How L.A.'s Growing List of Shuttered DIY Venues Is Fighting to Come Back
Jerry DeFazio, left, Paul McCaffrey, Jonathan Gombas, David Boe and Nick "Spooki" Tavi at their warehouse space, Non Plus Ultra. The group can still use the warehouse as a work space but is no longer allowed to live or host shows there.
When Jerry DeFazio and his friends moved into a former print shop on Virgil Avenue in the fall of 2014, they never imagined it would become one of the most talked-about music spaces in Los Angeles — or even a venue at all. They’d been forced out of their Chinatown warehouse after a new owner bought the property and multiplied the rent, and they were mostly just looking for a place to live and make art.
Two months after moving in, they organized their first live music show on a whim. Within a year, the space that became known to the DIY community as Non Plus Ultra was hosting as many as four shows a week, eventually attracting high-profile psych-rock and noise-rock bands like Body/Head, Thee Oh Sees and Meatbodies.
“I don't think any of us had any foresight into what Non Plus was going to turn into,” DeFazio says. “It completely snuck up on us because we were just saying yes to everything,” adds former tenant David Boe.
The group was already planning its second annual summer festival when, just as quickly as it took off, Non Plus Ultra — named for a Latin phrase that roughly translates, perhaps prophetically, to “a high point with nothing beyond” — was shut down by city inspectors on March 2. The closure came three months after the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in Oakland, spurring L.A. to crack down on unpermitted warehouses.
Before it got shut down, Non Plus Ultra held an event called DIY Lives, which included a screening of the documentary Goodnight Brooklyn, about New York DIY venue Death by Audio, which was shuttered after being displaced by gentrification (a premise Non Plus' organizers now found ironic, given their own demise). They’d already planned the event, but because of its timing three weeks after the Ghost Ship fire, they turned it into a panel to discuss safety within DIY spaces in Los Angeles.
A scene from Goodnight Brooklyn, a documentary on DIY culture screened at Non Plus Ultra after the Ghost Ship fire
Dishwasher Safe Films
“I knew that [for] a lot of people ... the first thing that they ever heard about a DIY space was that it was like a death trap where teenagers go to die,” Boe says. He and the organizers saw their event as an opportunity to prove that misconception wrong while also questioning how the city can work to better safeguard DIY venues.
Half a year later, the friends who run Non Plus Ultra are still searching for answers — and they’re not ready to give up the community they inadvertently cultivated. This week, the nonprofit launched an IndieGoGo campaign aimed at raising $50,000 for either a move to a new, legal location or the cost of renovations to bring the current space up to code (though the tenants no longer live or hold shows at the Virgil Village property, they still rent it as a workspace). In the meantime, Non Plus Ultra faces a unique challenge: Can a DIY music venue continue its mission even without a physical space?
The first test comes this weekend, when Non Plus hosts Nonplussed Festival at the fully permitted Frogtown venue Zebulon. The three-day festival, their first event since getting shut down, features 30 short films, seven musical performances and photography, virtual reality and gaming exhibits. Organizers see it as a gauge of Non Plus Ultra’s uncertain future in a city they say has not made it easy to host live entertainment.
It’s not just the warehouse crackdown that has shuttered countless artists' spaces and underground venues, many of which have gone unreported by tenants who fear that speaking to the press could lead to further repercussions with the city. Gentrification, too, has played a major role in displacing DIY spaces like Pehrspace, which was evicted last August from its home of 10 years after a new owner purchased the strip-mall property where it and several other tenants had been located. Even more recently, longtime Pomona punk hangout VLHS hosted a farewell show last weekend after its new property manager shut the venue down, and Complex in Glendale closed in May, citing problems related to permitting. Meanwhile, the Smell downtown was slapped with an eviction notice last year; the venue’s owner, Jim Smith, is still fighting to save it.
“Spaces shut down, communities shatter, and people do try to continue on and find these [new] spaces, but it’s hard because how long will they last?” says Pauline Lay, who runs the nonprofit Pehrspace and has spent the last year searching for a new location. The venue reached its goal of raising $16,500 via a GoFundMe campaign in December, but Lay says the hardest part has been finding a new space that’s legal, affordable and, perhaps toughest of all in a hot commercial property market, available for a long-term lease.
