New Museum to Honor East Village's Squatter Past

By Serena Solomon on December 7, 2012 12:57pm 

EAST VILLAGE — Grassroots action takes center stage Saturday at a new museum that aims to preserve the neighborhood's history as a hotbed of squatter activism.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) is set to open Saturday, and will offer a regular lineup of lectures, workshops and walking tours to capture and honor the neighborhood's unique past.

"We believe the history of grassroots activism is being lost and there is a great need to preserve it at the moment," said Laurie Mittelmann, 24, a volunteer who serves as co-director of the museum.

Tours will leave from the museum's home base at 155 Avenue C— a building that was reclaimed and renovated by squatters in 1989.

The museum's goal is to spotlight the activist ways of the East Village, including the rise of community gardens, and is run solely by volunteers and funded by grants and donations.

The project has been in the works for more than a year, and organizers are hoping to capture the activism that helped clean up the East Village when it was a drug-filled and crime-riddled area in the 1970s and '80s.

It also aims to link that crusading spirit with modern-day movements like Occupy Wall Street.

MoRUS' 60 volunteers have been adding finishing touches to the building for its Saturday debut. The grand opening was delayed after Hurricane Sandy flooded the museum's basement, Mittelmann said.

But MoRUS is far more than the building itself, she explained.

"We are not just in the storefront," Mittelmann said. "We are leading tours around the neighborhood."

For example, a walking tour of the neighborhood's community gardens offers a pristine example of East Village activism that converted overgrown, trash-filled lots into shared space, Mittelmann said.

"It is the greatest example of contrast," she noted. "The local residents went in and picked up everything with their own hands, their own shovels, their own wheelbarrows." 

There is now a working legacy of 39 gardens in the East Village, according to Mittelmann.

The squatter's history of occupying and transforming abandoned buildings into livable spaces is another focus of MoRUS, and its exhibits steer people away from the stereotype of squatters as freeloaders or homeless people.

Bill Di Paola, the museum's co-director, is a plumber who helped squatters renovate neighborhood buildings in the past and still lends his skills to the local gardens.

"Squatters are not only people who fixed up their buildings and the whole neighborhood," he said. "They are people with skills, they were organized."

Saturday's grand opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space begins with a 3 p.m. chain-cutting ceremony and proclamation from City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.

The daylong celebration will feature slideshows, lectures and performances, including sermon and songs by Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping at 7 p.m., and an 8:30 p.m. show by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. For a full list of events, go here.

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