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The Silent Barn in Bushwick was raided on a quiet Saturday in July. Nat Roe, a bearded twentysomething longhair in a beaded necklace, was working the soundboard; his roommates at the DIY venue/living space weren’t around. “It was just this Voltron that came in, one by one,” remembers Roe, who works at the New Museum and hosts a late-night show on WFMU. “Fire Department. Police guy. Health officers came. The Department of Buildings came.” The cops got bored quickly, wandered outside, and started administering Breathalyzer tests on motorists passing by.
The arrangement has been common across Manhattan and Brooklyn for decades: Loft-dwellers give their place a name and start putting on semi-regular shows, mostly for their friends. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers had live music at their communal Almanac House on West 10th Street as early as 1939, but history records a December 1960 gathering on Chambers Street organized by Yoko Ono as the first proper loft show. “I would put all the crates together to make a large table, and at night, I just collected them and made a bed out of them,” she told the Times‘s Robert Palmer in 1985.
When the Department of Buildings reps finished, they placed a vacate order on the door and told Roe to clear the crowd and get out. He crashed with some friends at 345 Eldert Street, a nearby loft building and site of occasional performances that had been raided just a month earlier; 41 of 76 units were suddenly evicted, some gutted under unclear directions from city inspectors. Roe and his roommates returned to Silent Barn the next day to find their front door wide open and some $15,000 worth of speakers, high-tech art installations, and equipment—as well as residents’ personal possessions—stolen or destroyed. Despite security-camera footage of three men loading equipment into a van, police were less than helpful.
Turbulence has been common for under-the-radar loft venues; rapidly changing neighborhoods and noise-hating neighbors result in short life spans for these spaces more often than not. But over the past few years, the do-it-yourself spaces across northern Brooklyn have experienced an unusually high turnover. The free-form art/dance party Rubulad, who’ve floated among lushly decorated spaces since 1993, got raided one too many times by the Fire Department and received a vacate notice last summer on a Bed-Stuy space they’d inhabited for nearly half a decade.
Market Hotel, in Bushwick, had a too-good-to-be-true two-year run by the J train tracks. With lights flashing over a giant floor surrounded by murals and decay, the place seemed like an anarchistic ballroom gone Brooklyn. Cheap drinks were available in the corner; people smoked casually. Performances tumbled into the magical early-morning hours. It was very little like any kind of rock show one could experience in 21st-century Manhattan.
It’s surely a hackneyed complaint that the city’s last two mayors have done their best to force out New York’s bohemian culture in hopes of creating a future perfect Gotham. But it’s also demonstrably true. Not long after the new Quality of Life Task Force began to crack down on long-unenforced cabaret laws during the Giuliani administration, the Social Club Task Force—established after the 1990 Happy Land fire—evolved into the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH), overseen by the New York Police Department. “Unauthorized dancing” was now only one of many potential infractions.
When Michael Bloomberg succeeded Giuliani in 2002, MARCH activities rose immediately by 35 percent and kept growing. (MARCH shut down Silent Barn.) “If you listen to stories about what led to this homicide or what led to this assault, you would be surprised how many stem from nightclubs,” Robert F. Messner, a police commissioner who oversaw club shutdowns, told the Times. “We don’t want those places in New York. We make it very clear.” In 2003, the smoking ban went into effect, outlawing one of the city’s longest-running cultural institutions: the smoky jazz club. Regulations have kept creeping into other bastions of the old, free New York. The Algonquin Hotel has had to confine its lobby cat to a space behind the check-in counter, and don’t even think about trying to have a bar dog.
“I think of it like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” says Rubulad co-founder Sari Rubinstein. “More will just grow up in the cracks.” Negotiating silence in the ever-tightening grid is always difficult. A spot might be displaced by anything from Orthodox Jews sick of the heathens (in the case of Rubulad) to always-volatile community boards, should news of one’s regular shindigs make it into the echo chamber of civic politics.
The good news—besides an upcoming mayoral election—is that, despite MARCH, loft life continues unabated throughout Brooklyn, with abstractly named spaces blooming while their organizers devise strategies for maintaining the right kind of radio silence in a socially mediated universe. The vastness of New York remains eminently unknowable, especially to a city bureaucracy.
“Maybe it’s better to be illegal,” ponders Silent Barn’s Roe. His collaborators have inquired after nearly a hundred spots in search of a legal version of their “in-the-stew” home base. In city terms, that means a building zoned for commercial use downstairs with residences upstairs. Institutionalization is one culturally accepted survival strategy. The long-running loft spot Roulette recently moved to a small theater in Downtown Brooklyn, and it has developed into an excellent venue for serious listening. Promoter Todd “Todd P” Patrick, who has had a hand in Silent Barn, the Monster Island complex, 285 Kent, and other spots, has recently been working on a grant project to legitimize the Market Hotel.
Shea Stadium, the new venue operated by former residents of the Market, has its own vibe. On most nights, like many DIY venues over the past half-century, maybe only two dozen people are present and not bothering anyone—let alone the dudes at the furniture shop across the street, often partying long after the Shea crowd has headed home.
“We’re nice Brooklyn boys,” emphasizes Zach Staggers, who co-founded Shea Stadium with his stepbrothers and bandmates in the So So Glos, Bay Ridge natives all. Shea has an ambitious recording studio built into the sound booth, members of Titus Andronicus use the place to practice, and every now and again, there’s a great party. One night, somebody threw a 40 through a police-car window, but that was quickly smoothed over.
But the So So Glos have left their new space mostly untouched. “We purposely didn’t cover everything with murals,” says Staggers. There are a few couches. “I was upset leaving the Market,” says guitarist Ryan Levine, “but the spaces aren’t the most important thing.” They wanted the new place to look more like a club, less like an anarchistic art space. But they also maybe didn’t want to get too attached, lest they have to do it themselves one more time.