Ridgewood Does Not Exist

Laura moved to Ridgewood for the trees. Jordan moved to be with his friends. 

“I know you’re probably pushing me towards talking about gentrification, which obviously is a pretty incendiary issue that people get heated about,” Laura Regan said. On the advice of a doctor, who recommended the cleaner air of tree-lined streets, the Boston-born once-punk rocker arrived suddenly in the neighborhood about a decade ago. 

For most of the time, Regan has run the Footlight, one of the first of the new rock clubs that began to pop up, like bright yellow sidewalk flowers, in between the neighborhood’s century-old rowhouses. Currently, after moving between vacant event spaces, the club now occupies the backroom of a dive bar, where a sign reads, in an outsized and colorful font: “We only look like we’re cash only.”

“Pretty much anyone who attended a show was taking the L train farther than they ever had taken it before,” Jordan Michael Iannucci remembers. He had moved there himself toward the end of the ‘00s and tells me that over-liberal use of the phrase “DIY” causes him convulsions these days; divorced from the “logistical or even the political nature of those kinds of shows.

“People [now] use it to mean ‘cool’ indie rock for people with college degrees,” he tells me.

When he landed in Ridgewood, Iannucci was booking shows at one of the first incarnations of the Silent Barn, a performance space that opened near the border of Ridgewood and Bushwick in the mid-2000s. (Per a press release attributed to a guitarist named Jason McMahon, he of the long-running rock group the Skeletons, the quiet apartment building started holding shows in 2005; a retrospective story in the New York Times, however would date the beginnings of the “art-covered Shangri-La for hipsters” to 2006.) Almost instantaneously, the Silent Barn was revered in the pages of the Times as “a grimy commercial site” that has “served as a launching pad for several celebrated indie bands.” 

Though the Silent Barn itself would leave the neighborhood, and eventually cease to exist altogether,  the neighborhood around it has seemingly more performance spaces today than ever before.

Down the street from the Footlight, there is Sundown, a cocktail bar that recently opened its basement to indie rock singers with modest national followings like Andrew Savage and Ryley Walker. Another bar, which opened during the pandemic, called Bar Freda has done the same and has, so far, managed to book names as varied as Brook Pridemore, a cult name in the city’s anti-folk movement, and Sports Team, a British rock band signed to Universal Music.

While a robbery forced the Silent Barn to initially relocate to Bushwick, a different club called Trans-Pecos, has literally taken its place. “As recently as 15 years ago, this was the dumping zone…the whole area consisted of chop shops for the mob,” Todd Patrick, one of the club’s owners, told Pitchfork in 2013. 

Lining that former dumping zone, these days, are more clubs. TV Eye — named after the Stooges record, and where the HBO star Michael Imperioli regularly makes appearances — opened in 2020. Among the wave of dance clubs that opened nearby was a techno spot called H0L0, described as “a discreet metal door on a sleepy corner in Ridgewood” by New York’s nightlife writer Brock Colyar.  After about a decade in the neighborhood, the club has become a place to attract big names like Swedish House Mafia, Fred Again, and Four Tet, when they’re looking to play spaces that feel more intimate than Madison Square Garden. Around the corner, two DJs opened a 5,000-square-foot club called Nowadays in 2018, sandwiched between auto repair shops. Late last year, along one of the semi-industrial strips that outline the neighborhood’s border with East Williamsburg, another club, called Mansions popped open, providing something of a continuum with the nightlife scene that has emerged in the ocean of warehouses that once dominated northern Brooklyn. Not too far away, in neighboring Maspeth, an empty glass factory was turned into the Knockdown Center, where the elusive pop singer Frank Ocean has been known to regularly play queer-themed club shows. 

“Ridgewood has been my only home as an adult and I moved here in 2018,” says Mica Fisher, who is behind “a coffee and cocktail cooperative” called Boyfriend, which describes its vibe as “tackier than a Manhattan cocktail bar but cleaner and more femme than your local dive.” 

The cooperative group is looking for a place to rent in Ridgewood, where it would be one of the neighborhood’s first queer bars. (It would also be “the first queer-run multi-stakeholder cooperative bar” in the city, according to its crowdfunding pitch. Fisher tells me that the group is inspired by similar “values-aligned” businesses that have opened in Bushwick over the past decade, like Starr Bar and Mil Mundos, a bilingual bookstore, which are both, in their own way, run by the people who work there.)

