The Story of THE LOFT
I found the Loft on a craigslist ad back in 2004. At the time I was looking for apartments but somehow I stumbled upon the post. I don’t remember the specifics but the description was brief, “Large, open artist space in warehouse, $600/month.” There was enough intrigue where I felt I had to at least go take a look.
Boris, a professional “kids comic” aka clown, was the building manager back then and he showed me the place. The outside was brick and surrounded on all four sides by some kind of activity. Market Basket was the zoo to the left, a loading dock was behind, and a garage/chop shop with mostly illegal Central American mechanics to the right, and in front was a semi-historic graveyard.
I walked down the hallway noticing the 20-foot ceilings, old creaky hardwood floors, and sheetrock that in many places they hadn’t even bothered to paint with the screws still visible. When I walked into Loft #4 I was immediately caught by the amount of open space and natural light the room held. The windows covered two sides of the room and were so large that you didn’t even need to put on the overhead lights during the daytime. The room was sparse and still dirty from the last tenant. There was an old grungy pink couch (still there) and some bad art abandoned by the sculpture that had just ended her lease. It was love at first sight.
My brain did a few calculations and the general math equation quickly became: do whatever you need to do to make this thing work. Who needs an apartment when you could have an awesome artist loft? Right? I could see the raw potential of the room. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do there yet, but I knew that the space was my key to something awesome.
I signed a “Tenant at will” lease which basically meant I had no rights and that I paid the rent each month or had to leave and that was that. Boris then showed me architectural plans for luxury condos. Yes, that’s right, the building owners hadn’t bought an old paper warehouse in Somerville for supporting local artists, they had bought it as an investment for more housing. However, the area was not zoned as residential, it was zoned as commercial and mixed use. It was a battle they would try to fight, but as of yet, have never won. But seeing those plans made me realize that my days there could be numbered, but as far as I was concerned, I would just enjoy the ride for as long as I could.
In the early days of my time in the building, I remember slowly getting to know the other tenants who were all artists or general weirdoes. Most of them I only knew by face, not name. There was a professional juggler, Peter Panic, who always wore green and literally identified himself as a modern day Peter Pan; I assume he related most to the part about never growing up. There was a small British lady who always carried her things around with her in a roller suitcase. There was also a warehouse cat that was overweight and a great mouser. All of these beings lived there illegally from what I could tell.
Boris turned out to be the biggest weirdo of them all. Besides being a professional clown with a sailor’s mouth, he was a Republican who had property both in Florida and Western Mass. He also dealt weed in the building and extorted money from me when I held events. He would ask for a cut from our Loft shows and sometimes turn the electricity off on the breaker if he felt it was too much of a party. He liked to make sure we knew he was in control.
But Boris also had his good side. He was a great accordion player and for a while he bread little Jack Russell dogs in the building which were actually quite cute, even if it made the place smell worse that it already did. Boris of course also lived there illegally. He may have owned property in other places but in the Boston area, the old paper warehouse building was his crash pad.
Over the years Boris and I became friends. I used to do face painting for him sometimes at certain kids events and he paid me well. He eventually got evicted and when he left it took him months to get rid of all the stuff he had collected there over more than 20 years of residing in the building. At his going away party it seemed like every weirdo in Boston showed up to the warehouse, lots of middle-aged eclectics, street musicians, performers. In the end, it was sad to see him go, the end of an era.
In all honesty, I only “lived” at the Loft for about three months and only slept there for 5-10 days total in my life. But when I “lived” there it was around 2007 when I was right in the thick of trying to “make it” as a professional musician. One of the only things stopping me from that dream was paying rent. Living at the Loft allowed me to pay a marginal amount so that I could just concentrate on touring. Which at that time I did incessantly. That year I was in Europe twice, and all over the US, playing upwards of 20-25 shows a month and close to 250-300 shows that year. Who needs an apartment when you’re living on the road?
The shows I hosted at the Loft came about pretty early on but were sporadic and not well organized at first. What I remember most from the early years were actually our epic Halloween parties. We had some amazing costume parties and my favorite was the year we had a solid, scary haunted house. I was dressed as Sarah Palin (it was in 2008 I guess) and led the haunted house tour. Peter Panic and his girlfriend rode their bikes around the first floor (the space that is now “Little India”) with scary music, strobe lights, and a fog machine. We played “Night of the Living Dead” in another part of the building with spooks around each corner and someone hanging themself off some scaffolding in the loading dock. But the grand finale was bringing people out to our real authentic graveyard where we had a legit homeless guy, Jimmy, living in a shed. He was the same guy who had almost peed on me once when I had approached him; I had to dodge his urine stream. Him and the ghouls really scared the living shit out of everyone. Now that was fun.
