The day they got busted, the crew over at Girard Hall was just chillin’ actually, jamming some. It was Halloween night; no events were on the calendar. Andre Altrez, the DIY venue’s co-founder and head of operations, remembers folks from the collective hanging out, and then bam, the city Department of Licenses and Inspections’ Nuisance Property Unit and police were there with a cease operations order. They had maybe 20 minutes to get out.
Girard Hall, an old ballroom on the 500-block of West Girard Avenue, has a good reputation for the events it offers, but also the feel. One concertgoer told us he loves the space because, while large (3,000 square feet large), it still maintains the vibes of a more intimate party. Archived records show that the venue’s capacity in the ’80s held 213 people.
L&I had visited the space before. Altrez, also a rapper, told Billy Penn that they were heeding L&I’s instructions and working towards compliance. Still, they need proper licensing and a new fire alarm system to continue to throw events. (The building’s owner could not be reached for comment.) The Girard Hall Collective isn’t just leaving their venue behind; they’re actively working to bring the venue up to code so they can reopen — a task that’s not easy.
Alternative venues have been in the nation’s focus ever since a warehouse-turned-live music venue in Oakland caught fire Friday. The fast-moving blaze claimed the lives of 36 people, and its cause remains unclear. Ghost Ship, the venue, was also an art space and living community. Despite complaints, no building inspector had been inside for 30 years, and no fire inspector for at least a decade. An inspector went to the location in 2014, after a complaint that an illegal dwelling was under construction there, but the inspector found nothing like a dwelling and left, according to a city official. Inside, there were no sprinklers or fire alarm.
The tragedy has elicited criticism in various directions: toward the city of Oakland, their Planning and Building Department, the building’s owner, the artist who operated the venue, the list goes on. But among live music fans, who identify with the victims, another thought frames this conversation: That could’ve been me. And in Philly, a city where DIY shows are the launchpad for multiple homegrown music scenes, and with a landscape holding a heavy share of blighted buildings, the weight of the incident presses close to home.
Getting a venue properly zoned, in a good enough condition that satisfies building codes and with the technology required per fire safety regulations, can be a convoluted process that’s tough to navigate and expensive to pull off, especially if you’re starting from a space that was vacant.
“I wish that there was more,” Altrez said of the information available. The Girard Hall Collective, which opened the venue as an arts space at first in 2011, adding live shows to the mix later, opted to clean the warehouse out, fix the place up and make upgrades incrementally. “If I could reach out and be like hey, ‘I wanna do this here, walk me through these first steps, I’ll try to be as compliant as I can,’ but it’s like you don’t necessarily want to say something sometimes. You feel like you’re telling on yourself. ‘Can I trust you to actually legitimately help me?’”
They’ve got no choice now.
“The iron’s been put on us so now we have to do everything immediately. And now we’re trying to figure what’s the best way to raise money, what’s the responsible way,” said Altrez.
Girard Hall was shut down on Halloween. Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement in the aftermath of the Oakland club fire urging Philadelphians to call 311 if they come across any illicit converted warehouses parties — a signal that more DIY promoters could soon find themselves in Altrez’s place.
Altrez thinks the mayor’s statement is hardly enough: “That’s putting a finger in a hole of a leaking ship.”
It’s not simply that Philly’s DIY scene is important. On one level, it’s an entrance: the first step on the ladder for musicians before they have a following large enough to fill bigger venues, for countercultural movements that are just starting to bubble and brew. On another level, for communities that are often ignored by musical gatekeepers — major labels, radio programmers, venue owners — alternative venues provide space.
For the unaware, DIY live shows can appear secluded, thrown-together and deeply underground. That doesn’t actually speak to the sophisticated informal networks that keep the shows running. It doesn’t approach the scene’s presence in the city’s cultural ecosystem. That perception also shortchanges its long and abiding legacy. Many writers (ahem) have tried to spotlight the city’s basement shows and its punk culture, but some musicians and critics remind us that this legacy stretches back further than that— even to experimental jazz.
Consistent with other urban informal economies, DIY shows often serve marginalized groups— people of color, queer folks, working class people of all backgrounds. That’s true in Philly; that’s true across the U.S. It’s not uncommon to hear certain gatherings referred to as safe spaces. Venue operators told Billy Penn that a common barrier for following the fire codes in these venues is not will, but money. In underground music circles, many artists are disseminating fire safety advice online. One approach seemed all-too-characteristic of them: a long Google Doc with crowd-sourced DIY instructions.
If a fire ignites in an alternative venue, it’s hard to say just how much time you’d have to get out. Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy at the National Fire Protection Association, hasn’t seen a fire growth chart for concert halls, but explained the advice given to homeowners: The old logic, that you may have five minutes, perhaps, to escape a blaze has been since lowered to two minutes; newer buildings may be made with a different mix of materials, some more combustible than others.
Materials that don’t follow building codes is one concern. Of course, electrical wiring is another. There is a litany of recommendations and requirements that are small, but significant. For example, if a story lacks windows, then the materials that can be used for doors are limited, so that firefighters will have easier access. A working standpipe gives firefighters a reliable water source once they’re inside.
Local law requires that “special assembly occupancies,” which would include any concert hall that serves audiences of 50 or more be outfitted with a heat detection system that operates on rate of temperature rise. A device must be installed that will shut down the electrical lines connected to the band’s equipment as soon as a fire alarm rings or sprinklers begin to rain.
