Collin Crowe is a lucky guy. He got to turn the lights out on 13 years of D.C. indie rock and punk history.
Crowe, 26, the guitarist for Buildings, was among the final tenants of Kansas House, a tiny single-family home on the corner of N. Kansas Street and Wilson Boulevard that was among Arlington’s last underground art spaces.
Over the years dozens of musicians lived there, generations of bands practiced there, and countless concerts were hosted in the house’s cramped, increasingly grimy living room.
But Crowe’s place in D.C. punk lore comes at a cost.
In mid-October the landlord sold the property to a Northern Virginia–based development company and told the tenants they had one month to find new accommodations. Graciously, she agreed to pay back everybody’s security deposit, so long as Crowe and his remaining housemates emptied the house, including the basement.
It was a messy place, the basement in particular. An astute punk-rock archaeologist could probably have found junk down there dating all the way back to the early ’90s.
The dust and mold “probably took a couple of years out of my life,” Crowe says. “There was old furniture, old clothes, some Savage Boys and Girls seven-inches.” And a few saucier items, too. “Actually, I found a nude Polaroid of some people.”
Every burgeoning arts scene needs a safe, cheap, and relatively carefree place in which to set up shop. Baltimore had its bottle cap factories. Brooklyn had its loft spaces. D.C. had the close-in ’burbs.
The ’80s and ’90s were a golden era for the D.C. music and arts community. But many of those artists lived in places like Arlington and Silver Spring. Because they were cheaper. Because you were less likely to get your face punched in. Because you could play loud music all night.
DIY record labels like Teenbeat, Dischord, and Simple Machines, as well as activist groups like Positive Force, cleverly repurposed Arlington’s middle-class workforce housing, then available as cheap, safe rentals, into small businesses, design studios, and rehearsal rooms.
Now that Kansas House is kaput, that time is effectively over. Those houses have been repurposed again, this time by developers who have built condominiums, restaurants, and shopping centers.
Here’s a look back at a time when driving over Key Bridge could get you more than a plate of tapas. When it was a place where you could live cheap, play loud, and, evidently, take naked Polaroids of yourself without shame. A look back at when Arlington was punk.
Positive Force House
Location: 3510 N. 8th St. Years Active: 1988–2000
Notable Occupants: Mark Andersen, Jerry Busher, Tomas Squip, Joe Lally
Cultural Exports: Good works, alternative lifestyles, Riot Grrrl
Then: The home base of Positive Force, a nonprofit leftist political action group that has raised more than $200,000 for various charities since its inception in 1985. P-Force’s group house was a live-in community, a touring band crash pad, and a place for the organization’s members to meet up and organize. “In a sense, it was a commune, an experiment in radical democracy,” says founder Mark Andersen, who lived in the house all 12 years that it existed.
Why Arlington? One aspect of Positive Force’s mission was to establish a link between the suburbs—where most of its members lived—and the city—where the organization did the majority of its charity work. According to Andersen, it was easier for young punks to get permission to mobilize in Virginia than in D.C., a place that scared the bejesus out of their parents. “The location in Arlington enabled us to build this bridge,” he explains. “There was a real anxiety about letting kids go across that imaginary line.” Also, it was cheaper.
The Neighborhood Vibe: Even in liberal Arlington, a vegan, straight-edge, punk commune was not inconspicuous. But according to Andersen, the neighbors—who included a major Republican party activist—didn’t make much of a stink. “Did everybody love us? I’m sure not. But we managed to work pretty well within that neighborhood,” says Andersen. Which isn’t to say P-Force didn’t raise a few eyebrows every now and then. “That’s the house where Riot Grrrl was born,” recalls Andersen. “There was a basketball court there. There was some topless basketball being played. The idea was that, ‘Well, if men are going to take off their tops, we’re going to take off our tops too.’ It was not the smartest idea.”
Suffering for Your Art: “I lived in the basement for a while; it was $100 a month,” recalls Andersen, 50. “The basement came with some special features—for instance, it had running water. That is to say, it had water that ran in through the walls.” It was close to nature in other ways, as well. “One window was missing a pane of glass, which I thought that was fine because it could be a little musty down there,” Andersen recalls. “One night I awoke to discover myself with a mother possum and her brood. After the possums had moved along, I fixed the window.”
Now: Positive Force’s original Arlington location, 2600 N. Fairfax Drive, is the only surviving single-family home on a block that has otherwise been dramatically redeveloped. The N. 8th Street location, however, was not so lucky. After Andersen and company vacated in late ’00, the property was sold to new owners who erected a grand multistory home on its footprint. In Andersen’s opinion, this was not an improvement. “Every inch of the lot is taken up by this garish gargantuan house. It is the epitome of monstrosity, of McMansion,” he says. “The house had a lot of structural issues, I wasn’t surprised that they tore it down, but they also pulled out three beautiful trees. They could have built a big home and preserved the trees, but I guess they wanted their third level.”
Location: 715 N. Wakefield St.Years Active: 1992–1998
Notable Occupants:Mark Robinson, Andrew Beaujon, Rob Christiansen, Evan Shurak
Cultural Exports: Indie rock, dead rats.
