Donald Cassel, 56, sits on the couch in his living room, looking around at the space he has lived in for the past two and a half years, which he will have to vacate next month. The walls around him are covered with artwork and musical instruments, mostly guitars; a sturdy-looking set of stairs made of untreated two-by-fours leads to a sleeping loft overhead.
“They’re basically saying you can do your business here, but it can’t be that business,” he says, summarizing the gist of the notices he received last week from the L.A. Fire Department and the Department of Building and Safety, saying that he can no longer use his live/work space to host parties and other events. “And you can’t live here. So it’s basically shutting me down entirely.”
Cassel's two-story warehouse, which he calls Purple 33, is on a nondescript, industrial stretch of Jefferson Boulevard in Del Rey, at the western edge of Culver City. It's one of hundreds of underground artists spaces throughout Los Angeles that lack the necessary permits to serve either as housing or music venues but perform both functions anyway. And less than two weeks after a deadly fire at one such space, the Ghost Ship in Oakland, which killed 36 people, it appears that the city of Los Angeles has begun methodically shutting them down here.
“In the wake of the tragedy in Oakland, I think it’s especially important that we be vigilant,” city attorney Mike Feuer told the L.A. Times last Wednesday. Just one day later, an eight-member team of fire inspectors pulled up outside Purple 33 in an LAFD truck and began scouring Cassel's space for safety and code violations. Cassel says he's heard of several other venues that also have been forced to shut down over the past week, though he declines to name names.
From the city's perspective, it's obvious why spaces like Purple 33 are problematic. They occupy buildings that are zoned for commercial or industrial use, not for residences or large gatherings. When they lack the necessary amenities of a home or event space, occupants add them, typically without permits: kitchens, bathrooms, sleeping lofts, bars, sound systems. Artists are a resourceful bunch, and no one knowingly wants to live or host friends in a dangerous space, so it's likely that most such additions are done safely — but since they exist outside the normal permitting and inspection process, it's impossible to be certain.
Changing how a building is zoned can be done, but it's an expensive, time-consuming process that few in the underground arts scene have the resources to tackle. Cassel learned this firsthand in 2011, when he applied for a nightclub permit to turn his previous underground space, Area 33 — just around the corner from Purple 33 — into a legit venue. But the Del Rey Neighborhood Council opposed him at every turn, and a few months after being denied the permit, he was forced to close Area 33 for good. (Full disclosure: Although I had never previously met Cassel, I attended several events at Area 33 and know many people who have organized events at both of Cassel's spaces.)
“I had all my life savings into that process,” says Cassel, who claims he spent more than $70,000 on permit applications, fees and other expenses associated with the effort. “And they just ruined me. They didn’t give me all my money back.”
After that negative experience, when Cassel opened Purple 33 a few years later, he decided to keep it underground, despite being fully aware of the risk he was undertaking. “There’s a live/work permit you’re supposed to get,” he acknowledges. “But it’s so frightening to go to these people, because they’ll take your money and just say no.”
Cassel, who describes himself as an inventor and businessman (during a long career in action sports, he co-founded several companies, including the skateboarding brands Grind King and Termite), argues that the permitting process for spaces like his needs to be streamlined, so they can be allowed to operate legally. Forcing unconventional venues and artists spaces to operate outside the law, he says, only makes them more dangerous and potentially sets the stage for another Ghost Ship. “We need to feel safe to be able to interact with the police department, fire department, Building and Safety. There needs to be a bridge.”
His landlord, David Coons, who runs an art-scanning studio on the first floor of the same building, agrees. “We’d like to see a clear and straightforward path toward moving facilities like this into a live/work-zoned environment, permitted and everything,” he says. Coons says he fully supports his tenant, even after last week's citations from the fire inspector. “I like Donald’s ideas. I like what he’s trying to accomplish here.”
There's no such thing as a typical underground (or “DIY,” as they're sometimes called) artists event space. They cater to different scenes and communities, though those communities frequently overlap. Some host electronic dance music; others punk and metal shows; still others large-scale art installations or gallery-style art shows. Their audiences are often diverse and include a mix of races, gender identities and socioeconomic backgrounds. The crowds are typically young, but not always; Cassel says his regulars included people in their 60s and 70s from all walks of life, including tech entrepreneurs from nearby Silicon Beach and even the occasional off-duty cop.