“It’s one of those things where there’s a low incidence but a high consequence,” said Karen Guss, the spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections. There’s no way the department could be lax on a fire safety risk that large, she said: “It’s probably going to be fine, but if it’s not, holy shit.”
Guss insists the mayor’s statement wasn’t just some plea for folks to rat people out.
“There’s not a magic bullet. There’s not one solution,” she said. “What the mayor is saying is the city can’t solve this problem on its own. No city can. There’s no way. The city has a role, property owners have a role, partygoers have a role. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their piece.”
Altrez is learning a lot about the process, but it’s murky. Navigating it calls for a pretty high level of savvy— a power developer would be familiar with filing a rezoning application, and be up to speed with the latest from the zoning board. That presents a learning curve for your average artist.
Promoters have spoken about not just high costs, but legal fees. Back in the day, L&I shut down shows at First Unitarian Church. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2003 that R5, the promotions firm that now co-owns Union Transfer, got back to business in the church after a lawyer worked pro bono to secure a dancehall license. 1
Altrez has worked at construction sites in the past. He remembered a DIY show in New York where he saw a guitarist getting lightly shocked by his own instrument. He looked up and noticed grounding issues with the lighting. He’s sure that was the culprit. He recognizes that not everyone has his background, though.
“The building should be as safe as possible. That’s always been in our minds,” he said. “We’re dealing with the city now in terms of getting the building up to code. We had been already doing that, just at a slower rate. Because we didn’t have money to drop $50,000 on a brand new fire alarm system, fresh install[ed] electrical work.”
Altrez isn’t against enforcement, he just sees serious issues with how it happens. For one, he believes it could happen earlier, before the warehouses are converted, before artists walk into derelict spaces and invest in a heavy load cleaning and repairs themselves before they even get to codes. It might seem like the burden is on the landlord to make basic fixes to the space, but not if you sign an “as-is” clause to the lease, Altrez points out. It’s been on him and his team to finance the venue’s conversion to an up-to-code space.
“We need a special assembly license now. But you can’t get a special assembly license unless you’re up to code. But we can’t get in the building,” he said. “I hope we can open up in the next six months again, but I don’t know.”
Altrez said that they’re struggling to get consistent advice from inspectors who visit them. He said they’ll hear one interpretation of the code from an inspector during a visit, then months later they’ll hear another. Conflicting information comes with fines that add up and prolongs an already muddy process, he said. He wonders why they can’t get straightforward instructions from government.
“You told me one thing, but then this other person told me a whole ’nother thing. And now I’m bouncing back and forth, and nothing’s getting done. What is it? And why I am getting the runaround when this is what you told me?” He’s sympathetic that it’s a tough job, and that rules are complex. He just wants clarity. “The code is huge. And sometimes they’ll mislead you, whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally.”
Many Philadelphians express disappointment over wait times when contacting L&I. Consider that the agency has just 145 inspectors for Philadelphia’s building stock. Last year, that core conducted 255,000 inspections and issued 107,000 violations. Guss advises when there’s a discrepancy between inspectors, call a district office supervisor directly.
“You may not get them on the phone, the first time you call, but that’s their job,” she said. She acknowledged that it isn’t easy for people to become versed on the process, based on the available informational materials. The website has a solid list of city codes, but they aren’t necessarily clear to a layperson. Guss herself provides this example: She recommends the city’s Business Services Portal, but added, “you can go click on special assembly license, and it gives you pretty good information, but how do you know you need a special assembly license?”
She said the city is actively working “to make things clear for people who aren’t necessarily in the business of being in the business.”
“It is very challenging, but it’s not a secret. It’s on the table,” Guss said. “Within the time and budget constraints, this is something that people in government are trying to figure out.”
L&I offers this basic outline for managers at DIY venues who’d like to get in compliance.
“Depending on the space and the plans for re-use, converting vacant warehouse space in a Code-compliant manner can require:
- Zoning and use Permits
- Commercial Activity License
- Special Assembly Occupancy License
- Food Service License
- Building Permits
Applying for certain licenses and permits, including the Special Assembly Occupancy License and Building Permits for significant projects, triggers inspections and/or a series of inspections designed to ensure fire safety and safe construction.”
Right now, L&I is working on upping training for inspectors and anticipating an upgrade to the department website that will make the accessing resources more intuitive.
“When you’re trying to get your venue in compliance, it doesn’t really help you for me to say we’re going to improve our training, but it is a move forward,” she said.
L&I also plans to open two more district offices, an expansion that will hopefully increase one-on-one consulting.
On a very basic level, upstart creatives with limited funds are encountering an agency widely viewed as overburdened and under-resourced. This is a dilemma that would be important to disentangle, but persists without straightforward solutions. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a new program in the wake of the tragedy to ameliorate affordability for arts communities in the city, backed by $1.7 million in grants. That’s something that Altrez would love to see here.
The tens of thousands of dollars that it will cost to get Girard Hall in compliance are funds that the collective is raising on a building they’re still leasing.
“You still don’t own the building at the end of the day,” Altrez reminded us, explaining another complicating factor: the building is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. They’re in a delicate position, because they’re working to reopen as time on their lease remains, but obviously would like assurances that if they’re doing this level of work, the landlord will let them stay longer. That’ll be under discussion.
Altrez seems determined: “The world is set up the way it is, and sometimes it’s going to be against, and it’s going to be harder for some people to do things,” he said. “But it’s like — I can’t stop trying. I have to do this. Because it’s not too many spaces like that.”
They’re not trying to be that venue that’s focusing on big-name, nationally touring acts. They want to be a place where local artists can shine.