Arts Desk

Subterranean Punk-House Blues

Photo Slideshow: Subterranean A's Final Show

Subterranean A

D.C. punk houses haven’t changed much. They’re still filthy. They’re still rife with well-intentioned but unrealized projects, like unturned compost piles and half-finished rain barrels. They still have damp sofas encircled by splintered drumsticks, Xeroxed show flyers, and earthenware mugs ringed with green-tea residue. Often, a hapless chore wheel clings to the refrigerator, neglected by roommates who “don’t believe in that shit.” On the weekends, bands play there. Sometimes, they’re good.

D.C. punk houses haven’t changed much, but their addresses have. Perpetually on the fringes of gentrification, these crusty, beaten-up habitats, refuges for the young and underemployed, have migrated north to Petworth (Paperhaus) and 16th Street Heights (Dollhouse), and east toward Shaw (R.I.P., The Cherch!) and H Street NE (welcome to the neighborhood, Dead Kennedy Center!).

Then there’s Subterranean A, which held its final show last Saturday, capping one of the unlikeliest stories in the history of D.C. punk houses. When George Washington University students Adam Friedland, 25, and Phil Cohen, 23, were looking for housing in the fall of 2009, they stumbled upon a gigantic basement unit in the R Street Apartments, a string of five buildings on the south side of the 1400 block of R Street NW. A sign outside the basement said “Subterranean A.”

The R Street Apartments provide affordable housing in one of D.C.’s most rapidly gentrifying corridors. There’s an income cap to live there—one-person households must bring in less than $45,000 a year—and many residents hold vouchers from the D.C. Housing Authority. R Street Apartments underwent an $8 million renovation and reopened in 2009, introducing six market-rate units, including Subterranean A, that go for around $1,800 a month. Yet the block has been a magnet for violent crime: Three gay men were brutally assaulted there in 2010; in November 2011, a man was shot there in broad daylight. It’s gotten quieter since then. Security guards, hired by the apartments’ management, now patrol the block certain hours of the day, chit-chatting with residents and waving away loiterers.

Friedland and Cohen didn’t set out to open a DIY venue. After living in the basement for six months, they heard that one of their favorite musicians, Radical Face, was looking to book shows at unconventional spaces. They thought their space could work. They contacted him, and by March 2010, the conceptual glitch-folk artist from Jacksonville, Fla., was playing in their living room. They couldn’t have anticipated the kind of crowd that showed up. “This was kind of a subculture that no one really knew existed,” says Friedland. “There were people that came from Pittsburgh, people that came from South Carolina, North Carolina—” “11-year-old Mormons!” Cohen interjects. They decided to roll with it and keep putting on events. Within a year and a half, the moldy, cacophonous basement had begun to fill a niche that no traditional venue in D.C. could. Beholden to no one, and with no interest in profit, the kids at Sub A could book whatever they wanted, handing 100 percent of the proceeds to the artists. For a year or two—a lifetime for a punk house—Subterranean A was D.C.’s best-curated independent venue.

Subterranean A doesn’t look like any other DIY space in D.C. It’s more like an arena. A sunken floor, which doubles as the concert room, swallows up half the apartment. Concertgoers crowd around a wall that surrounds the dropped floor, peering down like tourists at the manta-ray exhibit at the National Aquarium. There are no bedrooms, just open space, out of which a few generations of roommates have carved makeshift sleeping quarters.

When Ben O’Brien first visited Sub A with his Baltimore-based Wham City comedy tour, he was struck by how straightlaced the kids were. Although former resident Sami Yenigun is a DJ and Friedland is a comedian, the venue’s minders were hardly culture warriors. “If you were to imagine what a DIY space in the city of D.C. would be like, it’s almost kind of a caricature of that. It’s run by all these really well-mannered, politically conscious, really nice, responsible people.” But the space’s impromptu spirit reminded him of punk houses he’d seen elsewhere. “It still had that similar kind of transience, that similar kind of youthful like, ‘Oh, I’ll just set up a sheet and that’ll be my room.’”

By summer 2011, Subterranean A had become the go-to venue for Underwater Peoples, a buzzy, New Jersey-based record label run by four other George Washington alums. Through their friendship with Underwater Peoples, Subterranean A nabbed a show by Tennis in August 2010, right around the time the band was “cresting on the Internet,” says Friedland. It was their biggest show thus far. “It launched us into a whole new league of OK, now this a DIY space,” says Yenigun, 23. After the Tennis show, more Underwater Peoples bands followed: Julian Lynch, La Big Vic, Alex Bleeker and The Freaks.

Subterranean A was willing to book stuff that no one else could, or wanted to. “Basically we got shut out everywhere else. Every single other venue in D.C. pretty much just turned us down,” says Darcy James Argue, leader of Secret Society, an 18-piece jazz ensemble from New York that played the venue on Jan. 5, 2011. Secret Society had just played a show at Millennium Stage—what club would want to book a band the same night it played a free show at the Kennedy Center?—and they didn’t really fit in at D.C.’s traditional jazz venues.

