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New York City has been evolving from the day it first became a city. As people fled to the suburbs, the city then cut back on services in the 1970s. Landlords also abandoned their buildings, allowing some neighborhoods to decay. The Lower East Side was notably one of these areas. However, many people, including artists, musicians, and activists, didn’t leave. Those residents took over abandoned buildings and vacant lots, reclaiming them for the people in the 70s and 80s. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space tells the story of these residents who stayed and fought to improve not just their neighborhood and New York City but the world as a whole through their social activism.
Visiting the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) is located at 155 Avenue C. The building is also known as C Squat, a former squat house that is now owned by the occupants.
Entry is free, though there’s a suggested donation of $5. Since the museum is run by volunteers & provides a unique look into NYC history, it’s a place worth supporting if you can. It also serves as a community hub, hosting and promoting special events nearby.
Inside the museum, you’ll find displays covering the history of the neighborhood, as well as other social movements that have shaped New York City and beyond.
Squats and community gardens are at the center of the concept of reclaiming urban space. With the first, people took over abandoned buildings, providing affordable housing as well as spaces for art & music. In spots where buildings had crumbled, community gardens were planted. These gardens still dot the Lower East Side to this day, though some were lost to development.
Squatters, community activists, & punks kept the East Village & Alphabet City alive through the 70s and 80s, eventually making it an appealing place for investment once again. At this point the moneyed interests tried to kick them out. What was once an area filled with hundreds of squats dwindled to just about 10 that still exist today. These spaces have been improved & converted to being tenant-owned, while still retaining their creative & independent spirit to the extent that they can.
Although the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is small, there’s a lot packed into its two floors. Down in the basement, there are photos & other items from urban activism. This includes a stationary bicycle that helped charge cellphones after Hurricane Sandy. The basement itself flooded during the storm.
As with any good museum that covers social issues & activism, the exhibits at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space continue to evolve. Recent and ongoing social movements such as the environmental Time’s Up! organization, Critical Mass, and Occupy Wall Street are covered, as people are still working hard to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Other museums such as the Museum of the City of New York also do this, but MoRUS retains a DIY mentality that other social history museums can’t match.
Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space neighborhood tours
Each weekend, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space also offers neighborhood tours. The tours take place on Saturdays & Sundays at 3pm and cost $20 per person.
While visiting the museum itself provides a nice overview of the evolution of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side, it’s through one of these walking tours that you really learn the radical history of the neighborhood in great detail.
Our tour was led by Bill, a local journalist, activist, & historian. After introductions outside MoRUS, we headed across the street to the 9th Street Community Garden & Park.
If you’ve ever walked around the Lower East Side, you’ve likely noticed the community gardens in spaces between buildings. You’ve also likely just walked right past them.
The tour gave me a new appreciation for the hard work & activism that has gone into creating and preserving these spaces, as well as for their function as an urban respite from the busy city surrounding them. They’re beautiful spots that more people should take notice of and support.
These community gardens were the earliest proponents of recycling & composting in New York City. While there is still more progress to make, what is now becoming more mainstream started in these reclaimed plots.
The gardens are also community spaces, with events and art promoting solidarity around the world.
Interspersed with the garden visits (which make for a great quiet space to hear stories), Bill also went into great detail about the history of the neighborhood. We learned about the homesteaders & squatters as well as major events such as the Tompkins Square Park riot (or more accurately, riots).
If you’re looking for a unique New York City walking tour, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space radical history tours are like no others. The whole experience of the tour & museum will give you a fresh perspective on life in NYC.
If you’re looking for a place to stay near the Lower East Side, check out these New York City hotels.
Last updated on January 3, 2022