October 27, 2009

Where Brooklyn Meets the Sky

Edgey (left) and Delilah of The Last Internationale
Originally published in WG magazine in October 2009.

If East Williamsburg is not the most beautiful place on earth, it is pretty close. This is a neighborhood where Pentecostal churches hold rousing services in the streets outside their storefronts. It’s a place of industry and warehousing, where vertical tenements look over horizontal shipping yards. Low slung warehouses give the place a big sky. It is massive and sublime in a way that makes the Williamsburg of the waterfront look quaint.

We are in an area that is considered part of Bushwick. Other parts of so-called “East Williamsburg” are considered Greenpoint, or Williamsburg. And the whole easternmost reach of the area is the designated East Williamsburg Industrial Valley.

Into the heart of the valley curls the fetid tail of Newtown Creek. Hither and yon lie great truck yards and old railroad tracks. It is full of trucks. It is also full of exotic people. We are at the epicenter of an artist community, one of those aggregations of worldly and professional folks who change everything, completely and forever, wherever and whenever they arrive.

I have seen three such communities in my life. Or maybe a dozen. But I’m not talking about all the rural, regional, and leafy towns of the western world that go cosmopolitan. I’m talking about Berlin in the 80s, Williamsburg in the 90s, and this place now. Taken all together, it is a phenomenon on the order of any of significant migration of people in history. An urban subculture turns into a major economic event in a few short years. This has happened twice in northern Brooklyn, each time during a recession.

I like my scenes heavy. Funny, but heavy. And that describes perfectly the band Jigsaw Soul, who played on a recent Saturday night at Brooklyn Fire Proof. Everything about this band is inventive. They make sure of it. You’ve got a five-piece ensemble with a rich musical range. Into this comes a dance troupe of exquisite creatures that vie with the musicians. Odalisques on the loose, fucking with the set. They climb on the musicians, wrestle for the microphones, and come in on vocals right on time. It’s a luscious experience, with music and sounds from everywhere, and at the same time coherent and authentically strange.

Lead singer Jonah Byrd is slightly portly, and bald and bespectacled. But then he sings like an angel and moves like yo mama. Black Francis and Ron Athey come to mind — that kind of intensity. And for fuck’s sake, what can you say about a band that uses Viola da Gambas, Gregorian chanting, and whose drummer pulls out a trumpet to send a song out with a fanfare. After the show, the dancing girls sell CDs and t-shirts from cigarette trays. Ouch!

Sam Levin of Blastoff

“It’s like the woods out here,” said Sam Levin, drummer from “micro-jam” band Blastoff, which played between sets at Fire Proof. “I come out here and I feel like I’m really out in the woods. Williamsburg is not like this at all. The East Village is more laid back now than Williamsburg. But this is bucolic. I love it.” We’re out on the street for a cigarette. The street is a great shaft of shadow, and a hundred people look sparse in its canyon. There’s the lone light of an ATM chained to a gate, and when I go to get cash, a brother comes up to me and says, “… be careful now, they’ve got baseball bats around here and they don’t waste time. You watch them white wimmins now.”

A Bedlamite walks a dog down the street, passes through a knot of hipsters and immediately goes apeshit on them. White guy, short, round, bug-eyed, stressed out ponytail. The crowd reels away from him. Pavement rage, industrial strength. Stentorian shrieks of patricidal rage careening off the walls.

Time for another beer.

Lily Masse of The Suite Unravelling

And then it’s Lily Maase of The Suite Unraveling, singing a thing called “Ether Not,” a weirdly self-evident kind of punk hymn, and spooky. She’s charismatic and funky, she’s in a sax-driven band of dudes. She's also a member of an artists collective called the Bushwick Department of Public Works.

Jonah Byrd and Mary Madsen of Jigsaw Soul, at Brooklyn Fire Proof

This was round two for me in the Bushwick scene. So far so good. Back in August, we stumbled upon a roof party at a commune called Surreal Estate, where 51 young people live. A politically radical community, and so we got a chance to hear The Last Internationale playing to their core constituency. The “radical folk duo” played out this night with a bassist and drummer, and they are captivating. Singer Delila is a knockout who doesn’t know it. I felt like a perv. She and guitarist Edgey make beautiful folk songs and protest songs, and they have a downright serviceable blues-rock band as well. The crowd shouted “Worker’s of the World Unite!” It’s one of the duo’s more popular songs, and their core message.

Fire dancer at Surreal Estate

Awesome party. There was even a she-thing walking around. There was a fire dancer, and a guy with the biggest Afro I’ve ever seen. Rare birds and freakazoids. Ancient, venerable youth.

So it Is Bushwick!

Incredible. We hung out on Bogart Street, which is Main Street for this area that we thought was part of the eastern industrial reach of Williamsburg, the so-called "East Williamsburg." We pretended to be a homey in the woods, and asked about 20 people on the strip, “…’scuse me, is this Williamsburg or Bushwick?” Each and every one of them said Bushwick.

Not only that, but even the one guy we encountered who was actually from the neighborhood, said it was Bushwick. He pointed south, “That’s up Bushwick.” He pointed north, “That’s down Bushwick.” Huh? “I know, I lived in both places. Hey, you got a cigarette?”

The only person who seemed to have a sense of the underlying complexity of this question was an erudite Englishman. He smiled knowingly. “Well, the jury is still out on that one. But, technically, it’s Bushwick.”

