Can Oakland’s underground spaces survive a rising real-estate tide?

Can Oakland’s underground spaces survive a rising real-estate tide?
Source: Stephen Zacks
Source: Stephen Zacks

Hidden away in West Oakland behind corrugated steel roll-gates tacked with faded band stickers is the Command Center, a survivor of the first generation of Oakland DIY show spaces.

A line of bikes hangs near its unmarked entrance on a motorized pulley; a row of pinball machines borders a living room decorated with campy band memorabilia. Beneath the 30-foot-high warehouse ceilings, a grand circular balcony is decorated with props and lined with private bedrooms overlooking a recessed stage and a curtained kitchen area, its trash can overflowing. A trap door at center stage hides a hot tub.

The Command Center is an analog space-age funhouse for people who have been around long enough to see scenes come and go with flows of innovation in music and real estate. Split five ways, the $3,000 rent is manageable. For now.

The Command Center's hidden hot tub.
Source: Stephen Zacks

In the early-to-mid-2000s, when Oakland sheltered early refugees of San Francisco's housing scarcity, the city's DIY show spaces earned a reputation for liveliness and edgy down-at-heels squalor, nurturing a scene that became an attraction all its own. DIY scenes are inherently unstable, with spaces at the mercy of lovers' quarrels, band break-ups, generational shifts and rent hikes. And in a place that once fostered the Black Arts Movement, today's dramatically upscaled Oakland continues to price out many of the people who helped forge the city's cultural identity. Spaces like Life Changing Ministry, the Salt Lick, Sgraffito, Good Mother, LoBot, First Church of The Buzzard and 924 Gilman now — or may soon — face a sink-or-swim reckoning.

"We don't really advertise."

Music writer Sam Lefebvre runs a space above a row of produce vendors in Jack London Square, a waterfront neighborhood in Oakland. Due to the mobs attracted when scenes become too popular, he prefers to keep the name unpublished. "At one point, it started to get in trouble," he said. "We decided to cool the jets."

The space shifted to a Saturday-only schedule of shows averaging around 100 to 150 attendees each. Lefebvre is also a member of the band Flesh World and lives in a bedroom past a jerry-rigged bathroom of cast-off doors. His desk is a Louis XV kitchen table stationed in front of a small half-pipe skate ramp and facing 3,000 square-feet of open loft space, scattered with band equipment, couches, and a white-painted steel gazebo.

In this fast-moving real-estate environment, he should cower in fear, but he's conscious of his privilege compared to more vulnerable low-income residents. "I wouldn't expect the city government to come save me," he says. "Relatively speaking, it's not urgent."

Source: Mic/Stephen Zacks

Yet the absorption of low-rent commercial spaces is accelerating, threatening a whole layer of the subculture. New venues tend to be in residential areas where noise complaints are more common, limiting the size of underground shows and intensifying secrecy. Hybrid art gallery-show spaces like B4BEL4B and Sgraffito have filled a void for informal shows, but they also tend to be too small, with overflowing crowds sprawling onto the street, creating a potential nuisance-complaint hazard.

"When places close here, it's like with a whimper," Lefebvre says, comparing it to the notoriety surrounding Death by Audio, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, all-ages space that closed last year to an outpouring of press and resulted in a documentary film. "Most of the people who are involved with underground spaces, they don't want to be in the local paper."

Sgraffito is an impeccable little wedge-shaped gallery on the edge of Emeryville (a separate municipality between Oakland and Berkeley), situated in a corner of an antique shop, its walls sheathed in rough-cut wooden slabs. Ara Jo and Jon Lady live in the live-work space next door with two others and book shows in its 40-person capacity gallery. "People have been happy to have an intimate performance space, which is cool," Jo says. "We max out at shows and turn people away constantly, which is really unfair sometimes. So we don't really advertise; there's not really a need to."

