Market Hotel is Dead
Long Live Market Hotel!
This past August, a short video of a man screaming into his cell phone was posted on Twitter, ended up on Imgur, and went viral across social media. The video was shot from an elevated subway platform that looks into a building’s second-story window, so even though you can’t hear what the man is saying, his gestures are so expressive, and his enunciation is so clear, that you can make out a distinct: “WHAT DA FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”
While people on social media speculated as to what (or who) was the source of the man’s anger, other hawk-eyed observers noted that the screaming gentleman was standing in Market Hotel, the venerable, beloved and beleaguered music venue and community space in Brooklyn. (Later, on Twitter, Market Hotel explained that a film shoot had rented the space on the day that the video was taken, and the man was likely an extra. “Maybe he’s rehearsing his method,” they wrote.)
Beyond being a meme, Market Hotel, with its amazingly checkered history, is one of New York’s most totemic DIY spaces. People often point to it as a bellwether of the city’s larger DIY scene, which has undergone substantial changes the past decade-plus, mostly thanks to gentrification, stricter regulations (311—for noise complaints—came along in 2003), and the internet decentralizing … everything. Against all odds, Market Hotel has not only survived these sea changes but been reborn in their image, leading the way for other venues.
Tucked under the J/M/Z trains at Myrtle-Broadway, and above the long-running, weirdly popular Mr. Kiwi’s grocery store, Market Hotel is actually easy to identify from photos, thanks to two notable architectural features: a dramatic floor-to-ceiling window at the prow of the building, and an interior pillar so prominent and view-obscuring that it has its own Twitter account. The space, legend has it, opened as a nightclub in the 1960s, catering to the neighborhood’s Dominican population with all-night dance parties. It was shut down in the ’80s and remained a “dustily preserved” time capsule until January 2008, when local music promoter Todd Patrick opened its doors as Market Hotel. (Patrick is also behind the now-shuttered venues Silent Barn and 285 Kent, among others.) For two years, the truly DIY music hall was a hotbed for punk and indie acts, both local and national. But not much was done to update the building, safety wise, since the ’60s, and—more importantly—the space did not have a liquor license. In April 2010, the police busted Market Hotel for illegally serving alcohol. The venue’s doors closed once more.
“Easter was the day the music died in Bushwick,” the New York Post lamented in the days following. While Patrick remained optimistic—“Places have survived such things before, but every situation is different and we will have to wait and see,” he wrote at the time—expectations were low. For the next five years, and with the help of an anonymous $100,000 donation, Patrick and dozens of volunteers worked to bring the space up to code and above board. The space was renovated, though not at the expense of its original gritty charm. To wit, the former graffiti-covered bathroom walls were repurposed as the surface of their now-legal bar.
At the same time, dozens of DIY venues across the city were closing their doors, either due to police raids or rising rents or fires. In 2014 alone, a whopping 10 DIY spaces in Brooklyn closed, including big names such as Death by Audio, Glasslands, and 285 Kent. “What was possible in New York in 2005, or 1995, or 1975, just isn’t possible anymore,” Patrick told the Village Voice (RIP) that year. “We have to quit clinging to an arbitrary set of standards that ends with the romanticization of things being shitty.”
Market Hotel finally reopened in late 2015, to much fanfare, with a performance by Sleater Kinney. Though its underground cachet was technically gone, many of its longtime fans seemed satisfied with the new space, or at the very least happy to have it back, as evidenced by glowing stories in the music press. However, less than a year later, in October 2016, the venue once again ran into troubles with their liquor license (the nitpicky details of which aren’t interesting enough to mention here), forcing them to stay dormant for another year. In lieu of hardcore shows, they opened their doors for after school programs; literacy, dance, and gymnastic classes; and MTA and K2 task force meetings. Rather than simply surviving as a community center during this time, they rebranded as one. After more back and forth, this June they finally officially received a full liquor license and—for now—the green light to keep kicking.
What greater lesson can be gleaned from Market Hotel’s perseverance? That it truly epitomizes the DIY spirit, which dictates that when the going gets tough, you must evolve to stay alive. “So we can’t sell beer illegally anymore,” Patrick told the Voice in 2014. “What, are we going to go cry about it? This just means we have to find a way and work harder. You can either curl up and die or find a way to follow your heart and do what you can.” All of the other battered but vital cultural institutions that we cherish in New York, from alternative weeklies to art spaces to used bookstores, should heed this advice. And as consumers, we must show up and fight for the places and things we love—because without us, they do not exist.
Matt Mullen lives in Brooklyn, not far from Market Hotel.