On May 21, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library hosted “District Of Change: Making D.C. Better For the Arts,” a panel that examined the problems facing D.C.’s creative industry.
Moderated by Vox Executive Editor Matt Yglesias (who’s written about D.C.‘s economic disincentives for artists), it found performer and writer Holly Bass, ex-Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, and Transformer gallery co-founder Victoria Reis expressing familiar concerns about creativity’s chances in gentrifying D.C.
“As we go through the process of bulldozing the city, let’s just leave a little bit for the artists,” Canty said.
Every time another alternative art space closes, it seems to confirm that small plates have supplanted underground arts in this town. But while it’s clear that development and rising property values have deeply impacted the arts community, DIY venues have always come and gone in D.C. Sometimes, gentrification is to blame. Other times, it’s a different story.
Take the late Bobby Fisher Memorial Building, which closed when its tenants reportedly couldn’t renegotiate a lease with their landlord. Basement spot Subterranean A stopped doing shows when its residents decided to move on or move out. Casa Fiesta’s management curbed its punk and metal shows, saying loud music drove away customers.
Meanwhile, D.C. DIY has sprouted branches. The ethos of “DIT” (Do It Together)—a more community-focused take on DIY—is catching on here, evident in the Brightest Young Things column written by Paperhaus’ Alex Tebeleff, in addition to plans for the first In It Together Festival. Local alternative music spaces continue to open. Some of them crop up in people’s houses (like The Dougout and Ft. Loko)—but more “official” alternative spaces exist here, too.
How are they doing, and what are they doing right?
To find out, I talked to the people behind two of those spaces, Union Arts and Back Alley Theater.
Located inside a gray, blocky building on New York Avenue NE, Union Arts has become one of the busiest DIY venues in the city. Its tenants hope it remains that way for a while—even though the building it occupies may be sold soon.
As reported by Washington City Paper last year, after artist hangout Gold Leaf Studios (formerly The Hosiery) shut down in 2012, a core group of members—including owner Mike Abrams—founded Union Arts in the old Warehouse Loft space at 411 New York Ave. NE. Since then, it’s offered relatively affordable studios and concert space to its renters. Its events are now run mostly by musician Luke Stewart, who says that shows are somewhat of a bonus for the space.
“Even though we have shows here, that’s not our primary focus,” he says.
Union Arts hosts events almost every week, but the shows don’t have to make money. The space is paid for by the artists who rent studios there.
Stewart values the diverse artistic output that Union Arts facilitates. Studio members are in charge of booking or approving events, resulting in a wide range of shows, from experimental jazz to hardcore punk to sufi and ambient music. Studio members hold biweekly meetings and maintain email threads about shows and an internal event calendar. Union Arts is also on its way to becoming a nonprofit, he says.
“The way to be sustainable is to organize, get your [act] together,” said Stewart. “When you start there, you can talk about how to sustain. Otherwise you’re flying blind.”
There’s an element of luck here, too. Unlike spaces in more residential areas, Union Arts dwells in a warehouse district, where gentrification and noise-averse neighbors don’t pose a constant threat. The building rests in a commercial and light manufacturing zone. (Union Arts is also known as Union Arts & Manufacturing.)
But 411 New York Ave. NE has been on the market for more than two years now, says its owner, Gail Harris. (Asking price: $7.5 million.) A contract is now being negotiated with a potential buyer, whom Harris says intends to maintain the building as it is, at least in the short term.
Back Alley Theater
Union Arts isn’t the only large D.C. DIY space that doesn’t double as a living room. Back Alley Theater occupies a wide basement of a resident-owned apartment building on Kennedy Street NW in Brightwood. It’s operated by Amanda Huron and Layne Garrett, longtime D.C. musicians and members of the experimental band Weed Tree.
Back Alley Theater goes back decades, according to a history on its website. First a theater company, it started out of a house in Mt. Pleasant in 1967 and later bounced around: to St. Stephen’s Church on Newton Street NW, then Capitol Hill, then finally to Kennedy Street in 1969. Over 20 years there, it staged politically charged plays by Amiri Baraka and others, but quieted down for nearly two decades. Members of the building’s Madison Terrace Cooperative revived the space as an events center a few years ago.
Huron says residents have been excited to have arts events in the building again, and they haven’t complained about noise from concerts and other happenings in the space. She ensured that the space could operate legitimately, obtaining a certificate of occupancy and a capacity placard from the District.
“People are obsessive about wanting a space,” Huron says. “But when you get that space, there’s a [lot] of work that goes into maintaining it.”
The night after the arts panel at MLK Library, Back Alley Theater is getting ready to host a lineup of avant-garde and jazz artists. Garrett and Huron are prepping. Residents come down to greet Huron while Garrett arranges chairs and offers to set up the P.A. The equipment and furniture were purchased with money from the D.C. Diversity Fund.
Huron hangs up a modest sign outside the door with the venue’s name. It’s not glamorous, but that’s never been the point of putting on these shows.
Her and Garrett’s longtime involvement in D.C.’s experimental-music scene might afford them a more optimistic outlook on DIY spaces. Artists who stick around here long enough would begin to see a pattern: when spaces close, there’s a good chance another one is right around the corner.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the old days, which can get fetishized,” says Huron. “Some spaces have to die for other spaces to live.”