History of Urban Activism Told in New York's East Village

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened Saturday on Avenue C near 10th Street. It's a tribute to the East Village's history of activism from the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots to recent conflicts over community gardens, squats, and bicycle use.
December 14, 2012, 5am PST | Jessica Hsu
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"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," said Bill DiPaolo, who conceived the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space with Laurie Mittelmann. "I have it on film; I was there. So we want to show the true history." The main room of the museum displays photographs of protests and demonstrations along with zines with titles such as "Profiles of Provocateurs" and "Under Attack," and the lower level shows a bicycle-powered generator that generated electricity for Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. After Sandy hit the city, volunteers put the generator on the sidewalk for the neighborhood to charge their phones, adds John Leland, and the location of the museum was once "the loudest and most notorious of the East Village Squats."

The history chronicled in the museum "has become mainly one of victories for the activists, visible in the community gardens that adorn every other block in the neighborhood and the squats that are now comfortable residences." Yet DiPaolo wants to commemorate not only the successes, but also the defeats such as the bulldozed gardens, evicted residents, and mass arrests. "The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is an attempt to put this communal spirit and fractious history on display — a successor, of sorts, to the Tenement Museum, which enshrines an earlier piece of neighborhood history," says Leland. It is a unique overlap of past and present. As DiPaolo said, "Most history museums are history from the past. This isn't. There's people who got beat up by police in the park who are going to walk in here."

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Published on Saturday, December 8, 2012 in The New York Times
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