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.
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.
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.
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.