“Technically” indeed. Never trust a Brit to settle territorial matters in faraway lands.

The man who even gave us his business card was a photographer, a compact Israeli in a pork pie hat, whose banner “fuchs” emblazons the face of the loft building he occupies on Bogart Street. “You know, landlords who want to talk up out-of-towners, they call it East Williamsburg. But around here, we know its Bushwick.”

None of this squares with our research. Yes, it’s true the old Dutch colony of “Boswijck” once covered all of northern Brooklyn and parts of Queens, a territory that previously had belonged to the Lenape nation. And when the village of Williamsburg was laid out in 1800, it was basically designed as a ferry landing for the "Township of Bushwick." So nearly the whole of northern Brooklyn can loosely be called Bushwick, and often loosely is. But by 1845, the Williamsburg ferry landing had become a booming industrial city. Bushwick was still primarily a farming community (though soon it would become famous for beer, glass, and chemical manufacturing). Williamsburg needed to expand. The two townships formally separated. And, the City of Williamsburg purchased land to its east from the Township of Bushwick. The north-south Bushwick Avenue divides Williamsburg from that suburban purchase in Bushwick, which was subsequently renamed East Williamsburg. And it is the east-west running Flushing Avenue that today divides anything that is arguably Bushwick from anything that is arguably Williamsburg. If you are north of Flushing Avenue, you are in Williamsburg.

A few other things support Williamsburg’s claim to the east. In 1835, the Third Ward of Williamsburg was added, and this lies between Union Avenue and Bushwick Avenue. That is, wedged between Williamsburg and East Williamsburg. The addition of this "ward" was already a nudge in Williamsburg's eastward expansion. The Bushwick purchase then extended the City of Williamsburg to the border of Queens. That extension is called East Williamsburg, and the name has been in use for most of two centuries. (For example, in connection with the East Williamsburg Industrial Valley, a manufacturing initiative established in the 1980s.) In short, East Williamsburg is no Soho or Noho, not just a real-estate moniker invented to rebrand a neighborhood. 

But hey, we’re not arguing with the irredentist claims of Bushwick. We know full well the residents of this area have long called it Bushwick and consider it so. And for that matter, you may ask, Why is Williamsburg suddenly so interested in Bushwick anyway?

Factory Town

After the rezoning of Williamsburg in 2005, and the rise of absurd residential projects in northern Brooklyn, it’s easy to forget that there is still a robust commitment to manufacturing in the area. Factories have been displaced, true. But a big swathe of northern Brooklyn was locked in just three years ago by the city as an IBZ (Industrial Business Zone). In the zone is an old war-horse of a factory building at the top of Brooklyn called the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), which has been recovering derelict factories since 1992 and filling them with fabricators, artisans, and artists. There is a commitment in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick to supporting a productive economy — not just a residential economy.

From the beginning artists have been allied with the manufacturing sector in Brooklyn's industrial north. Artists convert obsolete commercial space to new kinds of productive uses, easing the transition from obsolete industries to emerging ones. When the area goes full bore into a new industrial renaissance, this will likely have a strong "design, fabrication, and media” component. Several initiatives in East Williamsburg and Bushwick already reflect and support that idea.

One of these initiatives is the Third Ward. Named for the 19th century political district mentioned above, this is a comprehensive, member-based design and fabrication center with locations on Morgan Avenue and Metropolitan Avenue. For $300 a month you basically get the run of the place. This means unlimited access to wood and metal shops, photo studios, a Mac-based media lab, desks, and all the free classes you can handle. A 25 percent discount on lumber kicks in, and lesser discounts on art and photo supplies, car rentals, and so on.

They close at midnight, so maybe you won’t paint “The Scream” at the Third Ward. But a place like this is an efficient and cost-effective way for artists and designers to get stuff done and get into a network. The introductory welding class is “guaranteed to make you feel like a badass.” We took it, and have not asked for a refund. When you twist that stream of oxygen into the acetylene flame, it is mighty. www.3rdward.com

Another collective, Brooklyn Fire Proof, encompasses a complex of buildings and spaces in East Williamsburg and Bushwick. They rent work-only space to creative pros, with round-the-clock access. There is an affiliated film and TV soundstage, a café, performance space, bar and restaurant, and a gallery is in the works. www.brooklynfireproof.com

More weirdly transparent than these, but no less interesting is Castle Braid Apartments. Here the developer Mayer Schwartz has launched a unique living arrangement for artists on Troutman Street. The amenities include a graffiti wall, media lab, screening room, free drawing classes, and band practice rooms. If it sounds, well, a little artsy, Schwartz makes the point that there are people who really do make money at art and really do need exactly these kinds of things.

Castle Braid is brand new and generously modern in design. Units rent for $1800, or $3000 for a duplex. (All the $1600 units have been rented.) And yes, you can draw on the walls. But my question is, can you wing beer bottles at the wall, like in a real loft? The point is these apartments are built for creative professionals who have jobs, probably travel a lot, and don’t need maintenance and renovation hassles. It’s marketing, but it’s also telling: artists are now seen as professionals, not just as hipsters. www.castlebraid.com.

All three of these places are big on events, outreach, and making art and design a part of the neighborhood life and business. Not just building an art scene in the community, but building the community with art. If there is a designated industrial zone, it may as well be integrated with a designated creative zone.