New York

Silent Barn’s Demise Is a Cautionary Tale for DIY Spaces

The arrival of art spaces often spurs gentrification. Can space owners and residents work together to assure the survival of these mutually beneficial venues?

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Those in the DIY community can fall back into the nostalgia of delirious nights spent in packed, sweaty rooms, lost in a set by a favorite band. But within these fond memories it’s easy to forget the reality that DIY spaces close for the same reason that longtime Bushwick residents get pushed out of their homes — eventually, gentrification comes for everyone. To build a sustainable future for community art spaces, clearly defined activism should be part of the equation, say residents of some of these gentrifying neighborhoods.

For twelve years, Silent Barn in Bushwick — which relocated to Bushwick in 2012 after its original space in Ridgewood was shut down, and which was known for its mischievous, anarchic, and intimate atmosphere, with hidden microphones for a participatory art project and avant-garde arcade games lurking in the basement — provided transformative experiences for thousands of visitors. The collective made mistakes but grew from them and adapted. Yet it did so too late. This week, Silent Barn announced it will shut its doors on April 30. In its wake, Silent Barn’s fate leaves lessons for the DIY community.

“I don’t think that when Silent Barn first started they knew it was going to turn into this,” said Olithea Anglin, an assistant director of Educated Little Monsters (ELM), a Bushwick organization that hosts arts classes for native area kids in Silent Barn’s space. “I think it was like an experiment, which is what people in gentrified spaces do. They do incubators and think tanks. But you’re already in a community! Look at the community around you, get involved in the community. And they did it too little, too late. It’s a cautionary tale.”

Silent Barn’s history is fraught with chaos. It began in a converted warehouse in Ridgewood in 2006 as a freewheeling venue, arts space, and home to artists. When that space was shut down and vandalized in 2011, a new, more socially conscious and ambitious version of Silent Barn took shape. After relocating in 2012 to a huge, three-story building in Bushwick, the collective expanded their purview to include artist studios, apartments for residencies, and businesses such as a synth shop and recording studio. Shows could take the form of anything from standard sets by bands like Screaming Females to donation-based fundraisers for movements like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Not long after opening the space in Bushwick, the Barn experienced further setbacks, including a fire that damaged the building, in 2015, and trouble with their liquor license last year.

As a result, the collective launched a fundraising effort in December with a goal of $25,000. They succeeded in raising more than $30,000, according to the collective. But that only kept them afloat for a few months. This time, it appears Silent Barn did not believe that an ongoing fundraising effort was sustainable for long-term survival.  

“The leaseholders have decided that the most responsible option left is to end operations at 603 Bushwick as of April 30,” the collective said in a statement they indicated would be their only communication with the press on the subject.

They added: “Over the years, we’ve seen the role that DIY music venues play within the greater machine of gentrification, and how often the communities who would most benefit from these resources — the neighborhood’s native communities — are excluded from them entirely.”

The choice for the statement to steer away from discussing Silent Barn’s quest for survival and to instead focus on what impact they may be having on the wider community underscores a wider shift in perspective among Brooklyn’s progressive arts community.

Silent Barn’s closing is a huge loss for collective members and the Bushwick arts community, but also for New York as a whole. As strict enforcement of regulations and rising rent prices continue to push out formerly vital venues like Shea Stadium and Palisades, collectively run, community-oriented spaces are harder and harder to sustain. Only now are we starting to see how that impacts local residents, victims of a gentrification that the arrival of these spaces often portends.

Jazo Brooklyn, a native Brooklynite and the founder of ELM, says that the psychological impact of gentrification on her community was what spurred her to start the program in 2013. “I started talking to [the kids] about what it is that makes them angry in their neighborhood, and when it came down to it, they were really mad about gentrification. Displacement. This new era of colonialism,” she said while sitting in ELM’s colorfully jumbled space in Silent Barn’s garage annex on the day of the announcement. “The kids couldn’t verbalize the changes that were happening in their community, they could only express it through anger. I was like, these kids are going to get in trouble.”

