Push Push in the Flatbush

Brooklyn Dance Clubs Pick Up the Cabaret Law’s Slack

On a Saturday night in October, the air is crisp and the wind brings chills, but inside Moe's it's hot and heavy, as a crowd of swank hipsters and music heads cram shoulder to shoulder in the new Fort Greene bar. It's the Sessions party; the next one is scheduled for this weekend, November 10. Moe's draws a dressed-up crowd of cool black kids and their trendy white cousins who've infiltrated the neighborhood. The DJ booms hip-hop not of the cheesy Jay-Z variety while the crowd sways to the slow-and-low beats.

In DUMBO, on the same night, a torn-up warehouse dubbed the Lunatarium hosts a minimal techno party; 200 revelers would be plenty in a small venue, but here they are swallowed up by the gargantuan space's 18,000 square feet—rigged with local artists' work haphazardly strewn about the cavelike room. The ceilings are so high that you can see where they ripped out the upper floors, and in the corners, weird, somewhat uncomfortable chairs and couches are situated next to massive windows that offer views of the waterfront and the city—now minus the World Trade Center.

Before he briefly became the Mayor of America, Rudy Giuliani was clubland's Public Enemy Number One. Over the past few years, his administration has successfully shut down New York's most infamous superclub, Twilo, and has succeeded in harassing any number of venues throughout the city for not having a cabaret license. Small bars and lounges like Drinkland, the Cooler, and Baktun were hit by impromptu "raids," incurred hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in fines—and some, like the Cooler, saw such a severe drop in attendance that they went under altogether.

Illustrations by Jorge Colombo

Thank God for Brooklyn, tucked safely away over the river. The dance police haven't made it their first priority to venture to Williamsburg, Fort Greene, or Carroll Gardens. If they did, they'd find a burgeoning community of clubs, lounges, bars, and cafés featuring electronic music, and people dancing without an archaic cabaret law hanging over their heads. Some venues, like Frank's Lounge and Halcyon, have received national and international recognition, and others, like Moe's, are freshly opened hot spots—a sign perhaps, that the 'hood's already long gone.

Gentrification has speeded up the grand openings of several venues: In Fort Greene, Moe's and the 667 Bar Gallery Lounge join Frank's as part of the Fulton Street party strip. In Williamsburg, long a more indie-rock friendly area, bars like Galapagos, the Stinger Club, Level X, Northsix, Luxx, and the BQE Lounge have opened their arms to DJ-intensive nights. "Gentrification makes it a viable area to do something like this," says Northsix's principal owner, Jeff Steinhauser. "If this area was still like it was 10 years ago, it would be ridiculous to hold [the club] there." Halcyon co-owner Shawn Schwartz points out that "Opening up Halcyon was simply catering to a need for people already here. There were no businesses that reflected their needs and targeted them."

Everyone, it seems, is trading in Manhattan's superficial club scene for a piece of Brooklyn's more low-key action. And while Giuliani's war on fun did most of the damage to NYC's nightlife, the post-World Trade Center club universe faces even gloomier times ahead. Many promoters and artists believe that Brooklynites will now be even less inclined to leave their immediate vicinity—the subways aren't as efficient, and well, why cross the river when there's six parties happening five minutes from home? "Overall the city is going to be the one area hit," predicts Schwartz. "People are somewhat depressed and fearful and that's not a combination of feelings that make people want to go out and party." Schwartz believes, though, that an end result of the disaster might be a reversal of bureaucrats' hard-line tactics: "The city's focus is going to be less on trivialities like whether people are dancing or not. They've got bigger fish to fry."

Meanwhile, promoters like drum'n'bass DJ Christina Ingram, who goes by the nom de disc Empress, are starting up more nights over the bridge. "Parties in Brooklyn are a bit more chill and laid-back, less thumb-up-their-ass than Manhattan," says Ingram, whose Sessions party is only two months old. "People are less concerned about what you're wearing and more concerned about having a good time. And people dance in Brooklyn!"

"A lot of people were getting bored with Manhattan, so they come over the river and get something that is still raw and still has that freshness," says Sebastian Holzmeister, a 27-year-old German promoter who books acts for the Lunatarium. "Manhattan clubs basically got a little lazy after their success in the early and mid '80s, but they didn't come up with any new things."

Skyrocketing rents in typical artist enclaves like the East Village and the Lower East Side continue to jump even higher, pushing so-called creative types out. "The transformation of the LES from scary ghetto to Times Square in the last five years is amazing." says Shapero. Artists, says Holzmeister, "either move to Williamsburg or to DUMBO. The East Village used to be a big part of the scene, but artists can't afford it anymore."

"I think it's too soon to say," says Schwartz, "but if history is any precedent, ten years down the line, you might see the East Village looking more like the West Village and Brooklyn looking more like the Lower East Side."

So, the DJs, musicians, and artists, tired of commuting to Manhattan to play and party, decided to throw events where they could stumble home drunk after the gig. "It's basically two blocks from my house," says Ingram.

Brooklyn's lower rents allow for more freedom, too, says Halcyon's Schwartz: "The advantage is having a clean slate, not being on top of all your competitors. If we were paying more rent, we would have to have higher table turnover, we'd have to charge cover, we'd have to be more persistent about making money. We wouldn't be as loose." Much of Manhattan's nightlife tension stems from conflicts between residents and venues—particularly in areas that were previously considered "industrial," like the meatpacking district. "Big clubs in Manhattan are such retarded, overly-sanitized meat markets that feature uncreative music for people who don't really care. There are some clubs with amazing music policies who book amazing talent, and the crowd wouldn't notice the difference if their little brother got on the decks, as long as the coke is good," says Shapero. "One Manhattan club owner who really enjoyed our music told me, 'You know, I feel like the city would rather I ran a coke den. I wouldn't make as much noise. It's the only other way I could pay my rent.' The hatred of the neighbors for loud music near their apartments seemed to motivate the city far more than illegal drugs."

Brooklyn clubs and promoters—particularly those in Williamsburg and DUMBO—don't have nearly that level of discord with their neighborhoods. Many owners, like Northsix's Steinhauser and Halcyon's Schwartz, began attending police precinct community outreach meetings from the get-go. "Either you're in the game or you'll be kicked around at will because you don't have a voice," says Schwartz.

But Brooklyn isn't entirely immune to the problems that regularly challenge Manhattan club owners. As each section of the borough increases in popularity, familiar battles surface: "When new people move into a neighborhood and pay higher rents," says Caval, "they start to complain about the noise and put their uptown sensibilities into effect." And while getting people to come out to Brooklyn is proving easier, promoters and club owners say there is still some hesitancy. As drum'n'bass DJ Delmar, who has put on semi-legal and legal parties in Williamsburg for several years, says, "Brooklyn is maybe 20 to 30 times the size of the Lower East Side. Certain areas may overtake the LES as far as hipness. But it's hard to conveniently get from Park Slope to Williamsburg, much less coax people from Manhattan to Greenpoint for a party."

A healthy club scene should always be a "moving target," says Shapero. "People used to tell me I was insane for throwing parties in Williamsburg. Now they say I'm insane for thinking about throwing parties in Bushwick." He laughs, "Next thing you know people will be going out in New Jersey."


Related story:
"A Scene Grows in Brooklyn: Live Rock Finds a New Home Across the Williamsburg Bridge" by Chris Parker

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