New York’s new Office of Nightlife intends to support and legalize smaller DIY venues, making it easier for those that are up to code to flourish. But many underground spaces have no intentions of becoming legitimate spaces.
Back to Basements
On September 19, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into effect a law creating the city’s first Office of Nightlife. The new office will work to ensure safety for legal venues and make it easier for club owners to navigate the thorny rules and regulations concocted by the municipal government. The law came to fruition after months of activism by groups such as Dance Liberation Network, and the owners of Bushwick venues such as Bossa Nova Civic Club and Secret Project Robot.
The signing of the bill occurred at Bushwick’s House of Yes, which while now a fully legal venue, had originally been launched in a self-described “hippie-punk squat” loft space. Its website details an origin story of migration between multiple loft buildings in the late aughts and early 2010s, traversing fires, rent hikes, and internal struggles on their path to legality. Now House of Yes is a shining example of the kind of space that Office of Nightlife seeks to assist transition from squat to nightlife hub.
At the signing, Anya Sapozhnikova, founder of House of Yes, spoke about the difficulty of operating a space that wants to be safe and inclusive, but doesn’t yet have the recognition and support of law enforcement. “As you’re creating a safe space for people of all types to come together and dance and celebrate life and feel safe,” Sapozhnikova said, “in the back of your mind you always feel like you could get shut down for absolutely no reason at all.”
The owners of legal venues that pushed for the law seek an end to these looming fears. If the law turns out to be more than mere lip service, we may be entering a new age of collaboration between these venues and the Department of Cultural Affairs. No members have been appointed to the Office of Nightlife’s 12-person advisory board yet, but the bill is clear in its intention to “Serve as a liaison to nightlife establishments in relation to city policies and procedures affecting the nightlife industry,” with the goal of promoting “an economically and culturally vibrant nightlife industry, while accounting for the best interests of the city and its residents.” It’s a win for the community of venues in a legal gray area, as well as the DIY venues forced to operate underground. The chief sponsor of the Office of Nightlife bill, city council member Rafael Espinal Jr., even shouted out shuttered Brooklyn venue Shea Stadium as an inspiration for the bill.
But for every House of Yes that now hosts Bill de Blasio, every Shea Stadium that’s referenced by council members, there are dozens of venues that have faded into obscurity. They’re the lofts, warehouse, and basement spaces that the Office of Nightlife wouldn’t necessarily consider to be full “nightlife establishments.” They’re spaces that are iconic to the patrons, snapshots of a moment in a scene, but ultimately disappear. Parodic punk news site The Hard Times once skewered this phenomenon with its 2015 article “Legendary Punk Venue Now Just a Normal Basement,” in which patrons recall their oh-so-punk experiences of fictional venue “The Pizza Dungeon.”
The joke hits a little too close to home. I run one of these spaces, called HECK. We coordinate shows once or twice a week, and have done so for nearly two years. We don’t give out our address publicly. Our team of residents and volunteers handle booking, coordination, promotion, inventory, staffing, lighting, sound, cleaning, and every other logistical concern that allows the space to operate. We fall under the category that council member Espinal articulated as “the DIY venues and the smaller venues that actually provide a hub for artists and musicians to come together and express their art.”
Most DIY spaces are racing against a proverbial clock set by rent increases, eviction, internal conflicts, or, simply, exhaustion. Sooner or later, venues face a choice: close, move, or become a legitimate business. The Office of Nightlife presents an opportunity for the latter, but that’s not always the main goal of an underground venue. It certainly isn’t mine. So while the bill is a positive step for DIY venues looking to go that route, it predominantly empowers pre-existing, fully operational venues trapped in a legal gray area, and those that are able to work within whatever strictures the Office of Nightlife rolls out. It seems an inappropriate remedy for DIY, to be forced to rely on a large government agency.
