Look around you. Does your part of Staten Island appear as you envision in your dreams? Do you, like many in the more urban areas, have vacant land around you, perhaps a weed-strewn blackened cinder-block foundation, remains from a building burnt down so many years ago, even the long-timers can no longer recall when? Can you see something different in its place? A more utopian scene than mere emptiness? François Vaxelaire, a native Belgian freelance photographer and photojournalist living in Brooklyn while studying at the New School, had such a vision for a bit of vacant land in Williamsburg a few years back; not only did he see change, but fostered it by direct action and organizing.
The Lot Radio is an independent online music broadcasting radio station. Its claim to fame? The lot Radio is on a vacant lot in Brooklyn, and the DJs broadcast 24/7 from a reclaimed shipping container, converted to DJ booth and coffee shop/concessions stand. How’s that for visionary? The station is self-funded, and the DJs volunteer their time. Not only can the station be heard at TheLotRadio.com, but visitors can sit and have a coffee at a table on the lot, or even groove to the music, as it’s broadcast over speakers as well. Visit The Lot Radio at its URL by Clicking Here.
The chairs, wooden benches, and hammock, offset a rather raw countenance. The ground is rough and uneven; pebbles and cracked asphalt, hardy urban weeds reaching out to the sun from between the cracks dot the grounds. The black, curated steel shipping container sits at one end, with TheLotRadio.com painted unevenly on the fence in large white sans-serif type. Apparently, t it’s just what the area needed, as the community cherishes the spot, enjoying pastries with their coffee (or even beer or wine; they serve alcohol) while soaking in the eclectic mix of electronic music.
The programming varies by the day, and the scheduled time slots for DJ programs is updated throughout the week. It’s an egalitarian sort of place; it seems all DJs are welcome to spend some time in the booth spinning DVDs and digital tunes, each DJ curating their own personal favorites, each carefully curating from genres that they spend their time playing.
Open slots, though rare, are no issue. Anyone can show up and guest-DJ with little prearrangement. Though there’s no AM or FM presence, the station is well known both in Williamsburg and beyond. The Lot radio DJ schedule can be found at this link.
The Lot Radio is situated on a small triangle, not quite 1000 square feet in area. 17 Nassau Avenue is the address, in case you’re interested in stopping by. The triangle of land, a private parcel that rents out the space to the station, offers a view of midtown Manhattan, including the Empire State Building. The Lot Radio is framed by the lush McCarren Park, with its tennis courts and expansive open space, as well as Automotive High School, San Damiano Mission, and giant brick warehouses, with aged yellow and grey-barked trees towering all around. It’s right down the block from another triangle, Father Jerzy Popielusko Square, a name that discounts basic geometry and lay of the land.
According to urban lore, Vaxelaire saw a “for lease” sign and was set reeling; his mind quickly formulated a plan to turn a hard-scrabble desolation into a place that promulgated culture,and served the community. There are no corporate sponsors; instead, operating costs are covered by the coffee shop co-located on-site in the shipping container. Maximizing space is the rule here; apparently we can all do a lot more in less space than most of us consider possible. According to reports, Vaxelaire stated, “I wanted to show that it’s still possible to do something alternative and independent in Brooklyn.”
The Lot radio has been covered in The New Yorker, and is no longer an obscure, hidden gem of Brooklyn. Nevertheless, it’s still about as alternative as it gets. François Vaxelaire led a TedxLiège Talk on the topic of the urban experience entitled “Nurturing culture on vacant grounds.” In his presentation, Vaxelaire refers to vacant land in cities as “urban black holes.” While that does sound bleak, Vaxelaire them further explains, “…you can project and imagine what it will be…an absolute empty category…something that’s going to become…”
Instead of seeing a rat-infested lot as an eyesore, we’re enticed to think and feel, pushing our imaginations to the limits. In March 2015, François Vaxelaire, stumbled upon the lot; trying to find inner peace amidst professional uncertainty, the idea for the lot “[struck him]..it just hit [him]..it’s just absolutely clear, like crystal water.” An avid music lover, Vaxelaire then channeled all his resources into creating a music platform for New Yorkers that rivaled his native Europe’s Amsterdam RedLightRadio, a streaming radio station. Archived Shows May Be Found at This Link on MixCloud by Clicking Here.
The shipping container reconfiguration took a year. It was hipping in, not a leftover on the lot from a previous owner or illegal dumper. The radio is ad-free. “The music is sacred” is Vaxelaire’s mantra. There is absolute freedom on the station. This is all about music and expression, not about branding and sales. The station does exert some control over its content, and will either accept, or decline, new DJs based on how they feel about what’s being presented. Odd and different is at home here, however, there isn’t space enough in the weekly calendar for every DJ in NYC.
