Gentrification and Art Space: The Case of Silent Barn

Guest Writer: Adin Rimland

Gentrification is described as a replacement of lower-income populations and
businesses in a specific neighborhood by more affluent ones. Gentrification actually goes beyond displacement and includes the replacement and exclusion of certain populations and businesses from a neighborhood. In this article, I want to touch on the elements that create a space which allows venues for avant-garde music to flourish, the life-cycle of these DIY spaces, and how the displacement of a such spaces affect the neighborhood and surrounding milieu. I will be working tangentially through the life-cycle of one DIY venue in particular: The Silent Barn.

Deindustrialization in the 1960s, growing ruination in the 1970s, bankruptcy, AIDS, drug epidemics and various other shared calamities created large-scale neglected neighborhoods, requiring micro-communities to self-organize in these forgotten areas. Prolonged moments of suffering can create an idealism, and potentially serve as a major creative engine. Areas abandoned by capitalism create an environment for which a creative class can survive. Ironically, the poor management of cities allows the urban to become regenerated by marginalized individuals who produce a creative, talented class that the city seeks. Decades of disintegration and neglect create a type of urban outlawism which itself serves as a source of creative energy. The urban environment has historically served as the most potent site to generate and foster these organizations of individuals for which ideas can flow. This notion of an adversarial city can begin to describe factors which caused Basquiat and Harring’s work to change from graffiti to high-capital works traded for exuberant sums, providing a creative license valued at the highest possible margin for commodified art. Gentrification, through a rise in rent prices, has caused many venues to have moved out of Manhattan into Western Brooklyn and now from Western Brooklyn deeper into the borough.

The case of “The Silent Barn” serves as a microcosm of the area around it. Negligence creates the space for which a venue like this can exist within the physical and legal periphery of its hosts, in effect borrowing the space. This precarious DIY set-up seems to characterize many of the venues in which I personally occupy my free time. I acknowledge the need for deregulated and cheap accommodation for artists. Like many, I seek the respite in environments where I do not have to focus on affordability and cost. There must be some form of happy medium, for which I hope the reality to be far from the existing extreme and dire conditions which many currently live in.

The Silent Barn was a collectively directed community art and performance
space which until recently has operated within Bushwick, Brooklyn. Originally, Silent Barn operated within Ridgewood Queens. It was a collective which featured a transient group of artists, musicians and organizers who hosted performances in their kitchens and basements, until, eventually, a core group of collaborators banded together. Its original Queens location was closed by the city as an illegal space. It was then vandalized and robbed while its inhabitants were locked out. The Community organized and devised a plan to find a new space and create a legal, ‘above-ground’ all-ages art space. As a grassroots operation, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 and raised enough money to keep their project afloat. For a few years, the Silent Barn maintained no physical space. Instead, it established itself as an organization and held open, public meetings, which brainstormed for the future. In 2012, the collective decided on a Bushwick property to operate out of. It was a three-story space with live performance venue, a cafe/bar, a visual art project space, and a dozen artist studios. The top two floors of the building housed four-apartment artists’ residency programs, with periodic openings for new members. As an organization, it was run by a group of volunteers who organized using non-hierarchical, consensus-based tools. It was, in effect, owned by everyone and by no-one. The contours of its micro-society were decided and voted on by its committee. It’s not-for-profit project had its finances administered by a private company. All major decisions were discussed within a governing forum open to all members. This forum was called the “Kitchen”, and each member of the “Kitchen” known as “Chefs”. Overarching rules were in a living document referred to as the “Cookbook”.

The Silent Barn was a quintessential DIY space. It was known for a communitarian, anarchic, and intimate atmosphere. On it website, it claims to operate as an “art-first, all-ages ethos, prioritizing independent artists, and work that isn’t commercially motivated”. Besides hosting avant-garde music events, it precipitated a grassroots organization, Educated Little Monsters (ELM), to provide artistic outlets for youths of color of all ages, while centering involvement around Bushwick natives as those most severely impacted by previous displacement and who will continue to experience the repercussions of gentrification.

The Silent Barn operated along a similar set of parameters and reacted to many
of the same economic forces which characterized the ‘Loft Scene’ within Williamsburg in the 1990s. Similar to the pricing-out of loft-venues of Williamsburg, the Silent Barn, too, was forced to disband. Opening an above ground, fully up-to-code space comes with many financial and structural challenges. A major issue in these post-industrial areas like Williamsburg and now Bushwick is that these venues are gentrified through the matter of legality. These venues face noise violations, issues with liquor licenses, and building code violations. These amount to tremendous fines which these DIY venues do not have the resources to field. Further, an increased police presence can create difficulty for local venues. DIY spaces will be temporary as long as they operate outside the presence of the law. This causes the rare venue such as Silent Barn to develop an element of sustainability.

In April of this year, Silent Barn announced that it would be closing its doors
permanently. As a collective, they were faced with pertinent dilemmas of operating as a non-hierarchical structure within a set of highly-hierarchical capital forces. How can a DIY space operate as a grassroots, bottom up collective within a top-down, capitalist system? How does their presence as a venue responsibly serve a neighborhood without contributing to its rapid gentrification?

On a personal note, I was extremely dismayed and tragically disappointed by its
closure. I had the good fortune of visiting this collective and watching an array of
performances of both music and dance. This included, amongst many, many others, a post-punk performance, a life-drawing session, as well as sludge-metal live improvisation. I believe that the existence of DIY venues such as the Silent Barn are both a result as well as a response to hyper-gentrification which is happening throughout Brooklyn, and the entire city as a whole. In effect, I see it as a necessity to provide art and music as an agent of grassroots. It’s failures absolutely need to be kept within the dialogue and growth of grassroots venues, and the perspectives and information of a collective space should encourage future collectives to explore this model and keep investigating non-traditional forms of organization.

On one hand, Silent Barn was an organization which was imported into Bushwick, however, it truly saw itself as being of the community which it operated within. I believe that the closing of Silent Barn, as well as countless other spaces among the progressive arts community is a major loss for not just the neighborhood, butNew York City as a whole. Enforcement of strict regulations and rising rent costs will continue to knock out community-oriented spaces. For me, I felt the loss of another trendy music venue. For the locals who utilized its outreach program, its closure is a tremendous loss as well as a cause of root-shock. Displacement, or a new era of colonialism, obviously favors the ones moving in, and lacks the incentive to understand its social responsibility to its inherited community. Unfortunately, for-profit ventures typically do not care to combat displacement of their surrounding communities through political engagement.

References:

  1. Heller, Michael C. Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
  2. Village Voice: https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/03/16/silent-barns-demise-is-a-cautionary-tale-fordiy-spaces/
  3. Silent Barn: http://silentbarn.org/
  4. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/03/last-battle-brooklyn-new-york-americas-most-unaffordable-place-buy-home
  5. Medium.com: https://medium.com/cuepoint/razing-williamsburg-358d7640d66d

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s