Create to Destroy! ABC No Rio


December 3rd, 2014 by

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My first punk show ever was at ABC No Rio, a DIY and punk institution in New York City’s Lower East Side. I volunteered and booked ABC No Rio hardcore/punk matinees for a few years. In the process, I got to know Steve Englander as the glue that binds No Rio together and keeps it running as a community comprised of many collectives, like the zine library (with all the first MRRs), punk matinee shows, the darkroom and so on.  Working within a collective is hard enough, but overseeing several while maintaining a building — well, let’s see how he does it and get some insight into running this DIY space that has held true to its beliefs for several decades. To donate to ensure ABC No Rio can keep DIY alive in dark times, please click here! Here is Steve Englander of ABC No Rio…

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ABC No Rio front entry, 1980 (photo by Jody Culkin)

What is ABC No Rio?
ABC No Rio is an arts center on New York’s Lower East Side. It was founded by artists with a commitment to political and social engagement, and we try to stay true to those values today. Programming here breaks down pretty much into public events and our facilities and resources. Events include exhibitions of visual art, our Saturday hardcore/punk matinees, our Sunday evening series of free jazz and improv concerts, and readings, performances, screenings and other events. No Rio facilities include a zine library, a darkroom for black-and-white processing and printing, a screenprinting shop and a computer center.

How does it resemble its old self in 2014?
Personally, I would say not at all, but that one’s really tough to answer as there have been many successive generations of people that have passed through ABC No Rio. I guess it depends on whose version of the old ABC No Rio you mean.

What is ABC No Rio primarily used for now?
I don’t really think there is a primary use now. In the past there was what I’d call “signature” events that sort of defined ABC No Rio. From its founding to the mid-’80s it was visual art; from the mid- to late-’80s it was performance art; after that, spoken word and performance poetry and anti-folk; in the early- to mid-’90s on it was punk and hardcore; in the mid-’90s it was more political and street protest oriented, and tied to the squatters movement on the Lower East Side.

For the past fifteen years or so though, I don’t think you can say there is any signature activity that defines ABC No Rio. Nowadays it is different things to different people. It’s one thing to some kid coming to a punk show who’s just started a band, and something different to a retired public school teacher coming to a poetry reading. It’s one thing to an activist banging out posters or t-shirts in the print shop, and something else to a European traveler visiting the zine library. It’s one thing to a musician who’s been regularly coming to COMA for years, and obviously something else to some bar-hopper who stumbles into an art opening.

Is it considered a “community” space?  And for what community?  I understand the LES resembles itself but little these days…
Some people do consider ABC No Rio to be a community center, and sometimes we do refer to ourselves that way. But now I don’t think “community” is limited to the geographic area in which we are positioned. I think it’s more about a community of shared values and commitments and ideals. Anyone can use our facilities and attend events here, and even propose events. But we still hold on to this idea of being politically and socially engaged, and tend to attract people that feel that’s important.

You’re right, the Lower East Side has changed so much in the past 30 years. We think the neighborhood has changed much more than ABC No Rio has! When ABC No Rio was founded, many of the people doing things here and coming to events here lived on the Lower East Side or in the East Village. That isn’t the case anymore. People are coming from all the boroughs, even from all over the greater metro area, like Long Island and New Jersey. We serve the City as a whole, and not just our neighborhood.

New mural by Dasic Fernandez, 2014 (photo by ABC No Rio)

New mural by Dasic Fernandez, 2014 (photo by ABC No Rio)

Is ABC No Rio 100% volunteer run?
Yes, a collective of volunteers runs all ABC No Rio projects and programs. I don’t know if any other institution that operates in a similar way on as large a scale and scope.

What is your capacity at ABC No Rio?
I am the one sole full-time salaried staffer. My title is director, but in practice it’s a lot more like traffic cop! Ultimately, my job is to make sure the volunteer collective members have what they need for their projects. I oversee ABC No Rio administrative matters and I’m our point-person for dealing with the City. I also report and make recommendations to both the No Rio Board of Directors and the collective, prepare financial statements and proposed budgets, and present updates on program development, fundraising and the project to build our new facility.

How did the punk/hardcore shows start on Saturdays?  Was it a reaction to the sometimes violent and often sexist/homophobic Sunday matinees at CBGB?
Yes, the Matinee at No Rio did begin as a response to the violence at the CB’s matinees. The idea was to create a welcoming space in the scene for young people of color, young women, and gay and lesbian youth. However, the early days of the matinee probably deserve an interview of its own, and there are better people than me who can talk about that!

