Death of a Party: The Warehouse Loft Comes to an Ugly End
Any Detroit techno fan who showed up at the Warehouse Loft last Saturday night walked away disappointed. Up until two and a half weeks ago, the minimalist house producer Omar-S had been scheduled to spin at the unmarked venue at 411 New York Ave. NE—a space that opened four and a half years ago with an explosion of energy and shut down, late last month, with an even larger bang.
The Omar-S show ultimately went on, at a space in Adams Morgan. Events scheduled for the rest of the fall will have to find new homes, too: The Warehouse’s run as an occasionally fabled, off-the-grid locus for some of D.C.’s more progressive and/or blissed out party cultures—ravers, burners, salseros, house fanatics, high-minded hip-hop heads, BDSMers—is over. In a city that’s not exactly abundant in venues for all-night, underground dance parties, the Warehouse—which gained notoriety thanks to high-profile DJ bookings like Dâm-Funk and Isolée—was more or less it. Now, it’s on to the next space.
Not that Warehouse owner Sammy Steward wants it that way. But following a shooting outside his venue early in the morning on Saturday, Sept. 29, Steward doesn’t have much of a choice. Later that day, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier shut the venue down for 96 hours. Steward had an Alcohol Beverage Control Board hearing on Wednesday to restore his liquor license, but it hardly mattered. He was getting ready to sign a new lease for the space; after the shooting, his landlord says Steward has to be out next month. "The rug has already been pulled out from under my feet," says Steward, "but now my floor’s been pulled away." (Because of the eviction, Steward chose not to argue to keep his license, although he had a good chance of succeeding.)
The party that began on the evening of Friday, Sept. 28—thrown by a young group of promoters called #CupSet—was somewhat unusual for the Warehouse. "I stretched out of my element," says Steward. Although the Warehouse has thrown hip-hop events on occasion, "I usually don’t do urban under 25. The wild-card factor is too much," Steward says. Still, #CupSet had helped throw an after-party for an A$AP Rocky concert earlier this year at Warehouse, and leading up to the Sept. 28 event, Steward says he spent two months screening the #CupSet crew, to whom he’d been introduced by one of the venue’s bartenders. "I’ll give you one shot," Steward says he told them, after going to #CupSet parties and talking to other venues that had hosted the group.
By 12:30 a.m. that night, the Warehouse Loft was "killing the numbers upstairs," Steward says, with about 350 people inside. Outside, the crowd was growing—Steward says there were around 400 people, while one of #CupSet’s organizers says there were even more—and becoming restless as people waited to enter the venue through the main entrance for the night, the building’s rear loading dock.
According to Steward, a group of about 75 or 100 people tried to bum-rush the loading dock, an account that matches the version of events that an Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration report says one of the Warehouse’s eight security personnel shared with D.C. liquor inspectors that night. Security lowered the door of the loading dock to wait for the crowd to settle down. Between eight and 15 minutes later, according to the ABRA report, security stationed in the loading dock heard gunshots somewhere on the other side. According to MPD, the individual who called in the incident reported hearing six to 10 gunshots.
A fight had broken out next to the venue, Steward says. Someone, for some reason or perhaps none at all, had shot Tyrone Williams in the back.
Lying in the hospital, Williams later told an ABRA investigator he had heard about the party through a friend. The 23-year-old, who lives in Garfield Heights, was attempting to enter through the loading dock when, he said, he heard someone say, "Get back or I’ll tase you." (Steward disputes this detail.) Williams heard the sound of a taser, he said, and witnessed the crowd pulse backward. He heard someone say the side door was open. Outside, Williams told ABRA, he saw a male security guard standing in the open side door and then closing it. A portion of the crowd had massed around the entrance, Williams said, a fight broke out, and soon he was on the ground.
He told the investigator he had no idea who shot him.
Neither the Warehouse Loft nor #CupSet are obvious magnets for violence.
Steward, 42, is initially cagey about discussing the Warehouse’s demise, but otherwise he gives off mostly good vibes. He was in a cover story in Washington City Paper 17 years ago about a group of young, black D.C. chefs. Since then, he’s had a varied career as a photographer, filmmaker, home inspector and remodeler—and finally venue owner.
The Warehouse occupies most of the third floor of a four-story building on the barren-looking industrial stretch of New York Avenue that slides between Eckington and Trinidad. Other tenants include a co-op of about a dozen artists; a dance company that sublets Warehouse (and, following the violence, has now left); two churches; a woodwork shop; and a sign and printing shop, General Imaging, run by Gail Harris, the building’s owner. In the 1990s, Steward began renting one of the artist spaces; in 2008, when the massive third-floor space became available, he took it over.
