CBGB Last Hurrah?

CBGB, the legendary Bowery club frequently cited as the birthplace of America's punk movement, is the latest in a growing list of urban nightclubs getting priced out of the neighborhoods they helped create. According to a February 11 article in The Village Voice, CBGB's lease will end in August, and its landlord wants to see the club's monthly rent increase from $20,000 to $40,000.

That's not unreasonable in a neighborhood where new retail space rents for $55/square foot, but CBGB owner Hilly Krystal points out that the monthly nut, not to mention his $80,000 yearly liability insurance, would make it virtually impossible for the club to turn a profit. "I'd have to charge a lot more for drinks...for admission...and I just don't know if it would be worth it to people."

In the early 1970s, when CBGB had a monthly rent of $600, Krystal decided the venue needed a change in musical direction from the folk-inflected music that gave it its name. (It stands for country, bluegrass, blues—actually, the club's complete name was CBGB/OMFUG, with the other letters standing for "other music for uplifting gormandizers.") The club soon became the scenemaker for the nascent punk/art rock movement as acts like Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Patti Smith made it their first step on the escalator to fame and fortune.

When The Bottom Line was shuttered by New York University for non-payment of rent, it became a cause celébre with write-in campaigns, calls for benefit concerts, and expressions of outrage from the rock community. This is a very different situation, however. CBGB has remained a going concern. Yes, it's a seedy dive, but it has a great PA—I recently had a New York drummer/audiophile tell me that one of the biggest thrills in his life was the first time he heard his band's sound at a CBGB soundcheck. Bands are still proud to list a gig at CBGB on their CVs. (I have to admit that the last time I went to a show at CBGB—earlier this month, actually—I suspected the venue made more money from its gift shop than the gate, which was, as always, heavily padded with NY critics.)

CBGB's closing is not an isolated case, either. Other New York clubs that have recently closed, or are about to close, due to rent increases include Fez (in the basement of Time Café) and Luna Lounge. Tonic, another downtown mainstay, is also feeling the pinch. Its rent has doubled since it opened in 1998 and insurance has more than tripled since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Of course, New York has seen this cycle before—probably many times since the Dutch originally settled in to stay. Fez's Ellen Cavolina Porter reminded The Village Voice that the folk scene that established Greenwich Village as a destination for late '50s hipsters suffered the same fate. "MacDougal Street...used to have a club every 30 yards. All the reasons that people used to have to want to live in the Village don't really exist here any more."

This, of course, is the real tragedy. Music has always sprung up from its community, and when communities no longer have spaces where it can flourish, it withers. That makes us all the poorer for it.