In 2014, Brooklyn watched some of its most recognizable cultural mainstays drop one by one.
The first to go, in January, was 285 Kent, which I booked for and ran alongside the AdHoc team. For the bulk of that time, this consisted of editors Matt Sullivan, Brad Stabler, and Mike Sugarman, as well as future editors Beth Tolmach and Joe Bucciero. After running it with John Jacobson for several months, Sullivan used to run a bunch of shows with me until we got Kaitlin Browne to take over. Brad worked the door a lot. Beth tended bar sometimes and so did Joe (ladies loved Joe), and Mike would play there a lot under Sugarm. Emilie, who co-founded AdHoc with me, played there often with her band La Big Vic and worked behind the bar regularly until she got her gig at The FADER. Everyone was always putting forward ideas for shows to throw and artists to invite.
285 and AdHoc were two separate legal entities, but the site and the people who ran it were very much at the heart of the venue. It was our chance to interact with and contribute to the community around us, beyond the web. We'd set up two or three wrecked folding tables in the middle of the venue’s sticky floor, and that was our office.
We closed 285 Kent for a lot of reasons. Over the course of the preceding year or so, the venue had gotten several thousands of dollars worth of fines and summons for things that we simply didn’t have the resources to obtain. We even got busted by cops on my birthday in 2013, and I had spent the night in jail after another similar raid. That felt kind of badass for a second, but that feeling goes away pretty quickly when you’re in a jail cell and you can hear the puckering of someone taking a shit two feet away from you.
Eventually, the venue had been put on the MARCH program, which meant the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Health Department, and the Department of Buildings were working in tandem to get us shut down. Around the same time, Todd P started a legalization effort for Market Hotel and Trans-Pecos after the birth of his first son, Alyosha Kai (who’s a pretty cute kid by the way).
Lease-wise, we were in a really vulnerable position as tenants. None of the units in the buildings on Kent between South 1st and South 2nd were at all inhabitable or up to code, making it really easy for the landlord to kick us out at any time that he wished to sell his property. This was Williamsburg after all. He had already served eviction notices to two units in the building: one to Ran Tea House, and another to a mixed-use loft space where Laurel Halo wrote Quarantine and bands like Teengirl Fantasy, Light Asylum, and Future Shuttle recorded and mixed their music. Emilie had also lived there for a while, so that one hit especially close to home. Our whole world was on that block, and this world was shrinking.
We made the decision that 285 would close in January 2014 and I was crushed. It felt heavier than a death in the family. With that feeling of loss, you come face-to-face with the ephemera of things and the fact that all paths eventually lead to an end. I became overwhelmed with a feeling I’d known all too well from the closing of Market Hotel and the shuttering of Altered Zones: everything I had devoted my life to for the past couple years was ultimately meaningless. I saw Nihilism standing at the door. The long hours spent dealing with fucked-up drunks and kids rolling for their first time, and being a part of a music scene that ultimately couldn't support itself had all amounted to nothing.
And so I took it upon myself to bury the dead. I talked to a few friends who were writers to let them know what was happening and, to my surprise, the story resonated with more people than I thought it would. It was no secret that Williamsburg was the breeding grounds of American hipster culture and that the area had been radically gentrified over the course of a decade. It had been especially evident over the course of the past few years, and you could see it on all scales. Locally in Williamsburg, families who’d been in the neighborhood for generations were being pushed out while condos were changing the topography of the waterfront.
But really, Brooklyn as a whole was having a watershed moment when its cultural currency started translating to hard currency. It was being commodified on an international scale. Brooklyn Bowl opened a branch in London, the New Jersey Nets relaunched as the Brooklyn Nets, and 4.6 million tuned in to watch the last season HBO’s Girls. To some, Brooklyn as a counter-cultural mecca had become conceptually meaningless. So, it wasn’t really all that crazy to consider a place like 285 as one of the last bastions of pre-gentrified Williamsburg. Some felt its closing marked the end of an era, but little did the rest of us know that both Death By Audio and Glasslands-- inhabiting the same building as 285 Kent-- would also close before the year was done.
Death By Audio had been building pedals and throwing shows in its space for seven years before they lost the building. To everyone’s surprise, the building wasn’t bought by a developer like Two Trees or even a bourgie big box like Whole Foods. It was leased out to VICE Media, which secured an extra 500-million-dollar investment from Rupert Murdoch this year and has been expanding fast. And even though to some extent I was relieved that the building wasn't going to be a Duane Reade, I’m disappointed in VICE.
The company either does not care or does not realize that it played a role in killing one of the last true safe havens for arts culture in the neighborhood. The company got a 6.5-million-dollar tax break for staying in Williamsburg, which makes me wish they had taken a high road and had been better role models by choosing a different building. And while Impose and Noisey asserted earlier this year that the closing of these kinds of places doesn’t really matter all that much in the long run-- because again, everything in life is ephemeral, punk and the human spirit will never die, there will always be a new crop of venues around the corner like Trans-Pecos, Palisades, and Aviv-- I have a hard time seeing these forced closures as anything but killings, as anything but crimes.
