Inside the Surprising World of an Urban Underground Collective of Artists, Punks and Non-Conformists
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In Brooklyn, the world of squatters, punks, activist houses and communes lives on, a continuation of ‘60s ideals that have morphed as the decades wore on. At 13 Thames, a punk house in deep Bushwick, a collective of punks lives a communal lifestyle that shuns government greed, while their music and art blast government corruption. Here’s how I first journeyed to their underground:
I walked down Saint Mark’s on the prowl for punks.
A few blocks in, I passed two kids dressed in all black and skin tight jeans, sitting on the corner with a cup between them. One of them, cute with short brown hair and dark eyes, was wearing a hand-studded leather jacket – one sleeve painted red – with tight black jeans covered in patches of different punk bands. A bandana was tied around his neck. Next to him was a blue-eyed boy with blonde hair to his shoulders. He too wore a bandana, folded like a headband under his hair and across his forehead.
“Are you crust punks?” I asked them.
“No,” they both responded.
“We’re fucking clean, and we don’t do drugs,” said the blonde. “We’re street punks.”
We walked to Doc Holliday’s, a bar by Tompkins Square Park, where I bought us all a round and pulled out my notebook. They were so chatty we small-talked the whole way there. They told me all about the differences between street punks, gutter punks, crust punks, skin head punks, and other subgenres of punk. Eventually, they told me their names – sort of. Nick, the blonde, offered only his middle name, James. Ryan, the brunette, swore alongside Nick, that his last name was Rebel. I was naïve enough to believe him until he revealed weeks later that his last name is Perry.
Twenty-five-years-old, Ryan had just returned from a world tour with Total Chaos, a ‘90s street punk band from California, and had been in New York for a matter of days. A street punk homeless in the city, he was not alone. He panhandled, drank, squatted, and ate with Nick James, also 24 and homeless, as well as a longtime friend, before lifestyle choices sent them reeling down separate paths.
Nick grew up in Woodstock, New York and went to live in a foster home at 13. All he will say about family prior to his placement is that he had a “bad home life.” The foster home, however, could not have been much better. There, his foster father molested him and several other children. “He is going to jail now for over a hundred years,” said Nick, who was still waiting to finish up the legalities of the case.
When word got out that the kids were being abused, the foster home was absolved and Nick was on his own again. He dropped out of school and headed for the city.
Once in New York, 14-year-old Nick was taken in by the punk scene. He lived in a squat called The Bat Cave in Brooklyn. “You wouldn’t want to go in there without a bunch of people, maybe grab a rebar on the way in, because the people in the basement were crazy ,” said Nick. The next few floors, though free from “crackheads,” were also no place for an abused child. “The next couple floors was crust punks and shit. It was disgusting, needles on the floor. The top two floors were mostly punks. We kept it clean, kept the needles out,“ he said, divulging details of his life with a sweetness and eagerness to help me get it that I still do not fully understand. Something about his demeanor reminded me of a young Kurt Cobain – broken, rebellious, and likable.
Back upstate, 16-year-old Nick James met 17-year-old Ryan Rebel. Memory of the union was difficulty for Ryan to recall, but Nick was quick to remember. “He was living in a bus, and it was after the foster home, I was living in a yert.” For “five to six years” Ryan lived in a bus with his mom and her boyfriend. If my math is correct, he was homeless by the time he was twelve.
That night, I got a text message from Nick. It said, “Me and Ry were thinking about it and we want to school you in punk rock. We think you got it. Hit us back.”
The next day, I met up with Nick and Ryan on 3rd Ave. and Saint Mark’s to walk to the L train. Ry tried to “spare a swipe” a few times until Nick convinced him to buy a ticket. We were in a hurry: The Subhumans show was in Manhattan at 7. It was 5:30, and they still had to get ready.
On the train to Bushwick, Nick nudged me and said playfully, “Hey, Kristen. She’s on your team.”
I looked at the woman he was pointing at – a sloppy and obese with mangled hair and pock marks.
“She’s a lesbian?” I asked, totally confused.
“No,” said Nick, “It’s this game we play, like hey he’s on your team – that means they look like you,” he said, laughing, and I realized he was making a joke. Often, being around Nick felt more like being with a young teenager than an adult.
We talked for a little bit about drugs. Nick and Ryan both insisted they were clean, but I knew Nick had a history with heroin. I tried to find out how long he had been clean, but he was not eager to divulge details. “I don’t know, a while,” he said, “It’s not like I’ll never do it again.”
