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Creating and ending a show space on your own terms / by Liz Pelly

Last weekend, I moved out of Boston, but more significantly, I moved out of Dreamhaus, a third-floor apartment in Allston where I’d been throwing living room shows and hosting meetings, workshops, and other sorts of happenings with my roommates and friends for two years. On my most recent count, our three-bedroom place was home to twelve different roommates, not including the countless traveling bands, tired show attendees, and curious wanderers who often fell asleep here. Over the course of two years, our tiny home became a makeshift meeting place for various collectives and classes. Last summer, Permanent Wave Boston held discussions on intersectionality & DIY on the living room floor. In the winter, Chris Lee used the kitchen table to teach a Corvid College course on “theories of astrology.” Faye and I sat at that table on April 30th until midnight, when we hit “publish” on the first issue of The Media. The place was essentially a hostel for touring bands; I made a lot of new friends at my kitchen table between the hours of 3AM and 10AM. But most importantly, our living room was frequently used as a venue where our roommates and friends could book shows on our own terms, free of the age restrictions and expensive room costs of traditional venues, where no one was turned away for lack of funds. We probably hosted about 50 shows over two years, and the experience was mind-bending.

Anyone can start a space like Dreamhaus, but not everyone realizes they can. There wasn’t anything about our apartment that made it a particularly apt location for a makeshift community center. It was very small. It was surrounded by neighbors. By most “normal” standards, this project made no sense at all. But that’s what is really cool about opening up to these sorts of possibilities: you start to realize your own potential to subvert normalized realities, and deconstruct what we’re socially conditioned to understand as a private space’s purpose. Dreamhaus showed us that even the most unassuming space could be collectively transformed into its own little world. We all learned from it. I’m a different person because of it.

Dreamhaus wasn’t my introduction to house shows. And we certainly were not the only space like this in Boston. Boston is full of house show spaces, and for anyone who cares about underground art and grassroots ethics, they are a vital aspect of what makes this a desirable place to live. Years earlier, while studying at B.U. and being psychically suffocated by the boredom of college life, my entire experience of living in Boston was basically renewed when I discovered places like the Whitehaus and the Butchershoppe in 2009. I can recall with vivid details the first time I saw Quilt play in Allston basement, being very mesmerized by their music and more generally by this entire creative world of DIY-minded folks that I had no clue existed in Boston.

House show spaces come and go. The Whitehaus and the Butchershoppe rarely host shows anymore, and now Dreamhaus is over too. We made it through two years, but it is really questionable whether we would have survived another year if we stuck around anyway. This year was particularly weird for organizers of house shows in Boston. Apparently it happens every few years, but long-running spaces have been getting shut down left and right by police. Last fall, after attending a public hearing about the changing noise ordinance laws that were rumored to be driving the “crack down,” I penned a piece for The Phoenix titled “Why Boston needs house shows: re-thinking noise ordinances, fostering sustainable music spaces, creating community.” “In a city like Boston, where viable above-ground music venue options are slim, houses are often the only option for young artists,” I wrote.

Things got even weirder in April, when a lengthy feature on unveiled a phenomenon in Boston, where police officers were disguising themselves on the Internet, posing on Gmail and Facebook as fans of underground music in order to find addresses of local house shows. “What’s the address for tonight’s show? Love DIY concerts,” wrote one cop under the name “Joe Sly” with an avatar reading “Boston Punk Zombie.” In the piece, one local house show booker recalled a night where police showed up hours before the first set, bragging about their fake Facebook profiles where they learn addresses for house shows. It was most definitely the biggest “WHAT THE FVCK” moment the DIY community here has experienced in the past few years. It changed the way we hosted shows at our house; we barely ever gave the address away to strangers online. And being super weary of online promotion meant we couldn’t always be as open and accessible of a place as we’d hoped to be.

Even this summer, the city’s oppressive behavior towards the local DIY community continued, as Allston DIY Fest – an annual attempt to take the energy of the local house show scene and create something more sustainable for just one day -- faced unbelievable obstacles in order to use a public park for just one afternoon. The festival eventually happened (see our interview with organizer Kelly Baker in issue 18), but not without the organizers putting pressure on the Parks department. Had it been a different summer with a different group of less impassioned and experienced organizers, the fest surely wouldn’t have happened.

When a city is being so proactively oppressive (the noise ordinances, the cops on Facebook, trying to deny DIY fest permits) it raises some serious questions about whether Boston is a place where young artists have any fighting chance trying to make things better in a sustainable way. Can you really blame the people who leave? Sometimes the harsh energy coming from the city only provides all the more reason to want to keep doing house shows. But other times it feels like Boston is just pushing you away.

To create a space like Dreamhaus, open it up to strangers, host dozens of shows, go to funny extents to keep the cops away and the neighbors happy, watch new roommates come and go, see a community form around it, and then take it all apart, is a strange and emotional experience. Two weeks ago, we took the posters down off the walls, sold off all of our furniture, boxed up the tapes left behind by touring bands, and donated an entire Uhaul full of stuff to Boomerangs. As I carried garbage bags of trash down the three flights of stairs on the morning of September 1, I started to replay the events of two years in my head like a flipbook, passing through living rooms full of music, strangers turning into friends, roommates coming and going. If we learned anything from Dreamhaus, we learned how inspiring it can feel to take the most unassuming space and turn it into something magical; to act and create on your own terms, especially amid a city that so oppressively doesn’t want you to. It’s felt bittersweet to end it on our own terms, too.

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