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Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place

Hilly Kristal, the cash-strapped owner of CBGB, has threatened to move his legendary club to Las Vegas — and what if he really did it? How would Joey Ramone look next to Elvis?


A view from the stage at CBGB.  

There is a spot, as you walk south from Astor Place on Fourth Avenue, with Cooper Union on your left and a Kaplan Test Prep center and the Village Voice on your right, where the heavy façades of institutional Manhattan break down. The buildings become lower and thinner, the construction scaffolds and metal shutters of closed shops are covered in graffiti and concert advertisements; two blocks down is the iconic canopy of CBGB/OMFUG, the world’s most famous punk-rock club; and in all directions you can see the sky. Third and Fourth have merged to become the Bowery—which for all the money being thrown at it still clings tenaciously to its shittiness for the next ten blocks.

This won’t last. Look closer at the scaffolding and you notice advertisements for a company called Code Blue Design—“Building Code and Zoning Consultants.” Due south, the real-estate developments are massing across Houston like an army waiting to cross the Rhine. “They’re coming this way,” homeless advocate Muzzy Rosenblatt told me recently as he took me on an extended tour of the Palace Employment Shelter, a dormitory and job-training center upstairs from CBGB. Rosenblatt, short and friendly, is head of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, an innovative homeless program that runs six buildings in the neighborhood. He showed me the facilities, pointed out the amenities (the main sitting room, he noted, where people not staying at the shelter can come in and relax, is directly above the CBGB stage), paused periodically to chat with a resident and elicit, for my benefit, a life story. He wasted his time on me like this because he had spent the past few months in a very familiar kind of New York drama, playing, for him, the very unfamiliar role of villain. When one graduate of the BRC program, a formerly homeless jazz musician named Greg, who’d actually played at the downstairs space at CBGB, took a hard line toward the club—“If you can’t meet your obligations in this life, man, you gotta go. This is New York City”—the unflappable Rosenblatt briefly flapped. He insists he has genuine affection for CBGB: “I’d love for them to stay. My wife and I—we had our first date there. We had our first kiss there.”

But those real-estate developments exert a certain pressure, and Muzzy Rosenblatt, who has been helping the city’s homeless in various capacities since graduating from Wesleyan in 1987, is now locked in a contentious dispute with the club, which happens to be his tenant. If things go the way they’re going, he will be the man who, after 30 years of everybody else trying, finally killed punk rock.

Inside the dark, cramped front office of CBGB, Hilly Kristal, the club’s legendary 73-year-old owner, sits bearded and troubled, greeting visitors (mostly tourists) and answering phone calls from around the world. “They call from Holland, Japan,” he says. “For some reason, they want us here. I don’t know why it matters to them, but it does.” On this day, he is waiting for the building inspector. The visit worries him: It was an inspection revealing numerous violations (especially for fire safety) that strained the BRC-CBGB relationship back in 2003. There was also the matter of rent, which Kristal had, for a while, kind of stopped paying. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the money, which eventually added up to $300,000, it’s just that no one asked. “They weren’t billing me for it,” Kristal says, making a tiny bit of sense.

“I went down and asked Hilly about it,” Rosenblatt says, making more sense, “and he says—this is typical Hilly,” Rosenblatt adjusts his voice into Kristal’s basso profundo, “ ‘You know, there was a blonde girl who used to come down and ask for it every two weeks, and then she stopped coming.’ So that’s a reason to stop paying?” A judge put together a payment plan, which CBGB faithfully followed, but last year the BRC presented Kristal with a $95,000 bill for missed rent increases. On the advice of his combative lawyer, Kristal took this, too, to court.

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