As the City Withholds Warehouse Permits, the L.A. Derby Dolls Face an Uncertain Future
It’s a quiet Tuesday night in El Sereno, but the Dollosseum, home of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls roller derby league, is bustling with energy.
The cold walls of the enormous warehouse reverberate with the rumble of a passing train outside, echoed by the thumps and whirs of skates on the banked track inside. Underneath a roller skate–shaped disco ball, the Ri-Ettes, the league's all-star team, are going hard. Even in practice, they live up to their reputation for being unbeatable.
Amid the whistles, the cheers and the musty funk of sweat and blood, there's uncertainty in the air. The Derby Dolls' first public bout of the year was unexpectedly denied a temporary special events (TSE) permit, forcing the league to cancel its event scheduled for Jan. 7. It was unexpected considering TSE permits have been approved for every public event the league has hosted at the Dollosseum previously — at least two bouts per month for 10 months out of the year since 2015.
Until the warehouse is brought up to code, a process the city has handled “at varying speeds,” according to the L.A. Times, the derby’s public events are on hold indefinitely. That’s a problem for the volunteer-run, not-for-profit cooperative, whose primary source of income is ticket sales from these events. Now the group is pushing an urgent fundraising effort for more than $100,000 to cover the zone variance application fee, redesign fee and construction costs, in addition to the cost of operations while they are cut off from hosting public events.
“It was heartbreaking,” skater Brenda Davidge said of the cancellation. Davidge, who goes by WhoreChata at the derby, has been training for about a year for Jan. 7, which would have been her public debut. “It’s disheartening that we can’t show off all of our skills and all of our progress.”
Roller derby has evolved significantly since its inception in the 1970s, when it was steeped in farcical WWF-like stunts and feuds. Its popularity diminished over the years, but in 2000, at the height of "Girl Power," the sport was resuscitated in Austin, Texas, with an all-women’s league touting a do-it-yourself ethos where “the hits and the spills are 100 percent real.” Paying homage to its theatrical heyday, skaters pick punny, violent pseudonyms such as DIE-ana Ross, Fleetwood Smack and D’cup Runith Ov’r. The Derby Dolls were founded in L.A. in 2003 and the Dollosseum houses the only banked derby track in the city.
The Dollosseum has the only banked track in the city.
Since the league moved into its current space on Alhambra Avenue in El Sereno in 2015, it has been working with the city toward being in full compliance with city code, says Amber Greenberg, an all-star skater who goes by Oblivienne Westwood. She emphasizes that safety has always been a priority for LADD: “We’re here every day practicing. We want to make sure it’s safe for our skaters but also when we welcome the public in.” Well before their event was canceled, fundraising plans were underway, Greenberg says.
In early December, approximately one week after the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the Department of Building and Safety changed its policy to withhold TSE permits from warehouses altogether, spokesman David Lara said over the phone. While these permits create a controlled environment, ensured by fire department inspection and a fire marshal on-hand during the event, Lara said, “I think now everybody knows that warehouses are not designed for having a lot of people in them.”
For those who love it, the Dollosseum is more than a warehouse. It’s a sanctuary for diverse women and girls to empower and challenge one another in healthy, affirming ways. For Davidge, who came to the league in her 40s, this was the main draw. “We have all different sexual identities, all different ethnicities, ages and sizes,” she says. “I realized I don’t need to feel like I don’t fit. There are so many of us here that I totally fit.”
Her daughter competes in the Junior team, where Davidge says she sees girls age 7 to 17 blossom on wheels.
Her teammate Galaxy Babe echoes the sentiment: “I carry the confidence that I get on the track, off the track to my job,” which is no small task — she builds rockets for Elon Musk's SpaceX.
In addition to their sports programs, the L.A. Derby Dolls are active in giving back to the community at large. In 2016, they participated in the Great L.A. River Clean-Up and L.A. Pride Festival and Parade, and hosted Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. Domestic Violence task force at an LAPD appreciation luncheon. For the past eight years, they have coordinated an annual community health fair, bringing free health screenings and doctor consultations to members of the community who might not otherwise have access to health services.
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From a cultural standpoint, the city’s clampdown is a blow, considering that in L.A., warehouses are home to a multitude of cultural institutions, from art galleries and performance spaces to nonprofits like the derby. When asked if Building and Safety is interested in making a clearer path toward permitting alternative spaces like these, Lara said, “Quite frankly, we haven’t thought about it that much.”
The zoning variance application process takes upward of four months from filing to approval, Department of City Planning spokesperson Yeghig Keshishian said in an email. In addition to the time it will take to complete imminent building changes and infrastructural improvement, L.A. isn't likely to see the Dolls on their home turf for a good while.
In the meantime, with the bulk of their operating income eviscerated indefinitely, this community asset is in jeopardy. Like all sports leagues, public events are essential to the financial health of the organization. As a nonprofit, to help bridge the financial gap, we have set up an online crowdsourcing campaign [which is] is essential to the survival of the league at this time,” skater Edie Lundeen, aka Vodka Toxic, said via email.
“Moreover, our concern is the loss for the community while our events [are] on hold. The Derby Dolls is a home that nurtures female empowerment from both our Junior Derby Dolls to our adult league at a time when a program like this is much needed.”
On Feb. 12 at the Regent Theatre, the Dolls are hosting a fundraiser screening of the derby flick Whip It, with guests Alia Shawkat and Landon Pigg. More info here.
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