When outrage seethes or injustices demand a response, people take to the streets. But the political activity that fills public space first emerges from between four walls. The buildings where meetings take place and plans are hashed out constitute the city’s crucial, yet “less visible domain of participation.” In the 1970s and 80s, a storefront art gallery in an old tenement building, a Puerto Rican community center in a former public school, and an office for antiwar activists all emerged as alternative institutions for communities ill-served by the city’s civic infrastructure. Vital spaces for building alternative futures, these buildings have also struggled to hold on to their claim on the increasingly valuable real estate of the Lower East Side. Architect Nandini Bagchee makes their hidden corners and far-reaching consequences visible through interviews, archival photographs, and her original maps and drawings in her new book, Counter Institution.
In this visual history adapted from Counter Institution, Bagchee describes the far-reaching political community that for almost half a century called 339 Lafayette Street home. A rundown, three-story building providing low-rent offices for social justice advocates was a central node for networks of radical and antiwar activism in New York City and beyond. The Peace Pentagon closed its doors in 2016, when the owners sold the building and moved with some of their main tenants to a rented office space on Canal Street. The A.J. Muste Memorial Foundation hopes to purchase a new building with funds from the sale of the old Peace Pentagon. In the 21st century, radicalism may shape-shift, but the importance of an HQ remains the same: From filing cabinets to internet connections, activists needs institutional space from which to mobilize.
Demonstrations and occupations have visibly re-entered the civic imagination in recent years, bringing the importance of public space to the fore. Current debates about public space in cities or the lack thereof focus mainly on open and accessible places of assembly — that is, parks, squares, and streets. The idea of a physical commons in short supply and highly monitored by police and cameras is undoubtedly problematic for free speech and public protest. However, there is another kind of space that is just as critical to democracy, one in which the nature of public participation is negotiated, coordinated, sustained, and developed into productive propositions for political action. This space is the office, workshop, or building where activist groups meet to organize and plan what often appear to be impromptu acts of political dissent and collective participation.
For four decades, an architectural eyesore at the northwest corner of Lafayette and Bleecker Streets was one such place. The three-story, 9,000-square-foot building, suffering from many physical ailments and owned by the anti-war organization the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, provided low-rent office space for activists and advocates of social justice in New York City from 1969 to 2016. In imagining a place capable of nurturing radicals, one seldom thinks of a privately-owned office. Yet this well-worn building, replete with desks, computers, phones, filing cabinets, and general clutter, served as a forum for political mobilization for multiple generations of activists. Antinuclear activists, artist collectives, housing advocates, open-information media collectives, international solidarity groups, and others set up shop at 339 Lafayette Street, meeting regularly to stuff envelopes, plan marches, and attend nonviolence training sessions. Their use of multiple tactics of spatial occupation and civil disobedience to expose and critique state policies outside the electoral process earned this building the nickname of the “Peace Pentagon.”
War, violence, and economic oppression in the United States shaped the counter-institutional history of the organizations within the building. Long-established anti-war groups maintained a steady presence on the building’s second floor, while other groups reflecting the issues of the ‘70s and ‘80s endured for a short but productive spell and then disbanded, leaving a legacy of subversive intervention and issue-based organization. In the ‘80s, a focus on bottom-up communications media foreshadowed Internet-era organizing, modeling collaboration across distance and paving the way for the creation of a real-time global commons. By 2016 most groups, both old and new, relied on social media to connect to larger populations and navigate an increasingly complex globalized political terrain. Yet the small office building at 339 Lafayette Street remained a place that expressed the utopian ambitions and the concrete realities of building a political community, and the subsidized rent offered by the Muste Institute to the “movement tenants” kept many a left-wing effort afloat.
The War Resister’s League (WRL), the parent organization of the A. J. Muste Memorial Institute, moved into the top two floors of the Peace Pentagon in 1969. Two years later, with the real estate market in decline and the anti-war movement in ascendance, the WRL bought the building for $60,000 and invited allied organizations to join them as tenants. As the Vietnam War wound down, pacifist organizations sought to turn the energy of the popular anti-war movement toward domestic issues.
