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.
Seafaring adventures for city folk
One of the benefits of living in a non-trendy part of New York City is that you can benefit from a lot of cultural enrichment without crowds of five-borough tourists that flock to the city’s more fashionable haunts. Everything in the Flushing-Whitestone area where I live is a long train ride plus a bus ride away from where the ‘in’ crowd frequents in Brooklyn and Western Queens.
We recently took a journey to Little Bay Park, a slice of land between the Cross Island Expressway and Flushing Bay. It is directly adjacent to Fort Totten, an old U.S. Army base that is now a public park but still houses military and other agencies such as the police and fire departments and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The larger family fun day that had been scheduled for Fort Totten was canceled, as recent rain made their fields too muddy for any public events. Instead a smaller event was taking place on a small strip of land right along a walking and bike path that lead from Fort Totten into Little Bay Park. The main attraction being free kayaking for families.
Here is where a semi-suburban city Dad gets to experience some of the monotony associated with being a hipster festivalgoer. We stood in line in the hot sun for quite a while waiting for our turn to have a free kayaking experience. The start was delayed because the kayak operators found they had only a small sliver of beach to work with and it was covered in garbage. Vest-wearing volunteers using rakes and shovels filled six large garbage bags with garbage while would-be boaters and other park visitors gawked at them while also enjoying the sights of the bay.
This was going to be a killer father-daughter experience that would instill a love of nature and the seafaring life upon my two older girls. My wife had no interest in boating and was happy to wait on land with the baby and the stroller. I have good upper body strength and have paddled canoes before through swamps and on lakes. How difficult could kayaking be?
After a long wait we were finally given life vests and lead to the kayaks. The launch area was filled with empty kayaks and there wasn’t really enough room to both load and unload boaters at the same time. Once we managed to get around the empty kayaks and other boaters, we found that our vessel was already taking on water. That’s normal, the people told us. Water just gets in there. So I sat down in a puddle of water on the seat after having to step into water in my sneakers and socks (you had to keep your shoes on so I thought they had a system where we wouldn’t get our feet wet).
With the girls loaded into the boat, we were ready to launch, but it was a lot harder to do than I thought. I couldn’t hold the big oar steady in front of me without hitting one of my girls in the head, and it felt like we were sinking since I weigh so much more. I managed to paddle us out a little ways, but the wind began blowing us back pretty steadily, and I narrowly avoided getting blown into a rocky jetty.
Now I had something else in common with the hipster festivalgoers of Brooklyn: a general ineptitude and overall disappointment in the performance of manly duties. I’m not stupid and I’m strong enough to lift and move heavy things. But a plastic kayak with a payload of two 40-pound little girls had me stymied. After just a few minutes, not happy with sitting in water and feeling insecure in the shaky boat, they asked me to paddle back ashore. I happily obliged.
An essential part of living life and embracing adventure is the knowledge that not every adventure is going to go so well. This was one of those adventures that didn’t go so well. Not to fear though, the promise of a picnic and some delicious food was enough to motivate our girls to move on to the next thing. Soon we were enjoying a delicious lunch in the shade of a small tree in Little Bay Park.
After our meal we returned to the event area and acquiesced to the demands of ice cream at one of the city’s ubiquitous Mr. Softee trucks, we visited more of the event.
The highlight of the day was singing along to pirate and seafaring songs with Scuttlebutt Stu, who regaled everyone with great sing-a-long songs about pirates and sailors. His songs came with a lot of interesting history. I learned that the term “son of a gun” came from times when sailors would be allowed conjugal visits with their wives aboard their ships, with private beds being made between ships’ cannons. I knew that the term “groggy” came from grog, a mixture of rum and water, but did not know it got its name from Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” from his wearing of grogram jackets. Each song that Scuttlebutt Stu sang came with an interesting lesson that increased our fascination with the sea and demonstrated just how much of our modern culture has been shaped by the ages of the explorers and privateers.
Scuttlebutt Stu was dressed like a pirate with a heavy vest, long-sleeve shirt and tri-corner hat in 86-degree heat and no shade. He was a trooper like I’ve never seen. The breeze and briny smell of the bay lent a great aura of authenticity to the experience of learning about the pirate life through song. Stu is part of a duo called The Royal Yard that performs frequently in the New York area both together and individually.
I’m not a great singer but it was great fun to sing along, the wife and kids sang along as well and soon others joined in. It was perilously close to the kids’ nap time, and it’s always somewhat of a race to get home so they can sleep a little longer and get some more rest. But we stayed around for a few more songs and then headed home.
We made it back in time to let the kids nap in their own beds, another day’s adventure behind them. We were all the richer for it.