My fear is the law will not do much to change a problem already present in the DIY community: erasure of the smaller venues in favor of those with more resources. HECK is not going to benefit much from this change. But venues that have the means or desire to work with the Office of Nightlife will, and have a chance of eclipsing anyone outside of that purview. There’s an entire informal economy based in these quasi-legal, secret spaces. As former venues get converted into media offices and coworking spaces, their names, their addresses, and the experience of their patrons are lost in a one-dimensional narrowing of DIY history, and the individuals who helped build and maintain it. It’s equally important to recognize even these venues that never were or had any intentions towards legality.
At 17, Bronx native Peter Del Orbe found himself searching the internet for all-ages spaces, spurred on by a love of DC hardcore and bands like Minor Threat. His motivations were simple: “I wanted to be a part of that world.” He came across ABC No Rio, a staple community space of the Lower East Side perhaps most notable for long-running punk and hardcore showcases (ABC’s original space shut down last May). Del Orbe showed up, and continued to show up, volunteering to do everything – even, in his words, “clean up the piss on the steps.”
In the summer of 2016, Del Orbe got an internship with Aviv, a DIY space in Brooklyn that began in 2014. “Intern” was a loose job title. “I was the door guy, security, janitor, all at the same time there,” he said. “I spent my summers there. I’d spend more time at Aviv then I did at home.”
When Aviv shut down last October, Del Orbe used the operational knowledge he’d learned and brought it back home to the Bronx. He searched for local community centers to host shows, and was eventually referred to a basement space known as The Meat Shop. He quickly became a central member of their operations, booking POC-fronted punk, rap, and power electronics in the space.
I met Del Orbe at a Subway, the chain, not the train. “The Meat Shop started in 2015,” he told me. He was reluctant to give me additional information about the original founders. Del Orbe didn’t know me, after all. I was just a person claiming to work for a publication asking a lot of intricate questions about an illegal venue. I understood that the Subway functioned as neutral ground.
“I was doing something very basic but very different at the time.” Del Orbe explained, after opening up a bit. “I had this attitude, like, we’re the Bronx kids, we’re the punkest kids in the fucking city, because we’re the ones facing all this mass poverty. We’re the ones that were dumped by society, and don’t fit in with anyone.” The Meat Shop became a locals-first answer to that displacement. Their run culminated in a blowout final show, a packed house with scene mainstays Show Me The Body, who have made a name for themselves by touring the country’s DIY show spaces.
If finding the venue space is the first major hurdle, maintaining consistent programming is the second. Back in Brooklyn, a few short blocks away from HECK, I met Dean Cercone, who operated his own basement venue, Bohemian Grove (“the Grove”), and has since moved on to open another venue, The Glove. Meeting in the basement, Cercone gave me a tour of the space, gesturing at the furniture lining the interior and an errant puddle with a look of dismay. After a five-year run, the Grove was relegated in the spring of 2016 to storage for the apartments above (where Cercone also lives), and is now only used as a performance space occasionally.
Like Del Orbe, Cercone cut his teeth on DIY before moving into the Grove and running his own space. In 2013 he moved to New York from Pittsburgh, where he’d been booked events in warehouse spaces – most also live-in – since his late teens. The Grove had already been running since 2011, but what he encountered upon arrival was typical of a bunch of underpaid, overworked people without much formal experience running a complicated creative endeavor. There was no calendar. There wasn’t much of a formal decision-making process, yet the space still worked – or, at least, it functioned. It was hosting shows (Cercone referred to them as “really diverse, variety-esque bills”) and providing a low-stakes, easy-access platform for experimental music and performance art to flourish. Cercone described the project as, “a space where we wanted freaks to come together.”
The space continued expanding, so that by the time it unofficially closed in 2015 it was supporting four or five shows a week. This was all taking place in the basement of a three-story apartment building on a residential block. According to Cercone, some neighbors were less than happy with the arrangement. “We had somebody that was on the first floor,” he told me. “We actually thought about adding them to every bill, because they would come down and scream.” The Grove’s landlord also made residents tear down some of the carpentry work they’d done to make the space usable. The Grove still hosts events once every few months, but nowhere near its heyday.
