Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio is a movie about displacement. It’s also a movie about art, and purpose, and adulthood, and DIY culture. But it’s only about those things insofar as they relate to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the years between 2007 and 2014, and "late aughts Williamsburg" is mostly synonymous with “gentrification.” Goodnight Brooklyn is physical. We see crumbling walls, broken water pipes, and fully dropped drop-ceilings. It’s emotional, with as many tears as you might expect from a smattering of sensitive young-ish men forced out of their indie eden. But for all its hyperlocality, Matthew Conboy’s SXSW directorial debut speaks to a much broader relationship between place and memory that’s in no way confined to Brooklyn, or even to New York. It’s about the destruction of construction. It’s about why your favorite bar or bookstore or mom-and-pop shop can’t ever relocate or reopen, not really.
When venue/artspace/all-ages mecca Death By Audio shut its doors to make room for VICE Media last year, so went the neighborhood. Writers argued the DIY movement was on its "last gasp." Fans, in their signature irony, futilely chanted “Long Live.” As one of a litany of closings in the illegally occupied music club circuit, a generation of people who’d cut their concert-going teeth on PBR and pressurized-walls were left feeling largely fucked over.
All venues are destined to close. CBGB’s proved as much in 2006. We know the why of it (money) and the how (construction companies, developers, builders and etc.), but another, bigger question looms. Can’t they come back? Couldn’t Death by Audio and Glasslands and 285 Kent just do what everyone else in Williamsburg did and move to Bushwick? The problems, of course, would follow—NYC’s lust for development is ever present—but might at least be staved off for another five or ten years.
But the truth is they can’t. Even those plucky cultural hubs who attempt the move rarely succeed. LES mainstay The Living Room, a singer/songwriter joint that once supported a budding Norah Jones, shipped itself to Metropolitan Avenue in 2014 and lasted barely a year, despite initial fanfare. As for CBGB’s, even the punkest die-hards aren’t willing to schlep to its watered down, Newark Airport iteration. The phenomenon isn’t relegated to iconic spots of the musical variety. Beloved St. Mark’s Bookstore didn’t even travel the distance of a train stop and will soon be gone for good. It’s possible Trash and Vaudeville will buck the trend, but doing so would be, frankly, shocking.
The rhetoric of gentrifiers often centers on that question of "why not just move?" The situations of individuals, communities, and businesses obviously vary in circumstance and severity but are all to some degree offered the same solution. The problem is, it doesn’t work. And even when necessary it sucks. Moving is stressful and expensive. It requires a significant up-front investment in money and in time. There’s lots of interesting data journalism about it, if you’re interested. But the difficulty in talking about displacement is that the really, truly awful parts of it can’t be quantified. “Happiness polls” aside, there isn’t any really authentic way to record and report on our feelings. And our spaces, our homes, are all about feelings. There’s a reason the "childhood home" is a stand-in for a certain kind of nostalgia. There’s also a reason the desire to return to it is a classic film and TV trope. Spaces, particularly ones occupied in any kind of formative period, offer us insight—buildings where famous writers, thinkers or politicians once ate their breakfasts are typically identified by some kind of plaque, and historical tours typically make a point to show off where so-and-so grew up. When an address is destroyed and rebuilt the ground itself can’t help but evoke its past life, provided it meant enough before. A look to Manhattan’s southern skyline tells you as much.
We can think about the relationship between physical and emotional meaning via one very old question: if you replace each individual component of an object, are you still left with its original whole? The city hasn’t given us much of a reason to think so; if it took its second form on the East River, The Ship of Theseus might accidentally morph into the Barge Bar. Jokes aside, this is to say that there are elements beyond the strictly economic and the architectural that make place powerful. It’s an indefinable magic made up of memories and smells and pockmarks. Trying to recreate that somewhere else is always going to feel, at best, tussaudsian.
But it’s difficult to call any of the DBA guys true victims of gentrification. They admit as much themselves. "Obviously," director and DBA occupier Conboy says of the venue’s Kent Ave roots, "for the people living there 20 or 50 years ago, we were the change." It’s an important admission, and one that makes Conboy’s circumstance a little more nuanced.
"I never would have imagined what’s here now," musician Kyp Malone explains over shots of a neighborhood Starbucks and American Apparel. "I don’t think many people besides the shrewdest capitalists imagined what was going to be here." Maybe (probably) DBA contributed to the fetishization and commodification of the Bedford Stop, but it’s left literally in the dust nevertheless, like Rich Uncle Pennybags’ practice girlfriend.
Towards the end of Goodnight Brooklyn DBA’s Edan Wilber discusses "some article in a business magazine" that claimed "the building wasn’t living up to its economic potential." We watch as Wilber, the venue’s sound-guy and main booker, packs up his things before the move. Clothes are folded into hanging bags, records slipped into sleeves, cardboard boxes rise up towards the ceiling. Because the Death By Audio warehouse doubles as a communal living space, Wilber is leaving behind much more than a job.
"We weren’t generating money, you know," Wilber says of the article. "We weren’t generating, like, X amount of dollars… But the memories that I have here and the amount of awesome shit that I’ve been able to do… it’s worth so much more than anything they’re going to get out of this fucking building."
Wilber’s earnest sorrow is in direct contrast to the detached snark of Noisey’s "Why the Closing of 285 Kent Doesn’t Matter." A different venue, maybe, but a neighbor, and one whose space VICE also dismantled to make room for their newer, nicer offices. Kent "is essentially a rectangular box," Gary Suarez writes, "populated with art mural walls, a makeshift bar, a stage, a couple of risky couches, and not much else." It’s a space that (to ignore all of the above) seems like it’d be easy to replicate. Reopening, in theory, should be No Big Deal. To Suarez, this is another chill but basically disposable DIY spot that will eventually be replaced (and eventually torn down) on and on to infinity, Whack-A-Mole style. But to Wilber, it’s a home.
In standard docu-form, Goodnight Brooklyn ends with a series of meditative, text-on-screen follow ups. We’re told that DBA founder Oliver Ackermann is "still on the lookout for the next perfect warehouse." We aren’t given any indication he’ll ever find it or that it even exists: it’s a promising claim, but not a hopeful one.
There won’t be another Death By Audio, literally speaking. Goodnight Brooklyn wouldn’t exist if there could be. But in some ways, maybe the biggest ways, it’s right to say it doesn’t matter. The solution isn’t in recreation, or resurrection, but in starting over, in doing it yourself. "Every great city has a space like Death By Audio," Conboy concludes. "If yours doesn’t, you should start one."
When it comes to the old spaces, the missed spaces, those belong in memory. Take a piece of the wall with you if you can. As Wilber would say, clutching his own: "that’s kind of enough, you know?"
To read more of Complex's coverage of SXSW 2016, click here.