A Place to Call Home
Once A Month, St. John's Hamilton Becomes Center Of Local Pop-Punk Universe
Faith Community United Methodist Church of Hamilton appears dormant on a sunny, warmish Saturday afternoon in March. Few cars are in its enormous lot, and its entrance, on a side street off of Harford Road, receives little traffic. Inside, people are transforming the gymnasium, normally reserved for dances and Girl Scout sleepovers, into a concert venue. Leading is Will McCrory, who manages the space's monthly or so punk concerts. Together with his promotions team, Jacqueline Steber and Julia Conny of Passed Out Promotions, a few friends, and two security guards, the twentysomethings put out tables, chairs, and merchandise, and rig lighting and sound systems. Before the show ends tonight at 11, the room will be crowded with some 300 young people eager to see several local pop-punk bands.
The church is better known as "St. John's Hamilton" to the teens huddled in its parking lot hours before the doors open. Though these concerts happen just 12 times a year, for them, this space--named City Paper's Best Local Band Venue in 2007--is the epicenter of local music.
"It's better than hanging around the mall," says Baltimore native Stephen Douglas, a film student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. Dropped off at his first show at 15, he found a strong community in the church's basement, which also serves as a space for Cellar Stage, a folk-music concert series. And despite moving to Brooklyn for school, Douglas has become a fixture outside the venue between sets, photographing the venue's audience.
Tonight Douglas is filming the show for a class. He says he's taken the Chinatown bus to Baltimore every weekend for three weeks, shooting local hangouts. The films are an examination of his life, he says, but the shots of these local shows in particular represent his youth and growing up in Baltimore. "I became friends with every one of those people," he says. "I grew up here."
Douglas' experience is shared by seemingly all of the fans who come here. "You get to see bands and hang out at the same time," says Alisha Strawbridge, a show production student at Florida's Full Sail University. Strawbridge is on a spring break and says she feels at home among her friends, who spend as many weekends as possible inside the church's gymnasium.
Tiffany Hensley, 16, says she returns to the space regularly because she makes friends easily during the events. "It's a community here," she says. "It's a really nice venue. It's the atmosphere." Hanging out at the space with one of her favorite bands--often found mixed in with the crowd--led her to form 123 Promotions.
It's experiences like Douglas' and Hensley's that draw other bands to the venue. "A lot of kids want a community to come into," Carbon Kin singer Kevin Runyon says. "This can show you [that] you create the scene you're in. Where I grew up there wasn't [a community]. I had to bum a ride to shows." Runyon emphasizes that the venue is an easy place to be accepted.
"[The crowd is] younger, but they're dedicated," Steber says. She says that the fervor can help launch a band that plays the venue. Steber, a senior business major at Towson University, transferred from St. Mary's College in 2006 to run Passed Out with Conny, also a Towson senior, out of their Towson apartment and focus on promoting shows.
They say it's a big difference from what's going on in Frederick, where Conny and Steber met in high school and booked local acts in what the pair describe as an "underdeveloped scene." They say Baltimore is less static, allowing them the ability to grow and take chances with local music.
Since Conny and Steber started working at shows at St. John's Hamilton, in 2006, concerts have run more smoothly. "They're kind of my backbone," McCrory says. "The success of the shows is Passed Out and myself." Fans have also noticed, starting their own promotion companies and hosting smaller shows throughout the city.
That crowd members treat each other like family and treats the duo like friends inspires the business to continue. "It's surprising they get along so well," Steber says.
McCrory, who began managing the basement in 2004, says that since the venue started four years ago there haven't been any fights or property damage, although McCrory was threatened with a lawsuit after the 2006 "Hardcore Halloween" show. A fan was injured during the show's hardcore acts in the rowdy crowd, and McCrory says he received angry phone calls and a threatening e-mail but hasn't heard anything about it since. The space no longer books hardcore acts.
Regularly patrolling the grounds helps keep the teens under control, and for the most part, the audience gives the staff support and respect. Though tonight's show goes off without major incidents, the staff still must deal with a group of girls who haven't paid the $8 admission and a handful of inebriated fans in the parking lot.
Steber and Conny find the drinkers during their search for the unpaid audience members. "Please don't disrespect our venue," Steber tells the revelers sternly. "I don't want to clean up your puke." The venue has a strict policy on drinking and drunken behavior, swiftly ejecting anyone who disrupts the show or attempts to enter under the influence. The policies keep fans in line and allow shows to continue.
Support from the church community, such as the Rev. Howard Nash, United Methodist's pastor, and George Weaver, president of the board of trustees, has also allowed the team to persist. "The church allows us a great place to play shows," Steber says. McCrory says he has complete control over booking and gives only a small cut of the profit to the church, and so he can pay the bands.
The venue and the community it has fostered has been good for the Hamilton neighborhood, too. "It is a good thing because it gives the youth a place to go," Weaver says. He recalls an e-mail from a parent who entered the community hall during a show last year. The missive profusely thanked Weaver and Nash for providing a safe environment for teens on the weekend.
A representative from Ruck Funeral Home says that the parking lot it shares with the church is clean on Sunday mornings after shows. There has never been trash, teenage detritus, or evidence that a show was held the night before. Moreover, on the rare occasion that the funeral home has to share parking spaces with the music venue, he says the teenage fans respect the business' needs.
It's uncharacteristic of college students and teens to behave so politely, but it's the function of the small community. "These bands are their life," Steber says. "These kids come to every show. They want something to call theirs. And this is that for them."