DIY DOWNER: In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire, DIY venues are being demonized.
On a recent Saturday night during a relatively tame event, one of San Jose’s long-running DIY venues, Kitty Castle, was permanently shut down by the police.
“Before this month, I had talked to the cops at least three other times,” says Stephanie Chang, who launched the venue in 2012, and has been running it out of an industrial park space in San Jose’s Monticello neighborhood ever since. As anyone who has experience running a DIY venue can attest, this is fairly standard.
However, in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland—where 36 people died in a sudden fire that ravaged an under-the-radar living space and venue—similar spaces around the Bay Area and the nation are under increased pressure from local authorities.
“How their attitude has changed, from my perspective having experienced it, seems like it’s because of specific directives,” Chang says. “I really feel like with Ghost Ship, the response has been really stern.”
More than anyone, she would know. For years, Chang has been one of the few people reliably bringing young musicians from all over the globe to San Jose, booking bands at virtually any spot in the city that is open to hosting events. A few of the most noteworthy national and international bands Chang booked include Rixe (France), Sem Hastro (Brazil), G.L.O.S.S. (Olympia, Washington) and Crime Watch (New York).
Kitty Castle came into the world in 2012 when a band that Chang knew from Oakland was having trouble finding somewhere to book in San Jose.
“At the time I just thought I’d go for it,” she says. “I called every single space or venue or person that I had ever attended an all-ages show at growing up in San Jose, and every single space that still had a number either said, ‘We don’t do shows anymore,’ or they said, ‘We don’t do that kind of show anymore,’ meaning punk or harder, faster music.”
Eventually she managed to find the space that became Kitty Castle: an unassuming warehouse located in the no-man’s land between North San Jose and Santa Clara.
Chang, who attributes her career as a booker to an informational zine she read on how to organize shows on the DIY level, operated the space safely and without incident for years, hosting occasional shows and offering an alcohol- and drug-free nightlife alternative to youth and adults alike.
But then, after the Oakland fire, the hammer came down—fast.
“They tried to frame it as: ‘The thing that happened in Oakland, we don’t want anything like that to happen here,’” she says. “Even though we’re configured vastly differently from Ghost Ship.”
This turn is deeply unfortunate for the already precarious community that relies on spaces like Kitty Castle to make up for San Jose’s lack of proper venues for live music. Despite being the 10th largest city in the U.S., San Jose suffers from a dearth of live venues, and few of them are willing to host all-ages shows.
“Essentially the only reason Kitty Castle existed was because there was such a lack of spaces that say yes to shows,” she says.
Then things took a strange turn. Four days after being shut down, Kitty Castle found itself subject to an alt-right (read: neo-Nazi) inquisition of DIY spaces on the controversial message board 4chan. A thread on the “politically incorrect” board, dated Dec. 14, listed the venue under the headline “Flop Houses Already Shut Down.” The post misrepresented facts with the intent of demonizing the small community.
“The Oakland warehouse fire occurred in a radical leftist commune rife with HIV, drugs, and alternative lifestyle degeneracy,” the thread opens, continuing, “These communes are known as ‘DIY spaces’ to the bums, anarchists, and drug addicts who populate them.”
The reality is far from that.
“The specific hazards and dangers of Ghost Ship were really unique,” Chang says calmly over the phone. After years of putting in hard work to benefit her community in San Jose, she is well aware of the truth of the scene she circulates in. “Not every single DIY space is a Ghost Ship replica, but that’s being ignored.”