Op-Ed: The Dueling Needs of Downtown Artists and Upscale Neighbors

Shanta Thake |

Shanta Thake is the director of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, where she presents over 800 shows a year. After a major renovation, Joe’s Pub will reopen on Oct. 4.

Gone are the days when the words “East Village” automatically conjured images of back alley drug deals and weathered performers trudging down St. Marks Place with their instruments strapped to their backs, as if heading off to some bohemian coal mine. Today, the East Village more likely brings to mind three things: college students, Starbucks and soaring rent costs.

Shanta Thake, the director of Joe's Pub, circa 2003. Thake struggles to reflect the constantly changing East Village community in her programming. Photo courtesy of Joe's Pub.

I began working at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in 2002. While I can’t say that the East Village was still an incredibly gritty place then, cultural institutions like The Factory, CBGBs, and “RENT” still lingered in the collective consciousness of one of New York’s most culturally rich neighborhoods. But to deny that the move to a safer and, to put it bluntly, more gentrified neighborhood was irreversibly in motion and kicking into high gear could be considered selective memory at best.

The artist known as the Mosaic Man asleep in his home, Tompkins Square Park. Pre-gentrification, the East Village was home to many hippies, punks, beatniks and artists. Flickr/toddwshaffer.

The mission at Joe’s Pub is to reflect the community surrounding it on our stage, which, in practice, always meant a programming vision that is incredibly diverse in terms of genre. But as we at Joe’s Pub prepare for our rebirth into the East Village arts scene Oct. 4, we are forced to ask ourselves: does that actually reflect the community surrounding us anymore? Or are we serving a mythical audience that we ourselves conjure up out of the steam from our own lattes to look like the East Village of yesteryear? The answer to that is less simple.

Of course we serve the community of New York University, which I love programming for and with. We work with the students and have done concerts with the NYU a cappella group, their CAP21 musical theater program, with their ethnomusicology classes and more. To ignore the presence and importance of this large and undeniable force in our immediate neighborhood would be foolish, backwards and ultimately untrue to the vision of Joe’s Pub as a neighborhood institution.

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond in her last residency performance at Joe's Pub last year. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Yatarola.

Our cultural institutions are more than just rooms with stages and being a part of any community is as much about the “now” as it is the “then.” It is imperative that we are constantly looking at ways to reconcile and educate ourselves with respect to both. In doing so we expand the dialogue between different people, and consequently strengthen the very fabric that makes up the tapestry that is New York City’s East Village.

Growing up in southern Indiana, I admired from afar downtown New York performance art pioneers like Ethyl Eichelberger, Ellen Stewart, Andy Warhol and Penny Arcade. And to this day the “downtown” performance art community remains one of my favorite groups to work with, although it seems bizarre to refer to them with that qualifier now, since very few, if any, are actually able to afford to live downtown anymore.

However, when the incredible performers of Our Hit Parade or Justin Vivian Bond take the stage at Joe’s, there is a beautiful, edgy and slightly terrifying energy in the room that is everything I dreamed New York could be. It is our job to continue to offer a home to these performers and their audiences, even as rents increase and the grit that once permeated our neighborhood is slowly washed away.

How do our performance venues not only survive but thrive in the ever-changing landscape that is New York City? As we finish up the renovation of Joe’s Pub and prepare for our re-opening, I am repeatedly asking myself this question and the answer I return to again and again is simple: listen. It is what music programmers do best. As gatekeepers to stages in the most vibrant city in the world, we have to listen to the needs of both our neighbors and our artists and do what we can to support both of these groups in a way that will allow them to continue to make a mark on this city.

A rendering of the new Joe's Pub. The East Village showcase venue is set to reopen on Oct. 4. Image courtesy of Joe's Pub.

This fall we are premiering five new works from our first ever commissioning program, entitled New York Voices. The idea behind these commissions is to support our artists more fully through funding, and finding additional artistic partners to give them a chance to tell their stories in their own completely unique ways, so that they can inspire and educate the new audiences of the East Village.

Lady Rizo performing at Joe's last year. She joins Joe's Inaugural program, New York Voices, in October. Photo/flickr aphroditeinnyc

The artists chosen for this inaugural program include Allen Toussaint, Lady RizoAngélique Kidjo, Ethan Lipton and Toshi Reagon, all of whom are New Yorkers, although some by way of New Orleans, Portland and Benin.

As the voice of New York continues to change, it is imperative that we not forget where we came from, and where we are going, as it is in all of us to determine where that end may be. It lives in our collective imaginations and on our stages; we must remain vigilant so that we might preserve all that keeps us dreaming.

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