But then again, when have DIY venues ever cared about something as petty and arbitrary as the law? I was totally aware that what we were doing at 285 Kent was illegal, but I felt that building a community there and expressing myself creatively on my own terms was a bigger priority than having a piece of paper from the city that said I was allowed to. VICE is acting just as morally-- if not legally-- reckless as I was. The difference is that VICE has millions of dollars, and that’s a an obvious game-changer. Hell, it’s a game-maker: they have the money and the power to define culture and feed it to the masses. 285 had just enough money to keep running in the same fucked up way. VICE gets 7.5 million visitors a month on its website, and it can buy the talents of some of the greatest writers around to set the cultural course in whatever direction it sees fit. They make really good content, but what’s scary is that the money that fuels the operation comes from major corporations who, through advertising, co-opt that culture to sell jeans or vodka or sneakers. It’s straight-up corrupt.
Again, DIY venues run the way they do because they don’t have other options. Once Body Actualized Center’s deaf neighbor left, they looked to a community of artists and bohemians to buy membership cards which would cover soundproofing for the new neighbor next door and create a nest egg to offset an impending rent increase. The place championed a unique sort of new age techno-futurism that set it apart from anywhere else I’d ever been. Defined by daily yoga sessions, weekend parties laced with mushroom tea and hash liqueur, and tales of mutual masturbation and orgies, it was the only venue of its kind. But as different as it was from Death By Audio, Body Actualized had the same Achilles heel.
Aside from a couple weekend ragers each month, more often than not shows at these venues bring out less than 50 people because a lot of the bands that play them are super obscure. The people who traditionally run DIY venues wouldn’t last a minute in the music industry as talent buyers because they pride themselves on quality curation rather than financial gain. DIY ends up being an expensive ethos to abide by in a costly city, and after a while you have a hard time keeping your head above water. It’s tough to do what you love and get by doing it in New York.
Financial hardship tends to humble you and remind you of your size, which is usually small. “We didn't want to make waves because we felt that if we gave any shit to VICE they would just squash us like a bug,” Edan from Death By Audio told Bedford + Bowery in an interview this month. According to the landlord’s lawyer, DBA allegedly hadn’t paid rent since July 2014 and owed them more than $55,000. That said, DBA took a buyout so that they would leave on good terms. Taking the money certainly may taint DBA’s narrative as the shining example of punk, but clearly their debt and position with the landlord put the venue people between a rock and a hard place and they should not be chastized for that.
You’ll find the same powerlessness echoes through the closure of several other venues this year. The tenants of DIY venue Fitness were kicked out by their landlord. Seminal rave spot Steel Drums was raided and closed by their own choice. Goodbye Blue Monday was hit with more than $7,000 in fines and if they were to sign a new lease, their landlord would have allegedly tripled their rent. Goodbye Blue Monday closed. The well-loved bar Lulu’s shut down when it couldn’t make ends meet as a punk venue and wasn’t allowed to relaunch as a gay bar. The bar’s landlord put an anti-gay clause into the lease. I didn’t even think something like that existed. Regular house show venue 538 dramatically cut back on bookings this year due to mounting tensions with its landlord. Long-running house party spot 79 Lorimer was served a vacate notice.
Watching more and more venues close over the years-- Monster Island Basement, The Tonic, Uncle Paulie’s, Dead Herring-- I can’t help but notice that the roach that’s survived the counter-culture apocalypse all along has been VICE. Maybe adopting a model that has one foot in the corporate industry and another in grassroots is the only way to thrive, or, hell, even stay alive? But my gut reaction here is to reject this idea. There's just got to be a better way to make this work.
Innovation sounds easy, but rarely is. Premature death comes with the territory for many who take the DIY route. But there’s a new breed coming up, concerned with making DIY sustainable. Places like The Silent Barn, Trans-Pecos, Palisades, and the re-opening Market Hotel all focus on the long-run by establishing legal legitimacy. But that path is anything but easy when you’ve got limited financial resources-- par for the course with DIY.
The Barn used crowdfunding as a way to gather the money needed to buy a building and start running its operation by the book, and they took it seriously. Not a drop of alcohol was served at their parties until they got their beer and wine license. But when they did, man did that place pop off. Most jobs within the Silent Barn infrastructure are done by volunteers, who the venue pays when it can in an effort to support the community that supports it. Fundraising is a necessary constant for the Barn, and that team has figured out great ways of engaging donors by developing an in-house currency, cutely called the barnacle (get it??). Trans-Pecos is taking the same route and being good while waiting on their liquor license. And like the Silent Barn, they've enlisted the help of the community, not financially as much as curatorially. Instead of just having one or two people oversee the booking, they have more than 15 entities from all corners of the New York music world booking there every month. This is an incredibly rare move.
I suppose it remains to be seen if any of these places will be sustainable beyond the seven years that Death By Audio lasted. And as bleak as it sounds, it's true that the future of these new venues is just as uncertain as those that came before them. Now we can only wait and hope the new way being paved works, because if we've learned one thing from all the closings this year, it's that we people running illegal spaces had been doing it wrong all along.