Purple 33's primary audience was the so-called “Burner” community — frequent attendees of the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada. Danielle White, a DJ and promoter active in the Burner scene who goes by divaDanielle, organized three fundraiser parties at Purple 33 for her Burning Man theme camp and says it's one of the few underground spaces in town at which she felt comfortable hosting events.
“The majority of my events I always do in clubs, specifically because there are so many things I don’t have to worry about,” White says. But she felt Purple 33 was always well-organized, professionally run and respectful of its neighbors. “They always had people outside monitoring the sound,” she says, adding with a laugh, “though as a DJ that can get annoying because you always want to play loud.” (Disclosure: White and I have been friends through the Burning Man community for more than 10 years.)
Besides Burner parties, Purple 33 hosted art shows, comedy nights, film screenings and other events. To keep a low profile, Cassel ran it as a private members club, requiring attendees to RSVP in advance and avoiding financial transactions at the door. Guests entered through the alley in back, where Cassel built a ground-floor patio space and a long staircase enclosed in a bamboo arch, leading up to the main event space on the second floor.
A spokesman for the fire department, Peter Sanders, confirming via email that Purple 33 had been ordered to shut down, described the building as an “un-permitted nightclub space,” adding, “Our inspector found violations throughout the building, including an illegally constructed bar, dance floor and DJ booth, as well as illegal wiring throughout, in addition to multiple living spaces that did not have permits.”
Cassel does not claim he had permits for any of the things for which he was cited, though he insists that even before the wakeup call of the Ghost Ship fire happened, he had been getting his electrical up to code and making other safety improvements. But he takes issue with describing Purple 33 as a “nightclub,” and says this designation is one of the major reasons why many underground venues are forced to operate outside of existing zoning laws.
“I know the permitting process and what they do — what they have to do — is they have these boxes that they put you in,” he explains. “In other words, if I’m trying right now to make this a legal space, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh so you want to do a nightclub?’ And it’s like, ‘No, not really.’ But there’s a box for it.”
The distinction is not merely semantic. Purple 33 and spaces like it bear little resemblance to the bottle-service clubs of Hollywood. If anything, they specifically offer an alternative space for fans of dance music who find more mainstream clubs — with their EDM soundtracks and packs of dudes trolling the dance floor for hookups — cheesy, unwelcoming or even unsafe. Nor do they align with what most outsiders might think of as a “rave” — the crowd tends to be older, the music darker and more experimental, the vibe less druggy.
“I'm trying to set a precedent so others can follow and it won't be this underground stuff all over town.” —Donald Cassel
Amanda Brown, owner of L.A. electronic music label 100% Silk, whose artists were performing at the Ghost Ship the night of the fire (and two of whom, Cherushii and Nackt, were killed), attempted to explain such underground dance events to L.A. Weekly immediately following the tragedy. “It’s a really hard thing to describe to people who don’t quite understand that this is not ’90s rave culture,” she said. “These people are not trying to get somewhere where they can do illegal drugs and party all night. These are not these, you know, ragers.”
Cassel preferred to describe Purple 33 as a “private culture community space.” But for now, in the city's eyes, no such designation exists.
In spite of everything, Cassel says he intends to find a new space and start over. “I want to do it again. I’m not a quitter. I’m willing to do it again and show, hopefully, that it can be done.” He also hopes to organize a group that can lobby City Hall to change the existing zoning laws, making it easier for live/work/event spaces like Purple 33 to exist legally. “I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m trying to make it so we can set a precedent so others can follow and it won’t be this underground stuff all over town.”
Meanwhile, it's already becoming clear that Purple 33 was just the first underground artists space of many that will be forced out of existence in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy. Cassel says he's heard of several other venues that have been shut down (“in the Arts District, they’re going warehouse to warehouse”), and L.A. Weekly has been receiving tips of multiple unpermitted loft and warehouse closures as well, though none could be verified before this article was published.
Though Cassel is sympathetic to the city's efforts — “Some of these spaces should be shut down,” he says — he hopes the fire department and Building and Safety inspectors won't rush to close every space for minor infractions. Such an all-encompassing sweep, he says, could decimate L.A.'s arts community and only serve to drive those venues determined to continue operating even further underground, into spaces that are more makeshift and potentially far more dangerous. The very fact that so many spaces like Purple 33 exist, he says, is evidence that shutdowns alone won't prevent another Ghost Ship.
“The reason there’s so many is that there’s a need for it,” he says. “People across the country want to have a space to go that is not a bar, not a club, not a church and not some hotel banquet room. They want to have a creative space.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this article featured an incorrect caption on the fourth photo. We regret the error.]