Wild Birds in the distance, March 2021
The Sense of Movement Keeps Us Alive
Saying goodbye to Brooklyn venue Wild Birds
By Taylor Stout
I found Wild Birds at the end of another New York summer. Two years ago: I was twenty-one, starting my last semester of college. All I remember feeling back then is a perpetual knot in my chest, but in the pictures I took, my skin is glowing. I look like a baby. This is probably because I was rarely wearing makeup for the first time in years. I was rarely going anywhere or doing much of anything. But after months stuck at home in California, I was finally back in New York. I had a new apartment that was dusty and quiet. I was alone, more or less. I had an unfamiliar neighborhood to learn by heart.
Walking one of the neighborhood’s warehouse-lined blocks in heavy August dusk, I spotted string lights in the distance stretching over the sidewalk. As I walked closer, I turned down the music blasting in my headphones. I heard laughter and conversation dancing in the still air. It sounded like the recent past I reminisced about daily. It sounded like what I hoped my near future would be.
The lights, music, and conversation belonged to Brooklyn bar and venue Wild Birds. Against all odds, it was new to the neighborhood that summer too. The first iteration of Wild Birds formed in 2019, with co-founders Julian Klepper and Luke Bonner booking their favorite musicians for house parties. During the summer of 2020, they opened their outdoor performance space on the corner of Dean Street and Classon Ave. This allowed them to hold safer live performances long before New York City’s nightlife came booming back along with COVID vaccination programs. They subsisted off of money generated from the outdoor performance space until they were able to open their indoor space almost a year later, in April 2021. Hosting a diverse roster of live music and DJ sets spanning genres like jazz, cumbia, hip hop, and disco, Wild Birds was a welcoming environment for music lovers to come together and experience unique performances. The venue garnered press from outlets like Grub Street, The New York Times, and Thrillist. Despite the buzz, entering the space still made me feel like I was stumbling upon a secret.
Every time I visited Wild Birds, I was impressed by how the music took center stage as an artwork unfolding in real time. Even outdoors, with the potential distractions of traffic noise, the live bands—tucked humbly inside a wooden outdoor dining structure—were absorbing and grounding. External sounds integrated seamlessly into the performances. I wasn’t hearing music as an artist has played it many times in many cities, hitting all the same marks. I was caught up in the flow of an irreplicable moment. Between songs, Julian wandered from table to table with a bucket, collecting donations that went directly to the artists. My friends and I drank mezcal and gin, told each other about our lives, and paused our conversations to cheer on the bands.
The Alex Asher Quartet performing at Wild Birds, March 2022
Now, summer is ending again. I’m twenty-three. I have another new apartment. I have a blossoming tree and chirping sparrows outside my window. The hot weather dragging on is wearing me down, but I feel lighter. With music and conversation punctuating the long days, my world sounds like I hoped it would.
I’m glad to be moving forward, but I don’t want to brush off everything I've experienced over the past two years. When I saw an article in Brooklyn Magazine announcing that Wild Birds was closing on September 5th, I took it as a chance to say goodbye. On the last Sunday of August, I went back to the neighborhood I had just left. I walked down Dean Street to Wild Birds for a sidewalk performance by folk artist Tamar Korn and her band—a performance time she had held every Sunday for two years, with this one being the last.
The moment I turned onto the block, I could tell this wasn’t an ordinary night. A crowd of people filled the entire sidewalk. Plastic chairs joined the regular wooden tables. Families leaned against support beams of the venue’s awning. Two boys sat in lawn chairs between a parked car and the outdoor dining structure. When, during the night’s show, the car pulled forward slightly and almost hit them, they jumped up and laughed.
I joined the fringes of the crowd. I was catching up with a friend who had met me there, passively enjoying the music. But I kept pausing in the middle of the conversation, my rambling sentences dropping off into nothing. There was something entrancing about Tamar Korn’s performance.
