Why can’t New York get over its ‘bad old days’?
They say New York City is over. They tell you the party ended back when you still thought parties meant cake and tears before bedtime. Veterans of the night will explain that you got here too late for Sway and The Beatrice Inn in the 2000s or The Limelight and The Tunnel in the 1990s. And if you arrived in time to catch those spots, you almost certainly missed seeing Disco Fever, Area, Danceteria and The Mudd Club shimmy from the denim-clad 1970s into the light of ’80s neon. Your parents, too – because in the 1970s they were too old for CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and The Loft, but too underage for Café Wha? in 1950s Greenwich Village. And your grandparents undoubtedly missed the memos for the Village Vanguard in the 1940s or the Cotton Club’s heyday in ’30s Harlem. They say New York is over because something is always finishing while something else is about to begin. The same goes for artistic flashpoints associated with all the other Great Cities of the Night in the West. Whether you turn up with your bindle over your shoulder in Berlin, London or Paris, you’ll always be unfashionably early or pathetically late for one scene or another. There’ll always be a younger gang arriving soon to replace you – before they, in turn, are themselves replaced.
In New York, missed encounters are built from bricks and mortar. Everyone at some point learns about the beautiful neoclassical Penn Station that was demolished in 1963 and replaced with a concrete labyrinth of dirt, danger and sadness. Stories about how (insert gentrified neighbourhood of choice here) was sanitized long before you started romanticizing it are dime-a-dozen. And, tragically, we all know about the Twin Towers that no longer orient lost tourists to north and south in Manhattan. (I missed seeing the World Trade Center because I first tried to visit New York on the day it was destroyed: my flight on 9/11 was turned back to Heathrow halfway across the Atlantic.) In his book The Colossus of New York (2003), Colson Whitehead describes how we all carry with us a ‘private New York’ that begins construction from the moment we arrive. ‘No matter how long you have been here,’ he writes, ‘you are a New Yorker the first time you say, “That used to be Munsey’s” or “That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.” […] You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.’1 Even the most famous love letter to the city, E.B. White’s essay ‘Here Is New York’, is a lengthy complaint that things weren’t as good in 1949 as they were when the author first moved there in 1924.
Burnishing myths is a pastime New Yorkers like to indulge. In particular, recent years have seen an entire micro-industry of books, exhibitions and films rise from the ruined memories of its ‘bad old days’ during the 1970s and ’80s. Following the success of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids, appetite only seems to have grown for stories about the city when Warhol was partying, AIDS had not yet decimated a generation, the Bronx was burning and the names of Avenues A, B, C and D in no-go Alphabet City stood for Adventurous, Brave, Crazy and Dead. (Writer George Pendle suggested in 2016 that Affluent, Bourgeois, Comfortable and Decent would better describe Alphabet City today.)2 This past year alone has seen the publication of two historical studies on downtown art and nightlife: Do You Have a Band?: Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City by Daniel Kane and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor 1980–83 by Tim Lawrence. Alongside these, I’ve counted five new memoirs: The Mudd Club, written by that new-wave-era venue’s doorman, Richard Boch; Victor P. Corona’s Night Class: A Downtown Memoir; Inside Studio 54 by Mark Fleischman; a sumptuous coffee-table book on the same legendary disco by Bob Colacello and Ian Schrager; and After Andy by former Warhol studio employee Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni. Adding another carriage to the nostalgia train, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011, sets up the early-2000s indie music scene – a period of action-replay moves from the CBGB-era – as the next locus of cultural sentimentality. This library of remembrance has been accompanied by an emerging literature of loss and struggle: The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite by urbanist Alessandro Busà; Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, an account of race, class and film history in contemporary Brooklyn by critic, screenwriter and di-rector Brandon Harris; and the impassioned Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul by blogger Jeremiah Moss.
‘Oh, Andy!’ sigh the memoirists and ‘Oh, kerrching!’ ring the cash registers. As if these books weren’t enough, September 2017 saw the release of HBO’s The Deuce – the latest TV show by David Simon, creator of The Wire – which focuses on the sex industry around gritty 1970s Times Square. That same month, Boom For Real, Sara Driver’s new documentary on the early life of downtown hero Jean-Michel Basquiat, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. In London, Basquiat was recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Barbican Centre whilst Manhattan demi-monde actor and writer Cookie Mueller was celebrated at Studio Voltaire. Last summer, Alvin Baltrop’s groundbreaking photographs documenting 1970s gay subculture around the ruined piers of Manhattan’s West Side were shown at Galerie Buchholz in New York. (The show was curated by art historian Douglas Crimp, whose own memoir of cruising and disco-dancing in New York, Before Pictures, was published in 2016.) And, in November, the Bronx Museum opened an exhibition on Gordon Matta-Clark, an artist synonymous with the decaying fabric of the city.
