What first brought you to Brooklyn?
My parents grew up in Brooklyn. When my mother was pregnant with my older sister, they moved to New Jersey, but we always had family here, and as a kid we visited NYC all the time. I discovered punk in grade school, due in part to those visits, and once I was done with college and grad school, moving here felt like the natural next step. It’s where you went if you wanted to get away from your small town and had no interest in the suburbs. I never had an interest in a conventional suburban life, I mean. The one interesting thing, I think, is as a kid, my family was in Brooklyn and Queens, but I’d always travel to Manhattan to buy records or go to shows. At that point, that’s where it felt like the culture was to me… I grew up loving folks like Richard Hell and Patti Smith, and their scene was Manhattan, too. I was a kid and I thought of Brooklyn as where my family lived and Manhattan as where I went to do cool shit.
Later, I did my undergraduate schooling in New Brunswick, at Rutgers, and my friends and I were up here most weekends to see shows—so, from birth, through that time, New York was always there somehow. At that point, in the 90s, most venues were still in Manhattan, though. We barely went to shows in Brooklyn. I’d visit my extended family there, though.
That’s my long-winded way of saying it seemed like the logical place to be, especially for someone who wanted to try to write for a living and organize shows and, in general, create things. I did my graduate work on the writer Dennis Cooper. His papers are archived at NYU’s Fales Library. He helped me get a job there—I arrived with employment, which was helpful. It gave me a steady income while I worked as a freelance writer. And, at that time, Brooklyn was cheaper, and so that’s where I went.
Since you’ve been in Brooklyn, what sort of changes have you seen in the cultural landscape, particularly related to the music scene?
It’s changed quite a bit. It’s insane how much it’s shifted in a fairly short time, honestly. When my wife and I first started dating, we would duck under the fence down at the Williamsburg waterfront, dodge trash, and sit by the water and look at Manhattan. There was nothing there. We’d maybe see a couple of people fishing for malformed fish in the dark, or a couple other punk kids like us. Now, thirteen years later, there are high-rise condos, a park, that whole boardwalk thing, tons of stores (including chains), Smorgasburg, groups of tourists. The area around the Wythe Hotel wasn’t developed either—now there are whiskey bars and places to buy $800 shoes.
Back then I lived in Bushwick and paid barely anything for a big space—$300 a month for a share with some friends. So, yeah, venues have come and gone. As have entire neighborhoods (the place where my dad grew up in East New York was leveled). All places change, but the rate of change in New York is accelerated. Where I’ve lived in Brooklyn during this time—Bushwick then Wiliamsburg and now Greenpoint—is very different than it was just a decade ago. It’s more expensive, no doubt. And when the background changes that dramatically, the people in that environment shift, too. There were fewer bankers and tourists. That’s not a value judgement… it’s just what it is.
During this period, the internet has also become a bigger deal in everyone’s daily lives. I don’t think this can be overlooked. When I first moved to Brooklyn, for instance, I didn’t have a cellphone. There are more bands now. People learn about “underground” music at an earlier age. Things that once weren’t cool are now considered cool. The ubiquity of the internet has had a huge effect. Music, and how we interact with it, is entirely different because of it.
How do you feel that the borough’s changing economic landscape has been detrimental to the development of people’s artistic pursuits?
It’s definitely harder to pursue artistic projects without a steady regular job—or a trust fund. It’s complicated, though. I was in a diner in Greenpoint with my family this morning and talked to the waitress about how she moved to Greenpoint from Poland with her family in the 60s then relocated to Sunnyside after she got married. She and her husband wanted to move back to Greenpoint a few years later, but they couldn’t afford it at that point. So, yeah, people are definitely finding it more difficult to pursue art, but folks are also just finding it difficult to live here at all. And that’s worth noting: There are people who’ve been here all along. I think sometimes people forget that. Like, when my parents grew up here, they had nothing to do with music or art or whatever. But they were here, living. That’s just as important.
Do you think it’s possible for young people to come here and work in culturally important but not super well-paying fields (journalism! music!) in Brooklyn today?
I think it’s possible, but not easy. In some ways, it feels like a sacrifice. It’s also a Catch 22: You could live more cheaply elsewhere, but there are more opportunities here to get you started. It’s tricky.
Personally speaking, making a living as a writer wasn’t easy. It took me a long, long time to get to that point—but I kept at it. When I moved here, there were definitely already cheaper cities to live, but I didn’t pay for anything but rent or buy anything but food for a long time. It wasn’t ideal to eat nothing but pasta for months at a time, but at this point, I’m happy I did it.
Many people despair about the state of culture in Brooklyn today—it’s too expensive to live here; it’s impossible to make a living just from creative endeavors; venues are closing all the time. Do you think the future is bleak for Brooklyn as a cultural hub? Or is there hope?
The cycle of venues closing, and new ones opening, has been happening for a long time. Like I was saying above, there was a time when I’d come to NYC and all the shows I saw took place in Manhattan. For instance, I’m not very old, but I’ve gone to the Knitting Factory in three different locations. Most of the places I went to in my 20s—CBGB’s, Brownies, the Wetlands, Maxwells, etc.—are all gone or totally retooled. And the venues I go to now are different than they were a few years ago. It’ll keep changing: New spaces will surface and others will close.
What’s most concerning to me is the death of independent businesses and the prevalence of more chains and corporations and just tacky shit. The city loses a lot of its character when this happens. When you asked what brought me to Brooklyn—a large part of it really was (and is) living in a place that isn’t a suburban strip mall. So it’s depressing when you see that happening here.
All that said, I do think there’s hope. There are plenty of amazing spaces and opportunities. And amazing curators and producers and bands and artists. My friend Adam Shore and I recently started a series in Bushwick, at the Wick, called Tinnitus, for “composers of extreme sound.” We’re not booking especially huge artists, and they’re making challenging music, but a ton of people are attending… and dancing! This isn’t possible in most cities. It’s great. And there are plenty of things like this happening here everyday. It takes effort, sure, but it’s happening. As long as people with ambition move here, it’ll keep happening.