Here is some info the NYC Tourist Bureau probably doesn’t bother with. A tour of NYC’s punk past and present.
Lately, there have been several readers from all over who’ve written because they were planning to visit New York City and they wanted information on the punk scene. I no longer live in the Big Apple but having spent a significant chunk of my life there until very recently, I wanted to offer some help.
The last time I visited my old adopted hometown, I took a little walking tour of some of the iconic punk sites that most influenced me and I wanted to include a little of that information here. Be forewarned, it’s by no means a comprehensive list. NYC is big and there are subcultures of every ethnicity, culture, musical genre, etc. you can think of, which is what I love most about the place.
In NYC, punk music has lost a bit of its luster from the heydays back in the 1970s and 80s, and subgenres like hardcore, psychobilly, etc. are popping up, but it’s still there if you look hard enough. So I recommend you use this information as intended, which is a loose guide to get you started but don’t be afraid to explore and research on your own. Enjoy!
If this is your 1st trip to NYC, you may want to know that there are 5 boroughs, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, Queens, and Manhattan. New Jersey is just across the river from Manhattan and is easily accessible by train, boat, or car, and Connecticut and Pennsylvania are close by as well.
If you want to absorb the NYC punk culture, both past and present, then you are probably going to spend most of your time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and possibly Queens unless you want to hit the “burbs” in Jersey (full disclosure: I’ve only been to the Bronx and Staten Island a couple of times each).
I’m going to stick to Manhattan here because:
(A) it’s where I’m most familiar, (B) it’s where the most concentrated bit of punk history can be found, and (C) it’s the borough most visited so all you other borough residents feel free to weigh in on sites in your neck of the woods in the comment section if you wish.
Manhattan is really a small island packed with 1.5 million or so people living there but on any given weekday there are probably a million or more there working, partying, and visiting on a daily basis, so yeah, it can get crowded.
The punk sites, it’s even more concentrated in a very small area in downtown Manhattan, mostly below 14th Street and above Canal. But I’m going to start off our tour about 7 blocks above 14th Street in the neighborhood of Chelsea on 23rd Street (streets run across horizontal or East-West) between 7th and 8th Avenue (avenues run up and down perpendicular or North-South / up & down) where the famous Chelsea Hotel stands. This is the famous hotel where many famous artists lived and stayed back in the day. You may know it most notably as the place Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols) was accused of killing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Sid woke up from a drug-fueled stupor to find Nancy dead with a stab wound on their room’s bathroom floor (read about it HERE or rent the movie “Sid & Nancy”)
The Chelsea never was some fancy hotel where they charge $500 a night to visit Wall Street criminals and European tourists who don’t know better. The Chelsea was more of a long-term place of residence that attracted artists and other left-brainers.
I’ve never stepped foot inside the Chelsea Hotel and on my last trip, it was closed. I’m not sure when it’s opening again.
But even if you can’t book a room or glance inside beyond the lobby windows, it’s worth going by the Chelsea, just to feel the history of this hotel. Outside the lobby entrance, plaques are displayed on the wall and give information on some of the famous folks who’ve stayed there. Famous guests have included Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Alan Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, and punk icons Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and of course the aforementioned Sid Vicious.
From Chelsea, it’s a short walk over to the east side and down below 14th Street a few blocks to the famous St. Marks Street.
St. Marks Street is where comedian Lenny Bruce as well as NY Dolls guitarist Sylvan Sylvain also lived there, among many others. In the 1980’s Madonna famously lived there when she was a club performer. Andy Warhol had a club there and there is so much history there I can’t get into it all. You can learn about it HERE. Punk teens and travelers from all over still make the pilgrimage to St. Marks.
I lived most of my life in NYC just a couple blocks away where St. Marks changes to Astor Place so I’ve probably been down St. Marks several hundred times in my life.
I arrived to live in NYC in the late 1990s when the place was changing its stripes a bit but I can still remember my first time down this unique strip of asphalt. Back then you could still catch a punk show at Coney Island High or the nearby Continental, which is still open but no longer a live music venue.
But the most fun thing about St. Marks is just walking around people-watching. Whenever I first moved to NYC from Tennessee and I had friends or family visiting the big apple for the first time, our first stop was more often than not St. Marks. My theory was I’d culture shock the hell out of them and then the rest of NYC would seem more manageable. Like jumping into a pool of freezing cold water to get the blood going.
