Post DBA: On the Future of DIY in Brooklyn

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This year hasn’t been great for DIY. But just how bad has it been, exactly?

Always precarious and barely legal, a cluster of small-scale venues which had improbably survived the Bloomberg-era purges and seemed pretty much set to live forever—285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Glasslands—have all gone out of business more or less at once. What’s more, they were all reportedly done in by VICE Media. A supposedly countercultural company with half a billion dollars in funding headed in part by the misbehaving son of a billionaire (in this case Rupert Murdoch) killing three beloved cultural spaces in an expansive real estate move is literally the perfect statement about the evolution from the old Williamsburg to the new.

When it came to DBA’s closing, in particular, everyone seemed to sense that what was going on was bigger than just this one venue. So many people attended its last week of shows that lines regularly stretched out the door and around the block. The venue, if we’re being honest a pretty unremarkable place, got lavish memorials everywhere from these pages to The Chris Gethard Show to the New York Times, who devoted nearly a full page to a photo spread and article marking the end of the venue’s seven years of operation. We’re losing more than just this one space, it all seemed to say—we’re losing Williamsburg, once and for all.

Still, there was a funny through line in these tributes. The TimesMelena Ryzik quotes a woman named Theresa Rieck, whom Ryzik reports she found sitting alone in an empty room at DBA’s final show. “D.I.Y. is never permanent,” Rieck said. “This place will be reborn, somewhere else.” Meanwhile, over in the notoriously nasty comments section of Brooklyn Vegan, user Joe Friday wrote, “DBA was just another club and will be easily replaced.”

While they presumably have entirely different motivations, Rieck attempting to do some late-night philosophizing with a doe-eyed hopeful take on the irrepressible DIY spirit, and Joe Friday most likely literally trying to be as mean as he was physically able, they both, perhaps despite themselves, capture a surprisingly un-mopey and honestly pretty hopeful attitude about the city’s DIY scene.

Indeed, anyone who’s been following New York’s DIY scene for the past five or six years has seen countless venues come and go: Less Artists More Condos, Dead Herring, Monster Island, and the original iterations of Silent Barn, Secret Project Robot, and Shea Stadium. This leaves out the endless string of houses and basements around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Harlem where a bunch of roommates push the sofas out of the way and do their best to hide anything they don’t someone walking all over before putting on a show, then maybe another, then making up some weird name for the place before one of them moves in with their boyfriend and the whole thing falls apart. Despite the fact that all of the venues we music writers in our 30s went to as people in our early 20s when South 2nd Street was basically the end of the earth, there are plenty of new DIY venues all over Brooklyn—in Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Prospect Heights and beyond—and a nearly endless supply of young creative people trying to do something big on a small budget.

“Things close down, things get busted, and there’s always new spaces opening up, new things people are experimenting with,” said Walker Esner, who puts on shows under the name Destination Moon. Lately, Esner has been partnering with Rachael Pazdan, an aspiring DIY-impresario, to organize Screen/Sounds, a music and film event happening at Bushwick’s Lot 45 this coming Friday featuring music from bands including Modern Rivals and films by artists from the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective’s BullMoose Pictures, among others. The event is about as DIY as it gets.

Destination Moon formed a few years ago specifically looking to throw a music festival in upstate New York. They immediately ran into some bumps. “We literally had to lobby the city government,” near the planned home of their festival, Esner said. “We got some laws changed. But when it came time to actually vote on our festival, we got rejected.” Instead, Esner started putting on shows here in the city, everywhere from lofts in Gowanus to a hostel in Harlem, though he still says that upstate festival is “very much the goal” for the future of Destination Moon.

Pazdan, now 25, put on her first Brooklyn show in 2012, more or less immediately upon graduating college. Called The Vis-à-Vis Festival, it featured bands, dancers, and free macaroni and cheese. “I just did it,” she told me recently over beers at Fort Greene’s Black Forest Brooklyn. “And it was great, but it was really hard, I think, to do what I did by myself. I didn’t realize what I was getting into.”

Now, two years later, she’s back, putting on a show inspired by her work on Celebrate Brooklyn as part of her day job at the Brooklyn arts organization BRIC, which often feature film screenings scored by a live band. “This magical moment happens sometimes,” she said, “where you don’t know what to look at, the band that’s playing or the film, and you keep going back and forth. This new thing comes out of it, and it’s super fun. So I wanted to do that, on the scale of having it at a Bushwick venue.”

Destination Moon, for its part, had never done a show in Bushwick before, and was curious if they’d find a larger audience there than at their more far-flung locations. The first location they picked, Radio Bushwick, went out of business the day before they announced the concert. Relatively undaunted, they moved to Lot 45 and kept planning. How could they stop? They’re working on the future of art. “I really have a vision of creating shows that have a lot structure and a big idea behind them,” Pazdan told me. “I think it’s important to do that. I think art has to keep evolving and keep a vision and construct something that’s unique. You can’t do the same thing all the time, or it will die.”

DBA or no, Brooklyn still has a vibrant arts scene thanks to hundreds of people like Pazdan and Esner. The harder it gets to live and work here for them, though, the less likely they’ll keep coming. At one point, Pazdan makes a throwaway comment that’s both hopeful and a warning, speaking about why young creative flock here: “That’s why you’re here. Because things like this are possible here.” Hopefully, they’ll stay that way.

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