Shea Stadium, the 55,000-seat home of the New York Mets, closed in 2008 and was torn down the following year to make way for the parking lot for Citi Field. In 2009, a DIY venue the size of a large living room or small office and named after the demolished baseball stadium opened in East Williamsburg. To visit the other Shea Stadium from the Grand Street L stop, you have to walk around a high school football field and past a row of warehouses, including that of a wholesale scarf purveyor and a balloon factory. When you reach 20 Meadow Street, you find two silver, unmarked doors — performers enter the first one, while concertgoers use the second. For nearly a decade, I’ve made this walk dozens of times to see live music and comedy.
Shea Stadium’s future is currently in jeopardy — pressure and fines from the city have made it impossible to host shows there. And even though the team behind the venue has successfully raised the money they need to become a legal art space, their landlords have decided to start their own venue without them. If they can’t successfully relocate, Shea Stadium may cease to exist.
Shows at places like Shea feel special because you’re surrounded by fellow fans who are also there to support the performers. You can buy merchandise directly from the artists before or after their set, as they’ll sell T-shirts and records just a few feet away from the stage. Shea is especially unique because it allows people to revisit a favorite performance any time by posting high-quality recordings on its website. I can’t think of any other venue I’ve been to that consistently documents every performer that appears on its stage.
You also don’t have to be eighteen years old (or older) to attend events at Shea. All-ages, creative spaces are increasingly essential in fostering artists who aren’t considered to perform at traditional live music venues that have age restrictions. Some of the acts that have been booked at Shea have gone on to play bigger venues, but they needed to perform in smaller spaces first to gain an audience. Bands like Future Islands, Parquet Courts, and Titus Andronicus, and comedians Julio Torres and Chris Gethard have all graced the stage at 20 Meadow Street. Shea gives local and nonlocal talent a community where they might not otherwise have one. Making money isn’t the bottom line for the team behind Shea Stadium. They create and maintain the space because they love it.
At the beginning of this year, Shea abruptly closed because of violations and ended up moving its upcoming events to other venues. Shows that were in progress were stopped by the NYPD and FDNY, and the venue was fined. The increased attention by these departments may have been related to the tragic fire in December that killed 36 people in Oakland, California, at Ghost Ship, another DIY space.
In late March, the team behind Shea began a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $50,000 to help reopen their space legally. This money would help them bring the space up to code, pay legal fees, acquire bar and other permits from the city, and more. Before the end of the day the Kickstarter campaign went live, they were fully funded. Over the next few weeks, they nearly doubled their goal. But on the morning of April 19, despite having the money it would need to resume operating, Shea announced in a Facebook post that it couldn’t continue at its current location because its landlords want to turn the space into a nightclub of their own. The Shea Stadium team promised to use their campaign money to move and reopen elsewhere.
I have attended and photographed shows around New York City since I turned eighteen in 1998. These days, I favor venues with smaller capacities. There’s nothing like seeing your favorite artists up close with only a couple of hundred other fans sharing the same experience with you. Over the years, there’s been a definite shift where nightlife events have become less Manhattan-centric and have started spreading to other boroughs. (My first show outside of Manhattan was at Southpaw in Park Slope. That venue closed five years ago and a children’s enrichment center took its place). DIY venues tend to crop up in areas that are more affordable than Manhattan, and as the city becomes an increasingly expensive place in which to exist, places like these won’t be able to thrive. Landlords will prefer to lease their spaces to businesses that can pay them more in rent (like a bar, restaurant, or nightclub) than what artists can afford.
Shea’s closure is a familiar story, unfortunately. The New York City DIY scene has lost many independent music venues over the years, but I know that the Shea team will do whatever they can to record and host live events again. All-ages spaces like the Silent Barn and Secret Project Robot have also closed but managed to continue operating elsewhere, with the latter slated to open its third location in Brooklyn on May 4. I’m hopeful that this isn’t the end for Shea Stadium. Mostly because thousands of music fans are counting on it surviving.
The last time I was at Shea Stadium was in early March, for the release party of Friends Live #1, a live album with a set from comedian Catherine Cohen on one side and a set by Band Practice (Jeanette Wall) on the other. The show featured performances by the artists’ friends, including a solo, acoustic performance by Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM. During his set, Hopkins told the audience how he had met and befriended Jeanette in a corner during a Bad Cello concert at Shea Stadium in 2015. When the show was over, Cher’s “Believe” came on, and the crowd danced and sang along to the music that played until everyone left.