Today St. Marks has its share of slightly trendy sushi and mostly Asian-themed restaurants, but even these have a bit of edge to them. You can still feel the echoes of punk energy on St. Marks as you walk down the street and pass places like the St. Marks Hotel.
Near the hotel and 3rd Ave & St. Marks, you can pick up some pretty cool clothes at the legendary Trash and Vaudeville which has been around since the 1970s when punk first reared its defiant head in these parts. If you walk inside you stand a good chance of getting waited on by owner Ray Goodman, and if you recognize him, well, he’s been interviewed in more than a few punk documentaries.
Just down the street is another cool clothing store called “Search and Destroy” which has punk-inspired and vintage clothing. Be warned it can be a bit pricey, but you gotta love the name (and the mannequin display is always cool).
No, St. Marks ain’t what it used to be, but nothing ever is in NYC. But as I said, you can still get a decent punk rock vibe and of course all the piercings or tattoos your body can handle.
Just up the street a couple of blocks from 10th Street and 2nd Avenue is St. Marks Church. Here you’ll often find some homeless runaway or squatter punks hanging out, panhandling, or playing music for spare change.
Though I’ve never been to a service, this church is not your typical church, by a long shot and I think could be called a “punk rock church” if ever there was one. They host different artistic events, from poetry to live theater and rock concerts. Nope! Not like any church I ever attended before.
There is an organic market in the courtyard once a week and across the street you can grab a good, organic juice at my spot, Liquiteria. It’s expensive (it’s NYC!) but dang, I love the juice combos there (try the grasshopper). And you might just see that anti-punk Russell Simmons (he likes to brag on VH1 about his gold-plated toilette! nuff said) and you can tell him what you think of his gold-plated toilette to his face.
Take a little walk back a few blocks downtown and west a block to the Bowery, which now is getting very yuppified but back in the day was a dangerous little street known for the most famous spot in punk history, a little spot called CBGBs.
Today the street just above CBGBs is called “Joey Ramone Place”, but look really high up on the street pole for the sign, because people kept stealing it, so they had to put it way, way, way up top.
CBGBs is now a John Varvatos upscale men’s clothing store. Varvatos is a pretty famous designer and this is a flagship store but his stuff is not cheap at all. But I do give JV props, he at least recognized the importance of CBGBs to rock n roll and has tried to preserve some elements of this in the store.
But the punk theme gets lost among the $700 pair of shoes and $200 jeans. I went to CBGBs when it was on its last legs and saw a few shows there. They were still selling beer for like $1.50 when everyone else was selling for $7 or $8. It stunk of old stale spilled beer, the infamous “throne” bathroom was still there, band stickers were everywhere and you could feel the germs (not the band) crawling in every crevice. It was basically just a dirty little hell hole. Once you remodel a hell hole, even if you try to keep its original character intact, it’s no longer a hell hole by definition… (disgusted sigh)!
OK enough punk history, it’s time to appreciate some current punk culture and that my friends can best be found further downtown in the Lower East Side or LES. LES was where all the immigrants lived on top of each other back in the day in NYC (Eastern European Jews in the 1800s and early 1900s, Puerto Ricans & Mexicans in the mid to late 1900s). It still has a bit of the old immigrant world feel to it in places and there are some Puerto Ricans & more recently Mexicans still living around there. But like almost everywhere in Manhattan, it is becoming more gentrified and yes I said it, trendy & hipster with big $500 per night hotels popping up…what?!
But I still love it and it’s still my favorite hood in NYC. You can hear some good, edgy, and indie music at places like Arlene’s Grocery, or for all you rockabilly cats who dig burlesque then hit the Slipper Room or if you happen to be there at the right time of the year check out the NY Burlesque Festival.
To get a little taste of the current hardcore scene head over to NYHC (New York Hardcore get it) Tattoos which is owned by a bunch of guys associated with legendary NYC bands like Madball, Agnostic Front, and Murphy’s Law (Lars from Rancid was added as a partner in 2010). Now, I’m not inked up so I can’t speak to their tattoo skills but with bands like that at the helm, I gotta believe they are the real deal.
Is all this stuff too commercial for you? I got you. Head down a couple streets from NYHC Tattoos to ABC No Rio, a community space that has been around for over 30 years and still hosts some pretty cool matinee punk shows on weekends. I love the spirit of ABC No Rio which has held on to its mission despite the changing neighborhood.