Why this longing for New York to be bankrupt, on fire and ravaged by heroin again? Eye-roll answer: it’s the gentrification, dummy. As local politician Jimmy McMillan famously used to say: ‘The rent’s too damn high!’ This is true: in the bad old days, the thinking goes, you had time to make paintings or enjoy an existential breakdown because you did not need to work every hour of every day to make ends meet. Yet, income inequality and the cultural blanding of the city do not fully explain the lust for ruin porn of guerrilla gardens and burned-out tenements. It’s a peculiar urban imaginary, nurtured by film and TV, in which the violent, costumed street gangs depicted in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors ride the same subway trains as free-spirited downtowner Madonna in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). (Seidelman’s 1982 feature, Smithereens, provides a notable fictional depiction of the East Village art scene.) The myths of bad old New York are perpetuated in exhibitions, coffee-table photo books and autobiographies in which you never get robbed and your landlord never burns down your apartment block for the insurance. The desire to flirt with desuetude arguably signals an abundance of privilege. And, if you survived the shit way back when, maybe reminiscing today not only serves to memorialize the loss of friends, but reminds you how far you’ve come whilst affirming that you paid your gritty dues. Perhaps those days remind us of our present epoch, in which the world appears to be falling apart: if it kept on turning back then, hopefully it will continue to do so now.
In a corner of the exhibition ‘Club 57: Film Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983’ (organized by Sophie Cavoulacos and Ron Magliozzi, with guest curator Ann Magnuson, and on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until April), there is a monitor playing Listen to This, a video by David Wojnarowicz and Tom Rubnitz, left unfinished at Wojnarowicz’s death in 1992. The artist addresses the camera: ‘It is no accident that every guide book in every conceivable language contains the trans-lated phrase, “Do you have a room with a better view?”’ Wojnarowicz was railing against the corruption of the American Dream, but looking for ‘a better view’ is an apt metaphor for New York nostalgia too.
Some brief history: Club 57 began in 1978 in the basement of the Polish National Church on St Mark’s Place in the East Village. The venue – one of many alternative art and performance spaces in lower Manhattan at that time – was run by Stanley Strychacki, who initially rented it out to bands and fringe theatre companies. In November of that year, Strychacki saw ‘New Wave Vaudeville’, a six-night show of wild, playful performance at Irving Plaza in which Klaus Nomi made his debut. It was organized by School of Visual Arts graduates Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully, in tandem with performer and musician Ann Magnuson. Strychacki invited the trio, along with Frank Holliday and Andy Rees, to start putting on nights at Club 57. From early 1979 until 1983, the venue provided a social space and platform for a motley collection of artists and performers. The list is long: Daniel Abraham, John Ahearn, Larry Ashton, Lisa Baumgartner, Ellen Berkenblit, Kitty Brophy, Stefano Castronovo, Scott Covert, Duncan Hannah, Keith Haring, Alexa Hunter, Dany Johnson, Raghubir (Nancy) Kintisch, Peter Kwaloff, David McDermott, Shawn McQuate, Sur Rodney (Sur), Kenny Scharf, John Sex, Drew Straub, Stephen Tashjian, Tseng Kwong Chi, Ande Whyland and Wendy Wild, among many others.
Club 57 was a three-way between dada, vaudeville and punk. Wilfully amateurish, retro and – most importantly – fun, it was a place for its regulars to exorcize the Cold War fears of their 1960s childhoods and deal with them anew under Ronald Reagan, to parody and criticize the wholesome hypocrisies of establishment America and recast them as kitsch grotesqueries. (Filmmaker John Waters, as well as bands such as The B-52s and The Cramps, might be identified as fellow travellers here.) B-movie horror flicks and grindhouse shockers were shown at regular film nights such as the Monster Movie Club. Audiences could watch reruns of 1960s TV shows and politically incorrect cartoons from the 1930s. The venue also hosted post-punk bands – including Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid and Y Pants – and provided space for both punk feminists (Baumgartner’s ’zine, Bikini Girl, would stage nights there) and male burlesque performers interested in exploring sexual and gender identities.
MoMA has enshrined Club 57 in its low-ceilinged, subterranean theatre and gallery space: a faint hint of what the original basement venue was like. It aims for a provisional quality: there is a regularly rotating film programme and the gallery walls are lined with photocopied flyers and works of art, some of which have not been shown since they hung in Club 57. Listening stations allow visitors to eavesdrop on Baumgartner and Sex’s answerphone recordings, discussing plans for their nights at the club. On video monitors, a devil dances robotically in an untitled film from 1980 by Joey Arias and Janis Budde, whilst Magnuson hilariously parodies female stereotypes in her channel-hopping 1984 video Made for TV (also created in collaboration with Rubnitz). The result of two years of research and around 200 interviews, ‘Club 57’ is an important conservation project. Marquee names – Ahearn, Haring, Scharf – are few and far between. The exhibition records the stories of those whose work did not make the cut for art history and remembers those whose lives were lost to the AIDS epidemic, drugs or other misfortunes. The narratives of the famous are so often rooted in the gaps left by those who went missing in action.
