The reports of New York City’s death are greatly exaggerated
New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.
The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.
It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.
But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.
I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.
A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.
I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.
While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.
After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.
The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.
Punk rock in Tompkins Square Park
This coming weekend two free punk rock shows will be held in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village.
The shows commemorate the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, when police clashed with squatters, homeless and others that had been camping out in the park. Accounts of that night very but few dispute it involved widespread police brutality. Police lined up on the street for an extended period of time before moving into the park, and they were subject to sustained abuse by activists that did not want them there and saw them as agents of a landlord-controlled city that (to this day) lets property go abandoned rather than occupied while working people struggle to pay rent.
The riots were one of the first instances of widely-publicized videos of reported police misconduct thanks to the efforts of East Village video archivist and neighborhood stalwart Clayton Patterson. His videos showed police covering their badge numbers and chasing down protesters and beating them without arresting them. “Little brother is watching big brother,” he told Oprah Winfrey.
The 30-plus years have done a lot to change the East Village. Tompkins Square Park is no longer a homeless encampment or open-air drug market; it is now a safe place you can bring children. The abandoned buildings and art spaces that were abundant in the late 1980s have been replaced by high-end restaurants and expensive homes. The story is the same throughout the city.
It would be useless to pretend the East Village is the same, but it would be a disservice not to commemorate a scene that produced great art. Even if the crucible that created an esteemed body of art is long gone, the art does not get thrown away. I’m happy that feudal Italian city states no longer wage war on the Italian peninsula, but the art that survives from this period is among the finest in the civilized world.
The scene may be over, but the art endures. So let it be with punk rock. Though please don’t think that punk rock is over or that new generations don’t have the same legitimacy as the old-timers that were there when New York was a shithole. There are excellent bands playing in the city today, comprised of young people who were not born yet in 1988, and they are as punk rock as anyone else.
And the East Village is still a home for punk rock. The Bowery Electric, located a short distance away from where CBGB once stood on the Bowery, still hosts great punk rock shows. Niagara, which his located where punk rock club A7 once stood, has started booking hardcore punk concerts there regularly again.
And free punk rock still reigns in the park. Full disclosure: my band Blackout Shoppers is scheduled to play the free punk rock show in Tompkins Square Park this Sunday, Aug. 4, with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Hammerbrain, Porno Dracula (one of the greatest band names ever, but please don’t Google them at work), Jennifer Blowdryer Soul Band, Ruckus Interruptus, and Young Headlight. Saturday the 3rd hosts the first of the two-part series with Disassociate, the Nihilistics, Rapid Deployment Force and more.
Blackout Shoppers have been rehearsing and sounding good, even judging by my overly critical, curmudgeonly ears. We don’t play as often as we used to and it’s a blast when we can get together and play a show. It was touching when people came out to see us last year when we bid farewell to Philthy Phill of World War IX. We don’t want to wear out our welcome, but we are playing more shows this year than we’ve played more recently and it feels good to be out there being loud.
See you in the park this weekend.
Amazon on the East River
The skyline of Long Island City is a glowering army of glass and steel. As the 7 train crawls its way into the Queensboro Plaza station, commuters see buildings under various stages of construction. Many of these are high-priced residential towers boasting views of the Manhattan skyline and closeness to one of the subway lines that run though that part of the city.
The housing boom has moved high tech professionals to Long Island City – it’s a short commute to Manhattan and is still plenty cosmopolitan and relatively young and new. A largely industrial area until things began changing two decades ago, there is still a lot of charm that sanctifies Long Island City with the Whitmanesque aesthetic lacking in Manhattan and much of the more popular areas of Brooklyn.
So it was with a twinge of disappointment that New Yorkers learned that Long Island City was going to be home to one half of Amazon’s “HQ2,” or second headquarters. The city government bent over backwards to bring Amazon to our teeming shores and actual New Yorkers are right to be pissed off.
Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Prime member and I have several books available for purchase on Amazon. The Seattle-based retailer is the goliath it is because it championed online commerce before anyone could make money from it, and they made online shopping easy. I know I can go to Amazon and knock out a good portion of my Christmas shopping in a matter of minutes. So while I may heap some well-deserved hate on the company for its tactics and practices, I can’t deny the company has earned its dominant place among online retailers.
