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Indie band has a beef with Smith Street

The Brooklyn Paper
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The gentrification of Brooklyn has been called many things — the future of Brooklyn, the death of Brooklyn, the stroller-ization of Brooklyn. But now, it’s also a great hook for a pop song.

It may not be topping the charts, but Life in a Blender’s catchy “What Happened to Smith” — just released on the band’s new LP “The Heart Is a Small Balloon” — has already captured at least a few local ears with its take on the rose- (or maybe lavender-?) colored nostalgia for Brooklyn’s mythically gritty past that seems to moving through the Boerum Hill like oil in the Gowanus Canal.

“Smith Street has been bitten by a poisonous snake,” Life in a Blender frontman Don Ralph told The Brooklyn Paper, rattling off a list of chains that have recently opened on the strip.

Ralph’s catchy tune is the latest in a long line of melodic (or not, depending on your view of Woody Guthrie) lamentations on the g-thing that happens when enough people with money find the wrong side of tracks — and settle there, displacing the people who had been there before.

“Songs about richer people moving in and driving out poor people are as old as dirt,” folk musicologist Eli Smith said.

That’s especially true in Brooklyn, a chameleon-like borough known for its ever-changing mix of immigrants, industrialists and artists.

Legendary folk balladeer Guthrie couldn’t avoid the topic in his classic ode to Coney Island’s bustling “Mermaid Avenue,” where the genteel class pays “some cops to stop you when you hit that Sea Gate gate.”

Last year, Park Slope-born dance punkers Radio 4 put a contemporary spin on the theme with “Ascension Street,” a reggea-style call-to-arms against “greedy developers.”

Like Guthrie, rapper Oddisee and North Brooklyn dance-punkers Radio 4 before him, Ralph misses the bad old days when the streets were grimier, the faces more familiar, the rents cheaper and “the old gang on Sackett” still carried around “their blades” — though Ralph admits he never actually saw gang members there, attributing the lyric to the “old Brooklyn crank” that lives inside his mind.

“I’m always playing a different character,” he said. “This is that Brooklyn guy you hear getting mad in the Fall Café, the guy you see on the subway.”

He wrote the catchy lament on his home turf in 2001, three years after the row’s founding father, restaurateur Alan Harding, opened Patois and kicked off the street’s remake as a playground of the trendy.

The timing shows in his lyrics — a mix of Life in a Blender’s trademark over-the-top absurdity and the snarky ’tude of a neighborhood pioneer who just noticed that his new neighbors are wearing nicer shoes then him.

“All the social clubs are drawing down their shades,” crows Ralph in the song’s second verse, before letting out some long-simmering angst about “dressed down” rich girls.

One former Smith Street rocker, record shop owner Shawn Schwartz, said he knew something had “happened” to Smith Street when rents began to rise and rumors of a Starbucks coming to the street began to fly.

“I just didn’t know how quickly [it] would arrive,” Schwartz said.

Schwarz ran “Halcyon,” a café/lounge/art gallery/record shop on the strip, until 2004, when rising rents and a change in the character of the neighborhood pushed him to a grittier commercial area in DUMBO, where he opened a record store also called Halcyon.

Schwartz said he wouldn’t be surprised to hear even more songs about “what happened” to Brooklyn over the next few years.

“[People make music] about what they see,” he said, “A lot of [people in Brooklyn] are noticing the same thing right now.”

What Happened to Smith

Words and music by Don Ralph (Excerpt)

The old gang on Sackett’s closing up their blades.
All the social clubs are drawing down their shades.
Where’s the $5 hero?
It’s just $20 and tip.
I might as well starve tonight.
Oh, what happened to Smith?

Forget about rent, don’t think about rent, it’s already spent.
Just try to scrape through,
Pass the well-to-do dressed down in their thrift clothes
Still, you’ll see the clues:
All the girls balanced in their Manola Blahnik shoes,
Yellow-tinted glasses, exposed midriffs.

Oh man, what happened to Smith?
Updated 4:28 pm, July 9, 2018
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