Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005


Of punk and soul: Downtown is losing its special character

The news that CBGB, the birthplace of American punk rock music, is facing a rent hike to the astronomical sum of $40,000 a month is staggering. Yet, it’s symbolic of what’s happening all over Downtown: The culture, commerce and people that have made the area what it is are being priced out of the neighborhood.

In a dynamic city such as New York this is what happens — neighborhoods change, they wax and wane. However, this process is especially painful in this part of town, where the stores, live music clubs and other cultural institutions — and the residents themselves — make the area what it is, giving it its special character.

Since the first bohemians settled around Washington Sq. in the early 1900s, Downtown Manhattan has been famous, internationally so, for its arts, culture and lifestyle. In that vein, CBGB — on the once-desolate Bowery — was a major incubator of the 1970s punk music scene, launching the likes of the Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones and the B-52’s. If Hilly Kristal, CBGB’s owner can’t afford the huge rent the landlord is demanding, the legendary club could close — and be replaced by a Starbucks or another “lounge”?

Soho underwent this transition not long ago. A vibrant artists’ and gallery scene emerged in the former manufacturing area, only to see the galleries forced out by escalating rents only designer chain stores could afford. An exodus occurred, as the galleries moved to West Chelsea, reestablishing a burgeoning art scene. Today Soho is overrun by hordes of tourist shoppers. Now Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village is becoming Soho-ized.

On the Lower East Side, hotels are replacing hipsters, who replaced the residents there before them.

The process is called “gentrification” and it’s happening all over Manhattan. Landmarking and zoning changes can protect a neighborhood’s physical fabric. If the community-facilities zoning allowance were eliminated, we’d be spared more disproportionately large institutional buildings. But otherwise, it’s “market forces” at work. The emergence of New York University as a world-class university, and its extraordinary growth in one generation, is speeding the area’s change. Speaking of dorms, a developer is threatening to turn the former CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center on E. Ninth St. into one.

The news isn’t all bad. While some may bemoan the loss of the Bowery’s Skid Row, flophouses are being replaced by supportive housing, a better living environment. In Soho, at least the historic buildings are looking beautiful. And it’s safer everywhere.

But without commercial rent regulation (don’t hold your breath) or landlords deciding cultural and local small business institutions are worth something — the change will continue. These places will eventually relocate — maybe to Tribeca, as Collective:Unconscious theater did after Ludlow St. became ripe for development — or to the West Side or Greenpoint.

Those who can afford it, will keep living and operating businesses here. But bit by bit, we’re losing our culture and character. “Downtown,” it seems, is becoming just a word.

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