Another Good Venue Gone?

Shortcut: Skip my rant, below, and read this article on the KQED Website, where Fred Frith gets interviewed about what a tragedy it would be to lose 21 Grand.

Yes, it’s that special Thursday, and you know what I’m thankful for? All the people who bust their buns so I can see some good music shows.

I’m not talking about the musicians (for whom I’m plenty thankful, of course).  I’m talking about the people who run venues or weekly series, going through the trouble of finding a space, booking acts, and making sure everything happens according to plan, or a close facsimile thereof.

That’s a lot of work, and it takes its toll. Bars and clubs might like the idea of an experimental music night, but they lose enthusiasm as they get tired of losing money. Museums and galleries make fine settings, but they’re not necessarily outfitted to seat even a dozen people for a couple of hours — kudos to places like The Luggage Store, Meridian Gallery, Berkeley Art Museum, and a few others I’m forgetting.

And then … then there’s a place like 21 Grand, where the owners are music enthusiasts and open their doors to all sorts of artistic creativity.

How does the community reward them? By shutting them down.

The city of Oakland, pointing to what are called cabaret laws, says 21 Grand needs to conform to the safety codes for venues holding more than 49 people. The landlord won’t foot the $100,000 in necessary renovations, understandably. The fight’s not over yet, but it doesn’t look good.

The rules in question have to do with fire exits and the like — and while safety is worth worrying about, the city is miscategorizing 21 Grand’s music shows. Yes, the place hosted some rock acts, but it’s not a sweaty, wall-to-wall club crowd. For the improv shows, in particular, we’re talking about 10 or 20 people in their 40s and 50s, sitting still in folding chairs.

Nothing about that says “cabaret,” does it?

And yet, in draconian fervor, the city won’t let the place stay open. Another cultural resource lost, just because it doesn’t fit mainstream expectations and doesn’t make money. It happens repeatedly. The carnage circa year-2000 was particularly bad, as San Francisco cleaned out the DIY avant-garde spots in favor of pricey loft gentrification for dot-commers.

So, to Sarah Lockhart and Darren Jenkins and anyone else who made 21 Grand work through two location changes — and to everyone else to organizes venues and shows: Thanks, and don’t be discouraged. You do make a difference.

(For even more reading: See the article that OaklandNorth ran in October. A key quote there: “The city’s not offering a way out for us.”)

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