The Uncertain Future of Brooklyn’s DIY Music Community

“You’re probably getting used to hearing news like this in Williamsburg, so we’ll cut right to the chase . . .”

So begins the obituary for Glasslands, a self-described “homegrown community art space turned psychedelic venue partyhaus” which established itself during the mid-aughts at 289 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg — and, due to a sudden lease termination, hosted its very last performance at the end of 2014. Glasslands’ closure follows the recent, forced shuttering of two other Brooklyn “DIY” music venues, Death by Audio and 285 Kent. Clustered within a single building along the Brooklyn waterfront, the site of these bygone venues will soon be home to Vice Media — parent company of the perennially cool Vice Magazine — who have begun to convert the gritty spaces into a sprawling office complex. In the words of 285 Kent founder Ric Leichtung, these venues were situated amongst “the breeding grounds of American hipster culture,” a milieu which helped launch Brooklyn into the international public imagination, and ignited local interest in harnessing Brooklyn’s bohemian art and music culture as a tool for economic revitalization. This trajectory isn’t necessarily unique to Brooklyn; in many cities, DIY venues set up shop in inexpensive corners of the urban core, often anticipating — and, in the eyes of some, instigating — waves of reinvestment and gentrification. In the case of north Brooklyn, these waves significantly transformed the urban landscape from a “forgotten backwater, scattered with old warehouses” into one of New York City’s hottest real estate markets.

Ultimately, the closure of these spaces is not too surprising. All-ages DIY spaces are often (and certainly in the case of Death By Audio and 285 Kent) pseudo-legal and ephemeral by nature. Without the start-up capital to meet municipal standards of legitimate operation, these unregulated, ad hoc venues often skirt the boundaries of city code and strive to avoid negative, yet sometimes inevitable, interactions with law enforcement over noise complaints or acceptance of donations. However, the sheer amount of attention that has been generated by the closure of these venues is astonishing. The last series of shows at 285 Kent, which were covered locally by the New Yorker, New York Times, and Village Voice (to name just a few) became a nationally-recognized event in the realm of music journalism. That such small, rough-hewn, “homegrown community art space[s]” have gained renown at such a scale exemplifies the success of “Brooklyn cool,” and the increasing mainstream appeal of its artisanal spirit.

Two years ago, Michael Seman wrote an article for this blog entitled “Incubating the Scene with DIY All-Ages Venue.” At that time, I was living on-and-off-again in Brooklyn between long spells of touring with an electronic indie-pop group called Neon Indian. Playing guitar with the band full-time — and making money doing so — was the culmination of years spent honing my craft and building relationships within DIY subcultures. Like so many other independent musicians and artists, DIY venues were my participatory entry point into the local music culture of many cities. After years of frequenting, performing in, and even living in DIY spaces, I eventually began to see the skills myself and others had picked up by “doing it ourselves” (playing instruments, making and distributing records, booking shows, managing tours) being parlayed into actual jobs (performer, recording engineer, booking agent, tour manager). DIY venues have not only “incubated” scenes, but also careers, and even entire cottage industries: working bands, record labels, promotion companies, and, yes, “legitimate” clubs.

Despite the social and economic value that is generated by DIY venues — and vernacular urban culture in general — they remain a marginal subject of interest to economists, urban planners, designers, and policymakers. Granted, the music and art that passes through DIY spaces tends to exist outside of mainstream taste; but the rift between traditional “creative city” stakeholders and under-the-radar creatives affirms a misunderstanding of one of the most magnetic forces pulling people (particularly “millennials”) into these urban centers – what Richard Florida characterized as “low barriers of entry.”  DIY spaces provide a more accessible forum than many businesses or institutions designed to foster creative expression and cultural involvement. DIY spaces also help promote an organic, grassroots arts culture strongly tied to local identity. Unfortunately, along with the working class Hasidic and Latino communities who have called Williamsburg their home for decades, the very roots of Brooklyn’s participatory DIY culture continue to be displaced by commercially-driven development aimed at bringing in an affluent tax-base. Barriers of entry are suddenly becoming much higher.

