On any given Friday night, South Williamsburg, with its stately brownstones, vinyl-sided walk-ups, endless apartment complexes and sagging warehouses, is a virtual ghost town. The only people on the corner of Rutledge Street and Bedford Avenue are two Hasidic men in mid-discussion, dressed in black overcoats. Tonight is Shabbat, and so this neighborhood, heavily populated by Orthodox Jews, sleeps.
Further down Rutledge, toward the East River and the imposing Manhattan skyline, a group of scruffy friends loiters outside of a nondescript warehouse, smoking cigarettes, talking about nothing in particular—their very presence the only tip-off that something unusual is underway upstairs. A rickety staircase leads to an architectural mishmash of smaller, incongruous rooms haphazardly stitched together and packed with strangers, artists, freaks, slummers and revelers. In the main room, tropical plants and Christmas lights line the walls and ceilings. A group of burly stoners wearing sunglasses are plopped on a couch watching a distorted video of what looks like a nightmare about ballroom dancing, as imagined by Chuck Close. The light prances, refracted through clouds of cigarette and marijuana smoke.
This is the Newsonic loft, a sweaty hideaway of progressive music, video art and altered states, which houses a monthly blowout thrown by the glam-rock outfit Dynasty Electric. Initially a showcase for that band’s psychedelic sound, the party has evolved into a popular, unauthorized venue for a litany of emerging Brooklyn acts and their devotees—a house party open to the public.
The crowd in the back room undulates to the sounds of experimental Latin band Navegante, who are in the midst of thrashing through a potent, bongo-infused cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” The walls rumble, and in any other neighborhood, or on any other night, the noise would warrant a hundred complaints. But there will be no police interference. It’s Friday, and on the holiest of nights in this community, phones are off limits. “Plus, our neighbors support us,” says Dynasty Electric’s lead singer Jenny Electrik, one of the loft’s four tenants. “They are a mystical people and they see us as mystical, too.”
Every weekend, parties like this are thrown across Brooklyn’s sprawling urban expanse. The supra-neighborhood that encompasses Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint has become the epicenter of a certain boho-hipster lifestyle and aesthetic, attracting young people from across the globe. The Manhattan transplants who move to Brooklyn, in search of cheaper rents and the creative freedoms they provide, have brought with them some of the more established borough’s recreational habits. The result is an endless network of parties that borrow from traditional nightlife practices (cover charges, doormen), but ignore the rules imposed by law and economics (smoking bans, last calls) and go down in irregular locations (an auto-parts store, a stranger’s loft).
New York has always had a culture of hush-hush social milieus. “You can read Malcolm X’s biography, where he talks about the sort of underground spaces that were up in Harlem when he was a kid,” says Jeff Stark, the founder of Nonsense New York, a nightlife website that sends out weekly e-newsletters and bills itself as a “discriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties and senseless culture in New York City.” Stark says, “An unbelievable amount of underground nightlife goes on in New York. The police and the city government have made it so hard to play by the rules.”
Nowhere are these rules more deeply felt than in Manhattan. In 2009, Beatrice Inn—a West Village speakeasy that was the city’s unquestionable “it” spot since opening in 2006—closed after the city burdened it with repeated crowd and smoking violations. Shortly after, the Jane Hotel and Ballroom, which looked to be the Beatrice’s successor, was derailed after neighbors tirelessly leveled noise complaints. This past February, the Department of Health cracked down on five nightspots over violations of the city’s smoking ban, forcing them to appear for hearings that could result in heavy fines or closure. In March, when Beatrice owner Paul Sevigny opened his latest venture, Kenmare, in NoLIta, the State Liquor Authority required assurances that it would only be a restaurant—not Beatrice redux—before granting him a liquor license.
As Manhattan becomes more and more affluent, a trend that even the current recession has not reversed, homeowners feel entitled to get what they pay for: a quiet street, a good night’s rest. In the city that never sleeps, it’s always someone’s bedtime, and if that someone happens to have a cell phone and deep pockets, rest assured the party will be over as soon as they can dial 911.
For all of these reasons, many nightlife lovers have skipped across the Williamsburg Bridge. DJ Justin Carter did this very thing when he moved his Mister Saturday Night parties from Manhattan’s Santos Party House to the Market Hotel, an underground loft in Brooklyn. He believed that a non-traditional venue, where money was not the bottom line, better reflected his values. Besides, in Brooklyn, the neighbors, twentysomethings hustling to make it in the city, are more likely to join the party than shut it down.
