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Cultural Capital

Jesse Rifkin Dreams of Skyscraper Raves in Midtown

The author of "This Must Be the Place" traces the history of New York's neighborhood-based scenes.

(HarperCollins / Jesse Rifkin)

On the Monday night before Jesse Rifkin's book, "This Must Be the Place: Music, Community and Vanished Spaces in New York City," came out, the author gathered at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene with musician and longtime scenester DJ Mojo, musician Alan Licht, and Matt Conboy, co-founder of dead DIY space Death By Audio.

"This Must Be the Place" is an interview-stuffed history of downtown Manhattan's rock, jazz, and experimental music communities, beginning with the folk music scene in Greenwich Village. Rifkin identifies in them a specific phenomenon—brewed in city neighborhoods, these are scenes that entice people to move somewhere to be a part of something. In his writing, Rifkin largely rejects narrow, protagonist-driven retellings of specific stars, and instead attempts panoramic remembrances of the architecture of music scenes—not just the stars on the stage, but the stars working the door, the neighbors, the heat, the rent, and who was paying it, who made it, who didn't, why, or why not.

Hip-Hop, that great New York art scene, is sidelined with a confusing attribution to "geographic reasons." Given the book's subtitle, that's a deflection. "This Must Be the Place" is a book specifically about the constellation of scenes in New York history that have attracted mostly-white, creatively curious kids from outside NYC to move into New York neighborhoods, and transformed those neighborhoods as a result. Hip-Hop, from the ungentrifiable borough, is thus reduced to its (fascinating to read about, don't get me wrong) intersections with the downtown rock scene. 

Elsewhere in "This Must Be the Place," reading Rifkin's book is almost soothing in its clarity about material conditions—trust fund babies are unmasked, and the book begins with a table that maps the dollar over the years of the books' time (all the better to understand how much everyone was paying in rent). In that way, Rifkin's approach becomes a diagnostic for those of us who hyperventilate about the future possibility for arts communities in New York—how, we might ask, can New York continue to be the world's most important city for creativity, when artists can't afford to live here? A sober assessment of who has the money helps.

But Rifkin ultimately believes that he's writing about an un-killable quality of New York—for better and for worse, artists will never stop moving here and trying to figure it out, and, at least so long as market capitalism rules, real estate will continue to turn their aesthetics into cash. Rifkin (who played in a band called Jane Eyre through the 2000s and early 2010s) and Conboy shared a scene—Death by Audio closed in 2014, the year before I moved to New York. They were run out of their building by VICE media, which literally muscled out a DIY rock scene whose shadow has loomed over the now-failed company ever since. I remember feeling like a door had closed, but Rifkin writes that aging New York scenesters have always thought that it's "so over," and so far, it never has been.

On Tuesday, I asked Rifkin, who's also the creator and proprietor of Walk on the Wild Side Tours NYC, about "This Must Be the Place," a pandemic project that started when his business of giving music history walking tours downtown "was just not on the table anymore."

"I had already been thinking about it a little bit," he said. "And I'd already had some contact with my editor. But it was sort of an interesting moment, as all of nightlife in New York City was put on pause. And as the city kind of emptied out of all the people that didn't really want to be here, it felt like a really good moment to kind of take stock of everything that happened, you know, how did we get to this point? And how can we maybe go forward?"

What I find really great about this book is your attempt to really look at things with clarity, drawing out the ecosystems.  

That was the concept from the outset. That's kind of been my guiding MO since I started doing walking tours in 2018. The nice thing about being in the position I was in, in the 2000s and early 2010s, where I was in bands, I was at these venues, I was close enough to see how the communities worked. But I wasn't involved enough or successful enough to be too swept up in what I was doing. I had sort of a ringside seat, you could say, so I could really look at it analytically. 

And it always frustrated me the way that it was like, not looked at analytically. Once I started doing a lot of research of my own, so many of these narratives became so much clearer and honestly kind of obvious in ways that I think people go out of their way to not articulate, because it removes the mystery and the mystique and the idea that the people who made these things, you know, made this music are special. Artists especially want to be self-made geniuses. And that's just not reality. 

What's an example of that? 

I mean, I think I fall back on this example, probably too much. But I think CBGB is an incredible example of that. It gets treated as this mystical thing where, just by coincidence, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Blondie, you know, all these bands converge. 

Once I realized that the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, especially those three bands, all lived within a block of the club, that's just like, oh, obviously.

