Oral History Interview with Steven Englander, September 7 and October 10, 2007
Oral history interview with Steven Englander, Sept. 7 and Oct. 10, 2007
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Steven Englander, 2007 Sept. 7 - Oct. 10, Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP) and Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Interview with Steven Englander
Conducted by Liza Kirwin
At ABC No Rio, New York, New York
September 7, 2007 and October 10, 2007
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Steven Englander on September 7, 2007 and October 10, 2007. The interview took place at ABC No Rio in New York City, New York, and was conducted by Liza Kirwin for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview was funded by Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP).
Steven Englander and Liza Kirwin have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
Liza Kirwin: This is Liza Kirwin. I'm at ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington Street in New York City, and talking with Steven Englander -
Steven Englander: Right.
Liza Kirwin: The current director of ABC No Rio. I just wanted to start with a little biographical background on you. Where were you born, when -
Steven Englander: I was born in 1961, in Chicago and my father then went into the service. And I guess when I was about three or four years old they moved to Racine, Wisconsin, which was where I was raised. I was actually like a film brat. I ended up going to NYU film school, but during junior high and high school I was like a little film geek. I would go to the Oriental theater in Milwaukee to see all the classic films back in the days when they still had repertory theaters and you could see the Janus films and all the European films and the midnight movie-type things.
And then I also used to go to the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, where they had all sorts of old films on video. I would actually drag a bunch of my friends down there, and you know, you'd party on the trip down and then I would show them odd films I'd stumbled along. From Reefer Madness to Un Chien Andalou [a film directed by Luis Buñuel]. So I was like a little film geek in my teens, and ended up wanting to go to film school. And I could have gone to the West Coast schools. I also got accepted at NYU, so for me it ultimately was what city do I want to move to. And New York for whatever reason, the mythology of it had a lot of attraction for me. So I ended up coming to New York.
Liza Kirwin: What year was that?
Steven Englander: That was 19 - I think 1980. 1979 actually.
Liza Kirwin: And that was to attend school?
Steven Englander: NYU, and I was a film student there. So NYU is like well reviled in the - at least in the neighborhood now. It's a lot different now than when I was there. Back when I was there it was still mostly a commuter school and they owned a lot less property in the neighborhood and they weren't seen as sort of an enemy of the community the way they are now because they're building so much.
Anyway, I always copped to it, even when I'm in the company of people who are in the midst of reviling NYU. I had a good time there. I actually thought it was a good program and a good school. So as a kid I'd always dreamed about coming to New York, or at least getting out of the Midwest, so I came to New York. Like I said, I was a film brat.
Liza Kirwin: Did you aspire to make films at that time?
Steven Englander: I did, and I made some and I guess during, let's say the first 10 years of being in New York I was a student. And then when I got out of school I spent 10 to 15 years working in the business on and off, just to make money. And then also did a number of small media projects, but none of my larger things got off the ground. And then during the period when they weren't getting off the ground, and after coming out of school I started reading about situationist material, and started getting personally like a larger critique of media in general. So I don't know what actually happened. Did I lose interest in film because I was sympathetic with the spectacle in the world that media plays in society, or was I open to that because I was never able to get my projects off the ground. You know what I mean? What was it? Or did I not try enough because I was ambivalent about - you know.
But whatever happened, simultaneously with never really being able to get my own projects off the ground, and being more open to a larger and comprehensive critique of media and the role it plays in society. They sort of went together and probably influenced each other. And then for a while I just worked in the industry. And I did other projects, political work and things, and I actually found it, you know - you could work 8 to 10 days a month, and if you lived modestly you could have all sorts of free time to work on all your other projects.
Liza Kirwin: What sort of political things?
Steven Englander: Well, I was involved with anarchist groups back in the mid-to-late '80s.
Liza Kirwin: Which groups?
Steven Englander: Well, there was the Anarchist Switchboard, the Libertarian Book Club, and then some projects that were actually just sort of default things of a few people getting together to do some sort of -
Liza Kirwin: They didn't have a name?
Steven Englander: Didn't have a name. Actually it had a made-up name, like the Maximalists. But it was almost - it was like a quasi-joke.
Liza Kirwin: A one-time thing?
Steven Englander: Yes. The Maximalists. No, we did a few things but it wasn't meant to last. There was no effort to sort of institutionalize them.
So I got involved in that sort of stuff and was, you know, just working in the business.
Liza Kirwin: In what way were you involved with them?
Steven Englander: Well, the Libertarian Book was an anarchist book club, so to speak, and they existed to promote the ideas and give public forums and things like that. The Anarchist Switchboard was actually a space in the mid-to-late '80s on the Lower East Side, and during that period, when there was like a good amount of like ferment in the neighborhood, it was sort of a little mini compressed '60s within a period of about five or six years down here, the space was used for presentations, workshops, meetings, and people coming by were individuals involved in squatters movement at the time, freelance anarchists and radicals, other people who were organizing the neighborhood but who might not necessarily have identified themselves politically in a real specific way.
Liza Kirwin: Those groups that you worked with, was there one that you identified with more closely?
Steven Englander: At that time it was probably the Anarchist Switchboard.
Liza Kirwin: Why?
