Where the Crowds No Longer Gather: A Look Back at 12 Years in the Brooklyn Music Scene

07/16/2015 11:57 AM |


No one who moved to Brooklyn after 2000 has a legitimate claim to getting in on the ground floor of anything. Still, in 2002, the degree to which New York City’s music scene was still carried out across the river from here is maybe difficult for more recent transplants to picture. Upon my arrival here that year, a club called Northsix lived where the Music Hall of Williamsburg now sits, and acts rolled through there often. Quiet corners supported tiny folk music hangouts like the now-dead Zebulon and the still-living Pete’s Candy Store. (Pete’s picked the corner that would stay quieter longer, it turned out.) Union Pool wasn’t set up for live music, yet; The Knitting Factory still took up three floors in Manhattan. The pool of regulars who could support something as relatively specific as the metal shows playing nightly at Saint Vitus was still years and years away. The stray DIY show in a decrepit loft space was a welcome surprise but hardly an expectation.


In 2002, the candy-colored, new wave, coke-fantasia that was Williamsburg’s electroclash nightclub Luxx was the nightspot of note. It only lasted a couple of years before switching into the just-closed punk dive Trash Bar, which will now become a Smoothie King or some such corporate enclave, probably. People who may claim the current environment is filled with pretentious kids playing dress up really have no idea of the level of skinny-tied commitment Williamsburg once commanded. (I expect it to pop up as a throwaway gag as soon as early 2000s Brooklyn becomes the setting for a prestige cable drama.) It was alternately terrible and amazing, and deeply memorable either way. But even then it felt somewhat disposable, something that’d be outgrown if it wasn’t shut down. I don’t think anyone there thought that stuff could, or should, last forever.

Since then the story of live music in Brooklyn has been one of almost continual growth. Though individual spots have come and gone, we’ve steadily amassed more clubs, more bands, and more variety of everything, including more options for how to consume music. The biggest single disruption of that otherwise steady climb happened last year, which had the most funereal feel of any I can remember in Brooklyn’s post-millennium music scene. As was exhaustively documented, debated, and fretted over, VICE’s multi-million dollar headquarters expansion ate a bunch of Williamsburg’s music venues, permanently closing 285 Kent, Death by Audio, and Glasslands, leading many to mourn the idea that this city could nurture art in a genuine way. And the irony of a media empire built on hip culture, bulldozing weird, cherished spots with investment capital money was too richly symbolic to feel anything other than blatantly gross.


But now, just a year removed from that much-lamented reaping, it’s clear that farther off places like Palisades, Silent Barn, Alphaville, and Aviv have continued the spirit that those rooms used to nurture, and have done it more or less seamlessly. Going to shows out there is to be surrounded by people whose whole idea of music and culture in Brooklyn is now being formed with those spots at their center. There’s more precedent now to suggest that if, or even when, those places close, they’ll be replaced too, and quickly. If it happens to be in Queens or deep Harlem or under the roller coaster on Coney Island, the feel inside those sweaty rooms of the future will probably be the same. So containing the rise and fall of Brooklyn’s music culture to the past decade or so (or even just to Brooklyn) feels counterfactual, and even kind of arrogant: “If our thing gets blown up, there may never be another thing!” Not likely. In fact, there are more places to see music now than there were when the L started printing, more stylistic diversity in the sorts of stuff being made, and more people just itching to make it. If the prohibitive expense of living in 2015 Brooklyn hasn’t killed the primal urge for expression yet, a further, truly apocalyptic annihilation just over the horizon seems pretty unlikely.

It’s true that the city doesn’t care about us as much as we care about it. It won’t make a preserved historical site out of the particular room where you saw your new favorite band, or the place where you got gloriously drunk and did something romantic, or flat-out stupid. Our own personal histories are marked with spots that no one else can visit, where crowds no longer gather. And that’s sort of great. But while those things are important to us, and while they make our identities and our memories dependent on the city, the city isn’t reliant on us—it won’t click on our pained farewell essays. And that’s sort of great too. If you spend enough years here and the main truth you’re out to prove is “everything dies,” you’ll be given ample evidence to back that up. But you’ve missed the overwhelming, sorta scary, yet ultimately reassuring idea that everything is reborn too.

Ingrained impermanence is culturally healthy, if not personally flattering. And there’s still a minor, undeniable thrill to leaving your footprints in the sand, then standing back to watch the ocean erase them.

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