to the city, Activist Estates critically re-evaluates the place of counter-institutional practices that shape the landscape of New York City. By revealing and celebrating this history and the organizations that worked hard on these issues, it also helps show a path for neighborhood preservation in the face of rampant real estate development that is heedless of the past.

The show puts at the forefront a number of fluid organizations, from the war resisters at the Peace Pentagon on Lafayette Street in NoHo, to the Puerto Rican community organizers at El Bohio, to the anarchist anti-fascist punks at ABC No Rio and the legendary punk shows.  The continuity over the years and effectiveness of advocacy has relied on stable and affordable spaces protected in some way from the speculation of the real estate market. The “Counter Institutions” at the heart of the exhibition necessitate adequate spaces in which to plan, organize, meet and make puppets or music to “build a culture of creative resistance that keeps democracy alive.”

The exhibit features the drawings of Nandini Bagchee and the photography of David McReynolds, Ed Hedemann, Marlis Momber (click here to read more and hear an oral history Village Preservation did with her) and Jade Doskow. It also highlights the work of collectives such as CHARAS, PAD/D, REPOhistory, Paper Tiger TV, ABC NO Rio and the dedicated artists/organizers that have created posters, banners, buttons, newsletters and films that advocate for social justice, housing, community and the environment within the East Village and Lower East Side.

This project is supported by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and is part of Archtober. The materials for the exhibition are courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Urban Democracy Lab, War Resisters League, Clemente Soto Velez and Cooper Square MHA.

The show expands on the themes examined in Nandini Bagchee’s book Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side (for sale here) that centered on three places that were repurposed by local activists: The Peace Pentagon, CHARAS el Bohio and ABC No Rio.  Last year Village Preservation organized a presentation at Loisaida with the author of the book.

The curator Nandini Bagchee is an Associate Professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture at CCNY (CUNY) and principal of Bagchee Architects.  She will be participating in a gallery talk about the exhibit on October 12th, 2019 with Sociologist Miranda Martinez who is the author of Power at the Roots: Community Gardens, Gentrification, and the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side (Lexington Books, 2010) — reserve a spot or find out more here.

As Libertad Guerra, director of Loisaida Inc. says to start off the show:

Information asymmetry has become one of the main factors determining the uncertain futures of low-income residents and driving the cultural erasure of entire New York City neighborhoods. The hyper-fragmentation or lack of publicly available information, the aleatory gaps in official archives, evince some of the fundamental power imbalances that ultimately minimize and distort the cultural and historical contributions of communities of color to the fabric of our city. Rarely do we find attempts at cohesive storytelling unspoiled by class, social capital, ethnicity, or stylistic prejudices.

Activist Estates is an effort to foreground the multi-positional, space-based resistances of our neighborhood by illuminating the gears and pulleys in the back end of the production of space; an inquisitive exploration of the interdependent dynamics of meaning, activist movements, and landscape.

Loisaida Inc. Center has been instrumental in bringing visibility to the many histories of the Latinx resistance in New York. We approach community not as a passive ahistorical grouping of stationary people that become an audience, but rather as an action and a demand through which participants (re)create their surroundings and prefigure intentional futures, even if virtually unseen by the center; community as rehearsal of future societies.

Activist Estates reveals yet another facet of these stories by juxtaposing the parallel trajectories of different social movements and groups working in tense solidarity in the Lower East Side; it is an invitation to approach the history of social movements not as an itemization of quaint objects, or the facts of rarely-seen documents, but as usable history; the past as potential.

Anyone who cares about the history or future of the neighborhood or wants to learn more about the creative and political roots of the East Village Lower East Side should go and see this unique exhibition.

Visiting hours: Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (EST) and by appointment. 710 E 9th Street | NY, NY 10009 For special exhibition tours and viewings please contact them or email info@loisaida.org.

Photo by Nandini Bagchee

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