Steven Englander: I was actually one of the few people who was responsible for keeping it going. Like it was a bunch of - you know what I mean? I was actually one of the responsible ones who would open it up and lock it up, and I would actually pay for the - pay the rent. I was one of the few people who contributed money to make sure that it could stay there. I mean, it was a tiny little cellar thing. It was dark and damp -
Liza Kirwin: Where was it?
Steven Englander: It was on 9th Street between First and Second Avenues. And then eventually it got turned over to some younger kids and it went bust. It ended up just turning into a sort of crash pad. It got a bit exasperating and like a lot of times what happens is the more responsible people get fed up and walk away, like myself, and then it just spiraled down and they eventually got kicked out. For not paying the rent.
Liza Kirwin: Were you involved with Colab at this time?
Steven Englander: No, I was actually never involved with Colab, and they're actually sort of a generation of, you know - they're a generation beyond me, so I wasn't actually even familiar with them, even when I'd started coming around the ABC No Rio, because at that point I started coming by here as like a patron to go to events, probably in 1986 or 1987. And it was a little bit different because you'd already gone through the part where it was like, you know, some of the Colab artists who had founded the place had already moved on. And Jack [Waters] and Peter [Cramer], who were doing stuff here during the period of like East Village performance art, had also already moved on. They were still involved. I think they were on the board of directors. They were on the board of directors at the time, but there was a different person who was actually running the day to day operations, Lou Acierno.
The signature event at that time was actually Matthew Courtney's wide-open cabaret, which was probably one of the first places, along with the Nuyoricans that brought about like performance poetry, and a few years later on, you know, they had poetry readings on MTV, you know. So it was Matthew Courtney's thing which would probably led to that, and there were all sorts of people who would come by to this event and either do performance poetry or performance or music, or just political ranting and raving. It was probably like a little mini scene of maybe, 50 to 100 people who would regularly come by to do stuff at this event.
Liza Kirwin: Was it a regularly scheduled event?
Steven Englander: It was every Sunday evening. So it went on for about, I think -
Liza Kirwin: Was this when Peter and Jack were -
Steven Englander: When they were on the board, but they weren't the directors at the time. The director was Lou Acierno.
So when I first started coming by, it was actually different than when Jack and Peter had come on. And this Matthew Courtney thing was really the signature event. It was the thing that most people knew -
Liza Kirwin: Was that the thing that drew you in?
Steven Englander: Yes. I heard about it and I'd come by to see him. So I had read some. At the time I wasn't writing that much fiction or anything, so a lot of - I'd like actually came to just be here. And like I said, it was during this period around the Tompkins Square Park riots. There was all this sort of political activity in the neighborhood. So there was actually like a sort of tangible buzz that was going on, you know, within this, you know, four to six-year period from 1986 or '87 through 1991 or '92. There were squatters and artists and things. Something like that would never be repeated, I think, because so many of the people - when I first started coming by here, even though at the time, sometimes I lived in the neighborhood and sometimes didn't, but the majority of people who did stuff here lived in the neighborhood, and that's not the case now.
The majority of people who do stuff here now, whether it's performing or they're volunteers here, can't afford to live in the neighborhood. The ones who do are the older ones like myself, so - who know enough people, or like fall into a situation. In general I'm very sympathetic to young people. I don't know how they can do it now. Like I said, when I was young I could work 10 days a month and have like all this free time. When I tell that to people, their eyes just open. They just can't imagine being able to like work that little and pay your rent and be able to do all your stuff.
Liza Kirwin: Yes. What were you first impressions of this place?
Steven Englander: I probably was - when I first stepped in the door, it's probably a little bit of apprehensive, and it was more imposing then than it is now.
Liza Kirwin: In what way?
Steven Englander: Just in terms of it was more rundown when you were to walk in, believe it or not.
Liza Kirwin: Can you describe it?
Steven Englander: By the time I had come by, the plate glass window had long been gone and there was a mural out front, but it was - it just was a lot less clean and, you know, it just had a more rundown quality to it. I mean, even today somebody still, like one of my volunteers overheard somebody characterizing the place as an art house crack house. And it was more of that in the mid-to-late '80s when I had come by. Also the neighborhood was a lot different and there was more abandonment, there were less people on the street so it had more of an urban blight quality to it than it does now.
It took 10 years for gentrification to move from above Houston Street to below Houston Street, so down here it didn't really start happening until about early-to-mid-'90s, and then since 2000-the pace of gentrification seems to be increasing exponentially. So it was more imposing just to walk through the neighborhood to get here back then. And then the state of decrepitude of the building was even, you know, seemed even more so. It was just dirty and littered and things like that.
And then once you got inside, though, if it was wintertime you'd be, you know, the heat worked. A lot of times I came by and it was filled with people, so once you got into the room you were sort of enveloped by literal and metaphorical warmth because everybody there was having a good time and everybody was glad to see each other. There was like a positive vibe, a very positive energy that went on, so when you did walk into Matthew Courtney's event you actually felt somewhat embraced by it and the people who were there at the time. It wasn't like going to some club where everybody's sort of stand-offish and cooler or hipper than thou. There was no sense of that sort of thing going on. It was almost like walking into a - you know a room of a hugely extended family of people, all getting together.