After helping to form a competent team at Bohemian Grove, Cercone was able to come together with a group of seven partners to open a new space, The Glove. Just a few blocks away from the Grove’s original location, The Glove is step up on the DIY scale. It’s not live-in, for one. It’s a separate space that the partners rent out together, and they’re able to have shows with greater frequency than any house ever could.
With this sort of arrangement comes additional risk. A show in a basement is basically a house party. The worst thing that can happen is the show gets broken up and everyone goes home. The appeal of The Glove’s model is a greater degree of control, larger shows, and guests feeling like they’re at a semi-well-organized underground venue, not just someone’s house. Still, the free-spirited vibe remains intact. “People wanna go to a place where they feel like they aren’t inhibited by laws,” said Cercone. “You go to a place like The Glove, you’re surrounded by all these people, we’re hanging out, it feels lawless in a certain way, but it’s also very respectful.”
While The Glove continues to grow and test the limits of its space, there’s another spot tucked away in Crown Heights that’s perfectly content to stay underground. 49 Shade is a basement space run by Max Alper, Taja Cheek, Dann Lawrence, and Matteo Liberatore. It can hold 50 people at most, so the team plays to its strengths, curating intimate salons for experimental music rather than raging parties.
The spatial limitation forces the team to be more focused in its priorities, which Alper summarized to me as “accessibility, safety, and a welcoming vibe for queer, femme, POC, or any other marginalized group.” Alper explained what this means “I just am not going to book a show of four all white and male noise acts, full stop. You see shows [with] dudes like me everywhere, and specifically in the experimental/noise circuits. It can be hard for other groups of folks to feel welcome at shows where this is the monolithic demographic.”
Even in this low-key setting, it can be hard to know what the future holds for the space. “There’s micro-shifts of individual neighborhoods – there’s buildings being renovated on my block and I feel like that’s gonna result in changes for me,” said Taja, who was instrumental in organizing the space in the first place. She remained skeptical, when I talked to her over the phone, about whether the Office of Nightlife will really be an accessible resource for venues like hers, specifically that it could aid in many DIY venues’ struggles to survive gentrification.
“There’s increased attention on nightlife, which could be a good thing and a bad thing,” she told me. “When there’s more avenues to become more legit, there’s more expectation to become more legit. For a venue slightly more legit than ours, it’s really useful. But for a venue at our level, it’s not very useful at all, and actually really harmful.”
When I asked Alper over email to describe Shade’s division of labor, he replied glibly: “It’s a shitshow....We all do everything. Come volunteer and make our lives easier!” This is, for better or worse, also typical of DIY. Amateur carpentry abounds, as do Frankenstein sound systems. Toilets break. A semblance of cool lighting is cobbled together with gel sheets and christmas lights. On the flipside, it makes it easy for new participants to jump in. In a world where everyone is doing it themselves, everyone can use a little help, and it’s a great way to gain experience.
The haphazard nature of organizing such a space allows for creative expression, but poor infrastructure also can also lead to horrifically unsafe situations, like the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last December. The residents of their art collective, Satya Yuga, were living in a warehouse not zoned for commercial or entertainment use, and lacking fire sprinklers. All reports describe the space as a veritable tinderbox. It’s indefensible to let something like that happen, but I know I’ve been in dozens of similar spaces over the years. It’s purely an issue of prohibitive cost, and perhaps the Office of Nightlife will allow safety to become more affordable.
All of the venue operators I spoke to had similar reactions to the tragedy: It was a wake up call. It caused everyone to reexamine their safety procedures, buy extra fire extinguishers. “We had to cancel our programming for a month, basically,” said Cercone. The weekend following the Ghost Ship fires led to crackdowns across the country, The Bell Foundry in Baltimore being a notable victim. Long-time residents of their live/work/performance space were evicted, reportedly with an hour’s notice. For many venues, even legal ones, that weekend involved extra precautions and canceling programming. For me personally, it meant shifts posted by the window, and hand-wringing over fear of a police raid.
