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The ‘New Brooklyn’ Redux, But This Time In Music

Looking out from Dope Jams, a vinyl mecca that moved from Brooklyn to Oak Hill, NY at the base of the Catskills.

By Jaime Lowe

It’s official: Brooklyn has migrated. These days, Brooklyn is more than just a borough in New York. For better or worse, it’s an ethos that has seeped into the suburbs, retail awareness and — most significantly to Vassar professor Leonard Nevarez and writer Piotr Orlov — into the countryside, where urbanism has impacted the music and community of Hudson Valley and upstate New York.

“There’s a huge rich scene — this area has championed people like Pete Seeger, so folk is a big part of the foundation,” says Nevarez, chair of the sociology department at Vassar who studies and teaches about musical urbanism (he also writes about it here). That foundation fosters a more palatable and more accessible community — a folk-based Americana revival that complements artisanal, DIY, homespun sensibilities.

But can there be — and is this recent influx of ex-Brooklynites evidence of — a New Brooklyn? “There’s been a more visible stream of musicians moving to places like Hudson, and Kingston and New Paltz are bubbling with musical activity as well,” Navarez says.

The musical migration of artistic communities, micro-scenes, and the exodus of artists from major cities will be the subject of a panel on Wednesday, April 8 at Vassar featuring Navarez and Orlov, who calls himself a techno analyst, media forager, editorial voice and digital strategist on his blog, Raspberry Fields. Hua Hsu, an associate professor in the English Department at Vassar College, will also be joining the discussion.

“This event is inspired by and addressing that trend,” Nevarez says. “We’re also interested in talking about how the entertainment options have expanded — even things like an electronic music dance festival is up near Albany.”

EDM isn’t what normally emerges from the rural landscape, Nevarez acknowledges. “We hear that the Bohemians are aging out, into their 40s and 50s and are leaving the city. New Paltz has become a cluster of Indie rock, and it’s where Team Love Records relocated from the city. There are shows that have a much younger profile and are linked with the contemporary indie scene through singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. There’s also the type of music playing out of The Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie — like working class metal.” According to Nevarez, there are at least three different overlapping scenes.

Basilica Hudson, a space that influences performers.

As an ex-Brooklynite population moves north, does the culture shift with the new creative sensibilities?  Nevarez thinks it goes both ways. “The larger issue here is that the Hudson Valley is now being absorbed into the NYC metropolitan economy. People have urban ties. For a certain kind of professional class, creative class, freelance class, their work is still centered in urban economy; the style of life and the style of work is very much an urban milieu.” But it’s now an urban milieu with rural twist.

“Americana music certainly strives to convey a kind of solitary atmosphere. It conveys an intimate communion and feel. More than a few artists have moved up here to commune with the rustic architectures and landscape.”

And does the environment affect the way musicians create, the communities they build and the sound that emerges?

“I tend to think the environment doesn’t influence choices as much. This is not native, these are not generations of people with a tradition,” says Nevarez. But it is a place that offers space and time to contemplate expression. “I think in the Basilica Soundscape festival, where they encourage artists with this fantastic industrial space, the space dictates what people are doing.”

So maybe it’s not a New Brooklyn, but a Brooklyn that’s expanded Upstate, a place where an industrial warehouse won’t sell so quickly to real estate developers for hundreds of millions of dollars?

“It’s hard for anyone to root their cultural practices in direct rural practice. People have more choices now. But that’s the big question, why a musician would want to live and work in a rural place? It’s a place to focus on music and to get away from distractions.”

Photos courtesy of Kate Glicksberg.

Looking for the New Brooklyn:
Creative Migrations and Musical Landscapes in Upstate New York

Wednesday, April 8 at 8 p.m.
Taylor Hall 203
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie

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