New Museum Showcases Recent History on the Lower East Side

January 08, 2014 at 3:43 pm

For most New Yorkers, it’s hard to imagine that less than 30 years ago the Lower East Side was the scene of ugly confrontations between the city and so-called “squatters” living in abandoned buildings. Now, to keep that history alive, there’s a new addition to New York City’s long list of museums – the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.

Bill DiPaola began participating in and documenting New York City activism decades ago. While some of the material he and others produced as part of the environmental group Time’s Up! is being archived at NYU’s Tamiment Library, it now also has a home of its own at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.

“I helped start this museum with a lot of pictures, a lot of video, and a lot of memories. A lot of these things that are on the wall I was actually involved in,” DiPaola said. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space – or MoRUS – also archives and displays material contributed by other activists and organizations.

It’s located in the storefront space of a building called C-Squat, one of the city’s few remaining squatter-run buildings. Squats were plentiful in the 1980’s, when abandoned, city-owned buildings were common and were often taken over and inhabited by groups of squatters, but most were eventually forced out. “This space became available in C-Squat and I thought ‘What a great place to put a museum, right in the middle of the Lower East Side where a lot of this stuff happened and in a kinda famous building called C-Squat,'” he said.

MoRUS is entirely volunteer-run, and one of its biggest draws are the weekend tours of nearby community gardens, squats and other historic sites. The tours are lead by longtime neighborhood residents and activists, and are part of the museum’s goal of educating New Yorkers about the roots of things that they now take for granted.

“One of the things we’re really trying to get across…is that so many of these things that poor people, people who lived in this neighborhood, that they were involved in, later on New York City, this huge city, adopted these programs,” DiPaola said. “Three major things: composting, recycling, bicycling, and also community gardens. These activities that were started by activists then became so popular and sustainable that they city then adopted them.”

DiPaola hopes that the museum will influence the next generation of community activists. “As an activist, I’m always hoping personally, that people are gonna see some of this stuff and then they’ll be like ‘Wow, you did some of this and you didn’t have any money? Because I thought I couldn’t make a difference in the world,’ and I’ll be like ‘No, you can make a difference.'”