It has been a shock but no surprise to learn that the SideWalk, on Avenue A and 6th Street in New York City, has changed hands and will likely be poshing up somewhat in the near future. Why a shock? Because the Sidewalk has for several years had landmark status as a gnarly hang-out and a performance space humming with old school Lower East Side attitude, famed as an early launching pad for artists like Regina Spektor and Lana Del Rey.
So why no surprise? Because in our Wealth Gap period, gentrification has become a seemingly unstoppable force.
Laura Saniuk-Heinig and Alyssa Sartor, the new owners of the SideWalk space, are both pros in the bar/restaurant business, Saniuk-Heinig as general manager of the Bar Room, a gastro-pub at 117 East 60th Street, and Sartor as co-owner of August Laura, a new-ish Italian cocktail bar in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Fancy joints, both.
They have announced that they plan to continue the live music program at the SideWalk, so condo-fashion gentrification is clearly not in the offing. But will the open-mic program, often said to be the oldest in the US, survive? That’s just one of the issues which are perhaps not so much unanswered as undecided.
“I do not think we will have the answers you are looking for by today,” Saniuk-Heinig emailed me on Thursday. “I am happy to chat in January when a few pending details have been worked out.”
The SideWalk opened in 1985, just when the Lower East Side art tsunami was cresting. The place consisted of a restaurant, a bar and a performance space in the back and there was live music there from the get-go but for several years the Sidewalk was a biker bar.
“That was because they could sit outside and watch their bikes”, said Somer Bingham, who has long been the talent booker there and who runs the technical crew. The joint’s long moment as a biker bar lives on as a giant mural on the outside wall facing onto Sixth Street.
The SideWalk’s post-biker phase began when the singer-songwriter Lach, a force within the new, in-everybody’s-face music movement, Antifolk, joined forces with the Sidewalk at the end of 1993. Lach was a founder of the Antifolk Festival which had been launched in opposition to the mellow New York Folk Festival, Antifolk shortly became the SideWalk’s focal element.
Mondays were chosen to be the open mic nights, and that was when as many as ninety individuals, whether alone or in a group, would do their stuff. And this wasn’t just a crowd-pleaser, it was functional, this being when Lach formerly and now Somer Bingham would pick much of the talent that would later get their own evenings. Bingham believes that this was—and, at time of writing, still is—the most active open mic night in Manhattan.
Antifolk remained the conceptual glue. But just what is Antifolk? “It depends who you ask,” Bingham said blithely. Jonathan Berger, a poet and performer who got involved with the SideWalk soon after Lach began his program, describes it as “Acoustic Punk music. Like what was at CBGBs but with acoustic instruments.” So, harder sounds. edgier lyrics, than are commonly associated with folk. Punkish indeed.
Wouldn’t some of Woody Guthrie qualify, I asked? “Oh, yes,” he agreed. “Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, they can both be Anti-Folk.”
Berger began as an enthusiast, a face in the crowd. “There were articles on the walls about the antifolk scene,” he says. He soon became embedded, took over the Sidewalk’s Xerox fanzine, Antimatters, and ran it for a while. He was also a regular on the open-mic nights. “I would do random vaudeville,” he said. “I would read children’s stories and theme songs from TV shows. I would do sixty seconds of free verse.” He was soon a SideWalk mainstay.
Andrew Kirell, a Daily Beast senior editor and accomplished musician, has played there. “What makes SideWalk so charming is that it has the feel of the type of DIY venue that Manhattan now sorely lacks,” he said. “There’s a sense of community in just being there, because it feels like a haven for underdogs, rabble-rousers, and anyone who just wants to express themselves.”
It was also at the open-mic night that Lorraine Leckie was picked up by Lach. “It was the early 2000s,” she says. She too was soon a mainstay, performing with her group, the Demons, namely Keith Robinson, Charles de Chants and Hugh Pool, a lanky ornament of the Blues Hall of Fame.
In due course Leckie got a monthly gig at the SideWalk. She asked me to open for her, reading my rhymes, and I have been doing so regularly ever since, more often than I can count, which is why I have grown so accustomed to the place, the terrific talent I have heard there, and the crusty/genial camaraderie of the SideWalk crowd.
Jonathan Berger set up a second open-mic night on Saturdays not long before the sale of the Sidewalk was announced. Like all of us he has no idea where the SideWalk will go from here.
“I don’t know of that ragtag spirit that has been going on for twenty-five years will survive there,” he said. “But the community will live on. It will be somewhere.”
Lorraine Leckie and the Demons performed on Friday night. Yes, I opened. Not, I hope, for the last time.