Brooklyn remembers feeling out of place when she first visited Silent Barn to suggest that her program use the space during the venue’s daytime dead hours. “I was the only Latina in the room and the only person in the collective from my class, from the struggle, from this community. It was the first time I’d been around so many white people,” she says.

Silent Barn’s non-hierarchical structure — decisions are made as a collective rather than by appointed leaders — was also challenging for Brooklyn, who says she didn’t have the same knowledge base or understanding of norms as the other collective members. Over time, she learned how to navigate the cultural divide. “I started to find my voice. I started kicking in the doors and saying you guys have a social responsibility to this community…. At the end of the day, whatever happens to this space, we need it the most.”

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Spaces like Silent Barn, which have an explicitly progressive mission, often grapple with whether the art they present is enough to speak for those values. Even while booking experimental and diverse shows and running trainings on Narcan administration or bystander intervention, if your space is perpetuating gentrification in a surrounding community, can you really consider yourself progressive?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and places approach it in different ways. The owners of the venue Elsewhere, a gigantic, sleek new space off the Jefferson L stop, decided to get serious about their business in order to make it sustainable. As a result, the owners, the group behind the much-loved, defunct Williamsburg DIY venue Glasslands Gallery, took on funding from young investors and secured a loan from the city to raise $3 million to remodel a 24,000-square-foot warehouse space from the ground up.

While Elsewhere is better funded than most DIY spaces, it’s also one of the few venues in Brooklyn run entirely by people of color. Co-founder Jake Rosenthal says that the founders’ backgrounds inform the way they book the space. “[Co-founders] Rami [Haykal] and Dhruv [Chopra] are both immigrants, Dhruv from India, Rami from Lebanon by way of Italy, and I was born and raised in New York, but my mom was Jamaican and came to New York when she was 20,” he says. “On one level or another that influences the breadth of our music programming.”

With a massive space and budget, Elsewhere is able to give smaller parties and acts from marginalized groups a huge platform. For example, the party Papi Juice, an event that caters to queer people of color, will use their main space this weekend.

Rosenthal says there’s much more he’d like to do to reach out to the local community in the future, but he and his co-founders will need to test out what programming will be profitable enough for them to stay open.

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Despite their good intentions, businesses like Elsewhere can’t help but contribute to the cycle of gentrification by merely existing as for-profit ventures. But there are options for those who want to maintain a community space that is truly for the community. Mayday Space, run by activists in a three-story building on St. Nicholas Avenue and Himrod Street in Bushwick, was created specifically to combat displacement in the surrounding community through political engagement. Mayday’s online bio describes their mission as “work[ing] with longtime community organizers to amplify neighborhood issues such as immigrant rights, food justice, tenants protections, gentrification, and displacement, as well as broader global issues.”

But there’s more than activism at Mayday, which also hosts concerts, discussions, and movie screenings. Recently, Mayday held a screening of the Lizzie Borden film Born in Flames by the North Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America, and a fundraiser party thrown by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which featured rappers, live acts, and DJs.

Nancy Torres, a native Bushwick resident and project coordinator at Mayday — one of only two paid staff members — says the organization is able to thrive while maintaining their integrity because of the foresight of its founders.

“When creating a space, the leadership has to be folks that are directly affected by gentrification and displacement,” she says. “Those people need to be part of the decision-making. If leadership is not as diverse as it should be, it’s really hard to insert that afterward. You’re already setting up a foundation for the project.”

Despite Silent Barn’s imminent demise, ELM are determined to use the knowledge they’ve gained working with the collective to open their own space — a permanent home for their movement. Brooklyn says she would be happy to work with Silent Barn collective members on that project. “People can say ‘Silent Barn has closed,’ but the best parts of Silent Barn are going to continue,” Brooklyn says. “It doesn’t end here.”

To support Educated Little Monsters’ search for a new home, donate to their fundraiser here.

This article has been updated to clarify that Silent Barn’s original location was in Ridgewood, and that the hidden microphones were part of an art project.

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