But Amazon engaged in a very slick and underhanded game. Putting out the notice that it was looking to build a large second headquarters in an American city, municipalities fell all over themselves to woo the company. Cities and states handed over reams of data they hadn’t provided to any other corporate caller on infrastructure, industry, demographics and economic forecasts. Amazon has yet another leg up on any and all remaining competitors. More than that, Amazon fielded offers of tax breaks and other lucrative pledges that would embarrass Tammany Hall. And in the end, none of these overtures may have made a difference. The factors that attracted Amazon were there long before the overtures of tax breaks.
Long Island City in Queens, New York and Crystal City, Virginia were the big “winners.” What exactly did they win? In New York’s case its nearly $2 billion in lost tax revenues thanks to guarantees made to the company, in addition for helping to build a helipad.
New Yorkers didn’t exactly break out the champagne to learn Amazon was coming to Queens. 50,000 well-paid tech workers means that already high rents and real estate prices will go up even farther. It means our already overloaded and dysfunctional subways and commuter railroads will be getting that much more crowded. It means more crowded classrooms in public schools, a bigger scramble for resources, and an infusion of shallow West Coast tech culture in our beloved Gotham. The specter of the big tax giveaway had people agreeing that this era of corporate toadying on the part of our political leaders had reached its nadir, especially in a city and state run by Democrats. Even the conservative National Review, no bastion of corporate-bashing Commies, agreed with Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Amazon’s corporate welfare is wrong.
New York City doesn’t need to play this game. The city makes itself attractive by investing in its infrastructure and working to keep the standards of living high. That means we lock up criminals, keep homeless people off the streets and subways, and make sure those subways are no longer dysfunctional. That’s a lot we have on our plate, and we can’t afford to give away billions in tax breaks.
Let Amazon build its “HQ2” somewhere else if they don’t like paying their taxes. But don’t blame Amazon; New York and Virginia offered them sweet deals and it took them. Amazon didn’t make anyone beg them to come to their city. Our political leaders did that to us, figuring the win of wooing Amazon’s office was worth whatever Faustian bargain they had to make to get it done.
It wasn’t Jeff Bezos who sold New Yorkers down the East River. It was Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo.
30 years after the Tompkins Square Park Riots
This weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riots with two days of concerts and speeches in the once-notorious East Village park.
Protests over a 1 a.m. curfew of the park and eviction of homeless encampments there ended with multiple clashes with police and multiple instances of police brutality. It was among the first widely documented instances of police brutality caught on video and broadcast on the news. Angry protesters shouted dire warnings about gentrification, yelled “Die Yuppie Scum,” and vandalized a new apartment building. Police chased people down and clubbed them with night sticks. It was a low point in New York’s history but things would soon change.
I was an angry suburban punk rock high school kid in the late 1980s and I made it a point to go to New York and walk to Tompkins Square Park after the riot. While I made it there, I did not stay very long. The park was still a homeless encampment and drug-invested village of skels and squatters, even with the 1 a.m. curfew. I would walk along 8th Street and St. Mark’s after visiting a great record store called It’s Only Rock & Roll that did not survive to the late 1990s.
This year’s commemorative concerts included a reunion of Team Spider, a group I have long admired and followed that embody the best of the East Village punk rock ethos. For about a decade they had an elderly songwriter ZAK, join them for most of their performances. ZAK passed away in 2006. So I made it an imperative to get to the park to see Team Spider.
The fact that I felt safe enough to drive to the East Village in a minivan with my wife and three small children is testament to the radical changes that have affected the East Village in the interceding 30 years. Amazingly, I found a parking spot right alongside Avenue B. I parked right across the street from St. Brigid’s Church. The church has a storied history, including being used as a center for activists during the 1988 park protests. There is personal history there too. I was arrested for taping a flyer to a light post right on the corner outside the church in 2005.