The WRL has always held the stance that war is a symptom of broader socioeconomic problems. With this in mind, the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice was organized in 1974 to create public awareness of the fact that increased militarism detracted from meeting the needs of average Americans. To facilitate this project, a dedicated desk and phone line were set up in Room 302, and a large map of the country tacked onto the bulletin board used pins, lines, and notes to chart a complex itinerary of action through 34 states. After a year and a half of planning and coordination with local organizers, the nine-month-long trek began on January 23, 1976 as a core group of walkers traveled across the country, joined periodically by a diverse range of participants carrying banners, props, and signs.
The cross-country walk with its anti-nuclear focus connected the vast demography of the United States and consolidated disparate resistance groups into a unified whole. In contrast to the marches within the city, this longer walk, which involved considerable behind-the-scenes coordination, synchronized the participation of labor unions, civil rights activists, women’s rights advocates, as well as churches and other pacifist groups fighting for social justice and generating a support network of grassroots activism.
In the aftermath of the Walk, local chapters of the War Resisters League emerged across the country, and the model of cooperative demonstration appeared as an effective tool. Back in New York, new issues-based groups proliferated in adjacent desks and offices within the Peace Pentagon. From Room 204, Sound-Hudson against Atomic Development (SHAD) — a coalition of more than 20 groups in southern New York State — facilitated a series of large rallies and sit-ins at nuclear plants along the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River. Many participants in these actions attended nonviolence training workshops at 339 Lafayette Street, while banners and flyers used in antinuclear street demonstrations advertised the address as the headquarters of the resistance effort. Directly above SHAD’s office, Mobilization for Survival facilitated a coalition of antinuclear groups to organize the largest demonstration in United States history to date, gathering an estimated one million people in Central Park and marched down Fifth Avenue to the United Nations on June 12, 1982.
The Peace Pentagon bore witness to changes in its surroundings through the 1970s. The Lower East Side transformed from the vibrant center of labor movements and an empowered working class into a catchment area for the city’s disenfranchised and destitute. The Bowery, known for its homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other charitable institutions for most of the 20th century, became the visible epicenter of an emerging homelessness crisis, and the area immediately surrounding the Peace Pentagon became what David McReynolds, a full-time staff member of the WRL and a longtime resident of the Lower East Side, called a “non-neighborhood.” While the core missions of many groups located at the Peace Pentagon focused on international and national politics, a few of the building’s occupants were also involved more locally in volunteer work within the neighborhood. Young organizers at the Catholic Peace Fellowship, headquartered at 339 Lafayette, lived and worked closely with two nearby Catholic Worker houses to provide shelter, food and spiritual support to the homeless. The long collaboration of the faith-based activism of the anti-war movement converged synergistically to form a “beloved community” within a city and a neighborhood that appeared outwardly inhospitable.
By the ‘80s, the run-down area along the Bowery and Lafayette Street, full of large commercial spaces, became attractive to artists and art galleries looking for opportunities to pursue more experimental cultural practices that challenged the hegemony of the uptown institutions.
In sync with the growing art scene, Karen DiGia, an activist and collector of protest art initiated a project she called “Gallery 345 Art for Social Change” in a vacant ground-floor space at the Peace Pentagon. In May 1981, Karen invited the artists from Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) to present a project called “Death and Taxes” at this gallery. PAD/D solicited artist’s proposals for unsanctioned public works to draw attention to the fact that vast sums of federal tax dollars were being allocated to military spending in lieu of social programs.
A year later, in 1982 PAD/D rented room 301 at 339 Lafayette, facing Bleecker Street, partially motivated by the logistical advantages of a central location and low rent, but aspiring also to “create a new audience for the new forms developing from collaboration between social groups and artists — an audience combining both constituencies.” By moving into the Peace Pentagon, this collective of artists had the possibility of engaging more directly with the movement groups with a longer history of political mobilization.
Later in the decade, as covert US involvement in conflicts abroad gave rise to an era of surveillance, public-access cable channels allowed media activists like the video collective Paper Tiger TV (PTTV), using low-budget video footage, to provide critical commentary on the news. In one weekly cable television show, artists, critics, judges, and intellectuals read articles from popular news sources, commenting on the form and content of the reportage and pointing out the underlying biases of the writers and the rising tide of corporately controlled media. Their catch-phrase, “Don’t Just Watch TV, Make It,” spurred ordinary citizens to send raw footage and also produce their own videos. The PTTV operation, taking over the entire corner office on the third floor above the WRL, was piled high with tapes to process, as the all-volunteer video collective produced alternative newscasts every day and then shipped them off to air via public-access networks nationwide.