“I thought you don’t do drugs?”
“I don’t know I mean, Ry doesn’t like it,” he said before emphasizing the words “I’m no junkie,” with an anger and defensiveness that makes me stop digging.
We get off at the Morgan stop and walk in the unlocked, tagged-up door of what looks like an old warehouse. Just past the front door is a short hallway. Straight ahead is a plastic window used to sell tickets to parties and shows. To the left, a doorway leads to a large kitchen with a couch, small stove, and refrigerator in the corner. Past the kitchen is a hallway that breaks off into several small bedrooms before leading into a large common space decked out with technical equipment, a huge computer, and a couple of broken, but still usable, couches.
Nick and Ryan introduced me to everyone there , and I quickly shook a lot of hands. The introductions were so casual and haphazard I could tell they were used to newcomers. One guy with dark skin and short electric blue hair had his septum pierced and ears gauged about as big as they could stretch. He offered me the rest of his Chinese food.
The walls are covered in graffiti – poems, radical slogans, and impressive art work, including a koi fish Nick designed. The floors are unfinished and dirty from shoes, but the place is generally well-kept. I did not see the same empty beer bottles and clusters of dirt and dust I would in a college boy’s house. All trash in the trash can. When I asked where the bathroom is, someone tossed me a roll of toilet paper.
The place is 13 Thames, a Collective Art Space where musicians, artists, activists, friends, and weary travelers meet to live, collaborate, or just crash for a few days. Almost all of them are black, and several are from the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad. Some residents are involved in activism, the most renowned activities of which are probably the video projection of political mavericks and prisoners onto the FBI building in Washington D.C., as well as an “I am the tea party’s wallet” projection onto the Koch Theater this May.
Other residents are musicians. Some are just friends. At first glance, they look like a rowdy crew of rude kids. What they are is an eclectic mix of people tied by their open-mindedness and rejection of the mainstream. They pay the bills throwing shows. They get by through sharing.
They use this space to be free - to make art and seek refuge from a society that does not serve them. In the midst of the devastated economy, they are able to hold their own. Kids like Nick, whom society failed, find a way to live free and be happy. At 13 Thames, one might meet at a Trinidian black metal kid who grew up in Bed-Stuy, a punk rock woman mechanic who worked for six years at a law firm, a dreadlocked community gardener, or an interestingly “off” German man. They come together to accept people that society fails and rejects, and they pride themselves on open-mindedness.
And then they party – often with a conscience. They throw film screenings, noise, metal, and punk shows, art galleries, showcasing whatever parcel of the underground they deem cool enough.
They must fight, however, to stay this way. One issue with the space is the neighbors, another collective called Surreal Estate. My first night there, I walked in on a countdown. I heard “30 minutes! 15 minutes! 10 minutes!” from every corner of the space until finally it was dark. In the back of 13, I sat down on a couch by a huge computer monitor. Resident and hemp activist Jason rolled a spliff and explained the situation to me.
“Their (SurrealEstate’s) lights were illegally hooked up to the warehouse next door, and when the warehouse cut their power off, the landlord hooked them up to our power. He just did it, and then denied it. We turned off the lights to bring it to his attention, tell Surreal Estate we’re fed up, and get the conversation going,” said Jason.” You know, we have to work together.”
Jason is a young-looking, short black guy whose red plaid shirt stands out against the black clothing of the rest of the residents. He organizes global marches for the legalization of marijuana with the group Cures Not Wars.
“They tried to turn the lights back on, and we said no,” said Jason, who says Surreal Estate owes them about 3,000 dollars in electricity bills. The money is crucial to 13’s survival. Busted by the cops every time they throw a party, paying the bill is a new difficulty.
As one might imagine, the cops are one obstacle in the way of 13’s dreams. Last year, a few days before they hosted the after-party for the Anarchist Book Fair, residents say the police entered without a search warrant, before arresting residents with outstanding warrants for their arrest.
13 understands the power of the internet, and when the cops show up, they throw cameras in their faces. Once, they caught a man who appeared to be an officer threatening them with rape. “I will put you in jail, and you will get raped. Do you want to get raped?” he asks them. While the man identified himself as an undercover police officer, uniformed officers who showed up later denied he was an associate.
