Goodnight Mr. Lewis: House of Yes and Closing L Train May Keep Brooklyn Cool

Photography: Audrey Penven

Nightlife at its best is a love fest—a place where even birds with broken wings can soar. Back in the day, cultures collided in the best places in town, artists, performers, dancers and even clowns were all celebrated. There were thriving places where envelopes were pushed, edges redefined. Drag queens could make a pretty penny dancing on bars, affirming to the Wall Streeters and bridge and tunnel sets in attendance that they, indeed, were hanging in a super hip place. Today, or tonight, there are very few places where drag queens dance on bars. The segregation of cultures is more profound in nightlife than maybe in society as a whole. There are those who live to challenge this theory. It was and still is Susanne Bartsch, Johnny, Chi Chi, the Mother Crew and others still thriving in the cracks and yes, there is the House of Yes: a place for smiles, laughter and eureka moments—for shock and awe. HOY is a place to belong—a place to say yes.

The Brooklyn nexus of Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Bushwick, a creative cauldron for all that goes bump in the night, is under attack. Real estate developers seeking that cauldron of gold at the end of that creative rainbow have put up a continuous string of dormitories for slaves pushing the wayward types farther away from the L train and connections to the Manhattan money stream. The hipster sprawl has attracted those who live to swarm around the creative light that starving artists and musicians have developed. Their credit cards have encouraged Duane Reades and mainstream boutiques to open and thrive. It is a D-Day level beachhead that has nearly transformed Nirvana into Pleasantville. Yet all is not lost as House of Yes and other stalwarts exploit the yuppie bucks and employ the star struck, bringing joy to the world.

DSC07712Photography: Audrey Penven

On a typical Saturday night, Manhattanites with tourists in tow command the lifeline of the Brooklyn creative cauldron: the L Train. Over the last decade or so, the Bridge and Tunnel types, with real jobs and real credit have migrated from the outer boroughs and now live the Manhattan dream. Like frenzied Salmon, they now swim upstream to mate in the old, forever changed hoods. A few years ago, most got off at Bedford Avenue, but now the hoards go three, even five stops, inland looking for that good time. Their money supports the clubs, bars and boutiques that pay the rent of the artistes, but it also dilutes the Gene pool—a Catch 22.

Suddenly, a new hope may have come in the form of disaster. At some table of suits, it was determined that the L train must be shut down for repairs—some say for a year, but other reports whisper of three or more. The inconvenience of it all just may save the hood from eating itself. The starving artists know how to survive such troubles; they’ll ride their bikes in a foot of snow, run to work or take three trains. The newbie crowd, the non-creatives that panic if their lattes are made with whole milk, might decide to opt out for Long Island City or Hoboken, which I hear are both very nice.

I ate at Forrest Point, Bushwick among my brethren and thought the end of civilization as I know it may not be nigh. It was mid afternoon when Kae Burke, one of the founders and partners at The House of Yes, and old friend Eric Schmalenberger, a HOY board member, house curator and performer, gave me the 2 cent tour. It all started with the bathrooms, each a work of art, each a vision of how things should be. I was showed stages, back rooms, go-go cages and Boardwalk Empire relics. My head spun, I decided this was it—a place I could hang my hat, a place where moments could occur, where talented people could push their limits, and therefore a community’s. Kae told me how a shoe company might want to promote their product, tap into the scene-maker crowd that’s attending rather regularly. She said if such a thing must be done, HOY would produce it, mimicking a giant shoe coming down on her. I laughed and I seldom laugh in Manhattan anymore unless Johnny Dynell or Chi Chi Valenti are doing something. HOY was reminding me of Mother, the seminal Meatpacking joint where everything was everything, so I asked Kae to tell BlackBook about what she calls “our accidental nightclub.”

She wrote me a book, which I’ve edited down, so you can absorb her energy:

“House of Yes has become so much more than we ever anticipated. Some things in life are planned. Sometimes with a project, you have a whole projection of what you’re doing and how it will make money and succeed and an exit strategy and how you’ll make it all happen. House of Yes, throughout the years, just kind of happened. Organically, magically, one of those weird destiny things.