We walked into the park between bands, and someone was on stage making a long-winded political speech. They had been there during the riots in 1988 and now the spirit of resistance was needed even more because Trump is a racist and in league with the Nazis and no borders and die yuppie scum and …I tuned out most of the rambling speech and instead said hello to friends that I saw there. Some of my friends that I know through music have not yet met my children, so it was good to introduce some of my punk rock family to may actual nuclear family.
Team Spider took the stage and rocked. Their brand of ska-infused, politically conscious punk rock is as relevant today as it was when they were performing regularly, and they even updated some of the lyrics to mention Donald Trump instead of George W. Bush. The concert was well attended – Choking Victim closed out the show after Team Spider – and evidence that the spirit of political protest has not been cleansed from our city streets entirely.
But by any measure of anti-gentrification politics, the yuppies have won in the East Village. There are only a few squatters left among the increasingly expensive real estate that have driven out much of the radical politics that fueled the protests. The 1 a.m. curfew on the park is still in effect and there’s a Starbucks where there was once a pizza place not long ago.
After we listed to Team Spider play, we brought our girls to a playground. I took a small detour to meet with old friends at the show, but soon it was time to go for ice cream. I am happy to report that Ray’s Candy Store is still on Avenue A and I and the family got to eat ice cream cones served by Ray himself. We found a bench in the park that was away from some of the homeless congregations that still take up a lot of space there and quickly ate the ice cream, though the summer heat made us all a mess. Soon it was time for home.
New York City has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and it wouldn’t be New York if it was any other way. We won’t always have the same punk rock bands to listen to in the decades ahead, but New York City will always be home to what is interesting.
A Brooklyn Survivor Prepares to Exit
The stars were aligned the right way and we got the band back together. This past Saturday, the 2008 version of my band Blackout Shoppers played five songs at Hank’s Saloon. It was somewhat of a miracle that we managed to play a halfway-decent half set, given that we hadn’t played together in years and didn’t have time to rehearse.
It was good to be among friends again playing music. And it was fitting that we held this fleeting reunion at Hank’s Saloon.
Hank’s Saloon is a quintessential New York institution and it’s a miracle that it’s still standing. That being said, it will be closing down sometime after September, the latest music venue to close up shop.
Hank’s is both a dive bar, a music venue for every type of music imaginable, and a holdover from a past New York era that has managed to live on while its surrounding succumbed to the Brooklyn real estate juggernaut.
Characterized by the flames painted on the outside as well as the band stickers that some reckon are holding the building together, Hank’s is a small place with a concrete floor and a stage that is barely a foot off the ground. Tucked into the back, playing the Hank’s stage is a bit like playing in a cement box. It is hard to see the stage from most of the bar, and the sound can be wonky unless you are close to the stage, but some of the best shows I’ve ever seen or played have been at Hank’s. It is home to many genres of music and like any perfect dive bar, just about anyone can feel at home there.
Hank’s has an interesting history as well. Before it was Hank’s, it was called The Doray Tavern and was frequented by Mohawk Indian ironworkers who were regulars there up until the 1990s.
But late last year the inevitable news came out: Hank’s will be closing after this September. It stands to reason: in today’s Brooklyn anything remotely soulful or authentic is strangled to death by the high cost of doing business. Someone can make more money putting up an absurdly expensive apartment building there, so why don’t they? Good music, which is priceless, can’t often pay the rent.
There was a time not long ago when I would have railed to the uncaring sky about the injustice of it all. I would have felt rage instead of pity towards the naïve hipsters spending their parents’ money on overpriced apartments in the slums their grandparents worked hard to avoid. Instead I am grateful for the good times I have had at Hank’s and other places. I am thankful I was able to play at Hank’s one last time, to enjoy the music and the moment and take a lot of photos.
Hank’s can go out proudly, having outlived most of its competitors in a part of the city that is gentrifying at a dizzying pace. It has a special place in the hearts of New York music fans.
The essential conundrum of Times Square
News came out this past week that the company I work for will be moving all of its New York offices to Times Square, where we already have a flashy facility. It will be a big to-do with renovation and creating an office of the future and I’m sure the office will live up to the hype and it will be great for the company.
