Dead DIY Space: 21st & Kedzie
Some spaces end with a bang, in a blowout, in a trial, with a splash of blood, with a burn-it-down-and-salt-the-earth mentality; others end in a whimper, in a compromise, in an unrenewed lease, in a flurry of cheap spackle and eggshell white paint, in an uphill battle to collect a security deposit, in a passing of the torch, in friendships divided amicably by new experiences and friendships divided angrily over unpaid bills and stolen food. And then some end The Chicago Way, which is a term I just invented for this.
You ever watch a movie about organized crime, it could be prohibition era mobs, crack era gangs, whatever, where some proud, fat cop on the take (you’re already imagining a mustache, right? Of course he has a mustache) strides into some den of iniquity with his chest puffed to remind the top dog in charge, “You’re only here because we allow you to be here” ?
That’s The Chicago Way. It could be the Jersey way or the Vegas way or the Baltimore way, but I invented it so I got dibs. Our mobsters were the best mobsters. Fuck The Wire and fuck Martin Scorsese.
It is sooner than later that any DIY space will start dealing with their local beat cop.
On a stoop in front of the Palzie House in Logan Square, a friend sits with a steaming pot of coffee, which I ask about. “Around this time every show our neighbor over there is going to put in a noise complaint no matter what we’re doing so I like to have this ready to offer the officers.”
Another time, at a flop house in Andersonville unimaginatively named The Place, the cop who regularly shuts down my parties is doing his thing, and stops to let me know, “The alderman knows about this place and what you’re doing here, and you’ve better be on your fucking toes.”
Like all real estate, the most important factor of DIY real estate is that of the Three L’s (“Location. Location. Location.” if I’m being too obtuse). It’s all common sense. You don’t want people to die, you don’t want to be so far in the boonies that no one shows up, but you want to be isolated enough where you won’t piss off your neighbors. You wake too many babies and you’ll be surprised on who turns snitch on you.
The three-story warehouse at the corner of 21st and Kedzie once housed Weiser & Sons, a manufacturer of player pianos right up until the Great Depression wiped out most of the industry, and was apparently the ideal place for a DIY venue as it would go on to host several. Whether the floor was supporting an active half pipe at a hardcore show or a summer festival so crowded it felt more like you were breathing evaporated sweat vapor than air, whether the beams were supporting sexy cenobites raised up by flesh hooks at a gothic rave or anarchist acrobats performing aerials at a black bloc burlesque, the building never wobbled, never wavered. It had “good bones” and, nestled between Little Village and North Lawndale on the southwest side, a block away from the Pink Line, the Cermak bus, and some really choice late night taquerias, the geography was perfect.
Lawndale and Little Village are perfectly lovely working class neighborhoods, but like a lot of neighborhoods in Chicago, they have real issues with crime, and particularly violent crime. Cabs are more likely to hang up on you than pick you up there, and the police tend to operate under a no blood, no foul rule. If they have to respond to something, they come down hard, but they aren’t going to pay a lot of mind to a bunch of anarchist hippies, babyfaced art school kids, alien drag goddesses, blissed out ravers with dilated pupils, or noise weirdos wearing children’s Halloween costumes on a random weekday in April (all of which I’ve seen there at different points). The building’s nearest neighbor is an an imposing looking private motorcycle club with blacked out windows, so there was no one who cared too much about noise.
The rules are different at 21st and Kedzie, because the rules are different in every neighborhood, because Chicago.
An example: The worst fiasco I ever saw happen at a show had nothing to do with the venue or the crowd, just a string of shitty circumstances and one dude’s awful luck. The event was Art War, a multidisciplinary art show whose goal was to fill Treasure Town’s 7000 sq feet with over 100 artists. Performance artists stripped down and spat blood, dancers twirled around each other with handfuls of yarn until they’d become a living cats’ cradle. Hula hoopers and bands and fire spinners and graffiti artists all did their thing. Towards the end of the night, when the crowd had dwindled a bit, a young man ran up the stairs into the space followed by four police officers, in bulky bulletproof vests but otherwise undercover. I don’t know what the guy was expecting to see when he got upstairs but I imagine the scene must’ve been fairly surreal for him, as it soon was for all of us. Before he could talk to anyone the cops had caught up to him, zapped him with a taser that knocked him to the ground shaking, put him in zip cuffs and read him his rights. Soon more police arrived as back up, uniformed this time. They talked to a couple residents and curators, and everyone else kept their distance, and quietly packed up their things. A venue in Rogers Park or Avondale or Bridgeport wouldn’t have survived this but this was the southwest side and this was not even close to shutting down operations.