Why is punk important at ABC No Rio?
The ethic of DIY is a defining feature of ABC No Rio. I think that’s why the Matinee originally found a home at No Rio, and then the commitment of the punk collective to working in that way continued to impact No Rio over the following decades. Sort of a powerful feedback loop. Also, there’s always been a sense of community among the volunteers working on the Matinee, a sense of being part of something. People do come and go, but it seems that sense of community stays.

What are key things to keep a space like ABC No Rio running?
The main thing that keeps ABC No Rio going is the commitment of all the volunteers to working on their projects. Without those projects, no ABC No Rio; and without the volunteers, no projects. On my end, it’s really about not overstepping, and making sure the volunteers have a sense of “ownership” or investment in the projects they’re working on.

How often do you have to work with the City to ensure ABC No Rio keeps going?
Although we get a little bit of funding for exhibitions, the City has no involvement on our day-to-day operations or our projects and programs.

We have received substantial City funding to build our new facility, and we’re working closely with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Economic Development Corporation. Both agencies are involved in the administration and management of phase one of construction for the new facility. The design of the new building, though, was created independently of the City.

Proposed planted facade. Paul Castrucci, Architect

Proposed planted facade. Paul Castrucci, Architect

What advice do you have to people looking to start an all-ages community space with a venue, art space and resources like screen-printing or a zine library?
We’ve shared ideas about this a few times in the past: we think it’s actually easier now to do DIY stuff. There’s more acceptance for autonomous projects. People seem to have more confidence to just do it themselves. Nowadays there are so many DIY projects, and not necessarily just limited to punk or hardcore. But maybe the projects are more ephemeral. It’s tougher to keep things going for the long haul.

The most important thing is to have that confidence and know you can do it. Keep going and persevere even when you fuck up. Learn from your mistakes. Be flexible. Listen and be open enough to take in new ideas and listen to other points of view. Share ideas and resources. Most importantly, take action when opportunities present themselves. And start small, with just one or two projects and then build from there.

What are ABC No Rio’s future plans?
In 2006 ABC No Rio took ownership of the site at 156 Rivington Street. We initially planned to renovate the building, but then our architect and engineer determined that existing conditions made responsible repair and renovation difficult, and it made more sense to build a new building. You can take a look at the design of the new building on our website at www.abcnorio.org.

The total project cost for building our new facility is $8 million. This new facility will allow us to augment and enhance ABC No Rio’s use of the site for all our projects and programs. To date, we have in place almost 80% of the funds needed for this project. We’ve raised $1.5 million in private funding, have received over $4.5 million in support from the City of New York, and $275,000 from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

Additionally, last year the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency awarded the project over $250,000 to implement our Passive House design. Passive House focuses on achieving deep building energy use reductions. The method features super-insulated thermal envelopes, high performance windows, robust air sealing, energy recovery ventilation, passive heating/shading, and high efficiency lighting and appliances.

But working with the City can be tough for a small organization like ABC No Rio. Twice we put the project out to bid and both times the bids came in higher than our available funding. It was a real disappointment. We’re excited to be now working with the Economic Development Corporation, which allows for much greater flexibility in project management and administration. We expect to bid out the project again in spring or summer of 2015.

Building a new building is a huge undertaking. I don’t know of any collectively-run organization that has done project at this scale in the United States. We want to demonstrate that it can be done.

How can we help ABC No Rio?  How can we get involved?
Local people tend to get involved with the project or program with which they have an interest or affinity, whether it’s exhibitions, the Matinee or one of the facilities. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact me at  and I’d direct their query to the right group or arrange a time to meet or speak with them.

Local and touring bands looking to play the Saturday Matinee can contact the bookers at

Finally, we’ve been real fortunate in getting support and funding from the City for our project to build new. At this point though I think the balance of funds needs to come from private sources. We’re looking for individuals and foundation sources with a commitment to the cultural autonomy that ABC No Rio embodies, and to the sustainable design practices we will implement in our new building. Interested parties, or anyone with leads about this can contact me at

How can we best stay up to date and get in touch?
General queries can be sent to We also encourage people to sign up for our email announcements list. You can do that on our website at www.abcnorio.org.

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