Interviews

Building a Museum of Activism

The exterior of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The exterior of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

You can put many things in a museum — paintings, sculptures, skeletons, interactive displays illustrating mathematical concepts — but what about activism? How do you exhibit it while also keeping it, or insisting that it is still, alive?

Those are questions facing Bill Di Paola and Laurie Mittelmann, the founders of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS), which opened quietly last winter in the East Village. The name is a little clunky, and not particularly evocative, but the museum is actually housed in a reclaimed urban space — the neighborhood’s famous C-Squat, which squatters occupied in the late 1970s and early ’80s and eventually bought legally, for the symbolic price of a $1, in 2002. So the name is fitting.

The front desk and board with tour times (click to enlarge)
The front desk and blackboard with tour times (click to enlarge)

MoRUS is decidedly local, staffed primarily by volunteers who live in or are drawn to the neighborhood, and telling an activist tale that centers around New York City. The display features sections with such titles as “Sustainability,” “Activist Spaces,” and “Occupy Wall Street,” the headers spelled out in an all-caps, in-your-face typeface. Photos and explanatory texts crowd the walls, except for the one to the right of the entrance, which is graffitied and left over from the original squat, and which sits behind a bright blue desk decorated with police barricades. A mural by artist and activist Seth Tobocman that tells the story of the beginnings of ABC No Rio leans by the stairs, which themselves are painted to represent the cycle of bike advocacy. Up front sits a zine rack, and near that a board advertising tours of various squats, gardens, and “radical spaces.” True to any museum, there is merchandise for sale, but it’s limited to work by three artist/activists who’ve been involved with the movement (Tobocman included) and activist books and gear (a “run from the police” sports bra).

Based on description alone, the museum may sound kitschy, nostalgic, or even crass, but a sense of dogged dedication and real knowledge come through when you visit. At what other museum can you find a wall dedicated to Adam Purple and his Garden of Eden? At what other museum will you see footage of the Tompkins Square Park Riot? At what other museum can you hear the Ramones playing and not feel like the Ramones are ruined?

I stopped by earlier this summer to meet Di Paola, a decades-long East Village activist as well as the director of environmental activist group Time’s Up, and talk about this latest endeavor.

*   *   *

Jillian Steinhauer: I’d like to start with the history of the museum. How did it come about? Why?

Bill Di Paola: I’m the director of another group called Time’s Up. We’ve been around for 26 years. It’s all a volunteer group, and there are areas that people don’t like to fill in as much. So I fill them in. Being involved in that group, growing up in this neighborhood, being someone who cares … I was also a plumber and a person that kind of saw a problem and fixed it. So I work with an environmental organization, and that’s basically our concept, too: see a problem and fix it. And try to aim for a sustainable solution.

Seth Tobocman's mural (click to enlarge)
Seth Tobocman’s mural (click to enlarge)

[Twenty-five years ago] there was a lot of squatting going on in this neighborhood, and I noticed that a lot of the squatters would show up at these events that were very pro-sustainability and pro-community. They didn’t have such a great reputation at the time, but they were there. So, moving ahead 25 years: we have the pictures, we have the video, I was there, and we have some of the witnesses. Our tour guides are actually not just tour guides; they were there. The museum has a rule: we’re not gonna go back that far that we haven’t seen it, because we feel strongly that history should be the richest version of history. The way that history is reported is never really that accurate, especially when it has to do with direct action and policy. New York City has a way of co-opting history very fast. When I started doing this, they were taking 10 years; lately, it’s been 3 years. That is how fast they can just change history. ‘Oh, we were pro-biking.’ That’s not the case: we have pictures of the city being against biking in a lot of ways. We have pictures in the hallway downstairs: they went around in vans at night and just stole random bikes.

JS: What?!

BDP: Yeah, these things are so outrageous, you really do need pictures and video. You need someone who saw it because it would sound crazy, because now their version is different. Putting that all together, we are not really complaining; we are just showing a more accurate side of history. Also, we are celebrating at the same time: Aren’t these community gardens beautiful? Aren’t these bike lanes beautiful? Isn’t composting really awesome?

Introductory text
Introductory text

JS: Is there an element of trying to give credit to people? Because with the city co-opting everything, it almost seems like you are trying to say, ‘we were doing this long before you guys.’

BDP: I know it seems like a battle against the city — unfortunately New York is like that. In other cities like Portland and San Francisco they usually work with people who are doing positive things. Here, they want to be like, ‘we are the city, you’re not.’ It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the city that we live in. But these things also can influence the city. So, direct action — sure, they fight it tooth and nail and then say ‘okay, let’s do exactly what they say but just put our name on it.’

So, to come back to the museum: with all of this archiving that we’ve been doing at Time’s Up, I said, well, why don’t we take some of this extra stuff and start a museum, because I just got an offer from C-Squat to use their first-floor facility? This was a miracle, because there are like 10 famous history-making squats left. Not even. And these are the squats that fought for everything, that were around, that got the gardens, a lot of activists live in them. It was tricky because we are talking about history and they are involved in history, but what better place to have a museum than in the real deal? You are talking about a history museum and you are inside of the squat. People in America don’t even know what squats are.

IMG_0888
Graffiti on the original squat wall above the stairs

JS: Yeah! It doesn’t feel like one in here, I have to say.

