Safer Spaces

Jon Ben-Menachem

On a pleasant June evening, I was joining a friend of mine for dinner at a Sicilian restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. I had a nagging feeling during our conversation that something about the restaurant’s interior seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. When I went to the entrance to pay my tab, I was struck by an instant clarity: the restaurant, I realized, used to be an all-ages music venue called Palisades, where years earlier I had attended plenty of concerts as an audience member, show booker, and performer.

Palisades was only open from 2014 to 2016, but it became notable enough to earn a depiction on a New Yorker cover—shortly before it was closed down by the NYPD’s nightlife task force: MARCH (Multi-Agency Responses to Community Hotspots), the “grim reaper” of small independent venues. I really miss Palisades—even its characteristic central pole. While the Sicilian restaurant serves a passable skirt steak, I can’t help but feel that the loss of Palisades is a net negative for local culture.

A few more stops on the J train would have brought you to another venue, The Gateway, where I had one of my very first encounters with political organizing: a punk concert to benefit the Bernie Sanders campaign, back in 2015. This might not be the kind of inspiring, radical praxis you have come to expect from this publication, but for my personal coming-of-age, at least, it was a moment where everything came together.

The experience also brings to mind another music venue, which unfortunately I have never visited: the venerable 242 Main Street in Burlington, Vermont, an institution among independent establishments. 242 Main was founded in the 1980s as a project of the city’s youth office under then-Mayor Bernie Sanders—an adult-supervised, all-ages music venue, co-created with local teenagers. It ended up becoming the “longest-running all-ages punk rock venue in the country.” 242 Main also closed in 2016, although local non-profit Big Heavy World is trying to bring it back.

New Yorker cover showing a guitar onstage and a crowd.

In many U.S. cities, it’s rare for there to be even one all-ages venue that sells concert tickets for less than, say, $20. This can push young music lovers into some pretty unorthodox spaces. I distinctly remember playing a show in Boston, where police raids of a popular basement venue in Jamaica Plain forced us to switch to a different basement, which had a memorable issue with exposed asbestos.

This tragic paucity of all-ages venues results from the live music industry’s reliance on alcohol sales. Artists who can’t sell pricey tickets play small shows at 21+ venues that can offset the cost of paying musicians via drink sales. Tons of up-and-coming bands are started by teenagers or college students, who can’t access 21+ venues, at least not without a fake I.D. All-ages venues are a vital cultural resource for young musicians and fans, and relying on alcohol money to pay the bills means that many youth lack de jure access.

The all-ages venues that do exist fall into two categories. First, there are warehouse-like spaces that are far enough from residential areas to avoid noise complaints—these spaces pay their rent by selling drinks. There are also larger commercial venues which can combine higher ticket prices with a larger volume of drink sales to 21+ guests; letting teens into shows doesn’t compromise their bottom line. You can’t play one of these larger venues unless your band can consistently bring hundreds of people to every show, and most younger artists can’t do that. It’s sort of like the difference between producing an indie film with your college friends and producing an HBO special.  

All of this is to say that, if you’re a teen going to a concert, you are most likely going to be surrounded by drunk people–whether you need a fake I.D. to enter or not. This imposes obvious safety concerns that are omnipresent, as well as deeply gendered. There are plenty of dudes who lurk around small concerts trying to pick up teens or young women who are far from sober.

As a result, I was happy to learn that prison abolitionists have created a safety protocol for music venues and other spaces. The Safe OUTside the System Collective’s Safer Party Toolkit (also excerpted in Beyond Survival) offers concrete guidelines for organizing event safety teams which are prepared to respond to various levels of conflict. That could mean two partygoers getting into a fight, someone getting assaulted on their way home from the event, or police attempting to enter the venue.

The tool kit suggests assigning safety team members to roles like de-escalators, safe transporters to bring partygoers home, and dispatchers to ensure attendees can contact the safety team quickly during the event. These kinds of efforts are critical because public “safety” infrastructure for violence in and around nightlife is practically nonexistent. The NYPD’s main intervention in nightlife is shutting down beloved cultural institutions without warning; their main intervention in sexual violence is, well, perpetuating it.  

