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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2007/04/22
by Jesse Jarnow

The Gentrification Tax (A Reasonable Proposal)

BRAIN TUBA: The Gentrification Tax (A Reasonable Proposal)
Last week, I went to Tonic for the last time, despite the noble efforts of guitarist Marc Ribot & others to keep the club open. I saw trumpeteer Steven Bernstein, who I’ve probably seen at Tonic more than any other musician. He was fronting his Millennial Territory Orchestra, and the performance was vintage Steve.
He joked with the crowd, talking frankly about the mechanisms of the industry, even citing specific low sales numbers for the MTO’s recent, excellent debut album, conducted the band, coming up with arrangements before and during songs, the musicians dropping from swollen free jams into swinging charts and back. Somewhere near the end of the set, a joint emerged from somewhere in the hornline and made its way around stage. Saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum shot off Polaroids of the band from his seat.
Afterwards, over tacos, my friend and I argued about Tonic. "It’s tough luck," said my friend, a city planner, who loves old New York institutions as much as anybody I’ve ever met. "But, if they can’t survive, they can’t survive. That’s just how the market works. Somebody can open up a jazz club in another neighborhood."
But can they? Certainly they can in Brooklyn. Hell, maybe Tonic could relocate to Harlem, one of the dwindling ungentrified neighborhoods in Manhattan. On one hand, that’s the nature of the beast: art and culture go where the rent is cheap. Usually, that works out okay. At the same time, there’s still something profoundly not right about what happened to Tonic: two giant condos going up in the vacant lots on either side of the tiny one-story venue, fairly literally hemming the jazzbos in. The week residents moved into the modernist blue tower at the corner Norfolk and Delancey, police increased their quality-of-life harassment violations of Tonic, and within less than a month, Tonic had announced its closing. Cause. Effect. No more jazz. No fair!
Who said life was fair? Well, utopian-minded semi-socialist hippies, that’s who! Goddammit, that was the whole point!
On that note, a reasonable proposal to create balance in the cultural eco-system of a city:
If it can be proved that:
1.) In a neighborhood…
a.) ...there has been a recent boom in high-value residential real estate…
b.) ...the average rent for a commercial property has increased.
2.) An institution in that neighborhood…
a.) of cultural value…
b.) ...has been open for five years or longer…
c.) ...was able to operate at the original rent…
d.) ...cannot viably function under the new rent.
The neighborhood’s new residents should be made to pay a Gentrification Tax to cover the difference between the institution’s original rent and the current market value of the property, as well as any attendant costs for the legal enforcement of the law.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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