A visit to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, a shrine for bicycle activism

The museum is housed in the historic “C-Squat” on Avenue C in the East Village. (Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Sometimes I think the term “bike advocacy” doesn’t fully encapsulate the work we cover here on BikePortland. When I explain to people what I do, I often talk about how I cover “street culture,” a broader term that captures the breadth of topics I’m interested in (tactical urbanism, traffic calming, protests, land-use, open space, depaving, and so on)

After visiting the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in the East Village area of Manhattan today, maybe I’ll start using “urban activism.” The small museum, housed in the historic “C-Squat,” refers to itself as “A living archive of urban activism.” It’s run by legendary environmental activism nonprofit Times Up.

I’ve always admired Times Up for their grassroots ethic and focus on direct action. They loomed large in the Occupy Wall Street movement, they organized Critical Mass to put cycling rights on the map more than two decades ago (and there’s still happens every month!), and when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, I saw first-hand how they sprung into action to help their community stay connected by charging phones for free with their pedal-powered generator.

A BikePortland reader tipped me off about this museum (thanks Jaimes!), and I’m so glad I saw it. It’s like a shrine to cycling activism.

Times Up has played a huge role in the cycling and safe streets movement since the 1990s and this museum was filled with information and artifacts that told the story. On the main floor they’ve got a cool old collection of zines, books, and shirts. The walls are filled with photos of campaigns they’ve worked on and the floor is stenciled with images from protests past.

But the downstairs is where I had the most fun. The stairway itself is a monument to cycling advocacy through the years. The side of the stairs are painted with “Bike Lane.” When you look at the treads from above, you see a bike path winding through a greenspace. When you look at the risers, you see a written history of bike activism in New York City. And as you walk down, they share notable activism campaigns and other bits of bike history on the walls.

In the basement they’ve got the original Times Up energy bike! They’re famous for using these at protests and in emergencies to create power. In one corner they even have a little exhibit titled, “Activist Tech” that tells the story of how they’ve used video cameras, texting, and live-streaming to document their events.

Perhaps the most memorable piece in the museum was a copy of a letter (above) written by Times Up. It’s titled, “Very Reasonable Demands Regarding the Future of Bicycling in New York City.” The card says it was written during the height of bicycling activism in 2005, when police were cracking down hard on Critical Mass and confiscating truckloads of bicycles.

The letter listed immediate, short-term, and long-term demands. “Bicycling should be viewed not as a problem for the city, but as a solution to the city’s problems,” it read. And according to the info card displayed above the letter, “Just a couple years later, every demand had been met.”

It was such an inspiring experience! And I grabbed two old t-shirts that I can wear at a future Bike Happy Hour T-Shirt night!

If you’re an urban activist (or just an admirer of the work they do), I highly recommend checking this place out next time you’re in Manhattan. For a video version of this story, see my Instagram reel.

https://www.morusnyc.org/

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor

Jonathan, it sounds like you are having a transformative experience, and that buried in that west coast kid there might be a New Yorker trying to burst out!

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
8 months ago

Dang! How did I miss this transpo museum on my last trip to NYC?! I guess I gotta go back for another visit.

After attending dozens of critical mass rides from the 90s on (SF, Paris, Portland, Seattle, etc) , I gotta think the younger generation forgets how much liberal left city police and law power used to be used to keep the streets ‘bike free’…before they backed off and the 2000s bike boom flowered…now with protected bike lanes etc. With any movement that has any level of success its too easy to think the better times have always been this way…just like Amsterdam having always been a bike mecca.