As East Village rental apartments get more and more luxurious and family-friendly–even those all the way over in the once no-go zones of Alphabet City, near Avenues C and D–it seems like a good time to honor that neighborhood’s rapidly receding past as the gritty domain of anarchists and activists, punks and squatters. Enter the brand-new Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces, or MoRUS, located appropriately enough within the home of the legendary collective C-Squat, a pioneer in the movement to transform the neighborhood’s abandoned buildings and vacant lots into free/cheap housing and community gardens.
Whatever you may think of the politics of squatting and the like, MoRUS serves as an instructive reminder of what this part town once looked like, and why it took the determination and initiative of these outliers to spark the change we all take advantage of today.
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space pays tribute to the Lower East Side squatter movement (note: though today this area is known as the East Village, some still refer to its original designation as part of the Lower East Side), using photographs, oral histories, videos and other artifacts to tell the story.
In the 1970s, as the city was sliding into bankruptcy, landlords simply walked away from dozens of buildings and lots in this part of town, taking a loss rather than paying to maintain their structures. Squatters soon followed, illegally turning decrepit shells into habitable spaces, much to the dismay of the authorities, who often resorted to violence to evict the “tenants”. Eventually only eleven squats survived–including C-Squat–and in 2002 were granted legal ownership via the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a private not-for-profit organization.
The photos at MoRUS of thesee events are great, if a bit scant, and really take me back to the “old” East Village.
But my favorite part of the MoRUS exhibition may be oral histories of the squatters themselves, presented in terrific illustrated portraits by the street artist Fly, who tell how they came from all over world, wound up in this part of town at the right moment, and found connection with the movements of the time. If the emphasis of The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is on local squatters, there is also a fair amount of information on other initiatives, including Critical Mass, a “spontaneous coincidence” of cyclists retaking the streets, which takes place on regular basis in cities throughout the world.
And, of course, MoRUS offers some perspective on the Occupy movement, their famous occupation of Liberty Square in the fall of 2011, and their continuing work with victims of foreclosure as well as those displaced by Hurricane Sandy. As befits a “squatters museum”, the MoRUS facility is pretty bare bones (though there is a gift shop of sorts!) and may in fact be best appreciated by taking one of their guided neighborhood tours of all the local reclaimed buildings and lots. Either way, MoRUS is worth a look, if only to understand how this community got from points A to B.
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is located on Avenue C between 10th and 9th Streets, and is open on Tuesdays, and Thursday through Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Lots more information on everything, including how to set up guided group tours, can be found on their website.