The wife took me out for my birthday on Tuesday night, and we found ourselves having some late night drinks at one of our favorite remaining local watering holes. As we bellied up to the bar, we started chatting with a mountainous security guy from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn sitting to our left. At some point in the proceedings, a lanky, bespectacled gent with lobe-stretching earrings and arms covered by sleeves of ornate tattoos walked by. Our new security friend looked up then looked back over to me, chuckling "Anything goes in `dis neighborhood, am I right?" I smiled and returned to my beer.
As much as I'd have loved to agree with the guy, I just couldn't. The notion of "`dis neighborhood" being any different from the rest of Manhattan in this day and age is hopelessly antiquated. Sure, there was certainly a time when "downtown" meant something specific here. The Village, the East Village, Soho, Chinatown, TriBeCa, Chelsea, etc. – all these neighborhoods had their own signature flavors and archetypes. But in 2009, Manhattan has arguably become fairly homogenous from tip to tip. The Soho of my youth – a once-wild bohemian frontier that had art literally scribbled all over it -- is now basically an outdoor shopping mall of insanely pricey boutiques. In the East Village, most of the bars the original punks drank in are now all frozen yogurt emporiums. All around downtown, some of the old, fabled dance floors and bandstands where the music used to play – places like The Mudd Club and Danceteria -- are now more exclusive than ever; they're now the private living rooms of expensive condos. You're just as likely to find mohawks in midtown as you are on St. Marks Place. There are now just as many banks, Starbucks, L'Occitaines and Duane Reades south of 14th street as there are north of 59th. There are still drunks on the Bowery, only now they're loudly stumbling out of posh hotel lobbies after too many Cosmos. "Downtown," or at least as it was formerly known, is dead. Oh, and as a nice little coda to my anecdote at the top, the gent with the heavily inked arms turned out to be the executive chef of the establishment we were drinking in.
Anyway, all of this brings me to "Downtown Calling," a new documentary that's currently making the festival rounds. I first found out about it via Tim B's excellent Stupefaction blog. There have been similarly inclined films before (notably the flawed "Kill Your Idols" and the surprisingly great VH1 two-part doc, "NY77"), and my hopes always swell when I hear about them. The time period this new film seeks to encompass stretches from 1977 to 1985, a rather sizable chunk (although I wish they'd extend it into the late 80's, an equally fertile spell, to my mind). Given the sprawling amount of cultural activity in New York City at the time (from punk to disco to hip hop to no wave to hardcore and beyond, etc. – to say nothing of similar booms in art, theater and fashion), I'm very curious to see how they'll put it all off , although truthfully I'm a bit skeptical , especially given the sheer amount of footage in the trailer culled from the video of "This Is Radio Clash."
As much as I'm slavishly guilty of same, I'm also wary of the overarching strain of rose-tinted nostalgia. For all its myriad drawbacks, at least "Kill Your Idols" strove to assert that there was an equally vibrant contemporary music scene (however tenuous its link to the No Wave era). I'm hoping this film manages to strike the right balance. Check out their official website by clicking right here.