And then Matthew Courtney was also like a very warm and charismatic person who set the tone of the whole place. So a lot of people have extremely fond memories of coming to his event and participating in his event. And that was my introduction to the place. And then over time I had gotten to know Lou Acierno, who was the director at the time. We had a lot of things in common - media production, critique of media - and I think it was in 1990 he went to Hamburg [Kunstlerhaus in Hamburg, Germany] to do a show and asked if I would baby-sit the place while he was gone, which I agreed to do.
Liza Kirwin: He went to Hamburg to do that show -
Steven Englander: The "10 years, Seven Days," 7 days with Jack and Peter and those guys. And then when he came back he asked if I wanted to stay here. He wanted more time to do other things, so we became co-directors.
Liza Kirwin: And that was 1990?
Steven Englander: That was 1990. Yes, 1990 was probably - yes, it was the autumn of 1990 that they went away. Then when he came back, he asked if I wanted to be the co-director because he wanted more time to work on some of his own stuff, and I agreed to do it. So that's how I first got officially involved.
Liza Kirwin: Had you gone to any meetings at ABC No Rio prior to that?
Steven Englander: No, I hadn't.
Liza Kirwin: So what did you think it meant when he asked you to be co-director?
Steven Englander: No, I mean, he talked about the responsibilities and what the job was.
Liza Kirwin: What did that entail?
Steven Englander: At the time it was literally curating exhibitions, making sure they got documented. Pretty much all the tasks that you would have as the director running any institution. And we just ended up figuring out a way to allocate all the responsibilities. But doing the publicity, making sure that people actually - you know, the nuts and bolts stuff, like making sure that people could get in when they needed to get in and they were let out when they were let out. Curating exhibitions on my own or with him in concert. And pretty much making sure that the place was able to stay open.
How it worked was a little bit different than what I would guess other non-profit arts institutions would work. There was a board but they didn't have a lot of impact on like the day-to-day stuff that was going on.
Liza Kirwin: How often did the board get together, and what was the composition of the board when you were director?
Steven Englander: When I first got involved I'm not sure how often they met at first. But I think at the time there were probably about 10 of them and some of them were people originally - I think there were still some founders on it, or if not founders, people from the era of the first three or four years. And then let's say there were maybe three of them. I don't know if it would be right to call them a block or a faction.
Then there was probably about four or five of them - Jack and Peter and some of their colleagues from when they were actually doing stuff here. And then there were a few, I guess freelance types who I don't know if you could associate them with any, you know -
Liza Kirwin: How did they get onto the board?
Steven Englander: How did they?
Liza Kirwin: Yes.
Steven Englander: I'm actually not sure because they - I mean, the board here, it's a self-selecting board. It's like a board of most non-profits. It's not a membership organization so the membership doesn't vote on the board. The board chooses its board members. How they did that then, I don't know. I know now because I work with the board and I work with the development committee. I think the board's probably a little bit - we actually had to force the board to - well, it didn't require forcing. They recognized the need. The board's more - follows more the traditions and conventions of most nonprofit boards now in how we work, and that wasn't necessary once we got the building and had to raise a lot of money. As well as expanding all the programs and projects and running the whole building rather than just have the gallery-storefront space.
How they chose themselves back then, I actually don't know. It came up, I'm sure somebody nominated somebody, they discussed it, and would choose to either elect them or not.
Liza Kirwin: So did you live here at first when you were director? Was that part of the deal?
Steven Englander: During the period that I was baby-sitting the place, I stayed here, and then when a Lou Acierno came back, he asked if I wanted to continue. Continuing meant being the person who was here on 24-hour call, so to speak. So yes, so that was then I lived here the first time.
Liza Kirwin: Were there other tenants in the building at the time?
Steven Englander: There was one other tenant who did not live here. During No Rio's history there were - people lived here under various degrees of legality or formality. So when the artists first got the lease for the space there was actually a family here that were lease-holding tenants and paid rent to the city of New York, which owned the building, the Acostas. One of the founders, Bobby G, Robert Goldman, ended up getting the lease to an apartment or the second or the third floor. Offhand I can't remember.
People lived here who were taking responsibility for running the place, or they would have somebody else do it. There were people who lived in the basement when No Rio had the lease for the place, for the storefront and basement spaces back in the early days. And they probably just did it. The city didn't care. There was no understanding or legal thing.
When Lou Acierno was living up on this floor -
Liza Kirwin: The fourth floor?
Steven Englander: The fourth floor. He didn't have a lease for it. He wasn't supposed to be there and he had an informal understanding with HPD, the agency that owns the building, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, that he could live here. So when I came in, ostensibly as the super. So we would also deal with the super tasks. We'd go to, you know, HPD's agency and pick up garbage bags. When it snowed, and you know. So there was an informal understanding that there was like plausible deniability. There wasn't a lease.
And then it wasn't until 1994 that there were actually who would self-identify as squatters who were living here. So during its history there were people who were legal lease-holders, people who were living here with informal understandings with the city, and then later on people who themselves were considered to be squatters and the city considered them to be squatters. But that wasn't until 1994.
Liza Kirwin: Let's talk about the squatters later. When you came in, what was the character of the Monday night meetings that would happen here at ABC No Rio?
