19 Jun 2014
When I first visited The City That Never Sleeps, I was surprised to find the nickname inaccurate. After midnight, many of the streets went as quiet as the Florida suburbs I'd fled.
Like a lot of first-timers, I was a starry-eyed kid who knew New York as the home of all things alternative. But on my first night, I ran into just one goth, sitting alone on a bench at the Penn Station A/C/E. I asked her what the best club in town was. She told me there wasn't one-in fact, there was nothing left to do there at all. She'd only gotten dressed up to go to a Manson show.
I spent three weeks there, working a temp job and spending my off time looking for any kind of edgy, original scene that didn't involve ironic moustaches. But towards the end, I was still alone and starting to feel like an idiot: I wasn't expecting the fabled debauchery of the 80s, but neither could I have guessed I'd find so few events I could count them on my fingers, most with a like number of attendees.
And at those events, I heard several people echo my complaints. It begged a few questions:
Why did they leave?
Goth's not alone in its torpor; most of the city's old subcultures have been laid to rest over the past twenty years, replaced by chess clubs, startup bros, and the much-maligned Pabst-and-plaid crowd. The causes have been endlessly debated, but gentrification takes most of the blame.
"CBGB turned into John Varvatos, a boutique fashion store where one leather jacket would cost $800 - a price no true alternative scene member could afford." says Christine "DJ Xtine" Johnes, a twenty-year scene veteran who created Manhattan's first industrial night. "The entire Meatpacking district ... which also contained The Hellfire Club, The Lure and several other notorious gay or fetish clubs and sexwork activity zones, was turned into a very expensive, chic part of the city. The financial message was 'shape up and make money or get out.'"
But rising prices and club closures are by no means unique to New York, and otherwise-thriving scenes can often push through them. In this case, all signs point to an exodus, possibly brought on by a fundamental change in the city's relationship with its outsiders.
Johnes's partner, "DJ Jason" Ledyard, has played "more goth events than anyone in the USA." Over his two-and-a-half decades spinning, he's done a residency at CBGB, helped start some of the biggest alternative events in the city's history, and been around for both the scene's rise and fall. "In general, the city has become more corporate (and therefore more strictly regulated towards conformists and against individuality and individuals) with it's job opportunities." he says.
The social landscape's changed on a global scale too, and like everything requiring real-life participation, the nightlife's been hurt by a populace that conducts an increasing share of its interactions through electronic middlemen. "All of the people that stayed are still largely going out and doing things, but just less often, since web stuff like Facebook is a kind of junk food for their social needs", says Ledyard.
But some factors even more universal than the internet might be at play. Most artistic movements throughout history have been based in big cities, which gives rise to one of the oldest complaints in the book:
"It can just be tough living in the city: spiritually, financially, and psychologically." says Mike Bagley, radio programmer and former host of MNN's alternative music video showcase Chaos TV. He also speculates another much-touted aspect of city life may have had a factor in the scene's decline.
"New York has many options... One of the biggest parties was called Motherfucker: it was a dirty rock & roll party, but a lot of goths would go. Once you're goth, you're always goth-and you'll always listen to the music-but with those parties and the exposure to all the different types of music, they got exposed to other scenes."
Where did they go?
But, as he alludes to, subcultural identity can last much longer than popular opinion suggests. For a lot of people, an entire lifestyle, soundtrack, and mode of thought aren't just something to be tossed out once you've "grown up" and gotten a "real job." This is especially true for goths, who, as the Guardian's expounded upon, have a higher chance of sticking with it than other types of scenesters.
So, if many of them didn't quit, it would stand to reason that they moved. Various interviewees confirm this, but none can agree on where they all ended up.
"I don't know where most of the fans went, but, out of my friends, I'd say that almost all left the city and ended up scattered across the globe. France, England, Germany, Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland as well as Texas, New Jersey, California, Seattle, Oregon, Florida, etc. ... Goths have no one clear destination." As for their level of interest, "none of them have ceased being interested in goth, but some have started families."
