Reclaiming Space Through Sound
How DIY spaces in urban areas can be vehicles for marginalized communities to reclaim their space.
In the spring of 2017, the venue Shea Stadium in Williamsburg officially closed their doors after 8 years of service to the local music community. This closure added to a list of DIY venues that had repurposed (at times abandoned) spaces within industrial and mixed-use zones in North Brooklyn. Places such as 285 Kent, Silent Barn, and The Glove met their ends as well during this decade as a result of battles with local authorities, pressure from the immediate neighborhoods, and new businesses with the ability to pay astronomically higher rents among other factors. In the case of Shea Stadium, the building’s landlord pulled out from signing a new contract that was in the works with the venue’s managers, in favor of opening a new bar and nightclub there. DIY spaces like these in Brooklyn have cultivated environments, presenting local music and other programming, that transcended ages and backgrounds within the communities they operate in. Although some may consider these to be points of contention with regard to displacement and, ultimately, gentrification in the city, there are artists who have taken their turns at the mic and identify with minorities and underrepresented groups of people who live in New York City. While venues like these are often known for hosting punk and rock bands with predominantly white musicians, now well-known acts like Blood Orange, Mitski, Buscabulla, and Helado Negro at one point also offered their own styles and influences to the crowds that flock into these loud, small, and sometimes moldy rooms.
With time passing and the slow but steady construction of more high rises, DIY venues have closed down along the L line. But although the use of these spaces may seem short lived through a movement soundtracked by the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the transformational use of these spaces by immigrants in NYC can be traced back to the early 1920s. As more and more people landed on Ellis Island looking for new opportunities, people got hired and space became scarce as the economy was booming with America’s Industrial Revolution well underway. With buildings being erected left and right, air quality and the amount of light that reached the streets on the ground were poor. In 1912, at the urging of the Fifth Avenue Association, whose members were concerned about congestion and declining land values, a report was submitted to the city’s Board of Estimate calling for more extensive building controls. As a result, the 1916 Zoning Resolution was created. The resolution regulated the heights of buildings and divided the city into districts by land use. This brought about the “step-back” element that skyscrapers have to this date, in order to decrease the amount of space buildings take up as they rise in height. However, no agency was created to administer the new zoning law itself. As these were evidently determined by interest groups and political forces in play, the landscape of Manhattan began to drastically change.
45 years later, the 1961 Zoning Resolution reflected significant changes in the urban fabric of New York City, as the resolution was the biggest change to New York’s zoning since the first code was passed in 1916. It was created to accommodate an increasing population and the growth of automobile use. It divided New York City into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas and introduced the concept of incentive zoning by adding a bonus of extra floor space to encourage developers of office and apartment buildings to incorporate public plazas into their projects. With these changes, industrial sites, along with the jobs they entail and the many immigrants who work them, began to move from Manhattan and into the surrounding boroughs. But during the next 20 or so years after the Zoning Resolution of '61, New York’s economy simultaneously shifted from a mainly industrial economy to one based on services and entertainment.
Through the '70s and '80s, New Yorkers saw how this shift fomented abandoned warehouses and towers from SoHo to Bushwick. But in these empty lots, the city’s underground scene recognized potential. Painters started to rent (often off the books) floors in these buildings to use as their studios. Others caught on and started living in some of these spaces. And musicians grew into organizing shows inside the empty halls that once amassed rows of sewing machines, meatpacking lines, and other industrial endeavors from the past. Hip-Hop and Punk music found their temples inside the warehouses that were left for dead in the nooks and crannies of the city.
New and authentic music is always looking for its place, figuratively and literally, to excel within contemporary contexts. So when we see the son of a Guyanese father and Sierra Leonean mother, a woman who was born in Japan but grew up in thirteen different countries, two musicians separated by the mountain ranges of Puerto Rico that later met and became lovers in the New York City, or the son of Ecuadorian immigrants take center stage under the corroding support beams of a pre-war structure, you get the sense these migration stories have possibly come full circle.