“I’ve met many [property owners] who understand what we want to do and are open to it, and they’re very relaxed and accommodating, but will say, ‘Well, we’re thinking of selling in three years or next year,’ or, ‘When laws change I’m going to move my weed co-op back in,’” she says. “There’s some really beautiful spaces, some great spaces, but everyone knows what their land is worth.”
In the meantime, Lay doesn't want to lose sight of the community that Perhspace helped foster. Last month, she invited friends to a meeting at Stories Bookstore & Café in Echo Park to discuss the venue’s options and hear feedback. “For Pehrspace, I didn't realize what it meant to people until we shut down,” she says of the venue that hosted everything from queer sock hops to DJ'ed barbecues to watercolor art shows. “The whole philosophy of the space,” she says, was “if you have something sincere and honest that you want to do, come in and make it your own kind of thing.”
The friends behind Non Plus Ultra say they never worried about having to cancel their flagship Nonplussed Fest even after their space got shut down. But finding a new location proved to be a major hurdle. “We were reaching out to different people that owned warehouse spaces and said, ‘Hey, can we host a one-night event?’ And they said, ‘We can’t guarantee that we’re going to get permitting,'” says Paul McCaffrey, who formerly lived at Non Plus Ultra and helped program the festival.
As the Non Plus team later discovered, the city of Los Angeles had ceased issuing special-event permits to venues not already zoned for entertainment. If a space has been zoned for retail, for example, it can no longer pull a permit to change its use even for one-day events, which previously allowed venues to skirt occupancy codes without meeting additional requirements.
Jeff Napier, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Building & Safety, says the city discontinued issuing these permits as a proactive move following the Ghost Ship fire. “Obviously, the big story about the Oakland fire brought an awareness to the entire building and safety community and fire department community to where we had to look at our venues and say, ‘All right, let’s take a breather here and let’s look at everything and make sure we’re doing it right.’ So at this time we’re no longer issuing change-of-use permits or special-event permits,” Napier says. “You can still apply for a permit, [and] every venue gets looked at case by case, but typically, if it’s going to be a change of use, we’re not going to entertain that.”
While DIY venues continue to shutter, some in the community are looking to investor-backed Zebulon as a sanctuary. The Brooklyn transplant is a for-profit bar and venue with a bottom line to hit, but its programming is also hospitable to noise bands and other not-so-mainstream acts. Talent booker Tyler Nolan says the venue was approached about rebooking bands that had planned their tours around playing the Ghost Ship, but Zebulon’s calendar was already full by that point. It did, however, rebook shows from Non Plus Ultra after it closed, and to both parties, it seemed like a natural fit for Nonplussed Fest.
“[It’s] really on point with our mentality where it’s like, we’re going to program what we want to see and not any one specific thing,” McCaffrey says. Beyond that, he says Non Plus Ultra’s relationship with Zebulon has given him perspective about what the space would need to do if it were to go legitimate. “That was really helpful for us — just shows how crazy [it is] and how many hoops you have to jump through.”
Opening Zebulon took two and a half years and included substantial fundraising, converting an industrial space to a commercial one, and submitting and then revising several architectural plans before obtaining permits, Nolan says. “Going through the process of getting Zebulon open, you see why there aren’t more venues, what a risk it is to do it, not just financially but emotionally and physically,” he says. “That's why I wish that there could be more of an infrastructure to give the youth a way to empower themselves [to] open up a DIY space that's not going to get shut down.”
Nolan got his start working at DIY venues as a teenager and later relied on them during tours when he played with the Brooklyn noise band VAZ. Every time they toured in Los Angeles, he says, finding a venue that wasn't already booked was a challenge, which meant they often had to settle for shows at record stores or noisy “nightmare” bars.
He hopes that won’t always be the case for touring bands passing through Los Angeles — but in the meantime, Zebulon has stepped in to host shows from struggling or defunct DIY spaces whenever it can. “We can see why it’s so hard for young people that might not have the resources that we had to get something going,” Nolan says. “I feel like it would be in every city’s best interest to make that process smoother.”
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