Glasslands, Death by Audio, and 285 Kent were all, without a doubt, exceptionally vulnerable to gentrification. They all operated on the waterfront of a neighborhood with median home prices that now hover above $800,000. It is unfortunate though, that, even with such cachet, the inevitability of displacement continues to be the dominant narrative when it comes to subcultures, creative or otherwise. In terms of what has been “incubated” by this small cluster of venues — not just musical notoriety, but a distinctive and resonant sense of place — their impact is underestimated. At the same time, the social capital created by the alternative culture facilitated by Brooklyn’s DIY venues is being superficially digested by those with financial capital hoping to capitalize on changing demographics. Adding a bitter twist to the situation is that the venues have been displaced by Vice Media, a corporation which built its wealth in part by marketing to the global counterculture. Leichtung, in a recent article for Ad Hoc (a music and culture zine formerly run out of 285 Kent), articulates the irony of the situation perfectly:

“The difference [between Vice and 285 Kent] was that I had next to nothing and VICE has millions of dollars. That’s an obvious game-changer. Hell, it’s a game-maker: they have the money and the power to define culture and feed it to the masses . . . And what’s scary is that the money that fuels the operation comes from major corporations who, through advertising, co-opt that culture to sell jeans or vodka or sneakers. It’s straight-up corrupt.”

Planning education and practice should encourage and demonstrate how to foster conditions supportive of a healthy DIY arts scene. Such efforts would utilize progressive strategies not unfamiliar to planners: increasing affordable housing stock and rent-controlled apartments; allowing for flexible, mixed-use zoning and proactive legal protections for vulnerable tenants; supporting more inclusive, public place-making projects. These strategies highlight the need for more open, egalitarian access to urban resources, both cultural and physical. If we suppose that this access is at the root of what makes urban areas desirable in the first place, is it not within the broader interests of “creative cities” to ensure that “barriers of entry” are kept low? That the artisanal approach to production and consumption, material and cultural, be available to as wide a spectrum of people as possible? Can cities foster the DIY ethos as a means of incubating more equitable urban growth?

These questions exist within a wider debate about creativity and equity in cities. Many urbanists are already quick to characterize rising inequality and gentrification as problematic in terms of economic opportunity and social justice. What is missing from the debate is a recognition of how the economic engines of “creative” urban development also tend to wipe out the very conditions which allow for the foundations of the “creative city” to exist. As Brooklyn DIY struggles to put legally legitimate roots down further inland (newer venues have adopted the strategy of obtaining licenses and permits to avoid eviction and harassment), and the cycles of renewal and gentrification follow closely behind, those who care about the future of urban art and music scenes need to think more critically about the adverse effects that development may be having on vernacular, handmade cultures, which are a fundamentally necessary ingredient for the success of truly creative cities.

DIY venues represent one of the more artful exercises of a “right to the city.” That so radical a notion lies at the very foundation of the creative revitalization of cities like Brooklyn and Portland is an irony that should not be lost on urbanists. This radical notion should encourage us to explore, and possibly invert, our assumptions about where cultural innovation comes from, what conditions are truly favorable to that innovation, and how creativity, diversity, and equity fit into the larger picture of urban development.

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One thought on “The Uncertain Future of Brooklyn’s DIY Music Community

  1. Thanks Joshua for the insightful post. So many things to comment on. First, I agree that the impact of gentrification on the artisans/makers who first inhabit these liminal and sometimes marginally legal spaces, is much overlooked and under appreciated by planners and politicians. Gentrification is largely framed around the displacement of the surrounding residential (often marginalized) population. Artisans/makers are viewed as transients who have no place-affiliation or property ownership rights. They are also viewed as part of a privileged mobile hipster class sufficiently well-off in resources (education, family wealth) that a marginal lifestyle is an option, not a fixed and intractable state as it is for those of less privilege and limited means. This is the often the bias of planners as well as area residents and it elides a reality for artisans/makers that is much more nuanced and complex.

    All this is to say, that your concern over the impact of changes on artisan/maker community is justified. They do have investments both financial and social in their locations and displacement is disruptive. Planners and politicians should be more cognizant of this reality especially if the hope to encourage a vibrant creative community.

    My second comment relates to the role of Vice Media in the displacement. The role of Vice media as a cultural mediator and their role of their adscape co-opting the energy and look of the diy scene, speaks to an entirely other sort of gentrification of space. Media space is subject to gentrification as well. Its a new framing that you introduce in your article that deserves recognition and further articulation.

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