The city just lost a scene it really never knew it had. And, boy, will it be missed.
“That place was built from nothing into sort of the Greenwich Village of D.C. skateboarding, just an amazing scene,” says local skater Stephanie Murdock of the underground skateboarding/rock-and-roll/art mecca in Shaw’s Blagden Alley known as Fight Club. “The way it came together, the way it was built, everything that went on there—skating, bands, beers, food, painters, photographers. It was a special place. It’s gone, but now, it’s like: We pulled it off. We pulled it off!”
And when the time felt right, they pulled it down, too. Visitors to the warehouse compound, like those who frequented the venue in the famous book and movie it took its name from, knew they weren’t supposed to talk about the place outside its walls. So when it was laid to waste a few weeks ago, it was done quietly. The end came when skaters feared law enforcement, regulators, and neighbors, all of whom they’d successfully fended off despite two years of massive, all-night, diverse, and wholly un-Washington parties, were closing in.
They didn’t want to wait around until outsiders came in and busted up the place with the force of law. So the skaters canceled a party scheduled for March 3 that would have celebrated the two-year anniversary of Fight Club. Then the same folks who built one of the largest indoor bowls on the East Coast planned its demise.
Attendance at Wednesday-night skating sessions at Fight Club had become mandatory for most local hardcore skaters. The last such gathering turned into a combination skating/demolition night and had the feel of an Irish wake.
“We skated while the chain saws were being put to the bowl,” says Murdock, one of only a handful of patrons bold and competent enough to plunge into the bowl on a board from the roof and live to tell about it. “We jumped over the holes as it was slowly being torn down. It was sad. It was ritualistic. But the timing seemed right.”
Fight Club’s genesis goes back to the shuttering in late 2004 of Vans Skate Park, the massive corporate-sponsored outdoor bowl in Woodbridge that had won over the generally anti-establishment skating community.
Skateboarders are a lot like ants: Knock down their home, and they won’t spend much time fretting. They’ll get right to rebuilding. Ben Ashworth and Anthony Smallwood, both longtime skateboarding activists, immediately began brainstorming for ways to replace what Vans had meant to their scene.
And they thought large.
“Anthony thought how great it would be to have a place where people could skate and listen to music,” says Ashworth. “There wasn’t anything like that around here.”
Smallwood confessed his dream to Dan Zeman, a local arts patron and friend to the skating community. Zeman was leasing, but hadn’t yet filled, space in adjoining warehouses not far from the new convention center. Zeman, not knowing he was about to become the Andy Warhol of an incredible underground scene, green-lighted the project. Among his only demands were that skaters not blab about what was going on behind the walls and barbed wire.
“We knew we could get it done if we had a place,” says Smallwood.
Though governments have become the major players in skate park construction in recent years, the do-it-yourself ethic remains amazingly strong in the skating realm. To wit: the Green Skate Laboratory bowl in Langdon Park, which D.C. Public Schools teacher Terri Nostrand built with an all-volunteer labor force and donated materials, overcoming amazing amounts of antagonism and immorality from civil servants every step of the way. In just one example, grant money Nostrand procured for her project from the Tony Hawk Foundation was stolen by the administration of Coolidge Senior High School, where she taught science (“Cheap Skates,” Cheap Seats, 12/17/2004). And on his own, Smallwood accomplished an amazing feat back in 2000 when he got the District government to sign off on a downhill race he’d organized on 15th Street NW alongside Meridian Hill Park.
Just as Smallwood and Ashworth assumed, as soon as word spread about the potential new home for a big bowl, skaters flocked to the warehouse to offer free labor, materials, and know-how. They cleaned up the detritus from the last tenant—a small record company left cassettes of the single “Bitch Set Me Up” strewn all over the place—and got to building.
The foundation of the Fight Club bowl actually came from sections of the deceased Vans bowl—until the end, the protective rubber padding covering pillars inside the warehouse still said vans. The rest of the structure was made of whatever plywood, chicken wire, paint, and cool-looking castoff materials skaters could find.
“Governments build these things now, and I go to those parks,” says the skater known to Fight Club as Alabama. “But this place had nothing to do with governments. Fight Club was all from skaters and absolutely that added to the place, gave it a mystique… because when you’re there you could feel like you’re really not supposed to be there….There was an element of danger to it, that’s what draws people to skateboarding in the first place: the thrill of pulling something off that you’re not suppose to do.”
Skating always was at the center of the Fight Club universe. But the original vision for the compound was about more than boards and bowls. The skaters began inviting outsider artists to hang out and hang their wares at the space. Parties also became art shows, where paintings and photographs were hung on the walls outside the bowl and even on the bowl itself. The Fight Club insiders advertised the gatherings on local arts clearinghouses using coy language that only those who needed to know would understand: An invitation to a party in fall 2006 said that those who show up at the “FC Gallery” could enjoy “a massive interactive installation piece.” That would be the skate bowl itself.
The Points, a local quartet—one of the few rock acts that still employs a full-time theremin player—became the house band of Fight Club early on and held that position until the chain saws revved up.
Drummer Travis Jackson says he and his bandmates all felt blessed to fill the Velvet Underground role.
“We’d arrange for all the bands that played the parties,” says Jackson. “And these bands would come and see skaters going while the music’s going, and everybody just bonding together. Pretty much 100 percent of the bands we brought in told us they’d never seen anything like it. They’d all ask me to give them pictures and say, ‘When I go home and tell my friends about this place, they’re not going to believe me.’ Rock and skating have been sort of hand in hand here since Minor Threat was playing at the old 9:30 space, and at the warehouse, it was another forging of these two cultures in an amazing way.”
“We played every single party,” he says, “and every one was complete and total energy. It really did seem foreign to D.C.”
Those who had a hand in building Fight Club say they hope to have a similar setup somewhere else in the near future. Where and when? Well, as soon as it’s torn down, they’ll tell you.
“It’s over for now,” says Smallwood. “But we’re all saying we got a whole lot more than we bargained for. Seriously, we’d have been happy to have a place like that for two months. We got two years.”