I met 13 Thames resident and hemp activist Jason again at the Anarchist Book Fair at Judson Memorial Church. He must have known roughly one in five people there, and each person he said hello to he also held a conversation with. Over time spent with Jason and at 13 Thames, I realized the extent of his reach in New York, as well as his sweetness.
We bumped into one girl right away. Her hair was cut so that random patches were shaved off while others formed ratty green locks.
Her name is Lucy. She was from Surreal Estate, the electricity thieves next door. She said to Jason, “Are you screening End:CIV? You know we’re doing that too, right?” Jason responded, at first, with alarm. “Are you serious?” They briefly debated who had been planning it longer, established the director would be speaking at both, and realized that Surreal Estate’s screening was one day before 13 Thames’. Jason suggested they work it out and do it together, but Lucy insisted it would not be possible.
“Well, Marguerite will block that, cause she’s not allowed at your place,” said Lucy.
“That’s true. Marguerite is not allowed in our place, but we could still do it. So long as she’s stealing our money, no, she is not welcome,” Jason said good-heartedly, almost laughing.
Shortly after, we ran into Marguerite. She is a heavier middle-aged woman who was probably been a hippie in her youth. She was wearing a thick knit sweater and hat with thin baggy jeans.
“Hey. Now that you’re here and we’re in the same space should probably work this out so that we’re not in the dark,” said Jason, cordially. Standing still one spot, they had a civil conversation in the middle of the book fair, for about an hour.
“How did it go?” I asked him when they finally parted.
“I think it went well,” he said, “She says she has a check for 1,000, so we’ll see.”
I met a bunch of Jason’s friends at the book fair – old “road dogs,” a New York Times reporter, activists, farmers, and members of other collectives. I bought two copies of a Henry & Glen Forever, a comic book about a love affair between Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and The Misfits front man Glen Danzig.
We walked back to my place and hung out for a while. Our plans were to hit up a barbeque at another collective, The Trailer Park, before going to the afterparty for the Anarchist Book Fair.
Somehow, we didn’t make it to either. First we stopped by a recording studio in Bushwick, where we met a soul singer from Detroit who once stayed at 13 Thames. There was weed and beer and ‘90s music. Five of us – me, Jason, his friend, and two others – a shy Belizean boy and another soul singer from Berlin – sat and ate the gourmet salsa the quiet kid made for us. We talked and laughed and listened to music, and Jay’s friend, told a story about the time a well-known rapper came to stay with her in California. “He came out the shower butt-naked. I told him to get his clothes up and get out,” she said, laughing and unimpressed.
I headed out soon after, and Jason walked me to the subway to make sure I got home safely. He insisted on using his unlimited Metrocard to give me a free ride.
When I got home, I looked up Jay’s friend. Turns out, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan appears on a remix of one of her tracks from the ‘90s, a big hit.
Amazing, I think, how one space can be safe for so many different people.
The next day, Jason and I attend an event hosted by Revolution Books, in celebration of the release of BAsics, a compilation of quotes by communist leader Bob Avakian.
We had a nice time listening to some great music and inspirational speakers. Still, I was not convinced communism – or any fixed set of ideology – is the answer to society’s problems. I shared this opinion with Jason, who agreed. “I’m just sick of isms,” he said.
Anarcho/communist thinking is rampant among the collective community, but 13 sticks mostly to leaderless concepts of government. That, and they make their own government – they are their own anarchy. They help who they deem worthy of help, and they find help from people who understand. Why anyone would try to shut down such a perfect form of self-reliance is nonsensical, especially now, as the budget crisis worsens and the government cuts social programs that are supposed to benefits youths. While Nick’s story is an example of the failure of our government, it is also an example of the success of our people. These punks, these street kids, they can get it together and give you a roof, a meal, and a hot shower, all with a smile and no judgment or paperwork.
On our way home, I called Nick and told him I’d be back soon. He was staying at my place that night so we could hang out, and he could rest, before he went to trial. He was meeting with lawyers in Albany, then staying in a hotel from two to four weeks until the trial wrapped. Because he previously turned down an offer for $500,000, he could walk away with millions.
Nick and I were in touch a few weeks later, and I learned he was awarded about half a million dollars for his case. 13 Thames is still facing legal problems, and the city is using loft and residential vs. commercial housing laws to threaten their eviction. Fiona, a resident punk rocker with an education and experience in a law firm, is dedicated to kicking ass in court and now officially 13’s liaison to the city.