Opinion: Do rumors of CBGB’s reopening elicit excitement from fans or confirm ideas that NYC has become a museum of its heyday?

Over recent months, an uproar of gossip emerged concerning a possible reopening of New York City’s iconic and legendary rock venue, CBGB.   To many a fan’s chagrin, the historic hotspot had closed its doors in October 2006 after nearly 33 years of hosting New York’s most brag-worthy and influential acts.  Having  assisted in bringing hardcore and punk to the foreground of NYC’s music scene in the late 70’s and 80’s (with acts such as The Ramones, Misfits, and Bad Brains), the closing was unanimously considered a terrible loss.  However, recent unconfirmed chatter of the venue’s potential relocation has led us to believe all is not lost.  But all that excitement and sensationalism aside, a greater problem is on the horizon, which is to ask, is the essence of CBGB even salvageable at this point?

In 2005, a dispute  arose between CBGB and the Bowery Residents’ Committee.  The committee billed club founder Hilly Kristal $91K in back-rent, but Kristal denied having knowledge of any previous rent hikes.  After some legal battles and an attempt to earn CBGB a historic landmark status, Kristal finally succumbed to an agreement with the committee to remain open another 14 months and then close his doors.  His original plan was to relocate the entire venue to Las Vegas, taking as much of the venue to Nevada as he could carry.  But less than a year after CGBG’s final show, Kristal passed away due to lung cancer.  Following his death, Kristal’s ex-wife, Karen Kristal, and daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, engaged in a legal battle over the purported $3 million CBGB estate, settling in June 2009 with Burgman receiving most of the money that wasn’t consumed by creditors and estate taxes.

But before that, and actually less than 3 months after Kristal’s death, it had already been announced that men’s fashion designer John Varvatos would be assuming the property as a fashion retail space.  Varvatos expressed a commitment to preserve the venue’s legacy by keeping the original graffiti and playbills on the walls and posts.  The only difference was that the stage was now lined with fine leather loafers.  Of course, there was backlash.  Many attributed the misappropriation of the space to acts of heresy.  How dare they commoditize the birthplace of NYC punk to a privileged class of snazzy dressers?

Now fast-forward to today.  New York City is operating in the same routine it has upheld for eons.  The sun still rises in East Village and sets in Greenwich.  The Chrysler building and GE still tower into the obscured city sky.  The Guggenheim is still nestled on the east of Central Park, and Radio City Music Hall is still lit up on Sixth Avenue.  But walking into the various corporate buildings in Midtown, you notice interior design reminiscent of the 80’s or earlier.  You walk throughout historic landmarks once billowing with excitement and creativity that are now overpopulated by tourists.  The only things new and emerging are condos in Brooklyn.

It’s becoming apparent that NYC’s heyday is over and that we’re living in the generic aftermath of a former culture pit.  And with yuppie-infested Williamsburg now being about as edgy as a Hot Topic store in a shopping mall, it seems that one of New York’s most recent attempts at a cultural movement has already imploded.  All that remains is history, and even that history  is under threat by Bloomberg’s favoritism toward real estate tycoons who would rather replace St. Mark’s Bookshop with a more lucrative bank ATM stop than preserve any source of cultural archivalism for the city.

And so CBGB may return with a new location in Manhattan, after the brand’s t-shirt has become more collected than Hard Rock Cafe’s.  But is it something that we want?  It was unanimously considered a great loss when the original venue was shut down and transformed into a retail presence for men’s fashion, but as what form would the venue return?  The beauty of CBGB was that it just happened out of nowhere.  Punk emanated out of a random blues dive bar, and Patti Smith became its cheerleader.  Moving the venue to Vegas or reopening in New York would mean building a contrived tourist-trap of a rock venue, decorated with an interior designer’s own graffiti.  Why not instead focus our energies on actual cutting edge venues and new music scenes instead of cementing the idea that New York is only a museum of its better years, a graveyard for art of yesteryear?

The best case scenario for the reopening would be that it includes a souvenir gift shop and hosts shows only by band reunions.  That would be about the most punk thing to do with the venue’s memory at this point.


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