As part of my "NYC's Alternative Spaces" class for my cultural studies major, we visited the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces (MoRUS) in the Lower East side. The museum, opened in 2012 in the store front of C-squat, a famous punk squat on Avenue C. The MoRUS exhibit presents a broad depiction of communities reclaiming public space in the city (Occupy Wall St., community gardens, bike lanes, etc.). MoRUS also shows the history of Squatters, or people who inhabited the abandoned city buildings, in NYC in the 80s and 90s (many who still live there today).
Learning about the squatters of NYC's LES neighborhood from a squatter and community/environmentalist activist himself was a wonderful experience. Bill DiPaola was born and raised in NYC and has squatted at Umbrella House for about twenty years.
DiPaolo gave my class a tour of the LES buildings and the community gardens, including a brief history of what squats are and how they fit in to the development of our city. The ongoing struggle between squats and the authorities has been tough. Even though the struggle continues today, NYC's current structure is very much connected to the influence of these communities. Things like the High Line, bike lanes, city bike, and more were ideas from this community. Di Paolo says in the NYTimes article: "So many of the things I worked on — saving community gardens, getting better infrastructure for bicycling — the history of how it happened seems to get washed out. I have it on film; I was there. So we want to show the true history."
DiPaolo was one of the founders of MoRUS (Times). The purpose of the museum is to consolidate, and as DiPaolo mentioned, to facilitate in the archiving of the history of squats. The tiny museum has a ground level and a basement. Towards the back is the DIY stage that has hosted many punk shows. "Around the room were photographs of demonstrations and a rack of zines with titles like Profiles of Provocateurs and Under Attack, along with pamphlets of the United States Constitution ($2 each). Blue wooden police barriers decorated the front desk, and a sticker on the telephone read, “THIS PHONE IS TAPPED.” Entrance to the museum will be free, but people can request paid tours of community gardens and squats. It is a homey place, if people in your home use the words “sustainable” and “community” a lot" (Times).
One of the principle elements of squats, that is visible in the museum as well, is the DIY/sustainable/repurposed structures and designs. The buildings were in such bad shape, and the squatters were so poor, that the way they maintained and decorated their spaces was with found materials and recycled supplies. DiPaolo brought us up to his apartment and showed us how his entire apartment was made from recycled materials.
It is important for me to redefine "exhibit" and "museum" as I merge my fine arts studies and cultural studies. MoRUS and all the community gardens of the LES are public exhibits of the history and culture of this NYC neighborhood (there were squats in the South Bronx and Brooklyn as well but we didn't see those). Though the apartments are private spaces, squats are all about community and coming together to live and grow happily and healthy.