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At 2 a.m. in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown, an underground art party is under way, and one partygoer wants to see some art. Five hours earlier, she could have joined the crowd circulating the building’s top floor, peering at paint and sipping wine while singer-songwriters plucked instruments. But now, the warehouse is dark, packed pelvis-to-ass, and blasting disco. She raises a glowing neon bracelet to the wall in an attempt to illuminate a piece. She squints, shrugs, and heads back to the dance floor.
For nearly a decade, the warehouse at 443 Eye St. NW has been building a reputation for hosting alternative art openings, rock shows, and all-night BYOB dance parties. Soon, there may be no art to squint at, no party to retreat to. Last week, the warehouse’s owners, I Street Associates, warned the operation to cease and desist. The people at 443 Eye had been expecting the order for a while: I Street Associates is nearing the end of talks to sell the property to D.C.-area firm Walnut Street Development, which hopes to replace the space with a sleekly imagined complex called “Eye Street Lofts” by 2009. For 443 Eye St., the party may be over.
“They want me to stop scheduling events,” Mike Abrams, the gallery’s manager, says of the building’s owners. “The problem is that it’s too popular.”
The recent buzzkill exemplifies a tough trick facing alternative art impresarios: How to keep your underground scene popular enough to stay relevant but underground enough to avoid getting shut down. Here, 443 Eye tenants past and present offer up the do’s and don’ts of keeping the underground under the radar.
• Do: Know Your Limits. When Abrams took control of most of the top floor of the warehouse in ’98, he set to work renting gallery space to artists, organizing events, and teaching Saturday morning sculpture classes. It wasn’t until 2000, when tenants Nick Pimentel, Lisa Garfield, and Jason Conny began organizing art and music shows there, under the name the Hosiery, that people really took notice. Buzz spread mostly through word of mouth, then grew with Listservs and hand-posted fliers. Within a few years, the Hosiery had hosted shows by indie folk sensation Devendra Banhart and Thievery Corporation offshoot Dust Galaxy. Since new tenants Gold Leaf, an arts collective run by 25-year-olds Justin Rodermond, Ryan Wakeman, and Alex Clarke, began renting space there in April, the gallery’s events have become so well-attended that they’ve begun to flirt with implosion. “Now that 500 people are showing up,” says Pimentel, “the word is definitely getting around.” On Dec. 15, Gold Leaf’s 12-hour affair, which featured 10 artists, five bands, three DJs, hundreds of partygoers, and one regulation-sized tepee, somehow caught the attention of the building’s owners. It’s unclear what tipped the scales—I’m guessing it wasn’t the tepee—but as with most unregulated grand-scale parties, it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to shut it down.
• Don’t: Fuck With Condos. Until last week, Abrams and Co. managed to operate without interference for nearly 10 years—no word from the landlord, no trouble from the cops. But as the property nears sale—Walnut Street hopes to solidify the deal by January—“the owners are nervous about us doing these kinds of things,” says Abrams. “There are a lot of people in there. They’re feeling like there’s too much exposure.”
• Do: Seek Out a Bad Neighborhood. “This is a crack neighborhood,” Abrams says of 443 Eye’s locale. Still, it’s not crack enough to protect your DIY art scene. Chinatown fit the bill for a while, but now it’s “become like Disneyland,” says Abrams. Pimentel says that over the years, “the only time we’ve ever had cops come up, they were just making sure none of the people in the neighborhood were bothering us.” Generally, it’s best to find a space where BYOB and maximum occupancy rates are of relatively little concern.
• Don’t: Head to Restoration Hardware. “Ninety-nine percent of the materials used in all of these projects were recycled from parts and scraps already lying around the studio or found outside,” says Rodermond. Still, don’t skimp on the details: Track down a good PA system. Spring for the tepee. Then, party. “The point of Gold Leaf is that the next day everyone can say, ‘I had the time of my life last night,’” says Rodermond. “So far, I think it’s worked.”
• Do: Be Exclusive. Chris Burns, a DJ who spun what he calls a “gay underground disco” soundtrack at Gold Leaf’s blowout on Dec. 15, has got the idea. “If you look at the kind of people who live in D.C., 60 percent are douchebags,” he says. He stops, reconsiders his math. “No. Sixty-five to 70 percent are douchebags. Thirty percent are young, creative, artistic people. And we’re all just trying to grind.”
• Don’t: Invite the Press. Media coverage is a double-edged sword. While inviting nightlife photographers to snap fishbowl shots of partygoers may help glamorize your scene, additional coverage could result in overexposure. When I arrive at Gold Leaf’s party on Saturday, notebook in hand, one attendee gives me her thoughts on the media. “What the fuck are you doing! Why the fuck are you writing about this? You’re going to fucking ruin it,” she says, voice raised. “We’re living in Giuliani’s New York right now.” Later, she offers me a Schlitz and provides me with her phone number, telling me she “gives good quotes.” She never returns my calls. She’s good.
• Do: Verse Yourself in the Law. The D.C. Code is publicly available. Use it. By making events BYOB and requesting donations instead of charging admission, 443 Eye Street appears to be operating legally. “From my perspective,” says Abrams, “there aren’t any problems.”
• Don’t: Be Deterred by a Little Cease-and-Desist. Until Abrams can iron something out with the developers, he says, the space will focus on “smaller events, like art shows and screenings. Things that don’t involve masses of people dancing until 4 in the morning are probably going to become the ‘legitimate’ thing to do in there.” He adds, “Will I be able to pay my bills with that? No.” For now, Rodermond says Gold Leaf may have found a way to keep its planned New Year’s Eve bash going—in the warehouse’s adjacent hangar. “Even if 443 Eye St. shuts down, Gold Leaf stays,” says Rodermond. “Somewhere or another, you will hear more from us. We’re still going to be holding ragers.
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