An Elegy for Charm City Art Space

Jes Skolnik

Charm City Art Space flyers

All photos by and courtesy of Jen Twigg.

Tonight will be the 1,738th—and last—show at 1731 Maryland Ave., Baltimore, MD. The little house with the garage, zine library up top and show space below, has been Charm City Art Space (otherwise known as CCAS, or the Space) since the summer of 2002. From the signage that appeared overnight stating the landlord’s intent for a zoning permit, the intention is for the first floor to become a tattoo studio.

The Space had been planning to close temporarily for necessary repairs, but the signage was the first the collective of unpaid volunteers who run it had heard of a tattoo studio moving in or even their lease ending. This kind of sudden displacement is hardly shocking in this moment where the “back to the city” movement (known to some as “white infill”) is trendier than ever, but its inevitability makes it no less difficult an occasion. Mike Riley (of Pulling Teeth and many other bands), who founded CCAS with his longtime friend Mike Wolf (formerly of Pressgang), reflects: “After 13 years, I just kind of expected that [CCAS] would last forever in that location. However, neighborhoods change, “revitalization” makes them more prominent, warehouses that once housed grain mills and steel factories turn into over-priced luxury condos, and fancy restaurants move into former DIY venues which were former wig shops. It was probably naive of me to think it would last forever.”

A further collection of flyers from CCAS shows.

A further collection of flyers from CCAS shows.

After a discussion with Riley at a warehouse show about the lack of spaces for shows in the city that weren’t large (and also residential) or bars, and subsequent discussions about what else the space could be besides “just” a show space (a community meeting space, a zine library), Wolf found the listing for the space that would become CCAS in the Baltimore City Paper classifieds for less than $500/month. Riley describes the space at first sight: “The shop had a basement with a back room full of junk, a small bathroom, and a main area separated by some makeshift walls that looked someone had been living in. The closest neighbor was a garage next door that specialized in car audio systems that was almost never open and a grumpy old man that lived in the apartment two floors up from the basement—who it turned out had his own little marijuana growing operation happening in his bathroom, which was why he was as keen as we were on keeping the cops away, insisting that any loud music had to cease by 10pm.” Wolf and Riley decided immediately the space would work, plunked down one month’s rent for the security deposit out of their own savings, and set to finding a crew of friends and compatriots who would be interested in collectively running the space with them.

Fancy restaurants move into former DIY venues which were former wig shops. It was probably naive of me to think it would last forever.

I was one of those friends, and I remember the very first meeting well. A group of familiar faces inquisitively explored the space—the peeling paint, the wood-paneled basement and the concrete storage area, the egregious plumbing—and decided we were in. Over the next weeks, we painted, installed shelving, and tried to fix that goddamned plumbing. We drafted a “manifesto”—a commitment to the space being all-ages (and thus drug- and alcohol-free), collectively run (with a membership plan to pay the rent together, similar to the Gilman model) and as open and welcoming to all as possible. Riley’s band at the time, Looks Like Rain, played the first show. “Despite all of these efforts to create something sustainable and well-organized,” Riley says, “we never really expected it would last beyond that first summer.”

The author performs with their band Fatal Flaw in CCAS' first year.

The author performs with their band Fatal Flaw in CCAS’ first year.

Jen Twigg (of The Ambulars) remembers shows in the early days: “Some shows had three paying attendees, and we sat on the floor; sometimes the basement was so packed that I’d have to stand in the back room behind the stairs where bands would store their equipment and stare at the wall, just listening.” Twigg was under 21 when the Space launched, and its commitment to all-ages shows made all the difference to her. “I always knew I could see bands at CCAS, that it wouldn’t cost a ton, and that there would be a place for me there no matter what. Through all the changes in my life in Maryland, CCAS stayed open and I had access to so many different kinds of bands and ideas and people that it’s impossible to quantify; its presence definitely affected me, especially once I was in my own band.”

Twigg remembers that even the packed shows at CCAS could be “intimate and vulnerable,” and its community focus made it a must-play stop for a pretty wide variety of bands under varying sub-genre umbrellas. Billy Werner, who now makes cerebral techno as M/R, remembers that his former band Hot Cross always made sure to book a show at CCAS on their way to or from their home base in Philadelphia. “Bands know that the earliest and latest shows of a tour are inherently stressful and sometimes even frightening,” he says. “CCAS was a joy because we knew we would encounter a room full of friendly faces, good local bands and a killer atmosphere. Not to mention the interesting dive bar around the corner.” (That bar, a bear bar, published their own zine called Daddy, the full run of which they kindly donated to CCAS’ zine library. They also always let us use their bathroom when that plumbing started acting up. They were great.)

