I recently went to a friend’s art opening at Q.E.D., a small art space in Astoria. Going to a friend’s art opening made me feel like I entered a proper adult sphere of being a creative person. Luckily Q.E.D. is as unpretentious as an art space can get without being a punk rock venue or a squat of some kind.
My artist friend, Michael Harper, is a former drummer for my band Blackout Shoppers and has played with Furious George and other punk groups. He is a far cry from the obnoxious snob you would expect to find having their work displayed on the walls of an art space in New York City.
But that is one of the good things that is happening in the city right now. While the high price of real estate had driven many good art and music venues out of Manhattan and the established art world is horrendously pretentious and completely out of touch with aesthetics and real value, the outer boroughs have responded by adapting and setting up their own respective art, literature and music scenes. Astoria’s Q.E.D. has comedy shows, open mic for poetry, music and storytelling. It hosts performances as well as classes—it is even hosting a Burns Night lecture—all days of the week.
More and more space like this are starting to open up in all of the outer boroughs. The kind of art spaces that used to proliferate our central borough can no longer generate the money they need to stay afloat. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the Lower East Side’s ABC No Rio, that have been around for a long time and manage to stay afloat with government grants, smart fundraising and a thrifty, DIY spirit. But these venues are very rare now. Those kinds of places are now in the other four boroughs.
One caveat to this is that Brooklyn has become so popular and overpriced that it is an outer borough in geography only – it long ago took on the same level of pretension and established demand that has long plagued Manhattan. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Before Williamsburg was the shit show of hipsterdom it is notorious for being today, it was a bad neighborhood where artists and writers fled to after being priced out of Manhattan. Parts of Brooklyn remain a haven for artists today, though time is running out for them even in the farthest reaches of the borough.
And New York’s outer boroughs have always been epicenters for the arts. Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel in Ozone Park, Queens. Louis Armstrong lived in Corona. Stanley Kubrick and Ace Frehley are from The Bronx. Matthew Brady, The Wu-Tang Clan and Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. hail from Staten Island. New York both attracts millions of creative people and produces great creativity among its natives that there is no neighborhood in the city that has not seen a glimmer of artistic greatness in some decade.
We can do nothing to roll back the clock and stop development and real estate price inflation, but like the good people of Astoria and elsewhere, a great art space is wherever you can make one. The outer boroughs are carving out space for the future of the arts in New York City.
It has taken Brooklyn less than a decade to achieve the kind of overpriced cultural rot that normally takes a generation in other places.
There have been some very large events that illustrate this: the demolition of the beautiful Prospect Heights neighborhood to build the ugly Barclays Center being a landmark event that marks a shameful chapter in city history.
Brooklyn wears its shame again as two very excellent music venues have found it necessary to close their doors. The Trash Bar and The Lake are two places where I’ve seen and played some of the best shows ever. Their closing demonstrates how lousy, overrated and overpriced Brooklyn has gotten.
With the rapid rise of real estate in Manhattan, the outer boroughs became a refuge for the arts, and many music venues moved or set up in Brooklyn.
The Trash Bar quickly became Brooklyn’s home for punk rock shows that were chased out of Manhattan. Many of the great traditional punk shows that had made their place in Manhattan were now at the Trash Bar: Murphy’s Law’s St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows were held at The Trash Bar. When our band, Blackout Shoppers, had its 10th Anniversary show, it was at The Trash Bar. Some of our best shows were there. We were honored to play a tribute show to Norman Bates and the Showerheads’ J. Garino there that included a reunion of The Six and Violence. The Bullys held their Johnny Heff tribute shows there after they lost their regular spot in Manhattan. For many years a picture of Johnny Heff, the Bully’s guitar player who was a New York Firefighter who lost his life in the September 11 attacks, looked over the stage.
Also in Brooklyn, at an address the owners prefer not to publish, is The Swamp, formerly known as The Lake, formerly known only by its street address. Not far from the Montrose stop of the L train, The Swamp is just a few blocks away from a major Brooklyn thoroughfare but in a quiet-looking, industrial area. It serves as a great example of how punk rock has been kept alive by DIY spaces. The Swamp was basically a very large apartment that was run as a venue by people who lived there. They built a stage and bleacher seating in a room that served as a performance space. It was a great punk rock venue like no other. When my wife and I got married, we threw a wedding celebration there that featured some of our favorite bands. Less than a year later, Blackout Shoppers held an album release concert there to mark the long overdue completion of our second album. The Swamp also hosted reggae and other shows and it hosted combined punk and reggae shows that packed them in. It was an honor to play shows there and it will be sorely missed.
Brooklyn stopped being an “up and coming” borough nearly 10 years ago. It’s now an overrated playground for the wealthy and clueless. There are a few artists and enclaves still fighting the good fight, but it’s a losing battle against the tides of money and history.
We will welcome you all to Queens and the Bronx.