The loft that the Ramones were based out of was literally across the street from the loading door. Of course they're going to be there every night. So Hilly Kristal, the owner, gave people a lot of leeway. Bands could suck and still get booked again, because his bar was such a shithole that no one really expected very much. There's just all this possibility, and these bands who were totally, totally broke were allowed to come hang out for free and watch each other and network and have somewhere to be that's, like, heated in the winter, when people are all living in semi-illegal, or totally illegal loft buildings. 

Other bands too, like Suicide, were living on Greene Street in Soho, which is like six minutes away. Patti Smith was on MacDougal Street at the time, which is maybe seven minutes away. Nobody is far from this club. And Max's Kansas City, which is, you know, sort of the other pole of that era, is in Union Square. It's like 15 minutes away; people literally were walking back and forth every single night. I feel like when you know that stuff, it all becomes so much more accessible, and possible. It's not that there was magic spilling out of this place. It's just that people got their shit together enough to leave their apartment and go to the same bar night after night and put the hours in.

That's more exciting to me even than, you know, "this group of wizards convened"—

Exactly.

Someone might be like, "Oh, so you're just saying that Talking Heads were just living nearby?" It's like, yes, but also.

Yeah. I mean, there were tons of other bands that also lived near CBGB, who nothing happened for. But it's never magic alone. When I interviewed [the journalist] Legs McNeil for the book, he talked about seeing Blondie at CBGB, and how it was so great, because when they started playing there, they were like the worst band. Everybody in the community laughed specifically at them as just like, these guys are not gonna go anywhere. And they just were so willing to put up with that humiliation and were so eager to play over and over and over at CBGB that you could actually watch them turn into an amazing band in real time. The Ramones would have Talking Heads open for them, because they thought Talking Heads were the worst band on the scene and would make them look better. So these people were being given space to figure their ideas out and find themselves.

I did not know that CBGB was below a homeless shelter, and probably making lives really miserable. That's not part of the mythology. Even people that I've been introduced to in this book, like Anita Sarko, you're also just like, oh, she was a trust fund kid. And I found that so extremely refreshing—this person was extremely influential, and also, we have to say that she was a trust fund kid.

Art scenes have always been full of trust fund kids. Always. And, you know, there's a lot of people in the book, who are trust fund kids who I didn't call out, but Anita Sarko is dead, so it made it a little bit easier to note. But it's just easier to Google who people's parents are now. And it's harder for people to totally reinvent themselves and create these new identities, new mythologies. But there have always been rich kids, there have always been people whose parents were paying their rent the entire time. The rent was cheaper, granted, but you know, same general principle.

Part of what your book accomplishes is throwing water on the kind of perpetual doom spiral of proclaiming that the scene is dead, while also insisting on clarity about the actual conditions that we have now, in a way that seems kind of like a diagnostic for how we can continue to have scenes at all—unmask the trust fund kids! Or they must unmask themselves.

Whenever people, especially older people, are like, "It's over. It's done. We got it. You didn't. Fuck off." It just pisses me off so much. Max's Kansas City was the right place for that moment, for that community. You can't try to just keep the past going or recreate the past. If Max's Kansas City existed now, it would be so embarrassing.

You said something similar last night about Pyramid, and how it became a theme bar where the theme was itself. 

What a fucking joke it became. Or Cafe Wha? is still there, you know? It's just now they have Jimi Hendrix impersonators, and all the great stuff that happened there is just totally overshadowed. It's more about what's happening now that's responding to this current set of circumstances, to this current moment, to the concerns of young people, to the tastes of young people, that is for them and about them. That's what's going to be exciting now. And that's what's going to be remembered. 

Your intro is a brief kind of snapshot of the history of people being like, it's over. You have Patti Smith in 2010 saying, "New York City has been taken away from you…find a new city."

It really is so frustrating when people want to close the door behind themselves, and just be like, "That's it, it's done. I personally am out, therefore, the whole thing is over." People view the world through their own experience. You sort of have to make the effort to be a little humble about it and understand that no one person's experience is the totality of what's happening, even if they're super involved. Even if they're on the ground doing it, there's still going to be other equally vibrant, equally important things that they don't know about. 

Which is part of why the book covers such a wide period of time and so many genres. My great hope is that someone who was maybe around for punk in the '70s will read about what was going on in the disco world at the same time and be like, "Oh, my God, I didn't know any of this. This is cool," or even what younger people are doing and be like, "Oh, this is cool. I respect it."

I listened to your interview on "The Culture Journalist" podcast and thought about the future you talked about—raves in Midtown skyscrapers. When you were expressing this idea of like, culture is unkillable, my little pessimist brain was kind of like, well, why won't we just become San Francisco? 