The Weiser & Sons building had hosted the aforementioned Treasure Town, as well as the co-op space Weiser House, as well as a rave space also named Weiser House, the punk space Fort Kakalak, and the punk (but more garage and psychedelic-y punk) space Casa Donde. They didn’t get shut down for noise violations.
The building had hosted the performance art/anti-art festival Garbage World and the music/anti-music festival Bitchpork, where Lightning Bolt hinted they’d be playing a secret set (as Turd Thrower) during their set at the actual Pitchfork Music Fest and enough people to fill a smaller venue would migrate to flee the claustrophobic heat. They didn’t get shut down for capacity issues or ticket sales.
The building had hosted Mortville, which would transform itself into large interactive installations like an indoor Summertime scene made of wood and cardboard and papier-mâché, replete with a to-scale ice cream truck selling PBR, a heat-lamp beach vignette, and a playground with a giant teeter-totter and jungle gym, and then threw noise bands in the middle of it. They didn’t get shut down for liquor sales or operating without a public place of amusement license.
There wasn’t a bang, or a tragedy, but the spaces didn’t whimper and age out a natural death either. They were shut down.
Leading up to the 2012 NATO Summit, there was a sweep. Our city is famous for riots, police misconduct, segregation, income disparity. In other words, there’s always a fuse ready to be lit, and any protest can get out of hand. Let the police do what they want and you’ve got the 1968 Democratic Convention: a police riot, “the whole world is watching”, and 30 years before a major political convention spends money in Chicago. Reign the police in a little and you’ve got the 2003 Iraq War protest: it’s hardly a blip on the news, but you still have to pay out 11 million in police misconduct and wrongful arrest settlements to hippies. So the feds, working with the local police, working with new mayor Rahm Emanuel, went after potential agitators in part by limiting where they could stay. [Google “The NATO 5” if you want to see an actual factual, not-paranoid punk case of local cops going deep cover as agents provacateur]. In one weekend, Chicago’s most active DIY spaces were gone, including the three then operating at 21st and Kedzie. A friend who was living at a still-active co-op house on the West Side said his landlord was contacted, but defended the residents instead of evicting them, saying, “Ah, they’re a good bunch of kids. I’ll make sure they keep it down.”
So while several laws are broken, none of the rules were. It’s hell on semantics but laws aren’t the same thing as rules in Chicago. Laws only matter when they need to, but the rules, as negotiated, always matter. Imagine a fat, proud cop with a puffed out chest striding in to your home–maybe he’s chomping a cigar, definitely he’s got a mustache– he tells you, “Look I know you didn’t break the rules before, but the rules had to change, and we changed ’em.”
That’s what happened. The house always wins. I’m mixing my metaphors and I don’t even care. That’s The Chicago Way.
Epilogue: Remember that guy who got tasered at Treasure town? There’s more. What I learned later on is that he’d been mugged earlier in the evening and someone had called it in. He matched the description of his own muggers, and when the undercover cops saw him running home, gave chase. Not realizing they were cops and afraid he was about to get jumped again, he ran harder, ducking into the factory when he saw light, an open door, some kind of party. He thought he’d be safe in a crowd but only ended up with an audience watching him receive the punishment meant for the people who’d attacked him earlier. Just a weird case of mistaken identity, like a twisted, sadistic version of an I Love Lucy plot. Just a horrible, fucked up day for him and I hope he was able to sue the city, or has won the Lotto, or just karmically come up since.
Post-script: I have no idea what was happening in that warehouse between the 1930’s and 2008 but older party people have told me they think they’ve been to “tons of shit back in the day” but have fuzzy recollections because of “drugs”. Don’t do too many drugs if you want to be an archivist and don’t try to archive the world of parties if you don’t have patience. Chicago’s underground has been flourishing since that low point in 2012 before the peaceful and lame (and lamely peaceful) NATO summit, with several new venues formed by former residents of the Weiser & Sons warehouse, but these things run on a cycle, so enjoy the good times while you can before the hammer comes down again. We just lost a good one in Young Camelot. ALSO, you can now lease a space in the Weiser & Sons warehouse for $13,000 to 25,000 a month. I don’t know regular realty like I do diy realty but that seems like a (really big) (fucking) ripoff.