Tale of Two Cities
Washington's Inability to Sustain DIY Culture Highlights Baltimore's Greatest Strength
With a scant 30-some miles separating Baltimore and Washington, it's devilishly hard to resist comparing the two. The urge only grows stronger when comparing the cities' music undergrounds, as pride mixes with grass-is-always-greener complaints. Washington has the legacy: Birthplace of seminal punk groups such as Bad Brains and Fugazi as well as labels Dischord and Teen Beat, Washington earned its laurels in the 1980s and '90s combining DIY activism and musical innovation.
These days, though, it is Baltimore that burns bright. Much ink has been spilled in the past year or so, from obscure bloggers to national magazines such as Rolling Stone, geeking over local acts like Dan Deacon and Beach House, as well as the incubating city itself. While Washington made its name as an all-ages show city with a bent for benefit concerts, Baltimore's current heady allure of anything-goes experimentalism is often attributed to its diversity of venues, particularly the freak flag-flying warehouse party scene.
As for the complaints? Well, while those in the music underground face struggles in both cities, Baltimore's growing arts community highlights problems in Washington. Gentrification and attendant rising living costs have pushed Washington's creative types from formerly affordable enclaves such as the U Street corridor, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant. In the past year, a number of venues have shut down or face uncertain futures, particularly the sort of alternative spaces that are integral to the Baltimore scene.
Take the Warehouse Next Door, a now defunct all-ages club attached to a theater and gallery near Washington's Chinatown, that catered to independent, local music. According to Nick Pimentel, formerly one of the club's main booking agents, the arrival of a new convention center across the street led to a gutting rise in expenses for the space, which shuttered last August. "When [the Warehouse] was around, it was very hard to break even," Pimentel says. "With property taxes quadrupling, [club owner] Paul [Ruppert] decided that it couldn't be done."
A short walk from the Warehouse Next Door is the Hosiery, another embattled warehouse where Pimentel has organized events. The Hosiery, which offers artist studios and band practice space, has long attracted small crowds for its art and live music happenings featuring underground darlings such as Devendra Banhart, !!!, and No Age. But last year attendance surged, drawing attention from the local media and, ultimately, the building's owners, who cracked down on the events.
Pimentel attributes the increased attention to the transformation of nearby Chinatown into a trendy nightlife hot spot. When the creative types moved in over a decade ago, the neighborhood was far different. "It was surrounded by transvestite hookers and crackheads," says Pimentel, who has held a studio in the building for the past eight years. "Now it's surrounded by condos." As early as next spring, the Hosiery may be condos itself, part of a retail and residential complex. "We're just waiting to get kicked out," Pimentel says of the warehouse's transformation into the chic Eye Street Lofts. "It's just a matter of time."
In recent weeks Washington's alternative venue community has suffered still more blows. The Bobby Fisher Memorial Building, a collectively run space that hosts punk and indie shows alongside underground art exhibits, faces uncertainty. The venue, which has operated for the past year in the Shaw neighborhood, is struggling with the landlord about the lease. Additionally, 611 Florida, a house-cum-venue near Howard University Hospital known for hosting experimental music, recently announced that it lost its own lease-renewing struggle and will close this September.
While Washington's small venues struggles may seem distant, there are parallels in Baltimore. It doesn't take vigorous mental calisthenics to imagine a similar fate as the Hosiery's happening in the burgeoning Station North Arts and Entertainment District. The neighborhood, with its lucrative proximity to hip bars, venues, and artist warehouses, as well as major arteries such as Penn Station and Charles and St. Paul streets, is catnip for developers, even in a slipping economy.
Granted, the Hosiery's issues, as well as Washington's in general, are magnified by a complex matrix of regional factors including liquor-license board vigilance, rapid gentrification, climbing rents, and greater population density. Exacerbating problems for alternative, oft-unlicensed venues is a dearth of affordable stand-alone homes and industrial relics, spaces with some modicum of built-in self-preservation thanks to distance from other residences. In other words, the sort of buildings providing a fertile backbone for Baltimore's underground.