In my experience organizing shows in the mid-2010s, it was hard enough to get all the bands and their equipment onstage at the right time. Although organizing safety teams would have dramatically increased the workload, I would have loved to put together something like this, had I known of the concept at the time. Instead, we used a different set of tactics to deal with sexual violence: in my social sphere, the norm was for individuals (almost all of them men) accused of harm to be systematically ostracized from a set of participating spaces. The unending torrent of credible allegations against people I’d booked or played with was one factor among many that precipitated my exit from the music industry. I felt that I was simply unable to guarantee that anyone attending my shows would be safe from these kinds of harms.  

One particularly memorable imbroglio in the world of independent venues revolves around a man named Winston Scarlett. Scarlett co-created a venue in Chelsea called Nola Darling, the ambition of which was to proactively amplify artists of color. For his activity in the scene, he was named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s “30 under 30.” Unfortunately, soon after that, he was credibly accused of abusive or violent behavior by several people. Alcohol loomed large in many accounts of his behavior. I don’t think that Scarlett’s unacceptable behavior can be totally blamed on the fact that alcohol was sold at Nola Darling—for context, this was the kind of space where you would sit on a beanbag chair on the floor and listen to a solo saxophonist play to a quiet, attentive crowd. I really loved Nola Darling. I can count the number of comparably intimate and enriching experiences I’ve had at other venues on one hand.   

As a result of the allegations, Scarlett was dropped by the bands that he played in and was asked to stop working for at least one other venue. Yet many other spaces refused to participate in this type of voluntarist exclusion, typically for bad reasons. (Some bar owners were not the type to be sympathetic to #MeToo.) But even among participating spaces, the ostracism of certain individuals was a shoddy filter; ultimately, it relied on social capital. In one sense, it’s kind of like policing and the justice system in that examples are made of a few, but harms continue nonetheless. Ostracism can also leave little space for the people who cause harm to become aware of the consequences of their behavior and change their ways.

Regardless, even in the cases (arguably more common) in which the accused has no intention of improving their behavior, ostracism basically amounted to offloading problems onto other communities. We did our best to use word-of-mouth and social media to circulate information about people who caused harm, and we begged venues to keep them out. But ultimately, it was impossible to prevent such individuals from going to establishments that were unaware or indifferent, or from moving to a different city or state and continuing their behavior. Whisper networks can only extend so far. Ad hoc ostracism was better than tolerance or explicit approval of harmful behavior, of course. But it was far from ideal.

To reiterate, approaches like those outlined in the Safer Party Toolkit require more time and effort on the part of event organizers, which would likely demand volunteer hours on the part of dedicated community members. But in an ideal world, event safety workers could be compensated for their labor, just like any other kind of nightlife worker.

If you’re committing to being on the safety team for an event, you won’t be parachuting molly before the second set or sneaking out with a date; you would stay sober and on-call. It’s a job, not recreation. Most small venues are already running a pretty tight ship, and certainly could not afford this without further slashing already-meager artist pay. This expense is certainly worthwhile—it’s the price to make nightlife accessible and equitable for audiences of all ages and identities. But where would venues get the money?  

Within the confines of existing models, those funds would probably have to come either from alcohol or from the whims of rich people. A favorite space of mine, Babycastles, is still closed for shows for COVID reasons but is able to pay Manhattan rent, solely because the landlord wants to use the building to support art. It seems fairly obvious that neither of these funding sources are ideal.  

Perhaps we might instead follow the example set by Burlington’s 242 Main: create publicly funded spaces which are set up to be safe and accessible for listeners of all ages. Along these lines, Alex Williams has proposed a “cultural job guarantee” in an effort to address the political shortcomings of the “do-it-yourself” indie music ethos.

I met Alex at Palisades in 2014, when our bands were booked for the same show. While his proposal is broad-ranging (e.g. publicly funded music journalism, PR, and music distribution), he also suggests “free public concert halls for job guarantee bands staffed by job guarantee employees,” which is precisely what I’m talking about. The combination of something like a cultural job guarantee with the municipal organization of public cultural spaces—democratic, accessible, and equitable—could be one way to tackle the tangle of sexual violence and the tyranny of structurelessness that plagues the indie music scene.  

This isn’t a completely new idea, either: the New Deal is the origin of contemporary job guarantee policy proposals. Between 1933 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration hired more than 40,000 musicians, actors, fine artists, writers, and designers for its Federal One projects in an effort to jump-start economic recovery following the Great Depression. They created murals and sculptures, hosted music festivals, performed accessible plays, and produced hundreds of written publications, among other achievements.

