Party On! But…Where?

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As Brooklyn changes, late-night raves fight for space

At first, the Bedford-Union Armory seemed perfect: Left empty for most of the year, the 150,000 square foot space had ample room and was just a few blocks from the Franklin Avenue subway stop. The organizers of the Germany-based Time Warp Festival signed an agreement with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and began promoting the two-day event.

But a few weeks before November 20th, when it was scheduled to take place, neighbors began to protest. An email from the Crown Heights Community Council, using no less than five different fonts, warned residents about “the noise, garbage, alcohol, drugs, police action, and not to mention the nuisance that thousands of drunks bring to a community!!!!!!” At the last minute, facing pressure from Assemblyman Walter Mosley and Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, Time Warp announced that it would move to Pier 39 in Sunset Park, a low-slung warehouse at the forlorn edge of a weedy parking lot on the East River.

Stories like this have become increasingly common in New York’s electronic dance music scene. The city, including trendy new venues in Brooklyn, seems increasingly resistant to raves. “I think everyone has had experiences with community boards complaining,” said JonPaul Pezzo, a producer and the owner of Trust Us Entertainment. “There’s a certain bias against the house music scene. This is comparable to a traveling concert of sorts, so what makes it so different from any rock concert that would have been granted permission to use the venue?”

Part of the problem, he believes, is due to the use of the word “rave,” which, fairly or unfairly, is associated with drug culture as much as with music. For that reason, producers, promoters, and DJs tend to prefer the terms “warehouse party” or “music festival.” Time Warp, for instance, insists that its events are not raves, although strictly speaking, they meet the definition: dance parties where DJs play electronic music.

Regardless of the name, parties featuring electronic music became popular in Brooklyn in the 1990s, when the city looked very different than it does today. Back then, there were no shortage of underutilized warehouses to throw all-night parties in, and fewer neighbors who were likely to complain. But in today’s landscape, as rents in neighborhoods like Crown Heights reach record highs, raves face opposition both from the young families moving in and from the older residents who seem them as yet another sign of gentrification. At the same time, developers are finding that the large, vacant buildings that once held concerts can be profitably converted into office spaces or beer halls.

The result is a shortage of safe, legal venues. Getting permission from the city can be an arcane process involving the State Liquor Authority, the Department of Health, as well as the Department of Buildings. Last year, Time Warp was supposed to take place in the Knightsbridge Armory in the Bronx, but the organizers couldn’t get a permit; in October, the CityFox Experience had to cancel its Halloween rave after the New York City Department of Buildings realized it was scheduled to take place at a potentially hazardous Superfund site. Gabriel Rhoads, who organized the vampire-themed Blood Rave this fall, said, “I think a number of event producers would be helped by a dedicated office that helps with getting the necessary permits and details in place.”

Meanwhile, high profile incidences of drug overdoses at electronic music festivals have brought increased scrutiny, although fans of the genre deny any correlation. “People in Crown Heights probably expected people on drugs running around in the street at late hours,” said Shahar Shetrit, who performed at Time Warp this year. “But it’s not really about the drugs—it’s about the DJs that people really want to see.”

Drugs aside, no one can deny that parties with loud music that draw thousands of people will have some impact on the surrounding neighborhood, especially since they often go until six in the morning. As Tammy Anderson, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware and the author of Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene, explains, “The culture behind raves is nocturnal, underground, and alternative. In the past, the purpose was to operate outside of normal rules of operation. Rave culture was an alternative to traditional nightclub and bar culture.”

Typically, those raves happened in empty fields or abandoned buildings, where noise wouldn’t be a concern. But there are fewer and fewer such spaces in New York City: Even Sunset Park, which has become the typical last resort after venues in other neighborhoods fall through, is becoming increasingly built up as developments like Industry City promise to make it the “next Williamsburg.” The result is that DJs and producers are moving away from warehouses and armories and into nightclubs, meaning that tickets have become more expensive and the underground, slightly gritty atmosphere that was part of the appeal is lost.

After the Time Warp controversy, PulseRadio wrote, “It feels like we’re entering another era of authoritative war on dance music.” Professor Anderson disagrees. After a crackdown in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which led to legislation like the RAVE Act —a law that fines individuals and business who own or manage spaces where drugs are used—and greater enforcement of noise ordinances on the local level, priorities shifted. “Today, the feds are primarily interested in combating heroin and prescription drug overdoses,” she says, “so molly deaths and raves are a lower priority.  Local governments do seem to be trying to control raves, but mostly in the largest cities—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami and Vegas.”

Meanwhile, electronic music is still a big business. Two day passes for Time Warp sold for $169 to $360. Berklee’s Music Business Journal found that attendance at the top twenty global electronic music festivals grew from 1.9 million in 2009 to over 3.4 million in 2013, and concluded that there were more opportunities for producers to cash in on the genre’s fan base, typically young people between ages 18 and 35 with disposable income. Despite all the challenges that producers in New York face these days, JonPaul Pezzo of Trust Us Entertainment is optimistic. “Electronic music is here to stay—and most of these community boards aren’t.”

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