Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Salons and Smith Street Closings: Goodbye Book Court and Video Free Brooklyn

Running around New York City with my not so little ones.
Bottom three photos by Erik McGregor.

For almost two decades we’ve been meeting together, hanging out, telling stories, gossiping about the world around us.  It began during jail support before Seattle in November of 1999, although the Lower East Side Collective and Reclaim the Streets had been going for a year or two before that.  We’ve debated, fought the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, Bush, Ray Kelly, surged during Occupy, and watched it all coming crumbling down with Trump.  And, of course, we’re amping up for more in the new year, one step up, two steps back in an ever evolving dance of the dialectic.  But for a night, a bit of conversation and comradary was just what was needed as our city was changing.

I first met most of them in the Lower East Side in the late 1990's.  We moved to Smith Street in 2000, to get away from the high rents. There were gardens and quirky bookstores here, odd record stores, etc.  Over our 17 years here, we've seen Smith Street rise and fall.  They were our respite from a crazy world.  For a while there, new restaurants popped up every week.  But cold winters and slow foot traffic slowed a lot of them. 

Earlier in the week before the salon, I went to get a bottle of wine on Smith Street on my way to see my friend Seth Tobocman giving a talk at Interference Archive. Public spaces are always shifting.  

Scenes from the interferencearchive.org politics-in-public-space-in-words-and-pictures talk by Seth Tobocman.

Lately everything has been changing here, high rents, local shops and restaurants that made the neighborhood desirable in the first place, shuttering.  The Jake Walk and Buschenschank each closed this fall.

Brooklyn Magazine recently featured a piece on the demise of Smith Street, sighting chains, greedy landlords, and gentrification all suffocating the delicate ecology of the neighborhood.

 I was talking with the Courtney at Smith and Vine about all the changes. 

      “The restaurant business is just too hard now,” she explained.
She told me their store was moving down the street.
       “Well at least the video store is still here.”
       “Its moving too, down to the Fulton Mall.”

After 14 years, these are the spaces that have helped us feel at home here.
And now they are disappearing, displaced by anonymous market forces, banks, and box stores consuming community spaces as fast as they can, for rent signs everywhere.

Plans are underway for  a new bookstore.  And a locally run guitar store just opened on our street. But for now, I’m left to remember all the movies I rented at Video Free Brooklyn, book readings I went to with friends at BookCourt.

      “Its one thing to have a fascist for president,” I groused. “But to lose BookCourt and Video Free Brooklyn in a few days, that’s a lot to swallow.”

       We had our first snow Saturday and a party.  Sunday, the girls and I hit the streets for church at Judson, the immigrant rights rally, and our book group.  At the rally, I met a couple who’ve been going to marches and rallies since 1963 and the March on Washington, still at it still smiling.

       “I hope our democracy can withstand it,” they wondered.

       I guess the message is we need each other more than ever.

       We need our cultural institutions and our networks.

In the years to come, we’ll start with defending our neighborhoods and each other, organizing around civil liberties and the environment and expanding out from there.  There’s still a lot of work to do. But for now, I still believe civil society runs the show.  It all begins in our neighborhoods where we organize to support each other, to make this space livable in the long term.  This is what a healthy neighborhood and city is all about.

Respite from the storm on Smith Street at the Jake Walk, where we hung out for years.
Now closed. 

Scenes from a video and a book store closing. 

A sunny weekend between Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, friends at a salon, a party, a book club meeting, and a final video rental return at Video Free Brooklyn.

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