A Culture Forced “Underground”

My fiance, Todd Evans and I, moved to Wyoming just over a year ago. We love it and plan to stay but we dearly miss our community back in Oakland/San Francisco. We left for adventure and to experience another part of the country, which has been fantastic, but we do miss our people. We’re heading back for Christmas and New Year and had planned to attend an event in a converted warehouse, an “underground” event, that has just been cancelled. This past weekend’s devastating fire in Oakland hit our people, our chosen family, and due to the tragedy, everyone is on high alert. Events for now are being cancelled.

I have read comments from many who don’t understand why people would go to places that may not be up to code or attend an event that may not have the proper permit from the city. For those who don’t understand this world, I want to talk a bit about the “underground” scene from my perspective.

Todd is 49, I am 41, and we spent most of our working years in fairly traditional careers of sales and marketing. We have no unusual piercings, our hair is normal color, and other than one Todd has that is discretely hidden, we have no tattoos. We are both straight and white. You could pass us on the street and not think of us as odd in anyway.

But we are beautifully odd ducks in our souls and we greatly enjoy being around people who are unusual as well; we just blend in with what is expected on the outside. Todd and I love unconventional art, music, and creativity. That passion for the unusual is how we came together in Oakland.

We met through a mutual friend who had introduced me to the underground art and dance scene. We soon discovered we lived about a 10 minute walk from each other; I lived in a 3 story apartment building by Lake Merritt and Todd lived in a legally converted live/work warehouse in Jack London Square. We connected first as friends because we loved going to the same events including art shows, community dinners, clothing swaps, and music based events. Some of my favorites were at his warehouse space.

We kept seeing each other at the same events and then we started going together since we lived close by. These were mostly in Oakland at converted warehouses or basement spaces, sometimes in San Francisco or Berkeley. The space was part of the experience and our music was directly linked with art. Organizers would transform the space in beautiful and creative ways, setting the tone for the event. The exact location was often a secret until hours before and you had to know someone who was connected to even be invited. We rarely attended events that were publicly advertised.

It was through this connection to “underground” activities that Todd and I met and fell in love. It is also how I met many of my closest friends and how I finally found my community. Places where we volunteered, helped run fundraisers, or hosted artist’s lectures or shows were in legally converted warehouses or industrial spaces. Some were 100% up to code and had all necessary permitting. These permits though were often very hard to come by especially for any gathering of more than 30 people. These event permits could also be pulled by the city at the last minute for any reason whatsoever and this happened on a regular basis. The reasons given were always odd or could have been mitigated if we had been given the chance to make changes.

But many events we attended at other locations were not legal at all.

These usually had no permits issued by the city, they often took place in abandoned or semi-abandoned places. Some times we attended what were called “renegades” which take place outside at a semi-hidden location announced only as it is happening. But they were always beautiful. There was art in every way possible; hanging from the walls or ceilings, placed on tables, and even shown as light-based pieces. I never attended an event in a location that was as crammed and piled up with stuff as the one that caught fire last Friday, but I get the appeal. These spaces are run by artists and it was always a treat for the eyes and the soul; comfy alcoves to hang out and chat with a friend or spend a little time alone, contemplating the world in a creative place.

As I became an organizer of fundraisers and events in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda, trying to do things legally was nearly impossible. Many of my proposed events were denied by one official entity or another.

One daytime, family-friendly fundraising event I tried to get permitted in Alameda was denied in large part due to “sound from speakers that may affect passing birds”. We asked if there was a bird sanctuary nearby? No. Was there a migratory pattern going by at certain times of the day? We were willing to change the time of the event. No. Someone in the approval process just felt our outdoor music would be too loud. We asked for them to meet with our sound engineers — we could position the speakers anyway they wanted, we could agree on a decibel level, and could add sound barriers of all types. The answer was still no. However, this “no” came just two days before our well advertised public event. Cancelling it meant we lost insurance money that had already been paid as well as deposits on other things.