PTTV’s use of public access television and video activism networks to counter “media disinformation” expanded further during the 1991-92 Gulf War, reaffirming the status of the Peace Pentagon as a headquarter of the peace and justice movement, and creating a unity of purpose within the building as old-school anti-war activists came to respect television as a vehicle of mobilization.
Throughout the ‘90s the national psyche was lulled into complacency as the economy picked up. In this period, New York City emerged as a prime global city centered on its insurance and real estate economy. The Gulf War, after all, had lasted a mere hundred days with minimum casualties for the allied Western forces. The memory of this invasion was brought home afresh as hijackers deliberately flew two American Airline planes full of passengers into the World Trade Center in New York’s financial district on September 11th, 2001. Within two months, the deployment of troops in Afghanistan presaged the beginning of what became the longest war in United States history. Despite large turnouts at rallies and demonstrations to oppose the retaliatory wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupation of public space to express opposition to war appears to have receded in the public imagination.
There are, however, moments when the movements that have maintained themselves in the city through the patience and fortitude of a few are suddenly rekindled in the many. Such was the case with Occupy Wall Street, when a younger generation of activists camped out in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan to bring public attention to the global financial crises. Social media was instrumental, as sharing real-time footage produced solidarity among a dispersed political community. The media collective Global Revolution TV uploaded a continuous stream of videos from the events at Zuccotti Park, working on battery-powered laptops. However, rain, police harassment, and the constant loss of equipment eventually required them to find a more stable indoor base, in a small office on the second floor of 339 Lafayette Street. Four years later, Global Revolution TV had more than a hundred contributing members dispersed in Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Spain, and the US, with followers around the globe, springing to action in moments of political crisis. On November 24, 2014, when a grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict the police officer responsible for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the small Peace Pentagon office, chock-full of cables, servers, monitors, keyboards, and sleeping bags, was a hive of activity as sleep-deprived members made sure that events related to #BlackLivesMatter were fed to their Twitter and Facebook followers. The emergent electronic commons still relied on a centrally located physical office in New York City. Despite its physical decrepitude, or perhaps because of its generally undesirable appearance, the Peace Pentagon served as a vital node that permitted and encouraged the formation of new political perspectives.
With its profusion of anti-war posters, pamphlets, buttons, and other political paraphernalia, the second-floor office of the War Resisters League by 2015 seemed to be a visual archive of four decades of activism rather than a functioning workspace. Lined up against a wall were shallow shelves displaying books, pamphlets, and other literature. The Handbook for Nonviolent Action and War Tax Resistance shared space with polemics by renowned pacifists like Jeannette Rankin, A. J. Muste, Barbara Deming, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Above these shelves hung posters that highlighted the various WRL campaigns against war, poverty, and the penal system. Eight workstations, housing a full-time staff of four people along with a small team of interns and volunteers, were set up along the windowed walls of the office and partitioned off from the main space by banks of metal file cabinets. Rusty, the beloved office cat, named after onetime WRL member and famous civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, sauntered around an area plastered with stickers that described various causes and pithy responses to crises: “Free Chelsea,” “Goin’ Broke Paying for War,” “Boycott Israel: Free Palestine.” In the center of this room, a large conference desk faced a whiteboard scribbled with to-do lists.
In a city increasingly driven by an escalating real estate market, the existence of the Peace Pentagon connected affinity groups and facilitated the flow and exchange of ideas. By all accounts it was a difficult building to actually work in. The floors were so uneven that pencils would roll from one end of a room to the other, and there was no heat. Yet the building created a much-needed literal and figurative forum where the political left could express itself, as different groups could meet, plan, and work in spaces tagged with broken guns, raised fists, and roaring paper tigers.
This article is adapted from Counter Institution: Activist Estates of the Lower East Side by Nandini Bagchee, published by Fordham University Press (2018).