All photographs by Angela Melamud.
When XPO 929 first opened its doors to the public in January 2010, it must have been easy to see how the place was a D.I.Y. punk’s wet dream: a cavernous four-story building with open floors, high ceilings, a basement and a back alley—all in accessible part of Brooklyn that was unspoiled by gentrification and impervious to noise complaints, as the neighbors were mostly commercial and already subjected to the regular roar of the overhead JMZ subway lines. If there was ever a place to start a music venue, this was it. What was less apparent from the outset was the amount of work that would be necessary to get the building at 929 Broadway into working condition. “We were naively audacious in a ridiculous way,” says Jonny Aquadora, one of the founders of XPO 929, and its current manager.
The building had been standing since at least the 1930s and bore the marks of almost a century of use and abuse. Every time it rained, water fell from busted pipes in the ceiling, spurring on the rampant mold that was eating away at everything wooden, including the collapsing staircases. At various times, 929 Broadway had housed a furniture shop, a hardware store, a restaurant, and, most recently, a party supply store. Its basement was filled with broken furniture, rotting wooden pallets, rusty old tools, National Geographic-caliber spiders, and hundreds of boxes of Halloween costumes, party decorations, and novelties. But before XPO 929 could be repaired, cleaned up, or even leased, Aquadora needed money.
Opening The Glass Door
“I came to New York to play music, did a couple of different jobs, and wasn’t able to make music or do anything I wanted,” says Aquadora. At 31, he still looks like a prototypical punk, with long brown hair and tattoos down to his knuckles, but he’s soft spoken and frequently pauses between his words, creating an air between that of a contemplative intellectual and a dazed stoner. “In New York, it’s so hard because the cost of living is higher, and you have to work so much to make it that you never have time for anything else.”
A Michigan native, Aquadora left college in 2000 to pursue music full-time, as one of the founding members of the post-hardcore band Brazil. He parted ways with the group in 2001, starting a solo project, Aquadora, that eventually landed him in Burlington, Vermont, where he met a girl and settled down for four years. During that time, he ran The Narthex, a venue that doubled as his home. It was this experience that Aquadora drew upon when figuring out how to make it in New York while still being free to make music. “I had to look for a place where I could live, and other people could live and that we could use as a venue.” It was a simple enough plan, but it came with one huge hurdle: how to do it without any money.
Still, Jonny was able to make it work. In December 2008, he rented out a space in Brooklyn that came to be known as The Glass Door, named after the inconspicuous entrance to the venue/recording studio/home of eight. “We got the place, rented out the rooms to other people, and then used that paper for the space. That was a gamble because we didn’t have the money when we got the place. We literally spent four or five days putting up Craigslist ads, got the deposits, paid the rent and it worked.” Looking back on what made The Glass Door successful, Jonny sums it up simply: “Blind determination and no foresight.”
After passing through the literal glass door at street level, visitors ascended a narrow staircase to the second floor, which led to a hallway covered in graffiti, cigarette ash, and the occasional empty beer can. To the right, there were locked doors which led to venue’s six bedrooms for its eight-ish residents. Toward the rear, the space opened up to a large room, which served as a recording studio and an event space for shows and parties. And for the 11 months it was in operation, The Glass Door did well—too well.
“We recorded a lot in the space during the daytime and put on shows during the night. Two or three or four times during the week, we had shows. The shows started getting bigger, and we started having parties. It was more than the owner wanted,” says Aquadora. In late 2009, The Glass Door’s landlord attempted to evict Aquadora and the rest of the tenants. They countersued on the basis of the building being a complete shithole. Aquadora eventually settled with the landlord and left. The settlement would provide the seed money for what would eventually become XPO 929.
While searching for a new space, Aquadora contacted a real estate broker, whose number someone had seen on the side of a building near The Glass Door. “We called him and told him what we were looking for, and he showed us a couple of beautiful places.” One of those places was 929 Broadway, which was uncannily suited for Jonny’s purposes. At the time, the building’s facade bore a sign from the previous occupant, a party supply store. Fixed above the shutters in five-foot-high rainbow letters were the words “Party EXPO.” He didn’t even have to change the name.
Even with the Glass Door settlement, Aquadora was still short on the initial deposit for the new space. The difference was made up by small investments from friends, and Party EXPO’s first show was held in January of 2010, a benefit featuring regulars from The Glass Door. The show’s lineup reads like a who’s who of Brooklyn’s D.I.Y. punk scene: Japanther, Death Set, Cerebral Ballzy, DJ Roofeeo, DJ Dirty Fingers and at least 13 other acts played from the afternoon well into the night.
With the money from the show, Aquadora was able to put down the deposit and begin the Herculean task of cleanup, and of rebuilding its collapsing infrastructure. There was no stage; bands simply played on the floor, surrounded by the crowd. There was no bar, except for a makeshift table that sometimes appeared beneath a collapsing stairwell or on the second floor, which was all exposed wood lit by whatever could be rigged. The third floor didn’t even have light. The doors of the two bathrooms on the first floor were unhinged; to use the bathroom with any privacy, you had to ask a friend to hold the door—not closed— but upright so it wouldn’t fall out of the doorframe. Trash was everywhere.
