For the first time in the history of mankind, more people now live in cities than in rural areas. For an urban planning nerd like myself, this is fascinating for so many reasons. A metropolitan city is like a giant organism itself, constantly growing and changing and adapting to its environment. Of course, the difference between a city and most other organisms, is that it is also an environment that is changed by the organisms living in it. It’s like a giant coral reef made of concrete and steel.
Often times these changes happen very quickly, as the evolutionary wheel of fortune throws a ton of shit at the wall to see what sticks. One of the most obvious ways in which these changes manifests themselves is with new businesses. In big cities like New York and San Francisco, the store fronts can some times change four or five times a year. During the two years I lived on E.5th Street in Manhattan, I watched the tiny retail space across the street from my apartment go from a Tibetan gift shop, to a trendy boutique for womens clothing, to a massage parlor, to a wine shop, to an upscale sneaker store to, eventually, a vacant 120 sq. foot room.
I often wonder what kind of thought goes into these businesses. Most big box retailers and corporate franchises do all kinds of demographic market research before setting up shop in a new location. Home Depot won’t break ground on a new warehouse until they’ve first determined that there are at least five or six mom-and-pop hardware stores that they can put out of business by doing so. I would think that anybody opening any kind of business anywhere would at least put some effort into doing the same.
For example, if you wanted to open, say, a new pizza place, you would first look at the neighboring businesses and residents. If the store front you’re looking at is wedged in between another pizza place and the Center For The Study of Bread and Cheese Allergies, common sense tells you that this is not the best place for your business. But if you find a vacant building next to a college dorm or a shitty dive bar, and nobody else is selling pizza within a 20 mile radius – bingo! You’ve found your niche.
And yet, New York is littered with combination cellphone/headshop/ethnic food stores. And most of them are within half a block of other combination cellphone/headshop/ethnic food stores. From what I can tell, they open up in the middle of the night, sell absolutely nothing to no one for two months, and then have a going out of business sale before closing permanently. Who’s idea was that? Who thought to themselves, “I’m going to spend my life savings opening up a store selling cheap junk that nobody wants in a neighborhood with three other stores doing the exact same thing?” Do people just get drunk and start signing leases?
This also happens a lot with bars and restaurants. Bars and restaurants are highly specialized businesses. They have to have the right combination of location and ambiance to even get people in the door. And to keep those people coming back, you have to have some pretty good food and/or drinks. You can’t just put up some blinking lights, turn on the radio and charge $7 for a Bud Light and expect to stay in business for more than a week. Again, this is just common sense. Anybody who has ever left the house and thought for two seconds about where they want to spend their hard-earned discretionary income could tell you this same thing.
And yet. Every day in New York somebody opens up a new, totally shitty, doomed-to-fail business. One of my favorites was a bar – excuse me, lounge – that used to be on Bowery at 3rd. The place was totally covered in mirrors and televisions. And not televisions playing, like weird nature videos or post-modern art projects or anything. Just TVs turned on to random channels, and then reflected into about a million different mirrors. Just walking by the place made me feel like I had crawled into the schizophrenic brain of my remote control.
Needless to say, nobody ever went in there. They would advertise drink specials (“Shot of Absolut Peach + bottle of Smirnoff Ice just $12!!”) and hire really horrible DJs, and every once in a while some unsuspecting girl from Long Island would have her bachelorette party there, but the place was mostly sad and empty. They were still in business when I moved out of the neighborhood, but I wasn’t holding my breath that they would be there when I came back to visit.
They were not. I don’t know what transpired in the interceding two years, but it is now Bowery Electric, which is where I found myself on the second (third?) night of CMJ. I was in a hurry, so I didn’t really check out the new decor. I can tell you that they have a pretty good venue in the basement, with two levels and a bar tucked into the back. I got there just as Brooklyn band Black Taxi was launching into their set. This is a band I’ve been hearing about for a while, but had never gotten the chance to see. I know it seems like a strange choice of adjective, but their performance left me refreshed.
At a time when everybody is playing some mutated combination of indie rock and electronica, Black Taxi are playing regular rock n roll. At a time when other bands are staring at their shoes and mumbling self-effacing gibberish in between songs, Black Taxi are sharing instruments, flailing about the stage and literally climbing the walls. At a time when everybody else is trying so hard, Black Taxi are simply getting it done.
The music on their new album Things Of That Nature is at once crisp and familiar, new and instantly likeable. This isn’t music that grows on you – it fits perfectly the first time you hear it. Listen to the lead single “Head On A Pike.” From the opening guitar riff you’re instantly won over. It’s a sound that has been missing from the sonic landscape recently, and one that I imagine will be quite popular with anybody who likes music.
In other words, they seem to be filling a need – not just adding to the whine of their already noisy neighborhood (no offense to Brooklyn, of course). I recommend you check out their new album. You can find it online, in select record shops and combination cellphone/headshop/ethnic food stores across the city.
'Head On A Pike' (stream only)