“Lesbian bars have rapidly disappeared in the U.S. over the last few decades, and we wanted to be a part of rebuilding safer spaces for lesbians and other queer women closer to our home in Ridgewood,” Fisher wrote me in an email. “While we absolutely adore the longstanding lesbian bars in Manhattan and other parts of the city, we wanted to cultivate a space for that community in the neighborhood we live in.”

“There was this progression happening where Williamsburg got gentrified and they sort of started moving eastward, and it’s definitely happening in Ridgewood right now,” says Natalie Field, who books acts at Sundown. “It’s sort of become a what-came-first, chicken-or-the-egg -type deal. Is it businesses that are changing, or did the change in demographics create the need for these businesses?” 

“I don’t think you ever experience these changes in the moment,” Iannucci tells me. “It is exponentially more expensive now that there’s just a million different places to get pretentious too-expensive pizza, while drinking pretentious too-expensive cocktails.” 

The thing that has most “definitely changed” are rents, he says. When he arrived in Ridgewood, he was paying $600 for a master bedroom in a converted three-bedroom apartment. 

“That, I would almost certainly not find today,” he says. 

Primarily making his living as a freelance accountant (“I’m great at not profiting from the shows”) Iannucci has watched music in the neighborhood turn from taking place in off-the-cuff performance spaces to bars and clubs. He waxes nostalgic about an “insane” show he went to over a decade ago at the K&K Buffet, a  Chinese restaurant that occupies what had once been a boxing arena called the Ridgewood Grove

More recently, Iannucci has been putting on free shows in Mafera Park, a stretch of greenspace tucked under a hill in a particularly quiet corner of Queens. During the day, kids skate and play ball. For two years, over the summer, Iannucci would drag out a soundsystem and invite some of his favorite local singers to have at it in front of an assorted crowd that passed around donations and a box of Modelos, while keeping an eye out for the police. He would later split the money with the bands, and post the numbers on Instagram. 

Those shows attracted a varied scene. A Brooklyn band called Ray Bull — “the band in New York that makes the music I like the most,” he tells me. A local singer named Mallory Hawk, perhaps more known for running the record label Double Double Whammy, which discovered the popular indie singer Mitski. A Venezuelan-American producer who goes by the moniker Slic and who makes “shimmering electronic pop music,” according to their website

“One of my favorite musicians in New York right now,” Iannucci says of Slic. He calls organizing shows like these, “the weird thing that I’ve picked to mediate my relationships with people.” 

“There is way less of that stuff, now that more people are moving here, precisely because there‘s more people moving here,” he tells me. “It’s easier to do stuff like that when real estate isn’t expensive and nobody’s thinking about how to monetize every square foot of everything.” 

For Iannucci, the changes in the neighborhood’s music scene anticipated the neighborhood’s increased value to the real estate industry. He’s recently decided that, this year, he isn’t going to host the shows anymore because he isn’t sure where he’s going to land in the neighborhood.

“The first time I realized that the change [in Ridgewood] had happened, in some sort of broad meaningful sense, is when I started getting invited to really bad shows in Ridgewood,” he says.

Resentful and frustrated, Iannucci says that the music started getting worse too.     

“If you’re getting invited to shitty shows that your friend’s coworker is playing, there is a good chance your rent is also going up.”

When Regan brings up gentrification, she also brings up her rent. A decade ago, she had found a “good deal” in the neighborhood. (“There were a lot of good deals in Crown Heights back then, there were a lot of good deals in Bed-Stuy too.”) 

But now her building had been sold and the new owner was a property management company that was planning on jacking up rents by about a thousand dollars a month, on account of renovations that Regan says “were not asked for.”  

“These landlords are actively choosing to take affordable housing off the market. They don’t have to make that choice, but they are choosing to do that,” she say.

Her gripes are with landlords, who she says have long exploited the movement of artists throughout the city.

“I personally don’t believe that small businesses directly affect gentrification… Landlords play a more significant role and [they] set ‘market value’ with impunity,” says Regan. “It just so happens that a lot of artists do live in Ridgewood. There’s a huge burgeoning art scene and there’s been for the last eight years.”

Among the first to notice that burgeoning scene, Regan had decided to launch a club there because she wanted to focus on giving a stage to “emerging artists.” The venture was, by most measures, a success, and captured the passerby spirit of the neighborhood’s indie scene. The Brooklyn emo band Stay Inside, which initially included a pre-breakout Bartees Strange, performed regularly, years before his celebrated appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Late Night.” 

