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The Disney-fication of CBGB


There is something obscenely wrong with what sits in the former location of CBGB.  Some of what defined the legendary rock club remains; a few walls are still covered with fliers and graffiti.  But the stage has been replaced with a tailoring shop: the kind you see at Brooks Brothers.  And the floor where kids once danced to Television and Bad Brains is now filled with clothing racks adorned with $1600 leather jackets.

That’s because the place that was ground zero for the New York punk, hardcore and No Wave scenes, is now home to a boutique for high-end fashion designer John Varvatos.

Varvatos, who has designed for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, seems at least somewhat aware of the hallowed ground on which he now stands.  He has attempted to integrate the look and feel of CBs into his new store.  He promises to hold a fundraiser for young musicians in May.  Varvatos told the New York Post: "I wanted to combine music, fashion, memorabilia, and really make it a cultural space."

The question is, whose culture is he talking about?

There’s always been an attraction among the affluent toward the culture of the "underclass."  The austere, bohemian ethos of living outside the accepted parameters of society is enticingly romantic and edgy.  And yet, anyone living in an urban area today can rattle off the laughable ways in which yuppie-dom has tried to appropriate this lifestyle: "loft" style apartments, complete with exposed concrete and piping sold for 400 grand; pseudo-hipsters who spend $75 to make their hair look like they just rolled out of bed.  And from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to the Mission District in San Francisco, the once safe-havens of Bohemia are being encroached upon by developers and spineless city councils.  Their promises to retain the "flavor" of the neighborhoods ring hollow.

Enter Varvatos.  In trying to pay tribute to the iconic CBGB, he has made it impossible for any of the former regulars to return, even if they wanted to.  His idea of a nod to the Ramones is selling special edition Chuck Taylor All Star tennis shoes… for $110!

Robert Hollander, a resident and community activist in Manhattan’s East Village, hit the nail right on the head: "It’s kind of ironic because they’ve made this gesture to preserve a little bit of history, but the reason CBGBs is gone is because places like this have opened up in the neighborhood."

Indeed, CBs has been one of countless casualties of the new urban policy.  When owner Hilly Kristal closed the club in October 2006, it was against a backdrop of skyrocketing rents, forced evictions and police crackdowns.  The city’s willful neglect in the 70s and 80s had allowed the Lower East Side to become an incubator of punk rebellion and artistic experimentation.  "The sense of self and new energy was instantaneous," says Patti Smith, "the confidence it inspired was strong, and the sense of community was immediate. William S. Burroughs lived down the street. He came all the time. We gave him a little table and a chair, and he’d sit there. All of our friends came — Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll. CBGB was the neighborhood — the artists and poets and musicians — and we all inspired each other." 

The gears shifted in the 90s.  As more developers made their way downtown, squats were cleared out to make way for condos, apartments that had gone for a few hundred were suddenly worth thousands.  True to form, CB’s landlord started demanding tens of thousands in fabricated back-rent from Kristal.  Callous seems to be an understatement when talking about shutting down this kind of cultural hub, but this is the NYC of Giuliani and Bloomberg.  And policies designed to mow over working people’s very right to exist certainly don’t give two thoughts to the culture trampled in the wake.

Herein lies the sick irony.  The very same exorbitant rent that forced Kristal to shut it down is mere pocket change to Varvatos.  Alice Cooper, whose gold records now adorn the walls of the new Varvatos boutique, thinks it’s a chance for the rabble that frequented the club to move up the world: "now all the old CBGB punks will become the best dressed CBGB punks in the world."  As most of these same punks were pushed out of the neighborhood long ago, it’s hard to believe they’d come back to pay $130 for a t-shirt.

It’s only one of the myriad cultural tragedies in the age of the Shock Doctrine.  An artistic community that altered the course of history is brushed aside and replaced with its feeble, Disneyland equivalent.  It’s happening in every city, to every artist that lives on the fringe.  No matter what Varvatos says about paying homage, his store’s mere presence can only be a reminder of the creativity and enthusiasm crushed under the iron heel of the free market.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist, writer and activist living in Washington, DC.  He is a regular contributor to Znet, Dissident Voice and Slepton.com.  His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].

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