Fridge Burn: How New Agers Got a Capitol Hill Art Space in Trouble with its Neighbors
The Fridge was never going to be an easy fit for Barracks Row. The art gallery-cum-classroom-cum-performance space opened in an alley off of 8th Street SE in September 2009, and immediately caused minor, NIMBYish ripples in its the well-heeled Capitol Hill neighborhood. Over the last year the outre-minded space has mostly enjoyed a tentative peace with its neighbors.
But when the Fridge had to scale back its ambitions last month, kow-towing to neighbors registering noise complaints, it didn’t involve the usual suspects—no scrappy devotees of street art, no mind-scraping experimental musicians. It happened in August, when, with Congress in recess and the summer quickly bleeding days, the neighborhood can feel like a ghost town.
The culprits? Noisy new agers.
There’d been rumblings earlier. Fridge owner Alex Goldstein says he began hearing some noise complaints about three months ago. Although the building has been sound-proofed, some noise occasionally escapes, “especially when there are drums,” he says.
But “August is kind of a dead month for us,” says Goldstein, 39, so he decided to turn over the space, which he originally conceived as solely an arts gallery but soon began regularly hosting music, over to the organizers of D.C.’s Gaia parties for three weekends. The dance nights blend house music, immersive, multimedia performances that can include light art and video and body paint, and an earthy, Eastern attitude. They’re blissed out events for people who can dance all night.
“There was apprehension among residents as [Goldstein] developed the spot,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg, of ANC 6B. “From the very beginning there was some concern about it.” But complaints about loitering and noise “really flared up” in August, she says. “There’s not much space within the building,” she says. “As a result, all these kids would spill out into the alley.”
Goldstein says that the complaints are “directly related” to the Gaia parties. “It’s not that people were loitering outside, but these events got done around 1 a.m. and people were kind of noisy as they left,” he says.
Except for the fact that the Fridge doesn’t have a liquor license, Nico Laget, the man behind Gaia, found the space “perfect,” although he was aware of neighborhood tensions. “I knew that this was a concern going in,” he says, “but I was mostly concerned about the volume of the music inside.”
Laget says that he spent most of his time inside the Fridge during Gaia’s seven-night residency, overseeing the events. When he did step out into the alley, “whatever I saw was rather tame,” he says. “Maybe people laughing, but no fights, no smoking strange substances, no drinking. If this is the worst behavior that we have to worry about, then I’d say D.C. is in pretty good shape.” He estimates that the largest crowd any of his seven events drew was 150, with about 100 people at any given point in the night. “We never had a line out the door,” he says.
“It’s a bit of a nuisance that they are surrounded by uncooperative neighbors,” Laget says, adding that it’s unfortunate that the complaints made their way to the ANC. “If you don’t like something, just call Alex,” he says.
As a result of neighborhood feedback about Gaia events, Goldstein has instituted an 11 p.m. curfew and cut back on concerts, which in the future will only be acoustic. Because of the restrictions, Jeff Surak, director of last week’s Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music, chose to relocate the festival’s two Fridge shows—which were certainly not acoustic-only—to the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring. “We just didn’t want to put them in jeopardy,” he says.
Goldstein emphasizes that the Fridge will still host musicians, but concerts will end earlier. Laget is even optimistic about working with the Fridge again. Two of the August Gaia events were Sunday matinees, which Laget hopes to revive “probably once per season,” he says. “Those events are extremely chill, so I think they will work perfectly with the Fridge.” Goldstein isn’t so sure. The collaboration was “kind of an experiment,” he says. “We decided to host them and see if it would work for us, and we determined that it didn’t.”
In August, Goldstein worked with the office of Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells to write a letter to Capitol Hill residents. “The gist of the letter was that we were sorry for disturbing them,” Goldstein says. But he emphasizes that it’s a small minority of neighbors who have complained about events at The Fridge. “The whole situation has been overblown,” he says. “Nine out of 10 people I talk to express love for what we do.”
The Fridge isn’t the only venue of its kind in Capitol Hill—just the only one to butt heads with neighbors. The Corner Store—an art gallery and performance space that operates in a renovated residence—is located a fifth of a mile away. Opened by Kris Swanson in 2002, the Corner Store “is not problematic at all,” says Oldenburg. The neighborhood concerns about the Fridge, the commissioner says, should not suggest any sort of avant-garde allergy, but are rather “about management.”
Goldstein, also a DJ and graphic designer who lives in the Fridge space, says he has a professional and personal investment in maintaining good relations with his neighbors. He plans to meet this week with the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District and with the Barracks Row residents group to work out any lingering concerns. As for whether Oldenburg and other ANC 6B commissioners will receive noise complaints about the Fridge in the future? “It’s not going to happen,” Goldstein says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery