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As Brooklyn booms, famed music scene under gun

Thursday, January 8, 2015 - 23:36
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The young and the creative flocked to Brooklyn in the 1990s, transforming the New York borough into arguably the world's foremost breeding ground for emerging rock bands.

[NEW YORK] The young and the creative flocked to Brooklyn in the 1990s, transforming the New York borough into arguably the world's foremost breeding ground for emerging rock bands.

But now the same factors that made Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighbourhood a hipster haven - the short distance from Manhattan and a vibrant nightlife - have sent rents soaring and increasingly cast questions on the future of the music scene.

In 2014, at least five music venues in Williamsburg or nearby Brooklyn neighbourhoods shut down or announced plans to move, leading a growing number of musicians to wonder whether they should take their careers elsewhere.

Molly Hamilton, singer and guitarist for the band Widowspeak, which has won acclaim for its dreamy guitar rock, grew up in Tacoma, Washington, but settled in Brooklyn in 2008 - drawn, she said, by a music scene that produced bands as diverse as Grizzly Bear, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio.

Widowspeak recorded its second album in a century-old barn in upstate New York, and Ms Hamilton decided to stay in that area.

Brooklyn, where the average monthly rent now tops US$3,000, has simply become too expensive for a full-time musician, she said.

"When I got here, I felt like the door was wide open with what was possible," Ms Hamilton told AFP before playing one of the final shows at Glasslands, an eight-year-old Williamsburg venue that closed on New Year's Eve.

There will be no easy match for that era in Williamsburg, when artists and casual fans alike could walk to multiple shows each night to see both new and established talent, she said.

"You can't really have people in a band if you can't afford to pay your rent," she said.

Talking Heads legend David Byrne said in 2013 that New York was "still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work" but that the cultural life "has been usurped by the top one per cent."

"If young, emerging talent of all types can't find a foothold in this city then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been," he wrote.

New York is famous for its neighbourhoods' ebbs and flows. Williamsburg, even with the hipster influx, remains a major centre for Hasidic Jews, Poles, Puerto Ricans and other communities.

The changes in Williamsburg mirror an earlier transition across the East River in Manhattan's once-dodgy Lower East Side, which turned fashionable for artists and non-artists alike - and still has plenty of music venues - after punk clubs such as CBGB opened in the 1970s.

Recently closed Williamsburg venues such as Glasslands have been looking to reopen in New York areas that - for now - remain less expensive such as Bushwick, a neighbourhood deeper into Brooklyn that is increasingly popular among creative types.

But some see a brighter, cheaper future elsewhere.

Galapagos Art Space, which opened in Williamsburg in 1995 in a harbinger of the neighbourhood new culture, moved 12 years later to a larger venue in Brooklyn's former manufacturing area of Dumbo.

Last month, Galapagos Arts Space said it was moving out of New York altogether - to Detroit, whose affordable housing after years of industrial decline has attracted a burgeoning number of artists also drawn to the city's culturally rich past.

"Simply put, New York City has become too expensive to continue incubating young artists," Robert Elmes, executive director of the Galapagos Art Space, said in announcing the move.

He voiced hope that Detroit could become a "national mixing chamber" like New York. For him, other US cities with strong artistic scenes- such as Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis - have remained regional.

For all its costs, New York still has qualities that few other cities can match - it has world-class scenes across musical genres including classical and jazz and is the premier hub for the record industry.

One factor driving the Williamsburg property market has been the expansion of Vice Media, which started as a punk magazine and has turned into a growing news force with provocative, personality-driven stories such as taking outspoken basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman to North Korea.

Vice Media is opening a major new headquarters in Williamsburg, casting a media group that prides itself on its cool factor into an unlikely villain for some pining for the neighbourhood old vibe.

Death By Audio, a grungy basement venue with music, art and a makeshift bar, marked its final show in November by throwing confetti from ripped copies of Vice magazine.

A spokesman for Vice - whose 20th anniversary party last month featured members of major Brooklyn bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - said the media group had a "rich history of supporting independent bands, artists, freelancers and creatives."

"As we move into the new space, we will expand our efforts to support the same community we always have in new and larger ways," said the spokesman, Jake Goldman.

Ysanne Spevack, a musician who is creative director of Amazing Artists, part of the Amazing Media Group which highlights new musicians, recalled that when she first played at Galapagos, Williamsburg was a "dangerously eclectic mix of musicians, artists, dancers, crack dealers, prostitutes and Hasidic Jews."

Ms Spevack called the closing of music venues part of a "slightly painful but inevitable shift" away from the "high rents and fancy bars" of Williamsburg, and toward other neighbourhoods and cities "where the lower rents make being a musician or running an underground music venue more viable options without a trust fund." "Youth culture by its very definition isn't sustainable," she said. "It germinates and flowers, and is picked."

AFP