After Oakland Tragedy, Chicago DIY Artists Decry Local Policies That Drive Them Underground

By Stephen Gossett in News on Dec 6, 2016 7:44PM

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A former DIY venue in North Lawndale

The death toll from Friday’s horrific blaze at the Oakland, California DIY music/art space Ghost Ship has risen to a staggering 36 people. And all across the country, the tight-knit DIY arts community continues to mourn. At the same time, much mainstream coverage fails to grasp the full socioeconomic scope of the tragedy, and reactionary local governments moving to close underground spaces—for example Monday’s report that Baltimore’s Bell Foundry was condemned by local housing and fire officials, and its dozens of artist residents were evicted.

In the wake of the tragedy, DIY art scene organizers around the country, including Chicago, are defending their right to affordable, safe venue spaces, and their decisions to reside in derelict spaces when they can't afford better.

As several local organizers explained to Chicagoist, a toxic soup of commercial real estate chicanery, lack of affordable property, backwards tax incentives and lack of arts funding often forces artist communities into only quasi-legal venues. Those structural barriers are particularly pronounced in Chicago, a city that already has an often-contentious relationship with DIY spaces.

Jes Skolnik, for example, has been working for three years now to open Pure Joy, which its board members envision as a legal, all-ages, ADA-compliant arts-and-music space. I remember first hearing about it in 2014 and filling with excitement. It seemed so obvious. Why had it not happened before? But their patently virtuous campaign has been stymied along the way by an “extremely inhospitable city.”

“Aldermen are fiercely territorial and often have little help to offer us because they're more focused on staking out space to for-profit business ventures,” Skolnik, who is also Managing Editor at Bandcamp, told Chicagoist via email. And owners of vacant commercial real estate are allowed to defer property tax payments, Skolnik points out, which incentivizes a for-profit-or-nothing approach to tenancy. And Pure Joy’s insistence on disability access has proven a complication in Chicago.

“While [property owners] are required by federal law to comply, there's no local oversight unless a tenant complains, so they'd rather save money and rent to a tenant who isn't insisting on these features," Skolnik said. "I can imagine that it's often a similar issue for safety code violations and know from my experience that some tenants don't complain because they're worried about being kicked out.” Which is eerily similar to what just bore out on Monday in Baltimore, where evicted residents paid the price for the Bell Foundry owners’ negligence.

Hannah Friedman helped run the erstwhile Lakeview event space the ribcage from 2012 to 2014, the year it shuttered. The space had had safety issues "due to the landlord's negligence," she told Chicagoist. "The place came pretty close to burning down while I was there, mainly because of shoddy wiring and plumbing repairs."

Responsible residents, on the other hand, frequently pick up the slack left by property owners. "Many collectives are maker spaces, with artists building and wiring their own large-scale pieces in-house," Friedman said. "These people are better at safety than anyone else I know."

Furthermore, while Pure Joy board members are still applying for tax-exempt nonprofit status, Skolnik says they don't expect any sort of windfall in arts funding if approved. The city tends to favor more glamorous arts programming with its money, they said.

“Local music spaces aren't weighted as high culture,” they said. Anyone who remembers this summer’s jaw-gapingly absurd is-this-newfangled-hip-hop-and-electronic-music-art?” debate can certainly attest.

All these things conspire to keep DIY communities in Chicago and beyond in the unsafe shadows. From there, the city again often takes an adversarial stance—as the Reader, AdHoc, Store Brand Soda and other outlets have well explored in recent years—further compounding the problem. Most infamously, the 2012 NATO crackdown left multiple beloved venues shuttered.

But the importance of such spaces, often described non-hyperbolically as life-saving by their patrons, is impossible to overstate, especially for those people who belong to historically marginalized groups.

Sandra Song wrote in Paper magazine:

"For many of us, these DIY places like Ghost Ship are the only places we really feel safe—our carefully-curated world of friends who en masse have the ability to transport us far away from the nastiness of a world that openly declares its distaste for us."

Bay Area artist Russell Butler told the East Bay Express after the fire,“We need spaces that are open to folks who are beaten down and oppressed by living daily under patriarchy and white supremacy."

Like those and countless other voices within the tight-knit community, Skolnik also echoed the same sentiment. “I’ve been in hundreds of spaces like [Ghost Ship] over my lifetime and played many of them as a musician,” they said. “They're spaces for musicians that fly under the radar of the organized music industry, spaces for experimentation, spaces where people can be themselves. For us queer and trans musicians and many musicians of color who are excluded in many ways (economic barriers first and foremost) from participation in the formal music industry, they are places for community, for recognition, for affirmation, for understanding.”

Friedman voiced a similar opinion as well.

"DIY spaces are important because they provide a kind of freedom and support for people who society labels as deviants," she said. "I'm talking about artists, queer folks, people of color, social activists, poor folks, and so on. Not every one of these groups experiences systematic oppression, but a lot of us do. Most of us are here because we can't get the support we need from other spaces."

Of the events themselves,"Bear in mind how many... are fundraisers for nonprofits, or for each other to afford health care," Friedman said. “The fact that these spaces are devalued by property owners looking to tear down and flip, and that folks are scared to push for things like extra safety measures lest they lose their homes entirely—that is the most painful thing of all, because these are spaces we often need to survive.”

These are important points to bear in mind, not only as we monitor the brutal developments in California, but also as we reckon with the institutional roadblocks that perpetuate those dangers right here in Chicago.