But while money and repairs remained priorities, Party EXPO was besieged by more direct challenges, both from within and without. “One of the hardest things about getting the place cleaned up was that there were people living here,” says Aquadora. Because living at his venue in Vermont and doing the same at The Glass Door had worked, it seemed to be a given that Party EXPO would double as a residence. But for whatever reason, that didn’t work this time. “Living in the same place makes it really hard to actually have a good flow.”
Thankfully, everyone eventually left. Some were evicted for owing back rent to Aquadora and the landlord; others decided to leave of their own accord. Even Aquadora found an apartment nearby. “When everyone moved out of here, you could come here and do work, you were able to concentrate. Everyone’s different; everyone needs their personal space.”
As the cleanup and repairs progressed, Party EXPO continued to host concerts and parties to fund the renovation. Although the venue didn’t have a liquor license, beers, shots and simple mixed drinks were served on occasion. The illegally flowing alcohol and crowds that began to appear drew the ire of the local police precinct. Shows were raided, citations delivered, owners arrested, and the venue’s application for a liquor license was stalled again and again. Aquadora recalls the bartender once serving beer to two walk-ins—only to have them reveal themselves to be undercover officers. The bartender, the person working the door and Aquadora were all immediately arrested.
What was perhaps the largest fiasco occurred in May of 2010, during a book release party for Gavin McInnes’ Street Boners. (Full disclosure: I organized this event.) The stand-up show, dance party, and concert featuring Das Racist and Wyldlife, attracted around 400 attendees—100 more than Party EXPO’s venue space could accommodate. Lines spilled onto the sidewalk, and an attempt to turn people away, the front door was shuttered and partygoers were let out through the back alley. This was soon discovered, and a crowd began forming there. The back gate was locked, but people began scaling it, and soon enough, the police arrived. With the cops coming in through the back and the front entrance still shuttered, the people inside were trapped—with their drinks. A makeshift bar on the second floor was disassembled before the police could find it, but there was ample evidence that people were drinking in Party EXPO, even if they had not purchased those drinks from the venue. The shutter was eventually raised, and everyone told to leave. Aquadora received multiple citations, and his liquor license application seemed doomed. Das Racist never took the stage, and Wyldlife performed one song.
To add insult to injury, 929 Broadway’s former occupant, the owner of the party supply store, threatened the venue with a lawsuit unless it changed its name and removed the sign out front. So in early September of 2010, the venue took down the sign, sacrificed a letter, and lurched on as Party XPO.
Introducing: XPO 929
Party XPO continued to host shows through the end of 2010 and 2011, though they served no alcohol and barred B.Y.O.B. It was not quite enough to fund the ongoing renovation and get by while the liquor license application was processed, but a new partner, Nacho, helped them get through the year. In the meantime, Aquadora and company kept their heads down and continued working until February 2012, when they could reveal the fruits of their labor.
In an email, Aquadora announced the big news: They had finally won a license to serve beer and wine. But they had not spent the year simply waiting for that to come through; they had completely rebuilt 929 Broadway. There was now a real bar counter with seating, a sound engineer’s booth, and a proper stage. There were practice spaces for bands, and five bathrooms with doors! Jonny and his friends had sanded a layer of decay off the entire building and polished it back to life. To complete the transformation and fully cast off the space’s blighted history, they had renamed it XPO 929.
Today, XPO 929 continues to regularly host shows, but it’s evolved into a wider, multi-purpose art space. The bar serves beer, wine, soju cocktails and snacks, and there’s a free pool table, but there’s also ongoing work to convert the second floor into artists’ studios and a screenprinting workshop, while the third and fourth floors are being converted into an art gallery. After months of work, the basement was finally cleaned out and a series of practice spaces were built. Japanther, amongst others, now practice in XPO 929’s basement.“The landlord likes what we’re doing here,” Aquadora says. “He’s seen the space completely cleaned out and renovated.”
Although most of the heavy lifting is done, XPO 929 still faces challenges. The renovation utilized surplus building materials from Build It Green NYC and even some salvaged leftover trash (the new bar, for example, is made of wood found in the basement), but bringing the space back to life was still costly.“Pretty much everything we’re doing now is to pay off our debt,” Jonny explains. “In order to do this, we had to go into a lot, a lot of debt, so now we’re trying to pay that off.”
XPO 929 was founded, built and continues thriving on the D.I.Y. ethic, but no punk is an island. In the venue’s story, Aquadora may be a central figure, but he could not have done it all himself—nor can he ensure the space’s survival alone. “A lot of people have put in a lot of time and energy,” he acknowledges. “People were mostly drawn to the space. They came to shows and got involved in different ways.”
Looking back on the history of XPO 929, how people pitched in and how the idea ultimately came to fruition, Aquadora remarks: “It’s been complicated.”
Originally published on Bullett Media.