Another time, I was organizing a talk by a popular local artist at a legally converted warehouse in Oakland that would let us use their space for free. They had a brand new sprinkler system, clearly marked fire exits, and legal wide staircases. Our event was publicly advertised and open to anyone who may want to attend. It was a talk by an artist that would start at 6pm and end by 8pm. It was family friendly, no alcohol, nothing being sold, and no charge to attend. I personally delivered the paperwork for the permit to the city of Oakland well ahead of time. They were dragging their feet on approval because a disgruntled conventional neighbor continued to call the police any time he thought people might be gathered at the warehouse and lied about what was going on there. Until this neighbor, there had never been a noise complaint, never a complaint about illegal activity, never a problem whatsoever. The city chose to believe this one neighbor, even despite other neighbors supporting the venue.

So, at the last minute our artist’s lecture was denied by Oakland. The official reason given was because we would be required to have examples of his art on display; this artist in particular makes pieces that tend to be over 30 feet tall. We couldn’t have fit them into the building even if we could have paid for the crane and flatbed truck that would be needed to get it there. We told this to the city and they still said no. We would not be allowed to host our lecture there. The real reason was told to the venue owner in person, not in writing; city officials were convinced that it wasn’t really a free event and that we were selling and promoting something. They knew the artist we had invited and knew it wasn’t possible for us to showcase his art at that venue. Hence, that official requirement of his art on the walls was a way to simply deny our gathering.

In addition to random reasons to not let us gather, the costs for renting a place and getting insurance were also often prohibitive because we weren’t charging for entry. They were usually fundraisers for large scale collaborative art projects and people would donate whatever they could, or join us for free just to be part of the community and learn about something new. If we didn’t make enough though to cover the costs of the space rental, insurance, and city permitting, then the organizers had to foot the bill. Many of us were living paycheck to paycheck ourselves and the whole point of the event had been to raise funds for art.

We literally went to every possible legal venue in downtown Oakland to try to get a free place to have monthly meetings with no luck. Our art group could range from 50 to 250, depending on the topic of our meeting. For a while, the only location we could get for free was the upstairs of a Chinese restaurant where the wait staff would stomp up and down the stairs and noisily slam dishes into bins, completely ruining our ability to hear our featured speakers. We were also limited to a certain number of people. The whole thing was awful and we were only there for a few months before attendance started to plumet.

So these are some of the reasons why we go “underground”, why we end up gathering in places that may not be 100% up to city codes and why we often didn’t bother to apply for an event permit from these cities. When we tried to do it legally, they would say no. Rather than working with us to help have our activities safely, they simply said no. Our activities don’t fit into their conventional check boxes on the forms we fill out and that makes them nervous, therefore we are denied. So I went underground for the exact same reason that all those folks did who ended up dying in the fire in Oakland last Friday night. To be able to freely connect with our community, our art, and our music.

Do we want to be in janky, scary places that could catch on fire? Of course not. Those of us in the older scene did prefer to go to places that had marked fire exits, proper kitchens, and working electricity. But we still knowingly held events that were un-permitted in places that were technically not legal to host the numbers of people who would attend. We tried everything we could to do it legally and were denied.

So what is it that we do that is so important to us, and that we can’t get through conventional means?

First, it is about community. For many traditional people, their community may revolve around church, a sports team, or children’s activities. A community forms when you have common interests and so in the “underground” communities, these folks all know each other. We were all friends or within a short conversation would realize we had close mutual friends. After a short time, going to an underground event with 100 people was like going to a friend’s cocktail party at their home. It is comfortable, extremely welcoming, and downright friendly. At mainstream clubs or bars, a small handful of people may have gone there together but there’s nothing else tying those folks to that location. If you aren’t buying drinks or food, the waitstaff will also get antsy, wanting you to leave so they can turn the table and make more tips. I also discovered that anonymity breeds bad behavior; men were frequently aggressive at traditional evening locations and I felt unsafe. I quickly started to prefer the comfort of a community, even if it was one where I was fairly new.