Steven Englander: When I?
Liza Kirwin: Started.
Steven Englander: They had - when I started they had become very small.
Liza Kirwin: How many people would normally show up?
Steven Englander: Well, first off, by the time I got here and me and Lou were here, they were less frequent than weekly. And I'm not sure when the weekly meetings started - or stopped. And it might have been actually during Jack and Peter's tenure. I'm not sure. But by the time I got here, they weren't a regular weekly thing. They were about every month. And it would totally vary. Sometimes nobody would come. I would be there alone. And other times people would come just to talk about potential projects and things like that.
When I was here, because of that and because the place wasn't collective - it wasn't run formally as a collective the way it is now - now it actually is a collective. People are called collective members and we meet monthly to discuss issues. Back then that wasn't the case. It was just a monthly meeting for people to come by to talk about ideas that they might have to do things here. So sometimes people would come, sometimes people not.
At one point that was like, this doesn't make any sense. If somebody wants to do something, why shouldn't they just give me a call and we work - you know what I mean? Come to the - know what I mean? It didn't make sense. So I think it was actually during my period where I sort of phased that out because it didn't, you know, if somebody called up, well, let's meet and talk about it. Don't wait until the first Monday of the month to come and meet and talk about it. We can do it now.
Liza Kirwin: Was ABC No Rio functioning as a community of sorts that made group decisions about things? But was there really wasn't a group to consult with at this point?
Steven Englander: At that time, that is correct.
Liza Kirwin: So somebody brought you an idea. How would the process go?
Steven Englander: It would depend what it was. If it was an exhibition, I would probably talk with Lou about it and I would - we would confer about it, get their proposal and see if it made something, sense.
Liza Kirwin: And did you have grant money or money at the time to do things?
Steven Englander: We had a little bit of NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts] funds at the time. We were, you know, sort of hurting in that period, I think. So there was really money earned from, you know, earned income money from events and there was a modest amount of funds from the New York State Council on the Arts for exhibitions and readings. Then it was a much poorer organization than it is now. There were actually minimal funds to do stuff. That didn't seem particularly troublesome, though, and it's not something I worry about too much now even because of, you know, let's get it done by hook or by crook sensibility that has permeated the place since its founding. I think that's one of the reasons why not having money was never a reason not to do something. It might be a reason somebody doesn't get paid, but it's not a reason not to do a project. And that actually continues on to the - until today.
Liza Kirwin: Somebody brought you an exhibition and you wanted to do it, so there was money or there was no money. How would it happen? What would the - you would just provide the space or anything else?
Steven Englander: It depends what we'd actually work it out because there was some that, when I was here during that period there was some that I was slightly more involved with and some not so. I mean, one of the things that happened is some people showed up to do a show that Lou had set up before he split but forgot to tell me about. And they came from far away. They came from Basque Country in Spain, yeah, while he was in Hamburg and he never mentioned that they were going to be showing up to do this exhibition.
Liza Kirwin: So I guess you were doing that one.
Steven Englander: Yes. So that was actually my introduction to the sort of ad-hoc way it happened here. They were great guys though. It was actually a fun, like project to do with them. But yeah, this group of seven artists from Basque Country came by to do an installation so I put them up here. There were - and then we had access to other floors where people were, so I could actually stash them in different places and they did their thing.
Some of them ended up staying in New York, but I think at this point they've all gone back.
Liza Kirwin: Was there a mechanism for getting information out about what was happening ABC No Rio? This is prior to the internet-did you send cards?
Steven Englander: No, I think that it was really informal. So there would be like fliers and small photocopied cards, but again, you know, they wouldn't even do like four-color type printing. At one period while Lou and I were co-director, we were doing this sort of quarterly newsletter that would go out and would get mailed to the mailing list. But I would think that for the most part information about events happened by word of mouth.
Liza Kirwin: Okay. And did you make any effort, say, with the newsletter or other forms of outreach to involve the community here, or was it - because there is a period of time when ABC No Rio was very much an activist in the community, expanding the audience with people living in the neighborhood. Are there tensions between what was happening at ABC No Rio and the locals here?
Steven Englander: In answer to the question first off, no, during that period no. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't talked about and people weren't aware of the issue. I think from the beginning there was always an effort to try to reach out to the community, and it's been something that all generations of people involved in running No Rio addressed in one way or the other, the founders, the people who were here during Jack and Peter's era, the late '80s and early '90s. The squatters.
So people were aware of it and wanted to try to get past it. Unfortunately for the most part, not exclusively but from its founding on, the majority of people who did stuff at No Rio, whether they were the people performing or reading or artists, and the people planning and organizing these things were primarily but not exclusively white, middle class exiles from the suburbs. Not everybody, but mostly. So there was actually, no matter what your values and ideals are, there's differences between those people and the people who were already here, which were primarily Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African-American people. You know, cultural differences, economic differences, social differences. It was really tough to like pierce through that membrane.
Liza Kirwin: Yes. Maybe people were just not interested.
Steven Englander: I've never been in favor of art as a proselytizing tool, and I think that there's something a little bit patronizing about it and I'm not comfortable either speaking in those terms or doing that kind of work.