There’s everything to love about it but it means having to work in Times Square, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Times Square has undergone a complete 180-degree transformation over the last two decades. In the mid-1990s, it was still famous for its crime and pornography. I remember walking through as a kid and marveling at the graphic photos advertising the pornographic films, the barely-censored photos of naked women you tried to look at while pretending to ignore.
Times Square today is a tourist mecca that glows with the false light of a thousand larger-than-life screens and signs. It is a backdrop to television shows, a center showpiece of a city that crawled its way out of the financial and social gutter to become a well-regarded metropolis of the future. It’s found a way to personify the state of the five boroughs within its blocks. When New York was in a state of decay, Times Square reflected that. Now that economic interests have invested for the future here, Times Square reflects that also. Whether you love it or hate it, it is our city’s barometer.
Like much of the conversation today surrounding questions of the changing character of New York City, the gritty past tends to get sugar-coated. While I prefer watching pornography to shopping for Disney trinkets, the Times Square of today is no doubt better for New York City and a proud measure of our progress over crime. (Keep in mind that the tremendous makeover never completely washes out the criminal element or the sub-strata of sleaze or grit. There are still plenty of con artists, prostitutes and drug dealers making money in the Times Square area.)
Times Square’s success as an attraction for visitors makes it less appealing for local residents. Slow-moving foot traffic is maddening for someone trying to get to work. Long lines of people at overpriced tourist traps do not make for suitable lunch spots. Friends who have worked in Times Square report that some of the potential upsides, such as going to the office to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, are foiled by strict rules, often dictated by security concerns.
But as with the rest of life, working in Times Square will be an opportunity to adapt and overcome. I’ll find the good lunch spots to go to and I’ll figure out how to move in and out without being caught up in mobs of plodding tourists. Being a New Yorker means being able to find the right path through adversity and make inconvenience into something triumphant.
The midtown canyons of concrete and glass will be calling for me within a year’s time. It will be another chance to embrace the chaos of living in New York, and make a new path to life in the city.
Watching New York Pass by in Brooklyn
I’m standing outside of Hank’s Saloon on the corner of Third Avenue and Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn on the Saturday before Halloween. I’m there to play some punk rock songs as part of Green Hell, the Misfits cover band that has somehow managed to have a few reunion shows this year.
Hank’s Saloon is a ramshackle dive bar that still hosts live music. It’s a miracle that the place is still standing as Brooklyn’s booming real estate market has created an almost non-stop construction zone all around it. There was once a Walgreen’s across the street. Now there is a luxury high rise, The Hendrik, being constructed. A two-bedroom apartment in the Hendrik will cost you nearly $2 million dollars if you want to slum it; the four-bedroom penthouse will cost about $4 million. The developers had the sense to list it as being on Pacific Street since Atlantic Avenue, the larger thoroughfare, doesn’t have the sterling ring to it.
Farther up Atlantic Avenue is The Barclays Center where the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Islanders play. The Barclays Center was the death knell for Brooklyn culture for a lot of New Yorkers. Local artists and musicians were among those who fought tooth and nail against this stadium, which is a big ugly mark against the city and exhibit A in the corrupt influence of large developers on government. So far I’ve avoided setting foot in that place (I’m a Knicks and Rangers fan anyway).
Because it’s Halloween weekend, lots of people are coming by in costume. One such patron at Hank’s is a man dressed in brown with what look like several blond wig pelts hanging from his body and a face mask and head piece that look as if a giant tongue has replaces his head. As he enters Hanks, someone from a car stopped at the red light on Atlantic and Third shouts to him, “What is your costume?” He doesn’t answer because he’s not sure himself.
“You’re getting a lot of attention from motorists,” I tell him.
“Yes I know,” he says. “I took the subway here and people didn’t know what to do.”
“Are you a giant tongue?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I am. I don’t believe in being any existing character.”
He said he initially had some kind of Donald Trump costume in mind, thus his plentiful supply of artificial blond hair and emphasis on a large mouth. But he decided to do something completely unique instead. I ask him to pose for a photo outside of Hank’s and he obliges, crouching down and doing a strange dance like you’d expect a giant tongue-man to do.
