punk'd

joanna sullivan

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“You want to find the underground? I know where it is.”

I’m sitting on an elevated platform overlooking the outdoor part of Silent Barn, one of the last surviving all-ages music and art spaces in Brooklyn, talking with a teen about diving deeper into today’s DIY music scene. We’re joined by a pile of others in their late teens and early twenties smoking and hanging out in between music acts.

It feels like the sort of makeshift space that could have existed in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side in the early 2000s – spots like Alleged Gallery and C Squat that were gathering spaces for artists and those like-minded to drink cheap alcohol and hone their craft. These spots got their cultural roots from Manhattan mainstays like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, which took their cues from the mothership – the Factory. Historically, these sacred spaces gave creative misfits of all types room to innovate in music, art and culture.

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Unfortunately, that might not be the case for much longer. Since Giuliani’s “cleanup” of the city in the 1990s and during the turn of the century, regulations for venues official and otherwise have tightened up significantly, making it nearly impossible for under-the-radar spots to stay operational. Safety concerns are valid, as the Ghost Ship disaster in Oakland last December made tragically clear. But when these spaces are regulated out of existence, something important is lost. Places in New York like Silent Barn provide residencies for artists so they can focus on making art instead of just making rent. The remaining few have managed to adjust and move to neighborhoods like Ridgewood and Bushwick in the outer edges of Brooklyn or even to other cities like Detroit.

The scene may be smaller, but what’s happening right now? New York isn’t dead – far from it. It’s just different. That’s why I’m sitting here talking to a baby teen about the state of punk and music and art.

“You want to find the underground? I know where it is,” he says.

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“Here’s how you find it: you’ll need to seek out this specific stairwell on an unexpected street. You’ll walk down and find a long, meandering tunnel. You will reach into your wallet and pay $2.75 and go through the turnstiles. Then... then you’ll be in New York’s underground.”

He seems pleased with himself. I thank him for the insight and climb over the other kids and back down the ladder. I try to blend in as best as I can, which means I’m absent-mindedly flipping through Instagram while observing my surroundings. I spot a kid in the corner who falls flat after trying to land an ollie on his skateboard. I walk over and ask him to do some tricks for my camera. He calls his friend over who he says has more skills. He starts to swirl around us. One sullen looking girl sitting by an industrial fan painted bright yellow is close by and she asks me what my sign is. We swap astro-info and she starts to explain to another girl how she just discovered the exact sub-category of anarchist that she feels aligns with her worldview. The night progresses.

I make my rounds night after night along the JMZ line. I visit Secret Project Radio and Flowers for All Occasions. I pop into Bossa Nova Civic Club and Alphaville. None of these places are technically “DIY”. All of them have liquor licenses and are doing their best to work within the guidelines of the law. It's the people inhabiting the spaces and walking the streets who represent the moveable feast of counter-culture. Good Room in Greenpoint turns out to be one of the better people-watching places, though it's more of an electronic dance venue than punk. I befriend an interesting couple that was dancing the hardest and the longest during a Flamingosis set. When I ask one of them about the pattern on his colorful shirt, he matter-of-factly shouts over the music in a posh British accent that they are "SPUHRM BAN-AH-NAS". With every encounter, I try to ask where the other spots are, if there are still secret places nobody knows about. I chat with one of Good Room's DJs and ask him. He tells me that most all of the true electronic underground does not allow cameras- it acts as a safe space for the dispossessed and for the LGBT community. Other sources tell me that much of the electronic scene revolves around creating environments to safely do hard drugs.

The electronic underground serves a particular function in today’s society, but for some reason punk hasn’t found similar footing. To understand where we are now, we have to look back to the beginning. New York’s punk underground grew out of problems deeply embedded in the city. From the late 60s until the 1990s the city was up in flames, sometimes literally. The police force was seen by many as corrupt, the transit and sanitation departments were going on strike and the Lower Manhattan housing market had collapsed. Landlords would set their buildings ablaze to make off with insurance money and the Lower East Side looked like a war zone. 

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Cut to the creatives and the degenerates. Because rent in the Lower East Side was next to nothing or actually nothing and odd jobs were enough to sustain, a person could feasibly pursue a life as an artist. Small groups would meet in abandoned buildings to put on gallery shows and some would live in the spaces to avoid paying rent. The famed social center ABC No Rio was founded as a result of The Real Estate Show in 1979, which showcased art that questioned the policies that were keeping buildings abandoned in the Lower East Side. At the time officials were doing very little to improve the city, so these artists were attempting to do it themselves: spraying graffiti to antagonize, making zines to spread information, and forming punk bands to express outrage. These spaces existed because the city was in extreme decay and the art that came from it is important for its content and context alike.

You might think history would take a different turn and we would figure out a way to enable artists to thrive and make work in the city. Instead, we are left with these last few spaces where people can live out a fantasy of the New York they wished they lived in, or hope to create.

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Joanna Sullivan (@joannamsullivan) lives in Brooklyn.