“I like to think of it as rising from the ashes of Kent Avenue,” Drew Briggie of 100m records explained, twice actually, once when I met up with him last Friday night, and again in a follow-up interview this week.
Drew was talking about the SugarCube, the second iteration of an inflatable rectangular igloo of sorts that made its second annual debut on the South Street Seaport at the start of December. The cube is open to the public, with programming curated by 100m Records scheduled through the end of January. “It might go until March if they let us, we’ll see,” Drew said when I stopped by last Friday to take a look at the place and check out the show featuring Relations and Savants. Each Friday at the SugarCube there’s a free show featuring bands and DJs, and the event is made boozy with either a bar or BYOB policy.
“We’re trying to keep most of the acts local,” Drew explained.
I’m gonna be real– I was not expecting to be dazzled by the place, to say the least. The SugarCube is, after all, a family-friendly public space sponsored by a record label and the Howard Hughes Corporation. And referring to a corporate-sponsored public pop-up space as any sort of vestige of 285 Kent is a little audacious. In short, I expected things to be quite vanilla. But I was pleasantly surprised, as much as I hate to admit it. Drew was very welcoming and the atmosphere at the SugarCube on a Friday night was, dare I say, loose.
People were toting six packs, even 24-packs into the space. Youngish adults lined up outside smoking despite the extreme cold and for a moment, just a moment, I could have sworn the smell of weed wafted by. Inside, the softly glowing and perfectly heated space was comfortably crowded– not shoulder to shoulder or even elbow to elbow, but enough so you could easily strike up a conversation with the next pack of people. The cube is a bit like a clown car: it looks as if no more than 25 people could cram in from the outside, but inside 75 people were spread out quite agreeably. And to my utter shock and amazement the place was filled with (how do I say this without sounding like a total jerk?), well, hip-looking kids.
There weren’t any strollers and I’m almost sure that would have been frowned upon. And when I strolled in, Savants, a local band, was playing indie rock to a very attentive crowd. Drew offered to open my beer. After their set, the band thanked everyone for “letting us play inside this dream bubble.” I noticed they had a gaggle of friends, passing around a bottle of Jim Beam, who came to support them– none of whom wold seem out of place at Palisades or the Silent Barn. Wait, this is the FiDi? Where was I, really?
The cube photographs nicely, and changes colors every so often — from red to green to purple and blue — and can be controlled by a light DJ of sorts inside to be in-step with the music. There are tables and chairs for people who want to chill with a beer and watch the show, while most people choose to stand. There’s something about the slightly squishy floor, the convivial atmosphere, and the tolerable bathrooms outside that make you feel well taken care of.
Drew explained that the project is part of a neighborhood revitalization effort spearheaded and largely funded by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The Financial District isn’t exactly known as a cultural hub, or even any sort of destination for people who live in the city whatsoever, unless of course you take your coffee with hundred dollar bill purée and the blood, sweat, and tears of the developing world. Drew said that 100M has a special connection to the neighborhood, as two of the record label’s employees active in the SugarCube project this year live in the immediate area right on Front Street.
But programming like the SugarCube can be only temporary, and much like Two Trees — the developers behind the Domino site who have allowed for a pop-up park to reside in an area that will soon become a construction site — the Howard Hughes Corporation seems to be using unique, free public spaces like this to appease neighbors who might otherwise find themselves very threatened by the massive skyscraper project looming on the horizon (also compliments of Mr. Hughes’s endowment).
“Our engagement numbers have gone through the roof,” Melissa Currier, a rep for 100m Records told me over the phone. “There’s been a steady increase as people have become more aware of us.”
But the SugarCube does cater to a more diverse age group the rest of the week — kid-friendly film screenings on Thursdays, all-ages hands-on events like drawing classes on Saturdays, and every Sunday a market helmed by Greenpoint’s own Record Grouch. Sometimes they change things up. On January 31st for example, we highly recommend stopping by the Sun Ra Arkestra show (one of our fav post-mortem Sun Ra incarnations). DJs from AdHoc (yes, AdHoc of 285 Kent fame, RIP) will also be performing.
Despite the sort of DIY cred that comes with AdHoc, it’s clear the SugarCube is no DIY space, but could this be the future of music in New York City? When all the DIY venues are dead and gone, when Manhattan really is Billionaire Island, will indie-ish, underground-ish shows look like this? Well, at least non-corporate music, shows featuring bands that aren’t exactly household names. When titans like the Howard Hughes Corporation give over a sliver of their massive South Street Seaport property over to the arts, will that be all we can hope for? Will we, independent and underground music lovers of New York City, have to depend on the goodwill and charity of billionaires and corporate entities to be benevolent patrons of our art? If we can’t afford the spaces to make DIY shows happen, how else will they happen?
It worried me, but I couldn’t help but think that, in a decade or so, this is the way live indie-ish music will look in New York (at least in close proximity to Manhattan). And as cool as the SugarCube was, in some ways, it was still a sanitized venue. A close friend who joined me at the venue last Friday commented, “It’s like being in a mall, a really warmly-lit, comfortable mall.” Interestingly enough, Drew was quick to point out that the reason why the Howard Hughes Corporation wanted to make the cube happen again this year was to ensure “there was something other than an Abercrombie & Fitch down here.”
Walking away from the cube back to the train, you have to pass the skating rink on one side, and fancy boutique shops and chains stores on the other: a storefront with posters of exotically portrayed, tribal men and women foregrounded by sherpa-lined moccasins and finely-crafted leathery Espadrilles for only the best-dressed babies money can buy, an artisanal candy store, and finally, that Abercrombie & Fitch Drew had referred to.