There are still plenty of skels around to testify to the traditional low desirability of this area. Atlantic Avenue still houses several Islamic bookstores and places of worship. A few of these Mohammedans were in a heated discussion as I walked to get something to eat with Filthy Phill, lead singer of World War IX, one of New York’s finest punk bands. He used to live not far from the area in Park Slope, but hardly recognizes anything now. We were looking for a Halal cart for some dinner before the show, but didn’t find one and settled for Shake Shack; it was delicious.
We got back to Hank’s and the show started. People performed in costume and everything was fun. It was not a large gathering but a lot of longtime friends where there and the music was good. It was great to see many of my music friends.
Green Hell forgot to bring set lists but it was no matter. We figured out what to play and the crowd loved singing along to the Misfits covers. By the end of the night, people were happy to have seen us and we were glad to have played our two shows in the city for some appreciative friends and fans.
We loaded up my pickup truck with gear and brought it to Skum City’s rehearsal space on the Lower East Side. I dropped a truck full of friends on the Upper East Side before driving home. One of them asks me if I miss hauling people and equipment around the city at all hours of the morning. I do and I don’t. I can’t do this every weekend of course, but if I go a year without doing some music in some way I just don’t feel right. I told friends of mine on tour one time: The only thing worse than being in a thankless punk band is not being in a thankless punk band.
I got home at nearly four in the morning exhausted but extremely grateful that there are still places people can celebrate art and music, even among the construction of a future city we won’t recognize. We can go back to our regular lives a little better. As long as there is even some small critical mass of us, all is not lost.
Stuck in Place in New York
New York City right now is a city where people are often stuck in place. Not because they lack ambition or a work ethic, but because the juggernaut of high real estate prices is making life difficult.
I work in an office where most of the people who work there that live within the five boroughs have a commute that is at least an hour on a good day. My commute to work is an hour and fifteen minutes under the best of circumstances and can be significantly longer when things are at their worst. We would all love to live closer to our office, which is in the Flatiron district, but none of us can afford to live nearby.
Even the New York Times, whose primary audience is the more affluent New Yorkers among us, ran a story about retirees who would like to return to the city but can’t because real estate prices are becoming so outrageous.
When I first moved back to New York and was looking for an apartment in early 1998 one of the places I looked for a studio was Wavecrest Gardens in Far Rockaway. They had beautiful studio apartments with ocean views for about $500 per month. There were some drawbacks that kept me away (it would have been a long commute to work and a coworker who moved there said he saw people smoking crack in the stairwells), but the apartments were beautiful and affordable. If prices had simply kept up with inflation, a $500 per month apartment in 1998 would cost roughly $740 today. A studio at Wavecrest Gardens now lists for roughly $1,000 per month today. So rents have moved up at more than double the rate of inflation over the past sixteen years. And for areas that are more fashionable, the increase has gotten even steeper. Parts of Astoria and Williamsburg list small studio for upwards of $2,800 per month, and probably more in some places.
I consider myself very fortunate. I have a steady job with a good salary and my family is healthy and does not want for food, clothing, or shelter. But if we were to try to move to a larger apartment to house our growing brood we would have to take on considerable debt to remain in the same neighborhood, and would not find a place much larger than what we have now for what we could afford.
I have many friends who are bright, hard-working people trying to raise families in safe neighborhoods with good schools. They are not looking for handouts or set-asides. They can’t afford to stay where they are and can’t afford anything else in the area. Some friends and family have fled to New Jersey, some are considering leaving the Northeast entirely, heading to wherever they can make a sound living and provide for their kids.
New York is a place famous for attracting creative people, but creative people need affordable places to live and New York is starting to lose is creative critical mass. Artists and writers don’t need to have the same geographic presence they once did. In the digital age it doesn’t matter if you’re creating your work in New York or Detroit or Tuscaloosa. Most of the Western world downloads its content from the Internet, and traveling to a geographic center to get your work recognized is not as necessary as it used to be.
New Yorkers don’t mind paying a premium to live in the center of Western civilization. And New York is not an anti-capitalist place. It’s the most capitalist place on Earth in many ways. New York is a very tough place to get ahead but at the same time is famous for providing more opportunities than anywhere else in whatever your field of choice. If we want to continue to be that way, then something’s got to be done about the cost of housing. You have to get people to live here and stay a while before they can accomplish things.