Personally I've come to the conclusion that, you know, there are social and cultural differences. They should be celebrated. We don't necessarily have to pierce past them. I think it's ridiculous to expect - well, they're not there any more, but up 'til about five years ago you're not going to expect some Dominican grandfather playing dominoes down the street to come to a poetry reading. It's not going to happen. Even if you had Miguel Algarín, or any of the Nuyorican poets come by, they're probably still not going to come. And their wives aren't going to come to a punk show, you know, and they don't care about some of the art that happens here.
Ultimately it's like by doing things for their kids that you reach them, so that's the conclusion I came to. When we do our arts education programming, most of the outreach is to local schools. This past summer and last spring was a bit different, but usually 60 to 70 percent of the kids are from the neighborhood, 70 percent of the kids are either children of families that have immigrated here or are themselves immigrants. Because of demographic changes there's more Asians now, Chinese people than there were, than there are Dominicans and African-American and Puerto Rican kids. But ultimately that's it. I actually don't expect that the grandfathers and grandmothers or their sons and daughters are going to come, but it's their grandkids that we can reach. So that's personally how I've sort of resolved that.
It doesn't come up as sort of an abstract concept any more among the board and collective. The idea of like greater diversity and representation is something that's talked about, but how do we reach the community and it doesn't come up in that way any more. My way of reaching the community, what we do for them is literally we do this thing for the youth and I don't expect their parents to have an interest in the events that actually happen here.
But throughout the history there were - I'm not sure during Jack and Peter's era what they did here. They did do some arts programming in association with the Board of Ed and at Marta Valle [Secondary School at 145 Stanton Street], the school just down the block. And during the early days, you know, they had some exhibitions that actually, you know, brought in neighborhood folks like Tom Warren's "Portrait Show," where he had people come in and have their portrait taken. He set up a little mini portrait studio because the building used to be Gus's photo studio. So Jody Culkin did a thing called "Tube World" where she worked with kids to make, you know, this huge installation out of cardboard tubes.
Liza Kirwin: This building was what -
Steven Englander: This building was Gus's photo studio. When we're done, if you want I'll show you the picture I have. It's a New York tax picture from 1939 that the building is his photo studio. So Tom Warren did that. But otherwise, you know, let's say a later show that was curated by Tom Morton. I don't know if the people who are living here actually wanted to see the show "Murder, Suicide, and Junk." So I don't expect that now. Sometimes we do things and we've got to sort of tread carefully. Like we did an exhibition that was work by prisoner artists back in 1999 or 2000, and the funding we got to do it also required an organizing component, but then how do you do the outreach, you know what I mean? There's a way to be somewhat racist in doing the outreach to get neighborhood people to come to this show that's about work by prisoners because if you do it in too blanket of a way you're implying that all those people have some connection to prisons. You know what I mean?
At the time there was still like a massive amount of, you know, I think it was like 60 or 70 percent of prisoners upstate came from this neighborhood and Harlem. So you know, you still have to be careful how you do it. And in that case it was an attempt to reach out to people in the community that, required an inordinate amount of delicacy to be successful but not to be insulting and racist at the same time. But we did it. There were a few public forums and we tried to let people know that the show was going on. But how do you tell a neighborhood of Dominican, Puerto Rican mothers that you're doing this art show of prisoner art without implying that maybe they'd be interested because all their sons are in prison? You know what I mean? It's a difficult thing to do that without being patronizing.
So ultimately that said, it's like you do what you do and you do what you can to actually reach out and provide a tangible service to kids. I mean, we've had kids who were part of our program who then became volunteers, who did arts classes here and then got involved in the organization, became an active volunteer.
Liza Kirwin: Can you talk about some of the programming and, say, take a month, a typical month in the life of ABC No Rio. Would you just have one exhibition, or exhibitions and performances and poetry readings and music? How did that change?
Steven Englander: Well, there's ongoing things. Well, there's a lot more going on now than there was when I first started coming back. I mean, there was a Matthew Courtney thing that was just one night a week. There would be exhibitions and some of the people who came to his event would do other - you know, would, mostly performance. I think there was a bit more theater here and there's less of that now. And there's actually not a lot of performance and theater, maybe half a dozen times a year. Back then there was more because a lot of people came to the Matthew Courtney thing were actual performers.
So in that period it's actually hard for me to say. When I was involved in the place, there were probably half a dozen exhibitions a year. There were the poetry readings that happened on Sunday that wasn't Matthew Courtney's thing. It was more straight-out poetry. That was an event that started in mid-'80s. And it actually continues to this day. It's had different groups of poets who were responsible for it, but the Sunday afternoon poetry reading that happens at 3:00 o'clock every Sunday has been going on for over 20 years now. So that always went on.
And then there were, you know, half a dozen exhibitions a year, and then there would be performances maybe monthly where people would do something either for a month or for a short run, three to five days. And then in 1990, before I was officially involved, while Lou was still the sole director, they started doing punk shows here. After CBGB's closed their Saturday matinee because of violence, they started doing them here, and those were - they didn't book racist, sexist, or homophobic bands. They would screen the lyrics and they actually tried to create a scene that was more welcoming to -
Liza Kirwin: Was that to head off any violence?