There's also no guarantee that San Francisco is going to stay the way it is. The situation San Francisco's in, the situation New York is in right now, they're simply unsustainable. If they keep going forward in this direction, there's just going to be a city with nobody in it. You can't have a city that's only rich people and empty apartments. There's really no reason at all, I think, to say that this version of New York is the one that's gonna take forever. 

Before I started working on the book, I remember talking to somebody about how you never hear about neighborhoods de-gentrifying, neighborhoods only seem to gentrify. And then when I started working on the book, I was stunned to learn that when SoHo was first built, it was a high-end shopping destination, much like it currently is. It basically went full circle. But you know, in the middle, there's this period where the stores move somewhere else, and the neighborhood empties out, and they ended up bulldozing a lot of those stores and putting up factories. There's no reason to think that that's not gonna happen again. 

You know, there's all these Chanel stores opening in Williamsburg now, these areas are where people are going. The young, rich people that are coming to the city, they're moving downtown, they're moving to Williamsburg, they're moving to Bushwick. And as the wealth centers move in that direction, other places that were previously wealth centers are going to become kind of passé and corny, and people are gonna stop going for those reasons. I can't say that a specific change is inevitable, but change is inevitable. And New York right now, I think is like, it just feels very tangibly that it's in this transitional moment. And what it's transitioning to, is something that I think we have a lot more say in than maybe we civilians like to admit. 

So you outline the relationship between arts movements or communities, and gentrification. What should we do? 

[Laughs].

Sorry if that's kind of unanswerable. 

I think what we can do is to move forward with awareness. Like I said in the conclusion of the book, it's not that artists aren't inevitably gentrifiers, because they are—in the larger sense, an arts community is definitely a gentrifying force—but on an individual level, you can, you know, not be a dick. Support and engage with the area that you're inserting yourself into. Be a good neighbor. There's no reason why you can't make great art and have a place that's a hub for great art, while simultaneously being a good neighbor. In the broader sense, like, yeah, the forces of real estate and market capitalism are going to use that to their benefit, inevitably, but at least on a one-to-one level, you don't have to be 100 percent a pawn.

There were a couple of things last night that kind of brought me to this question. One was DJ Mojo saying that what makes this current moment different is no one's going to say, "I've got your back." No one's gonna throw bricks for you. And then Matt from Death by Audio noted that the Ghost Ship fire in the Bay Area marked the end of that kind of DIY space. They made me think about the latter part of your book, where you write about the rise of this kind of entrepreneur-type figure, Todd P. And there's this halo of, "Say what you want, but his space has stayed open." That made me a little queasy. It gave me a sense that we're headed in this direction of, "We don't have time for values, we're trying to keep the lights on." Which feels ominous. 

I think I understand your question. I don't think we have to give up, necessarily. The thing that makes Todd P. so great, in my eyes, is that he was explicitly like, "No, we don't have to give up." You know, even if we don't have a venue, we'll do a show in fucking tent on a construction site. Right up until opening Market Hotel, Todd was making no money. He was incredible at organizing, he was incredible at promoting. But it was not a commercial venture. It was kind of selfless in a lot of ways. I think that can be sort of a model for where to go, because the only thing that's really changed is that you kind of have to hustle a little bit more. But the truth is that none of the people in this book who were organizing these things were lying around. Some of them were terrible businessmen in the sense that they didn't make any money. But they were phenomenal businessmen in the sense that they made shit happen and got people to pay attention. And a lot of them weren't, like, super fun to hang out with. It's an intense personality to have, but you need those guys around. You need those people around.

What have you seen recently in New York that had a big effect on you? 

There have been a few things that I've seen that have had a really positive effect on me, and unfortunately, I have to be a little cagey about what they were. But there were some shows recently at these venues that were in industrial parts of Brooklyn, you know, where those still exist. The whole system that they devised, which I thought was brilliant, is that you have to buy a ticket in advance and RSVP, and then on the day of the show, they text you or email you the location. I went to a dance party thing that was also kind of operating sort of like David Mancuso and the last little chapter in the book, which is these very DIY, organized, invite-only dance things.

Part of what allowed things to get to the point that they got to in the last decade is that people didn't really appreciate what putting DIY show information on Facebook would do. Everyone's landlord is looking at that shit all the time. And you know, real estate people are looking at that shit, so they know what's going on, and they know how that impacts the property values. 

Because this stuff is harder to find, it means that it's harder to get into, but having that kind of vetting, at least up to a certain point—these kinds of communities, this kind of art needs a safe place to make those early experimental moves. It's really not that different from having a guy at the door, who's only letting you in if you don't look like a cop. I think that's really encouraging. It's sort of ironic, but the opposite of social media is community. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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