If it doesn’t make sense to stay in New York, the middle and working classes will be gone and what will be left wont’ be pleasant for anyone.
Outer borough arts explosion
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.
The Great Brick Oven Pizza Scam
Walking towards Brooklyn Bridge Park this past weekend on a family outing, we came across the sight that represented everything not to like about Brooklyn. I even took a photo of it because it summed up so much of what is wrong with our city and world.
There was a long line in front of a brick oven pizza restaurant. People crowded into a dense rope line like cattle to the slaughter to pay handsomely for the honor, while a little ways up the street they could have gotten more food for less and eaten with real Brooklynites at the Park Plaza Restaurant. And worse than that, they were waiting to pay for brick oven pizza.
Brick oven pizza is a big scam. It should shame New Yorkers that some of our most heralded pizza restaurants are overpriced tourists traps offering crappy food. Somehow the powers that be have convinced millions of people that there is something authentic about eating poorly-made and overpriced pizza.
Take a good honest look at a brick oven pizza if you are ever roped into going to one of these insufferable establishments. You’ll notice that not only is the pizza weak and thin and the cheese coverage extremely spotty, but there will usually be bubbled and burned parts of the crust. You could take off some of these burnt pieces and use them to make a charcoal sketching if you wanted. Everyone pretends that this is good pizza, and brick oven pizza restaurants somehow get away with this even though there are hundreds of good pizza places that can make a delicious and authentic New York pizza.
If visitors to New York were willing to just travel a little farther away from the well-tread tourist areas, this con game could be put to an end faster. Sadly many New Yorkers themselves have fallen into this trap and gush on about some of these places.
Some of the celebrated brick oven pizza places boast that they offer a clam pizza, which really means they are failures in both pizza and seafood. There are too many good restaurants to get pizza and clams, don’t spend your money on the brick oven hype.
The brick oven pizza deception plays into the innate human trait to romanticize the past. While craft and tradition are certainly worth celebrating when they result in something positive, making sub-par pizza just because it’s old fashioned is stupid. Yes, they had brick oven pizza in the 1800s in New York. Do you know what else they had? Cholera and Yellow Fever. We shouldn’t be eating brick oven pizza any more than we should be commuting to work on horseback or leeching our children when they get colds. Let’s embrace those technologies that have improved our lives, including ovens that can cook pizza evenly.
Many people from outside the city are not aware that pizza making has a long history in New York and they wrongly believe that they must choose between the artisanal and brick oven swindlers and the legion of national chains that are sadly permeating New York neighborhoods. This is a false choice. The five boroughs and many surrounding areas are full of small, independent pizza parlors that can make you a delicious pizza.
Brick oven is a “brand” now. Just like you can charge extra money by calling something “artisanal” or “natural.” I have no doubt that bad pizza makers are baking their abominable pizzas in regular ovens and then just charging extra for it. They’re laughing at their self-satisfied marks who think they are somehow more “authentic” New Yorkers for being dumb enough to get taken by this racket.
It took years for this sham to get its hooks in the public and it may take longer to get people to open their eyes to the fact that they are paying more for less pizza.
So please, say no to the brick oven pizza hustle. There are still many independent pizza parlors that make real New York pizza.
Brooklyn’s Rapid Cultural Death Claims Two More
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.
Brooklyn Isn’t Safe for Rock & Roll
Last Friday, my band Blackout Shoppers was fortunate enough to be one of several bands to play for the last time at The Trash Bar. A great music venue, The Trash Bar has been a great place to see a show. They have a great sound system and manage to bring a wide array of music there.
Trash Bar is the kind of live music venue that used to thrive in Manhattan, and now it’s found itself priced out of Williamsburg. It’s the latest victim of the city’s own success and Brooklyn’s transformation from downtrodden borough to one of the most expensive places in the world to live.
The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn used to be a bad place. Frank Serpico was shot not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. Apartments in that building are now listed for sale at up to $1 million.