Steven Englander: No, well, part of it is like a lot of the people who were involved in that were the kids who got their asses kicked at CB's, so they wanted to be at a place where they didn't have to worry about that. And then finally, because there was so much violence at CB's, Hilly Kristal, who actually just died the other day, the guy who ran CBGB's, passed away. He actually stopped it because there was too much violence. It was basically skinheads, and this is back in the late '80s where there was all this ferment.
It's also another weird analogy and tiny thing. It was almost like Berlin, you know, between the two wars, where, you know, there literally were anarchists physically fighting skinheads in Tompkins Square Park. And you know, at the Anarchist Switchboard skinheads would come by and, you know, try to crash - you know, people physically fought. And there was cabarets, you know what I mean? So a lot of those kids, because the scene there had gotten so violent, wanted to create something here. And some of them were gay. They wanted to create a place where gay kids who were into punk would feel comfortable, a place where the girls would feel comfortable, and a place where black and Hispanic kids who were into that music would feel comfortable.
Liza Kirwin: So is that an every week thing?
Steven Englander: That happens every week. So that started in 1990.
Liza Kirwin: And they were called matinees?
Steven Englander: The Saturday matinee.
Liza Kirwin: And were they actually in the afternoon?
Steven Englander: Yes, they still are. They start at 3:00. So that still goes on and it's still the same - different group of people over the years have taken responsibility for running the show and booking it, but it still goes on. With this same sort of purpose and mission to it. So that was going on.
I mean, over time I think I like use the onion thing, you know. It was founded by visual artists but as time went on, more layers got put on. So it was founded by visual artists and they sometimes did readings and occasional performances. When Jack and Peter did stuff here, they were mostly performance, and that's what the place was known for, but there were still exhibitions of visual art and the readings happened. And then the punk thing got added. You know, so as time went on things got added and one never superseded the other. It might be known more for one thing than the other, but that didn't mean the other stopped happening.
Now the regular events that went on then still go on. There's still a Sunday afternoon poetry reading, there's still the punks do their thing. We have an improv and experimental music series, which also used to happen here in 1990 and actually used to happen at the Anarchist Switchboard when I was involved, called A Mica Bunker which was an event put on by a group called the Improvisers Network, where they did improvisational music and experimental music. So it actually used to be at the Switchboard and then it came here, and then they bounced around a bit.
And then when I got involved again in running this place after four or five years not being here, we brought them in again. So that was 1990, so they've been here now again almost 10 years. So that still goes on.
Liza Kirwin: There was a time when you were not -
Steven Englander: I resigned with Lou Acierno in 1991, and then I got brought back again in the winter of - I moved to live here in 1994.
Liza Kirwin: Why did you resign?
Steven Englander: There were differences between what Lou and I wanted to try to do and what the board was willing to let us do.
Liza Kirwin: What was the crux of the argument?
Steven Englander: Ultimately I think that it was about the people who were on the board then relinquishing control. From our point of view it really was, they weren't letting us - we thought that the people who were doing stuff here now should actually have more say in the place, and should have some representation on the board.
Liza Kirwin: What was it, do you think, that you wanted to do this, they weren't behind?
Steven Englander: It's sort of hard to put my finger on it. It was really about trying to open up the place more. I mean, in my case sort of what's going on now, or what we were able to do in 1998 once we started working with the city towards us acquiring the building, it's what me and Lou wanted to happen in the years before but to do that you've got to open up. You can't - you know what I mean? You really need to open up to bring in more involvement if you're going to have all sorts of other projects and programs going on. People want to feel a sense of investment in what they're doing, and they actually aren't going to have that sort of commitment if you're basically treating them like an unpaid staff person. You know what I mean? It's different.
I do my best here. Except for me, everybody here is a volunteer. There's 60 of them who give me two to ten hours a week to keep all the projects and programs going. There's some things I can't do, but for the most part they're given autonomy to run the projects and programs they do as they wish. Unless it's going to cost an exorbitant amount of money or it's going to interfere with something else that's going on. The projects and programs, they belong to them. My job is to really make it possible for them to do what they want to do.
But to make that happen you have to open it up and you've got to let people feel like what they're -they have to feel a sense of ownership for it. And they have to feel a personal investment in it. Even though we figured out a way - to have a board and a volunteer structure where there's not tension between the two, and that the board isn't like some over - you know what I mean? They're roughly parallel in how they work.
We felt like we wouldn't be able to do that back then. We needed them to open it up and get more people on, or at least get on the people who were actually doing stuff here at that time. And even now, the board here, half of them, a little bit less now, maybe about a third, are actual day-to-day volunteers.
Liza Kirwin: Uh huh. I was going to ask, were any of those previous board members also volunteers?
Steven Englander: The existing ones, or the ones in 1990?
Liza Kirwin: The ones when you resigned.
Steven Englander: Oh, they have been. Like Jack and Peter were on the board. Let's see. I think Richard Armijo was on the board at that time, and he resigned. But they had all been involved in No Rio in one way or another. But they weren't at that time. And we wanted it to represent the people. We needed representation of people who were doing things here at that time. Even now, right now we don't have it. I usually try to make sure that I've got a young person on the board. Right now that's not the case. By young I mean early 20s. So that we don't get too disconnected from - for the most part it's young people who use the place. Not exclusively, but -
Liza Kirwin: What exactly do you mean by opening it up more?