Even now, Regan fondly recalls encouraging one of her friends, Katy Rea, to venture forward on an open mics nights and perform on stage for the first time. Regan later booked Rea for a brief residency at the Footlight and the singer put out her debut album last year. If it was new, Regan wanted it on stage.

Then the roof caved in. 

She had been fighting with the landlord for some time over allegations of negligence that had been playing out bitterly in New York City Housing Court. The cost, Regan says, had driven her close to bankruptcy by the time pandemic hit and clubs everywhere were closed indefinitely. 

When she opened the club’s doors for the first time, during an early wave of reopenings, the roof had collapsed from disuse. It would cost upwards of $60,000 to re-open it. Practically speaking, she would never fill the stage again. She was evicted and spent a year enmeshed in further housing litigation. 

“My life was a living hell,” she remembers. 

Before she started booking shows at the Sundown, Field had been among the emerging artists avidly championed at the Footlight. Field’s band, a post-punk group with a “propensity for excessive silliness” called Hot Tea, played their first show there. 

“Artists make a town cool, quote unquote, and you see businesses pop up around that. It seems to be a tale as old as time,” says Field. She names Kermit Westergaard, a real estate developer who bought and developed the building that would later attract businesses like the Sundown, as well as a handful of other restaurants that now occupy the surrounding corner of the neighborhood. Westergaard’s various developments would later become the subject of a story in New York titled “A gentrification battle erupts in Ridgewood.”

“He definitely has some sort of vision for the neighborhood and I think a lot of these businesses are popping up because of that vision,” she says. 

More so perhaps than hipsters, artists feel even more conflicted about their role in encouraging development.  

“It’s tricky for me to comment on gentrification because I am a young artist who moved to Ridgewood, so it’s not as if I’m exempt from the things that are happening here and I have to be aware of that myself,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a positive thing.”

TJ Olsen, who opened Bar Freda amid the COVID-19 pandemic, told me that he was making a bet that the neighborhood would be next. 

“We were very much between Bed-Stuy and Ridgewood,” Olsen told me, “Bushwick was already pretty saturated and Williamsburg was definitely a non-starter.” He had been a veteran of the booking business since the late ‘00s, when he started on the Lower East Side. By the time he started going to clubs, CBGBs was on its last legs, playing “local bands by that point,” before its eventual fate as the home to the John Varvatos brand. Back then, Olsen remembers, it was Williamsburg that was starting to feel like “the next new frontier.”

“I had a hunch that Ridgewood would be the next logical conclusion, as far as where a lot of the people that I have known for all these years would end up moving to when they got priced out of Bushwick,” Olsen says. 

Above the door of the bar, reads the words SENECA PORK STORE INC., letters faded like chalk after a rainstorm. Thirty years ago, the bar was very much that, Olson tells me. His neighbor across the street tells him that a cousin once ran a grocery store there too, sometime in the decades in between. If what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now, it remains avidly on the minds of those currently living there. 

“I think every iteration has gotten a bit better,” Olson says. “I remember the complete disregard that folks would show for their residential neighbors in the Lower East Side back in the day. I remember the mayhem that was Williamsburg in 2012 and 2013.”

“I hate to say this, but I think in many cases, I suspect that it was the experience of getting pushed out of somewhere you have built and been a part of, by the next wave of people with more money and people with different objectives” has given club owners “a better handle of understanding the role that curators and performers play,” he says.

Regan tells me that “complacency is what is going to kill us, or drive us out of the city in general.” She’s at the helm of a group she created called the Neighborhood Venue Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of “small and micro venues.” 

“If we don’t have them, where are the Strokes going to play before they play Terminal 5?,” she asks me.

Regan wants to stay in Ridgewood and she says she’s been lucky enough. A friend who ran a nearby bar offered her the back room, where she’s been hosting shows ever since. She’s been able to find a new apartment. But she’s worried about her neighbors. Real estate is fickle. Many of them have lived in the neighborhood longer than she has, and haven’t been as lucky. 

Iannucci, for instance, says he’s recently decided that he’s not going to host any more shows in Mafera Park. He’s not sure how long he’s going to be able to live around there. He’s between places at the moment. He’s grown a bit cynical about the arts scene in Ridgewood. 

“There isn’t a scene. It is a discoherent group of young people making a discoherent collection of art, and the only thing that ties any of it together is that Ridgewood is the cheaper place for young people to live in the year 2023. Other than that, I don’t think it goes any deeper,” he says. 

This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

Top image taken by Andrew Karpan.

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