Becky Howland installs her iconic octopus — its tentacles wrapped around buildings and cash — to mark the entrance of the Real Estate Show. [Ann Messner, courtesy of Howland]

Where Can We Be? The Occupation of 123 Delancey Street: How a band of “dirty little artists” liberated a vacant public building on the front lines of urban renewal. Places, Aug. 2015. 

Artists install the Real Estate Show in a vacant building owned by the city of New York, December 30-31, 1979. [Ann Messner]

On New Year’s Eve, 1979, on the Lower East Side of New York City, a group calling itself the Committee for the Real Estate Show broke into a city-owned commercial building at 123 Delancey Street and, in a self-described insurrectionary act, installed an art exhibition in solidarity with Elizabeth Mangum, a 35-year-old black woman killed by a police officer during an eviction in Flatbush, Brooklyn, earlier that year.

The break-in came at a pivotal point in New York history, as a generation of downtown artists confronted the turbulent flows of capital and real estate that reshaped the city in the 1970s. Behind the faux colonnades of the Cast Iron District that became SoHo, a utopian colony had temporarily thrived; its residents organized themselves politically against powerful banks and business associations, won preservation battles, changed the zoning code, and acquired historic district status, only to find that their success changed the community beyond recognition. The legalization of SoHo lofts propelled a rapid quadrupling of rents. Alongside the 69 commercial galleries, 12 alternative art spaces, 13 screening rooms, 22 performance spaces, and 14 printmaking repositories, there were now some 75 food stores, clothing shops, and sundry merchants selling bikes, fabrics, plants, and kites. The pioneer days were over.

The Real Estate Show was an early instance in the formation of a vexed discourse about race, economic disparity, and neighborhood change that resonates today.

The Real Estate Show was a response to what came to be understood as the gentrification of neighborhoods across New York City, and to the complicity of artists “used as pawns by greedy white developers” in the revaluation of property. It was an exhibition of politically motivated conceptual paintings, installations, drawings, posters, and ephemera by a group of young artists including Alan Moore, Becky Howland, Peter Moennig, Ann Messner, Bobby G., Christof Kohlhofer, Cara Perlman, Matthew Geller, Jenny Holzer, Robin Winters, Stefan Eins, Joe Lewis, Walter Robinson, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Peter Fend, Robert Cooney, Teri Slotkin, Scott Pfaffman, John Morton, Mike Glier, and Jane Dickson. After a period dominated by minimalism and abstraction, these artists were associated with a return to reference, figuration, and content in contemporary art. Many went on to notable careers, but their occupation of that vacant building resonates loudest in New York’s cultural history. In its urging for an activist position in alliance with oppressed people (in the vernacular of the time), the Real Estate Show was an early instance in the formation of a vexed discourse about race, economic disparity, and neighborhood change that resonates today.

The week before New Year’s, the artists had put their own lock on the door. Boat-sized GMs, Fords, and Chryslers sped down Delancey Street onto the Williamsburg Bridge. Tom Otterness stood on the corner of Essex Street, watching for police. Halfway down the block, Alan Moore and Peter Moennig huddled at the doorstep of a vacant furniture showroom. Moore took the firefighter boltcutters from Becky Howland’s guitar case, clasped the metal ring of the padlock, tightened his grip, and leaned forward, squeezing the long steel handles.