A Tax on Fun: An Oral History of Palisades

A Tax on Fun: An Oral History of Palisades

This interview with Palisades' Leeor Waisbrod and Ariel Bitran appears in AdHoc Issue 16.

As anyone who has been hanging out on the Brooklyn underground scene for long enough will attest, New York is the kind of place where anything can happen, until it can’t. From April 2014 to June 2016, a one-time used furniture storefront and former beef smokehouse at the corner of Broadway and Stockton in Bushwick became home to one of our city’s most beloved DIY venues, known equally for its no-frills interior, welcoming atmosphere, and wholehearted embrace of the city as a melting pot of perspectives and sounds. Palisades was the kind of place where you show up at 8 to see Xiu Xiu, come back at midnight for RP Boo and Traxman, then return a month later to see Skepta, and probably see a lot of the same faces in the crowd. AdHoc booked a lot of shows there, and when the venue suddenly shuttered its doors earlier this summer, we felt like we’d lost a home away from home.

In the following oral history, founder Leeor Waisbrod and booker Ariel Bitran open up about how Palisades came to be, the creative community it nurtured, and the difficulty of staying afloat in a city where the odds are stacked against independent venue owners, financially and legally—even the ones who try to do everything by the book.

Illustration by Preston Spurlock
Illustration by Preston Spurlock

Leeor Waisbrod: I guess it makes sense to start with the previous place that Ariel and me worked on: the Lab. Back in 2012, this awesome guy who runs this small real estate company on DeKalb
let my ex-girlfriend and I use this little deli space for free. It started out as a small art studio for my girlfriend. We had one show there, and Ariel came to that show. He and I were living together in Kensington, and then Ariel just started booking shows. We were running a bar out of a storage container in the back of a courtyard, and just did shows there about twice a week, from September until the following May. It was super raunchy and weird, and then the police came one time and were like, “Don’t do this anymore.”

Ariel Bitran: Musically, it was all over the place. I guess it was kind of similar to what we did at Palisades: a mix of electronic music, hip-hop, and rock & roll bands.

Leeor: I grew up in Jersey, and played in bands in high school. After I graduated high school, I went to study architecture in San Diego, and then I took a year off from college. I planned to go back, but during the year off, I was working at a restaurant in Union Square, just doing art and stuff. And that’s when The Lab happened, and when it closed, I spoke to my parents about wanting to keep doing it. We had a college fund saved up for me, and I convinced my parents that it would be better to use the money to start a music venue in Brooklyn—that it would be, at the very least, just as educational as college. So we spent my college money on getting Palisades going.

All of my friends lived [in the Myrtle-Broadway area], and all the bands I knew lived around there, so it just seemed like the place to be. We were just walking up and down Broadway, looking for “For rent” signs, and we saw the Palisades building and went in and met the landlord. Every place we’d visited before had been like, “Music venue? No thanks.” And he was just like, “Yeah, that sounds cool.” He was a great landlord.

I actually partnered up with my old boss from the restaurant where I worked in Union Square—Rose Fathers. She was a partner of ours, so she started helping me out with management—skills she had from running the restaurant. My dad’s a designer; he knows a lot of architects, so we started talking to them about getting the space up to code. We got a lawyer to help us out with the liquor license. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but we just started getting Palisades together.

Ariel: After the Lab closed, I started focusing more intensely on my job at Stereophile magazine, where I was working as a blogger. We weren’t living together anymore, but I heard that Leeor was starting another spot, and we had a meeting. I started helping out at Palisades, and then I was offered a job.

Leeor: Palisades opened at a time where a lot of venues were closing. From the Lab, I had learned that there’s always bands that need a place to play, and that communities develop around the opportunities that are available to them.

Ariel: Preston [Spurlock] just did the mural inside the venue, and then he ended up doing almost all of our posters. I’d known Preston for a while— from the East Village anti-folk scene—and we were friends, but beyond that, it was a branding strategy. I was like, “I want the same art every time so that people know this is a Palisades show.” His art is friendly, fun, open—it sort of represents all the values that we started off with.