BDP: Well, I’ll take you in the back room. We’ll walk over a few bodies. [laughs] So it was a perfect opportunity to do something really far out there, have a history museum — but I’m not exactly sure, because I’ve never run a museum before. I don’t know that much about history. I’m more of an active explorer. When I give a tours, I find that people really like the fact that I was there. Also, the gardeners trust Time’s Up, and so do the squatters. They’ve let us have more access to some of these people who are very grassroots and do not like selling or giving away history.

JS: Right. I could see the sort of tension between the institution — even though this is a pretty grassroots institution — and the impulse to just sort of let things be, not attempting to collect and organize the history.

The staircase (click to enlarge)
The staircase (click to enlarge)

BDP: But they know the C-Squat, which is a very democratically run place. People who would fit the word “sell-outs” are the opposite of the people living here. They know that, so they accept the museum. That goes a long way.

That has been one of the most difficult things of starting a museum — to gain credibility and realness. And in an area that no one really can handle. If a regular museum did this, they probably be boycotted or people would throwing things at them. ‘How dare you talk about this radicalness?’ So, we are able to pull that off because of our location, our reputation.

At the same time, the people in the building help fix up the building — they built the storefront. We are running a fashion collective where everyone is a volunteer. So we’re following some of the same guidelines as the things we’re representing. Occupy Wall Street was a collective decision-making process; the museum is kind of run in the same fashion. We got together all our pictures, we fixed up the space, and then we tried to figure out, well, what is history and how can we show it and where does it all go?

JS: And is it working?

BDP: It’s been kind of working [laughs]. I think we have a good display of pictures. If you look on the walls here, we have people holding their bikes in the air. This was the critical mass ride that happened on the last Friday of every month. Then we have Occupy Wall Street.

JS: Yes, I participated in this march.

BDP: It’s very current. Extremely current. So are we a history museum? It’s confusing a lot of people. We are doing a lot of events. The museum is organizing garden clean-ups; we are organizing to save our community center, protests; we’re organizing a lecture series. I don’t see us as underlining the past but more like showing positive past examples for people to move forward in the future.

Because there’s no history for activism that I can find. I mean, you talk to anybody on the street and they could name a million baseball players, a million movie stars, a million poets, a million writers, and when it gets to activism, they’re all like ‘well, I don’t know.’ Who’s a famous environmentalist? I don’t know. Who’s a famous gardener? This is a very underrepresented area, as far as history is concerned. It’s almost nil. People can’t even find heroes.

Community gardens
Community gardens

JS: Well, it seems like in the larger American culture, activism isn’t mainstream. It’s very relevant now because of Occupy Wall Street, the way it popped up everywhere and then was crushed. But I don’t know how most people think about activism these days. I get the sense it’s still kind of fringe for most people in America.

BDP: Probably you’re right. But I guess maybe it’s not activism, but the word that we’re talking about is “community.” Americans have a little bit of that corporateness. They are a little heavy on their corporate factor.

JS: Right, and often in America communities seem to revolve around institutions like the church. But it does seem like a good moment for you to open because of Occupy. There’s been a lot more activism recently than there had been for a long time, I think.

BDP: And this is really the heart of it. This is the place. We’re surrounded by the highest concentration of community gardens right in this area. The highest concentration of squats. It’s a community way of lifestyle that started here.

Downstairs
Downstairs

JS: Can you tell me more about the different aspects of the museum?

BDP: The museum has a couple of elements: we have the pictures, the videos that we are collecting, an archiving section downstairs, we have a committee for collections. That means that the people in the community who trust us will also give us their pictures and videos documenting these events, like the Tompkins Square Park riots, or the garden across the street — the first day they went in there, what it looked like before that, and the workshops and skill shares they had there. A lot of people in the neighborhood didn’t know how to garden or build, so they would have these amazing skill shares where they would teach each other how to compost or stuff like that. We are also highlighting that as well.

JS: Where are you storing your collections? Is there space here?

BDP: No, not really. We’re going to do as much digitally as possible. And we do have another location. We’re backing up all of our video as well.

JS: Do you want to incorporate video into the display here?

BDP: It would be great. I’m not sure where we are going to get that kind of money. That’s big money, and we kind of just barely opened this place and then got hit with superstorm Sandy.

Merchandise
Merchandise

JS: One thing I wanted to ask you about is the location: obviously this makes sense as a place for the museum, but it’s also interesting to me because I feel like the East Village has changed a lot. It’s a lot more corporate than it used to be, and NYU has sort of taken over. Do you feel that change? Do you miss the old neighborhood?

BDP: Yeah, I miss it, but I’m still working to change it. Just a few weeks ago the city destroyed a garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and we are struggling to save this community garden over here. So, I’m still active in it.

But, you’re right, I mean, NYU is huge. Some of our volunteers go to NYU, but they let out so many people into this neighborhood. And those people need to look for housing, and the Puerto Ricans families that used to live here have had to move out.

JS: Exactly, it’s the story of New York.

BDP: It’s harder to find. The nightclubs used to be all over in New York City, and now it’s all commercialized. I try to explain to people that it was different back then. The bands came from England and they went right to the nightclub, and then you saw something so real. Now, what’s the difference? It’s hard to describe realness. Everything now is a little watered down. But, you know, there are so many positive examples of what came from that era. I’m trying to relish in that and try to push it towards the future.

comments (0)