Roughly every second Friday, a warehouse on the fringes of Bedford-Stuyvesant opens its doors to hundreds of people. The space is home to a party we’ll call “R.” (One of the conditions of being able to publish photos from inside the space was that we wouldn’t mention the party’s name or address.) It looks like the devout followers of Burning Man ditched the desert for an industrial warehouse. The place is a night terror of sneakers, roses, dolls, stars, flamingos, disco balls, baubles, Chinese lanterns, giant candy canes, bras and countless other identifiable and unidentifiable objects. It’s as if Daniel Johnston sawed open his head and the contents floated to the ceiling.
The rooms—it’s impossible to count how many—overflow with costumed performance artists: A topless transsexual sings to an admiring audience; grungy musicians tinker with homemade rubber band harps, creating dystopian rhythms in front of a papier-mâché mosaic; an Andy Warhol lookalike pulsates on the dance floor to bursts of drum ‘n’ bass; a man screens black-and-white silent films to a half-rapt, half-disinterested audience. The collective din is R’s only soundtrack.
A mysterious girl who looks lost in a ’90s rave tells me to lick my pinky finger and dip it into a plastic bag filled with white powder. “Now put it on your tongue,” she says. It tastes like chemicals. “You just did pure MDMA,” she says, smiling.
Later, a thin, bearded man—his hairy shoulders exposed in the strapless white dress he’s wearing—offers me his plate of mac-n-cheese, which was for sale that night, along with hefty servings of $5 pot brownies. It’s this kindness-to-strangers mentality that defines most off-the-beaten-path events. Brassy Puerto Rican girls, Leary-like neo-hippies, goth and punk kids, Williamsburg hipsters, New Yorkers and brave high school students all dance, writhing en masse—a collective waving of freak flags.
R has been going strong since 1994. How it has managed to avoid mainstream attention in a media-saturated city like New York—where secrets are not only hard to keep, but actively hunted down and exposed—is miraculous. It’s scarcely covered online and has no Wikipedia page. When our photographer showed up at its doorstep in early March, vigilant employees immediately tried to turn him away. “We don’t do any press,” they said.
Not all Brooklyn parties dealing in the illicit, “underground” scene are as secretive as R. Williamsburg’s Monster Island Basement is only blocks away from Bedford Avenue, the neighborhood’s busiest street. The Market Hotel is right off the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, steps from the nearest subway station. These places skirt the line between licensed venues and basement parties.
Instead of official websites, they advertise through online social networks like MySpace and Facebook, and also have listings on popular nightlife directories. What distinguishes them from traditional spaces—aside from dinginess and billows of cigarette smoke—is the attitude. “You set out to do something that’s about the music, the audience and the culture,” says Eamon Harkin, who, along with Justin Carter, runs the Mister Saturday Night parties. “It’s about the ‘why.’ The ‘where’ is a byproduct of that.”
That “why” isn’t necessarily beholden to any particular party. The Brooklyn underground is not immune to the fickle tastes and high turnover rates that afflict Manhattan nightlife. The Shank was a shortlived but legendary after-hours party on Bayard Street in Greenpoint. Its popularity peaked in January of 2009, and it imploded shortly thereafter. In July of last year, The New York Press ran a cover story detailing the Shank’s spectacular downfall. After becoming notorious for its all-night parties, it started attracting drug dealers, underage kids and thugs. According to the Press article, the original crowd of “rock-band dudes and vintage-store employees,” stopped coming.
In recent months, a new Williamsburg after-hours party has emerged that DJ Jonathan Toubin, a Bayard Street regular, calls the new Shank. “Everyone involved in the Shank, except for the owner of the building, got back together and started the Saturday party at Badlands,” Toubin says, referring to the dusty, graffiti-marred garage a few blocks from the NYPD’s 90th Precinct. Its door reads “Whore House.”
On a recent Saturday at Badlands, an aggressively hip crowd lined up inside, waiting to pay the $5 cover and get past the monolithic bouncer. (At unauthorized parties, nothing happens on the sidewalk, including lines and smoking.) Last call was hours ago, and for this carefree group of partygoers, sleep is an afterthought. “If you dropped a bomb on the space, you would knock off half of the city’s bar staff and DJs,” says Toubin, who also manned the decks that night. “The rest are people who heard about it secondhand and are looking for something to do.”
Loose wires dangle from the ceiling, and tags like “I Love Jew York” are scrawled on the walls. Beer and cheap, migraine-inducing liquor is for sale, but most people have brought their own. Toubin is perched above the crowd in a makeshift DJ booth spinning 45s, and people in leather jackets and hooded sweatshirts use the wires to pull themselves up a narrow staircase to an alcove of couches. Rumor has it that rapper Cam’ron is there. The crowd is noticeably amped about this possibility—a surprise given how aloof they hope to look. But then, they’re young and healthy, drunk and fucked up, here to dance and play, scream and have a good time. Outside, the sun is shining.
Photography by Robert Whitman, Maia Wojcik, and Dana Decoursey.