Then: The house behind Robert J. Murphy funeral home served as the headquarters for Teenbeat, a record label founded by Mark Robinson, and as a rehearsal space for the label’s roster—bands like Unrest, Eggs, and Blast Off Country Style. “That’s the one thing I loved about it,” says Robinson. “In most other cities bands rent a space. It was great to have it there in your house, to not to have to go anywhere. Pretty much everyone who lived in that house put out a record on Teenbeat. Or they worked for it.”
Why Arlington? Robinson and Beaujon, both now 42, are Arlington natives. “We hadn’t started out thinking, ‘This will be a house that will be associated with our record label’,” says Robinson. “We just wanted to move out of our parents’ houses.”
Suffering for Your Art: “It was super run-down,” says Robinson. The basement leaked, and so did the roof. “We would have to put buckets in the roof. To catch the water.” The elements weren’t the only thing getting in, either. “We had mice. Then, after the mice, we had rats. We put out poison for the rats and then, unfortunately, you can never find the rats,” says Robinson. “The kitchen stunk like you would not believe for months. There was a huge stack of old copies of the Washington Post—it must have been 4 feet high. When we finally moved it, the dead rat was sitting under there.”
The Neighborhood Vibe: Robinson and Beaujon, now managing editor of Washington City Paper , originally found the house while driving around with Robinson’s mother, a real estate agent. “Driving down that street—it was just this otherworldly place. It was all shacks, essentially,” Robinson recalls. “It looked totally weird. There were real Virginia people there with old school Southern accents. Even back then, you didn’t see that [very often].” But there was a neighborhood artistic tradition, of sorts. “There was a guy a couple houses down, supposedly his dad had drawn the Smokey the Bear logo and he was living off of residuals from that,” says Robinson. “Every six months he would go sit in the back yard with his amp playing these incredible solos for hours.”
Now: In 1998 Robinson’s landlords decided that they wanted to sell the property off to developers, so Teenbeat had to go. “It was pretty quick after that,” says Robinson. “I guess they couldn’t alter the foundation, but they rebuilt the entire house. So it looks totally different.” Robinson relocated the operation to Wilson Boulevard before moving to Cambridge, Mass.
Simple Machines House
Location: 3813 N. 14th St. (1992–1995), 510 N. Monroe St. (1995–1998)
Years Active: 1992–1998
Notable Occupants:Jenny Toomey, Kristin Thomson, Pat Graham
Cultural Exports: Indie rock, booklets about how to distribute indie rock, photographs of indie rock
Then: The two houses that Simple Machines occupied in Arlington served as label HQs and practice spaces for Toomey and Thomson’s group, Tsunami. Photographer Pat Graham also lived there and worked for the label filling mail orders. “It was one of those classic 1950s peaked-roof houses,” says Thomson. “It had a wooden front porch and lovely floors on the inside.” Simple Machines put out full-length records by Tsunami and Lungfish, myriad seven-inch singles, the “Mechanics Guide” to running record labels, and one very popular cassette tape by Dave Grohl.
Why Arlington? They were already there. Toomey and Thomson originally started running Simple Machines out of the Positive Force House before striking out on their own.
Suffering for Your Art: Aside from the occasional flood or the living room filled with cardboard mailing tubes, Simple Machines House was a pretty pleasant place to live. “It was never a bother, and it was always exciting to be around creative people,” says Thomson, now a Philadelphia resident. “I try not to put on my rose-colored glasses, but I think it was OK.”
The Neighborhood Vibe: Thomson, 42 , recalls the neighborhood as being pretty humble, aside from the odd office building crammed with military contractors. “It wasn’t a house where you could do shows. We had parties. One time Rocket From the Crypt [came on tour] and we all played that dice game kuriki. It was band plus all sorts of extra people playing kuriki,” says Thomson. Then everybody passed out for the night. “There was litter of bodies around, some of them outside. It probably looked like we’d been overcome by poison.”
Now: In 1998 Toomey, now 41, and Thomson decided they were ready to move on from the record business and brought Simple Machines to a close. The houses the label occupied—save for the original Positive Force house—have been leveled. “I looked on Google Street View; they had knocked it down and put up some sort of brick thing,” says Thomson. The Monroe Street house “was also demolished and the lot was split in two. Now there are two condo-ish houses there.”
Location: 2704 N. 4th St. Years Active: 1981–present
Notable Occupants: Ian MacKaye, Jeff Nelson, Cynthia Connolly, Joe Lally, Eddie Janney, Tomas Squip
Then: The poky bungalow has served as the headquarters for Dischord records since Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson first rented it in 1981. But more than that, the four-bedroom dwelling has been retrofitted into a sort of DIY one-stop—including a practice space, a design studio, and for a while, a darkroom. “It was an intentional house, in the true sense of the word,” says MacKaye, 47. “There was a shared interest that defined it. We were punks; we lived in a punk house.”
Why Arlingtton? After graduating high school, MacKaye and Nelson, then playing in Minor Threat, decided to leave their parents’ houses in Northwest. “We were looking for…a place that we could practice, somewhere safe, somewhere we could have equipment, and have lots of people coming and going. And it had to be affordable because we were dirt-poor,” says MacKaye. “That ruled out most of [Washington] at that time.”
