Rock and Rent

As far as cultural icons go, it's not much to look at. It's dank. It's dark. It smells a little funny. But CBGB is, after all, a punk icon, and those who love the rock club wouldn't have it any other way. But they might not have a choice in the matter: the 32-year-old live music venue is under imminent threat of eviction by its New York landlord, a homeless-services agency that claims CBGB's proprietor has not been paying his rent.

It's a classic case of he said, she said, and each side is claiming the moral high ground. In 2001, CBGB agreed to pay the building's landlord, a venerable nonprofit for the homeless called Bowery Residents' Committee, $300,000 in back rent in a monthly payment plan. Today the BRC claims the club's owner, Hilly Kristal, has not been paying annual rent increases scheduled into its lease and now owes $90,000. In his defense, Kristal says the BRC has threatened to double his rent to $40,000 a month, a hike he says can't afford. As for the current fees, he says, "I pay the rent, I don't care what they claim." The BRC's executive director, Muzzy Rosenblatt, declined to answer the charge, saying only, "We're not talking about a new lease with him at this time, we're talking about his failure to meet his obligations under his current lease." With CBGB's lease expiring in August, the case is currently before a judge.

CBGB may have stood for Country, Bluegrass and Blues when it opened in 1973, but today it's a symbol of the punk rock and new wave moment, launching along the way the careers of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and many more. But that was then: Manhattan's Bowery district was festering; today it commands premium rents. CBGB was once the locus of a movement; today it's a largely irrelevant punk Hard Rock Cafe, a casualty of its own success even as it pops up in official city promotional material. "The part of me that loves preservation and history really doesn't want anything to happen to it," punk poetess Patti Smith, who camped out at CBGB for eight mythologized weeks in 1975, tells NEWSWEEK. "The positive side of anything happening to it is young people can start all over, as we did. They won't be shackled by the past." In short, maybe gentrification can be good for new art.

Or can it? The CBGB dispute is a high-profile, litigious version of a similar battle that influential rock clubs all over New York City are quietly fighting. CBGB may be past its punk prime, but venues that have jumpstarted the careers of current big-name acts like the Killers, the Strokes and the late Elliott Smith are also being threatened with eviction due to skyrocketing real-estate costs and the various other hurdles to opening a small club in Manhattan's hottest 'hoods. A quirky venue called Fez, an incubator for irreverent new talent that hosted singers from Jeff Buckley to Johnny Cash, closed its doors in the East Village last week. The Lower East Side building that houses Luna Lounge, where kids in the know could have caught Interpol long before they were Spin magazine coverboys, has been sold for $7 million and will be razed and replaced with luxury condos.

Ten years ago the Lower East Side was a nastier place. Clubs like Luna Lounge brought musicians and other hipsters, and soon boutiques, restaurants and yuppies followed. Rents spiked. "I created the boom, and now I'm paying for it," says Rob Sacher, Luna Lounge's co-owner with Dianne Galliano. Now the two are considering a relocation to--perish the thought--Brooklyn. It's the same chain of events that appears to have doomed CBGB, which may be forced to close as soon as August, only this time the predictable cycle of gentrification is unfurling at a much faster rate. "New areas are evolving more quickly," says Robin Abrams, a real-estate broker and retail chairperson at the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association. In the past decade, she says, rents in the Lower East Side have in some cases tripled to $70 a square foot. Add to that the fact that the city is in the process of overhauling its noise code, that it's increasingly more difficult to obtain a cabaret or liquor license, and that smoking has been banned in bars, "those things make it much more challenging than they had been in recent years" to keep a rock club open, Abrams says.

What does it all mean for the music? There is no single scene, for starters. In the 1960s the music that came out of Greenwich Village--Bob Dylan and Joan Baez's folk explosion--told us the times they were a-changin'. Gentrification and evolving tastes made the Bowery the rock hub of the following decade. Next (after a big-haired jaunt to Los Angeles and a grungy detour through Seattle) the rock scene came back to New York's Lower East Side.

Today there's no centralization: it's scattered all through New York (and even spills into New Jersey). New clubs like Pianos and Rothko have managed to open in the Lower East Side as others close. Tonic, another Lower East Side club, narrowly escaped death this week when a series of benefit concerts--complete with lineups of indie stalwarts like Yo La Tengo--managed to raise the money necessary to keep its doors open. Brooklyn's hipper-than-thou downscale Williamsburg boasts the top picks for edgy talent--the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio not only first performed there, they all live there. "It's still a hugely significant industry," says Rob Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association who estimates live music venues generate $9 billion in revenue for the city, which he believes would be wise to reconsider how difficult it is for a club to open and stay open. "It's a golden goose, but it can get killed." But in the meantime, for those who fear this year could the old-fashioned rock club's last, it might be too soon to write the requiem.