Relics of the Underground: The Afterlife of Cultural Spaces

By Jeffrey Patrick Colgan & Jeffrey Escoffier

Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City  by Mike Katz and Crispin Kott Globe Pequot Press, 2018 256 pages

Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City
by Mike Katz and Crispin Kott
Globe Pequot Press, 2018
256 pages

In early 1974, members of the punk band Television spotted a newly reopened yet unavoidably dingy lower Bowery bar on their way home from rehearsal. Returning soon after, they approached the owner Hilly Krystal and asked if he would host performances by bands that were playing a different kind of rock music. After an initial four-week residency by Television, CBGB & OMFUG (Country, Bluegrass, Blues & Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers) continued to host countless bands and fostered the emerging punk and No-Wave music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Even after its role in any identifiable and burgeoning music scene came to an end in the 1990s, it still hosted performances until its ultimate demise in 2006 — its final sendoff facilitated by Blondie and Patti Smith. By 2008 the former venue was occupied by clothing designer John Varvatos, who kept some of the graffiti, stickers, and concert posters as accents to the calculated ‘subversiveness’ of the items on sale.

On Park Avenue South, just north of Union Square, Max’s Kansas City opened in 1965. A haunt of Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd, the venue hosted the Velvet Underground (including the final shows with Loud Reed in the summer of 1970), the New York Dolls, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Marley & the Wailers before losing its cultural prominence and closing in December 1974. Reopened in 1975 under new ownership and management, the venue sought to attract a more underground clientele, showcasing the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, the Cramps, Suicide, and Devo. Eventually succumbing to real estate pressure and a changing neighborhood around Union Square, Max’s closed in 1981 with Bad Brains and Beastie Boys playing the final shows. The five-story building, a rarity for the street, still remains sandwiched between its towering neighbors. Its current ground floor tenant is a Fraiche Maxx deli.

Between 1980 and 1984 hardcore punk found a home at A7, a small venue on the East Village’s Avenue A. Owned and operated by Dave Gibbons, who never acquired a liquor license and suffered frequent police raids, the space fostered the nascent hardcore scene of New York, while offering a welcoming space for touring bands coming from across the country. However, Gibbons’ A7 was never a financial success and the refuge he offered to his loyal patrons became unsustainable by the mid-1980s. The space languished for years, but was later reopened in 1997 as Niagara by a former A7 patron, who operates a more official establishment that caters to a decidedly different and twenty-first century East Village crowd.

These establishments — along with myriad other performance spaces, murals, apartments, recording studios, and cultural-historical sites of interest — constitute some of the locations traced in Mike Katz and Crispin Kott’s Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City (Globe Pequot 2018). An historical reverie-cum-guidebook, written by two rock music obsessives, the book’s value lies in cataloguing the vast set of brick and mortar institutions within and alongside which the various rock & roll sub-cultures and adjacent-cultures have appeared. Katz and Kott track, through physical sites, major musical developments starting in the 1940s (Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk), through the 1950s (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Ruth Brown) and the 1960s (Otis Redding, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin). However, Katz and Kott devote the bulk of their coverage to the Manhattan-based rock scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. The guide works geographically down, neighborhood by neighborhood, from Upper Manhattan and Harlem to Midtown, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village on to the East Village and the Lower East Side. They also touch briefly on Queens (Simon & Garfunkel), the Bronx (Grandmaster Flash), and Staten Island (Wu-Tang Clan). And interspersed throughout the mini-neighborhood and club histories are individual profiles of performers and music groups that played a major role in the development of New York’s musical cultures.

The nuanced dialectic between the host site and the inhabiting culture is shown by Katz and Kott, perhaps unintentionally, in all its manifold complexity. We see at one location a venue lapse, while the cultural practices and ideas once manifested within continue on; at another space we see a cultural scene sputter to an end, while its stucco-walled host-site obstinately persists — all gesturing towards a protean constellation of cultural scene that both depends on specific spaces yet transcends the particulars of place.