These enthralling moments were when Tamar shifted her voice from a lilting warble to more direct speech. She recited poetry over the music, including original works by her father: “He was a math teacher, a poet, and a violinist,” she told us before singing his words. From those details alone, I felt endeared to him. I was honored to hear what he had written years ago. She also sang Rilke’s poem “Let This Darkness Be A Bell Tower,” imbuing its solemn lines with a resilient lightness. The poem tells its listener, “Move back and forth into the change.”
Tamar’s words felt like guidance, for herself just as much as for us. Floating around the sidewalk, she said, “For this is a time of tremendous change, and dancing is embracing change.” We swayed gently on the pavement, next to a fenced-off empty lot of overgrown grass and car parts. We swayed just like the overgrown grass. A couple danced in the middle of the crowd, the woman spinning around, her cotton skirt fanning out. Someone’s toddler bounced from person to person, and everyone seemed to be caring for him, returning his goofy kid smile. Someone’s dog barked in time with the music. People in the crowd laughed and barked back, and the dog howled triumphantly.
“The sense of movement is all that keeps us alive,” Tamar declared as the band played on behind her.
At one point between songs, Julian stepped behind the mic. He told us how he first saw Tamar perform fifteen years ago, when he was new to New York City, at a bar on East 9th Street and Avenue C called Banjo Jim’s. “It doesn’t exist anymore,” he said, “and that’s okay, because things pass.” His often-sardonic voice sounded gentle, tinged with sadness.
That bygone Alphabet City bar left a lasting impact on Julian. He said that it encouraged him to think differently about live music. Watching Tamar perform all those years ago, he thought, “Where I was from, such great music didn’t take place in such small spaces.”
“In a way,” Julian concluded, “I owe Tamar Korn everything.” He then stepped aside and handed the mic back over to Tamar, inviting her to give the final word.
The performance picked up right where it had left off. Tamar’s remaining songs flowed into each other, finding rhythms only to stray from them and go somewhere else entirely. I had no idea how much time had passed. I looked out at Dean Street’s distant vanishing point and noticed the sky had gone from pink and orange to a deep, dark blue. I had no memory of the song beginning—I just knew that I was in it, and had been for some time. I’d have gone anywhere it wanted to take me.
Just then, Tamar paused and said, “Can you tell I don’t want to say goodbye?”
I could. I’d felt the same thing every time I’d stayed too late at a party or lingered in a friend’s doorway, or even pulled a story out of thin air just to keep someone on the other end of the phone. How could one last-ditch moment ever be enough to sum up your relationship with someone or something that watched you grow over days, months, years?
Finally, as she danced around with her band, Tamar told us all to “make a sound together; make bird sounds.” We did. We squawked and chirped and warbled and cooed and laughed. It was silly. The last time I’d done that was as a kid, when my little brother and I would look up at trees overhead and try to get the birds to sing back to us, daring the world to show us we weren’t alone in it.
After our collective sound, the night was over. So was the weekend, the month, and the slow drip of summer. Waiting for the train home, I felt wistful, happy, conflicted. I felt something I couldn’t grasp, and I didn’t try to. I was ready for colder days, different streets, and new rooms.
The spaces that make New York feel like home come and go. So do the feelings they evoke. I’m learning to not worry as much about holding on and focus more on remembering—if I know that sense of connection exists, I know I can find it again. We are just as much a part of the places we love as the creaky floorboards, colored lights, and cool night air. Being there together, we make these places what they are.
How should I remember these two years and the places I passed them in? When I try to think back, a familiar feeling halts my recollection—that knot in my chest again, tangling down into my stomach and up to my shoulders. So I brush the scenes out of my mind. But when I don’t let the knot get the best of me, what I remember most are all the ways my friends and I made joy for ourselves in the middle of everything. Even when we failed, we were orienting ourselves toward joy. That’s why, the first time I saw it, I was so drawn to the lights and the laughter and the smell of beer spilling out onto that otherwise desolate street corner: Wild Birds embodied our hopeful efforts. It offered an open door.