We have had our fair share of tragedy at the building over the years. Back around 2005-2006 we had a fire in one of the studios that left a huge hole in the floor and drenched many of the rooms with water from the sprinkler system. Our room was spared from damage but we had to cancel a show that weekend and in general it raised concern over the safety of the building. We made a point to remove all candles or anything else that seemed potentially dangerous and the management accordingly updated the sprinkler system to code.
In 2008, after the economic crash, the building went into some kind of financial peril and was potentially up for auction. During that time period our future was uncertain. We had a meeting with some of the tenants and I tried to propose that we all chip in and buy the building together. But it quickly became apparent that none of the artists using the building had any money saved up and it was a pipe dream to keep it from developers. Thankfully, the auction somehow never took place and the owner was able to keep it and weather the financial crisis.
The music shows were happening the whole time. The Loft “scene” was building between 2005 onwards to the point where it quickly became “a thing.” I hosted shows on average about once a month and put them together by asking my local musician friends and then having a touring act I had met on the road. Usually hosting a touring act was a return favor for them hosting me in their hometown. I brought acts from California, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, NYC, Canada, UK, Ireland, Belgium, France… the list goes on. Someone even made a DIY documentary about it called “Loft Show Upstairs” featuring clips from gigs and interviews with the bands and some regular audience members.
Originally, I did all the footwork myself for the shows. Then I found a door girl for a while, Sophie, who helped make sure we got the money we needed for the artists. The only expenses we took for the house were for paper towels, chips, and seltzer. Occasionally we bought ourselves some wine as our payment. Otherwise all the money went straight to the bands. It was a utopian version of a fully artist run space. Everyone BYOB and the audience would usually help clean up the room, emptying bottles and taking out the trash, at the end of the night.
When Sophie retired, Jenn Harrington took over and became a more active part of booking the shows and finding other volunteers, like Aaron and Kate, to help them run more smoothly. This happened at an ideal time when my life was changing. In my early 30’s I got married, bought a house and had a baby, all in the course of a couple years and all while working full time. I had less and less time to devote to events at the Loft, even though I wanted to keep them going.
Now, in many ways, the Loft is my connection back to the world I built and thrived in during my 20’s. It is still a place where events are held; the annual holiday art fair, the clothing swap, and monthly music shows curated by Jenn. This year we plan to add an extra event during Somerville Open Studios. Each one of these events takes a village, the organizers, the artists, the audience all coming together to enjoy our community in an old warehouse space next to Market Basket.
If it weren’t for the Loft it is hard to say where my life would be at today. There is a good chance that I never would have stayed in Boston. Every time in my 20’s I considered moving to NYC, the West Coast, or even Europe, I always reminded myself that I did not have the Loft in those new places and that I likely would never be able to find or afford any space nearly as inspiring anywhere else.
When I saw the footage of the Oakland fire it immediately hit a chord. Images of a large cement building in an industrial looking part of town with graffiti on the walls. Ghost Ship was a space run by artists hosting a music show in an illegal DIY space. The news articles describe old couches, rugs, pianos, organs, and instruments filling the open space. Sound familiar?
What struck me most was the footage and interviews with the building manager. Some guy in his early 40’s with three kids who was living in that space, probably running it in exchange for his rent. The media was trying to make him out to be some sort of psychopath, showing footage of a silly video he had posted on YouTube years ago. This poor dude was just living his life in Oakland, making art and living in some crappy old building and the next day he is all over the news and portrayed as a psychotic murderer.
I tried to imagine myself in such a horrible situation, the newscasters saying, “She called herself a psychologist, meanwhile she had a history as a touring one-man-band vagabond sleeping on people’s couches and posted a blog where she ranted about her own struggle with postpartum depression and her lefty, feminist views…” I could easily be the villain. The leaseholder of a crappy warehouse space that had gone up in flames during a show when I wasn’t even there to supervise. That could have easily been me.
Just remember folks, art is what makes cities hip and cool, not the people living there just to make money. Cities aren’t cool because of the people who work for Google, Verizon or Pfizer. Cities are cool because it is where worlds collide. Minorities and privileged White people. The LGBTQ community and frat boys. Academics and the working class. Bankers and street musicians. Hipsters and the homeless. Without any of these things it would not be the big melting pot we call home.
At the Loft many of these worlds come together for one night. Many of us now have day jobs, families, bills to pay and boring things we do to pay them, but we are still cool on the inside. Our politics are left. Our beer and cider is craft. Our music is local and original. The Loft is my utopian version of the world I want to live in, where we all come together to hang out and listen to each other for a minute.
This blog is dedicated to the people in Oakland who were affected by the horrific fire last week and to the 36 people who lost their lives enjoying music in an art space.
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