The first time I was invited to an underground without my wing-man and DJ buddy, Edmundo, I was pretty nervous. I had never been to the venue and I only knew one of the DJs that were scheduled to play. I decided to give it a try anyway and invited a couple friends to go with me, with the caveat that I didn’t know the space or the vibe. We agreed we would leave if it wasn’t a good fit. Once we arrived though, it only took about 5 minutes for me to realize that I knew about ¾ of the people who were there. I either knew them directly or had seen them regularly at other events. These were my people and we all ended up having a fantastic time. I discovered there was actually a large group of folks who were our age, 40s to 50s, who loved to dance and stay up late at night laughing or sometimes crying with dear friends. This was our “scene” and for those of us who liked the same kind of music, we tended to see each other nearly every weekend.

For the music, it was not what you’d hear on the radio or at a typical dance club. These DJs are truly artists themselves and the tracks they would play were often more obscure, or were surprisingly creative mixes of old favorites. At times they would add live instruments or singing. They know how to play to the room and create a certain vibe. The variety of genres for electronic music is also astounding; there is something for everyone. You just have to get to know the DJs playing your type of music and then essentially follow them around. I lost 30 pounds once I started dancing every weekend to my favorite DJs and I found a community of astounding artists whose creativity and care made me feel happy to be alive.

Stay with me on this analogy: many people like college sports better than pro sports. They say that there is more heart and soul when they are playing for their own school, something that often gets lost once large sums of money get involved. There was a certain kind of magic with these local musicians and artists as well who were playing for us for free. I would go to a big commercial venue and the music lacked soul, originality, and authenticity. But *our* DJs, whose names will never be on a CD in a store or on a venue’s outdoor marquee, and our artists who will never have a show in a traditional gallery, these people would blow your mind. They do it because they love it and we love them all the more for sharing their magic with us.

Because these venues were connected to specific groups of people, folks were also really well behaved. Not once did I see a fight break out. Not once did I see destruction or bad behavior outside after leaving a secret event. People were kind to each other, helpful, looking out for one another — even if they had just met you. In these venues, I was able to politely decline dancing with a man and he was able to take that without getting upset. That was just the social norm in this community. When I was still going to the mainstream dance clubs in San Francisco, I would have random men coming up to me and my friends, literally grabbing us and grinding on us despite our attempts to politely tell them “no”. These types of places are commonly referred to as “meat markets” in that men are just there cruising for women to hook up. It was awful and scary and I stopped going. But that never happened to me in the underground scene.

I will always be grateful to my friend Edmundo for introducing me to this world where women are respected and protected, and where your sexuality or your gender is irrelevant. It’s about the music. It’s about the friendship. It’s about authenticity.

Todd and his group at the warehouse where he lived said that if the women were safe and having a good time, then everyone would have a good time. They made sure that anyone who wasn’t getting it would get a compassionate but firm talk about how we do things. They made sure that if someone was having a rough evening, that someone else would be there to lend an ear. No one felt alone unless they wanted to be alone. Then they were allowed to be alone in a space where they were protected. This doesn’t happen at a traditional bar or dance club.

Also on the safety front, these events would often go through the night, maybe until 4 or 6am. You could stay as late as you wanted and there were often couches or lounging areas to take a nap. Often, there was food and snacks and they would just ask for a donation to help organizers cover the cost of the food. You usually had to bring your own alcohol (which limits how much you can drink) and in some cases, alcohol wasn’t allowed at all. But if you had been drinking, what better way to prevent drunk driving than having places where people can just sleep it off for a while?

People were encouraged to stay if they were inebriated as opposed to traditional bars and venues which are required by law to kick people out after an evening of imbibing. If you were still there in the morning, you would help clean up and it might include breakfast. Mostly, these places were kept pretty clean anyway, because it wasn’t an anonymous space; it was friends connected to friends. You didn’t just leave trash around, just like you wouldn’t do that at a friend’s cocktail party at their house.

