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

Villager photos by Q. Sakamaki

Fishbone, the Los Angeles alternative funk/punk/ska band that made it big in the late 1980s, performed at CBGB on June 19, 1991. Above, a fan crowd-surfed and, below, Angelo, Fishbone’s frenetic lead singer, stage-dived into the audience to slam dance.

This ain’t no foolin’ around; rent puts punk mecca at risk

By Justin Rocket Silverman

When Hilly Kristal first opened CBGB in 1972, the Bowery was still well deserving of its reputation as the most infamously rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. As Kristal himself once described it in a piece he wrote:

“The streets were strewn with bodies of alcoholic derelicts sleeping it off after two or three drinks of adulterated wine reinforced with sugar. There were lots of muggers hanging around on the Bowery preying on the old or incapacitated men. When people were let out of jail or institutions they were very often housed in one of these flophouses by the city, so we had to deal with these crazies trying to come into the club.”

Despite this atmosphere, there was one very tangible advantage to opening a music club on the Bowery — extremely low rent. For just $600 a month, CBGB was able to operate out of a storefront location that would come to be known as the birthplace of The Ramones, Blondie and a whole generation of punk rock superstars. For many New Yorkers, the club serves as a link to a bygone era of creative energy that thrived among the broken bottles and lost souls of the Bowery.

But CBGB is in danger of falling victim to the same rising rents and property values that finished off most of the flophouses that once defined the Bowery. The Village Voice reported recently that when CBGB’s current lease expires in August, the new rent could reach as high as $40,000 a month. That’s a far cry from $600 a month, and could jeopardize the club’s viability, owner Kristal has said. The rent covers both CBGB and the adjacent CB’s 313 Gallery, which features both art exhibits and bands.

“It’s not fun, I’ll tell you,” said Kristal. “I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m concerned. But we’re going to fight and do whatever we can do to stay open in this location. I thought it was going to be an easy negotiation over the lease, but it’s not turning out that way.

“I can’t pay $40,000 per month. I pay almost $80,000 in liability insurance a year. This is not a place where we have big bands and people are willing to pay $40 or $50 to see them. We can’t charge $12 for a drink the way places in Midtown do. CBGB is made for people who want to play rock music and it has to be reasonably priced.”

Music shows are booked at CBGB through May of this year, and the roughly 50 employees who make up the bar, stage and security staff are still reporting for work as usual. But there is an air of uncertainly around the club, and neighbors say it was inevitable that CBGB would eventually be threatened by rising rents.

“This doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Jerry Kronberg, an employee of the nearby Amato Opera. “It’s like going outside when it’s raining and then complaining that you’re getting wet. What can you do about it?”

Malik Hassan, a resident of the homeless shelter that neighbors CBGB, pointed to Rafe New York, a high-end retail store that sits directly across the street from CBGB and sells designer handbags for upwards of $500. He said that with businesses like Rafe opening on the Bowery, it would not be surprising for every echo of the old neighborhood to eventually disappear.

Much of the anger from users of CBGB’s online message boards is directed at New York University, which a few years ago signed a long-term lease on a large privately developed building just up the block from the club for use as a new student dorm. The university is perceived as playing a central role in the gentrification of the neighborhood and subsequent rising rents.

Erin Anderson, an N.Y.U. student and a resident of the dorm on the Bowery, said that some of her fellow students were organizing independent fundraisers to help keep CBGB open. “One reason students come to N.Y.U. is that this part of the city is so rich in culture,” she said. “It’s ironic that N.Y.U. is feeding on that culture and helping to kill it at the same time.”

Another well-known nightspot struggling for survival is Tonic on Norfolk St. Although less steeped in history than CBGB, the experimental music venue is facing similar rent pressures. Since opening in 1998, Tonic’s rent has doubled, and the club, also in negotiations with its landlord, is hosting a series of benefit concerts this month.

Last Saturday, Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon took the stage at Tonic for a benefit show that featured films, dancing and, of course, live music. But even with the $20,000 such benefits have already raised, the club is still $80,000 short of what owners say it will need to survive in the foreseeable future.

“What happens to Tonic is similar to what happens to CBGB, because it’s the landlords who are going to decide if something will be an interesting cultural venue or if it will be condominiums,” said Melissa Caruso Scott, a co-owner of Tonic. “We think the city should provide incentives for landlords to maintain cultural venues.”

Two other live-music and performance venues, Luna Lounge on Ludlow St. is closing at the end of this month, and Fez on Lafayette St. will host its last show on March 17. Luna Lounge’s lease is up at the end of this month and the landlord plans to develop a luxury apartment building on the site; Luna Lounge hopes to reopen on the Lower East Side. Fez is a sort of hipster version of a cocktail lounge where Joan Rivers recently performed comedy.

Upstairs from Fez, Time Café will close, too — but will reopen after a renovation. More information wasn’t available at press time as to why Fez is closing.

In January 2004, The Bottom Line, the legendary 30-year-old, W. Fourth St. club where Bruce Springsteen first shot to fame, closed its doors after a court battle with N.Y.U. over its lease. The space was recently reopened as new classrooms.

But Downtown cultural observers say CBGB would be the biggest single loss of them all.

“CBGB closing would be a tragedy of the first order,” said Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. “There is no single cultural site on the Bowery that has the historical and creative force that CBGB has. We tell people to find us by going across the street from CBGB.”

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