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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

WILD WETLANDS: ENVIRONMENTALLY CORRECT WATERING HOLE

Air Date: Week of July 11, 1997

In Manhattan there's a nightclub called "Wetlands Preserve" that has an eight-year history of green activism. The club was recently sold by its founder, but he had one stipulation requiring the club's new owner to continue channeling profits to the environmental movement.

Transcript

RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. Where do the hard- working environmentally conscious go to unwind, yet still be politically correct? Well, if they live in Manhattan, they could head to the trendy neighborhood of Tribeca. There's a nightclub there called Wetlands Preserve, that has an 8-year history of green activism. The club was recently sold by its founder, but he had one important stipulation: the deal requires the club's new owner to continue channeling profits to the environmental movement. From New York, John Kalish has this report.

(Man's voice: "Number is ... another letter to write...")

KALISH: The regular Tuesday night meeting of the Student Environmental Action Coalition is underway in the basement of the Wetlands night club. A human-powered vehicle sporting a Draft Ralph Nader sticker is parked a few feet from a bar strewn with stacks of leaflets promoting protests against the Yellowstone bison massacre and Texaco's environmental racism. Two dozen people sit on old couches listening to a facilitator, who goes by the name Markvarc.

MARKVARC: In case you're new to these meetings, and you're wondering what's up, one of the great things that we can do to effect change while we're all sitting around here is to write to the corporations and governments -- and there's a kind of fuzzy line between them -- that are screwing up the planet.

(Mulling voices)

KALISH: Saving the planet has been an integral part of Wetlands' mission since Larry Block opened the club in 1989. After 7 years of offering New Yorkers a night spot with an environmental consciousness, Block left the city for Vermont. It took him a year to sell Wetlands because he insisted the buyer agree to donate $100,000 a year from profits to maintain the club's environmental center, which has 2 fulltime staffers and a small office on the premises. Block says he turned down more lucrative offers than the one he eventually accepted.

BLOCK: It was essential if the club were going to continue as Wetlands that the environmental and social justice programs be supported and continued. And that was essential; it wasn't something that I was willing to part from at all. So I had to turn down different offers and interest from people that weren't able to be part of that vision.

(A singer on stage)

KALISH: It's a vision with roots in an era when most of Wetlands' tie-dyed patrons were not yet born. The 1960s are celebrated in the club's decor. There are black lights, psychedelic posters, and political banners everywhere. Not far from the bar sits an actual VW microbus, where a young woman sells buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

(Singing continues)

KALISH: At the Tuesday night eco-saloon, some club patrons bogie to Grateful Dead cover bands upstairs, while downstairs, in a thick haze of sweet-smelling smoke, others partake in another Dead tradition: the drum circle.

(Drumming)

KALISH: Just a few feet away is a small office that houses the Wetlands Environmental and Social Justice Center. James Hanson is its director. He says mounting lobbying efforts in a nightclub has obvious advantages.

HANSON: We're putting out literature and petitions for the customers. We gather 50,000 petition signatures a year. We've got the New York Times with a coalition of New York City-based groups to stop buying thousand-year-old rainforest trees and using them in their paper. We got Heineken to pull out of the military dictatorship of Burma with a couple letters, a few meetings, and a few months of protests.

SHAPIRO: When they get a lot of petitions, they listen.

KALISH: Wetlands' principal owner is 24-year-old Peter Shapiro.

SHAPIRO: Because we are a bar, because the people here are 23-year-old college students from the suburbs, have a lot of buying power, are attractive customers, are future customers.

KALISH: There was a boycott on Budweiser, a boycott on Bass, a boycott on Heineken. What's left to drink?

SHAPIRO: (Laughs) Samuel Adams. It's a good beer.

KALISH: What if these guys get carried away and say no alcohol, alcohol is bad for you?

SHAPIRO: Well certainly there's going to have to be a fine line (laughs) because for the Environmental Center to continue we're going to have to sell some beer.

KALISH: The new owners will also have to have the transfer of the liquor license approved by state officials, a move some area residents oppose. Neighbors of the environmentally correct watering hole say the noise and trash generated by young people who congregate outside the club threatens the local ecosystem. They also note a shooting which took place at the club a few months back. The woman who represents Tribeca in the city council vows to shut Wetlands down. John Griefen is a painter who lives across an alley from the club.

(Traffic sounds)

GRIEFEN: It may sound like just a small issue but, you know, losing your sleep is a real pain. Every single night you're woken up. They're open. Once or twice a night from people yelling in the alleyway or playing bongo drums or something like that, on the outside.

(More traffic, construction drilling sounds)

GRIEFEN: We had really almost no problem with graffiti until this club opened, and then both sides of the alley are just covered with graffiti.

KALISH: But Peter Shapiro is confident his club will survive, even prosper. Shapiro wants to open a Wetlands in San Francisco. He also plans to start a film division and a Wetlands record label to capitalize on the club's knack for recognizing up and coming talent.

SHAPIRO: Each of the major labels, big six labels, has signed a band out of Wetlands. It's gone platinum. Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Joan Osborn. You go down the list, it's truly remarkable. Why can't we try- incorporatethe environmental issues that we talk about here into a record label? Packaging our CDs in recycled cardboard and addressing the environmental issues in our product.

KALISH: Whatever products come out under a Wetlands label may help support environmental activism, but they'll also benefit founder Larry Block, who still owns the Wetlands brand name. For Living on Earth, I'm John Kalish in New York.

EMCEE: Let's put our hands together and welcome live at Wetlands -- the Spin Doctors!

(The crowd cheers)

SPIN DOCTORS: Come on, say Yeah, yeah!

CROWD: Yeah, yeah!

SPIN DOCTORS: Welcome to the Wetlands, people.

 

 

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