Us Versus…Us? The VICE Dilemma

Last fall, staple Brooklyn music and art venue Glasslands announced that they would be closing doors on New Year’s Day 2015 as a result of being denied a lease renewal at 289 Kent Avenue. Nearby venue Death By Audio was also among the allegedly displaced businesses. Both venues served as a catalyst for major change throughout the 2000s on the Williamsburg waterfront.

These are the people who originally shared this space with real-deal drug dealers and had to “earn their stripes” in the neighborhood the old fashioned way: drinking dollar beers in abandoned tax centers and looking over their shoulders on the walk home. These are the people who found acts like MGMT, TV On The Radio, Tame Impala and Alt-J, and showed them to us. These are the people responsible for the cultural revolution that VICE Magazine made billions of dollars reporting on.

P1040300-1024x768In July 2014, VICE Media announced they would be moving into a 70 thousand square foot battery of warehouses on the Williamsburg waterfront, after 13 years at their previous Brooklyn location. The project is valued at an estimated 7 million dollars, according to The New York Times. At face value, this would appear to follow suit with the last decade of gentrification on and around Bedford Avenue, if not for the indie music landmarks being displaced by the media giant.

Founded in 1994 in Montreal by soon-to-be CEO Shane Smith, VICE was originally a free indie music zene campaigning to be “the voice of Montreal.” The company relocated to Brooklyn in 2001 while it was briefly under the ownership of Canadian software millionaire Richard Szalwinski. Smith reacquired ownership following the end of the dotcom boom.

Through the early and mid 2000s, the company was widely viewed as the face of the hip and progressive new culture of Brooklyn–publishing some of the grittiest and politically incorrect stories and documentaries that nobody knew they wanted to see. From punks to rockers to club kids, VICE was the voice of an alternative generation for the better part of the last decade. In essence, the brand was built on the backs of the original indie underdogs from places like Brooklyn, and more specifically, the emerging Williamsburg cultural marketplace.

Enter commercial success.

vice-williamsburgThe past few years of unchained success have yielded partnerships with entertainment conglomerates like 21st Century Fox, HBO, and CNN, just to name a few. This, combined with 36 new bureau locations spanning over five continents, has skyrocketed the company’s net worth to over $2.5 billion.

But has it all gone to their head? Have they stayed true to the original vision they had as kids sitting at a crappy pre-Apple computer in a Canadian garage, or have they already taken the plunge into the dark abyss of commercial capitalism, spoon-feeding the masses pseudo-documentaries and biased news that promote their partners’ private enterprises? Unfortunately, the latter is already becoming a reality for the brand, online and via HBO, under the label “sponsored content.”

Meanwhile, we’re losing more iconic indie music venues by the minute. According to FADER:

It’s believed that Glassland’s closing may have something to do with their South 2nd and Kent neighbors, VICE. A source, who has asked to remain anonymous, tells us that the deep-pocketed media company has plans to level the block and build a multi-story office tower, adorned with a big neon sign, beckoning out toward the East River so that it’s visible to anyone crossing into Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge.

So what does this Rupert Murdoch-backed company have to say about displacing their smaller neighbors? Very little, apparently. The only person who has gone on the record in any detail is the real-estate broker who set the whole deal up.

Drew Connor worked with Sol and Leo Markowitz, owners of two connected buildings at 49 South 2nd Street, the original headquarters for Domino Sugar, and 285 Kent Avenue. He told The Commercial Observer this winter that he “believed the space at these addresses was not fulfilling its post-gentrification potential, especially given the scarcity of commercial space available in the area.”

That’s where things took a turn for the worst:

Though the brothers had tenants that embodied the area’s creative bent, including popular music venue Death By Audio, Genius Media, Windmill Studios, indieScreen and Brooklyn Bowl, Mr. Conner envisioned the sizable space meeting Vice’s specific and difficult-to-achieve needs.

All it would take was the Markowitz brothers agreeing to simultaneously terminate the existing leases, empty the properties and create a full space the right size for Vice.

If VICE’s mission was once to be the face of a progressive new generation and culture, that is clearly not the case anymore. A media conglomerate more than a revolutionary news source, more capitalist than community-oriented, VICE is well on the path to completely undoing the work of its earlier iterations.

Why would VICE do something so contradictory to their mission? It’s not surprising. It happens all the time. Gentrification has taken its strangling hold on Williamsburg, and there may never be a way out. The question is, where do your loyalties lie?