Silent Barn is one of the few live-in spaces that’s crossed the shaky bridge from illegal to legal, and conquered the internal organizational challenges that come with that move. Founded in 2008 in Ridgewood (the space now occupied by licensed venue Trans Pecos) Silent Barn began as a practice space, then evolved into a freewheeling DIY performance zone. The collective left that space in 2011, but would go on to lease its current Bushwick location in early 2013. The group immediately worked on getting it up to code, funded by a Kickstarter.
Today, the space boasts a mix of seven full-time and part-time employees, along with a legion of volunteers. They received a full liquor license in July, and offer a rotating artists residency in the apartments above the space. The expansion may dilute the collective’s authentic DIY vision in some people’s eyes, but it has direct positive impact, too, ensuring members get paid for their labor, and daily operations run more smoothly. Speaking to financial manager Jordan Iannucci on a rare break, he explained that Silent Barn recently got an “A” on their health inspection “only because we have a bar manager, because it’s someone’s job to do that now, in the same way that it’s my job to file the taxes and not get audited.”
Iannucci acknowledged that the legal approach – and the serious bureaucratic paperwork that comes with it – isn’t the right fit for all venues. “Doing shows in a place that’s fully legal, up to code, that depends how long do you want to do it, how many shows do you want to do, how much money do you have, what city you live in, who plays your shows.” The amount of money needed to get the building up to code, apply for licenses, and hire staff is prohibitive. Iannucci estimates it cost about $100,000 to launch Silent Barn in 2013.
Spaces like The Glove, 49 Shade, and HECK could never afford the renovations and zoning readjustments required to become a legal space. “[49 Shade is] in the basement of a residential building, code is out of the question,” said Alper. The Meat Shop has already closed, transforming back into a regular basement. In theory, this is what the Office of Nightlife seeks to remedy, acting as a liaison that could help venues in this gray area become legitimate businesses. “It’s hard to even know what the rules are, to know if you’re breaking them,” said Taja. “If anything, if this position clarifies that, it’s super useful to know what their rights are, to know what they’re doing wrong.”
But, again, becoming a licensed venue is not everyone’s goal. “I’ve seen what it’s like first-hand trying to make a legit venue succeed, and it’s too far into the industry side of nightlife than I’m willing to go,” says Alper. Many of the others I spoke to are similarly skeptical of turning these passion projects into full-time work and space ownership. Maybe it just wouldn’t be fun any more.
Whether it’s due to police crackdowns, lack of resources, or emotional burnout, most of these spaces simply aren’t built to last. That’s also part of their beauty. “Most people want to have a space for a few years,” Iannucci told me, “but eventually all these places close…. And then you have a whole bunch of fun experiences and good memories indefinitely into your adulthood. That’s all most people want. You don’t need to understand the department of health sanitary codes to sell beer out of a cooler. You don’t need to understand what temperature pork needs to be stored at to give someone a Tecate covered in ice.”
But DIY venues can accomplish plenty, even if they’re only around for a short time. “I still feel like I reached my end goal with The Meat Shop,” Del Orbe reflected, “because the shows I did back then were considered to be radical, but now they’re more normalized.” I believe him, and it makes me hopeful that, in some small way, we are making a difference. In a city of slow-moving promoters and spaces friendly to QPOC being few and far between, any slight movement of the dial towards a more inclusive environment becomes a radical act.
Along with House of Yes, Silent Barn exists as a space that’s in it for the long haul. It has attained a level of legitimacy that a humble basement venue could only dream of. It has full-time staffing, is legal, and on the verge of receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit designation.
With these procedural worries behind them, Silent Barn’s team can get down to the real work. “I think Silent Barn is on the verge of becoming a thing that legitimately hasn’t existed in New York before, or at least not for a long time,” Iannucci said, visibly excited as he mentioned potential plans for their future. Some were ambitious, even unrealistic. But just six years ago, so was having a fully legal venue.