Steward grew up on Kennedy Street NW, spent some of his college years here, and came of age in the 1990s, an era where the only people you saw downtown at night were "skater kids and dance kids—punks and crunks," he says. By the 2000s, however, that old, weird D.C. was fading—and after a decade of going out every night, Steward had gotten bored.
The Warehouse helped alleviate that. One weekend in March 2008, he and D.C. DJ Adrian Loving planned a party with only a few days’ notice. Twelve DJs spun; 600 people came out, Steward says. "And this is pre-Twitter," he adds. (Twitter was founded in 2006, but fair enough.) "My place was created for people to lose their minds and dance."
Although most Warehouse parties were collaborations with other promoters, Steward imposed two rules: no sunglasses—"No one’s that cool. I want to see your eyes," he says—and no ties, "unless they’re part of your costume." The venue had a Facebook page but no website, and an email address Steward says he didn’t really check. "People have to find me."
After it was busted by ABRA in 2009 for operating without a liquor license, the Warehouse went legit, but the off-the-beaten-path aesthetic persisted. "Everyone I knew thought that would be perfect for [#CupSet]," says Mike Davis, 29, who’s promoted "open-format" parties combining hip-hop and electronic dance music at Warehouse and elsewhere for years, and who’s given the much-younger #CupSet promoters a hand.
"You got people listening to Gucci Mane and people listening to Diplo," says #CupSet mastermind Sean Martae, 21, of his party’s demographic. “Lots of kids from College Park, Howard,” but also partiers in their late 20s, too. A photographer hoping to push an alt-minded, fashion- and art-forward, dance-literate hip-hop subculture, Martae (real name: Sean Williams) started #CupSet at the end of 2011. His group has put on events at a few clubs, as well as well-attended, whipped cream–filled parties at the Seafarer’s Yacht Club this summer. The vibe is meant to be uplifting, the music slightly off-kilter.
Though the violence of Sept. 29 was senseless, one of its sparks—the evening’s unexpectedly large turnout—offers a clear lesson: #CupSet, with its appeal to a mostly black, mostly young scenester demo, has fulfilled a previously underserved local niche. Martae says that other than a video and a few posts on Tumblr, the party was promoted by word of mouth—but he had no idea he would bring out the crowd he did.
So how’d things go so wrong?
"Well, 2,000 people came out," Martae says.
Both Martae and Steward were inside the Warehouse when the shooting occurred, and they were there when MPD showed up in force, followed by ABRA. Neither knows who was involved in the violence. "People don’t want this to end," Martae says of #CupSet’s future. There’s no danger of that happening. Last week on Instagram, #CupSet put out a call for interns.
For Steward, the end of the Warehouse is devastating. He says he watched security-camera footage of the shooting. "I couldn’t even fathom that," he says. "It’s a love fest over here."
Still, Steward’s run into trouble before. He’s being sued by a patron, Steven Banovac, who claims he was beat up by an unnamed security guard at the Warehouse in June 2011. Harris and the security company that employed the guard are also being sued by Banovac. Steward describes the incident as a "totally stupid misunderstanding" between the two men, and says he deplores violence.
But Harris says there are other reasons she won’t renew Steward’s lease. She says Steward is chronically late with rent—Steward doesn’t deny that, but says he still pays every month, including late fees—and has failed to insure the venue. Steward says he’s had several policies over the years and is currently insured; he says he was not insured at the time of the June 2011 incident, but the security company he used was.
"I think Sammy’s outgrown the building," says Harris. "He needs more space where he has better security. I wish him well. I think he’s a great guy." Harris says she hopes to lease the Warehouse space to more artists.
Harris isn’t the only party who wants the Warehouse gone: On Sept. 29, Lanier sent a letter to ABRA requesting that the agency permanently revoke the venue’s liquor license. "I find that continued operation of this establishment presents an imminent danger to the public," the police chief wrote. An MPD spokesman says there have been no arrests in the shooting.
Steward, for his part, feels pretty burned. As far as he’s concerned, the shooting was the Warehouse’s first real blemish. "I’ve given you a lot of money for a lot of years," he says of Harris. "Kicking me out while I’m down is just wrong." He says because he caters to open-minded, DIY subcultures, the Warehouse "is important to the city."
But he’ll move on, because he has to. He hopes to open a new, better venue. "Not better polished," Steward says. "But better organized."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
The case report on the Sept. 29 shooting by D.C.'s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration