Monday, March 30, 2009

Follow The Music

This post is going to be an observation of New York that is strictly my opinion. Since I've only been living here for a short time, I obviously do not have the tenure nor experience to accurately comment on this subject. Corrections are welcome, and comments are always appreciated. Again, this is personal experience and observation.

Based on what I've observed since living here, my plethora of New York City-based films, and what I know about music in New York, the center of activity has been constantly moving around the city since the 1950's. Rent is cheap in certain areas, poor aspiring musicians move to that area, and it becomes a great cultural center for music and art. So WHERE does this happen, how long does it last, and why?

Times Square

I guess the best place to start is Times Square. The commercial tourist center of the world, Times Square is probably the last place you'd go to see young artists these days. It's packed with retail stores and expensive restaurants, and while there are many shows around the area, they are usually very established people charging outrageous prices. However, it wasn't always like this.

In the 1920's, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire were tied to Times Square and referred to it as The Tenderloin, the most desirable place to live in Manhattan. After the depression, it was a haven for gambling and strip clubs. It was considered dangerous in the 50's, and it wasn't until Rudy Guiliani started his mass cleanup in the 1990's did the area become commercialized.

Carnegie Hall, on 57th St, was a main attraction for people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Midtown (between 14th and 59th) is still the center of New York industry and activity, but in the 1950's, there were many more seedy bars and small jazz clubs.

Greenwich Village

If you go to Greenwich Village today, home of NYU, there is still a great amount of music and cultural activity. Washington Square is always alive with street musicians. The West Village has great food and small music clubs, and there is a good deal of young aspiring students. However, it's kinda missing something nowadays. The Village at night reminds me of Beaver Ave in State College, just a lot of young kids drinking and walking the streets. Rent is expensive, though, and it kind of seems like a museum that wants to reflect what it once was.

I had this same feeling the last time I visited San Francisco. North Beach, the home of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William Burroughs, was the West Coast equivalent of Greenwich Village. In the late 50's and 1960's, they were the centers for Beatnik activity. Bob Dylan, the Mamas and the Papas, Peter Paul and Mary, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Browne, The Velvet Underground, Joan Baez, and many others got their start here. The Weather Underground was also based in The Village. If you visit The Village today, it is a great place for dinner. Washington Square is bustling on a nice day, and there is music everywhere. People are generally a little older though, and it seems like the Bohemian days of old are long gone.

The Lower East Side

Initially a primarily immigrant neighborhood, the gentrification of the Lower East Side happened when rent in The Village started getting very high. These days, the LES is still a pretty hip place. The rent is low, for Manhattan, and there are moderately priced bars on Ludlow St and Rivington.

The Mars Bar (2nd Ave & 1st St) is one of my favorite bars in Manhattan. The Lit Lounge has a huge basement with DJs all the time. The Cake Shop is a great bar/coffee shop with bands every night of the week.

The LES has a lot of art galleries, and is probably the easiest area to get a gig for a new band in New York. I've played in the Lower East Side several times with the Bullet Parade, and friends of mine continue to play there all the time. It's probably one of the cheapest areas to live in Manhattan, but gentrification peaked in the late 1980's, and people started moving across the bridge...

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Across the Williamsburg Bridge from the LES sits Williamsburg, the hippest place on the map. Since 2000, gentrification of Brooklyn has been spreading outward along the L Train, beginning with Williamsburg. What started as a small, mostly Hasidic population has turned into one of the biggest music centers in America. Since 2000, musicians have been erupting from this area. Acts such as TV on the Radio, Akron/Family, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and many others got their start in Williamsburg.

At the Mccaren Park in 2007, bands played at the pool, and there are plans for a 2009 North By Northeast festival that spans across Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Small venues like Union Pool and Death By Audio are having great shows with lots of up and coming acts.
Williamsburg has been referred to as "The Haight-Ashbury of ironic self-loathing" and is consistently called the hipster capital of the world by many people. Living in East Williamsburg, I see a lot of similar fashion and trendy stuff going on. Everyone has been pretty nice that I've met, though, and Williamsburg is a great place for the mid-twenties crowd. Bars are always packed and there is always something to do. However, in recent years the rent has skyrocketed. It is probably more expensive to live in Williamsburg than many areas of Manhattan. So what did people do? Move down to the next stop on the L Train until that area explodes. Williamsburg has been expanding in this way, down the L, until the L passes into the next Brooklyn neighborhood:

Bushwick, Brooklyn

Bushwick had previously been a pretty rough spot in Brooklyn. Lately, though, the rising rent in Williamsburg combined with the neighboring Bed-Stuy cleanup program has made Bushwick an affordable and fairly safe community. The 3rd Ward is a great artist/community space. The Surreal Estate is a loft space related to Food Not Bombs and The Freegans in Bushwick. They've had some great shows and DJs there.

