Why Is Everything Cool In New York A Secret?

by BILLY GRAY · March 11, 2010

    For as long as there have been New Yorkers, there have been New Yorkers complaining their city ain't what it used to be. Where has all the coolness gone? Recently the quest for cool has become even harder, as the city's best happenings don't want you to know about them until they've already happened.

    Of course, this isn't entirely new. New York has always been the ephemeral city. Blink and you'll miss the latest scene or band or guerrilla performance art piece. In the '20s there were speakeasies whose evasiveness was necessary to avoid teetotaler Prohibition enforcers. As New York became the global creative capital after World War II, the center of "it" kept shifting to accommodate cash-strapped bohemians: Greenwich Village to SoHo to the East Village to the LES to Williamsburg to Bushwick to God Knows Where Next. And local nightclubs and bars have always had a famously abbreviated shelf-life; after two years, most are past their primes.

    But the fickleness has accelerated in the last few years. (Yes, the internet and sites like this are partly to blame.) Neo-speakeasies hid themselves underground, sans signage, to throw off the undesirables. The mayor's office, NYPD and uptight neighbors raised a stink and ensured that of-the-moment spots (Beatrice Inn, Jane Ballroom) died young.  A diluted mainstream club culture, crippled by the archaic "cabaret laws" and young New Yorkers more interested in stiff poses and amassing more and more credit card debt via bottle service scams than partying, revived the underground after hours dance scene but also splintered it off to semi-secret, RSVP-only warehouse parties deep in the hearts of Brooklyn and Queens. (Not that there's anything wrong with Bushwick and Queens, but those rotating weekend ragers, with 11th-hour location announcements, make for unpredictable schleps.)

    Even eating became a competitive sport, with foodies shunning marquee name restaurants for Maylasian roach coaches in Breezy Point and hipsters opting for gourmet TV dinner parties on the lumpy couch of a Greenpoint walk-up.

    New York's live music circuit, usually a democratic affair for anyone who could score a ticket, is the latest local scene to go undercover. Sure, big bands have always rewarded their obsessive fans with last minute gigs in unusually intimate, off-the-beaten path venues. But recently a cluster of furtive music gigs--like the secluded inverse of arena rock extravaganzas--have replaced the rock star's brash howl with a murmur. Consider the roster of bands that have performed secret or surprise shows this week: The National, MGMT, Real Estate, Shout Out Louds. (Full disclosure: I'm still smarting from being shut out of all these shows.)

    It reminds me of that SNL skit with the snobby boutique clerks: "This place was so much cooler when it didn't have an entrance." The quest for secrecy is verging on self-parody.

    The New York underground is thriving. But it would do nightlife some good to see the light of day.