Volume 17, Number 40 | February 25 - March 3, 2005


Punk & soul and a changing Downtown

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. If this Downtown icon closes it will be a sad day indeed. “This ain’t no fooling around,” the Talking Heads, one of the bands that CBGB helped make famous, might say – if they were still playing together. Beside CBGB, the other club mentioned in that song, Mudd Club, long ago closed and the its Tribeca building now houses luxury lofts.

In a dynamic city such as New York this is what happens — neighborhoods change, they wax and wane. It is part of what gives the city its enormous vitality. Another part of that vitality is individual businesses – like CBGB and like Ruby’s Book Sale. As we reported last week, the beloved bargain bookstore that was a Tribeca mainstay for 30 years after a ten-year stint in Chelsea will be closing in March. We wish owners Roberta and Marty Sadofsky well on their retirement in Florida but mourn the loss of the book shoppers’ friend. They have sold their building and we do take some comfort that they were not driven out by a super-store or high rents. When they moved to Chambers St., Tribeca had not yet been invented and the no-nonsense working neighborhood was a long way from becoming a hot real estate market. Much has changed for the better but we would feel better still if there were still room for businesses like Ruby’s.

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 formerly desolate 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, reestablished 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. Ratner’s closed two years ago and the last bits of the blintz center was auctioned off a few weeks ago.

Of course, the news isn’t all bad. While some may bemoan the loss of the Bowery’s Skid Row for example, 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 some to Tribeca, as Collective:Unconscious theater did after Ludlow St. became ripe for development — or to the West Side or Greenpoint.

But much of the culture, commerce and people that have made the area what it is are being priced out of the neighborhood. We do see big, and sometimes better, changes on the horizon, but as we look to the future we wish we could keep a little more of the past.

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