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It is a glorious late summer dusk at Monster Island, the two-story former spice warehouse where Metropolitan Avenue meets the East River in Williamsburg. Outside, in front of brightly clashing brickwork, a local resident feeds cats who come padding over from the tall grass and the oil storage tanks across the street. To the north, new condos loom, the river shimmering off their seamless windows. Soon, Monster Island will be crushed to rubble, and a glass box will likely sprout pod-like from the earth. But for now, the warehouse's denizens continue to bustle.
Despite Monster Island's late September closing date, there is plenty to get ready for: art shows, gigs, and one last installment of the Monster Island Block Party, a half-decade tradition for the bands, artists, and boho brahs who make base there. The unmistakable sound and smell of wood being sawed hangs in the air. "We're making trees, of course," a member of the bright-eyed crew announces. Erik Zajaceskowski, one of the building's two leaseholders, works on a laptop by the open doors to one of Monster Island's galleries and event spaces, Secret Project Robot, which he runs with partner Rachel Nelson. Works in progress are everywhere, piles of stencils on the floor. Nearly every surface is covered with something colorful; micro-miniature masks by Chris Uphues dot the white walls.
The tree-makers have taken over the basement, which doubles as one of Brooklyn's most pleasant no-fuss venues. "It doesn't bother me, as long as it doesn't involve, like, chemicals or spray paint," shrugs Oneida drummer Kid Millions as he retreats into his band's soundproof room, known as the Ocropolis, for a rehearsal with Notekillers leader David First.
Oneida's arrangement with Monster Island allows the kraut-psych flagbearers to operate nearly full-time—recording, producing bands for their Brah Records imprint on Jagjaguwar—despite the day jobs of the band's five members. In addition to the intense weekend sessions, multi-set parties, and hundreds of tape-hours logged in the Ocropolis, they've played everywhere in the building, often in the midst of some new configuration of stage and lights and projections dreamed up by Zajaceskowski's Mighty Robot AV Squad.
In 2004, Zajaceskowski and Karl LaRocca signed an extremely reasonable seven-year lease for 270 Kent Avenue. The inside had been practically gutted. "You could see into the basement, and the roof was practically caving in," Nelson remembers. "Everybody stayed up 24 hours to get everything done. You'd go home to bed because you'd be exhausted, and you'd get back, and somebody would have put up a wall for you."
LaRocca and Jef Scharf's Kayrock Screenpainting took over most of the second floor, filling it with presses, wash-out sinks, archives, another rehearsal space, and another cat. Their work came to dominate many of the building's walls. At first, promoter Todd Patrick had the basement, which he split between rented-out practice spaces and a club. When the club closed, its space divided further; Oneida built the Ocropolis in the corner, and the building's tenants (including Todd P.) used the rest for shows, rehearsals, openings, and workshops. In a closet, the Record Grouch (now at Brooklyn Flea) briefly operated a small but nicely priced used LP booth.
Upstairs, the Mollusk Surf Shop—a revered destination for East Coast wave-riders—moved in. The gallery Live With Animals also occupies the first floor. Once it covered the ground in luminescent green turf, like a miniature sylvan village, and another time it constructed a fully sanded beach. The upper two floors host a hive of artists' studios. The biggest—its doors almost seamlessly hidden in one wall of the Secret Project Robot space—belongs to Nelson and Zajaceskowski. Walls or no, Monster Island remains a fully open shop, its tenants collaborating freely and frequently.
Kayrock is currently designing a T-shirt listing all of the building's occupants over the years à la the garments distributed to graduating junior high school students, which seems fitting; when the tenants scatter, they will undoubtedly remain close, but probably not this tight. Secret Project Robot will go to 389 Melrose in Bushwick, where its organizers hope to establish the Secret Project Robot Art Camp in a 4,000-square foot yard with DIY studio-shacks. Oneida will join them. Others will go elsewhere.
Part of a happily do-it-yourself fringe that operates outside the city's presale-drunk rock economy, Monster Island's residents are hardly underground naifs. Zajaceskowski works as a brand consultant. The tree-makers were sawing an installation for a Levi's store in Manhattan. Stage decorations for recent tours by TV on the Radio and Animal Collective were assembled in the basement. Kayrock works on regular production schedules for the New Museum, the Whitney, MOMA, and other local institutions.
They are the type of young creatives that any burgeoning neighborhood might desire. But Williamsburg is long beyond burgeoning; in fact the Chetrit Group, the New York outfit owned by Moroccan-born magnate and new Chelsea Hotel proprietor Joseph Chetrit, manages 270 Kent. "The lease is up, and we have other plans for the property," a representative said, declining to comment on the relationship between real estate values and the emergence of local arts communities.