Steven Englander: I mean bring on other board members.
Liza Kirwin: Okay.
Steven Englander: That's what I meant. So that we could, you know - first you would have that and then most people - you know what I mean? If you brought - if you were to bring - if you were to increase the board and bring on three to five people who are actually tangibly doing something here and they were on the board and they, you know, understood what the responsibilities and the obligations of being a board person are, they would - you don't just have one person but you've got that one person and all the people they work with. Not that they are an official representative of something, but by default or in a de facto way they represent a bunch of interests. So that's what I mean. Literally opening - more people and people who are actually doing things here at the time.
Liza Kirwin: And so you resigned.
Steven Englander: Well, we felt like we were butting our heads - it got kind of ugly, and I actually didn't go to the board meetings. We had one person, Robin Goldsmith, who had been involved in Matthew Courtney's thing and she'd done a lot of performance here, who was sort of Lou and I's ally on the board at the time. But we didn't go to the board meetings so she represented our interests and was able to make no headway.
I think we handled it clumsily, to try to change - institutionally change something. I think we were probably a bit too aggressive about it and like had no finesse or diplomacy. I mean, if I were to certainly try to do something like that now, I would do it differently. And if I was on the board and somebody tried to do it to me, I'd probably also be able to finesse their things a little bit better than we did - you know what I mean? It was handled poorly all the way around, I think.
But it got ugly. It was like infighting in an organization. Ultimately we just like stopped batting our heads against the wall, and then two years later the people who were on the board did a mass resignation and there was a whole new board.
Liza Kirwin: What happened then?
Steven Englander: Well, I wasn't around then but I think they recognized that some of our points were correct in that the people who were doing stuff here now should be the ones who are representing the organization at that level. No Rio still didn't have a lot of structure. There was a board but there wasn't a lot -there was no big staff, there was no structure. I don't think that they even knew how to address the issue of succession. If you're going to be around for a long time, you need to figure out a way to deal with a generational change.
Liza Kirwin: Most places don't have a succession plan, but it's a good thing to have.
Steven Englander: Well, I think about it now because I want to get through this building, get the new building built, get the programs going again, and then figure out a way to find somebody to replace me, and maybe kick myself up to the board, maybe not. It's something I think about. Anyway, it didn't exist then and ultimately I think they recognized that it was something that had to be done that made sense. If it's going to be this sort of like community thing and it's got this anarchistic quality, the people who were doing stuff at the place should be the ones also to a certain degree responsible for the governance of things in a legal sense. So I think they recognized that, that they couldn't cop to it to me or Lou, and especially in the clumsy way we'd handled it. Which was, like I said, pretty aggressive.
Liza Kirwin: So what happened two years later when they all left? What was that juncture?
Steven Englander: I wasn't around then so I can only speak from what I've read, and anecdotally from people talking. Lou and I left, and then they actually did bring in a new group of people to do some of the day-to-day programming and stuff like that. The punks were still here.
Liza Kirwin: Living here?
Steven Englander: No, they were just doing their event here. Once I moved out, I'm not sure if anybody was living here or not. I actually don't know what happened in that stretch.
Liza Kirwin: What did you do in the interim?
Steven Englander: What did I do when I left? Oh, I hung around for about six weeks and then I went traveling. I went to Guatemala and Mexico for six weeks. So yeah, I went - I probably, I'm sure what I did was I just worked, got some money together and went to Central America. I mean, it was a rough thing. I felt like pretty spent after it. I like needed a vacation, and I actually tried to do something and like had to walk away from it.
Liza Kirwin: I can imagine this place would suck the energy out of most people.
Steven Englander: Well, that's kind of right, and also I know in like a later conversation with Jack and Peter, which I should add, there was like really bad blood. I mean, it was awful. You can imagine, I don't know if you've ever been through an organization that like breaks down into factions, but they get ugly. I mean, they work now - we've actually let bygones by bygones. They've been magnanimous and so have I, and we worked together for No Rio. They've been very helpful, especially when we got the building, they're doing fund raising, organizing the benefits. And you know, we actually - we got past it. We work together and we're friends.
I live right around the corner from their garden and pop by every once in a while to see them and talk to them, a dozen to 20 times a year, about No Rio related stuff. They retain an interest and are helpful. We've gotten past it.
So when I split, I don't actually know. I know that they brought in some people to do some programming and stuff like that. There wasn't a - this is from stuff I've read in our own archives, letters and meeting minutes and stuff. There actually was somebody living here because I came across this very pleading, plaintive note by the person who was living here, who was all alone and the place is falling apart. Like the boiler's not working, you know what I mean. It was like a sort of plea for help.
You go nuts. Jack at one point acknowledged that you get this sort of fortress mentality because we're fighting the city, so you have to be somewhat defensive and suspicious of stuff that's going on? And you're living all alone here. You know what I mean? It gets to you after a while, and who knows to what degree that impacted how I handled the situation.