Now that you are pretty far east, it’s time to head uptown from ABC No Rio and cross Houston (pronounced Hows-ton) to Tompkins Square Park. This park is my favorite in NYC and certainly not because it’s the most beautiful. Not by a long shot but if you want edge, then Tompkins Square Park is the spot.
Tompkins Square feels a little bit like taking a step back in time to the NYC of the 1970s or 80s when living in NYC was a lot more dangerous (and maybe more fun?!). It’s home to a lot of things but perhaps most famous recently for the Tompkins Square Riots of 1988 (not to be confused with other riots the park is famous for).
The rats here are big as squirrels; the heroin addicts and homeless bums are everywhere; yet the city just built a nice new playground and I heard that the dog run there is one of the best downtown. This is to say this is one of the most diverse parks in NYC and like St. Marks, it is a great place to people watch and get a sense of what NYC has to offer unvarnished and stripped of any pretense.
But I’m serious about the rats, be careful, those suckers are big, especially when the sun goes down. Before you leave head to the Southwest corner of the park to check out the mural tribute to Clash legend Joe Strummer with his infamous words “the future is unwritten”.
On the day that I happened to be down in Tompkins Square, there was a small but free punk festival going on. Now this doesn’t happen as often as you’d think in a city like New York but if you are in Tompkins Square on Nov 7th, you may be able to attend a free concert by the punk band Leftöver Crack. The concert has become a yearly ritual since 2004 to mark the 1988 riots.
But alas I wasn’t there on Nov. 7th, so this little festival I was witnessing was, as far as I could tell, put on by the city and was much, much smaller. I only caught the last act and it looked like half the crowd of 50 or so people were just curious onlookers and the other half homeless with a stray punk fan here and there. But that being said, everyone, kids included, did seem to enjoy the music. And hey, it’s a free show so no need to ask for your money back if you didn’t dig it.
Here is a clip of “Iconocide”, the final act performed at the festival. Check ’em out.
One great thing about a city like NYC is that great punk bands are always touring and coming through town, but there is so much going on it’s hard to keep up with who is playing where and before you can even blink you could miss a legendary comeback show of the Dead Kennedys, The Damned or bands like Pennywise, NOFX or Social Distortion heading through town to promote their latest CD or just make some good old fashioned punk music. Whoever your favorite band might be, chances are that sooner or later, they are coming to NYC so stay alert, you just might get lucky and they’ll be playing when you visit.
For smaller shows and stuff be on the lookout when strolling around the east village or lower east side and keep a sharp lookout for flyers or posters on poles.
You can also pick up a Village Voice (free and almost everywhere) or spring for a Time Out NY (at newsstands, not free), or do some research online.
Some other spots to check out while in NYC would include Otto’s Shrunken Head, a sort of Polynesian / rockabilly type of bar on East 14th Street that features DJs playing rockabilly, psychobilly, surf, or punk (depending on the night of the week) or even some live music. Otto’s gives you a west coast vibe on the east coast. Also, Santos Party House down below Chinatown has been known to host a punk concert or two.
Then there are my friends Amy Lulita who hosts Nacotheque, with some seriously alternative and Latin type of punk/rockabilly shows from time to time. Then there is Rebel Angel Productions which does an excellent job of keeping the Psychobilly scene alive in NYC with frequent shows close by Williamsburg, Brooklyn which has its own unique scene you might want to check out while in town.
Some of the big venues that host bigger punk concerts from time to time are; Roseland Ballroom, Terminal 5, Highline Ballroom, Bowery Ballroom, and my favorite, Irving Plaza. Then there is that monstrous venue, Madison Square Garden, which on rare occasions might host a more mainstream punk shows like Green Day or Offspring (Social D. is playing with Foo Fighters later this year).
All in all, NYC is a world-class punk city, but it’s just so big with so much going on you do have to dig a little to find the vibe, but trust me it’s there. The hardcore scene rules right now with the rockabilly and psychobilly scenes being small compared to the intensity of the West Coast but the crowds are loyal and thanks to people like Amylulita and Laura Rebel Angel, the scenes are growing.
Should you be heading to the Big Apple, I hope this little virtual guide is of some assistance. As I said, it’s by no means comprehensive so if you have a suggestion of a place you’d recommend a punk visitor to check out, then post a comment or shoot me an email.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I don’t know everything.