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New York is underground

"Where's the underground scene?" readers always ask. It's there-but with a different look, sound and level of secrecy.

By Erica Orden and Candace Taylor

In a city where a John Varvatos store has replaced beer-stained CBGB, it can be tough to believe that an underground still thrives. Indeed, to some, it doesn’t. “New York City is no longer the arts center, and the underground is basically dead,” says Clayton Patterson, a photographer who has documented the Lower East Side since 1979. “The greatness of New York was attached to cheap rent,” he says. “Now it’s not possible to be a creative person, because you have to make it in ten minutes or leave.”

But while the scene might not exist in the same way that it did for ’60s radicals, ’70s punks or ’80s artists, it has adapted and survived. “It’s easy to romanticize the past in New York,” says Jeff Stark, who writes Nonsense NYC, an e-mail newsletter listing indie happenings. “But you can look at the worst of the worst—the Disneyfying of Times Square in the late 1990s, for example—and find amazing underground culture happening at every moment.”

These days, Stark sees two types of people propping up the scene. One is the “more-activisty groups and more long-term or lifer people” who reject mainstream culture, like regulars of ABC No Rio or Times Up. The others, he continues, are the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time players. “There, you end up with stuff like rock & roll with Todd P,” he says, referring to concert promoter Todd Patrick. “Bands that say, ‘Our mission isn’t to be small and obscure.’” Patrick himself rejects the term underground but embraces the idea. “It’s not a word I use,” he says. “What I look for is desperate artists. It’s not about money, it’s about fame, in a good way. You want to be noticed on an individual level.”

Many of these groups and events wind up on Stark’s list, as do pay-what-you-want dinner party Grub and secret-swapping hacker collective NYC Resistor. “The great thing about the New York underground is how much it has thrived, given how much pressure is there to try to squelch it,” Patrick says. “It’s inspiring.” We agree; and here are some of our favorite players.

The Market Hotel

“In New York, it seems like it’s hard to have fun right now,” says G. Lucas Crane. “The good venues are all closed, and the new ones seem fresh out of the wrapper and expensive. House shows are more comfortable.” That’s why Crane and his roommates have turned their home—a former sweater factory on the border of Brooklyn and Queens—into a practice space/crash pad for avant-garde rock. Shows are organized by various familiar-name promoters, including Todd P, who has a hand in a similarly veined work and performance space in Bushwick called the Market Hotel. Silent Barn, 915 Wyckoff Ave between Hancock and Weirfield Sts, Ridgewood, Queens ( Market Hotel, 1142 Myrtle Ave at Broadway, Bushwick, Brooklyn (

In 2007, the House of Yes became a mecca for circus folks, hosting skill-sharing nights where devotees practiced juggling, aerial arts and drumming. But a fire burned the place down this past April. Fortunately, the artists who lived there (many of whom are members of the Lady Circus troupe) have regrouped and taken over a warehouse in Bushwick, which will open in mid-November. >Check

The granddaddy of New York’s DIY venues, ABC opened in January of 1980 and has hung on tenaciously as a community center for art and activism. After years of battling the city for the rights to its crumbling tenement, the organizers gained the deed and are currently fund-raising to revamp the center. 156 Rivington St between Clinton and Suffolk Sts (212-254-3697,

Run by a group of activists formerly known as Complacent Nation, the Danger has gained a rep for unlicensed, semisecretive, politically tinged parties and massive public spectacles. Dubai: Brooklyn, the first in a nine-party series, recently drew 9,000 revelers to a Bushwick loft. “Our best events have that manic, fun energy of revelry on the brink of riot,” says founder William Etundi Jr.

Miracle berry parties that screw with your taste buds, dinner fetes in complete darkness, amateur-chef supper clubs and off-the-radar in-house restaurants—the obsessions of NYC foodies have inspired a slew of clandestine and occasionally illegal events, some of which remain elusive despite mainstream interest and coverage. Even we’re not willing to divulge the location of what’s possibly the best Peruvian restaurant in the city—in a private home in Jackson Heights.

They sing, they dance, they take their pants off. These guerrilla pranksters stage loosely organized “performances,” such as mass naps, balloon fights and pantsless subway trips, that keep jaded, cynical hipsters from taking themselves too seriously.

NEXT in Essentials 2008: Thinking outside the big box Nestled among nationwide chains and cookie-cutter development complexes, these indie shops find ways to survive and surpass.»


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