Sometimes, while I was queuing for a bathroom so notoriously filthy that it has its own Twitter account, or fighting my way to the bar to get served the entirely wrong drink by cheerfully incompetent bartenders, I’d start to get a feeling that maybe I was part of something. I’d stop and look around — at the murals on the walls, at the terrible old couch, at the condensation (hilariously dubbed “rave rain”) that would sometimes fall from the ceiling — and think about how much I’d come to love Williamsburg’s 285 Kent Ave, warts and all. And how sad I’d be when it closed. It was a day everyone knew was coming; DIY venues with questionable legality in the middle of yuppieville sadly have limited lifespans. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
Every city needs places like 285 Kent. They’re spaces for bands to play, sure, but they’re also places for people to meet, for people to congregate, for people to start bands and hook up and snort questionable drugs or just get heinously drunk and sleep on the couch. I only knew the 285 crew tangentially (although I did make an arse of myself playing basketball with them in the DIY Basketball Association tournament, where we lost to a bunch of people in hot-pink uniforms from Flux Factory), but I do know that the place literally changed people’s lives.
There will no doubt be plenty of sneering today about hipsters and trust funds and all such tiresomely reductive stereotypes, but there were people who worked at 285 Kent and were there the whole time because it was literally all they had. And I know people for whom visiting the place for the first time was a genuine revelation — they were mostly from out of the city, and when they found 285, or the old Silent Barn, or Market Hotel, it was like finding a home, a place full of people who were weirdos just like them, people who wanted to see crazy, loud punk shows or dance all night at a Top 8 party.
I have a friend who was closely involved with the old New York punk scene from the very earliest days of CBGB, and with the Stooges and the Doors before that. I asked him once if he ever had a sense that they were creating history, that one day various artifacts from their lives would end up under glass in museums. His reply was something to the effect that (and I’m paraphrasing here), no, of course not — all anyone worried about was what band was playing that night, and where they were gonna get money for drinks, and how they were gonna get laid.
I’m sure the 285 stalwarts would say the same. But these places are living history, the places where culture is born and flourishes, and we take them for granted at our peril. It’s not been a good year for DIY venues in Brooklyn. Apart from 285, there was the closure of Big Snow Buffalo Lodge after a terrifying shooting that put co-manager Yoni David in hospital. The vast majority of the old Williamsburg venues are already gone, of course. Monster Island and Bruar Falls disappeared. Northsix became the bigger, shinier Music Hall of Williamsburg. And you wonder how long Death by Audio and Glasslands will hold out against the condo developers.
If 285 is truly gone forever, then no doubt another place will eventually spring up to fill its role. Nature abhors a vacuum and all that, and in any case, there’s a natural lifespan to such places, because every new generation wants their own space, to start their own scene. But whatever replaces 285 won’t be in Williamsburg, that’s for sure — it’ll most likely be in Ridgewood, or maybe the eastern fringes of Bushwick. In Bloomberg’s New York, DIY culture has been pushed to the margins, geographically and metaphorically. But who knows? Maybe one day whatever’s left of the 285 bathroom will end up in the New Museum, and a new generation of kids will look at it and wonder how in god’s name anyone could have ever pissed there. And if they ask, we’ll have something to tell them.