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The Church on York Fights for Salvation

The Church on York
The Church on York
Photo by Jenn Swann

Waiting outside the Church on York , owner Graeme Flegenheimer is approached by a parent dropping his kids off to see indie dream-pop outfit Tashaki Miyaki at the Highland Park venue. "What's the deal with this place?" the dad wonders.

Considering his offspring are going to a rock concert at a hundred-year-old church, it's a fair question. Responds Flegenheimer: "Well, it's not technically legal."

Technically here is the key word - Flegenheimer gets special events permits to hold shows on site, but he's still working on the sort of permits that would allow him the right to operate like a regular music venue. He assures the alarmed father that if anyone were to be arrested, it would only be him. Then he offers his phone number. "If you have any questions or want to check in on your daughters, just give me a call." [See editor's note at the bottom of the story.]

So it goes with the Church on York, which has drawn amazing buzz  - and fantastic bands - since opening six months ago. But despite its expedient success, there is trouble brewing. Resident complaints and a draining budget have got it running on fumes.  

Now it's do or die. The Church on York needs permits, or it will likely soon have to close.

Not that it's legal now; Flegenheimer, who rents the space, has simply been lucky enough not to get busted. But he's interested in going legit, and in late March he went before the Los Angeles Department of City Planning to argue in favor of permits designating it as a full restaurant and bar.

This got dozens of locals concerned. One resident in particular, an art teacher who was not named in the meeting records, has helped organize the opposition. Her constituency argues that there are already more than a dozen businesses with liquor licenses the residential area surrounding the Church on York. The area simply can't support any more traffic, partying, or drunkenness.

 "I'm in support of a cultural art center in our community," she told the LA Times. "There would be nothing better than to have it. I don't understand why there needs to be alcohol."

"You can't run an art space without beer and wine," counters Flegenheimer.

A hole in The Church's ceiling.EXPAND
A hole in The Church's ceiling.
Photo by Artemis Thomas-Hansard

He argues, quite logically, that the Church needs booze sales to keep it afloat. "Right now this place is held together by chewing gum and paper clips."

It's not that they're all about getting wasted. In fact, the Church hosts a handful of support groups, including an Alcoholics Anonymous group, a Friends of AA group, and Overeaters Anonymous.

The venue is a blossoming creative space of many colors. Beyond the concerts, they've showcased well-known comedians like Dimitri Martin, Chelsea Peretti and Reggie Watts. There's "Good Spaghetti," the venue's film series that just started earlier this April. They even offer music lessons from famous teachers: Patty Schemel (Hole), Blackie Onassis (Urge Overkill), and Maroon 5's James Valentine and Mickey Madden. There are now free art classes, too.

As for the food? Purgatory Pizza, the Boyle Heights "Punk Rock Pie Shop," will be the Church's new on-site restaurant. 

Oh, and a recording studio is also in progress. Fidlar already has plans to record their next album there.

Flegenheimer also seeks to have the Church zoned as a historic building - it's the last existing design by architecture firm Training Williams, he says - which would protect it from being demolished, or turned into an ugly apartment building.

As for the unhappy neighbors, Flegenheimer has gone on a charm offensive, picking up trash left behind by show go-ers and visiting with neighbors, like an 80-year-old man who lives across the street. He gives them all his phone number, of course. 

But he's nonetheless feeling disheartened, and has a lot riding here: He's maxed out his credit card, and at any moment during Church on York events, he could be arrested. But he's not giving up. He's scheduled events into August, and, defiant, doesn't intend on canceling them even if The Church on York doesn't get its permits.

"This place has captured lightning in a bottle. It's blossomed into something really special," he says.

Let's just hope it doesn't become one of those L.A. stories about cool venues that used to be.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story failed to mention the special events permits that Flegenheimer gets for each show hosted at the venue. We regret the omission.


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