Film and video works have been restored by MoMA’s media conservation department and partner labs across the US: a process that rescues work on obsolete formats from rotting under beds and in suitcases. Even when these films are not artistically accomplished, many provide vital social documentation of who was where, what they wore and how they behaved. Yet, a comprehensive project of this nature also reveals more uncomfortable truths: Club 57, like much of the downtown scene that gets repackaged today, was largely white. Black artists such as Basquiat and Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy) passed through Club 57 from time to time, as did musicians Afrika Bambaataa and Julius Eastman. Relatively few accounts of this fabled era of interdisciplinary New York acknowledge, for instance, Asian artists in Chinatown or Puerto Rican writers on the Lower East Side. (‘Human Instamatic’, the first museum retrospective of artist Martin Wong at the Bronx Museum in 2015, provided an important opportunity to counter this myopia.) Sure, the new wave of Talking Heads or the no wave of DNA were hot sounds of the time but so, too, was the salsa of the Fania All-Stars, Willie Colón and Rubén Blades – not to mention the hip-hop being invented uptown in the Bronx.
Few would anticipate that their fleeting moments of creative friendship would eventually receive the institutional spit-and-polish treatment years down the line; in so doing, museums risk imposing new stiff values on old loose situations. MoMA’s press materials for ‘Club 57’ refer to the friends who began the venue as its ‘found-ing curatorial staff’, with Hannaford and Scully as its ‘film programmers’ and Magnuson as its ‘performance curator’. The word ‘curator’ meant something different in ad hoc 1978 than it does now. Using the professionalized institutional terminology of the 2000s to describe the DIY spaces of the 1970s is to suggest more intentionality than perhaps existed in the moment – as if each Monster Movie Night and drag performance came with a thesis, wall text and accompanying talks programme. It erases the value of intuition and ephemerality, of amateurism in its best sense, and places the intellectual administrative class of today’s art world in a radical lineage that is not strictly theirs to inhabit.
In truth, it’s not the work that we crave; it’s the time and place in which it was made. As writer Luc Sante, who lived in the East Village during the 1970s and ’80s, puts it: ‘I started saving fliers, clippings, ephemeral publica-tions and assorted impedimenta more than 40 years ago because I imagined that at least a few of my contemporaries were doing things that would one day need to be remembered. What I didn’t expect was that the world was going to change in such a total way that the ephemera would be of as much importance as the works and ideas they enshrined. In other words, what we took most for granted about the city – word of mouth, scavenging, improvisation, all the workarounds that resulted from relative material deprivation – was fragile beyond our reckoning, while the works it inspired largely (if unevenly) enjoyed a smooth ride to institutional acceptance.’3
Which brings us back to Wojnarowicz asking for a room with a better view – or, perhaps, a better viewfinder. ‘A lot of New York nostalgia is about the media it’s shot in,’ says artist David Levine, whose exhibition at 83 Pitt Street on the Lower East Side last October was the latest chapter in his own exploration of family history and 1970s Manhattan. ‘No one is nostalgic for high-definition 4k footage of the city in the 1970s. Obsolete formats convince you that people could see beauty better than we can, experiencing their lives in ways that were picturesque. You don’t have that way of looking at the sunset, because your eyes don’t bleach out colours the way their cameras did.’4
In Boch’s account of his time working at the more self-consciously ‘cool’ Mudd Club, he writes that, whenever he visited Club 57, it ‘felt like someone else’s party’.5 His own local allegiances conditioned his feelings, but if it seemed that way that back in 1979, it certainly seems that way in the MoMA basement today. The energy of Club 57 derived from what Brian Eno once called ‘the scenius’: momentum generated by a group rather than a lone, creative individual. It gives us a model for doing things, but these brief groupings are moments that can never be experienced again, nor even adequately documented – only reported by unreliable witnesses and imagined if you squint while pumping Rammellzee and K-Rob’s ‘Beat Bop’ (1983) through your earbuds. In one Scharf video included in the ‘Club 57’ show, Carousel of Progress (1981/2014), club members dance and goof around in Flushing Meadows park to the sci-fi twang of ‘Out of Limits’ (1962) by The Marketts. It’s charming but it’s also a little like watching someone else’s home movie. Friendship is not necessarily exhibitable.
If there’s one question all these myths and threnodies of bad old New York make me ask myself it’s this: can you ever recognize a golden age when you’re living in one? I don’t know. I’m too distracted trying to find another view.
Main image: Ira Abramowitz at Club 57, 1981. Courtesy and photograph: Lina Bertucci
1 Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York, Anchor House, New York, 2003, pp.3–4
2 Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York, HarperCollins, New York, p.17 3 Email to the author, 1 November 2017
4 Conversation with the author, 5 November 2017
5 Richard Boch, The Mudd Club, Feral House, Port Townsend, 2017, p.202
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze and is based in New York. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coffee House Press in the US.