Not too long ago, a self-styled downtown New York legend was quoted in the New York Times Magazine in an article about streetwear as saying, “I’m so downtown I don’t go above Canal Street.” It was a hilarious and surprisingly subtle moment for the Times, a paper that would often have you believe that, because of rising rents and changing neighborhoods, the loose scene that is generally known as downtown New York moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early ’00s and onwards and outwards from there—to Greenpoint, Bushwick, Long Island City, Red Hook and even to East New York. But what the “Canal Street” comment touches on is that, really, the heart of “downtown” has stayed put. The Lower East Side—condos, hotels and all—is still the cultural epicenter of the now-sprawling, multi-borough downtown grid, which means not only that the outer boroughs tend to choose you, but also that downtown, like the cost of living, has grown up.
At a recent photo shoot, Lizzi Bougatsos of the New York-based band Gang Gang Dance got an eyeliner pen out of her bag and wrote “212” on the cheekbone of her bandmate Brian DeGraw. When asked half-jokingly about it a week later, DeGraw offered a mostly musical explanation, saying, “That ‘Brooklyn band’ tag is something that we don’t want to be associated with because it’s become this pigeonhole label—it’s like a genre of weirdo music: ‘Brooklyn noise, blah blah blah, fuckin knob tweakers.’ I’ve never considered Gang Gang to be a part of that. I guess our friends are partly responsible for the creation of that thing, which is cool, but we’ve always just lived on the Lower East Side.” Although DeGraw’s intention was to demand a certain amount of factual correctness and perhaps respect for Gang Gang Dance’s trajectory as a New York band, there is also a status claim of sorts buried in there. Gang Gang Dance isn’t just not a band of nouveaux weird-for-weird’s sake knob twiddlers. It is also, more importantly, a Manhattan band born out of the final throes of one era of downtown New York that is now awkwardly, finally maturing in another era of downtown entirely. It has proven to be a grueling position to occupy.