Popping Up Near You
This past week I managed to catch up with a friend of mine, who is a former coworker and neighbor. In true New York City fashion, we lived in buildings next door to each other and worked in the same office for nearly a year before we realized we were neighbors.
We met in Hell’s Kitchen at a pop-up restaurant. It was a pop-up called Pop Up Ramen that was being hosted by BQ Ramen in a restaurant called Co Ba 53 on 53rd Street near 9th Ave. The BQ of BQ Ramen in this context means homemade, authentic Japanese food—I had no idea and assumed it was some kind of fusion place that mixed barbecue with Ramen noodles. I was completely prepared to see a pig roasting on a spit. There was no Southern style barbecue there but I was not disappointed. The food was great.
It was my first pop-up restaurant experience, at least that I’m aware of. I may not notice these things. At first glance the pop-up trend could be viewed as a silly fad and you most often hear about it in the context of very trendy things that life on hype and excel and taking money quickly from ignorant hipsters and tourists. But pop-ups can serve a real purpose.
My friend knows the husband and wife team who were running this specific pop-up and theirs is a great New York story. They each arrived in New York from Japan during the city’s crime-ridden years of the yearly 1990s with little money and almost no proficiency in English and they each became successful in their respective fields.
This pop-up is a way for them to generate interest in their business. To open a restaurant in New York is extremely expensive and risky. The costs of renting or buying real estate on top of investing in equipment and staff means hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential debt, and the restaurant business is extremely competitive. Other kinds of stores face similar odds and large costs. A temporary restaurant or store can prove a business model to potential investors while establishing a customer base. Pop-ups themselves are a good way to let good ideas thrive and bad ideas fail before anyone has lost too much money on it.
The dinner at Pop-Up Ramen was outstanding and it was delicious food with conversation that veered from city living to religion and politics and back again to city life. I regret I couldn’t stay longer but I had a long journey home. If there is another Pop-Up Ramen or BQ Ramen restaurant established I will be sure to go there.
Hell’s Kitchen is a vibrant place and while it has a great nightlife and restaurant scene, it’s avoided the kinds of obnoxious crowds that now over populate the city’s more trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. It was a weeknight and the spring air brought people outside and the neighborhood has still kept some of the grit that made it interesting even though it’s suffered some of the same gentrification and commodification that’s affected the entire city.
I made my way through the Hell’s Kitchen night with a promise to return.
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.
Staying Proudly Beardless
As much as I’d like to pretend I’m somehow immune from popular culture, it would be a lie to say so. I enjoy rooting for my favorite sports teams. I watch popular television shows.
But one popular trend I refuse to indulge in is growing a beard. It’s becoming more popular for men to grow beards now, and I am proud to be avoiding this. I am going to stay clean shaven.
Beards used to be a sign of virile manhood, they are now as common on mindless hipsters as on real men. The waxed moustache fad is even more obnoxious. I met one person with a waxed moustache who was the real deal, and he was an older Sikh in a three-piece suit who wore a pince-nez when he had to sign some papers.
Usually anyone dressed like this is a young bullshit artist. And beards and waxed moustaches are a sign of a society that is only interested in the shallow trappings of manhood and not actually being a man. Being a man means no bullshit; it means being as much of an independent thinker as possible and looking critically at popular culture.
I indulged in popular grooming for a while when I shaved my head and wore a goatee. Women at the time liked the look and it looked good on me. I had a nice, full reddish-brown goatee that suavely showed off my Irish heritage and gave balance to my face. But too much grey started coming in. My hope was that going bald at a young age would spare me from a premature greying, but I was out of luck. The grey didn’t even show up in a nice salt-and-pepper look, but in a weird pattern that made me look like I was trying to grow a bizarre soul patch.
I refuse to use any products to color the grey out of my beard. That’s cheating unless you color it something flamboyant and strange so that it’s obvious and artistically sound.
Please don’t confuse this as a condemnation of all men with beards. I know plenty of bearded men who walk the walk or who had beards long before they were cool. My father and uncles had beards years before it was cool; they’re the farthest thing from trendy hipsters. My brother has a beard and is even into using fancy grooming products on it. But he was in the Marines, rides motorcycles and owns more guns than I do. These men have earned to right to wear their beards.
And the good news in all of this is that the propensity for beards illustrates a nascent movement to revive traditional manhood in some respect. We live in times when much of polite Western society finds it appealing to emasculate its men. The progressive groupthink classifies anything categorically male as an element of an enemy patriarchy, and that philosophy is intellectually bankrupt. The beards are the start of men wanting to be men again.
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.