Source: Mic/Stephen Zacks

Previously Jo ran a gallery and booked acoustic shows at Rock Paper Scissors, the beloved activist art collective founded in 2004 at 23rd and Telegraph, near downtown Oakland. After 11 years, it lost its space last August due to a tripling of its rent. "When RPS closed, I found myself here, and I just had to do this because there's no one else," she said. "I don't know any other all-ages places except for house shows. I don't know anywhere else that's a functioning show venue and a nighttime place for kids."

Staying afloat

Adam Hatch has gone through the entire trajectory from live-work collective member to hybrid gallery owner to licensed bar-owner since moving to San Francisco in 1999 and migrating to Oakland the following year. In the salad days of the DIY scene, Hatch was booking shows with a group of friends at LoBot, an art, music and loft-living space in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood that has been an Oakland mainstay since 2003. "At that time especially, there was just a lot of empty space that seemingly nobody really gave a shit about," he said. "As a young artist, I could spend $800 on an apartment that I shared with a couple of people in SF, or I could spend $800 on this storefront, and be kind of mysterious and sexy — and have space."

A couple of years later he opened Hatch Gallery, an art space that doubled as a living and music venue. In January 2014, the hammer came down in the form of an exorbitant rent increase. "Generally it was a 'we're going to quadruple your rent' kind of thing, with the understanding that I would have to move out, because the art gallery business in Oakland is not flush with capital," Hatch said.

Fortunately, he was able to stay afloat. Last year, in partnership with restaurateur Sam White and friends Eric Siemens and Drew Bennet, he opened the Starline Social Club, a bar with food service and an upstairs ballroom used for live shows, events and Showga sessions — yoga practice with live band accompaniment. They converted a boarded-up janitorial supply shop that had periodically hosted shows in the 2000s into a warm room outfitted with reclaimed wood and antique objects like a gold-framed board reading "Resident Membership Dues of 1943" behind the bar, and leather booths that look like they were ripped out of a red-sauce joint.

Starline Social Club
Source: Mic/Stephen Zacks

Like many others, however, he worries how sustainable this pattern of rent increases is for the city. With one-bedrooms already hard to find for less than $1,800, who will be able to live in Oakland in the future?

"There was that New Yorker article about how the restaurant is like the new gallery a couple of years ago, and I was way into it," Hatch says. "I think it was right on. But do you know how much line cooks get paid in a restaurant? I honestly don't understand how this can survive if there's nowhere for anybody to live. Everybody has to move."

Sinking in rising tides

In June, LoBot announced its future was in doubt after an eviction notice from the landlord and rent increases of 90 percent over the past two years, from $5,250 to $10,000. Members reached out for help from the city government and the Oakland Community Land Trust, which assists low-income tenants, but they were powerless to help. A November ballot initiative promoted by the Oakland Justice Coalition and the Oakland Tenants Union will seek to widen rent-control and eviction protections to shield vulnerable renters. But commercial tenants are on their own.

Hatch tends to agree that the priority should be protecting residents. "I would love to advocate for arts funding or whatever, but just housing, affordable housing for everybody. Not just artists, but everybody," he says. "I hope a lot of that creative energy is being pushed into activism and public policy."

Compared to previous generations, particularly in New York City, that mobilized rent strikes and artists' unions to advocate for their collective interests, DIY-show organizers express little motivation to join groups like the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, formed last June to protect art and cultural spaces against the same threat of displacement facing low-income residents generally. Rather, they seem resigned to the inevitability of commercial real estate inflation.

"Arguably, for the last couple of decades, the robust underground arts-and-music scene located in commercial spaces thrived on civic disrepair," Lefebvre says. "As more money comes into historically neglected areas, it's just kind of bad news for the scene."

But whether it's in Oakland or other cities where rapidly climbing rents challenge cultural producers to find ad hoc solutions, underground venues continue to take root and create musical happenings in unlikely places. That's what gives them a special allure: None of them were supposed to exist in the first place.