Leeor: He did a mural at the Lab, too. Everybody knows Preston.

Ariel: During my five years in New York City, I had been spending a lot of time at the Sidewalk Cafe, going to the open mics. I was in a band associated with the anti-folk scene, and I met a lot of different people who played music around New York. So I was able to develop shows around the connections I made during those years. But to say that we were trying to fill a void, or represent a certain scene, would be false. I think we were just trying to provide a service.

Leeor: It was really important for us to foster a community vibe, and to make sure that everybody who came to Palisades felt welcome. There was definitely a “clubhouse vibe” happening at a lot of the other venues in Brooklyn; if you weren’t a member, you didn’t feel like you belonged. We were consciously trying to make sure that Palisades wasn’t that—and I really do feel like we achieved that. I feel that’s one of the things we can be the most proud of.

Ariel: That said, I think the curation changed as the venue developed. At first, I was just trying to get some good bands and songwriters in there. But as we started to book shows more or less regularly, I started asking myself, “Is this challenging our concept of music?” And that’s sort of what the Palisades calendar became: being like, “Has this been done before?” And if it hadn’t, I would book it as soon as possible. I developed a serious passion for dance music and electronic music, just because I was discovering that scene here in New York around that time—and also because most of the venues in New York are sort of designed to be rock clubs. That’s only 50% of music right now, and I just think it’s really shortsighted. Having grown up in a very global household—a Chilean kid in a Jewish household in Birmingham, Alabama—it was very important for me to create a space that was inclusive, and that generated a culture that was global.

Photo of Palisades' exterior by Jae Kim

Leeor: I definitely had friends who really matured alongside the venue—people like Amani Fela, who played a lot of shows at Palisades. Palm played their first show there. There were only like 40 people there. We were absolutely in love with Palm—the sound and the people—and, maybe a year after that, they had their first sold-out show at Palisades. They started out opening on a bill, and then slowly made their way up to headlining the show. Ariel is actually managing them now.

Ariel: Palm is my favorite band in the world—they are so insanely sensitive to how humans react to music, and have really unconventional song structures. Pill comes from a more new wave tradition: New York City aggression, poetic. But I think a lot of the artists we booked challenged your conventional idea of a rock band you might see in Manhattan on a Tuesday at 10pm. Palberta, Show Me The Body—people from New York City. That was something else that was super important to us: making sure that we were supporting local artists and people from the city.

Leeor: The first Trash Talk show—that Ric from [AdHoc booked]—I think that was really a moment where it was like, “Holy shit, we can do this. There are 300 people in here and nothing has gone wrong.” It was only about a month and a half after we opened, and it was definitely our introduction to New York City showgoers who weren’t already involved with us—very diverse. Besides that show, I would say the sold-out Palm show really stood out. And the one-year anniversary show. And the Halloween show.

Ariel: Financially speaking, though, I don’t think things ever started really taking off. Maintaining an audience of 50 people in a 300-person room is a challenge, and unfortunately, we designed the infrastructure of the venue to be uncomfortable. For example, I made the decision that we should almost never have chairs, so that people would be forced to watch the show instead of sitting at the bar. Also, there were a lot of bills, including rent and insurance. We weren’t totally legal, but we were kind of legal, and there’s a lot of costs that come with that.

Leeor: You need a liquor license. You need a certificate of occupancy, and a public assembly license; and as tough as it is to get one, I wouldn’t suggest anyone try to open a venue without a cabaret license. Fines and other things come up that you don’t expect. Every month, you’re struggling to find money here and there and wondering if you’re gonna be able to pay yourself anything. It was stressful going to sleep every night wondering what was going to happen tomorrow—especially towards the end, just being on the radar of the city.

