Doing it Ourselves: A Three Year Reflection of the New Paltz Underground

Punk Time

“Come on guys, we’re late!”

My friend waved for the group to pick up the pace and hurry across the street towards a dark, seemingly deserted house on Route 32 South.

“This is it?” Somebody muttered uneasily, still clearly upset that she’d been dragged along.

Everyone silently followed the leader around the side and down a dark path into the backyard. Rounding the corner, I realized this is no empty home. First, the cigarette smoke hit me. Then the muffled reverberation of live music. I saw the cuffed jeans and Doc Martens attached to a couple of college kids making out beneath the blazing hot glow of cheap yellow string lights. There was no time to process further — my friends grabbed me and rushed me inside.

Some greasy kid in a Pavement T-shirt approached us with an empty coffee can. We gave him the three to five dollars he asked for, and everybody headed downstairs to the basement. There was a sudden intensity about the space we were entering, as if some sacred ritual was about to begin. The music was loud. The air was thick. In the dimly lit room I counted thirty heads huddling closely around the band. “Sorry it took so long to get things going,” the lead singer grunted into the microphone., 

“Let’s make some noise!” The crowd cheered.

“Guess we’re right on time!” I whispered to my friends, grinning.

“Yeah,” one of them replied. “On punk time,”

It was April 2017. The venue was called Mom’s, and it was my very first house show in New Paltz.

The passion of the community, the raw authenticity of the artists, the very idea of throwing a rock show in a basement: it was almost anarchistic. Everything was flipped upside down and my concept of live music changed completely. I became infatuated with this DIY (do-it-yourself) lifestyle that wasn’t afraid to make something happen whenever and wherever — or with whomever — it wanted.

Of course, I fell in love.

Harrington Street

Going to shows. Absorbing. Going to more shows.

That’s how I lived my life for a while. Meeting new and exciting people, getting my first exposure to the local scene. It was so inspiring to see all of these students creating a network out of their basements and living rooms, bringing band after band through the area. Beyond Mom’s there was Girl Gaze House, Law Offices, Ghost House, Yacht Club, Nacho House, Fizzies and several others that had more names than they had shows.

But it wasn’t long before I started seeing the cracks in the glue. A few houses were at odds with each other, and it wasn’t unusual to see shows scheduled on the same day in an aggressive effort to steal turnout. Often this would result in bands playing to empty rooms and going home with little or no money.         

There was also an undeniably macho energy to some of the houses. Tough guys who would drink their beers in the back of the room and silently judge you for not knowing the bands on the bill. Places that were unwelcoming, unsafe, or — in some of the worst cases — harboring dangerous figures in the community. Almost as bad as walking into a frat house.

I soon started obsessing over the “what-if’s” and the “if-I-could-just’s.” These places were doing big things with mostly good intentions, but there was so much room for improvement, and I knew I wasn’t the only one yearning for a new model. 

In the summer of 2018, I decided to move into a house of my own and take a shot at hosting. Two friends, Caleb and Aidan, were also searching for living situations and eagerly jumped on board. Time was short, and the largest space we could find was a sardine-can-of-a-house on Harrington Street. Under enormous pressure, we decided that it would have to work. We found a fourth roommate, Wes, and signed the lease within days.

We quickly settled on the name Crossroads. Played out as it seemed, it neatly captured our intentions as a house venue; to invite musicians from all over to play at our new home in New Paltz.

By this time, all of the other places had either moved on or graduated, and we found ourselves in the unique position as the only one left in town. As daunting as it seemed, we saw it as an opportunity to set the standard for the next wave of DIY. Crossroads would be a place where people felt welcome. We would create an environment where people could safely exchange ideas, talk music and make friends within the community. In a scene where male-dominated spaces mostly featured male-oriented acts, we would provide a platform for women to share their voices. We hoped that this spirit of inclusivity would spread to create an underground music scene that was more accessible, lively and enjoyable for everyone.

All that was left was for us to promote our first show. Previously, other places hadn’t done much promoting at all, and it was often difficult to find out when and where anything was happening.

It might have been an intentional effort to keep things more controlled, but what resulted from this “if-you-know-you-know” attitude were in-groups and barriers that warded off newcomers.

So Caleb made a flyer, and we plastered it all around the town and campus. One night, Aidan and I used a full bucket of chalk to write “@crossroadsnp” in enormous multicolored lettering on the concrete wall over the stairs by Sojourner Truth Library, a main walkway for students and the perfect place for such an advertisement. Our Instagram started gaining attention over the next week and the name “Crossroads” began to circulate.

It’s silly now to think of what we went through to make the events work in that house: we had to take all of the furniture out of the kitchen and living room on the day of a show and place them in the woods outside to make proper space; we had to chain together a wall of bicycles to keep people from wandering and upsetting the next door neighbors; we even created our very own, needlessly complicated method of identifying those who had paid at the door (Note: Occasionally people would complain about our strict $5 policy, but we firmly believed that all money collected should go directly to the bands. They worked hard and we wanted to make it worth their while. I’m grateful for those who supported the cause and I’m glad we stood by it) which involved spray painting plastic poker chips and giving one to every attendee to display anytime they had to leave and come back. Somehow, we made it work. 

In spite of (or maybe because of) all of the hard work that went into it, those first few months were a magical time for all of us; we learned how to book, organize and completely manage our own events. We forged a sense of community that I’d never experienced in my life — and people were responding to it. 