Furthermore, with the eventual demise of cultural spaces — implied in the constant flux of cultural scenes — there arises the divers ways in which the legacies of cultural institutions are exploited and/or celebrated. Buildings and ephemera retain semblances of their past usage and association, and these can be leveraged by commercial interests or governmental organizations and embraced by communities. In fact, the ‘afterlife’ of cultural sites is one of the most fascinating aspects of Katz and Kott’s book. Music venues, often associated with underground culture and anti-authority sentiment, produce a unique and at times useful legacy: a claim to authenticity, which, as Sharon Zukin notes, is the ability to create “the experience of origins.” The manner in which the perceived authenticity of past cultural venues is leveraged by community leaders and businesses determines to a large extent the current character and market desirability of many New York City neighborhoods.

The emergence of and changes undergone by the cultural underground of the 1970s and 1980s reflect a broader transition in the political-economic reality of New York City in the late twentieth century. Between 1950 and 1975, New York experienced a series of devastating economic setbacks — most significant of which were the decline of the City’s port and the exodus of small manufacturing firms from the city center. During this process, warehouses, piers, and industrial and residential buildings were abandoned and neglected; middle-class and working-class people moved out of the city to the suburbs; and the city’s tax revenues decreased. This devastation left New York City in ruins: hundreds of buildings destroyed by arson or left abandoned, piles of garbage everywhere uncollected, empty storefronts across the city, and thousands of municipal employees laid off. However, many artists, cultural instigators, and cultural entrepreneurs read the city as a landscape of cultural and artistic potential, a city of possibility and sublime creativity amidst a bleak landscape. This notion of a city that, despite the ruins and blight, allowed many inhabitants to assert themselves in a contested yet open urban landscape might be called the actionable city. In this period New York became an actionable city, an urban landscape that could be acted upon, changed, and engaged with by the everyday residents who lived in it. There was both the real ability to change one’s urban environment along with a certain attitude or style that comes with the actionable city: the urban realm is not experienced as a foreign and impenetrable edifice; rather, its contested and ambiguous status (whether due to neglect or the frayed cultural and economic hegemony) invites urban dwellers to remake their environment. This unique status contributed particularly to a burst of artistic expression in Downtown Manhattan as well as the opening of alternative performance spaces and host sites for subversive and experimental cultural practices.

Depopulation and rising crime, stalled development from conflicting visions of the post-industrial city, and middle-class disinterest left much of lower Manhattan to the resolute (or immobile) neighborhood holdouts and the newly arriving artists and cultural instigators. These artists and instigators saw their environs as an actionable and malleable realm, where the demarcations of the urban social structure were blurred and open to contestation. Much like the artistic style of ‘availabilism’, where artists use found objects and existing structures, the urban agents of Downtown Manhattan often utilized the lofts, apartments, and ruinous buildings as performance spaces, practice spaces, pop-up galleries, studios, and host sites for social gatherings — they created their own cultural institutions.

The nascent underground cultural scenes of the 1970s and 1980s manifested in and were fostered by the brick and mortar spaces of these cultural institutions. Gay communities were forged in the bath houses, bars, and cruising sites like the Westside piers; experimental and free jazz were explored in the lofts in and around SoHo; punk music was crafted, modified, and imitated at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s, On the Rocks, the Mercer Arts Center, and others (all discussed by Katz and Kott); musical collaborators like Glenn Branca and Thurston Moore met and planned in the dive bar crowds; visual artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat shared their incorporation of the techniques of street art and planned exhibitions; bootstrap filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch found actors, sets, and ideas in the streets around the East Village. Minimal rent, a dearth of city services and amenities, an abundance of abandoned and empty spaces, and a palpable community of fellow creators—all allowed for an urban landscape characterized not by cultural or economic hegemony but by artistic and lifestyle experimentation. Economic limitations and systemic oppression abounded, of course, but the simple fact that Downtown was more contested — that is, less determined, less settled, and less institutionalized — meant that the area held a significant amount of a particular type of cultural potential.

However, the actionable city became threatened as the cultural amenities created by these artists and instigators attracted a wider audience, garnered media attention, and prompted a new era of speculative real estate investment. In 1970 Time magazine ran a feature on loft living in SoHo, showcasing what many Americans considered to be a foreign manner of living. New York Magazine ran their own feature later in the year, and the Downtown lifestyle reached a national audience. Concurrently, venues, galleries, restaurants, and bars became less of a rarity — Downtown ceased to be a desert of commercial amenities, though pockets of neglect persisted. As interest increased, so did investment potential. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and especially the 2000s, the development that began in SoHo spread throughout Lower Manhattan, driving up real estate demand and prices as well as threatening cultural sites with razing and redevelopment.