There were definitely attempts to become more sustainable. The liquor license, if I remember correctly, was $4200 for every two years. We were working on getting a public assembly license, but the money I spent was just on getting an architect talking to the Department of Buildings—we didn’t even get to the point where we were paying for any of the licensing fees. There was meeting after meeting, inspection after inspection, and every time you hit a milestone, you would be asked to do something else. I can’t speak for the city, but there was definitely a feeling of, “We don’t want this to happen for you.”

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson of Palisades on the cover of The New Yorker

Ariel: There just there weren’t enough exits, and the exits we had weren’t 100% up to code. We had tons of meetings with lawyers and architects in order to build two more doors along the side wall of Palisades. The Department of Buildings was just not cooperating. We were trying everything we could to get the licensing right, and it was going nowhere.

Leeor: There’s the Department of Health, the Fire Department, the Police Department, the State Liquor Authority. Each department would have their own problems—capacity violations, health department violations, fire code stuff. It’s not really acceptable for them to come and not find anything.

Ariel: I think, to a certain extent, the city is flexible with clubs. I think their policies are kinda similar to “pay-to-play.” Like, you have to pay the city if you wanna make money here, which I guess makes sense: you’re on city property. If you wanna use their property, you better do it on their terms. The problem is the number of times they come and find things. Every time they come, they try to find the same things they found the last time. If you’ve fixed those things, you’ve done your job; they’re still gonna give you another fine for the new stuff, but if they do find the same problems they found before, it’s a crushing hand.

At the end, we received a vacate order on the building, which meant that people couldn’t be inside—not even us. Legally speaking, I think the best way to describe why it was shut down was like a combined violation between departments, misrepresentation of the use of the space [note: Palisades filed with the city as a bar/tavern instead of as a music venue], and the space just being a death trap. Also, I definitely think there was a level of racial profiling at play. Whenever we had hip-hop or electronic events at Palisades that drew in people of color, I noticed the police were automatically more attentive to the event.

Leeor: There’s this program called the MARCH program: Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots. The MARCH program is when all the different departments—the Fire Department, your local police department, the Health Department, and the State Liquor Authority—raid your place on the same night, shutting your event down and all fining you for every possible violation they can find. We got marched three times.

Ariel: The first two times, nobody was there. The last time was the Celestial Trax show, and there were like 200 people there.

Leeor: In order to reopen, it would’ve taken way more money than I could afford.

Ariel: We could have done a Kickstarter, but we would’ve had the same problems again six months later. We could have begged for two hundred thousand dollars from people, but then [the authorities would have been] like, “Hey you still can’t run a music venue here.”

Leeor: I think the authorities totally take for granted the value that we add to the greater community. From a safety standpoint, I totally appreciate where they’re coming from, but I think they really overlook the role of the spaces that we run in driving a community forward and improving a neighborhood.

Ariel: There’s a devaluation of the arts. I don’t think that the city realizes how art is created here, and sometimes I feel like businesses with money are given more respect and patience from the city. When you have DIY promoters and venues and smaller-scale stuff, I don’t think the city makes the connection that these are the people who are making our city interesting. We were slowly getting more and more professional, safer, doing everything we could. I wish there was more communication between them and us, like, “We appreciate what you’re doing. These are the problems that we have with what you’re doing; this is what you can do to fix it.” We would’ve done whatever they wanted us to do in a reasonable manner.

Leeor: Totally, but we weren’t even making any money. The whole point was just to have a good time. So you’re paying a tax on fun, basically. On the bright side, I’m always going to remember all the fun we had, and the friends we made. We got to go to a show every night for a living, and it was probably the most fun I’ll ever have in my life. I feel good about the fact that we contributed something to the fabric of New York City nightlife, and that’s what I’ll remember.

Ariel: When I see the New Yorker cover, I don’t know, I’m very proud of it. We worked super hard, harder than I ever wanna work again in my life. Looking back, I’m just proud of what we did. For me, professionally, the concepts don’t have to die. Like all-inclusive spaces. The blending of genre lines. So that people break down scene barriers, and it leads to new fountains of creativity.

Grab a PDF of the zine here, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. (Those of you outside New York City can order a copy here as well.)

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