Way too many people showed up to the second-to-last show we had in the house: Benchmark’s EP release for All of the Possible Outcomes, and one of the neighbors called the cops on us. We were told to “end the party.” If they had to come back, they were going to make arrests.

We got most of the crowd to stick around while we scrambled to relocate the show. We drove around to every bar and restaurant in New Paltz, asking them to take us in, but I don’t think any of them actually believed that we had eighty people waiting to fill their space at a moment’s notice. And why would they?

Finally, after a quick phone call to her boss, a bartender at Arrowood Outpost told us to send everyone over. They were giving us a chance!

Everything after that is a blur: hurrying back to the house, somebody making an announcement, everyone lending a hand and grabbing an instrument or piece of equipment. The stage was quickly pieced together and Benchmark performed to a full crowd, as if there had never been an interruption — like this was where they were supposed to play all along. From that moment on, Arrowood Outpost would be recognized as a DIY-friendly space, and for the first time we felt the true power of the community we had cultivated. If Crossroads had been built as a paper lantern, we had proven then that it could really fly.

Big Blue

In May 2019, our lease ended and I crash landed in Caleb’s parent’s attic for the summer. It was in this attic that we brainstormed the next year of Crossroads; it was down to just Caleb and myself. We had already proven that we could successfully run an inclusive venue. Now we were ready to move into a larger house with more like-minded people — a place where we could push the boundaries of what Crossroads and the New Paltz DIY scene could become. Without settling on any definite intentions for our future, I drafted a new lightning bug logo to symbolize light in the darkness as we began our next chapter.

In August, we moved into a big blue house at the end of Millbrook Terrace with our good friends Anthony, Mackenzie, December and Joe. There was something different about this house; or maybe the town as a whole had changed. I felt an overwhelming sense of ambition, renewed excitement, positive energy and political angst in the air. But I also felt the broken heart and lingering pain of a town that had just lost its pounding, caffeinated pulse: Cafeteria. The community was seeking a new light; all we had to do was flip the switch.

Things began moving quickly and we had a lot to do. In the first few weeks, we had the basement emptied and a stage constructed. I stayed up several nights in a row before the first show. We cleaned the space, strung up the lights and wired the equipment. In a final decorative touch, I decided to glue newspaper across the wall behind the stage. When the work was done, I took a step back to look at what we had created thus far, and found myself instead looking forward at what was to come.

The first night was a huge success. Around 175 people came and the energy was unprecedented. I knew it was as empowering for the bands as it was for us.

Meanwhile, several new house venues were emerging in the scene: Julia threw her first show at Sanctuary, Peter was laying the groundwork for Sanctum, and Lorenzo and Sheridan were making plans for Groove Grove.

One night, Lorenzo and I met up to discuss a few ideas for making New Paltz DIY more collaborative than ever. I proposed a shared group calendar so we wouldn’t accidentally step on each other’s toes, and he suggested that we could promote each other’s events so that bands would always have the largest possible turnout. By the time the first Skate House show happened in mid-September, we were planning a meeting where people from each venue could come and introduce themselves. We invited everyone to Crossroads on the first Monday in October.

After the first fifteen minutes of pandemonium, we finally got to talking, and it didn’t take long to realize the potential a group like this had. We quickly discovered that everyone in the room had been independently hoping to achieve the same kind of things Lorenzo and I had been discussing: putting musicians first, dispelling toxic energy of the past, creating a comprehensive schedule of shows and generally collaborating to build a verdant scene. Everyone had contributions of their own, and the night erupted into an incredible discussion. 

From that night forward, we were a team that would hold frequent meetings to tackle common issues together. I’d recently been given the opportunity to run a small Instagram page called “DIY New Paltz” (created several years earlier by Ami Madeleine), and we decided as a group that we would use the page to both represent us and extend an open invitation to any other venues who wanted to collaborate along the way.

When Crazy Dan’s and The Crevice began working with us, it started to feel like the underground music scene was really opening up and becoming more accessible to those who had never been able to explore it in the past. Crossroads alone had eight more shows (and a full day festival) that semester, averaging around 200 people a night and capping at around 300 at the Halloween show. It felt like we’d created something bigger than ourselves.

When the Music’s Over

We knew the momentum couldn’t last forever.

Skate House was shut down shortly after throwing some of the biggest shows the town had ever seen, the intimate living room sessions at the Crevice eventually stopped and Groove Grove and Crossroads both had to shift gears considerably. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, it put a definite end to the chapter as a whole.

So where exactly does that leave us, and what’s next?

I, for one, feel lucky to have ever been a part of this community. And though it may be over now, we should feel proud of the beautiful things we accomplished along the way — of the many musicians we supported in their arts, of the charities we helped raise money for and of all the new faces who grew through the scene to become talented and inspiring leaders, artists, and community organizers in their own rights.

Most of all, we can be proud of the fact that we did it ourselves. We inherited the rusted wire frames of an old and antiquated music scene, from which we built our own paper lanterns. Through open dialogue, we were able to share ideas and help each other improve collectively. Our lanterns shined together in the sky like a great and strange new constellation.

Standing here in the aftermath, it is now our job to help the next generation find the wireframes we’ve left behind so they can begin building their own models. They might share similarities with ours, or they may differ in every way possible. Either way, I hope they will shine brighter and fly higher than ours could ever imagine.