“The Darcy James show was significant because we sat down—Phil, Sami, and I sat down at that moment and we were like, ‘All right, instead of having the same kind of show, let’s challenge ourselves to do different things, to never repeat the same things,” says Friedland. When the New York Times ran a December 2010 profile of Adam Schatz, whose organization Search and Restore brought Secret Society to Sub A, the piece mentioned the space by name. That’s a fact that still draws a smile across Friedland’s face. Argue estimates that 100 people packed into the apartment that night.

By the time Subterranean A held its final party last week, with the Underwater Peoples band Family Portrait and comedian James Adomian, it had put on almost 30 shows in two and a half years. “We pulled a lot of stuff off that we shouldn’t have been able to pull off,” says Friedland. “We were very lucky. But we’re mindful of the fact that we got lucky.”

For the first year it was open, Subterranean A drew few visits from the Metropolitan Police Department. Eventually, that began to change.

Friedland and Cohen were always wary of retaliation—from neighbors or the management company (first NDC Real Estate Management, now Edgewood Management Corporation). “There was a set routine before every show,” says Cohen. “Adam would be like, ‘Yo, the Facebook account, there’s 120 people coming. We’ve gotta shut down, we’ve gotta stop advertising. There’s too many people.”

Jerome Swain, 56, has lived in the R Street Apartments for seven years. He lives directly above Subterranean A, and he’s been one of the venue’s most ardent supporters. “I’ve been to every one of their shows but one or two,” he says. “Because it’s enjoyable.” But Swain—brother of former D.C. Taxicab Commission Chair and FBI informant Leon Swain Jr.—acknowledges that other neighbors didn’t always feel the same way.

A December 2011 show with hazy electronic acts Volta Bureau, Beautiful Swimmers, and Protect-U was shut down, scattering attendees into the street like spooked teenagers. “We were ending like our third song, and the PA went sort of quiet, and everybody was like ‘Oh, the cops are here!’” says Will Eastman, a co-owner of U Street Music Hall and one-third of Volta Bureau. “It was literally like a house party you have when you’re 16 and your parents are out of town.” Sensing that they were testing the limits of their neighbors’ goodwill, the roommates began booking earlier, quieter shows.

Yenigun and his friends suspect changing demographics in the building spelled the demise of live events at Subterranean A. “Gentrification is really what shut it down,” says Yenigun, though he admits he and his ex-roommates are gentrifiers themselves. But with an income cap that still prevents high earners from living in the apartments, that explanation doesn’t make much sense. It could just be that low- to middle-income people hate noise, too.

James Bowers, the apartments’ community manager, has received a couple of complaints from neighbors about Subterranean A. But he points out that D.C. law prevents him from doing much about it. “Unless I can physically prove that this was there and I have people that are willing to go to court for it,” the most he can do is serve them a 30-day cure or quit notice. “If they don’t violate that...it’s over and done with. Then I have to wait for something else to happen...Noise is an issue where you’re not going to get anybody out of their apartment for it.”

Irate neighbors notwithstanding, life at Subterranean A came with an expiration date. “Oh man, I wanted a bedroom,” says Yenigun, who left in September 2011, one year after he moved in. “I was ready to have some privacy and have a grown-up space to live. Also, my bed was right under a pipe which would burst, like, every three months or something.” Cohen moved out to live with his girlfriend. Friedland, with new opportunities in New York, plans to move out in mid-July. After that, they’re not sure what will happen to their old place. But they believe that while they were there, they made a positive impact. That might be true, for at least one resident.

Swain found out about Subterranean A through his stepson, Edward, who used to live with him at 1432. “They were doing some music for him,” he says, referring to Yenigun and former resident Eric Tilden. “He does poetry...and [he] invited me down and introduced me to them because they were really clicking.” Then Edward received word that he had a child in North Carolina, and he moved down there to take care of his kid. According to Swain, his stepson now lives in California with his family. “I think we started hanging out with Jerome more and more after Ed left,” says Yenigun. “We’d both lost a good friend, I guess.”

Since then, Swain has been a fixture at Sub A. “I think they do good for the neighborhood, myself,” says Swain. “They save me from keep going out on Saturdays. I’d probably go out to Southeast, go out to Maryland, you know, spend my money way out somewhere. But you go down here and just enjoy the music.”

“I’m sorry they’re moving out,” he says. “I’m sorry they’re leaving.”

Flickr gallery: The many faces of Subterranean A
Listen: A Subterranean A playlist
Watch: Videos of Subterranean A shows on Vimeo and YouTube

Slideshow photos by Darrow Montgomery

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