Having never looked for a house before, they settled for the first place they stumbled into, a $525/month four-bedroom next door to a 7-Eleven. “So we sat down with [the landlords] to sign the lease,” MacKaye recalls. “It was a boilerplate one-year lease and, being a native Washingtonian, I was really struggling with the idea that I was going to live in Arlington. I drew a line through ‘one year’ and wrote ‘six months.’ I was there for 21 years.”
Suffering for Your Art: When you’re broke, even cheap rent is pretty expensive. “We only needed to come up with $105/month [each] for rent, but that was almost impossible for us,” says MacKaye. And footing the bill for the house’s archaic oil heat system was pretty much out of the question. “The first winter was brutal, and if it got really cold the pipes would burst. So if it got really cold we would buy five gallons of diesel fuel and throw that into the spout. The rest of the time we would have to sit in our sleeping bags while we watched television.”
The Neighborhood Vibe: To this day, MacKaye can recall meeting only a handful of the neighbors. Those interactions were not particularly rosy. “The next-door neighbor called the cops on us regularly,” he says. “She told the cops we were selling drugs, which was absurd, but that was her MO. We were tough guys, too. We would get into some pretty serious arguments with her.” But over the years, the hostilities mellowed a little bit. “Eventually she stopped drinking and stopped being so insane,” says MacKaye. “I actually went to her funeral.” Connolly and Amy Pickering went, too. “Even after all those years of torturing us, we were still there to see her off.”
And while Dischord bands may have practiced in Arlington, performing there, at least during the early ’80s, was another matter. “Everything was in the city. There was only one show I can remember in Arlington. It was in the summer of 1981,” says MacKaye. “There was a place called the Branding Iron House of Beef, and somebody had convinced them to let us do a show there. Minor Threat was supposed to play.” MacKaye was in the recording studio producing Government Issue, but they all knocked off early to head over. “When we got there, things were a little bit punchy. I don’t remember exactly how things proceeded—I think people were out front [of the restaurant] throwing bottles at a construction site. But this was three blocks from the police headquarters. The cops just descended on us—they just went insane. They had dogs and everything,” he recalls. “That was the only show.”
Now: MacKaye purchased the property from his landlords during the mid-’90s and, although he no longer resides there, he continues use his old room as an office. Dischord’s offices across the street are low-profile, but there’s no denying that the label has left its mark on the neighborhood. “See that street lamp over there?” MacKaye says, and gestures toward the parking lot at the 7-Eleven. He points to a piece of sheet metal welded to the lamp’s fixture, blocking some irksome light pollution. “I made [the county] put that there,” he says. “One time it blew down. I made them put it back.”
Location:900 N. Kansas St. Years Active: 1996–2009
Notable Occupants: Derek Morton, Bob Massey, Anne Jaeger, Jason Hamacher, Jason Barnett, Collin Crowe
Cultural Exports: Records, concerts, goat-meat smells
Then: During the mid-’90s local musician Derek Morton moved into the house—then just a normal group home—hoping to use the basement as a practice space for his band Ex-Atari Kid. Since then, numerous D.C. musicians have passed through Kansas House’s walls. In ’96 Bob Massey, then of Telegraph Melts, started hosting concerts in the living room, a tradition that enhanced the house’s legend tenfold, but didn’t do much for its decor.
Why Arlington? Kansas House had the virtue of being out of the way but still close to the Metro. And the $250-per-person rent didn’t hurt either, even if your room was only 6 feet wide and 12 feet long.
Suffering for Your Art: Early on Kansas House was a pretty nice place to live. But more than a decade of house shows and parties put some serious wear and tear on the place.
“The house was getting kind of run-down,” says Jason Barnett, who ran the record label Paroxysm out of the house in the early ’00s. “The shower would leak, and the kitchen wasn’t in the greatest shape.” A neighboring halal meat market didn’t do much for the neighborhood ambience, either. “They would take their goat meat and throw it on the ground.”
The Neighborhood Vibe: On Kansas Street, do what thou wilt was the whole of the law. Jorge Pezzimenti—then bassist for D.C. ska group the Pietasters—moved in next door in ’01 just to take advantage of the neighborhood’s freewheeling environment. “I knew if I moved in there I would be able to play music all night and nobody would say shit,” he says. “I consider myself fairly open-minded, but there was some No Wave shit coming out of Kansas House at night and nobody ever cared. I just thought, ‘This is the best street in the world.’” It couldn’t last forever, though. By the middle of the decade, some people actually wanted to sleep at night. Near the end of his tenure on the block, Pezzimenti’s ’80s cover band, the Legwarmers, played a show at Kansas House that was subsequently broken up by the cops—possibly the only time such a thing has happened to an ’80s cover band, ever. “But, yeah, until we played ‘Eye of the Tiger’ that night, we never had any trouble at all,” he says.
Now: In October, landlord Margarita Metaxatos announced that she was in negotiations to sell the property to an Arlington-based development firm. Tenants were given one month to leave the premises. They left at the end of November.
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