The Ambulars at CCAS.

The Ambulars at CCAS.

One of the reasons that CCAS persisted was that there were always people who wanted to be involved—though the collective frequently rotated (I stopped booking shows there in 2004, not long before I moved to Chicago), there was enough interest, spirit and commitment to stabilize the Space—though Riley’s constant presence can’t be discounted. “There was a period of a few years when I felt like I carried the whole thing on my back,” he says. “I managed the events calendar, played the role of treasurer, was the unofficial media liaison, maintained the website, booked my own events, and often ran sound for others. Despite having plenty of members able and willing to take a greater role in maintaining the Space, I felt that if I wasn’t doing almost everything, it would all fall apart.” After his daughter was born in 2012, two years after the Space moved its show area from the original basement to the larger garage next door, Riley finally began transitioning out of his role at CCAS—metaphorical paternal role to real. Their ten-year anniversary weekend of shows was his farewell, and his parting words were “Don’t burn the place down.”

Though CCAS was built to be a positive, welcome and open space for all, aware of systemic barriers to participation in DIY with counters written into its design, in 2009, it had to reckon with an accountability issue regarding allegations of abuse and violations of consent leveled by one member against another. The situation was not handled well initially, as few collective members had experience or training in these types of situations. As someone with a history of work in this area and as a former collective member, I flew back to Baltimore on my own dime to do a survivor support/small-scale community accountability workshop as part of the collective’s attempt to right things. Twigg, who was one of many who found this incident factors into her opinion of CCAS, reflects on the lessons learned: “The collective at that time clearly wanted to be fair and do the right thing in their minds, but they had absolutely no experience in how to handle supporting survivors or creating accountability processes, and they thought that fairness meant following the structures of the law to demand proof, assume innocence of their friend without this nebulous proof, etc. I know we’ve all said this a million times, but why so many punks hate cops/broken judicial structures until someone is called out for rape or abuse, I will never understand. Though the collective had plenty of time of private deliberation to reach out for those resources before the situation exploded publicly, they did not do so; if they had, maybe things would have been different.”

“It’s hard to say,” she continues, “since we are still trying to figure out the best ways to deal with shit like this in all of our communities—for me, it’s Philadelphia now—to this day: how to hold people accountable effectively, how to keep spaces as safe as possible and support survivors, how to deal with punks in positions of influence who don’t care about those things … I feel like the punk communities I’ve been a part of have come so far since I started going to shows in terms of listening to survivors and trying to be better about these things, so my grizzled old hope still runs fairly deep.” Mine does, too. It’s clear that CCAS, flaws and all, was an important space, one that the current members are fighting to preserve in spirit at another location.

Current member Chris Belkas says, of plans for the future, “I am very hopeful that we can continue what we were doing at CCAS in the future. There are a lot of younger [and] newer members involved right now, and I think that moving will allow us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and bring in additional perspectives. There’s a lot of chaos, frustration, and dirt involved in what we do, but anyone who has been involved will hopefully agree how fucking important and rewarding it can be to have the opportunity to be involved in something completely voluntary that brings together many perspectives and lifestyles just for the sake of DIY music and art.” While Baltimore wrestles with its racial history and reality – often in terms of who gets the resources to make art and who’s labeled “DIY”—it’s also losing important music spaces like CCAS and The Paradox, the incredible dance club that birthed and cradled Baltimore Club. It’s crucial to the vitality, creativity and community of smaller music scenes to keep the spirits of these places alive.

Some shows at CCAS, like this absurd and wonderful Dead Vice Prez show, allowed for free creative reign.

Some shows at CCAS, like this absurd and wonderful Dead Vice Prez show, allowed for free creative reign.

Riley adds, “What will have much greater impact than any physical location is what I’ve [heard] from dozens of people over the last week who have been involved with the space over the years. Stories of people who learned how to be responsible for something because they booked their first shows at CCAS; of people who felt empowered because they became a part of this thing that they had as much say in as everybody else; of people who met their spouse at CCAS and the families that have blossomed out of there; and of people who learned from their failures and the failures of the group.” Though the fight may seem interminable and uphill, as I wrote earlier this year of a collective attempt I’m involved in to start a stable DIY all-ages space in Chicago, the real lives that CCAS and spaces like it have changed, the impact that having access to live music made by your peers regardless of age can have on creativity and quality of life, the value of sober spaces in a nightlife world that often relies too heavily on Getting Fucked Up: these things are worth the energy and the frustration a thousand times over.

As Werner says, “RIP CCAS! Viva CCAS!”

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