Before Todd and I moved away from the Bay Area, some of our DJs started becoming more popular and would play larger events at legal venues like Public Works and Monarch in San Francisco. But the more popular they became, the more “strangers” started to come and we lost that special cultural vibe. People would be there who hadn’t even heard of the DJ and didn’t even realize, or care, that it was a fundraiser for art. They just knew the venue and heard cool music was there. They would drink too much and become belligerent, grabbing and groping me and my friends despite our attempts to say “no”. We also would all get kicked out at 2am, to comply with the law, and pour out into the street assessing different levels of inebriation and trying to make sure friends could get home safely.

I started avoiding those legal events that were open to the public and kept to the underground scene.

The artistic and musical community in the Bay Area is simply unmatched. They are forced to go underground because legal venues are too expensive and don’t support the non-profit community. Governments have also decided on random laws such as shutting down at 2am or not allowing music outside because it might affect a passing bird.

Fire safety is obviously a huge, legitimate concern, especially with large groups in attendance. But the fire suppression requirements such as sprinkler systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Can’t there be a way to help fund these systems for venues that operate as non-profits?

And why is it suspicious that someone would buy and renovate a cool old warehouse to live in with friends and use the rest of the space to host really great gatherings of people they know, for free? How is that different from someone who owns a mansion throwing house parties on a regular basis? Do we really all have to be motivated by money?

One converted warehouse in Oakland trying to do things legally was accused by the city of running a commercial, public nightclub without permits because they often had evening events that included dance music and a lot of people. If it was a commercial public nightclub, that would trigger a series of permits, fees, and space rules that would have been ridiculously expensive. More importantly, this space was not a “nightclub” and these kinds of terms, along with “public” and “commercial” are important in the world of permitting.

The people who lived in this particular warehouse were 100% up to code and wanted to host specific events legally for their friends. Our community was just often large and one assumption on the part of the city was that if it was more than 30 people, it was no longer private. So if I have a wedding and invite 250 people, it is suddenly a public event open to all? Of course not. This was just another way for the city to deny our ability to gather. In addition, these gatherings were all donation based with any monies going toward the stated cause; memorial services, fundraisers, communal dinners, and yes dance parties. No one was making money off of these events personally; I now firsthand as I was often a volunteer among many others.

The legal tenants of this live/work space were paid nothing and considered hosting these events part of their contribution to the community. For each one I attended, the space was transformed to reflect the art or group that would benefit. Those who attended all knew each other. Because it was first and foremost a home, albeit a really big one, there were plenty of places for people to take a nap or hangout comfortably for long periods of time. It couldn’t have been more different than a public, commercial, nightclub and the city refused to hear it.

Denied. Denied. Denied.

We didn’t want to have fundraisers, clothings swaps, karaoke nights, communal Thanksgivings, and dance parties in janky tinderboxes that could kill us or our friends. But tell me, where else can we do what we’ve described when the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda in particular continue to give odd reasons to say no? The message we received in the end is that they don’t want us to gather. When commodification and profit is the norm, a decommodified experience seems suspect and is denied. Especially, for some reason, when it is tied to art and music.

The warehouse disaster last Friday was unfortunately inevitable. The manager of the location was clearly negligent and careless about safety at his space; he should not go unpunished. But the city of Oakland needs to take a long hard look at itself and its archaic policies about allowing larger gatherings within it’s city limits and by using large spaces that are unconventional. When we are denied the ability to gather legally, we *will* still gather. Our art doesn’t fit into a traditional frame on a wall and our music would never get played on Top 40, but we will still create our art and we will still enjoy our music, with or without permission. Help us do it safely by creating common sense rules on gatherings and events. Work with us to make them happen rather than find ludicrous reasons to deny them.

These are complicated matters and we know these cities have limited resources. They don’t want to be responsible for approving something that in the end may result in people getting hurt. But we can get hurt in all kinds of ways and it could be that our sue happy culture and lack of personal responsibility is part of the problem; cities don’t want to get sued if something goes wrong. But the result is that cities are denying permits for reasonable gatherings that are simply nontraditional. A solution needs to be found because otherwise, these gatherings will still happen, but they will happen in ways that are far more risky; underground.