As most cultural sites succumbed to economic pressures, changing audience preferences, and new neighborhood demographics, the city itself experienced a grand economic resurgence. In the wake of the 1975 fiscal crisis, municipal and business leaders invested in the financial, insurance, and real estate industries, hoping that these industries would serve to fill the void left by the inhabitants and light industry that departed for the suburbs and outer boroughs. This influx of white-collar workers to Lower Manhattan, along with the soaring popular interest in Downtown loft living, resulted in the physical spaces of underground cultural sites being overvalued beyond their means. As rents increased and audiences dwindled and went elsewhere, urban blight did not return; instead, chain stores and corporate franchises, seen as more lucrative alternatives, were ushered in to supplant the earlier generation of institutions.

As the performance venues and other underground cultural sites were purchased or abandoned, their reputation — of subversion and anti-establishment sentiment — proved marketable to the commercial interests that supplanted them. Associations attached to historical sites could be leveraged by commercial players, developers, and community officials to create advantageous myths for the present. Key to understanding this marketing of the past, as Sharon Zukin has argued, is the idea of the kairological image: an image that, by imposing past narratives into the present, bestows a feeling of timelessness, wherein one can mythologize their own authentic origin story. Instead of believing that the present and one’s circumstances are completely determined by historical situatedness, the kairological image allows one to believe that they could be living at any time and in any manner. In Lower Manhattan, especially the East Village and the Lower East Side, these underground cultural landmarks of the 1970s and 1980s serve as kairological images for those presently inhabiting the area. CBGB’s facade, even though coopted and redesigned by John Varvatos, offers the new local resident the myth of partaking in that same time and in that same lifestyle. She straddles the line between Bowery 2018 and Bowery 1978, experiencing her life as a mélange of the two or simply imbuing her current experiences with the sense of subversive experimentation that characterized, in some fashion, the earlier time. Commercial interests and real estate developers exploit these kairological images and the attached associations in order to sell a lifestyle to renters and buyers. One need only look to marketing strategies of luxury apartment buildings like The Ludlow at Houston and Ludlow streets, which, in addition to using the rhetoric of authenticity — complete with a stenciled “Live Vibrantly” tagline — uses the presence of nearby rock venues like the Mercury Lounge as a key selling point.

This coopting of underground cultural landmarks and their kairological image status is not ubiquitous. The alternatives to a venue’s exploited reputation are hard-fought persistence or obsolescence. Lower Manhattan, and its history of new development, has rendered many institutions obsolete; yet there are a few that remain, straddling both the present and an earlier time. Pyramid Club still stands on Avenue A and retains much the same character of its earlier days — serving as a hangout and performance space for musicians and drag queens. But the individual institutions are not the prime casualty of a changed Lower Manhattan; it is not a space that should be mourned but the general loss of space devoted to cultural, lifestyle, and artistic experimentation. The popular, too, suffers from a diminished avant-garde, the mainstream from a hollowed underground.

In the last years of the Mars Bar’s existence, before its structure was razed in 2011 and a condominium tower and bank were erected in its place, it stood as a lone island of graffiti-covered dereliction and obstinance in a fresh block of glass and steel. Filled either with patrons who could recall the site’s 1980s heyday as a hideout from the CBGBs crowd or with those who wished they could, it retained its rough atmosphere and famously unhygienic toilets. But as awareness of the end drew near and the patrons became less local, what exactly was being lost? What was at stake? Furthermore, what political call to action could we derive from the pages of Katz and Kott’s enumeration of New York’s musical relics? The idea of a cultural constellation that incorporates people, spaces, and cultural practices seems to devalue the presence of each constituent part, but each is an essential aspect of culture — especially underground culture. And as Katz and Kott’s book illustrates, venues close, people depart, and cultural practices change, yet we still value these historical events and developments. Ultimately, it seems, we are left with the task of keeping the dialogue about and memories of these venues in circulation without succumbing to exploitative forces.

Jeffrey Patrick Colgan is one of the founders of the Network for Culture & Arts Policy, the producer of the DROP DEAD podcast series, and a writer on political and social philosophy. Jeffrey Escoffier is the author of American Homo: Community and Perversity (recently re-released by Verso Books) and a research associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Together they are writing a book on the economic crisis and cultural creativity in 1970s New York City.