Six years ago, downtown had another ground zero, one where the explosions were all metaphorical. Allen, Ludlow, Orchard, and Stanton streets all boasted storefront and loft theaters like Surf Reality, Todo Con Nada, and Collective Unconscious, making the area a sort of Reeperbahn of experimental theater. (Among other things, it was the geographical heart of the New York International Fringe Festival.) At around the turn of the millennium, however, rising rents forced all those theaters out. Nine-dollar martinis replaced brown-bagged beers from the bodega, and the Piano Store became a chic establishment called Pianos. For a while it looked as though the artists had been routed; now it emerges that a significant faction of them have come back for another sally. Rev Jen's Anti-Slam has returned to Ludlow Street.
The most egalitarian open-mic night in the city (every "Art Star" awarded a 10 out of a possible 10), the Anti-Slam was an anchor of the Lower East Side scene from 1995 to 2003, attracting eccentrics of every description. Run by a diminutive cult leader named Rev ("Reverend") Jen Miller, a sort of junior high Prospero tricked out in Vulcan ears and Pepto-Bismolcolored go-go boots, the Anti-Slam was the jewel in the crown of Collective Unconscious, and thus had to relocate when Collective moved to Tribeca two years ago. Rev Jen bills herself as the "Patron Saint of the Uncool," so when the Lower East Side started to become "hip," she saw the writing on the wall.
"I knew we were in trouble when people dressed as advertising executives started poking their heads in," she says with a shudder. "I'll never forget the day we actually saw a doorman keeping people out of one of the new night clubs with velvet ropes. Later on, me and my friend stole the ropes."
When the real estate boom caused an Art Star diaspora, Rev Jen was their Moses, keeping her wandering tribe intact as they waited for the promised land. After two years of exile on Church Street, however, she and her motleys have returned to a much changed Lower East Side, in a place called the Cake Shop, which is located literally across the street from the old Collective Unconscious.
"I think it's hilarious that it worked out exactly across the streetwe didn't plan it that way," Jen insists. "The weirdest part is that there are people here now who don't know that the hole across the street used to be Collective. . . . When they first tore it down I felt really sad. I stood there at the demolition site and just as I felt a tear form, Rev Jen Jr. [Jen's chihuahua] lifted up her leg and took a pee on it."
Like her pooch, the Rev is frank in her antipathy for much of the new L.E.S., comparing Ludlow Street to Girls Gone Wild Cancun: "My building used to be all immigrants. The other day I saw a dude walking out carrying golf clubs. I almost had a coronary. But I'm not going to let this neighborhood be just a big watering hole for A-holes. There are so many places where you can go and drink, but not so many where you can go and drink and see art. Freaks have never been more needed on the Lower East Side than right now."
While the new L.E.S. entertainment scene is largely about DJs and ambitious singer-songwriters, the Anti-Slam still showcases octogenarian poets and weaving-drunk college girls reading from their diaries. Conventional stand-up comedians do show up to perform, but they are surprised to find themselves doing their set next to characters like Black Ops Bob, whose entire "act" is an irony-free tapestry of conspiracy theories.
One might suspect this would make for culture shock, but Greg Curley, co-owner of the Cake Shop is unequivocal: "We love her. She's part of the neighborhood and we wanted more than just the usual lineup of bands all the time."
If anything, Jen feels, the Art Star scene is growing, embracing all of her old constituency, plus a lot of new people. And it had better, because she doesn't intend to go anywhere. "I plan on hosting the Anti-Slam forever," she says. "I'll be hosting it when I'm in a wheelchair. You can't get rid of us!"
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