Williamsburg is where young artistic types began moving to at the end of the last century because space was cheap and the area was close to Manhattan. But creative young people can’t afford to live in the popular parts of Brooklyn anymore. The kind of people more likely to move to these areas now are wealthy people who had traditionally occupied the more upscale parts of Manhattan. A recent episode from the TV show Broad City captured this perfectly. One of the show’s main characters is chatting with three high-priced lawyers. They all tell her that they currently live in Murray Hill (a high-priced part of Manhattan) but that they are all moving to Williamsburg.
It follows a familiar pattern, a pattern we saw in the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan: A run-down area attracts enthusiastic artists and musicians because living is cheap. Those artists make the area desirable, which raises property values. Those property values drive away the artists and their venues that began the rejuvenation.
While it was the place that music venues fled to when Manhattan became too overpriced, Williamsburg is losing the art and music that made it attractive.
Bushwick has become the new Williamsburg, although the pace of gentrification seems to speed up in some respects. Prices on apartments start to rise in advance of the vanguard of gentrification that makes a neighborhood safe. Williamsburg has been relatively safe for a while now, but Bushwick is still more dangerous with higher crime.
This kind of gentrification has been going in the city for years. Since the time of the Dutch settlers, this has been a city in flux. Nothing stays for too long. The churn of commerce and change is constant. The city wouldn’t thrive otherwise.
It’s true that the city is losing some of its trademark characteristics and grit. No doubt part of Big Apple lore is lost forever. It’s not all bad though. I’m glad I can walk down the Bowery without being afraid for my life, though I’m sad that there aren’t as many music venues there.
Williamsburg been overpriced for years, but I didn’t think that Trash Bar would get priced out of existence in a decade. It brought in big crowds and even catered to the obnoxious yuppies and hipsters with some of its live music and its karaoke. The show we played Friday night was well attended. The bands played great and it sounded excellent. Everyone left it all on stage and we walked out with our heads held high.
And that’s all you can do as a New Yorker. Change is never going to stop, so don’t let it stop you. There will be new places to make and see music. The pioneer spirit that brought the Dutch to the New World and brought rock clubs to formerly desolate and dangerous parts of the city can’t be killed off, it’s just moving to a new neighborhood.
Avoiding the Poison of Excessive Nostalgia
The once-celebrated East Village bar the Yaffa Café announced that it is closing its doors for good. It was initially shut down in September by the Department of Health for health violations. The coverage sent up its standard lament; another “iconic” landmark crushed by cruel fate.
It’s a familiar pattern now. A well-known music venue, bar or restaurant announced its closing and there’s a chorus of objection to it, a scolding clucking about how shameful it is and how the city isn’t what it used to be. But this is a pattern that’s been going on since the 1600s.
Many friends and colleagues are correct when they say that small businesses closing represents a danger to the soul of New York. But let’s also remember that constant change and reinvention is also a part of the soul of New York.
While we ought to make sure small businesses have a fighting chance, we also must be careful not to fall victim to the poison of excessive nostalgia.
Nostalgia is deadly because it leaves people to believe that the best part of their lives are behind them. I don’t care if your eight or 80, if you’re not looking forward to something in the future, you’re not really living life. The promise of something in the future is what keeps people alive.
If any place can’t maintain its relevance for its ever-changing clientele, then it’s simply running on the fumes of nostalgia. The fumes of nostalgia may start off smelling sweet, but are composed of an underlying rot.
New York exists in its current form today because it is unforgiving and values nostalgia very little. The constant churn of commerce is always inquiring: ‘What have you done for me lately?’
I was among the chorus of voices that bemoaned the loss of CBGB’s seven years ago. The famous club helped birth punk rock and when I played there with Blackout Shoppers at our very first show in 2004, it was a dream come true. I saw many great shows there and had many good times and memories. But CBGB had not kept up with the times or even lived up to its own history. Bands who got their start there chose not to return and played other clubs in the area. The Ramones played their last New York shoes at a venue called Coney Island High, also long gone, which was a few blocks away from CBGB. The throngs of people who crowded into the club during its last days were curiosity seekers and tourists, people seeking to tap into nostalgia for its own sake, darkening its doors during its death throes so they could boast that they had been there.