The Lot Radio has to be “…a bridge between the online world…and the offline world…a strong bridge between the two…” The key, according to Vaxelaire, is linking the online radio station which streams from it’s web site, to the larger community; the places and people surrounding the physical lot. DJs can even read poetry; there is a great deal of freedom. With such high ideals, the streaming station has its foundations rooted strongly in vital principles, free expression, community vitality, and the primacy of music, in all its forms.
International DJs staying in NYC are regulars, as well as city and region natives. The station brings “..good energy…” to the locale, and has offered block parties and street BAR-B-Qs. The 4th of July fireworks show is easily visible, and on Independence Day, crowds swell, directed to the Lot by friends and acquaintances,all there to enjoy the sites and sounds together in a friendly, accepting space.
The Roman Catholic Church across the street, administered by Franciscan Brothers, permit use of the church as a concert venue. Is this even possible? This is more the sort of community involvement I’m sure all New Yorkers want to see more of in the future. Reverence for music is the central idea, however, with such a strong focus on community togetherness, The Lot Radio offers a lot more, an experiment in urban creativity.
While the station has been around for quite some time, we only discovered it just yesterday, as DJ Frankie Bones and Lenny D hosted a two-hour slot, legends since the ’80s, adeptly spinning electronic tracks, their show dubbed, “Radiocrash.” In case you don’t know, Frankie Bones is accurately called “The Godfather of All Techno,” pioneering the original StormRaves back in the ’90s. And Lenny D is the founder of Industrial Strength Records, the realest hardcore techno label on Earth. Without overstatement or exaggeration, each is the best in their class, with skills that are un-matchable, with too many CDs, records, and other recordings to count.
We visited The Lot Radio on Saturday, which was actually the day of the annual Bar-B-Q. We arrived at 6:30 PM and left at about 10:30. Actually, the party was going strong since noon, and was not going to end until 2 AM. In person,the scene was striking. Every image I had been fed up until the moment we arrived featured an empty lot. In fact, the lot was quite full, buzzing with life and energy. Perhaps the other photojournalists should have taken their snaps on the 4th or BAR-B-Q Day? It was am incredible contrast to the many images of a vacant, desolate space.
Arriving At The Lot, We Were Floored By The Vibe.
Some Of the Illest Moments While We Were Here. Is That Obi Wan Kenobi? No; It’s a Monk From the Mission Across the Street.
The Lot Radio was everything I had imagined, but also so much more. It was a utopian scene, direct from every NYC kid’s dream of a city united, dancing the night away. Directly outside, there were clean portable toilets; quite a relief after drinking and dancing. Entering through an unassuming gate, we were greeted by throngs of smiling faces.
The coffee shop was open, serving up free beer and wine, as well as ample snacks for all. A smoke machine set the sparse lighting aglow with an eerie tint; the bass pounded through a sound system that had been carefully balanced. The DJs spun their aural gold from an outdoor area, in contrast to the usual spot of inside the shipping container.
Guests chatted and danced, they watched the DJs and marveled. While tightly packed, there was never a sense of claustrophobia; the open air, the wrought-iron stockade fence, and the night sky aglow with the NYC skyline prevented this. François Vaxelaire was in attendance, alternating between chilling up at the DJ booth and running around a bit, making sure that his guests were having the time of their lives, while himself not missing the incredible DJ sets.
A monk, apparently from the San Damiano Mission across the street, also stopped in for a few minutes to check on the scene. There were people of all ages in attendance; NYC electronic music aficionados of every color and sub-culture made in to The Lot, including, apparently, many university students and artists.
The vibe was friendly, safe, and bursting with a rare energy that is often, sadly, missing from most clubs and dance halls. At one point, the police arrived, with lights flashing, and the music stopped temporarily. Vaxelaire , apparently, smoothed things over, and after short order, the pounding beat resumed, unrelenting. In person, he was quite friendly, talking with everyone with a genuine smile. From his photos, I had imagined he would be more reserved, but he was a generous and inviting host, making one and all feel at home at his Lot.
It was beautiful. Williamsburg at its best. I’ve been to countless underground electronic music gathering in Williamsburg as well as all over Brooklyn and NYC, and this had to be among the most memorable. The records played were great; the DJs’ skills were impeccable, and the scene was real. I had some reservations before, but once I arrived, I understood how wrong I was for doubting. The set list of DJs will be forthcoming; until then click here to enjoy the full event (2018), recorded for posterity.