I remember him mentioning that at one point, and I'm like pooh-poohing it. I'm like, no way. These are legitimate. Looking back, it obviously gets to you. It's just like, you know. And anyway, I come across this letter where somebody was there and it was sort of the same thing - it's all falling apart, they're all alone, nobody's come by to help out. So there was somebody living here during that period. And then at one point the kids who were doing the punk shows, there were probably about eight of them, the board, you know, did a sort of mass resignation. I don't know how - legally what happens, but there was basically a mass resignation, or mass voting in of the new people, Jack and Peter and all those people resigned. And there were a few holdovers that sort of bridged it. But they literally gave the organization to the people who did the punk shows. That was in 1992, I think, or 1993.
And then they started doing their - I don't think they were weekly, though. Monthly. I think they started doing their monthly meetings again, where they would collectively try to decide what was going to be going on. And how to book the shows and what other sort of events they should do, what they should do about dealing with the city. Because all during this period the city was trying to evict ABC No Rio, and we had a lawsuit against them. It was a bit complicated. So they inherited that problem.
Liza Kirwin: So when did you come back in?
Steven Englander: Then I came back to the building in the winter of '94. We'd been in these legal battles with the city. There were two things going on. One, they were trying to evict, and then there was a lawsuit of No Rio against the city for damages related to the city's mismanagement of the space. Once the board was given to the punks, they worked out what's called here in New York a stipulation settlement, which is something in landlord-tenant court. They always prefer that you work things out between landlords and tenants rather than actually force a trial where the judge has got to hear the case and make rulings. So generally, unless things are totally intractable, you try to resolve things by a stipulation agreement.
They had worked out a stipulation settlement with the city that said this, that and the other thing will - we won't evict, and this, that, and the other thing will happen. I have the agreement somewhere. I just can't remember the whole list of stipulations. At a certain point the city had started to abridge some of the things they'd agreed to in the stipulation. So that made the people who were on the board and who were running the place at the time a little bit skittish, that they were going to renege on this non-eviction thing. One of the easiest ways to evict is not to go to court, but you do what's called a constructive eviction, which is you either totally let the place fall apart so people give up and walk away, or you do a self-help eviction, which is where you just lock out your tenant. And then it's incumbent on them to sue you to get back in, rather than you taking them to court to get them legally evicted.
So they started worrying about that. And they decided, because some of those kids were linked to the squatters movement, they decided the best thing to do would be to invite people to occupy the three floors that were above the gallery space. No Rio at the time still just had a month-to-month lease for the first floor. So I was one of the people that they asked to come back in to deal with that, to take over the building, work with the other people who were going to move in and help, you know, do whatever it would take to squat the space. The understanding is we would be the first line of defense if they tried to do a self-help eviction. And if that were to happen, I would spearhead the effort to defend No Rio politically, legally and all that stuff, because they knew I had connections to the squatters scene, had squatted on and off, knew how to organize politic - so that's why I was invited in for that. I wasn't invited in to be the director of No Rio. I was invited in just to live here, to get the upper floors occupied, do what it took to make it habitable, be the first line of defense, and if there was an eviction, to deal with it, if they did try to evict.
So when I first came back, I was doing that. I actually wasn't doing anything programmatically. And then about nine months later the city did begin an eviction proceeding.
Liza Kirwin: And what form did that take?
Steven Englander: They actually - since it's a month-to-month lease, they do what's called a 30-day notice to quit, and that was it. It's a notice we're going to evict you.
Liza Kirwin: Why did they want to do that? Is it because the property values had increased in this area?
Steven Englander: I think that, yeah. I think that from the beginning when they gave the building to the folks at No Rio they regretted having made that compromise. Back when after the real estate show and they dealt with it by giving them a - I think that they regretted it immediately. They were pressured into doing something. They were sort of blackmailed into it. Gentle blackmail. Just bad publicity forced them to do something that they didn't want to do, and they did it and I think they regretted it.
So I think from the get-go they wanted them out. And there were all sorts of -
Liza Kirwin: They probably didn't think you could hang on that long.
Steven Englander: Yeah. I'm not sure what it was. And sometimes they evicted because, yeah, you didn't pay your rent, you know. Then in the late '80s they tried to do a vacate. When they were renovating the building next door, they actually knocked into this building with a backhoe and put a crack in the wall. That's how they got the one leaseholding tenant out, by vacating them, and they relocated them to the projects. For people who were living in these rundown tenements, moving to the projects, as bad as they are, is a step up. So they relocated the Acosta family to a project, and they actually had a vacate order for No Rio's gallery space, which No Rio fought and the vacate order was rescinded and we got to stay. But they wanted to clear the building out and probably just sell it to a developer. So I think it was partly that.
So they had tried on numerous occasions, and each time they ended up having to back down because No Rio would just get political support and famous artists and other people, and you know, they'd end up just dropping it. And then some time would pass and they'd do it again.
This time what they did, they were a little more clever about it. They actually made this building part of a low income housing project. With the group Asian Americans for Equality. And it did make sense. What they did was they paired this building with a building on Allen Street that was much larger. It was like a 21 or a 28-unit building. And they told AAFE that, well, you've got to do both these buildings together. So they made it a little more challenging for us to fight back because it's one thing to just fight the city and they're being unreasonable. Then no, they're standing in the way of developing low-income housing.