So let it be with the Yaffa Café. I went there once when I was younger and I thought the place was overwrought and pretentious, and this was a time in my life when I was happy to put on airs as a hopeful young writer and therefore had a higher threshold for overwrought pretension.
Places like the Yaffa Café attract people who don’t so much want to live the life of a writer or artist as much as they want to play-act being a writer or artist. Ernest Hemingway went to the cafes of Paris because he was dead-broke and those cafes were dirt-cheap. Hemingway is celebrated today not for the time he spent time at a café but because of the time he spent at his typewriter.
I enjoy sidewalk cafes to a certain point, but squeezing my overweight frame into a tiny, crowded space so I can imagine I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald is a ridiculous idea. A writer or artist is too busy writing or making art to invest a lot of time on nostalgia.
The White Castle in Williamsburg has done a greater public good than the Yaffa Café in my opinion. Its demise is the one that ought to be mourned. I’ll indeed miss filling up on delicious White Castle burgers when I am in Williamsburg, but I can’t begrudge the decision by the owners to sell the place. They knew that they’d make more money selling the land to condo developers than they’d make selling burgers, and it followed that it made more sense. It’s a for-profit business; they weren’t giving away burgers for free.
I’m sure the Yaffa Café had its strong points. If I remember correctly the coffee wasn’t half bad. But the past is littered with better businesses that could not stand the test of time. Let them all rest in peace.
Let’s get some definitions out of the way first: Gentrification is integration that you don’t like. Integration is gentrification that benefits you.
Filmmaker Spike Lee made news when he complained about the gentrification of Brooklyn recently, decrying the efforts of white interlopers to “bogart” black cultural enclaves like his native Fort Greene.
But Lee suffers from the one-sided view of gentrification that informs much of the current debate. Real estate investors have helped foment ethnic changes in neighborhoods for generations both in New York and beyond, and the “hipsterization” of today’s neighborhoods echo the block busting and white flight of decades ago.
Gentrification today usually refers to middle or upper-class whites moving in to non-white neighborhoods, causing property values to rise and the non-white residents getting priced out of living there. But in the not-so-distant past it meant poor non-whites moving into mostly white neighborhoods in numbers large enough to drive down property values and chase away the white residents.
For every black family being priced out of newly trendy neighborhoods in Brooklyn, there are a half dozen white families that were chased out of New York City years ago. My father’s family was one of them. My grandparents had seven children and were able to raise them all in the Fordham Road area of the Bronx starting in the late 1940s. By the time my youngest aunts were in high school in the 1970s, the area had become too dangerous and they left for Westchester.
The hipster Brooklynites that Spike Lee assails are indeed loathsome beings, and ironically they’ll be the first to agree with and trumpet Lee’s remarks. (One of the surest signs that you’re a hipster is that you don’t recognize that you’re a hipster.) But many of these new residents have only bought into the cinematic view of Brooklyn that Lee popularized in his films. They want the urbane cultural currency of living in a black neighborhood without any of the risk and inconveniences of living in a black neighborhood. They are miserable wretches. Fine.
But if Spike Lee is right to complain about the whites moving into Fort Greene, then the previous generations of whites who were chased out of Brooklyn were right to complain. If ethnic displacement is bad for blacks, then it’s bad for whites and everyone else. You can’t claim virtue in preserving black neighborhoods and not white neighborhoods. If it’s a worthy cause to keep Harlem, Fort Greene and Bed Stuy as they are, then it’s virtuous to keep Breezy Point, Woodlawn and Middle Village the way they are.
But no matter how you remember them, old neighborhoods are destined for change. The coming and going of people from New York is so great that just about every neighborhood and enclave looks ethnically different than it did decades ago.
That same rapid force of change that we would curse now is the same force that helped make the city what it was at our preferred moment. There is no golden age of New York City except in our own separate minds. The Roman Empire that gave us Rome is long gone, but Rome is still there. The American empire that helped birth New York City is fading now, but New York City will be here forever. That change is unavoidable; it’s helped New York survive.
The more you selectively rail against gentrification, the more hopeless your cause. In New York City, the worst place to live is in the past.