Alongside small venue struggles, Fort Reno concert organizer Amanda MacKaye sees musicians as being priced out of Washington. MacKaye books the twice-weekly summer concert series, held in a Tenleytown park, through an open application process. In keeping with Fort Reno's mission to serve the local community, only musicians hailing from within the District of Columbia are eligible. So it's no small matter that MacKaye, who has booked the series for four years, has seen a drop in the number of Washington-based acts seeking the series' coveted spots and an increase of applicants from just outside the city.
"It [has] caused a lot of internal explorations about how am I going to approach this in the future," MacKaye says. "If the economics of this area continues to go the way it's going, what will it mean to be a D.C. band?"
The Black Cat has been an all-ages venue in the U Street district for 15 years, and its owner Dante Ferrando points to a matrix of factors in explaining what he sees as Washington's struggling music community. "There's less places to practice and more people moving out of the city," he says. "There's more bars, but there are fewer alternative spaces. More importantly, it is harder to afford to be in a band in D.C. It does change the dynamics of the people who live here . . . and what kind of people are forming bands."
"It is not the kind of city where you can just float by," Washington-based punk and indie-rock all-ages show promoter Welch Canavan says. Canavan, 23, works exclusively with alternative spaces, including the Bobby Fisher Memorial Building. "There's a lot of cities that are really cheap for punks and for musicians. This has not been a historical state in D.C. Definitely, the people who stay here have a lot of attachment to [Washington] and a lot of commitment."
For those willing to trade the career route for more time devoted to artistic pursuits, staying afloat in any city can be a struggle. Still, for some people in Washington's music scene, Baltimore's lower cost of living and reputation of having a strong underground arts community is attractive. "I got utmost respect for those Tax Lo guys [and] Floristree," says Washington-based disco DJ and events organizer Chris Burns. "Those guys are doing it how I wish I could do it in my city."
While Burns, 25, also works through established clubs and bars, he prefers the heightened creative control of putting on warehouse parties. His difficulties in finding such spaces in Washington have turned his attention northward. Baltimore has "raw, cheap space," he says. "I consider it almost on a weekly basis, whether I want to move to Baltimore."
Burns is not the only Washingtonian to hear Baltimore's siren song of affordability. Last year, electronic musician and DJ Joseph Jakuta, 28, of the solo outfit Jakuta and Carl, moved to Baltimore after spending nine years in various D.C. exurbs. The money he has saved living here allows him to invest more in his musical pursuits, from affording rare 7-inch records for his DJ gigs to offsetting tour expenses. "The cost of living in Baltimore has definitely been a great aspect of living here," he explains via e-mail. "Baltimore has been quite a contrast [to Washington]. There are numerous people here interested in music, and it's affordable, and allowable, for people that can't drink to go to shows."
Jason Urick, a member of electronic noise outfit WZT Hearts and resident of warehouse concert space Floristree, also sees Baltimore as more affordable for artists, where they can spend more time on their art and less on the job. "[Washington] is an affluent city," says Urick, who grew up in the D.C. suburb of Gaithersburg and settled in Baltimore eight years ago. "I think that [Baltimore] does attract more artists because they [can] do less and eke by here rather than what it takes to eke by in D.C."
Even those who had less success in Baltimore find room for praise. Andrew Field-Pickering of the indie hip-hop outfit Food for Animals moved to Baltimore last fall, inspired by a cadre of transplanted friends from Washington who relocated north. The 25-year-old only lasted six months, though, moving back to Silver Spring earlier this year for a job that better accommodates his self-described semierratic touring schedule. "When I lived there, it was great," Field-Pickering says about his stint in Waverly. "I [know] a ton of people [in Baltimore], all doing music, and everybody is pretty supportive. . . . Basically in B-more, the underground is one of the main features of the city right now."
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