This was just a tiny fraction of public works funded by the WPA, which employed millions of Americans to expand public infrastructure. Many WPA artists became very famous figures—names include Jackson Pollock and Dorothea Lange—and they produced iconic work which still enriches Americans to this day. Perhaps most notably, Federal One helped to bring cultural labor (and enjoyment) to areas beyond its historical concentration in major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles. It also continued art’s transition from a luxury good enjoyed primarily by wealthy patrons to a public good enjoyed by everyone. This is precisely why I want a “nightlife New Deal.”  

At a more local level, a cultural job guarantee could also halt the pattern in which small all-ages venues disappear into nothingness after catalyzing a new cycle of real estate speculation and displacement. As the story goes, hip venues bring young affluent college students and yuppies into distant neighborhoods that they may not have otherwise considered safe or appealing. After a few years, changing perceptions allow landlords and developers to raise rents and build fancy new buildings. By this point, the indie venues aren’t needed anymore, so they’re evicted in order to raise rents on the former venue space. For example, 285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Glasslands were all shuttered to make room for Vice Media’s Williamsburg office in a bitterly ironic development for a company that used to fund some pretty excellent music journalism.

Instead of forcing young artists and nightlife workers to participate in a revolting rat race—the dynamic between real estate developers and landlords—we could create permanent cultural institutions by taking land off the market entirely. This is not unlike a community land trust for nightlife. As an added bonus, funding permanent cultural institutions would also allow for more durable accessibility efforts. It’s a lot easier to maintain a safe-spaces policy (and staff its implementation) if your space continues to exist for more than a couple of years.

A show at Palisades.
A show at Palisades.


Even as I write this, I can’t shake my cynicism. In one of the wealthiest, most liberal cities in America, my neighbors elected a mayor who doesn’t want to pay for anything that isn’t more NYPD overtime. Still, we must ask ourselves: How does public money intervene in our lives? Could we make better use of our resources?

As it stands, in cities like New York the government often involves itself in nightlife by censoring (or criminalizing) Black artists and fans. This kind of thing goes on incessantly in the name of “protecting” youth. For example, the NYPD’s attitude towards “drill” is probably just a straightforward instance of racism; our nightmare cop mayor harbors a strange and misplaced vendetta against the rap subgenre. (Of course, the cops aren’t the only racists in NYC nightlife—my experience trying to book small hip-hop artists taught me that many venues will outright refuse them entry on “security” grounds, which is bullshit.)

But my experience as an affluent white adolescent also shows how the solely punitive state intervention into live music has failed to meaningfully protect youth from the real harms that can follow from the alcohol-centric status quo. If we want to encourage wholesome youth recreation, we can create intentional spaces where youth can enjoy culture without needing to work a part-time job to afford tickets, or fearing drunk and predatory men twice their age. This would involve a lot more effort and investment than appointing a “nightlife mayor” who earns a six-figure salary to attend to unknown duties for unclear benefits.  

One could even argue that a cultural job guarantee would make cities safer for reasons unrelated to nightlife sexual violence. In my professional milieu as a sociologist researching criminalization, academics try to design optimal programs that can keep youth busy so that they don’t turn to crime. I’m not sure that this is a complete picture of the world, but if keeping youth busy is actually a viable way to keep them safe, we could think of public nightlife investment as a complement to New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program (which is proven to reduce youth arrests). It could bring similar safety benefits, and it would certainly be a whole lot more fun.  

My experiences in NYC’s nightlife helped inform my personal strain of political radicalism—including my commitments to prison abolition, and socialism more broadly. Abolitionists have a powerful saying about “presence:” it’s not just about abolishing the physical structures of prisons, but about affirmatively creating a world that would render prisons unnecessary. In other words, we want solidarity and abundance.

This is why abolitionists advocate “one million experiments”—creative thinking that envisions a safer world in which everyone has what they need, and more. Of course, in leftist discourse about potential futures, I don’t think that methods for putting on better sweaty warehouse concerts are at the top of anyone’s mind. Those conversations tend to lean towards the austere. (Try asking hardcore doctrinaire types if they think guitar pedals are worth manufacturing in their ideal society.) But for me, the upside of creating a world with less suffering is that we’ll also have more time and energy to thrive. In my utopia, we will have everything we need to party hard and party safely. ♦

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a Ph.D student in Sociology at Columbia University, where he researches the politics of criminalization. He has written about similar topics for The Washington Post, Slate, Defector, and more.

Cover photo by Danny Howe.

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