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Capturing the Ephemeral and Enduring Spaces That Make Brooklyn Weird

article-imageDeath By Audio (photograph by Maximus Comissar)

With 2.5 million residents, Brooklyn would be the United States’ fourth largest city if it was independent of New York City, and possibly its weirdest metropolis. With the DIY movement going strong through a rooftop farm in a Navy Yard, warehouse parties that resurrect each weekend, towering outsider architecture, and industry repurposed into frenetic art where you’re as likely to see a piano dropped 50 feet as a gorgeous installation you can climb, Brooklyn has a lot of offbeat spaces to explore, and for that there is Brooklyn Spaces. The online “compendium of Brooklyn culture and creativity” is run by the adventurous Oriana Leckert. She told us more about how Brooklyn Spaces came to be, and some of her most memorable discoveries in this sprawling New York City borough. 

article-imageCompendiums of spaces like this get started for a variety of reasons. What’s the story with the genesis of Brooklyn Spaces?

I spend a lot of time going out and exploring Brooklyn, so I suppose the idea of documenting my experiences was gestating for a while. But it so happened that in one weekend I went to the House of Yes, the Bushwick Trailer Park, Silent Barn, the 123 Community Center, and the Surreal Estate. I was just blown away by how amazingly creative each space was! And I thought about how the people driving the creative class tend to be focused solely on creating, not on leases or fire codes or, often, long-term plans of any kind.

I decided that someone really ought to be making a record of all the incredibly diverse and strange things happening here before they were gone, so I figured it might as well be me. I think we’re living through one of those moments, in Brooklyn in the aughts, that people are going to want to know about later, in a visceral way. And as a writer who has just an endless appreciation for and curiosity about all these sorts of bizarre and beautiful experiments, I thought I could provide a good platform to record some of the goings-on before it was too late. 

Sadly, within six months, the 123 Center was abruptly evicted, the Trailer Park gave up their fight with the city, and Silent Barn got ransacked. So I guess I wasn’t wrong.

Why focus just on Brooklyn? Are you ever afraid of running out of places to explore?

Although I do think Brooklyn is having a huge DIY creative renaissance right now, I’m not so narrow-minded as to think that this is the only place these things are happening. But I have to be practical: this is where I live, this is where I play, this is where I have access to the people and places I’m the most excited about. I do dream about making this project international — I can’t even tell you how much I’d like to start “Berlin Spaces” — but there would have to be some kind of financial component to make that happen, which doesn’t exist now.

I’m not afraid of running out of places to explore, because the positive side of the fleeting nature of these kinds of spaces is that there are always, always more. When a space ends, often the people who ran it scatter and start three new spaces, or ten. And until it becomes literally impossible for a struggling artist to afford to live anywhere in the five boroughs, there will always be a steady influx of people who want to do something different here. 

article-imageThe Lab (Electric Warehouse) (photograph by Maximus Comissar)

What does a space need to have to be worth exploring for Brooklyn Spaces?

I had rules when I started this project, but I’ve broken them all. First it had to be a physical space, with walls and a roof, but I really wanted to write about Trees Not Trash, which is a group that makes guerrilla gardens. Then it had to be only and ever in Brooklyn, but I wanted to write about Silent Barn, which at that time was in Ridgewood. Then it had to at least be a fixed, physical space, but I wanted to write about the Lost Horizon Night Market and the Idiotarod, which are both itinerant. Then, for goodness sake, it had to at least be in New York City, but I went on vacation in Austin and went to the Cathedral of Junk, and it was just so bizarre and beautiful that I had to share it.

So basically, if I love something a whole lot and can convince myself that it has even a tenuous connection to Brooklyn, creative reuse, unusual fun, or fascinating spectacle, I’ll write about it.

article-imageRed Lotus Room (photograph by Maximus Comissar)

For those who might not have even been to Brooklyn, what do you think it is about this NYC borough that results in so many of these offbeat spaces?

I think it’s two things: people and physical space. First, the proximity to Manhattan, which has long magnetically drawn artists and culture-makers of all kinds, brings an absolutely stunning array of creative people to the boroughs. And second, the vast number of buildings throughout Brooklyn that were once used for manufacturing and other industry, which has since left the area — all these huge empty spaces all over one of the densest cities in the world! — gives the myriad creators somewhere interesting to settle and start getting creative.  

article-imageAcme Brooklyn (photograph by Maximus Comissar)

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve experienced from working on Brooklyn Spaces?

I’m consistently surprised at how invigorating it is to my own life to fraternize with all these offbeat and fascinating artists and makers. From the guy who started an entire distillery based on an article he read in an in-flight magazine, to urban explorers throwing parties in abandoned subway stations just because they can; from old-school Coney Island circus performers, to edgy avant-garde performance artists; from people who spend all their free time building community farms, to those who once a year dress up in bizarre costumes to push a shopping cart around the city for miles — it’s an astounding honor to be involved in and witness to such endless passion and creativity. 

A FEW BROOKLYN SPACES:

FILM BIZ RECYCLING

article-image(photograph by Maximus Comissar)

This one was a big surprise to me — I’d never heard of the space, and [founder and president] Eva Radke contacted me to come check it out. I was floored by everything she was doing: diverting hundreds of tons of materials from the waste stream, partnering with dozens of nonprofits to donate used items, selling amazingly unique things for incredibly low prices, not to mention working to reform a zillion-dollar industry. Eva is tireless and so, so passionate; it was a joy to spend an afternoon with her, and I couldn’t be more excited about all her successes. 

BUSHWICK CITY FARMS

article-image(photograph by Alix Piorun)

My sister does a lot of work at this farm, which is a spectacular oasis in the  middle of Bushwick, under the elevated train tracks, across the street from some housing projects. She told me that there is nothing more rewarding in her life than unlocking the farm on a Saturday morning and seeing dozens of kids from the projects come sprinting out to spend the afternoon planting, building, and just hanging out at the farm.  

HOUSE OF YES

article-image(photograph courtesy Brooklyn Spaces)

If I had to pick one space that most represents the gumption, endless creativity, talent, DIY ethos, and underground spirit of what Brooklyn means to me, this would be it. I was devastated to hear that they’re losing their lease, but [founders] Anya Sapozhnikova and Kae Burke are two of the most tireless, hardest-working performers I have ever met, so I’m sure they’ll land on their feet.  

GOWANUS BALLROOM

article-image(photograph by Maximus Comissar)

Gowanus Ballroom doesn’t have events that regularly, but when they do, you should drop everything and go. Some things I have loved there: enormous art installations that you can climb around in, literally death-defying aerial acts, dancing like a loon to Morgan O’Kane’s spectacular bluegrass, a piano dropped 50 feet onto a tower of champagne glasses, a shopping cart catapult. They’ve worked with Swimming Cities, Flambeaux Fire, the Popsickle poetry event, the Gowanus Circus, the International Performance Art Festival, the Idiotarod — just everything awesome. 

BREUCKLEN DISTILLING

article-image(photograph by Maximus Comissar)

This is just a mind-blowing space. It dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when it contained a massive coal-fired furnace that heated the surrounding buildings. And it’s now full of so many big crazy machines — masher, still, fermentor tanks — things I’d never seen before and was so awestruck by. And the company embodies the idea of “small batch,” with a tiny staff who smell and taste each and every batch they brew before deeming it acceptable to bottle.

More offbeat and underground locales can be found on Brooklyn Spaces.