NYC’s Beloved Monster Island Closes

MONSTER2-popupSurprisingly, the demise of non-profit music and art venue Monster Island (which was as weirdly charming as it name would imply) drew a write-up in this past weekend’s New York Times. Like its brethren Market Hotel and Silent Barn (both of which also shuttered their doors this past year) Monster Island stood in stark, defiant contrast to the commercially-oriented music club model. It helped to foster some of the city’s most acclaimed and exciting bands in recent years, before falling prey to the incessant steamroller of gentrification:

The concert was particularly poignant for the hundred or so people who stood listening intently in the bright light off the East River in Brooklyn because it was the last time they would be able to gather for a block party at Monster Island, a collection of performance spaces and studios in a faded commercial building covered with murals near the Williamsburg waterfront. Many said they had been going there to hear new music or see off-the-wall art installations for seven years. Some were heartbroken; some philosophic.

Monster Island is shutting down this month because the landlord wants to redevelop the property and has not renewed the lease. Its fans marked its passing with a block party on Saturday. The end of this haven for struggling artists and musicians is a sign of broader changes in the neighborhood, where new condominiums are replacing the dilapidated warehouses, and upscale bars and restaurants have appeared on streets where once there were only underground clubs in vacant commercial buildings.

The eviction of Monster Island — home to two nonprofit performance spaces, a screen-printing shop, a surf shop, a recording studio and several artists’ studios — is a reminder that the city is always remaking itself, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of underground music, where performance spots and galleries operate with little cash, often on the fringe of the law.

A few, like Monster Island, become institutions of a sort. In the past 18 months two other spaces — the Market Hotel in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the Silent Barn a bit farther east in Ridgewood, Queens — have also been forced to close. Both were raided by city authorities, who demanded they comply with fire and building codes. (City officials said there had been no concerted effort to crack down on underground clubs in the area.)

The people who operate these spaces said they would revive them. Secret Project Robot, the main institution at Monster Island, is relocating to Melrose Street in Bushwick. Market Hotel’s promoters have formed a nonprofit to court grants and donations; they plan to do the renovations necessary to come up to code and reopen. The group that ran the Silent Barn has raised money to replace its equipment and is seeking a new space to rent.

Still, the turmoil has sent shudders through the network of people who run underground gathering spots, which are known as do-it-yourself, or D.I.Y. spaces. Just a few years ago the Brooklyn music scene was known for its vibrant D.I.Y. clubs that had been incubators for dozens of independent acts, among them the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Vivian Girls, Dirty Projectors, Dan Deacon and Teengirl Fantasy.

Todd Patrick, a concert promoter who ran the Market Hotel and books bands at several other D.I.Y. spaces, said that times had changed. “A lot of places are by necessity becoming more permanent if they can, just because they are under fire,” he said. “There has been a change in the climate of the city.”

As rents have risen in Williamsburg, and the waterfront has been rezoned to allow residential high-rises, more and more of the D.I.Y. crowd is moving east to Bushwick. Only a few, like Death by Audio and 285 Kent Avenue, remain near the water.

Rachel Nelson, who runs Secret Project Robot with Erik Zajaceskowski, said that when they took over the Monster Island building, the waterfront contained mostly factories, warehouses, fuel tanks and auto shops, a dismal strip where prostitution and drug dealing flourished. A couple of years ago a condominium building went up cater-corner from Monster Island, and some of the new residents in the neighborhood consider the colorful murals on the building an eyesore.

For musicians the D.I.Y. spaces are critical to developing new talent. A chance to perform live for an open-minded audience without worrying about earning money for a club owner is invaluable. Not only are the D.I.Y. concert promoters committed to experimental music, but they also have low overhead and can afford to take risks. The lineup on Saturday included the duo Divine Order of the Blood Witch, playing a 20-minute composition that sounded like a sustained train wreck in a horror film, evoking explosions, metal shrieking, rubble collapsing, layered above guttural electronic noises that sounded like movie monsters.

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  • Butter Knife

    The real irony is that without Monster Island and similar underground cultural centers, there would be no reason to close them down. It’s not an accident that Williamsburg is turning upscale, it is a direct consequence of it having turned fashionable.

    The article even spells out the next step: relocation. The underground music and art scene isn’t going to vanish forever, it will simply move. In time, it will all come full circle and the scene will come back to the places it left behind. Maybe in two or three generations some savvy hipster of the future will resurrect Monster Island once Williamsburg is once more faded and decaying, using the remains of formerly trendy condos and luxury apartments since given over to low-income subdivisions or abandoned rather than factories and warehouses.

  • Butter Knife

    The real irony is that without Monster Island and similar underground cultural centers, there would be no reason to close them down. It’s not an accident that Williamsburg is turning upscale, it is a direct consequence of it having turned fashionable.

    The article even spells out the next step: relocation. The underground music and art scene isn’t going to vanish forever, it will simply move. In time, it will all come full circle and the scene will come back to the places it left behind. Maybe in two or three generations some savvy hipster of the future will resurrect Monster Island once Williamsburg is once more faded and decaying, using the remains of formerly trendy condos and luxury apartments since given over to low-income subdivisions or abandoned rather than factories and warehouses.