Goodbye Blue Monday is an amazing space under the J Train that has bands every night, a cafe, and a huge backyard complete with another stage and great decorations. Bushwick is definitely coming into its own as a great, affordable place for artists and young, poor college grads. Across from a huge loft space is the bar King's County, the Archive Coffee shop, and a late night falafel joint. When we have to move from our apartment in East Williamsburg in May, we're looking into Bushwick. It's affordable, and very much alive.


The last area I want to hit on is Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy. Birthplace of East Coast hip-hop (Notorious B.I.G., The Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Lil' Kim, Mos Def, Talib Kweli), Bed-Stuy was, up until very recently, a pretty rough patch of Brooklyn. The Spike Lee joint Do The Right Thing is set here, as well. This neighborhood is not off of the L Train, but the above-ground J, M, and Z Trains.

Starting in 2005, police have cracked down on the area, and as of 2009 it is one of the most improved areas with a decline in crime and increase in safety. The 123 Community Space is in the heart of Bed-Stuy, supporting freegans, bike-builders, sewing workshops, and food shares. The younger people moving to Bed-Stuy have a great sense of community, and there is a good incentive to get involved with the outreach programs in the neighborhood.

Though Bed-Stuy is still pretty rough, I wouldn't mind living here either. The rent is cheap, and I'd feel great getting involved in community-based activities.

Now that I have a job, I've been searching for new neighborhoods to live in. I know there are places I haven't even touched on in this post. Park Slope, DUMBO, and Greenpoint are all very worthy neighborhoods in Brooklyn, albeit very expensive. A loft space somewhere around the L Train is ideal, although I'll take whatever I can get. It's amazing to be around so many places in New York that have experienced such a cultural revolution. I just want to be a part of it today, wherever it's going on.


  1. what are your thoughts on possible racist undertones of gentrification? you seem to write of it in a mostly positive manner. i certainly can't say i haven't enjoyed gentrified neighborhoods on a regular basis, especially when living near new york and since i've moved to DC. however, i've heard that many in the african-american community see it as a large-scale racist plot to get black people out of cities so white people can move in. thoughts?

  2. Oh boy, this is something that can ruffle some feathers. I think a good example of this is Bed-Stuy, with a predominant African-American culture. I mean, Spike Lee has set his films there, many great lyricists have come out of there, and so many young white kids are moving there lately. I could see how the long-term residents of Bed-Stuy would get pissed. I mean, if people started infiltrating your neighborhood, where you've been able to escape the world of oppression and racism, wouldn't you be pissed?

    However, I have been personally fascinated by the amount of culture to come out of Bed-Stuy and it seems more of a "real" culture than anything going on in Williamsburg. I met a photographer in Bed-Stuy a few weeks back that said the streets of Williamsburg were very similar to present-day Bed-Stuy only 10 years ago. I guess it's inevitable. With the mass movement of young twenty-somethings to metropolitan areas, there's always going to be a semi-rough neighborhood with cheap rent that will become populated with poor musicians and artists. I'm sure there's an area of D.C. that is pretty similar.

    Regardless of what the "master plan" is, I think the gentrification is more of a result of people moving to the outskirts of more "hip" areas because they are cheaper to live in. As a result, you have a formerly rough neighborhood becoming safer for young college grads and eventually young families. I don't think it's a question of racism as much as it is a decline in crime and danger. Is there a plan to drive black people out of cities so white people can move in? I doubt it. Is there an incentive to make more areas safe for anyone to live, regardless of race? This seems like a more viable answer.

  3. Yeah, I think I agree for the most part. A lot of what I've heard of in terms of huge gentrification conspiracies against African Americans hasn't actually alleged (sorry, the lawyer comes in...) anything targeting race so much as income level. Certainly there's a correlation there, but there's still a big jump between policies that drive up property values and, say, policies that actually target race itself. Sometimes the former types of policies can be sort of shady (i.e. tearing down a successful but lower-income-area school to build pricey condos). However, as you touched on with the "an incentive to make more areas safe for anyone to live" remark, any area has an incentive to bring in higher-income residents, whether to decrease open/violent crime or to drive up tax revenues. Particularly, from a policy standpoint, measures to decrease open/violent crime in areas of high population density might not be such a bad idea.

    And yeah, there's a lot of this happening in DC, too, sort of shifting in neighborhoods. Adams-Morgan is kind of a mini-Village (albeit not quite as hip), U Street is probably something between the LES and Williamsburg; Columbia Heights/Petworth and Shaw are sort of in a Bushwick/Bed-Stuy stage.

    It'll be interesting to see how current economic conditions may slow or even reverse gentrification.