[House of Yes Co-Founder Anya Sapozhnikova] and I started making art together, playing out-of-tune instruments in cold garages, smoking weed in parking lots and drawing all night. We made art together, drawing, painting [and] sewing all night. It’s that creative love feeling—the feeling that someone gets you, the feeling that they see your potential, they will support your terrible brilliant ideas and think you’re awesome no matter what. We had that connection that multiplies the good things exponentially—the kind of love that keeps reflecting back and forth, the kind that makes you feel good about yourself because the person you love, loves you back and vice versa. With that kind of love, anything is possible. That is why House of Yes is possible. We made stuff. We were broke and didn’t care. We were resourceful. We were in fashion school, but it was more of pain in the ass as it got in the way of exploration, creation and going out.
Anya has always been a natural leader—the best at bringing people together. They follow her radiance wherever it takes them. That is why House of Yes exists. Because she leads with force, power and light. As much of a leader as I am, I have to say, I follow her [and] support her. It takes us to great places together. She leads parades [and] creates grand spectacles at huge illegal warehouse parties in Brooklyn. We still do weird art together, but now we do it with more people and all over the place. Now it’s a performance.
DSC07035Photography: Audrey Penven
 Part of the magic of the House of Yes has been in that collective need for something to succeed. People feel included. We’ve always been very open about it belonging to all, [and] especially in this early phase, we were open to collaborating with anyone and that is how the weird, wild and wonderful things happened. People feel included and therefore invested. They want it to work. They want to help. It’s not just for House of Yes, it’s for them. It’s the reflection—the love that keeps going.
People saw that what we had created was special. Everyone is always trying to be special, but when you try too hard and plan and brand and strategize for your target market, the result is completely contrived and it wreaks of bullshit and desperation. We didn’t try to be special, we didn’t have time to think about that, we would just make things and try things and rehearse and perform and do it again and again. We made performances, parties and art, and it all kind of worked together. We didn’t waste time ‘trying’ things, we would just do them and then adjust our decisions based on the consequences. It usually worked out.
 By the age of 26, we were old enough to freak out a little when we lost the second House of Yes. At this point, it was our home, our everything, our resource for making. After the devastation and sobbing, it became clear that we’d built something that didn’t need walls. Love doesn’t need walls. Real family, the kind you make, the kind that makes you, doesn’t need a house [or] have a home. I know it’s cheesy, but it’s so true. We had our people. They found us and loved us, warts and all.
People have come and gone from the House of Yes world, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choice. Anya and I have always stuck by each other, and it’s a power beyond love. It’s commitment. I have to admit that I have wanted to quit. We weren’t convinced about the third round. There was a beautiful freedom that came with losing the space and we tasted it. It tasted good to be free of the massive responsibilities of running an illegal venue, but we kept looking because we knew it wasn’t the end, even if we fantasized.
DSC06999 Photography: Audrey Penven
In previous installations of HOY, people followed us. We built it [and] they came.  To some extent, with the third, we followed the people. They wanted it. Everyone kept saying. ‘It’s okay, we’ll find a bigger better place. We have to do this.’ We followed them [and] they were right. Our crew, our family, our friends had the radiance, the hope and energy to remind us that yes, there was more. We believed in them, in ourselves, in the reflection and the need to succeed. House of Yes had to live on.
It’s a weird thing that happens when you make something bigger than yourself, bigger than you had planned. (Not that we had a plan). It’s terrifying and beautiful and the most exhilarating thing in the world to stand back and say, ‘Holy, shit, what have I done? What have we done?’ That’s how I feel now. We didn’t do it alone. People cared. This wouldn’t have happened if the community didn’t need it, didn’t want it, didn’t crave it and demand that it happen.
The current space is its own beautiful creature. Anya and I are 29 and we’re more and more in love with each other, with the space. Our family gets bigger, our art gets better, our lives get brighter. There aren’t enough hours in the day and there is still never enough money it seems. We never meant to make a nightclub, we just wanted to make art. I seriously can’t believe what we’ve created, but I know why we created it.
Because this city needs a place where things can happen that aren’t about tricking people into spending their money. We all need a place where we can go meet interesting people, where we can be surprised and where we can surprise ourselves—where we can grow and give, a place where you can give a shit about the space you’re in. We’ve let people put themselves into House of Yes. We let people help us build, we included them in the legend and it has filled every little crack and corner of the space with love. Because love is service. Love is selfless. People pour their time and money into House of Yes because they feel like it is theirs, like it was made for them, and should be made with them. They are right. We made it together, we made it for everyone.
DSC07145 Photography: Audrey Penven
[With] most nightclubs, you don’t care who the owner is, or who made the art on the wall, or who the go-go dancer is. I feel like House of Yes lets people care because we never present as a ‘brand,’ we present ourselves as humans who created a space for fellow humans. Maybe that’s all House of Yes is: a place for humans [or maybe] a gift for humans.
For me personally, House of Yes is a place for me to discover myself. I’m still working on developing as an artist, as a woman, as a good human and creator—as a leader, a believer in myself. It’s a life-long journey.
It is hard to balance the stress and management, the art and love. Luckily, I have the best partners in the world that remind me constantly what the struggle is for, reminding me that it’s worth it, reminding me that I am the same genius that I was when making art all night in highschool, the same creator from the basement days, the same leader I always was and will continue to be. Even when I’m tired, I can remember it’s okay to be inspired. Just let it happen. It’s always worked for us that way.”

Eric added:

“The first time I walked into House of Yes  I had no idea what it was and I was mad as hell that something so incredible existed and I wasn’t involved. When I was in college, I remember describing my perfect life as being a member of a group of artists, spectacle makers, performance artists, camp queens, and fearless creators who collaborated to make things that were thrilling, outlandish and beautiful, and there I was in the middle of it.  About a year later, I was cast in my first House of Yes production. From that point on, I was hooked and found myself braver and more excited with each challenge.  I always joke that it’s called ‘House of Yes,’ not, ‘House of Maybe,’ and I find myself saying, ‘Yes,’ to the unexpected here all the time.

I think that’s one of the reasons I love this space and this community. It encourages the unexpected and the surprising to take place, and it encourages the risk taking and the trust to take that risk. This whole community and club are built on that trust. Two weeks ago, I walked into the club before a variety show and was told by Kae and Anya that they had an idea involving me for an act that night where I’d be chased up the wall sculpture above the bar by crazed sexy clown girls, attached onto a zip line and then flown high above the audiences heads in my daring escape. For a circus space, I am very much a ground performer, but I trusted my friends and that night I found myself about 17 feet above the heads of a thrilled audience (while wearing sequins of course). Each day is an adventure; each day is bringing in new artists, creators, nightlife innovators and fun makers to join in that adventure. What more could a boy ask for?”

House of Yes is one of the reasons to live in NYC, putting up with L train closings, the high rents and all that Jazz . Go there ASAP, it’s the best place in town.

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