Once Upon A Time
Once upon a time we had a dream of a nightclub in the land known as
Manhattan, where we would create an atmosphere of welcome and good people
would charge it with the energy of fellowship, where passion for the Earth
would have the opportunity to become focused action and the air would
resound with spirited music kindling spontaneous bone-shaking and merriment.
At long last, such a place has come to pass: Wetlands Preserve.
First and foremost – before and after the myth – the Wetlands Preserve was a
bar. It was – and is, as of four hours ago, when I last left – located at
161 Hudson Street at the corner of Laight Street in the TriBeCa neighborhood
of Manhattan. It was founded in 1989 by Larry Bloch. It was purchased in
1997 by filmmaker Peter Shapiro. It was closed in 2001 when the building
housing it was purchased by developers eager to convert the eight story
structure into condos and office space.
As The Grateful Dead codified the musico-ecstatic experience into a gigantic
touring ritual, the Wetlands Preserve sought to institute those values in
the rest of our lives, into our daily routines and existences. The club, a
unique model of a for-profit organization with a built-in activism center
funded by the bar's earnings, was the first – and still the only – of its
kind, still a surprise considering the relative success of the set-up. The
vibe was familial.
This was due, primarily, to the layout of the place. Fitted with deep wood,
the architecture provided for a fundamental experience rather than a
concert. The stage, lower than most, was situated off to the side of the
club, facing a small performance area. Most of the club's patrons viewed the
band in three-quarters profile from a bar area, raised about two feet above
the dance floor. The result was constant socialization.
Wetlands was life, holy in the way of mundane, sacred in the way Bjork meant
when she described her album "Vespertine" as being "about zooming in and
finding heaven underneath your kitchen table. Most people think that the
life they lead is boring and the noises they hear every day are ugly. But if
you take those same noises and make them into something magical and out of
the ordinary, I think that's brave".
In that, it was utterly routine. There was the freedom to go to pieces in a
way which would still be real the next morning. There was a certain space
allowed for that existential bleakness. Music did not ever solve all the
problems. In fact, it may have even exacerbated some of them. Because it was
life, our lives, there was darkness. And maybe there are specific stories of
that, too. The power of Wetlands, though, was in its total effect. If
something bad happened, it happened. That's not the story of Wetlands,
though. Wetlands – as a place, as an idea – did no harm. I truly believe
that from the inner most core of my being.
The Wetlands Preserve was a sculpture of light, carved primarily by Larry
Bloch. Though I only met him formally for the first time somewhere in the
haze of the last evening, his vision was immediately evident in his
gestures, in his words. In the same way that I believe certain musicians to
be genuises for their ability to translate an abstract idea to a practicable
form, I believe Larry Bloch is a genius.
In the beginning, there is one voice, one idea: Larry's. Before the club
even it opened, it spread — to his then-wife, Laura, to original DJ Disco
Dave Nolan, to others. The bands came, the fans came, and it spread into a
joyful chorus. Anecdotes are humorous for what they are, but an important
part of the club's larger history. People's stories intertwine and create
something larger, a sense of what Wetlands was and will continue to be.
Many, many thanks to everybody who agreed to be interviewed for the oral
history. The story is far from complete, and there were many folks I haven't
gotten to talk to yet. Thanks, as well, to everybody who contributed and
helped out with this special issue: Carol Wade, Mike McNamara, Bill Stites,
Laura Heifetz, Richard Gehr, and Dean Budnick. And, of course, to the staff
and family of the Wetlands, most especially Matty Iarrabino, Lance Royes,
Chris Zahn, Jake Szufnarowski, Johnny Beach, Jersey Dan, Kregg Ajamu, and
Dave Nolan. Finally, and most heartily, thank hugs to Larry Bloch and Peter