...Which leads to yet another question: where is the best scene these days?
"I've heard rumors that Philadelphia is doing particularly well", says Says Clifford Hartleigh Low, author, occultist, and founder of NYCGoth.com. Other sources seem to confirm that.
"From what I have personally seen, [the best place] would be Philly." Agrees Johnes. Bagley also mentions it as the home of a few former New York alternative types he knows.
Other places in Pennsylvania seem to be coming into their own as well. "I befriended a 'cybergoth' back in '06, and she is from Erie, Pa., and seems to be surrounded by folks of that ilk in that city. Pittsburgh also seems to have a scene." says "Native Transplant" on the City-Data forums.
But it's generally agreed upon that California takes the title.
According to Low, the scene's "greatest strength is the West Coast, from LA on up." and Ledyard agrees. "CA still has a vibrant scene, long history, both classic era and new bands doing shows, and a good growing population of young people that love goth/deathrock in the SJ/SF area."
The international Gothic Club Listing confirms that, with 33 entries for the state-almost as many as the whole of England and at least three times more than anywhere outside Europe.
But with that established...
Is there a future for New York?
As the Times mentioned in passing several years ago, some naturalizing immigrants and their children are taking an interest in alternative scenes. Although the article focuses on a single group in the Fordham area of the Bronx, there's been a citywide injection of new demographics into what was previously stereotyped as a white, middle-class subculture.
Ledyard is nonchalant about the changes. "'Minorities' have long been a growing percentage in relationship to the whole number, but that has been happening since forever. ... NYC is one of the places where people of color are the majority in America. The clubs reflect that population diversity."
But some don't know whether this is for better or for worse. ...Especially since many newcomers, both immigrants and not, seem to favor vampire houses over the one that Bauhaus built.
For the uninitiated, the vampire (or vampyre) scene is a different animal from goth. They share a similar love of the vague idea of "darkness", they attend many of the same clubs, and they're frequently mistaken for each other... But, as South Park riffed on, they don't like to be.
And relations between the two subcultures are sometimes unfriendly. Johnes describes her experiences trying to host a party at the same time as a vampire event at another location:
"We had no idea that these people would care because it was obvious to us that there was hardly any "crossover" between [our crowd] and [theirs]. However, the promoter of that party 'took offense' that we had this party on the same night and sent one of the members of his 'house' over to our party to threaten us, disrupt the party, threaten the patrons ... discourage them from coming in, and so forth. We had to file a police report."
However, one member of the vampire scene, who asked to remain anonymous, denies there's a schism between the two groups, claiming they "go to the same places and feed off each other."
In the early days, "there weren't too many places that would let you have a meeting." he says. "So we'd sit at the back of the [goth] clubs. That's how it was for years."
Now, tellingly, the vampires are also complaining about hard times, many of them echoing the same sentiments as the regular goths. "The lustre and mystery is gone" he says. "The party atmosphere has almost completely diminished."
And it seems their scene is much smaller than it looks from the outside. He claims there are roughly 40 families, but just "80 to 90 regular faces."
"If I had to give an estimate, throughout the whole city, I'd say it's 200 to 250 [of us]."
There's one more thing the subcultures have in common: their predictions for the future are almost uniformly pessimistic. Ledyard describes the current state of affairs as "tragically bad", also implicating our society as a whole: "Germany and England are far better than anywhere in this country ... Most of America's goth scenes are very young, flawed or unsophisticated." And Johnes claims that many people who stayed are often "too disgusted to go out to the clubs because they were so much worse than when the scene here was at its height.
"I don't see much of a future for NYC with alternative scenes." She concludes.
But one dissenting opinion comes from Low.
"I think that as long as people are fascinated with dark art-spooky music, fashion, and imagery-there will always be a place for goth [here]." he says. "The allure is durable. The problems will eventually get figured out, I'm convinced. Goth has 'died' in NY several times already, but just like Count Dracula in the old Hammer movies he's always back in the sequel no matter how many times he gets staked."
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